Attorney General James Leads Coalition Urging Supreme Court to Halt Public Charge Rule as Coronavirus Rages On

Implementing Public Charge Rule Continues to Hurt Immigrants
and Public at Large, Impeding Efforts to Stop Spread of COVID-19

NEW YORK – New York Attorney General Letitia James today led a coalition of three states and New York City in urging the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit the question of whether to halt implementation of the Trump Administration’s Public Charge Rule as New York and the nation undergo a public health crisis created by the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). The Public Charge Rule drives immigrants and their families away from accessing health benefits to which they are entitled by threatening applicants’ eligibility for green cards and visa renewals. The Supreme Court issued an order in January that had been denied by the lower courts, allowing the rule to take effect while legal challenges to the rule are pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and through a possible petition to the Supreme Court. Attorney General James and the coalition are today asking the court to revisit the question of interim relief in light of the new and devastating effects that the rule has had on the nation’s public-health and economy as COVID-19 has spread over the last six weeks, and — in an effort to prevent the rule from impeding efforts to slow the continued spread of the virus happening nationwide — to temporarily halt the Public Charge Rule until the national pandemic is over.

“Every person who doesn’t get the health coverage they need today risks infecting another person with the coronavirus tomorrow,” said Attorney General James. “Immigrants provide us with health care, care for our elderly, prepare and deliver our food, clean our hospitals and public spaces, and take on so many other essential roles in our society, which is why we should all be working to make testing and health coverage available to every single person in this country, regardless of immigration status. Our country cannot afford to wait, yet the sustained application of the Public Charge Rule continues to harm this nation’s public health and our economy to its core. We’re asking the Supreme Court to temporarily halt this rule until this national crisis is over because any rule that threatens an immigrant’s well-being, threatens all of us.”

Last August, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a Public Charge Rule that changed the established meaning of public charge, which had long been that immigrants who use basic, non-cash benefits are not considered public charges because they are not primarily dependent on the government for survival.

Federal law allows lawful immigrants to apply for certain supplemental public benefits if they have been in the country for at least five years. But the new Public Charge Rule creates a “bait-and-switch” ― if immigrants use these supplemental benefits to which they are legally entitled, they may jeopardize their chances of later becoming a legal permanent resident or renewing their visa.

Days after the rule was issued, Attorney General James and a coalition of states and New York City filed a lawsuit challenging the Trump Administration’s Public Charge Rule, noting that the rule specifically targets immigrants of color, immigrants with disabilities, and low-income immigrants, while putting these communities at risk, and would have short- and long-term impacts on public health and the economy.

In September, Attorney General James and the coalition filed a motion for a preliminary injunction — in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York — to stop the rule from going into effect during the litigation. After the court ordered the preliminary injunction, the Trump Administration filed a motion to stay the order in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, but their request was denied. The Administration then filed a motion in the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued a stay of the district court’s preliminary injunction, pending the Second Circuit’s decision in the case and any subsequent petition to the Supreme Court to hear the case.

In the more than two months since the Supreme Court issued its ruling, COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the national landscape. The United States went from not a single reported COVID-19 case to well more than 575,000 confirmed infections and more than 23,000 confirmed deaths, and is now the country with the most virus-related deaths in the world. More than 195,000 of those infections and more than 10,000 deaths have been reported in New York State alone.

In early March — when the coronavirus first began to spread rapidly across the country — Attorney General James sent a letter to the Trump Administration seeking to suspend the Public Charge Rule, in an effort to ensure immigrants would not fear seeing a doctor. After the first letter went unanswered, the Administration posted a confusing and contradictory alert claiming to offer a resolution for immigrants. Attorney General James sent a second letter again calling for a halt of the rule, pointing out that the alert contained confusing and contradictory statements about the impact that using Medicaid would have on non-citizens subject to the rule. The Trump Administration refused to answer the second letter as well.

Since that time, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has issued a state of emergency, as have cities across the United States. New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has issued a state of emergency, as has every other state in the nation. President Donald J. Trump has declared a national state of emergency and has approved federal disaster declarations for all 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C., the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and Puerto Rico.

The motion filed with the Supreme Court today by Attorney General James and the coalition asks the court to take into consideration the extraordinary events of the last six weeks and the new harms that the rule is causing to the public health and the economy during the COVID-19 crisis. The motion asks the court to temporarily lift or modify its stay to halt implementation of the Public Charge Rule until the national emergency concerning COVID-19 is over. Of note is the fact that immigrants make up a large number of essential workers helping move our nation along at this time, and if they don’t have access to the proper health care today, they are more likely to spread the virus to all Americans, inadvertently, tomorrow — not only contributing to the exponential growth of infection rates, but of fatalities as well.

“By deterring immigrants from accessing publicly funded health care, including programs that would enable immigrants to obtain testing and treatment for COVID-19, 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 motion argues. “The Rule’s deterrent effect on immigrants’ access to health care and other public benefits for which they are indisputably eligible is impeding efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus, preserve scarce hospital capacity and medical supplies, and protect the lives of everyone in our communities — citizens and noncitizens alike.”

Further, the coalition argues that the nation’s economy cannot undergo further damage from the spread of COVID-19. In the three-week period between March 19 and April 9, more than 16 million residents across the nation lost their jobs and filed for unemployment. And according to estimates by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between February and March 2020, the number of immigrant adults who are unemployed rose by 26 percent. As today’s motion argues, “many workers who lose their jobs and their employer-sponsored health insurance because of the pandemic are likely to need Medicaid coverage until they can find another job.”

Attorney General James and the coalition conclude by arguing that none of these harms were before the Supreme Court when it decided to stay the district court’s orders in January, justifying a temporarily halt of the stay order. “The nature and magnitude of the harms currently being imposed by the Rule warrant temporary relief from the stay, particularly when these harms were not known to the parties or the Court when the Court considered defendants’ stay application. Although this case has always concerned issues of public health and welfare, the COVID-19 outbreak and its ramifications on public health and the economy present sudden and stark new circumstances not previously considered by the Court and have vastly changed and amplified the irreparable harms caused by the Rule. And the likelihood of these harms occurring is no longer a prediction. The Rule’s devastating effects are happening now. Given these new circumstances, the Court should modify or lift its stay temporarily to meet the exigencies and equities of the current public-health and economic crisis.”

Joining Attorney General James in filing today’s motion with the Supreme Court are the attorneys general of Connecticut and Vermont, as well as corporation counsel for New York City.