California sues Trump over ‘public charge’ rule denying green cards to immigrants

People wait to enter the U.S. at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in San Diego.
(Denis Poroy / Associated Press)

California on Friday sued the Trump administration to challenge the legality of a new “public charge” rule that could deny green cards to immigrants who receive public assistance, including food stamps, Medicaid and housing vouchers.

State Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra filed the lawsuit in federal court in Northern California just days after the Trump administration published a new rule that could make it harder for many immigrants to gain legal status in the United States.

Legal experts say the case could turn on whether California can demonstrate the Trump administration adopted the policy with an intent to discriminate against certain immigrants, which is part of the state’s legal strategy.


“This cruel policy would force working parents and families across the nation to forgo basic necessities like food, housing and healthcare out of fear. That is simply unacceptable,” Becerra said in a statement.

California is leading the lawsuit, which is also joined by Maine, Oregon and Pennsylvania as well as the District of Columbia. A separate lawsuit has been filed by other states led by Washington. Separately on Friday, La Clinica de la Raza and other groups serving immigrants filed suit against the Trump policy in Northern California’s U.S. District Court.

Becerra said the new federal rule disproportionately affects California, which is home to some 10 million immigrants, many of whom may be affected by the new rule either directly or by fearing to seek public services.

Becerra said he plans to also seek a temporary injunction to halt enforcement of the law, which is scheduled to take effect mid-October.

Douglas Guthrie, president and chief executive of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, said his agency is studying what the administration’s new rule will mean for the tens of thousands of people living in public housing and receiving Section 8 benefits.

Guthrie estimates that the rule could affect 18,000 residents who might conceivably lose their green card if the Department of Homeland Security determines they’re a public charge.


To live in housing authority buildings, “at least one member of the household must have legal status,” according to the Housing Authority. “It’s intimidating as well as confusing for a lot of people who are serviced by the programs we administer, which I think is part of the intent,” said Guthrie.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom also criticized the federal policy change in a statement:

“This latest move by the federal administration to demonize immigrants is personal for us, in a state where half of our children have at least one immigrant parent,” the governor said. “This new rule, designed to create fear in immigrant families, is cruel and threatens our public health. That is not who we are in California, and not who we are as Americans.”

People applying for green cards are already required by federal law to prove that they won’t become a “public charge,” posing a financial burden to the United States.

However, the new restrictions outline a broader range of programs that could disqualify immigrants from obtaining legal status, allowing federal officials to consider those programs along with an immigrant’s household income, education and health.

In 2017, some 380,000 people nationwide “adjusted to legal permanent resident status through a pathway that likely would have subjected them to a public charge determination under the new rule,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit argues the new rule, posted Monday in the federal register, creates unnecessary new barriers to eligible immigrants, setting such a strict standard that if it were applied to U.S. citizens, nearly a majority would be considered a “public charge.”


In the court filing, Becerra says the new rule violates the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee, disproportionately blocking admission of non-white immigrants from Asia, Latin America and Africa.

An equal protection claim generally only prevails if it can be established that the government acted with an intent to discriminate, said Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the UC Davis School of Law.

“That is a heavy burden,” he said. “However, there is evidence of racial animus in the president’s own statements about immigrants, such as that Salvadorans, Haitians, and others from the developing world populated by people of color come from ‘shithole’ countries and are not wanted in the United States.”

California’s lawsuit refers to Trump’s disparaging remark about developing countries in making its case, and Becerra and Newsom effectively accused the administration of racist policies at a Capitol news conference.

“They don’t like immigrants,” Becerra said of the Trump administration.

Newsom singled out Trump, adding: “He has a particular problem with brown people, not even immigrants.”

The legal challenge also says the new federal rule is also illegal because it interferes with states’ rights to protect their residents, and exceeds the administration’s authority under federal immigration law by circumventing congressional intent.


The complaint by California raises “strong legal and constitutional” arguments and the states are likely to be able to obtain a preliminary injunction to block the rule from taking effect Oct. 15, said USC law professor Niels Frenzen, who specializes in immigration law.

“Beyond that, the likelihood of prevailing on the merits of one or more of the specific legal challenges is high, at least before the District Court and before the 9th Circuit. After that, we enter the more politicized world of the Supreme Court and what may happen becomes less clear,” said Frenzen, director of the USC Gould School of Law Immigration Clinic.

Becerra said the federal government failed to adequately determine the cost on the state and its counties if more people suffer from poverty as a result of the rule change. He added that the rule improperly punishes immigrants for participating in widely used public benefits programs.

One of these immigrants, 55-year-old Jhoana, said Friday she’s facing an excruciating decision.

Jhoana, who lives in Moreno Valley but hails from Mexico’s Jalisco state, currently receives food stamps, which she uses to support her two U.S.-born children, including one she said has autism. She now fears continuing those benefits could jeopardize her goal to become a legal resident.

“We feel attacked, vulnerable,” said Jhoana, who did not want to disclose her last name. “They are cutting our future short just because we want services for our kids.”


The Trump administration defended the new rule this week.

“We certainly expect anyone of any income to stand on their own two feet,” Ken Cuccinelli, acting head of Citizenship and Immigration Services, said on Monday. “A poor person can be prepared to be self-sufficient. Many have been throughout the history of this country, so let’s not look at that as the be-all and end-all.”

The lawsuit names federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which declined to respond as it does not comment on pending litigation.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also declined comment on the lawsuit, but said in a statement: “Lack of comment should not be construed as agreement with or stipulation to any of the allegations.”

The state’s lawsuit was denounced by Robin Hvidston, who heads a California group seeking tougher enforcement of immigration laws.

“Once again, California neglects American citizens over foreign nationals,” said Hvidston, executive director of the group We the People Rising. “We should not be spending our tax dollars on non-citizens,” she added.

But the new federal rule drew opposition from a group of moderate Republicans called New Way California, which was founded by former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Assemblyman Chad Mayes (R-Yucca Valley).


“How can we earnestly pursue becoming President Reagan’s ‘shining city on a hill’ while making it more difficult for the more than 382,000 people applying for green cards to have a chance at the American Dream?” the group said in a statement.

A study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research said the new rule could have a chilling effect on up to 2.2 million Californians in immigrant families who might disenroll from Medi-Cal and CalFresh, the food stamps program, most of whom would not actually be legally subject to the proposed new public charge test.

The lawsuit is the 56th legal challenge that California has filed against the Trump administration on a variety of issues that also include policies on healthcare, the environment and the U.S. census.

Times staff writers Ben Oreskes, Leila Miller and Andrea Castillo contributed to this report.