By Sarah Meehan

The city of Baltimore sued the Trump administration Wednesday over changes the State Department made to the way it weighs the use of government benefits by potential immigrants and their families when deciding to issue visas.

The State Department changed the rules in January in a way Baltimore officials say deters city residents from claiming benefits they're entitled to -- such as food stamps, housing vouchers and Medicaid -- for fear of making it harder for their relatives to get visas to come to the U.S.

City Solicitor Andre Davis said as far as he knows, the case in U.S. District Court in Maryland is the first of its kind to be filed.

"The Trump administration can try to stop Baltimore from welcoming its immigrant residents. But we will continue to do everything we can to ensure that immigrants are welcome and integrated in our city," Catalina Rodriguez-Lima, director of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, said at a news conference.

The nonprofit Democracy Forward, which filed the lawsuit with the city, aims to expose unlawful acts within the federal executive branch.

"These aren't benefits that an immigrant or their family is going to rely on exclusively -- these are benefits that are supposed to give families a little extra help when they need them," said John Lewis, an attorney with the organization.

At issue is a change to a section of the Foreign Affairs Manual, which American diplomats use when deciding whether to grant someone a visa. The section dealt with determining whether someone is likely to become a "public charge" -- that is, to use cash benefits or long-term care from the government.

Under the new rules, diplomats are allowed to consider the use of noncash benefits -- such as free school lunches, job training resources or health clinics -- by a visa applicant's relatives already in the U.S.

The suit names President Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of State and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo as defendants. It said the change violates federal laws governing administrative agencies, including the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection.

Baltimore and Democracy Forward are asking the court to declare the policy change unconstitutional and order consular agents to revert to using a December 2017 version of the "public charge" provision, which defined those considered dependent on public benefits more narrowly. The plaintiffs are also seeking court costs and attorneys' fees.

The federal government has 60 days to respond to the complaint. The State Department referred questions to the U.S. Department of Justice; representatives there could not immediately be reached Wednesday afternoon.

Rodriguez-Lima said supporting Baltimore's immigrant population is crucial to the city's economic growth. She said 9 percent of Baltimore businesses are foreign-owned, and immigrant households account for 9 percent, or $964 million, of local spending power.

It was unclear how many current and potential Baltimore residents the change affects. The policy applies to people seeking immigration visas for themselves, as well as those sponsoring potential immigrants.

The lawsuit does not point to specific examples of immigrants' being denied visas because of the use of such benefits. But Lewis said anecdotal evidence from consulates in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and elsewhere suggests immigration officials are applying the rule to deny more visas.

"Even if the city's programs don't track an individual's immigration status, when you apply for a visa, you have to give truthful answers," Lewis said. "If they ask you about what public benefits you've taken or if they find from other records that you've taken these benefits, you could potentially be worried about the immigration consequences."

Davis said at the news conference Wednesday he was "certain" the policy change would result in fewer children's signing up to receive free lunches, and would adversely affect families who could otherwise benefit from assistance programs in Baltimore.

The city has a record of helping immigrants, documented and undocumented. Mayor Catherine Pugh noted in a September op-ed in The Baltimore Sun that the bipartisan New American Economy group ranked Baltimore second in the nation in "creating opportunities for immigrants to share in the American dream."

Said Rodriguez-Lima on Wednesday: "It is important that all of our residents _ and particularly those who are foreign-born _ know that Baltimore would not ask about or consider your immigration status when accessing our health clinics, prenatal care, food assistance, housing aid or other city benefits."

The Trump administration has proposed a similar change to guidelines for officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which handles immigration issues for people within the United States. In making that proposal, the agency said that "since the 1800s, Congress has put into statute that individuals are inadmissible to the U.S. if they are unable to care for themselves without becoming a public charge and federal laws have stated that foreign nationals generally must be self-sufficient. Despite this history, public charge has not been defined in statute or regulations, and there has been insufficient guidance on how to determine if an alien who is applying for a visa, admission, or adjustment of status is likely at any time to become a public charge."

This isn't the first time Baltimore has sued the Trump administration, and the city previously partnered with Democracy Forward on other cases, James Bentley, a spokesman for the mayor's office, said in an email. Baltimore worked with Democracy Forward to obtain a permanent injunction to keep the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from cutting a grant for teen pregnancy prevention. And they worked together on a suit challenging the Trump administration's attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The city has also submitted amicus briefs in support of actions other municipalities have brought, including challenging the addition of a citizenship question to the census, Bentley said.

The latest case comes during a period of high crime and turmoil in the city. But Davis said the plight of Baltimore's immigrant population is no less a concern, and the case aligns with Pugh's efforts to make Baltimore's immigrant population welcome.

"We care about all of our citizens and our residents, and this is an opportunity to fight back against what we perceive to be discriminatory, invidious, frankly hateful actions by the national government," Davis said. "We care about the people who live here. We want to be known, as we are, as a welcoming place, a place that pays attention to equality and inclusion, and so it's a very high priority for the city."

(c)2018 The Baltimore Sun