S.F., Santa Clara First in Nation to Sue Over Trump Rule Targeting Low-Income Immigrants

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San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera in January 2017. (Ryan Levi/KQED)

Two Bay Area counties on Tuesday sued to block a new Trump administration rule that they say will penalize low-income immigrants seeking to become lawful permanent residents. The lawsuit filed by San Francisco and Santa Clara county is the nation’s first challenge to the policy, which is scheduled to go into effect in mid-October.

Under the new rule, immigration officers may consider immigrants a “public charge” if they use certain federal public benefits such as food stamps, housing assistance programs and non-emergency Medi-Cal. The designation would weigh against their eligibility to obtain green cards — and eventually become U.S. citizens.

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Currently, only immigrants who depend on the government for cash assistance or are institutionalized for long-term care at government expense, may be considered a public charge.

The Trump administration says the new policy aims to protect taxpayer dollars and ensure that only self-sufficient immigrants are eligible for lawful permanent residence.

But San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera argues that as more immigrants drop critical federal benefits out of fear or confusion, they’ll have to turn to other types of assistance paid for by local governments.

“It would dramatically shift the costs and tax burden from the federal government to local and state governments if the rule was to go into effect, dramatically increasing the cost for local taxpayers,” said Herrera. “So along with Santa Clara, we felt that it was necessary to file this lawsuit as quickly as possible to ensure that this law does not go into effect.”

With a foreign-born population of 39% for Santa Clara, and 36% for San Francisco, the counties have some of the highest proportion of immigrant residents in the state, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

In the lawsuit, the counties argue that as immigrants and potentially their loved ones forego Medi-Cal and preventative care, the risks for communicable diseases and other public health threats could increase.

“The Trump Administration’s new rule is an unlawful, foolish attack on immigrant communities,” Santa Clara County Counsel James R. Williams said in a statement. “It will hurt all members of our communities by reducing access to critical health and safety-net services that create healthier communities for all of our residents.”

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The U.S. Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security, which authored the rule, did not return a request for comment. A spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

The rule's potential impact could be huge in California, home to more than 10 million immigrants, more than any other state.

Up to 2.2 million people in California could drop Medi-Cal health coverage or CalFresh nutrition assistance out of fear or misinformation if the rule is implemented, according to a report by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. The researchers predicted most of those affected would be Latino children.

Since the first versions of the “public charge” rule were leaked to the media last year, some immigrant parents have already given up CalFresh for their U.S. citizen kids, said Steven Knight, with the Alameda County Community Food Bank.

“This policy is intentionally going to increase hunger in America,” said Knight, who directs policy for the food bank. “Pushing people off of those government programs is going to deeply impact food banks across the country including ours. And it's going to mean more people turning to our really last resort of emergency food.”

Homeland Security said the final policy will be published in the Federal Register on Wednesday.

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