The Courts

Supreme Court Rebuffs Blue State Effort to Lift Green Card Restrictions During Coronavirus

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The Supreme Court on Friday refused to pause a Trump administration rule that denies green cards to migrants who use government benefits, a policy critics call an immigration "wealth test."

A coalition of cities, blue states, and liberal interest groups asked the justices to block the public charge rule on April 13 due to the coronavirus pandemic. In court papers, they told the justices that the rule deters immigrants from applying for public health benefits and economic assistance. That unnecessarily endangers migrant communities and undermines the government's pandemic response strategies, the plaintiffs argued.

The vote count for Friday's decision was not disclosed, nor were reasons given, as is typical of orders of this nature. The order "does not preclude" the plaintiffs from asking a federal trial judge in New York City to take a fresh look at the case. In their April 13 motion, the plaintiffs suggested that the justices could allow the trial judge to decide "whether the new circumstances caused by the novel coronavirus warrant temporarily halting implementation of the rule."

Friday's decision is a setback for the plaintiffs, but keeps alive the possibility that a court might put the public charge rule on hold for the extent of the pandemic. The justices first allowed the public charge rule to take effect on a 5-4 vote in January. The absence of such division from Friday's order is notable.

The Trump administration unveiled the public charge rule in 2019. Federal law provides that immigrants should not receive green cards if they are likely to become a "public charge." In the past that meant people using cash-assistance programs, but the new rule also counts people who collect non-cash benefits such as food stamps or Medicaid. The expanded rule does not apply to refugees or asylum-seekers.

The change elicited legal challenges immediately. The Supreme Court allowed the policy to take effect on Jan. 27 while lawsuits continued in the lower courts.

The government told the justices that there was no reason to revisit the January decision. In counter filings, solicitor general Noel Francisco wrote that the pandemic is "legally irrelevant" to the case. The virus-related consequences the plaintiffs raised in their April 13 motion simply do not bear on the legal question, Francisco wrote. All that matters is whether the government's interpretation of "public charge" is permissible.

"Because the rule is lawful, the Court should not lift its January 27 stay simply because movants believe the rule reflects bad policy," the government's filing reads.

The government has already implemented some of the policy changes the plaintiffs advocate, Francisco added. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) said in a March advisory that "any public benefits related to COVID-19 care" will not count toward a public charge disqualification.

Despite that announcement, city officials and nonprofit leaders close to immigrant communities say there remains a widespread impression among migrants that using government services for coronavirus care could jeopardize their chances at permanent legal status.

The April 13 motion included about a dozen declarations from public health professionals and immigrant aid groups who say the rule created a deeply entrenched "chilling effect." The best remedy for that confusion is a court order, the plaintiffs argued.

"Fear and confusion has persisted in my patient population in regards to the public charge and access to COVID-19 related care and other benefits, even after this guidance was issued," Dr. Pedro Moreno wrote in one such declaration. Moreno is a professor of family medicine at the University of California San Francisco who provides care to farm workers in the Salinas Valley.

To the extent confusion remains after the March announcement, Francisco said the plaintiffs are to blame.

"If, as they say, members of their communities are avoiding COVID-19-related care and treatment because of mistaken beliefs about the rule, then movants should address that problem by helping to correct those misunderstandings—not by filing motions that, if anything, only reinforce them."

Neither the Department of Justice nor the New York attorney general responded to the Washington Free Beacon’s inquiries by press time.

Connecticut, New York, Vermont, New York City, and immigrant rights groups supported the motion. The case is No. 19A785 Department of Homeland Security v. New York.