SCOTUS allows new limits on immigrant aid

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court issued an order Monday allowing the Trump administration to begin enforcing new limits on immigrants who are considered likely to become overly dependent on government benefit programs.

The court acted on a vote of 5-4. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan said they would have left a lower court ruling in place that blocked enforcement while a legal challenge works its way through the courts.

The Department of Homeland Security announced in August that it would expand the definition of "public charge," to be applied to people whose immigration to the U.S. could be denied because of a concern that they would primarily depend on the government for their income.

In the past, that was largely based on an assessment that an immigrant would be dependent upon cash benefits. But the Trump administration proposed to broaden the definition to include non-cash benefits, such as Medicaid, supplemental nutrition, and federal housing assistance.

Anyone who would be likely to require that broader range of help for more than 12 months in any three-year period would be swept into the expanded definition.

But in response to a lawsuit filed by New York, Connecticut, Vermont, New York City and immigrant aid groups, a federal judge in New York imposed a nationwide injunction, blocking the government from enforcing the broader rule. Congress never meant to consider the kind of time limit the government proposed, the judge said, and the test has always been whether an immigrant would become primarily dependent on cash benefits.

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Supreme Court Justices

John Roberts, Chief Justice

Born: 1955

Joined Supreme Court: 2005

Appointed by: George W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is followed by Elena Kagan on her way to take the Judicial Oath to become the 112th US Supreme Court justice, in Washington on August 7, 2010. (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Born: 1933

Joined Supreme Court: 1993

Appointed by: Bill Clinton

Votes: Liberal

(Photo by Dennis Brack/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Anthony Kennedy

Born: 1936

Joined Supreme Court: 1988

Appointed by: Ronald Reagan

Votes: Conservative/Center

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy listens to opening statements during a Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Clarence Thomas

Born: 1948

Joined Supreme Court: 1991

Appointed by: George H.W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas testifies during a hearing before the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee April 15, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Stephen Breyer

Born: 1938

Joined Supreme Court: 1994

Appointed by: Bill Clinton

Votes: Liberal/Center

United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer speaks at the Harvard University Institute of Politics John F. Kennedy School of Government John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on November 6, 2015 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

Samuel Alito

Born: 1950

Joined Supreme Court: 2006

Appointed by: George W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito speaks during the Georgetown University Law Center's third annual Dean's Lecture to the Graduating Class in the Hart Auditorium in McDonough Hall February 23, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Sonia Sotomayor

Born: 1954

Joined Supreme Court: 2009

Appointed by: Barack Obama

Votes: Liberal

Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States Sonia Sotomayor discusses her book 'My Beloved World' presented in association with Books and Books at Bank United Center on February 1, 2013 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Vallery Jean/FilmMagic)

Elena Kagan

Born: 1960

Joined Supreme Court: 2010

Appointed by: Barack Obama

Votes: Liberal

Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Elena Kagan speaks onstage at the FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Summit on October 16, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for FORTUNE)
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch participates in taking a new family photo with his fellow justices at the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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The government has long had authority to block immigrants who were likely to become public charges, but the term has never been formally defined. DHS proposed to fill that void, adding non-cash benefits and such factors as age, financial resources, employment history, education, and health.

DHS official Ken Cuccinelli said the proposed rules would reinforce "the ideals of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility, ensuring that immigrants are able to support themselves and become successful here in America."

Two federal appeals courts — the 9th Circuit in the West and the 4th Circuit in the Mid-Atlantic — declined to block the new rule. They noted that the law allows designating someone as inadmissible if "in the opinion of" the secretary of Homeland Security, that person would be "likely at any time to become a public charge," which the courts said give the government broad authority.

The Trump administration urged the Supreme Court to lift the nationwide injunction imposed by the New York trial judge, given that two appeals courts have come to the opposite conclusion. Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas said Monday that district court judges have been issuing nationwide injunctions much more often.

They called on their colleagues to review the practice, which said they has spread "chaos for the litigants, the government, the courts, and all those affected by these conflicting decisions."

But the challengers of the public charge rule urged the justices to keep the stay in place.

They said lifting it now, while the legal battle is still being waged "would inject confusion and uncertainty" in to the immigration system and could deter millions of non-citizens from applying for public benefits.

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