Judge halts immigration rule on public benefits, cites virus

NEW YORK (AP) — A federal judge on Wednesday blocked a Trump administration rule that could deny green cards to immigrants over use of public benefits from being applied during the pandemic.

The controversial guidelines had gone into effect in February, after legal challenges and amid concerns that they would have a chilling effect on immigrants in seeking medical care and other social services.

In issuing the preliminary nationwide injunction, U.S. District Judge George Daniels in Manhattan said, “Any policy that deters residents from seeking testing and treatment for COVID-19 increases the risk of infection for such residents and the public. Adverse government action that targets immigrants, however, is particularly dangerous during a pandemic."

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had said in March that the new guidelines would not apply to immigrants with coronavirus or virus symptoms if they got care, but Daniels said that announcement was “plainly insufficient" over a number of concerns, like whether other forms that might be needed, like food stamps, would also be exempt.

“Simply relying on the compassion or sympathy of immigration officials is not rational, either in rule-making or in informally attempting to amend those rules," he wrote.

An email seeking comment was sent to the Department of Justice.

Immigrant advocates were pleased with the decision.

“Immigrants, especially people serving as essential workers combating the spread of the coronavirus, need access to life-saving healthcare, food assistance, and other essential services in order to both tackle the pandemic and protect their families without fear of immigration consequences," said Susan Welber with the Legal Aid Society, among the plaintiffs' attorneys.

The rules had been set to take effect late last year, but were blocked by legal challenges. The Supreme Court in January ruled that they could go into effect while the lawsuits were underway and declined to revisit the issue in April.

Under the new guidelines, immigrants applying for permanent residency must show they wouldn’t be burdens to the country and expands the factors that immigration officials could use to make that judgement.