In First-Of-Its-Kind Lawsuit, Baltimore Sues Trump Over Immigrants' Access To Benefits

City officials say the Trump administration's "unconstitutional" immigration policy is deterring residents from accessing food stamps, Medicaid and other benefits.

The city of Baltimore has sued the Trump administration over a State Department policy that the city says has been deterring legal immigrants from claiming benefits they’re entitled to, like food stamps, free school lunches and Medicaid.

Baltimore officials filed the suit, described as the first of its kind in the U.S., on Wednesday in collaboration with the nonprofit group Democracy Forward. It accuses the Trump administration of “unlawfully and secretly” expanding the definition of “public charge” in the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual, a document used by consular officers to determine whether or not to grant visas to immigrants.

Under the public charge provision, people considered likely to become a charge on the government can be denied legal status. 

According to the lawsuit, the manual’s new language, which was instituted in January, allows consular officers to consider whether visa applicants or their family members, including U.S. citizens, have received such non-cash benefits as job training resources, public health vaccinations and housing vouchers.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said the State Department had provided no prior notice of the change “nor any explanation for why it decided to deviate from the decades-old definition of public charge which explicitly prohibited consular officers from considering the use of such non-cash benefits.”  

“The change was motivated by the Trump administration’s well-known hostility towards certain immigrant groups ― most notably Hispanic, Asian, and African communities ― and is a violation of the federal laws governing administrative agencies, including the Constitution’s guarantee of Equal Protection,” Pugh’s office said in a Wednesday statement.

According to Baltimore officials, the policy change has discouraged residents from accessing benefits out of fear that such claims could impact their or their relatives’ future chances at getting a visa. 

“Baltimore and its residents have already begun to feel the impact,” said Pugh’s office, noting that enrollment in the city’s Head Start program had “virtually ceased” among the city’s African immigrant population since the start of the 2018 school year.

“Baltimore is a welcoming City, known for embracing immigrants and also benefiting from their many contributions,” Pugh said. “This effort by the Trump Administration to create additional obstacles to those seeking to live in Baltimore is an affront to the ideals and principles on which this nation was founded. We are determined to resist this latest attempt to deprive our immigrant communities of basic services and are confident we will prevail.”

President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and the U.S. Department of State are listed as defendants in the suit. The government has 60 days to respond to the complaint, the Baltimore Sun reported.

The Department of Homeland Security proposed a similar ― though separate ― policy change in September that would make it harder for immigrants and their families who’ve received non-cash benefits to be granted visas. The department is currently accepting public comments on that proposal.