US court rules against Trump administration's Public Charge rule, which critics call 'wealth test' for immigrants

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The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday ruled against the Trump administration's "Public Charge" rule, which critics say imposes a wealth test on immigrants seeking green cards.

It was the latest blow against the Trump administration's attempt to make immigrants who use public assistance even for limited amounts of time potentially ineligible for green cards by expanding the definition of what constitutes a "public charge."

Under the Public Charge rule, immigrants who use public benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps and housing vouchers for 12 months over a period of three years could be deemed ineligible for legal permanent residency visas, known as green cards.

Critics worried the Public Charge rule would make immigrants fearful of seeking medical treatment during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a 2-1 decision, the appeals court concluded that preliminary injunctions issued against the Public Charge rule by two federal courts, the Northern District of California and the Eastern District of Washington, were warranted.

The 9th Circuit's ruling agreed with several states and cities that filed lawsuits that the Public Charge rule would harm them by causing immigrants to withdraw from federal programs and seek public benefits from cities and states.

The appeals court also rejected the Trump administration's claim that the Public Charge rule is aimed at ensuring immigrants are self-sufficient because that is the goal of the programs themselves.

"Addressing DHS’s (the Department of Homeland Security's) contention that the statute’s overall purpose is to promote self-sufficiency, the panel concluded that providing access to better health care, nutrition, and supplemental housing benefits is consistent with precisely that purpose," the ruling said.

Stephen Yale-Loehr, a Cornell University Law School professor, applauded the decision.

“Today a federal appeals court in California struck down a Trump administration rule that had effectively imposed a wealth test on new immigrants," he said in a written statement. "The decision joins several other courts in striking down the new 'public charge' rule as violating longstanding interpretations of immigration law."

Yale-Loehr predicted the Trump administration likely will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to stay Wednesday’s decision, allowing the rule to continue.

Dan Hetlage, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that administers immigration benefits, said USCIS is "currently reviewing the court order issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and the agency has no other comment to provide at this time."

Despite Wednesday's ruling, immigrants should presume that the Public Charge remains in place when considering whether to apply for green cards, said Jesse Bless, director of federal litigation for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, a group representing 15,000 law professionals.

"I would tell (them) to file as if the rule is on, that is the safest route," Bless said. "If you can beat the new rule, you can definitely beat the old rule."

Immigrants who have used public benefits in the past may want to wait until USCIS provides more clarity on how the agency will respond to the latest court ruling, he said, or to see if the new Biden administration moves to rescind the Public Charge rule.

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