The Trump administration’s battle in court to apply a more restrictive wealth test to immigrants seeking green cards hit another roadblock this week, when a federal judge in Illinois issued a summary judgment against the rule.

The so-called public charge rule would have allowed the federal government to deny green card to immigrants who apply for Medicaid, food stamps or housing assistance for more than a certain amount of time. It had originally been set to go into effect in July after back and forth legal rulings in lawsuits filed by New York and other states. Back in January, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to let Trump officials implement the new rule while lawsuits against it continue in the lower courts.

On Monday, Judge Gary Feinerman of the U.S. District Court in Chicago ruled that the government violated the law by dramatically expanding the definition of which immigrants are at risk of becoming a public charge.

In 14-page decision, Judge Feinerman upheld a prior ruling in the Seventh Circuit that found the new public charge rule to exceed the Department of Homeland Security's authority and to be "arbitrary and capricious." While the DHS had conceded that it stepped outside its bounds, federal officials had asked the court to strike down the law only in Illinois.

Feinerman disagreed, saying that under the procedural law governing federal agencies, "an agency rule found unlawful in whole is not 'set aside' just for certain plaintiffs or geographic areas; rather, the rule 'shall' be 'set aside,' period."

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can now only reject green card applicants based on the old, traditional definition of public charge. Rex Chen, immigration director of Legal Services of NYC, said immigrants who can be excluded include those who received cash assistance, who needed long-term institutionalization or who received public benefits but could not get a financial sponsor to attest that they will be financially supported in the future.

Chen said that for those who applied for green cards months ago and are still awaiting a decision can proceed without having the harsher rule used against them. New York City officials estimated that as many as 400,000 local immigrants could have been prevented from getting a green card.

Local immigrant advocates immediately praised the ruling, but also expressed uncertainty about its effect. The Trump Administration can still appeal the decision.

Abbey Sussell, at the New York Immigration Coalition, had been working to educate immigrants about the confusing new rule. Now, she said she is “definitely encouraging” people to apply for the benefits that they themselves and their family need, especially during the pandemic.

However, Sussell and other immigration advocates acknowledged that getting immigrants to apply could be a tall order. Confusion and fear about the public charge rule already had a chilling effect by deterring immigrants from relying on benefits to which they were legally entitled. 

“We all have met clients who have told us, ‘I just can't take this risk,'" said Anthony Enriquez, director of the Unaccompanied Minors Program at Catholic Charities Community Services.

Families are afraid that if they sign up for benefits, they could wind up being deported, he said.

New York City could also lose out financially. According to Enriquez, by conservative estimates, the city could see losses of up to $420 million in economic activity if just 20% of eligible residents declined to sign up for public benefits out of fear of the Trump administration's public charge rule.

On top of that, he added, there is the cost borne by individuals. He noted that an unknown number of working families in the city did not apply for food stamps despite their loss of wages during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Which is why local advocates say it will be hard to convince immigrants to apply for benefits even now that a court has ruled in their favor. Those who want green cards may still be reluctant to do anything that could jeopardize their applications. 

New Yorkers with questions about the public charge rule can call the ActionNYC hotline at 1-800-354-0365, Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and say "public charge." The hotline can also provide city-funded, free immigration legal help.