By Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court gave the go-ahead on Monday for one of President Donald Trump's hardline immigration policies, allowing his administration to implement a rule denying legal permanent residency to certain immigrants deemed likely to require government assistance in the future.
The justices, on a 5-4 vote, granted the administration's request to lift a lower court's injunction that had blocked the so-called public charge policy while litigation over its legality continues. The rule has been criticized by immigrant rights advocates as a "wealth test" that would disproportionately keep out non-white immigrants.
The court's five conservative justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts and two justices appointed by Trump, carried the day. The court's four liberal justices said they would have denied the administration's request. The action was announced even as Roberts sat as the presiding officer in Trump's impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate.
Lawsuits aiming to block the policy were filed against the administration by the states of New York, Connecticut and Vermont as well as by New York City and several nonprofit organizations.
In imposing an injunction blocking it, Manhattan-based U.S. District Judge George Daniels on Oct. 11 called the rule "repugnant to the American Dream" and a "policy of exclusion in search of a justification."
The administration asked the high court to let the rule go into effect even before the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules on Trump's appeal of the injunction. The 2nd Circuit is considering the matter on an expedited basis, with legal papers to be submitted by Feb. 14 and arguments expected soon afterward.
The administration can now enforce the rule nationwide except in Illinois, where a lower court has blocked its implementation.
Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), praised the high court.
"It is very clear the U.S. Supreme Court is fed up with these national injunctions by judges who are trying to impose their policy preferences instead of enforcing the law," Cuccinelli told reporters.
At issue is which immigrants will be granted legal permanent residency, known as a "green card." Under Trump's policy, immigration officers would consider factors such as age, educational level and English proficiency to decide whether an immigrant would likely become a "public charge" who would receive government benefits such as the Medicaid health insurance program for the poor.
The administration has said the new rule is necessary to better ensure that immigrants will be self-sufficient. Critics have said the rule would disproportionately bar low-income people from developing countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia from permanent residency.
"Limiting legal immigration based on an applicant's wealth is shameful and entirely un-American," Democratic Senator Dick Durbin wrote on Twitter.
A spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that processes visa applications, said it would "determine the most appropriate method to implement the public charge rule" and would release additional information soon.
Trump has made his tough immigration stance a hallmark of his presidency and 2020 re-election campaign.
U.S. immigration law has long required officials to exclude people likely to become a "public charge" from permanent residency. U.S. guidelines in place for the past two decades had said immigrants likely to become primarily dependent on direct cash assistance or long-term institutionalization, in a nursing home for example, at public expense would be barred.
The new rule expands the "public charge" bar to anyone deemed likely to receive a much wider range of public benefits for more than an aggregate of 12 months over any 36-month period including healthcare, housing and food assistance.
The vast majority of people seeking permanent residency are not eligible for public benefits themselves. A 2019 Urban Institute survey found that the administration's rule was already deterring people from seeking benefits for U.S. citizen children for fear of harming their own future immigration status. Benefits for family members are not considered under the rule.
Claudia Center, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the rule targets disabled people applying for green cards and "enshrines the false stereotype that people with disabilities do not contribute to our society."
The high court could give Trump more victories on immigration policy. The conservative justices signaled support in November for Trump's bid to kill a program that protects hundreds of thousands of immigrants - dubbed "Dreamers" - who entered the United States illegally as children. A ruling is due by the end of June.
The court in 2018 upheld Trump's "travel ban" targeting people from several Muslim-majority countries.
Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Trump appointee who voted to lift the injunction, issued an opinion criticizing lower courts' "increasingly common" use of nationwide injunctions to halt government policies. Gorsuch urged the court to confront the issue.
"What in this gamesmanship and chaos can we be proud of?" Gorsuch asked.
Two other federal appeals courts previously lifted nationwide injunctions ordered by lower courts blocking the rule.
(Reporting by Kristina Cooke, Lawrence Hurley, Jonathan Stempel, Ted Hesson and Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham and Sandra Maler)