Bishops oppose ‘public charge’ rule change as Supreme Court lifts injunction

Washington D.C., Jan 29, 2020 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have spoken out against a Supreme Court decision permitting a new “public charge” rule to go into effect. A statement released Wednesday said the new rule limits access to public benefits for poor immigrants and is antithetical to Catholic teachings to love and serve the needy.

On Jan. 28, the Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 vote to allow the Trump administration’s “public charge” to go into effect, even as various lawsuits over the legality of the rule are still being decided. The decision overturned a nation-wide injunction by a federal court in New York which is hearing several consolidated suits against the change.

In August 2019, the Trump administration announced changes to how a person is determined to be a “public charge,” someone who is primarily dependent on government assistance. An immigrant who is found to be a public charge can be denied permanent residency.

“Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision allowing the Administration to move forward with implementing its new changes to the ‘public charge’ while lawsuits are still pending is very concerning, as it will have an immediate and negative impact upon immigrant and newcomer families,” said a statement signed by Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City and Bishop Mario E. Dorsonville, an auxiliary bishop of Washington.

Coakley chairs the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Dorsonville leads the Committee on Migration.

Previously, only cash benefits, such as the Temporary Aid for Needy Families or Supplemental Security Income from Social Security, counted towards determining if someone is a public charge. Under the previous rules, fewer than 1% of residency applicants were disqualified on public charge grounds.

Under the new rules, noncash benefits providing for basic needs, such as housing or food, count towards a person becoming a public charge. These include most forms of Medicaid, food stamps, and housing vouchers. An immigrant who received one or more designated benefits for more than 12 months in a 36-month period could be designated a public charge. Use of two kinds of benefits in a single month would count as two months.

As of Tuesday, the rule can go into effect in 49 states. The Supreme Court decision left intact a state-wide injunction against the rule change in Illinois, issued by a federal appeals court hearing that state’s suit against the rule in a separate case.

Coakley and Dorsonville cited their experience working with the poor and vulnerable in their  opposition to the policy going into effect. The bishops said that many immigrants used different medical and social service programs, and that these are “vital to public health and welfare.”

The bishops said that “misinformation” about the public charge rule had already spread throughout immigrant communities, and that they fear the decision will further deter poor families from getting the help they need.

The decision could “further deter families eligible for assistance from coming forward to access the services they need, such as nutrition assistance and housing,” they said, warning that the decision will have “devastating consequences for immigrant communities.”

In the statement, the bishops reiterated their opposition to the rule change, calling it contrary to the social mission of the Church.

“The Church upholds the dignity of all human life, and the Gospel compels us to serve those who are in need, regardless of their circumstances,” said the bishops.

“Preventing anyone from having access to life-saving services is contrary to our belief that all life is sacred from its beginning to its end.”

The bishops said that they “remain hopeful” that the public charge rule will eventually be deemed illegal following one of the several suits still being litigated in federal courts. Tuesday’s decision did not resolve those suits, but only struck down a preliminary injunction blocking the policy from going into effect while the cases are pending.

In the meantime, the bishops said they will continue to work to protect immigrant families.

“The Church will redouble public education efforts to ensure that immigrant families, and our direct services networks which assist them, are educated about this rule and its impacts. We remain steadfast in Pope Francis’s call to welcome, protect, promote and integrate our immigrant brothers and sisters.”

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