Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson


Rule change targets immigrant families lawfully in the US

SPOKANE — A federal judge in Eastern Washington today blocked Trump Administration from implementing its changes to the “public charge” rule nationwide while a lawsuit brought by Attorney General Bob Ferguson and a multistate coalition progresses.

Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington in Spokane issued a nationwide preliminary injunction. In order to grant a preliminary injunction, the judge found that the states have a substantial likelihood of winning the case, and that if the changes go into effect, the states are likely to suffer irreparable harm.

“Thanks to today’s decision, children of lawfully present immigrants will not go hungry or lose their homes as a result of the Trump Administration’s heartless action,” Ferguson said. “We will continue to stand up for these families and fight this unlawful, un-American policy.”

The new rule does not apply to undocumented immigrants, because they cannot access federal benefits without a lawful status. Certain state benefits remain available to undocumented residents. 

The Administration’s action plays on untrue and harmful stereotypes. Immigrants are more likely than native-born adults to work. In some industries, immigrants make up a third or more of the workforce, according to Census data. More than two-thirds of immigrants who receive these kinds of assistance work, or are married to someone who works, also according to Census data. According to the libertarian Cato Institute, not only are eligible immigrants less likely to receive welfare benefits, when they do, they tend to use those benefits less than native-born adults.

Case background

The states filed a 169-page complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Aug. 14, alleging the Trump Administration’s changes to the “public charge” rule violate federal immigration statutes, the Welfare Reform Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

Under long-standing law and policies, a public charge is an individual whose survival depends upon a specific public benefit ― cash assistance ― or who is institutionalized for long-term care at government expense. This does not include temporary assistance, such as food or housing assistance or health care. Immigration officers can deny new visas, visa renewals and lawful permanent residency under the public charge rule only if the applicant meets this concrete definition. If an individual already present in the United States becomes a public charge, they can be deported.

Under the new rule, a public charge now will include lawfully present individuals or families who will use a broad range of federal assistance for housing, food or health care at any time in the future, for as short as four months.

Many of the types of assistance that will now be included in making public charge determinations are programs that beneficiaries tend to use for short periods. For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 60 percent of individuals receiving food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) use benefits for three years or less. Nearly one-third of individuals receiving food assistance use the benefit for less than one year.

The new definition expands immigration officials’ ability to deny visas and permanent residency to any individual who they predict may use these types of assistance in the future. If permanent residents who have used government assistance leave the country for 180 days, they may also be labeled a public charge when they apply to return, potentially losing their status.

Washington impacts

Washington state is home to approximately 455,000 children who are U.S. citizens and have at least one immigrant parent. These families will likely refrain from applying for services they need out of fear it would be used against the immigrant parent.

For example, if a U.S. citizen applies for food or housing assistance for their family after losing their job and lists their immigrant spouse as a beneficiary, they jeopardize their spouse’s chances of getting a visa or permanent residency in the future. Immigration officials could even choose to deport their spouse.

As a result of the rule, families who need help obtaining adequate food, health care or shelter will forego up to an estimated $55 million annually in food or cash assistance. More Washington families and children will experience hunger and food insecurity. More families will suffer homelessness, resulting in poorer health and educational outcomes for children.

Washington estimates that more than 140,000 lawfully present Washingtonians, including many U.S. citizen children, will lose health insurance as a direct result of the rule. Many of these people will go to the emergency room for routine medical care, requiring Washington to cover the vastly more expensive medical costs.

Women will lose routine reproductive care services, resulting in more unintended pregnancies, more high-risk deliveries and increased costs for newborns whose health is compromised by the lack of adequate pre-natal care.

In addition to Washington and Virginia, other states involved in the lawsuit are: Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico and Rhode Island.

Lawsuits against the Trump Administration

Ferguson has filed 50 lawsuits against the Trump Administration and has not lost a case. Ferguson has 24 legal victories against the Trump Administration. Fourteen of those cases are finished and cannot be appealed. The Trump Administration has or may appeal the other 10, which include lawsuits involving Dreamers and 3D-printed guns. No court to rule on the merits of the Attorney General’s arguments in a lawsuit against the Trump Administration has ruled against the office.


The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.



Brionna Aho, Communications Director, (360) 753-2727; Brionna.aho@atg.wa.gov