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Court ruling pauses regional implementation of Trump administration rule that excludes immigrants who use non-cash benefits

On August 4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit soundly rejected the White House’s recent attempt to expand the “public charge” rule to subject a broad swath of immigrants to deportation if they supplement their income with non-cash benefits, like Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps), and federal housing assistance. In doing so, the Court relied heavily on the amicus brief that the Public Justice Center filed in support of immigrant rights’ organizations and the state of New York, embracing our central argument that public benefits provide important support that help people achieve self-sufficiency. The Court’s ruling means that the Trump administration must stop implementing the expanded public charge rule in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont.

The government defines a public charge as an individual who is likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence. Since the public charge rule was established nearly 70 years ago, it has been applied to deny residency only to the small percentage of immigrants who receive cash benefits like TANF (assistance for families with children) or rely on expensive long-term nursing home care. The Trump administration’s expansion of the rule to include non-cash benefits would significantly increase the number of immigrants affected and has even made immigrants who are already U.S. citizens afraid to use public benefits.

The Court opinion dismissed the administration’s arguments, writing that:

Accepting help that is offered to elevate one to a higher standard of living, help that was created by Congress for that precise purpose, does not mean a person is not self-sufficient – particularly when such programs are available not just to persons living in abject poverty but to a broad swath of low- and moderate-income Americans, including those who are productively employed.

(opinion, p. 99)

The Court’s opinion relies upon arguments made in the PJC’s brief. Authored by PJC attorneys Monisha Cherayil, Sally Dworak-Fisher, and Tyra Robinson, the brief argued that non-cash benefit programs were designed, in part, to help working families achieve a higher quality of life and weather short-term financial crises and, in fact, operate this way in practice. So even though these programs play a crucial role in supporting individuals and families with very low incomes in simply surviving, they also serve as a valuable support to those who do provide for their own subsistence but can use additional resources to access safer neighborhoods, healthier food, and more consistent medical care. These programs also help mitigate the effects of a job loss or an unexpected medical expense. In other words, these programs can provide a path out of poverty—the very opposite of leading to becoming a public charge. Given these purposes and effects of non-cash benefits, the brief supported arguments that the Trump administration lacks a legal basis for treating every immigrant who uses these programs as a potential long-term “public charge” on the U.S. government.

We are glad that immigrants in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont will not be subject to the Trump administration’s public charge rule while the case moves forward. Unfortunately, a similar case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently upheld the administration’s rule. We now await decisions in public charge cases in the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Seventh and Ninth Circuits, where we also submitted amicus briefs. We hope that these courts* will see through the administration’s attempt to chill immigration and arrive at the correct result.

*You can see the regions covered by these courts in this map.