San Francisco and Santa Clara County seek preliminary injunction to block ‘public charge’ rule

Rule would do the opposite of its stated goal by harming the country’s health, welfare and economy

City Attorney Dennis Herrera

SAN FRANCISCO (Aug. 28, 2019) — San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Santa Clara County Counsel James R. Williams today filed a joint motion for a preliminary injunction prohibiting the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from implementing or enforcing its new “public charge” rule.
The new rule is slated to take effect Oct. 15, 2019. If allowed to do so, it would radically broaden the criteria that allow DHS to deny someone admission to the country or legal permanent residence, commonly known as a green card. The rule effectively institutes a wealth test for immigration and penalizes poorer immigrants by making the receipt of even small amounts of public benefits, like food stamps or Medicaid, grounds to disqualify someone from admission or securing a green card. This rule change by the Trump administration specifically targets legal immigrants; undocumented immigrants already don’t qualify for these federal benefits.
“This rule would upend the American dream,” Herrera said. “This nation was built by hard-working immigrants, many of whom came here with the clothes on their backs and little else. We are not going to let the Trump administration rewrite the poem on the Statue of Liberty.  Yearning to breathe free is not a privilege only for the wealthy. Shutting the door on low-income immigrants is simply un-American.  Individuals who come here with nothing could be the co-founder of the next Intel, or the creator of the next Sugar Bowl Bakery.”
“This Trump administration rule is an attack on all immigrants, including those who have carefully followed every aspect of federal immigration law.  It is illegal, and today we ask the courts to block it from ever taking effect,” said Williams.  “Every family in our community is harmed when immigrants and their families are deterred from accessing basic health and safety services that keep us all healthy and support our communities’ well-being.  We will not allow the Trump administration to unilaterally overrule Congress and over a century of precedent.”
DHS’ new rule on “Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds,” announced Aug. 12, 2019, attempts to abolish nearly 140 years of legal precedent. It radically expands the reasons someone can be deemed to be a “public charge.”  For decades, “public charge” meant an individual who is “primarily dependent” on the government for survival.  And the assessment of whether someone was a public charge was based on two kinds of public aid: long-term institutionalization or direct cash assistance for subsistence. The new rule unlawfully broadens the benefits considered to include health benefits like Medicaid and food stamps in a total amount as low as 50 cents a day.   

“We are deeply concerned this policy will negatively impact the ability of immigrant families to access needed health care services,” said Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco Director of Public Health, “and we are firmly committed to keeping San Francisco a place where health care is available to all, regardless of immigration status.”

“This public charge rule is yet another vicious attack on hard working immigrant families,” said Trent Rhorer, Executive Director of the San Francisco Human Services Agency. “It threatens the health of our communities by sowing confusion and anxiety even among those not affected by it. While we know that only a small number of immigrants that receive public benefits will be impacted, misconceptions about who the rule applies to have created a ‘chilling effect’ – prompting San Franciscans to remove themselves and their children from critical health and nutrition services that they are legally entitled to receive. We’re fighting fear with facts by getting people the support they need to keep their families healthy. No one should turn away from services before understanding their rights and consulting with a free City-approved community-based attorney.”

By design, the rule coerces individuals to forgo or withdraw from critical benefits and care.  DHS itself projects that the rule will cause 2.5 percent of the noncitizens participating in the targeted programs to stop using them, but this projection grossly underestimates the number of people who will be harmed. It also doesn’t reflect the broader chilling effect the rule is having by spreading fear and misinformation.
For example, many people who live with noncitizens, unclear about the rule’s impact, will forgo benefits that aren’t even covered by the rule out of fear of the immigration consequences to themselves and their loved ones. Indeed, in response to earlier drafts of the rule, many people already have.  A recent Urban Institute study found that one in seven adults in immigrant families (13.7 percent) reported chilling effects from the proposed rule, in which the respondent or a family member did not participate in a government benefit program in 2018 for fear of risking future green card status. This chilling was observed in families with various mixes of immigration and citizenship statuses, including families where all foreign-born members were naturalized citizens.
The price for this policy change will be paid by society as a whole: 

  • Reduced access to health care services will increase the risk of communicable diseases and other public health threats, like measles and tuberculosis.
  • San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties will lose millions of dollars in federal Medicaid reimbursement funds while public health care costs increase. For example, San Francisco alone is expected to lose at least $7.5 million in Medicaid reimbursement funds. At the same time, taxpayer-funded health care costs will rise as people forgo preventative care and then wind up in the emergency room with more serious, and more expensive, medical conditions. 
  • Food stamp assistance helps fuel local economies, with the money flowing through shops and grocery stores to their suppliers, owners and employees.  According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study, every dollar issued to a SNAP recipient results in $1.79 in local economic activity.  San Francisco and Santa Clara’s economies could lose millions a year from people forfeiting food assistance.

“Individual health, public health, and our economic health would all suffer if this patently unlawful rule is allowed to stand,” Herrera said.

The case is: City and County of San Francisco and County of Santa Clara v. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services et al., U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, 4:19-cv-04717, filed Aug. 13, 2019. Additional documentation from the case is available on the City Attorney’s website: or the Santa Clara County Counsel’s public charge website: 

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