Court Rules Trump’s Reported Statements, Including “Shithole Countries” Comment, “Plausibly Constitute Prejudice,” Notes “the Buck Stops at the President”

State Department’s Unlawful Policy Change Led to Thousands of Visa Denials

Lawsuit Filed By the City of Baltimore and Democracy Forward

Baltimore, MD— A federal court yesterday rejected the Trump administration’s attempt to dismiss the City of Baltimore’s lawsuit challenging the State Department’s efforts to make it harder for immigrants to show that they are not likely to become a “public charge.” The administration’s policy change made it easier to deny visas, leading to a sharp increase in denials and deterring immigrants from accessing essential services. The Court concluded that the City plausibly alleged that the anti-immigrant policy was inspired by President Trump’s racial animus, stating that the harms the City alleges from the policy are “fairly traceable to the President.”

The Court concluded that several comments made by President Trump could “plausibly constitute prejudice,” including:

  • The President’s comment about “people from shithole countries” coming to the U.S.

  • The President’s comment that immigrants from Haiti “all have AIDS”

  • The President’s assertion that Nigerians, if admitted to the United States, would never “go back to their huts”

“It’s been clear all along that President Trump’s racism provides the foundation for his administration’s anti-immigrant policies,” said Democracy Forward Executive Director Anne Harkavy. “This is an encouraging decision but there is more work to be done and we will keep standing with the City of Baltimore to protect immigrants and their families.”

In concluding that the City of Baltimore can advance its Equal Protection claim against President Trump, the Court noted that “the City’s Complaint alleges facts sufficient to nudge from conceivable to plausible the allegation that the President harbors racial animus and that he played a role in the creation of the FAM amendments.” As the Court explained, “the buck stops with the President.”

“Baltimore is a City that welcomes immigrants, as it has done since its founding,” said Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young. “By cutting off entirely appropriate, historical pathways for the City to welcome immigrants, and by intimidating our foreign born population and their families, the Trump Administration is doing lasting harm to the City.”

“We are gratified that the Court acted with enviable courage in calling out explicitly the race-based foundations of our claims,” said Baltimore Solicitor Andre M.  Davis. “The court clearly recognized at this stage of the case the validity of our claims that the Trump Administration’s actions are invidiously unlawful and that we are entitled to a full opportunity to conduct discovery in order to reveal, with compelling proof, the real harm being done to the City. The Law Department will continue to press for redress against this lawless administration.”

The Trump administration’s policy, which violates federal law, including the Constitution’s guarantee of Equal Protection, has led to dramatic consequences for immigrants and their citizen families. In spring 2019, the State Department reported increases of more than 300% in visa denials. Internal State Department data show that “[b]etween Oct. 1 [2018] and July 29 [2019], the State Department denied 5,343 immigrant visa applications for Mexican nationals on” public charge grounds, in contrast with the 7 Mexican nationals denied visas in the final fiscal year of the Obama administration.

The State Department provided no prior notice of the January 2018 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 supplemental benefit programs meant to encourage good health and equitable education. In contrast, the Department of Homeland Security recently finalized a similar rule through notice and comment rulemaking, a fact the Court noted in the order. In DHS’s rule, the Department expressly acknowledged that families and cities will face higher rates of communicable diseases, malnourished infants, and poverty and homelessness, as a result of the administration’s policy.

Baltimore’s challenge is supported by a coalition of 19 states, 17 cities and counties, 10 civil rights organizations, and five Maryland immigrant advocates who filed four “friend of the court” briefs in support of the lawsuit. These briefs make plain the sweeping effects of the State Department change and the human toll it exacts.

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Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that scrutinizes Executive Branch activity across policy areas, represents clients in litigation to challenge unlawful actions, and educates the public when the White House or federal agencies break the law.