CHICAGO (CN) — A Seventh Circuit panel Wednesday upheld a decision blocking enforcement in Illinois of a Trump administration policy that adds barriers for immigrants seeking green cards if they rely on public benefits, food stamps or housing vouchers.
The 2–1 decision from the appeals court temporarily bars the federal government from enforcing a rule that altered who can be considered a “public charge” under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The rule would allow the government to deny visas and green cards to immigrants deemed likely to depend on welfare benefits such as food stamps, housing vouchers and Medicaid.
Cook County, Illinois, sued the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in September over what they consider a discriminatory, arbitrary rule that they say overburdens county services by causing immigrants fearing deportation to forgo critical services like emergency medical care.
U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman, a Barack Obama appointee, agreed with Cook County and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, or ICIRR, and issued a preliminary injunction stopping enforcement of the public charge rule on Oct. 14, just one day before the rule was to take effect.
Feinerman denied the government a stay pending its appeal of his decision but the U.S. Supreme Court in February overruled, 5–4, and stayed the injunction pending the outcome of the federal government’s appeal, which Wednesday’s decision resolves.
The three-judge panel’s opinion, penned by Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Diane Wood, affirmed Feinerman’s preliminary injunction, saying that “we conclude that at least Cook County adequately established its right to bring its claim and that the district court did not abuse its discretion by granting preliminary injunctive relief.”
Wood, a Bill Clinton appointee, weighed the balance of harm surrounding the public charge rule’s enforcement in favor of Cook County, finding that “the rule has numerous unexplained serious flaws,” including “predictable collateral consequences” on state and local governments. The ruling also determined the rule adopts a self-sufficiency standard for immigrants with no statutory basis.
“In our view, Cook County has shown that it is likely to suffer (and has already begun to suffer) irreparable harm caused by the rule,” Wood wrote. “Given the dramatic shift in policy the rule reflects and the potentially dire public health consequences of the rule, we agree with the district court that the public interest is better served for the time being by preliminarily enjoining the rule.”
Wednesday’s decision accounts for the fact that the rule “will cause immigrants, including those not covered by the rule, to disenroll from, or refrain from enrolling in, federal Medicaid and state-level public health programs.”
“This already has led to reduction in rates of preventive medicine and caused immigrants to rely on uncompensated emergency care from Cook County’s hospital system,” Wood wrote. “The result for the county will be a significant increase in costs it must bear and a higher county-wide risk of vaccine-preventable and other communicable diseases for its population as a whole.”
Wood was joined in the majority decision by U.S. Circuit Judge Ilana Rovner, a George H.W. Bush appointee.
Trump’s public charge rule has been challenged and blocked by judges from Manhattan to San Francisco in the past eight months, and Wednesday’s decision from the Seventh Circuit only upholds the preliminary injunction enjoining enforcement of the public charge rule in Illinois.
Representatives with Cook County, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and the Department of Homeland Security Office of Public Affairs did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday evening.
U.S. Circuit Judge Amy Barrett, who was appointed by Trump in 2017, dissented from her Seventh Circuit colleagues, finding that Cook County’s narrow definition of the term “public charge” is not supported by law and that focusing on immigrants’ en masse disenrollment from benefit programs misleadingly makes the rule’s scope seem larger.
Barrett offered that the plaintiffs’ interpretation of a public charge “is belied by the term’s historical meaning” as well as a 1996 amendment to the current statute designed “to increase the bite of the public charge determination.”
“When the use of the ‘public charge’ in the Immigration and Nationality Act is viewed in the context of these amendments, it becomes very difficult to maintain that the definition adopted by the Department of Homeland Security is unreasonable,” Barrett wrote.
The plaintiffs’ attempts to paint the amended statutory language surrounding public charges as irrelevant to their case “flies in the face of the statute — which means that despite their best efforts, the plaintiffs’ interpretive challenge is an uphill battle that they are unlikely to win.”
Barrett iterated in her 40-page dissent that even though immigrants are forgoing or dropping out of public benefits out of fear and confusion regarding the rule’s effects, “those entitled to public benefits will never be subject to the public charge rule.”
“Contrary to popular perception, the force of the rule does not fall on immigrants who have received benefits in the past,” Barrett explained. “Rather, it falls on nonimmigrant visa holders who, if granted a green card, would become eligible for benefits in the future.”
“To see why,” Barrett continued, “one must be clear-eyed about the fact that federal law is not particularly generous about extending public assistance to noncitizens.”
The dissenting judge did not believe that Cook County was entitled to its injunction and argued that the case should be remanded to the district court for further assessment of the county’s challenges to the federal rule.
Barrett concluded by challenging critics’ claims that the public charge rule is too harsh, positing that the same can be said of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, popularly known as the Welfare Reform Act, which were both enacted in 1996.
“The latter dramatically rolled back the availability of aid to non citizens, and both statutes linked those cuts to the public charge provision” by upping the standards of admissibility, according to Barrett.
Barrett argued that “at bottom, the plaintiffs’ objections reflect disagreement with this policy choice and the statutory exclusion itself.”
“Litigation is not the vehicle for resolving policy disputes,” she wrote.