Santa Clara County scored a substantial legal victory this month when the U.S. Department of Justice dropped an appeal on a legal rule that sought to limit public services for immigrants.
County Counsel James Williams called the decision to drop the case "a victory for the rule of law," he said, because otherwise the change would have overturned 140 years of legal precedent.
"This case was about protecting the health and wellbeing of our entire community," Williams said.
In 2019 under the Trump administration, the Department of Homeland Security largely expanded the definitions of a "public charge" -- those who are enrolled, or likely to enroll, in federally funded public assistance programs such as Medicaid.
If an immigrant is deemed a public charge, the classification drastically reduces their chances of obtaining green cards and visas in the United States. But immigrant advocates and lawyers say the 2019 Trump-era change was harmful and not how the rule has been used for decades.
"The Trump administration's changes were disrupting decades of practice," said Erika Rivera, program manager with Santa Clara County's office of immigrant relations. "That's why people were so scared. Because for a long time we knew how to process cases and how to assess people's risk of being found to be a public charge, and then all of a sudden it got turned on its head."
Public charge rules have been in place for much of U.S. history but in different forms. Since 1999, a public charge has been defined as a person who "is or is likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence" but explicitly excluded non-cash benefits from that definition.
Santa Clara and San Francisco counties sued the federal government following the announcement of the new rule in 2019. About 40 percent of people in Santa Clara County, or more than 755,000 residents, were born outside of the United States, according to U.S. Census data.
A federal appeals court in December ruled in favor of the counties, which would have forced the Department of Homeland Security to take the case in front of the Supreme Court.
"The (change to) public charge scared the immigrant community," said Rivera. "It didn't matter if you had some documents, (if you) had no documents; everyone was really concerned about it."
Rivera said the actual rule affected very few people but noted the fear it created was real -- immigrants across the county were scared to get COVID testing or isolation and quarantine services because they worried that would deem them a "public charge."
Rivera said some residents with legal status, including those with green cards, asking whether they should withdraw from public benefits like CalFresh, to preserve their status.
"(The public charge rule) kept people from accessing services during a pandemic, which is insane," Rivera said.
In a release from the Department of Homeland Security on March 9, the department said trying to uphold the rule "is neither in the public interest nor an efficient use of limited government resources."
A spokesperson for DHS did not return a request for comment.
"We welcome what the Biden administration is doing in terms of dropping its legal challenges around public charge," said Priya Murthy, policy director with the Services, Immigrant Rights & Education Network (SIREN). "They are making sure as many folks can take advantage of public benefits without concerns in the back of their minds."
Murthy said public charge does not apply to U.S. citizens, including children of immigrants, and most people with a green card or who have gotten asylum. Additionally, COVID-related assistance, testing, treatment, vaccines and preventative services, do not count against anyone, regardless of immigration status, under any public charge rule.
"We want to make sure people aren't afraid to pursue COVID-19 related safety measures," Murthy said.
SIREN provides free legal immigration consultations, people can call (408) 453-3003 for more information.
This story, from Bay City News Service, was originally published on San Jose Spotlight here.