Trump administration changes course on immigrant patients

Those told to leave the country will be allowed to stay for now

THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION abruptly changed course on Monday, allowing immigrants with serious illnesses to have their denied cases to remain in the US reopened, instead of being moved into deportation proceedings.

The medical deferred status program remains shuttered, halting the initiative for any new applicants.

The Trump administration unprecedented reversal will allow thousands of immigrants to continue seeking a renewal of their former legal immigration status. Any immigrants with pending cases on August 7 will have their cases reopened. But the new policy does not reinstate the program for future immigrant patients with severe health issues.

For families like that of Samuel Fonseca, a five-year-old boy with short bowel syndrome being treated at Boston Children’s Hospital, the Trump administration’s reversal means being able to access life-saving treatment that is not available in his home country of Brazil, even if it’s temporary. It also means his mother, Sirlen Costa, can continue to legally work while seeking a renewal for their family’s application.

The initial decision to do away with the medical deferred status program came to light a little over a week ago when immigrants who were receiving treatment under the program began receiving letters saying that their applications won’t be considered and they must leave the country within 33 days. In Massachusetts, over 40 adults and children with cancer, cystic fibrosis, HIV, short bowel syndrome, and other complicated health problems have been receiving treatment at various medical facilities.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services agency made the announcement Monday that it will reopen the review process for those with cases pending as of August 7, which was when the agency abruptly shut down the program.

“Those denied requests that were pending on August 7 did not have removal orders pending, and have not been targeted for deportation,” the agency said in a statement sent to reporters that was posted publicly.

The decision to end medical deferred action, which was taken with no public notice, garnered widespread condemnation from elected officials and medical professionals. It also spurred a Congressional hearing set for September 6. Denial letters had been received by immigrant patients and families all over the country, from California to New York, Minnesota to Florida.

Last week, Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey called the move “unconscionable” He added: “We’ve reached the most inhumane of all of Donald Trump’s policies.”

When the medical deferred action status was originally canceled, Citizenship and Immigration Services initially planned to have the law enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security, known as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, deal with the deportation of immigrants. But ICE had not been told of the initial policy change and had no plan in place to implement the policy change.

The agency initially said it would not initiate deportation proceedings, but then on Friday said it would begin deporting those who stay in the country. The policy changed again on Monday, with federal officials saying immigrants with medical deferred status will not be asked to leave the country but no new applications under the program will be considered beyond those on file as of August. 7.

Citizenship and Immigration Services receives approximately 1,000 deferred action requests annually, according to the agency.

Samuel and his mother should be able to remain in Boston for now while their case is assessed by immigration services.

But if they seek to renew their application in the future, they will have to go through a deportation process with ICE, and attempt to seek relief from the agency.

“They created a problem and now pretend to solve it. They are not solving the problem with this new pronouncement, they are just punting it to be dealt with later,” said Mahsa Khanbabai, New England chair for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Khanbabai has four clients, including one 14-year-old girl with a congenital heart condition, who received the letters nine days ago.

“While families are grateful that their cases will be reviewed, they are concerned about what will come after that,” she said.

At the Irish International Immigrant Center, which is representing 20 clients who received the notices, there was some relief for those families.

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 are relieved that USCIS will reconsider their deferred action applications,” said Ronnie Millar, executive director of the group. “But this announcement does little to correct the injustice of ending deferred action, and only delays the cruel effects of the government’s decision.  We all remain concerned that the government is ending this life-saving program.”

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform planned a hearing on medical deferred action for September 6, but that may be pushed to sometime next week.