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Supreme Court removes last remaining obstacle to immigrant ‘wealth test’

(Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The Supreme Court on Friday night removed the remaining obstacle to the Trump administration’s plan to implement new “wealth test” rules making it easier to deny immigrants residency or admission to the United States if they might depend on public-assistance programs.

Although legal challenges will continue on the merits of the policy in lower courts, the justices voted 5 to 4 to remove the last remaining judicial order blocking the new standards from going into effect while those battles play out.

Critics say the rules, which the administration plans to begin enforcing Monday, replace decades of understanding and would place a burden on poor immigrants from non-English-speaking countries.

A judge had blocked the administration from implementing the new standards in Illinois, and the Supreme Court’s decision dissolves that order. As is common in such emergency applications, the majority did not explain its reasoning.

Linda Rivas is an immigration attorney whose work regularly takes her to the dangerous Mexican border city of Juarez, where thousands of migrants are stranded. (Video: The Washington Post)

By the same 5-to-4 vote last month, the court had gotten rid of an injunction imposed by a judge in New York that blocked the changes elsewhere in the country.

Supreme Court allows administration to proceed with new immigration rules

The court’s four liberal justices dissented then and Friday, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the court was violating its own rules about when to step into the legal process.

“It is hard to say what is more troubling: that the government would seek this extraordinary relief seemingly as a matter of course, or that the court would grant it,” Sotomayor wrote.

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)

The rules establish new criteria for who can be considered dependent on the U.S. government for benefits — “public charges,” in the words of the law — and thus ineligible for green cards and a path to U.S. citizenship. They were proposed to start in October but were delayed by the lower-court decisions.

Under the new policy, immigrants would be suspect if they are in the United States legally and use public benefits — such as Medicaid, food stamps or housing assistance — too often or are deemed likely to someday rely on them.

The new criteria provide “positive” and “negative” factors for immigration officials to weigh as they decide on green-card applications. Negative factors include if a person is unemployed, dropped out of high school or is not fluent in English.

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.

The rules change brought legal challenges filed around the country, and some district judges had imposed nationwide injunctions.

The Trump administration objected, and in last month’s decision, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said nationwide injunctions had gotten out of hand.

“As the brief and furious history of the regulation before us illustrates, the routine issuance of universal injunctions is patently unworkable, sowing chaos for litigants, the government, courts, and all those affected by these conflicting decisions,” Gorsuch wrote.

But Sotomayor said that was not the case here. A judge in Illinois had issued a limited injunction, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit had scheduled a hearing on the issue for next week.

She said that is the normal process, and indicated that conservative justices were indulging an impatient administration.

“Claiming one emergency after another, the government has recently sought stays in an unprecedented number of cases, demanding immediate attention and consuming limited court resources in each,” she wrote. “And with each successive application, of course, its cries of urgency ring increasingly hollow.”

The court has been too quick to agree with the government, she said. “I fear that this disparity in treatment erodes the fair and balanced decisionmaking process that this court must strive to protect.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Department of Homeland Security agency that processes green-card and citizenship applications, says on its website that it will implement the new public charge rule starting on Monday.

Illinois has the sixth-largest immigrant population in the United States, some 1.8 million people (after California, Texas, New York, Florida and New Jersey). About half are not U.S. citizens, according to census estimates. Immigrants account for 14 percent of the state’s population.

Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.