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Judge orders Trump to halt immigration wealth test during national coronavirus emergency

A federal judge in New York on Wednesday ordered the Trump administration to stop enforcing a sweeping wealth test on people applying for green cards and visas for the duration of the national emergency over the coronavirus, agreeing with Democratic-led states that the rules discourage immigrants from seeking public assistance during the pandemic.

The "public charge" rule first went into effect in February after the Supreme Court set aside lower court orders that had blocked the regulation, which gives officials more power to deny applications for green cards and visas from immigrants or prospective immigrants whom the government determines rely — or could rely — on certain government programs, like food stamps and housing vouchers.

"Defendants' interest in effectuating the Rule fails to measure up to the gravity of this global pandemic that continues to threaten the lives and economic well-being of America's residents," Judge George Daniels of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan wrote in his order, referring to the government. "No person should hesitate to seek medical care, nor should they endure punishment or penalty if they seek temporary financial aid as a result of the pandemic's impact."

Since immigrants in the U.S. applying for green card status don't qualify for most welfare programs, the public charge rule mostly affects those seeking to move to the country from abroad. To determine whether prospective immigrants are likely to become a "public charge," caseworkers consider their wealth, age, educational skills, English language proficiency and health.

In April, the attorneys general in New York, Connecticut and Vermont asked the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision to allow the public charge regulation to remain in place, saying the restrictions were hindering nationwide efforts to contain the spreading coronavirus. The high court denied their request but left open the possibility for the states to pursue relief in lower courts.

The states files declarations by doctors, local officials and advocates who said immigrants across the country fear they could jeopardize their immigration status by seeking medical treatment and government aid during the pandemic. Citing these declarations, Daniels said in his order that the public charge regulation was presenting immigrants with an "impossible choice between jeopardizing health and personal safety or their immigration status."

On Thursday, a spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers the public charge rule, said the agency was "currently reviewing" Wednesday's court order. "USCIS will fully comply with the court's order and will be providing additional guidance," the spokesperson added.  

The government can seek to appeal Wednesday's order. A spokesperson for the Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.

In a separate order on Wednesday, Daniels also blocked the State Department, which oversees visa processing abroad, from implementing its own version of the public charge rule. A State Department spokesperson declined to comment or confirm that the rule's implementation had been halted, citing pending litigation.

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