ICE blindsided by order ending immigrant protection

Confusion sets in over which agency is in charge after termination of medical care program

TWO ARMS OF the Department of Homeland Security are at odds over who is taking charge of a plan that would deport individuals and children with serious medical conditions. 

Last week, at least 20 immigrant households receiving medical care in Massachusetts, and others nationwide, received letters from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services saying they must leave the country within 33 days, and that their protected status under a program called medical deferred action had been rescinded. The agency did not provide a reason for the policy change, and said enforcement would be handled by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which was first reported by CommonWealth Magazine on Monday early afternoon.

But a senior official at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, says that the agency had “no idea” that Citizenship and Immigration Services would give them responsibility for dealing with the deportation of individuals previously protected under medical deferred action.  

The families, some with children with cancer, cystic fibrosis, HIV and other illnesses, are here under a designation first granted under the George W. Bush administration. It allowed federal immigration authorities to offer temporary protection to those with serious medical problems who require treatment in the US that is often unavailable in their home countries. 

“This is a [Citizenship and Immigration Services] issue and they need to own it,” said the official at ICE. The official said the Citizenship and Immigration branch of the Department of Homeland Securitywhich generally handles immigrant benefits, had not coordinated its action with ICE, the department’s enforcement branch tasked with pursing removal of unauthorized immigrants 

The official said that suddenly there was a declaration that ICE was in charge of removal proceedings for a new category of immigrants “and that’s nothing we plan on doing.” Officials at Citizenship and Immigration Services did not reply to questions on Wednesday.  

Asked about the 20 known families in Massachusetts who received letters about the end of the program last week, the ICE official said, “I have no idea who these people are. It’s not like [US Citizenship and Immigration Services] sent us a list with their names.” 

ICE has no intention of putting a new program into place to deport individuals previously covered by medical deferred action, the official saidThe enforcement agency’s main interaction with individuals claiming illness is when immigrants file for a stay of removal, and have the option to check a box indicating that it’s being sought for a medical reason

According to sources, ICE and USCIS leaders met this morning for the first time to discuss the matter in serious detail, more than a week after initial letters went out to families, many of which have children in hospitals.  

“This isn’t an ICE issue. The next response is going to have to come from them,” the official said, referring to the Citizenship and Immigration Services agency.  

“My sense of this is more speculative. They’re gonna have to reissue letters and explain themselves,” the official added.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Sen. Ed Markey’s office says that members of the Massachusetts delegation plan to request documents related to the internal discussion around the policy change.  

Markey said the situation exacerbates the distress families are feeling. “The Trump administration is removing any sense of certainty from their lives by telling them they no longer have an avenue for relief without having to put themselves into removal proceedings,” he said in a statement.