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Sidley Pro Bono Team Helps Defeat Public Charge Rule


After years of litigation, a cross-office Sidley team, working pro bono on behalf of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), won a resounding victory that put an end to the Trump administration’s unlawful “public charge” rule. The public charge rule had prevented immigrants from obtaining green cards if they accessed essential public benefits, such as health coverage and nutritional aid. And the rule, by design, generated fear among lawful immigrants — chilling them from accepting critical benefits to which they were entitled by law.

ICIRR won vacatur of the public charge rule nationwide, and later successfully fought off an attempt by Texas and 13 other states to intervene in the litigation and revive the public charge rule. In early 2023, the Supreme Court denied the states’ petition for certiorari to review the judgment in favor of ICIRR, and the long-running litigation reached its final conclusion. Along the way, the case garnered rulings from all levels of the federal judiciary and was extensively covered in the national media.

Sidley Pro Bono Team Helps Defeat Public Charge Rule

“We’re delighted that our client’s victory in this litigation is now final — and that the communities and individuals that ICIRR serves need no longer face the fear caused by the illegal public charge rule,” said Tacy Flint, a partner with Sidley’s Supreme Court and Appellate practice in the firm’s Chicago office.

Sidley’s pro bono Political Asylum and Immigrants’ Rights Project, which is led by Chicago pro bono counsel Kelly Huggins, has long been dedicated to protecting the rights of refugees, immigrants, and the legal service providers who represent them. The firm’s trailblazing work has successfully blocked a series of federal government actions that courts held unlawful, either under the United States Constitution or the Administrative Procedure Act.

“Health care is a human right for all, but the Trump-era rule did nothing but make immigrants fearful of accessing necessary health programs. Our families and communities should not need to choose between getting the help they need or preserving their opportunity to get or keep their legal status,” said Lawrence Benito, executive director of ICIRR.

Sidley, ICIRR, and Cook County, Illinois initially challenged the public charge rule in 2019 in a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The suit challenged DHS’s extreme and unprecedented rule, which construed a provision in the Immigration and Nationality Act to prevent immigrants who obtain even minimal public benefits — such as food stamps or public housing — from entering the United States or adjusting their immigration status. ICIRR also argued that the rule violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Sidley, ICIRR, and Cook County won a preliminary injunction in the Northern District of Illinois barring enforcement of the rule. The Supreme Court entered an order staying the district court’s preliminary injunction. Notwithstanding the stay, a few weeks later, the Sidley team won a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which affirmed the preliminary injunction and held that DHS’s public charge rule was an unreasonable interpretation of the statute and was arbitrary and capricious.

Subsequently, the team won a final judgment in district court in 2020, becoming the first and only public charge case in the country to win a judgment vacating the rule nationwide. In the spring of 2021, the Department of Justice decided to forgo further review, dismissing its appeal of the final judgment in the Seventh Circuit, dismissing all related proceedings in the Supreme Court, and leaving the nationwide vacatur in place. But Texas and several states that supported the public charge rule then sought to intervene — arguing that in light of the change in presidential administrations, the states should be permitted to continue litigating in support of the rule. Although the states pursued intervention at all levels of the federal judiciary, the Sidley team won rulings in the district court, the Seventh Circuit, and the Supreme Court denying intervention. Most recently, in January 2023, the Supreme Court denied the states’ petition for certiorari, and the litigation was finally resolved in ICIRR’s favor.

“Our victory for ICIRR — and all of the immigrants they protect — is a prime example of how powerful the combination of dedication to an important mission and commitment to teamwork can be,” said Dave Gordon, head of Sidley’s litigation group in the firm’s Chicago office and global co-leader of the firm’s Commercial Litigation and Disputes practice. “We were proud to lead this important fight, and to serve our client and this cause.”

In addition to client ICIRR, the Sidley team worked closely with the Legal Council for Health Justice, the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, and the National Housing Law Project. ICIRR’s co-plaintiff, Cook County, was represented by the State’s Attorney’s Office and Goldberg Kohn. Chief Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer recently honored the team for their work on the matter, presenting them with the Award for Excellence in Pro Bono and Public Interest Service in the Northern District of Illinois.