Immigration: Block on Trump administration ‘public charge’ rule lifted by court

A man exits the transit area after clearing immigration and customs on arrival at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, U.S., September 24, 2017. REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan/Files

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, sided with the Trump administration’s effort to implement regulations that make it harder for immigrants to seek permanent residency in the United States if they have relied on public assistance programs.

The split ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reverses a lower-court injunction that had blocked the “public charge” rule from taking effect.

The decision comes just days after a different appeals court ruled against the administration in a similar challenge brought by immigrant groups that argue the rule discourages legal immigrants from using any public benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps or housing assistance.

At issue are rules that establish new criteria for who can be considered dependent on the government for public assistance and therefore disqualified for green cards and a path to U.S. citizenship. Under the 2019 Department of Homeland Security policy, immigrants who are in the United States legally are considered “public charges” and ineligible if they use any benefits or are declared likely to someday rely on such assistance.

The Maryland case decided Wednesday was brought by the immigrant rights organization CASA de Maryland and two individuals who immigrated to the United States as children.

In a 2-to-1 ruling, the 4th Circuit called the rule “unquestionably lawful” and said the group lacked legal grounds to challenge it. The majority said the court must defer to the executive when it comes to shaping federal immigration policy and criticized the nationwide scope of the preliminary injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Paul Grimm of Greenbelt, Md.

“Whether one agrees with the rule or not, the government is asserting the significant interest of not burdening the public fisc [treasury] by admitting public charges,” Judge Harvie Wilkinson III wrote in a 71-page opinion joined by Judge Paul Niemeyer.

Invalidating the rule, Wilkinson wrote, would undermine that interest “because of the difficulty, if not impossibility, of undoing the grants of permanent resident status that both Congress and the executive have found to be against the national interest.”

In his dissent, Judge Robert B. King said Congress, not the president, has the power to enact new laws or change existing ones. The administration, he wrote, has overstepped its role by “dramatically redefining” and narrowing protections provided by the nation’s immigration system.

“It is our duty to ensure that the coequal branches of our government do not transgress the bounds of their authority,” King wrote.

The regulations were set to take effect in October but were delayed by several lawsuits until the Supreme Court allowed them to take effect in January.

In April, the Supreme Court denied a request from leaders in four states who asked the high court to suspend the program because the coronavirus crisis was causing heightened public health and economic concerns for immigrants.

The separate ruling against the Trump administration this week from the New York-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit applies to New York, Connecticut and Vermont.

In the 4th Circuit, King said in his dissent that the statute at issue, which dates to 1882, was intended to exclude from the United States only those unable to care for themselves without significant government assistance.

“A person receiving such a minuscule amount of benefits cannot be said to be significantly dependent on the government,” King wrote. He warned that the public interest will be harmed if immigrants living in the United States “disenroll from public benefits for which they are eligible due to fear of immigration consequences stemming from the DHS rule.”

The government argued that the term “public charge” has a broader meaning that has been interpreted differently by different administrations and can include people who rely on some benefits even if they are not “primarily dependent.”

The majority acknowledged that courts are empowered to review executive action. But Wilkinson wrote that “the separation of powers demands careful deference from the judiciary and intervention, if at all, only in truly exceptional situations. This is not one of them.”

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