Pressley, immigration services chief tangle at hearing

Cuccinelli: I made medical deferred action decision alone

THE ACTING HEAD of the nation’s immigration services agency, testifying before Congress under subpoena, said he and he alone made the decision to end medical deferred action, which allowed critically ill immigrants into the country for specialized medical care. 

“I made this decision, alone,” said Ken Cuccinelli, the acting head of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. He was responding to questions from Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, who asked if President Trump or his political advisor Stephen Miller played any role. 

Cuccinelli also said “it was a mistake” to end medical deferred action retroactively,” meaning cutting off immigrants who were currently receiving treatment or in the process of seeking treatment.  He said the initiative should have been halted just for new applicants.  

US Citizenship and Immigration Services announced on September 18 that all medical deferred action requests denied or pending as of August 7 were to be reopened for further consideration. While Cuccinelli said 41 cases had been reviewed and completed as of this week, families represented by the Irish International Immigrant Center in Boston say they have not received notices updating them about their applications and the reversal of the policy change.   

Cuccinelli insisted medical deferred action, which has been in use since the 1970s, is a process “without a legal or regulatory foundation.” He said the program was implemented using prosecutorial discretion and could be revoked at any time. He told the members of Congress that if they wanted medical deferred action to continue they should pass a law authorizing it. “Only Congress can provide permanent immigration relief to a class of aliens, he said. 

Cuccinelli also claimed that people applying for medical deferred action typically enter the country illegally. But a number of lawmakers on the committee said many immigrants on medical deferred status come into the US initially on tourist visas, find out whether medical care is available here, and then apply for medical deferred status. 

When Cuccinelli halted medical deferred action, letters were sent to more than 400 families across the US, including at least 40 individuals in Massachusetts, saying their protected immigration status had been rescinded and they had 33 days to leave the country or face deportation.  

Those receiving the letters included families with children suffering from cancer, cystic fibrosis,  and congenital heart conditions. Many of them participated in press conferences, which drew attention to the issue and caused a national outcry. It remains unclear, even after over two hours of testimony, if and when families will receive notice of their approvals or denials. 

New York Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz accused Cuccinelli and Trump of pursuing a “white supremacist ideology” for their efforts to change immigration policies significantly impacting people who are not Caucasian.  

“I am not a white supremacist, nor is the president,” said Cuccinelli. 

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

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.

At a congressional hearing in September, representatives from US Citizenship and Immigration Services and Immigration and Customs Enforcement said they were unable to answer many questions about medical deferred action because of ongoing litigation on the issue. The refusal to answer questions prompted the late Rep. Elijah Cummings, the chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, who was on his deathbed, to sign subpoenas for Cuccinelli and Matthew Albence, the acting head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to testify at Wednesday’s hearing. 

Cuccinelli testified on Wednesday that it “had never ever been the case” to have medical deferred action requests transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. CommonWealth reported August 26 on a message sent out by Citizenship and Immigration Services that said “medical deferred action requests are now submitted to ICE for consideration.”  

The memo highlighted the disarray within the nation’s immigration agencies. A senior ICE official said the move had blindsided the agency and it had no infrastructure or plans to carry out medical deferred action requests, as ICE is an enforcement agency. That sentiment was reiterated by acting director Albence Wednesday when he said he believes medical deferred action requests should remain under the jurisdiction of immigration services.