The Supreme Court on Monday allowed the Trump administration to enforce its most ambitious effort yet to restrict legal immigration, allowing U.S. officials to implement a sweeping rule that critics warn will shut America’s doors to low-income immigrants and people of color.
In 5-4 ruling, the conservative-leaning high court approved the Trump administration’s request to set aside a ruling by a federal judge blocking the so-called “public charge” regulation while the merits of the case continue to be argued in lower courts. The policy will require most green card and visa petitioners to prove they won’t be a “public charge” — or an economic burden — on the country.
It will give federal officials more power to deny visas and green card applications from immigrants and prospective immigrants whom the government determines rely, or could rely, on certain public benefits like food stamps or government housing programs.
The regulation, unveiled by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in August, expanded the previous definition of a “public charge.”
Since 1999, individuals seeking to emigrate to the U.S. could be denied legal status if they were deemed “likely to become a public charge.” But earlier guidance said that Medicaid (with exceptions), the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and other non-cash programs wouldn’t be used to make determinations about whether a person was a public charge.
The Trump administration defends the new restrictions as a way to ensure immigrants are “self-sufficient.” But opponents believe the policy is an attempt by the White House to circumvent laws passed by Congress, by instituting what is effectively a “wealth test” designed to limit the immigration of poorer people from developing countries.
Soon after its final version was published last summer, the “public charge” rule was blocked in court, with one federal judge calling it “repugnant to the American dream.” However, in recent weeks, circuit courts lifted three of the four nationwide injunctions against it, leaving only an order by a federal judge in New York standing.
Earlier in January, the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to set aside the remaining nationwide injunction — a request that has now been granted. U.S. immigration officials will now be able to implement the new restrictions in every part of the country other than Illinois, where the rule is still blocked under a statewide injunction.
Expanding definition of “public charge”
The term dates back to 1882, when the U.S. was trying to limit immigration from developing, non-white countries. The year it was first codified, the U.S. also enacted the discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred the entry of most Chinese immigrants on the premise that they jeopardized “the good order of certain localities.”
In the late 1990s, the Clinton administration issued guidance saying only cash benefits could be considered when determining whether an immigrant might be a “public charge.” The Trump administration’s policy substantially expands this term by broadening the type and amount of benefits that count against immigrants seeking to stay in or move to the U.S.
Under the new regulation, caseworkers would consider enrollment in the widely used Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), certain federally funded Medicaid benefits, and a variety of forms of government-subsidized housing, including Section 8 vouchers.
Officials would deem an immigrant a “public charge” and deny the application if they determine he or she is more likely than not to use one of the considered benefits for 12 months or longer over the span of three years. On certain occasions, those deemed a “public charge” could post a bond for an amount no less than $8,100.
To determine whether prospective immigrants are likely to become a “public charge,” caseworkers would also take into account their wealth, age, educational skills, English language proficiency and health. Since those expected to be affected by the rule are not eligible for most public benefits because they aren’t U.S. citizens or permanent residents, critics of the regulation say it is designed to severely restrict immigration based on those factors.
Immigrant advocates are concerned about the effects the rule could have on people who are technically not subject it. Researchers have documented a “chilling effect” stemming from the proposed changes that have prompted some fearful immigrant families, including families that include U.S. citizens, to drop out of benefits programs.
The stringent requirements proposed by the “public charge” rule are not the only moves the administration has taken to impose limits on legal immigration.
In October, the White House issued a proclamation allowing the government to reject visa applications from would-be immigrants it determines won’t be able to cover their medical costs. The plan, which is still being held up in court, could deny entry to approximately 375,000 prospective immigrants each year, according to an estimate by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
A proposed rule by USCIS published in November would hike petition fees for immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship, for young undocumented immigrants known as “DREAMers” trying to renew protections from deportation and for victims of crimes who are seeking to stay in the country through their assistance to law enforcement. The proposal would also make the U.S. one of only four nations that require asylum-seekers fleeing persecution to pay a fee to file affirmative requests for protection.