SFALP Students Assist in Blocking ‘Public Charge’ Rule


Students from the San Francisco Affirmative Litigation Project at Yale Law School (SFALP) assisted in securing a major ruling with nationwide ramifications for immigrant families last week.

On October 11, 2019, a federal judge granted an injunction blocking a newly revised “public charge” rule from being applied to residents in California, Maine, Pennsylvania, and Oregon, as well as the District of Columbia. The City and County of San Francisco and County of Santa Clara jointly filed the first case this summer seeking to block the new rule with a motion for preliminary injunction to stop the rule from taking effect. In conjunction with orders issued by a federal judge in New York in separate cases brought by New York State and others, as well as a nationwide injunction issued by a federal court in Washington, the rule has been blocked from taking effect nationwide.

SFALP partners students with lawyers in the San Francisco City Attorney's Office to bring groundbreaking public interest lawsuits. Students became involved in the public charge case shortly after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced a new rule that would radically expand the reasons someone can be deemed a “public charge,” and thus denied entry into the U.S. or refused adjustment of their immigration status, including receiving a green card. Once the case was filed, attorneys worked around-the-clock on an expedited briefing schedule, backed by a small army of SFALP students who operated behind the scenes to craft legal arguments, comb through hundreds of pages of legislative history, and brainstorm questions the Judge might ask at oral argument. Using Yale Law Library resources, the students were even able to track down old editions of the dictionary to show how key terms were understood at the time the existing rule was written and revised—information that bolstered the City’s argument against the rule change.

“It’s been pretty cool to see how the attorneys deal with such expedited deadlines, to see their thinking in real time as they not only ask us questions, but then read what we come up with and come back with new questions or clarifications,” said Alex Lichtenstein ’20, a SFALP student who worked on the case.

For decades, “public charge” has meant an individual who was “primarily dependent” on the government for survival. The assessment of whether someone was a public charge has been based on two kinds of public aid: long-term institutionalization or direct cash assistance. In other words, the term “public charge” has meant someone who was housed in a publicly funded medical institution or was dependent on a cash benefit, like Supplemental Security Income, which helps seniors, blind, and disabled people who have little or no income. A public charge has not meant someone who merely receives some publicly funded, supplemental benefits.

Rewriting nearly 140 years of legal precedent, the new rule, without authorization from Congress or the reasoned analysis required by statute, unlawfully eliminates the “primarily dependent” requirement and broadens the benefits considered to determine if someone is a public charge. It adds in health benefits like Medicaid and food stamps in an amount as low as 50 cents a day, according to the lawsuit.   

In the course of the litigation, U.S. Chief District Judge Phyllis Hamilton ordered the parties to submit proposed orders for injunctive relief. Lichtenstein said that discussing in real time what exactly plaintiffs envisioned the Court ordering in response to their motion for preliminary injunction gave new meaning to what she had learned about remedies in black letter law classes. “There’s something so powerful about thinking that through as it applies to your own case,” she said.

Students said working on the case has been particularly meaningful because of its effect on immigrant families across the country.

“The rule would have been devastating both for the immigrants whose crucial benefits and immigration status are at stake and for San Francisco and the other communities they call home,” said Brandon DeBot ’20. “It has been a privilege to support the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office’s efforts to block this unlawful rule.”