City Solicitor Andre Davis announces the city’s latest lawsuit against the Trump administration. Still via live stream from Fox 45/Facebook.
City Solicitor Andre Davis announces the city’s latest lawsuit against the Trump administration. Still via live stream from Fox 45/Facebook.

Baltimore and the nonprofit Democracy Forward have sued the Trump administration over its proposed changes to a longstanding immigration policy, a move the city and watchdog group allege is designed to deter immigrants from using public benefits like food stamps, housing assistance and Head Start.

The lawsuit, which Baltimore Fishbowl first reported Tuesday evening, brings four counts against the presidential administration for allegedly violating federal law by working to change the definition of “public charge,” a provision of immigration policy that allows the U.S. State Department to deny green cards or legal entry to immigrants if they depend on welfare or long-term care funded by the government.

The change would include new language in the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual, grandfathering in “public assistance of any kind,” with some exceptions, as factors that could make someone ineligible for being a “public charge.” That would include widely used public benefits like Medicare, Medicaid and some housing-assistance, educational and nutritional programs.

The Trump administration has proposed it as a way to reduce financial burdens on the public system posed by immigrants. “Under long-standing federal law, those seeking to immigrate to the United States must show they can support themselves financially,” U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in the White House’s September announcement of its proposal.

But City Solicitor Andre Davis said at a press conference this morning that it “will, we are certain, result in fewer children having access to free lunches, with consequences to the nutrition and health of children; will have adverse consequences to families as they attempt to access a range of publicly available benefits to which they are unquestionably entitled.”

“The incentive here will be to abandon rights in the hope that family and affiliated persons overseas will not be harmed by this change.”

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court of Maryland today, makes Baltimore the first jurisdiction to sue the White House over the policy change, Davis said.

The 74-page filing, posted online by Democracy Forward, alleges the new policy would “put a thumb on the scale in favor of barring immigrants from the country if they have used any of a host of federal, state, or local programs—making it much harder for immigrants to reunite with their families.”

Even though the changes are still under public comment and aren’t in effect, the filing says they already have “chilled immigrants from accepting Baltimore’s public benefits”—including emergency, health, social and cleanup services that wouldn’t affect an immigrant’s risk of being classified a public charge—”profoundly frustrating and interfering with the city’s mission.”

Other cities like San Antonio have reported seeing more immigrants drop out of food stamps, and data points to a similar trend afoot nationally. Pacific Standard has also reported on falling immigrant participation in unaffected programs, like a nutrition assistance benefit for women, infants and children, due to misconceptions and fear.

Here in Baltimore, the lawsuit points to Head Start, a federally backed pre-school and family early childhood development, as an example of that chilling effect. “Enrollment in those programs has decreased, even sharply decreased, among immigrants; for example, enrollment has virtually ceased among the city’s African immigrant population in the last few months,” it says.

Officials say the change also harms the city’s ability to draw in more immigrants as a “welcoming city.” Mayor Pugh and others have immigrants as an important piece of Baltimore’s economic base.

Catalina Rodrigeuez, director of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, laid out some stats: More than half of the city’s 48,000 immigrants have arrived in the last eight years, and 9 percent of Baltimore’s businesses are immigrant-owned and employ nearly 7,000 residents. The labor force participation rate among immigrants is 70 percent, and 37 percent of immigrants here have a college degree or higher, she said.

The alleged counts include violations of the Administrative Procedure Act, a 1946 law governing how agencies can change regulations, and the the Fifth Amendment, which promises equal protection under the law based on regardless of race, nationality, receipt of public benefits and other qualities. Davis, a former federal appellate judge, said the administration has sought to “secretly” change immigration law by altering the Foreign Affairs Manual, instead of attempting to use proper legal channels.

The lawsuit calls for the federal court to vacate the change, bar the federal government from making any adjustments to the policy and pay for court costs and, potentially, other relief.

“The Trump administration can try to stop Baltimore from welcoming its immigrant residents, but we will continue to do everything we can to ensure that immigrants are welcomed and integrated in our city,” Rodriguez said.

The case adds to a other lawsuits filed by the city against the Trump administration this year. In August, Baltimore and other jurisdictions sued over the White House’s alleged undermining of the Affordable Care Act, a case that’s still ongoing, per federal court records. In April, a federal judge sided with the city after it sued in March over the administration’s decision to prematurely cancel a five-year grant for teen-pregnancy prevention education.

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...