Trump reverses course on immigrant medical program

Feds will act on case-by-case basis going forward

IN AN ABRUPT about-face, the Trump administration is reversing course on the recent declaration that it was ending a policy that allows seriously ill immigrants to remain in the country legally to receive medical treatment.

The protected status, called “medical deferred action,” was eliminated on August 7 when the US Customs and Immigration Services agency began sending denial letters to patients and families requiring them to leave the country within 33 days or face deportation.

The news prompted widespread condemnation from Democrats and immigrant advocates, who called the policy change a cruel move that would cost seriously ill patients their lives.

An internal email sent to CommonWealth on Thursday by a senior immigration official says that under the direction of Acting US Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan, the program will be resuming.

In the email, which was circulated through the agency, US Customs and Immigration Services said it is resuming its consideration of medical deferred action applications on a case-by-case basis “except as otherwise required by an applicable statute, regulation, or court order.” Citizenship and Immigration Services receives approximately 1,000 deferred action requests annually according to the agency. The officials partially walked back the change earlier this month when USCIS reopened 400 requests that were pending and denied on August 7.

Outcry against the ending of medical deferred action was led by US Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Boston, and Rep. Mark DeSaulnier of Maryland. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey also voiced strong opposition to the change.

Pressley, who helped spearhead a bicameral letter signed by 120 members of Congress to the Department of Homeland Security, had requested the department and its agencies provide documentation and explanation as to the decision-making that led to the policy change. Pressley began the subpoena process earlier this week after the agencies did not meet her September 13 deadline with answers.

“This is for all of the children and families who have been dehumanized by this cruel Administration,” she said in reaction to Thursday’s reversal.

Pressley said restoration of the program will be huge for Jonathan Sanchez, a 16-year-old who left Honduras in search of cystic fibrosis treatment in the Boston, Maria Isabel Bueso, a young woman from Guatemala who suffers from a rare genetic disorder called Maroteaux-Lamy syndrome, and Serena Badia, a 14-year-old from Spain whose American doctors are rebuilding her pulmonary artery after three failed surgeries in Spain. Sanchez and Bueso testified earlier this month before a House Oversight Subcommittee, sitting on the same panel as two representatives from ICE and USCIS who present to answer questions about the policy change.

Jonathan Sanchez, a 16-year-old cystic fibrosis patient from Honduras who is living in Boston, testifies before the House Oversight Committee.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, chairman of the House subcommittee, and other Democrats grilled Timothy Robbins, acting executive associate director of  Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Daniel Renaud, associate director with Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Renaud and Robbins said they couldn’t answer many of the committee members’ questions because of pending litigation. The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts filed suit challenging termination of medical deferred action.

The lawsuit, filed in US District Court in Boston, names as its plaintiff as the Irish International Immigrant Center, which represents 33 individuals affected by the cancellation of the program. The clients include a 10-year-old girl with cancer, a boy with burns over 70 percent of his body, and other children with cystic fibrosis, short bowel syndrome, and muscular dystrophy.  

“This is an encouraging development for the people and families whose lives were impacted by the Trump administration’s abrupt termination of medical deferred action,” said Matthew Segal, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. said of the reversal. He said they “look forward to hearing from the government directly in connection with our lawsuit on the IIC’s behalf.”

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.

US Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, said Democrats will continue to look at what brought about the end of the policy. Another hearing is scheduled on September 26, which Citizenship and Immigration Services Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli has been asked to testify.