Immigration and Citizenship

State of New York v. U.S. Department of Homeland Security

In State of New York v. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a preliminary injunction against a Trump Administration rule redefining the term “public charge” for purposes of excluding immigrants from the country.

Case Summary

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) provides that an individual may be excluded or removed from the United States if he or she is likely to become a “public charge.”  Throughout American history, the term “public charge” has been understood to refer to those who receive cash benefits from the government for subsistence or who experience long-term institutionalization.  In August 2019, the Department of Homeland Security promulgated a new rule redefining that term.  Under the Trump Administration’s rule, an individual could be deemed inadmissible to the United States or may be denied an adjustment of immigration status based solely on the acceptance of non-cash public benefits, including assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Section 8 Housing Assistance, Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance, Medicaid (with some exceptions), and certain other forms of subsidized housing.  Several nonprofit organizations, cities, counties, and states challenged this rule in various federal district courts, and in October 2019, district courts in New York and Maryland concluded that the rule was likely unlawful and issued nationwide preliminary injunctions to keep it from going into effect.  In January 2020, CAC filed an amici curiae brief in the Second Circuit on behalf of legal historians urging the court to affirm the New York district court’s judgment.

Our brief made two main points.  First, we argued that the receipt, or likely receipt, of non-cash benefits has never been, standing alone, sufficient to make an individual a “public charge” subject to exclusion or removal from the country.  Public charge laws, or “poor laws,” in colonial and early America did not uniformly mandate that poor individuals be removed; in fact, they routinely provided financial and other support for impoverished immigrants.  In 1882, Congress passed the first general Immigration Act containing a “public charge” provision, but this law and other federal immigration laws that followed were not designed to significantly limit immigration into the country, and they consistently did not render immigrants excludable or removable based solely on the receipt of non-cash benefits.  Every federal law containing a public charge provision and every agency interpretation of such a law prior to 2019 has continued to rely on the well-established historical definition of “public charge.”  Second, we argued that, given this history, DHS’s new rule redefining “public charge” violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).  Congress necessarily incorporated the longstanding definition of the term “public charge” into the INA’s public charge provision, so DHS’s new rule significantly expanding that term to apply to those who receive only non-cash benefits was not “in accordance with law” and violated the APA.

The Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s preliminary injunction blocking implementation of DHS’s public charge rule, except the Second Circuit limited the scope of the injunction to cover only New York, Connecticut, and Vermont (the state plaintiffs in these cases).  Its opinion largely tracks the description in our brief of the history of public charge laws.  The court discussed, among other things, attempts by individual states to regulate immigration in the 1800s, the first federal Immigration Act in 1882, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, and the current public charge statute in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA).

Based on this history, the Second Circuit concluded that “[t]he settled meaning of ‘public charge,’ as the plain meaning of the term already suggests, is dependency: being a persistent charge on the public purse,” and the court reasoned that “the mere receipt of benefits from the government does not constitute such dependency.”  The court also determined that Congress repeatedly incorporated this settled meaning of “public charge” into federal statutes, most recently in the 1996 IIRIRA.  The Second Circuit held that DHS’s new rule defines “public charge” in a manner inconsistent with this settled meaning, and the rule is therefore not “in accordance with law,” in violation of the APA.

The Second Circuit also determined that DHS’s primary explanation for its rule change—that it wanted to bring the term in line with new self-sufficiency principles and eliminate the distinction between cash and non-cash benefits—is not satisfactory.  As a result, the court held that the rule is arbitrary and capricious and violates the APA for that reason as well.

Case Timeline

  • January 31, 2020

    CAC files amici curiae brief

    2d Cir. Amici Curiae Br.
  • March 2, 2020

    The Second Circuit hears oral arguments

  • August 4, 2020

    The Second Circuit affirms the district court’s preliminary injunction

  • October 7, 2020

    The Second Circuit issues its decision

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