Last week, the 9th Circuit ruled that Washington state did not violate the Equal Protection rights of legal immigrants when the state discontinued their food-stamp benefits. The ruling reversed a prior District Court ruling that found that the cuts were unconstitutional.
In 1964, Washington state began participating in the federal government’s food stamp program, whereby the state distributed federal benefits to U.S. Citizens and immigrants alike. In 1996, the federal government sharply cut the benefits available to immigrants and imposed heightened qualification conditions, such as a five-year residency requirement. Washington state filled in the gap by providing state food -tamp benefits to legal aliens who did not qualify for the federal program. In 2011 ,Washington faced budget pressures and terminated its food stamp assistance program to legal immigrants. As a result, over10,000 immigrant households stopped receiving the state food-stamp benefits.
Following the program termination, Monica Pimentel, a legal immigrant with three children, sued Washington in federal court to challenge the cuts. She alleged that the cuts violated the Equal Protection Clause. The District Court sided with her and blocked the state food-stamp cuts. In addition, the District Court authorized a group of 10,350 immigrant households who no longer qualified for the state food stamps to sue Washington in a single class action.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed the District Court. The court found that Pimentel provided no evidence that Washington singled out the legal immigrant group for unfair treatment .In particular, the court noted that the state provided no state food-stamp funding to other legal immigrant groups or U.S. citizens because those groups received benefits from the federal government. In addition, the court ruled that Pimentel had no right to the state food-stamp benefits and thereby had no right to sue on behalf of the class.