Blue States Ask Supreme Court to Suspend Green Card Benefits Restriction, Citing Pandemic

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April 14, 2020

A coalition of left-leaning states and interest groups asked the Supreme Court to pause a Trump administration rule that denies green cards to immigrants who use government benefit programs, citing the coronavirus pandemic.

New York attorney general Letitia James is leading the coalition, warning the justices that the government's public charge rule poses a continuing threat to health and safety because it deters migrants from seeking economic assistance or enrolling in Medicaid.

"The rule makes it more likely that immigrants will suffer serious illness if infected and spread the virus inadvertently to others—risks that are heightened because immigrants make up a large proportion of the essential workers who continue to interact with the public," the motion reads. "The rule also deters access to public benefits, including nutrition benefits, that are critical for both immigrants and the country as a whole to weather the economic crisis triggered by COVID-19."

President Donald Trump has enacted some of the far-reaching border control policies he has long advocated for in response to the coronavirus. The administration has banned nonessential travel at the southern border and sped removal time for immigrants caught entering the United States illegally, including asylum-seekers. The public charge rule is one of the few examples of an immigration policy the government has relaxed. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued guidance in March advising that publicly funded testing, treatment, and preventative care related to coronavirus would not count against green card applicants. The plaintiffs in the public charge challenge say that guidance does not provide clear direction for immigrants and should be made binding by court order.

The Supreme Court allowed the rule to take effect while legal challenges continue on a five-to-four vote in January. The plaintiffs asked the justices Monday night to revisit that decision, arguing that the virus has shifted the legal balance in favor of the immigrants.

The motion underscores that the justices "may lift or modify a previously granted stay when new circumstances arise."

The plaintiffs also presented the Court with an alternative: It could clarify that its January ruling does not prohibit a lower court judge from taking a fresh look at the case and putting a short-term hold on the rule.

Doctors, local officials, and staff at nonprofits submitted declarations supporting Monday night's motion. In one such statement, Malou Chávez of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle said her organization has seen an uptick in inquiries related to accessing benefits. Despite USCIS's March advisory, she said clients remain wary of applying for government aid. Other doctors and local officials submitted similar statements to the Court.

"Community members who may be in need of medical care are reluctant to seek care because their fear of a future case denial based on a public charge determination overcomes any current need," Chávez's statement reads.

The USCIS alert also says that migrants who apply for economic support can submit evidence for the agency to consider.

"If the alien is prevented from working or attending school and must rely on public benefits for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak and recovery phase, the alien can provide an explanation and relevant supporting documentation," the alert reads.

A federal immigration law has long directed that immigrants should not receive green cards if they are "likely at any time to become a public charge." Historically, a "public charge" has been defined as a person dependent on a cash-assistance program. The administration changed that policy in 2019 and expanded the definition to include other forms of non-cash benefits such as food stamps.

In announcing the change, then-USCIS acting director Ken Cuccinelli said the policy promotes the "virtues of perseverance, hard work, and self-sufficiency."

At an earlier phase of the case, the government said it must be allowed to enforce the rule while legal challenges unfold. Otherwise, it will be forced to issue green cards to immigrants it would otherwise disqualify. It is difficult to revoke green cards once issued.

The Department of Justice declined to comment on Monday's request.

Connecticut, Vermont, New York City, and immigrant rights groups are formally supporting the motion.

The Supreme Court had not asked the Trump administration to respond to the request by press time. The case is No. 19A785 Department of Homeland Security v. New York.

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