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Federal judge bars application of US immigration welfare rule during COVID-19 pandemic
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Federal judge bars application of US immigration welfare rule during COVID-19 pandemic

A federal judge for the US District Court for the Southern District of New York issued an injunction Wednesday that prevents enforcement of a new US immigration rule barring immigrants from qualifying for visas if they are likely to become dependent on government benefits.

Under the 2019 US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) rule Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds, aliens may not qualify for green cards or other visas if they are likely at any time to become a “public charge.” In October 2019, the US District Court for the Southern District of New York issued a preliminary nationwide injunction and postponed the effective date of the rule. Four other district courts issued similar injunctions in October, two of which were also nationwide.

In January, the Supreme Court stayed the district court’s preliminary injunction, and the rule went into effect on February 24. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government issued an “alert” in March that excluded COVID-19 medical treatment and services from public charge determinations. The plaintiffs, which included several states, sought a new preliminary injunction enjoining the government from “implementing, applying, or taking any action under the Rule, during the national emergency.” Alternatively, they sought a stay postponing the effective date of the rule.

On Wednesday, the judge found that the plaintiffs sufficiently alleged that the rule violates procedural requirements of the APA and that it was not in accordance with the law. The plaintiffs also plausibly alleged that the rule was issued on a discriminatory basis, as a disproportionate percentage of nonwhite immigrants would be hurt by the agency action.

The court had previously found that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their claims. The judge found that the plaintiffs had shown irreparable harm, because immigrants were refraining from obtaining testing and treatment for COVID-19. The judge also found that the “alert” issued in March was insufficient, because it provided no standard by which an individual should conform his or her conduct. The government also had no obligation to retain the “alert” for any period of time, even during the pandemic. Judge George B. Daniels wrote:

Much has significantly changed since January 27. Today, the world is in the throes of a devastating pandemic, triggered by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. In six months, approximately 16.5 million people around the globe have been afflicted by the disease caused by this virus. That disease (COVID-19) has claimed over 650,000 lives worldwide. In the United States alone, COVID-19 has spread rapidly, infecting over four million people. Close to 150,000 American residents have died. All of these staggering numbers continue to climb on a daily basis…. Thousands continue to die indiscriminately. Attempting to effectively combat this plague has immediately come in conflict with the federal government’s new ‘public charge’ policy, a policy which is intended to discourage immigrants from utilizing government benefits and penalizes them for receipt of financial and medical assistance.

Because of the outstanding public interest, the judge issued a preliminary nationwide injunction enjoining the application of the rule during the national public health emergency.