Immigrant patients who stay will face deportation

Federal agencies clarify plans for ending deferral program

AFTER SEVERAL DAYS OF CONFUSION and mixed messages between federal agencies over responsibility for oversight of a controversial immigration policy change, the two agencies confirmed Friday that the government is ending a program that allowed undocumented immigrants with serious medical conditions to remain in the country to receive treatment.  

On Monday, attorneys for 20 immigrant families in Massachusetts said their clients had received notice to leave the country within 33 days, despite a member of their family having a serious medical condition. Those receiving the letters included families with children suffering from cancer, cystic fibrosis, and congenital heart conditions.  

In letters, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, announced it had decided to terminate a program called “medical deferred action,” which allowed immigrants with serious medical conditions to remain in the US for treatment. 

The Citizenship and Immigration Services said these immigrants, who do not have legal status in the USwould be dealt with by the enforcement arm of Homeland Security, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE. But ICE said earlier this week that it had not been made aware of the action, and had no program to implement the policy change.  

ICE said on Friday it has no intention of creating a similar program that would allow the patients to remain in the country legally. It will instead continue its long-standing protocol of requiring immigrants who believe they have a reason to remain in the country to mention this in a stay of removal request form during deportation proceedings. Anyone approved would be able to remain in the country for a short period of time. 

The move, the latest action by the Trump administration to clamp down on immigration, has drawn widespread condemnation from advocates and Democratic members of Congress, including Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ayanna Pressley.  

Immigrant families receiving care in Massachusetts, California, Florida, Minnesota, and New York have gone public with their stories, with some equating returning to their home countries, where proper care is often not available, to a death sentence.  

The Citizenship and Immigration Services agency hadn’t previously offered a reason to why the medical deferment program was being terminated, but today said it has stopped granting those requests to “focus agency resources on administering the country’s lawful immigration system.”  

This will not impact DACA recipients — young immigrants who were brought to the US illegally but have been protected by an Obama-era federal program currently tied up in courts.  

About 1,000 people a year applied for the protected medical status before its cancellation, many for multiple years due to the complexity of the conditions being treated here. Under the policy change, all pending requests, or those that existed before Citizenship and Immigration Services began sending the letters on August 7, will be denied. 

Immigrants will be required to depart voluntarily, or they will be unlawfully present in the US. While there are no plans for Citizenship and Immigration Services to hand over a list to ICE, the change in benefits will be noted in the individuals’ records, which ICE is able to access.  

“The whole thing is a charade and total nonsense,” said Mahsa Khanbabai, New England chair for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. She has four clients, including three children, who received the letters last week, some already partway through the 33-day period. The letters were not sent by certified mail.  

One of Khanbabai’s clients is a 14-year-old girl who has been receiving treatment for a complicated congenital heart condition at Boston Children’s Hospital for the past 10 years, after doctors in Spain could not perform further treatment on her. She was initially told she would only live to be 10 years old. In July, she underwent surgery, which has resulted in complications.  

“They’re overwhelmed,” Khanbabai said of the girl’s family, which also has an 11-year-old daughter. “The girls are supposed to start school next week and now they have to worry they and their parents are going to be put into deportation proceedings, and not get the lifesaving care their daughter is receiving.” 

Khanbabai said that she has heard of at least 40 individuals that have received letters ordering voluntary removal within 33 days so far.

A group of Democratic lawmakers, including Warren, Markey, and Pressley, announced Friday congressional investigation into elimination of medical deferred action. In a letter to leaders at the Department of Homeland Security and its agencies, the group wrote, “This policy change is unfair to families who followed longstanding USCIS procedures requesting deferred action, only to discover in a denial letters those policies have changed.”  

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.

They also expressed concern at the lack of public comment period or official announcement over the decision. 

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform also announced it will hold a hearing on medical deferred action on September 6.