Appeals court backs Santa Clara County on immigration rule
Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams is pictured in this file photo.

A federal appeals court this week ruled in favor of Santa Clara and San Francisco counties in a suit seeking to block the Trump administration’s attempt to target immigrants who use social services.

The “public charge” rule penalizes immigrants who are enrolled — or likely to enroll — in federally funded public assistance programs such as Medicaid, reducing their chances of obtaining green cards and visas in the United States.

“The Trump administration’s policies have continuously threatened the health and well-being of the communities we serve,” said Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams. “This is true on issues like COVID-19, and also true of the Trump administration’s unlawful and cruel immigration policies.”

Public charge rules have been in place for much of U.S. history, but in different forms. Since 1999, a public charge has been defined as a person who “is or is likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence,” but explicitly excluded non-cash benefits from that definition.

The Trump administration’s changes also directed immigration officials to consider English proficiency as part of their public charge determination.

Santa Clara County sued after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced broad changes to the public charge definition in August 2019. Homeland Security said the change was intended to promote self sufficiency.

In the court’s opinion, Judge Mary Schroeder wrote that instead “providing better access to health care, nutrition and supplemental housing benefits is consistent with precisely that purpose.”

The court on Dec. 2 also found Homeland Security did not consider the financial impact of the rule.

U.S. immigration officials are reviewing the ruling and “the agency has no other comment to provide at this time,” said representative Dan Hetlage.

Williams said he did not know if the government intends to seek a stay or plans to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it has done so in other cases.

“If it does, the county of Santa Clara is prepared to vigorously defend the Ninth Circuit’s well-reasoned decision,” Williams said.

Other officials were celebratory as well, but hedged their language

“We applaud today’s decision blocking the Trump administration from enforcing its immoral public charge rule while we make our case in court,”  said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. “Attacking the health care of even one community is an attack on us all. Today’s victory is critical, but the fight is not over.”

Williams said he’s hopeful the Biden administration will make it a priority to roll back the public charge rule, though it could take a while.

“In the meantime, we would urge the administration to take immediate steps to mitigate the impact of the Trump administration’s rule, which is chilling the use of benefits and services that are critical to our communities, especially during the pandemic,” Williams said.

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] and follow her @MadelynGReese.

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