Court Battles

Appeals court hands Trump partial win over ‘public charge’ rule for immigrants

A federal appeals court on Thursday delivered a partial legal victory to the Trump administration, lifting an injunction blocking their “public charge” rule, which links immigrants’ legal status to whether they obtain federal benefits.

In a 2-1 ruling on Thursday, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals lifted two of four lower court injunctions against the rule. However, the policy still cannot take effect because of two separate nationwide injunctions.

“An agency has broad discretion to administer the programs entrusted to it by Congress,” wrote Judge Jay Bybee, a George W. Bush appointee. “We are not the proper foil to this or any other administration as it crafts our immigration policies.

“By constitutional design, the branch that is qualified to establish immigration policy and check any excesses in the implementation of that policy is Congress,” he added.

The decision by the appeals court, based in San Francisco, lifts injunctions entered by district judges under its jurisdiction in Oakland, Calif., and Spokane, Wash. But the ruling does not extend to separate injunctions that federal judges in New York and Maryland ordered ahead of the policy’s Oct. 15 effective date, creating a complicated legal situation.

Because each injunction was national in scope, the still-active injunctions from the East Coast federal judges continue to apply across the country, even in the Western states under the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction.

The White House applauded the Ninth Circuit’s decision but lamented that it did not have any practical effect.

“The Ninth Circuit has rightly recognized the Administration’s authority to adopt an interpretation of the ‘public charge’ restriction more faithful to and consistent with the scope of the statute passed by Congress,” said White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham. 

“Unfortunately, as a practical matter, the ruling has accomplished nothing to vindicate the rule of law due to the destructive practice of individual district judges taking over national policy issues by issuing nationwide injunctions,” she added. “Nationwide injunctions give any district judge the power to tell a panel of a Federal court of appeals that its ruling does not matter and that it cannot affect the actual implementation of the law. Such subversions of the rule of law must come to an end.”

The controversial public charge rule is one of a series of administration measures aimed at curbing legal immigration. The rule, announced in August, links immigrants’ legal status to their use of public benefits.

Under the policy, an immigrant would be considered a public charge — essentially dependent on government aid — if they receive at least one public benefit for more than 12 months within any three-year period. Benefits include Medicaid, food stamps, welfare or public housing vouchers. The Trump administration rule would also examine the likelihood of an immigrant using such benefits in the future. 

The rule is likely to make it harder for such immigrants to obtain a green card to reside permanently in the U.S.

The policy was quickly challenged in court, leading to several nationwide injunctions before it could take effect on Oct. 15.

In its ruling on Thursday, the divided Ninth Circuit Court said the Trump administration was likely to prevail on the argument that it had the proper authority to expand the definition of who is considered a public charge.  

“We find that the history of the use of ‘public charge’ in federal immigration law demonstrates that ‘public charge’ does not have a fixed, unambiguous meaning,” wrote Bybee. “Rather, the phrase is subject to multiple interpretations, it in fact has been interpreted differently, and the Executive Branch has been afforded the discretion to interpret it.” 

Bybee was joined by Judge Sandra Ikuta, also a George W. Bush appointee. Judge John Owens, an Obama appointee, dissented in part.

Updated at 1:39 p.m.

Tags public charge rule Stephanie Grisham

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