A federal judge blocked Friday a Trump administration rule that was scheduled to take effect next week that would have denied permanent legal residence to low-income immigrants living in the United States.
The nationwide injunction from District Judge George Daniels in New York City halts the administration's attempt to redefine what constitutes a "public charge," or immigrants who are, or who might become, overly dependent on government assistance.
The rule would have affected roughly half a million legal immigrants in the U.S. who apply each year to become legal permanent residents, also known as a green card holder. It would have been carried out by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that decides on immigration cases within the U.S.
Trump administration officials described the revised rule as a necessary mechanism to weed out immigrants who would take advantage of U.S. taxpayers by living off the government dime. But immigration activists bashed the rule as an elitist measure that would upend the nation's history of serving as a refuge for the world's destitute by only allowing wealthy immigrants to get a green card.
Nearly a dozen lawsuits were filed by state attorneys general and immigration advocacy groups challenging the new rule. New York State Attorney General Letitica James, who led the multi-party lawsuit that led to Daniels' ruling, praised the judge's decision.
"This rule would have had devastating impacts on New Yorkers and our nation, and today’s decision is a critical step in our efforts to uphold the rule of law," she wrote on Facebook.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to request for comment, but it's expected that it will appeal Daniels' ruling.
Friday's ruling does not affect a similar rule that went into effect last year targeting foreigners who apply for their green cards while living abroad. That rule has been used by the State Department to screen would-be immigrants on their ability to sustain themselves economically.
For Wendy Leguizamo, 22, a U.S.-born citizen from Chicago, the State Department rule has simply meant she can't be with her husband.
Leguizamo married her 24-year-old husband in Mexico in 2017 and has been trying to get him into the U.S. ever since. Despite filing repeated applications, U.S. consular officials in Mexico continue turning down her husband based on the revised public charge rule from last year. That's left Leguizamo raising their 11-month-old son on her own, seeing her husband only on occasional trips to Mexico or through nightly video chats on her phone.
"He's missing out on everything," she said this week during a phone interview after finishing her shift at a clothing warehouse. "It's so stressful. I'm doing my best. And he's just working every day, trying to get his mind off of this because it's been over two years already."
State public charge rules for immigrants have existed going back to the colonial years. The first federal restriction was put in place nearly 140 years ago, when Congress barred any "convict, lunatic, idiot or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge." Ever since, different administrations have defined "public charge" very differently.
The Trump administration is now trying to institute the most restrictive definition to date, creating new barriers to the nearly 1 million green card applications filed each year, according to an analysis by the non-profit Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based group that analyzes immigration issues.
The administration had provided little guidance on how the new rules and restrictions were going to be implemented. The result, according to Julia Gelatt of the Migration Policy Institute, had been an international state of confusion hovering over the most important decision in many immigrants' lives.
"We want there to be some consistency and predictability about how our laws and policies are applied," said Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the institute.
Trump also signed a proclamation on Oct. 4 that requires all incoming immigrants to prove they will have health insurance within 30 days of entering the country, or have the financial means to cover their own health care costs.
"Healthcare providers and taxpayers bear substantial costs in paying for medical expenses incurred by people who lack health insurance or the ability to pay for their healthcare," Trump wrote in the proclamation. "Immigrants who enter this country should not further saddle our healthcare system, and subsequently American taxpayers, with higher costs."
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The current public charge rule was signed into law in the 1990s by President Bill Clinton. It defines a public charge as someone who is "primarily dependent" on government assistance. That means receiving cash assistance that makes up more than half of their income, including Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), state and local cash assistance and long-term medical care at government expense.
The proposed regulations would also consider "non-cash" benefits, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known as food stamps), Section 8 housing and rental assistance, Medicare Part D prescription drug benefits, and Medicaid in non-emergency situations.
They would have grant broad discretion to immigration officials to determine whether someone would become a public charge in the future by weighing a wide variety of "negative factors," including the applicants' age (specifically if an applicant is under 18 or over 61), health, education, work skills, income and family status. Earning less than 125% of the federal poverty level — $25,750 a year for a family of four — would also have counted as a strike against them if rule had gone into ef.
Under Democratic President Bill Clinton, immigrants were routinely denied green cards over their potential to take public assistance. In 2000, his final year in office, U.S. consular officials turned down 46,450 application for green cards on public charge grounds, according to State Department data.
Those denial plummeted during the tenure of Republican President George W. Bush, who opposed attempts to limit legal immigration. By 2008, his final year in office, the number had fallen to 6,852. That downward trend continued under Democratic President Barack Obama, falling to 1,076 during his final year in office.
Under the Trump administration, from Oct. 1, 2018, through July 29, the State Department denied 12,179 applications based on the public charge rule, according to data obtained by Politico.
Defenders of the president say such denials are long overdue.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.- based group that advocates for lower levels of legal and illegal immigration, bristled at the decision by recent administrations — Republican and Democrat — to limit public charge denials. He said that ignores the expansion of the welfare state that legal immigrants have taken advantage of. Undocumented immigrants do not qualify for public assistance programs, and neither do many immigrants on temporary visas.
"All this rule does is reflect reality a little more accurately, so that if you're using food stamps or public housing or Medicaid, that would be factored into the decision about whether you are capable of paying your own bills," Krikorian said.
Immigration attorneys and activists see something different at play. They say the Trump administration has been hellbent on reducing immigration — both legal and illegal — and the rule change was just another way to do that.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli fanned those flames when he reworked Emma Lazarus' poem on the Statute of Liberty during a recent interview.
"Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge," Cuccinelli told NPR in August.
Juliana Macedo do Nascimento of United We Dream, a coalition of young immigrants who advocate for protections from deportation, said such comments clearly show the Trump administration wants to block immigrants of color while opening the door to wealthier, whiter immigrants.
"That's what this rule is about — it's about keeping what they consider to be the wrong kinds of immigrants out," she said.
This administration finally admitted what we’ve known all along: They think the Statue of Liberty only applies to white people. https://t.co/kTLl50yCmw— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) August 14, 2019
Leguizamo, the Chicago mother hoping to reunite with her husband, didn't want to discuss the politics behind the new public charge rule. She says she simply wants to figure out how to get her husband to the U.S.
Leguizamo, who works full time and makes $28,000 a year, at first listed herself and her parents as her husband's sponsors, but the State Department denied the application. Leguizamo uses Medicaid and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) for her son, two programs that are not supposed to count as negative factors against immigrants or their sponsors.
Jocelyn Jaramillo, an immigration specialist at Catholic Charities in Chicago who has been helping Leguizamo, says the decision likely came down to Leguizamo's income, which dropped significantly after she spent six months on maternity leave.
On their second try, Leguizamo listed a cousin who has a higher annual income as the sponsor, but that application was also denied. A third attempt listing a family friend was turned down. A fourth attempt listing Leguizamo's aunt and uncle was turned down.
Now, on their fifth attempt, Leguizamo listed her parents again, but this time they added the three properties that her parents own onto the application as a form of collateral to show they can sell those homes if needed to sustain the family.
She hopes the fifth time will be the charm. But after more than two years of repeated denials, she's not holding out hope.
She said the full weight of the stress hit her the hardest last week when she returned from a two-week visit to Mexico to see her husband. Simply getting their son, Mario Fernando, on the plane reminded her of what life will be like raising an energetic toddler without his father.
"I was stressing out, I didn't know how I was going to be able to do it on the airplane," she said. "My husband, he's a very helpful person. He wants to do everything, to provide for his family. But he can't."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Judge blocks Trump administration rule targeting poor immigrants in US