Judge stops Trump administration's 'public charge' policy citing COVID-19 concerns

The rule made it more difficult for immigrants in poverty to get legal status.

A federal judge in New York temporarily blocked the Trump administration from carrying out two rules that bar immigrants from living in the U.S. if officials believe they will use too many public benefits, such as food stamps or Medicaid.

Two rulings from U.S. District Judge George Daniels halted both the Department of Homeland Security's "public charge" rule for noncitizens seeking permanent residency in the U.S. and the State Department's version of the rule that applies to visa applicants.

After a Supreme Court ruling in January, the Department of Homeland Security started enforcing the new rule in February.

Under long-standing federal law, immigrants cannot receive a green card or visa if immigration officials find they are "likely to become a public charge."

The Trump administration has pushed to expand the definition for years despite legal challenges and temporary holdups in the courts. The administration's most recent attempt meant the use of food stamps, Medicaid and certain housing benefits could disqualify an immigrant applicant.

Acknowledging the additional risk posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Daniels ordered the rule void for immigrants with legal status in the U.S. as long as the health crisis continues.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that adjudicates changes to immigration status, issued a notice in March to clarify that immigrants seeking treatment for coronavirus would not be penalized. Daniels called the effort "plainly insufficient" and said confusion would likely arise if Medicaid was used for treatment of another illness in addition to coronavirus.

"Since the Trump administration announced the public charge rules, it has caused immense harm to our communities -- harm that intensified, as our country is in the midst of a health crisis," said Javier Valdés, who led one of the legal challenges against the policy.

The hopeful immigrants at the center of the case against the State Department currently reside in New York and are married to U.S. citizens. Alicia Doe, who used a pseudonym out of fear of her uncertain status, lives in Manhattan and cares for her daughter, who suffers from cerebral palsy.

Even though Alicia entered the country illegally, her hardships legally exempted her from getting forced out of the country for the typical 10-year waiting period.

She had faced the possibility of getting deported and would not have been able to return without a visa. Under the State Department rule, the food stamps her family uses could have made her ineligible and forced the family apart.

Even before the novel coronavirus, immigrant advocates and independent experts warned of a possible "chilling effect" on some 10 million people who may fear that proactively seeking health care or other benefits would pose a risk to their immigration status. According to a Migration Policy Institute analysis, an additional 12 million U.S. citizen family members could also be discouraged by the expanded rule.

"This chilling effect, in turn, undoubtedly hampers efforts to contain the virus and protect the public health of residents across the country," Daniels wrote in his order.

Daniels also found the Trump administration went too far in effectively redefining what it means to be a "public charge," declaring that the expanded list of poverty assistance programs was "plainly outside the bounds" of the law.

USCIS officials are reviewing the court's decision and an agency spokesperson said it's working on providing applicants with additional guidance that complies with the court order.