Equity & Diversity

High Court Lifts Block on Trump Rule Barring Green Cards to Some Taking Public Benefits

By Mark Walsh — January 27, 2020 4 min read

A divided U.S. Supreme Court on Monday allowed a Trump administration rule to take effect that will deny green cards to immigrants who partake in public benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps, and housing aid. Some educators have been concerned that the “public charge” rule will put the health and well-being of millions of immigrant children at risk and impose new burdens on school districts.

The justices ruled 5-4 to lift a preliminary injunction by a federal district judge in New York City that had blocked the implementation of the rule nationwide pending further court proceedings. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan said they would have denied the Trump administration’s request in Department of Homeland Security v. New York (No. 19A785).

At issue is a rule promulgated last year by the Department of Homeland Security that expands the definition of an immigrant “likely to become a public charge” from one who was dependent on a certain cash benefits from the government to include such non-cash benefits as Medicaid, housing vouchers, and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.

The rule requires government officials weighing a request for legal permanent residency by an immigrant living in the United States or for immigrants seeking admission at the border to determine whether the immigrant is likely to receive such benefits for more than 12 months in aggregate within any 36-month period.

Two federal appeals court have held that the Homeland Security Department is likely to prevail in challenges brought under the Immigration and Nationality Act. But U.S. District Judge George B. Daniels of New York City blocked the rule from taking effect nationwide in challenges brought by an immigrant-services group and the states of Connecticut, New York, and Vermont, along with New York City.

“The supplemental benefits targeted by the rule are a far cry from almshouses, institutional care, or income-maintenance programs—programs that are designed to serve destitute individuals who are extremely unlikely to meet their basic subsistence requirements without relying primarily on the government in the long term,” said a Supreme Court brief filed by the three states and New York City. “The rule’s inclusion of these supplemental benefits thus stretches ‘public charge’ far past the breaking point of reasonable interpretation.”

U.S. Solicitor General Noel B. Francisco told the high court in a brief that “As a result of the injunctions, the government is precluded from implementing its chosen policy and, indeed, will grant lawful permanent resident status to aliens who are statutorily ‘inadmissible’ because, in the opinion of the Executive Branch, each is likely to become a public charge.”

Concerns for Education

The DHS rule, while adding Medicaid as a factor in the public-charge analysis, specifically states that certain educational benefits would not be factored in. They include services funded by Medicaid under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and “school-based services or benefits provided to individuals who are at or below the oldest age eligible for secondary education as determined under state or local law.”

Despite those exceptions, some educators and immigrant advocates fear the rule will dissuade immigrants from seeking certain benefits, such as Medicaid and SNAP, and that schools will have to make up for aid that might otherwise be provided for by the federal government.

“Recent research has shown that the proposed rule would have a chilling effect that could lead to disenrollment from public programs for a larger group of immigrant families because they do not understand the rule’s details and would fear their or their children’s enrollment could negatively affect their or their family members’ immigration status,” said a 2018 letter from AASA, the School Superintendents Association, commenting on the proposed rule.

The Alexandria, Va.-based association also argued that the inclusion of SNAP in the public-charge analysis would “exacerbate food insecurity of children.” And the rule’s inclusion of public housing aid “will lead to increased numbers of children in unstable housing situations as it will deter eligible immigrant families from seeking much-needed housing and homelessness benefits,” the association said.

Sasha Pudelski, the advocacy director of AASA, said Monday that the Trump administration rule is “bad policy and as superintendents we are taking a stand on a policy that will undermine the health and well-being of children.”

The Supreme Court majority’s brief order allows the new rule to go into effect pending the outcome of an appeal of the nationwide injunction pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City. (It appears that a more-limited injunction in a separate case will continue to block the rule in Illinois.)

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, in a short concurrence joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, called for the court to take up the “increasingly widespread practice” of federal district judges issuing nationwide injunctions.


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