Despite COVID-19, SCOTUS Refuses to Stop Use of New Public Charge Definition

May 1, 2020 - (3 min read)

The Supreme Court refused to lift its stay of federal court orders that prevented the Trump administration from making changes to the definition of public charge.

Immigrants who are deemed a “public charge” are ineligible to receive green cards/lawful permanent resident status. The most recent definition of public charge, adopted in 1999, included immigrants who demonstrated a need for “institutionalization for long-term care at government expense” or “receipt of public cash assistance for income maintenance.”

In 2019, the Trump administration adopted a new definition of public charge that considers not only cash benefits, but also certain non-cash benefits including:

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),
  • Section 8 housing,
  • Section 8 project-based rental assistance,
  • Medicaid (with certain exceptions), and
  • Section 9 public housing.

While a federal district court prevented enforcement of the new definition on a nationwide basis, in January 2020, the Supreme Court stayed those orders pending the outcome of litigation in the federal court of appeals. The Court also stayed a similar injunction from a district court in Illinois. The new definition went into effect in February 2020.

New York asked the Supreme Court to “temporarily lift or modify its stay to halt implementation of the Public Charge Rule during the national emergency concerning COVID-19” or to “clarify that its stay does not preclude the district court here from considering whether the new circumstances caused by the novel coronavirus warrant temporarily halting implementation of the Rule.” In two, brief orders the Supreme Court refused to lift stay but did say New York and Cook County, who asked for the same relief, could file for emergency relief in the district court.

New York argued the public charge rule is “deterring immigrants from accessing healthcare and public benefits that are essential tools for protecting the public at large by limiting the spread and severity of COVID-19 and promoting our nation’s recovery from the economic crisis that the disease has caused.” According to New York, the rule “makes it more likely that immigrants will suffer serious illness if infected and spread the virus inadvertently to others—risks that are heightened because immigrants make up a large proportion of the essential workers who continue to interact with the public.”

The government responded that “even though [the challengers’] suit is likely to fail as a legal matter, they want this Court to block the Rule in the interim by evaluating new declarations and making a factual assessment of how the Executive Branch should best respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. [The challengers] identify no case in which this Court has ever granted that sort of relief.” The governments pointed out that it has “made clear that aliens’ use of publicly funded prevention and treatment services related to COVID-19 will not be considered in making predictions about whether aliens are likely to become public charges in the future.”

The Court’s orders contain no dissents. New York Attorney General Letitia James has stated that her state, Connecticut, Vermont, and New York City, will file an emergency motion in the district court.

lisa_soronen_new_125x150About the author: Lisa Soronen is the executive director of the State and Local Legal Center, which files Supreme Court amicus curiae briefs on behalf of the Big Seven national organizations, including the National League of Cities, representing state and local governments. She is a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.