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California, other states sue over Trump plan to limit poor immigrants’ access to green cards

The Trump administration announced Aug. 12 a new rule that would make it more difficult for legal immigrants who use public benefits to obtain a green card. (Video: The Washington Post)

California — the state with the largest population of immigrants — filed a federal lawsuit Friday hoping to derail the Trump administration’s attempt to deny green cards and visa extensions to foreign nationals who use Medicaid, food stamps or other public assistance, or might in the future.

The lawsuit is the fourth legal challenge filed this week since administration officials rolled out a new rule on Monday that seeks to redefine who will be eligible for permanent residency and a path to full U.S. citizenship. The rule, set to take effect in mid-October, will give preference to wealthier, educated immigrants who can support themselves, and it will make it more difficult for immigrants who rely on public help or are determined to be likely to need federal assistance.

Opponents of the rule argue that punishing legal immigrants who need financial help endangers the health and safety of immigrant families — including U.S. citizen children — and will foist potentially millions of dollars in emergency health care and other costs onto local and state governments, businesses, hospitals and food banks.

“This cruel policy would force working parents and families across the nation to forego basic necessities like food, housing, and health care out of fear. That is simply unacceptable,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement on the lawsuit, which also includes as plaintiffs the District of Columbia, Maine, Pennsylvania and Oregon. “In California, we know that welcoming and investing in all communities makes our entire nation stronger. I know this being the son of hard-working, modest immigrants who likely would have been victims of this regressive policy. We will fight this unlawful rule every step of the way,”

Federal officials say the rule ensures that immigrants can cover their own expenses in the United States without burdening taxpayers for food, housing and other costs. U.S. officials note that the change is not retroactive and exempts refugees and asylees who fled persecution for safety in the United States.

Ken Cuccinelli II, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said Monday that the “public charge” rule will encourage and ensure “self-reliance and self-sufficiency for those seeking to come to, or to stay in, the United States.” He also noted that it will “help promote immigrant success in the United States as they seek opportunity here.”

The Justice Department declined to comment on the lawsuits Friday. However, Cuccinelli has said officials expect the rule “to withstand any legal challenges.”

In a separate lawsuit Friday, nonprofit organizations that serve Asians, Africans and other immigrant groups in Northern California warned that the rule is fueled by the Trump administration’s “racial animus” and disproportionately targets nonwhite immigrants, and they urged a federal judge to put a stop to it.

“This pernicious regulation would create a byzantine structure designed to send one message and one message only: ‘If you are not white and wealthy, you are no longer welcome in this country, the land of opportunity,’ ” Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, told reporters Friday.

In an unusual move, the organizations’ lawsuit challenges the appointment of Cuccinelli to his USCIS post. The organizations said Cuccinelli — a former Virginia attorney general, who took over the role in June — technically does not meet the federal criteria needed to serve in the position on an acting basis, and they asked the court to declare his appointment and the rule invalid. The lawsuit says that only someone who has already been confirmed by the Senate or has served in the agency for at least 90 days in the year prior — among other qualifications — is eligible for the role.

Cuccinelli rolled out the rule on Monday, and the next day Santa Clara County and the city of San Francisco filed a lawsuit to block it in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California. Three of the lawsuits are filed in the jurisdiction of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which has heard nearly all of the major immigration litigation challenging President Trump’s policies.

On Wednesday, 13 Democratic state attorneys general followed with a separate lawsuit in Washington state, saying the rule is a“radical overhaul” of immigration rules, and that it violates the Constitution and other laws. The states are led by Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring, who succeeded Cuccinelli as the state’s top prosecutor in 2014.

Nationwide, advocates for immigrants fear hundreds of thousands of migrants will withdraw from food, housing and medical-care programs. They also worry that businesses will suffer and that hospitals will bear higher costs to provide emergency services. They say immigrants in the United States legally could lose their legal status or even be deported if they use public aid.

USCIS says the new rule applies to all immigrants seeking green cards or visa renewals, mainly from inside the United States because they are the only immigrants who would have access to public benefits.

Officials have said they expect nearly 400,000 immigrants to be subject to the rule every year, though they did not provide an estimate of how many could be denied green cards or other immigration benefits as a result.

They also project that more than 232,000 immigrants and their U.S. citizen relatives in nearly 9,000 households across the United States could withdraw from a public benefits programs as a result of the rule, or about 2.5 percent of the enrolled population, according to a USCIS spokeswoman.

The estimate is based on the number of public benefits recipients who are members of households with at least one foreign-born noncitizen. Such a withdrawal would slash federal and state payouts by $2.47 billion a year, which includes $1.5 billion in federal aid and just more than $1 billion in state aid.

California has the largest number of immigrants living within its state borders — about 10 million — according to the American Community Survey, a Census Bureau survey that provides population estimates. About 50 percent of California’s immigrant population is made up of naturalized citizens; approximately 5 million people could be affected by the new rule. Texas has 3 million people who could be affected, and New York and Florida each have about 2 million.

DHS said the rule “provides a clear framework” for examining someone’s probability of becoming a public charge, examining factors such as a person’s income, assets, age, education and English fluency.

Cuccinelli, who outlined the new rule at the White House, said Tuesday that officials want to ensure that immigrants will be self-sufficient.

Asked if that conflicts with a 1903 plaque at the Statue of Liberty that reads “Give me your tired, your poor,” Cuccinelli gave NPR’s “Morning Edition” a revised version: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

Trump also backed the policy Tuesday, saying it was about putting “America first.”

“I don’t think it’s fair to have the American taxpayer paying for people to come into the United States,” he said.