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California counties sue to block Trump’s new green card test

Acting Director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli, speaks during a briefing at the White House, Monday, Aug. 12, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Evan Vucci/Associated Press
Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, acting director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, spoke during a briefing at the White House Monday.

California’s San Francisco and Santa Clara counties filed a lawsuit Tuesday to block the Trump administration from implementing a new rule that would deny permanent residency to legal immigrants if they are judged likely to use government benefit programs.

President Trump issued the regulation, called the public charge rule, on Monday. Starting in October, the federal government plans to base decisions about permanent legal status on a wealth test: Poor immigrants would be denied if they are deemed likely to use programs like food stamps or subsidized housing, while wealthier immigrants designated as less likely to require public assistance would be approved.

In the lawsuit, filed in US District Court in San Francisco, the counties say the rule would have a “chilling effect.” It would push many away from needed federal health care programs that also guard communities against disease, like the Zika virus. Local governments would have to provide similar services and pick up the costs, the lawsuit says.

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“This illegal rule is yet another attempt to vilify immigrants,” Dennis Herrera, San Francisco’s city attorney, said in a statement Tuesday. “It makes it easier to unfairly target hardworking, lawful immigrants while sowing fear and confusion in our communities.”

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The rule’s announcement Monday prompted a swift backlash, and Tuesday’s lawsuit was not unexpected. Several advocacy groups called the policy cruel, and several vowed to sue the federal government.

The Department of Justice declined to comment on the lawsuit Tuesday night.

The new rule is the Trump administration’s latest move to significantly overhaul the immigration system.

Under the rule, poor immigrants would be denied green cards if they are deemed likely to use government benefit programs like food stamps and subsidized housing. Officials would also consider an immigrant’s age, health, family status, assets, resources, financial status, and education.

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Officials would be given broad leeway to determine whether an immigrant is likely to use public benefits, to deny them a green card and to order them deported.

The rule would not apply to people who already have green cards, to certain members of the military, to refugees and asylum-seekers, or to pregnant women and children.

An applicant who speaks English, shows formal letters of support, and has private health insurance would be more likely to be approved than someone whose financial situation suggests they would probably need housing vouchers or enroll in Medicaid in the future if they were given a green card.

In the Federal Register, officials with the Department of Homeland Security estimated that more than 382,000 immigrants seek an adjustment to their immigration status each year and would be subject to the public charge review. It is estimated by the government that more than 324,000 people in households with noncitizens would drop out of or not enroll in public benefit programs if the new rule went into effect.

Advocacy organizations, however, estimate that 26 million immigrants living in the United States legally would reconsider their use of government benefits because they might fear that accepting assistance could affect their ability to remain in the United States.

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On Monday, when Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, the acting director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, announced the regulation, he said: “The benefit to taxpayers is a long-term benefit of seeking to ensure that our immigration system is bringing people to join us as American citizens, as legal permanent residents first, who can stand on their own two feet, who will not be reliant on the welfare system, especially in the age of the modern welfare state which is so expansive and expensive.”

When the regulation was published in the Federal Register on Monday morning, it contained an acknowledgment of how contentious the debate over it has been. “While some commenters provided support for the rule,” it said, “the vast majority of commenters opposed the rule.”