Court Battles

Second appeals court backs lifting injunction on Trump ‘public charge’ rule


A federal appeals court on Monday delivered another partial legal win to the Trump administration as it seeks to enforce its “public charge” rule, which links immigrants’ legal status to whether they obtain federal benefits.

In a 2-1 ruling, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals lifted a lower court injunction against the Trump administration policy. But the Trump plan still cannot take effect because of a separate nationwide injunction put in place by a district judge in New York.

The ruling today by the Richmond, Va.-based Fourth Circuit mirrors a ruling last week by the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit. Despite these decisions, however, the still-active injunction from New York, which falls under the Second Circuit, continues to apply across the country.

The White House applauded the latest decision but lamented that it did not have any practical effect.

“The Fourth Circuit’s lifting of the lawless nationwide injunction imposed against the administration’s public charge immigration regulation is a major step forward for the rule of law,” said White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham.

“It is our hope that the Second Circuit will, like the Ninth and Fourth Circuits have already done, lift the meritless nationwide injunction a New York District Court has imposed against the rule so that it can be enforced, consistent with the plain letter of the law, for the benefit of all citizens and lawful residents of this country,” she added.

The Trump administration’s controversial approach to the public charge rule, announced in August, is one of a series of administration measures aimed at curbing legal immigration.

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, which represents a more stringent approach to a longstanding immigration law than those taken by recent administrations, 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 last Thursday, a divided three-judge panel of the 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 Judge Jay 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, both of whom are George W. Bush appointees. Judge John Owens, an Obama appointee, dissented in part.

A short ruling on Monday by a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit indicated the judges were swayed by the Ninth Circuit’s decision. 

On the Fourth Circuit, Judges Harvie Wilkinson and Paul Niemeyer, both Reagan appointees, voted to grant the motion. Judge Pamela Harris, an Obama appointee, voted to deny.

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