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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane judge blocks Trump rule restricting immigration for people who need government help

A Spokane felon, Seth Randles, 36, pleaded guilty Thursday to charges related to human trafficking for sex charges. He appeared before U.S. District Court Judge Stanley Bastian at the Thomas S. Foley United States Courthouse, shown here in May. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A federal judge in Spokane blocked the Trump administration Friday from implementing a new rule that would restrict immigration for people who might receive government assistance.

U.S. District Court Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson issued a nationwide preliminary injunction against changes to the so-called Public Charge rule, saying that Washington and 13 other states challenging the proposed changes are likely to win their lawsuit.

If the changes were to go into effect as scheduled Wednesday, Peterson said, the states involved in the challenge were likely to suffer “irreparable harm,” as would immigrants who might avoid seeking government-subsidized health care. The health care systems in those states and the general public that might be subject to more contagious diseases from people who avoid treatment.

She made the injunction nationwide, rather than restricting it to the states that are part of the lawsuit, to avoid immigrants from moving to them from states that aren’t part of the suit to access social services.

The immediate and ongoing harm to the states and their residents “both immigrant and non-immigrant, is predictable and there is a significant likelihood of irreparable injury if the rule were to take effect as scheduled on Oct. 15, 2019,” she wrote in a 59-page decision.

Peterson’s decision is in line with rulings by federal judges in New York and California, who also ruled Friday on similar challenges filed by those states individually.

Washington took the lead in the multistate challenge to the proposed rule changes first announced last year by the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Federal law dating to the 1880s allows immigration officials to deny visas or green cards to anyone “likely at any time to become a public charge,” but the law has been revised multiple times.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Friday that the term has long been interpreted to cover only people who depend on cash assistance for their survival, or who are institutionalized at public expense for long-term care.

But last October, the administration proposed a tightening of the definition of a public charge that would allow denying the application for permanent residence to anyone who receives public benefits for more than 12 months in a three-year period.

Those benefits would include many programs, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Food Stamps, housing vouchers or rental assistance, and many Medicaid programs. If a person receives aid from two such programs in a month, it would count as two months toward that 12-month limit; benefits from three programs in a month would count as three months toward the limit, and so on.

The rules would also make it easier to approve applicants whose household or individual income is at least 250% of the federal poverty guidelines or who have private health insurance not subsidized by the Affordable Care Act.

The states argued that legal immigrants could disenroll from Medicaid to avoid being refused permanent residence status, skipping preventive care, medication, mental health treatment and immunizations.

Peterson’s injunction blocks the law until a trial can take place on the administration’s arguments that Congress gave it the power to make the changes in the Public Charge rule.

Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, predicted that the administration would eventually prevail.

“An objective judiciary will see that this rule lies squarely within long-held existing law,” he wrote on Twitter. “Long-standing federal law requires aliens to rely on their own capabilities and the resources of their families, sponsors and private organizations in their communities to succeed.”

In announcing the injunction, Ferguson accused the administration of playing on “untrue and harmful stereotypes.” Studies show immigrants are more likely to work, less likely to receive benefits for which they are eligible and use those benefits less than native-born adults, he said.

Congress does allow qualified immigrants to receive some public benefits, Peterson said, signaling the administration faces a difficult task if it goes to trial.

“Congress did not state that there should be no public benefits to qualified aliens, but rather that public benefits be provided in ‘the least restrictive means available,’ ” she wrote. The administration’s proposed rule would “chill qualified aliens from accessing all public benefits by weighing negatively the use of non-cash public benefits.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.