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Federal judge strikes down public charge rule targeting immigrants

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  • A Federal Judge in Cook County, Illinois, just struck down the Trump administration’s public charge expansion, arguing that it was discriminatory.
  • The Department of Homeland Security is required to stop enforcing the rule nationally, but advocates warn that the legal battle will continue whether Trump wins the election or not.
  • Justice Amy Coney Barrett previously supported implementing public charge as a Cook County Judge, and may get to opine on the case if it brought back before the Supreme Court. 
  • The rule is one of the key tenets of White House adviser Stephen Miller’s immigration platform and has generated confusion and fear in immigrant communities as the policy is litigated and ‘aggressively appealed’ by the Trump administration.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On Monday, a US District Judge in Cook County, Illinois, struck down the Trump administration’s controversial public charge rule. Judge Gary S. Feinerman ruled that the administration was discriminating against low-income immigrants and violated the Administrative Procedure Act. 

Today’s ruling provides momentary relief for immigrants and advocates, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, after the Supreme Court had provided a stay for the Trump administration’s broadened definition of public charge in February. 

The rule, under a provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act, has enabled previous administrations to reject permanent residency applications for immigrants who are deemed to be a “public charge,” or a financial burden on society. 

Under new rules from the Trump administration, starting in late 2018, immigration agencies have been given expanded authority to deny visas and green cards to immigrants likely to use public benefits like Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or live in Section 8 housing. 

If these public benefits were used for more than 12 months in a three year period, or if a family with an applicant received two different forms of public assistance in a month, the administration could freely deny applications for permanent residency. 

The ruling today strikes down a stay granted by the Supreme Court in February after the policy was blocked in several rulings. Challenging what is long seen to be one of White House adviser Stephen Miller’s signature immigration platforms, US District Judge Gary Feinerman deemed the expansion of what is considered a public charge overly broad and added that the Department of Homeland Security failed to consider “significant, predictable collateral consequences.”

Cook County, Illinois, and the Illinois Coalition for Refugee Rights (ICIRR) initially challenged the legality of Trump’s expansion of public charge on September 23, 2019. Weeks later, Feinerman granted an initial order blocking the rule in Illinois. Parallel court lawsuits were brought against the Trump administration across the nation until the Supreme Court granted a stay to the administration in February 2020, allowing the rule to go into effect.

In June 2020, former Seventh circuit judge, now Justice, Amy Coney Barrett dissented in Cook County v. Wolf, defending the Trump administration’s expansion of the rule although that appeal was unsuccessful.

“Justice Amy Barrett just got a promotion,” Fred Tsao, Senior Policy Counsel at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, told Business Insider. “I think we know where she stands, and the case is almost certain to be brought before the Supreme Court again,” he added.

The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and their litigating partners fully expect the Trump administration to appeal, whether after being reelected or in the administration’s final months. 

“What changes now is that visa and permanent residency applicants don’t have to fill out a 20 page I-944 application stating their self-sufficiency. This will hopefully dispel a lot of the confusion this rule is creating for green card holders, or children and spouses of undocumented people who fear what the impact of those benefits would have on their families,” Tsao said. 

In the immediate term, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the agency “has ceased applying the public charge final rule to pending applications and petitions following a Nov. 2, 2020, order by the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois that vacated the rule.” 

In a statement issued after the ruling, Carrie Chapman, Senior Director of Litigation and Advocacy at Legal Council for Health Justice, said that “in today’s economy, no one should be afraid to seek health care, food, or housing assistance for fear of becoming a public charge.”

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