Trump gives immigrant families getting medical care 33 days to leave

Attorneys say children with cancer, epilepsy will be deported

SAMUEL FONSECA WAS only three when he was diagnosed with short bowel syndrome, a condition that inhibits the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food. Now five, he napped on his mother’s lap on Monday with a feeding tube sticking out of his dark blue shirt as she described the critical medical treatment he gets in Boston.

That care could soon be ending, as Fonseca’s family is one of at least 20 immigrant households receiving medical care in Massachusetts being told they must leave the country, an order from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services agency that advocates say will amount to a death sentence for some.

Samuel’s GI tube provides nutrients to him, as he cannot eat solid food. His mother, Sirlen Costa, a Brazilian immigrant, takes him regularly to Boston Children’s Hospital, which has helped her to manage his condition.

But Costa received a letter from US Citizenship and Immigration Services last week notifying her that the legal status that allowed her to work legally in the US, and Samuel to receive medical care, has been rescinded. They have less than a month to leave the country. Costa is from a remote part of Brazil, where she said treatments for short bowel syndrome are not available. “If he has to move to Brazil that’s it,” she said at a press briefing convened by immigration advocates.

“It’s unconscionable, it’s just wrong,” said Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey at the briefing Monday at the Irish International Immigrant Center in downtown Boston. “We’ve reached the most inhumane of all of Donald Trump’s policies.”

Costa and other families had been living here under a deferred action designation that federal immigration authorities had granted, in limited number, to those with serious medical problems who require treatment in the US that is often unavailable in their home countries.

Although US Citizenship and Immigration Services had not posted the new policy on their website, Costa and others began receiving letters notifying them of the change last week.

Attorneys from the Irish International Immigrant Center, which represents families affected by the order, say immigration authorities alerted the families, including some with children with cancer, cystic fibrosis, HIV and other illnesses, that they had 33 days to leave the country.

“This attack on children and their families is inhumane and unjust,” said Ronnie Millar, executive director of the Irish International Immigrant Center. “These families are all here receiving treatment that is unavailable in their home countries, and our government has issued them a death sentence.”

Attorneys at the center reviewed letters received by five of their clients, but say the language in the letters made it clear that all 20 such families represented by the Irish immigration center will face the same situation. All 20 have “medical deferred action,” a special status that enables them to stay in the country, get MassHealth benefits, and work legally while their children receive medical care.

In the letters, reviewed by CommonWealth on Monday morning, USCIS said it will “no longer consider deferred action requests, except those made according to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policies for certain military members, enlistees, and their families.”

Screenshot of USCIS letter to immigrant patient

Without deferred action the patients will need to voluntarily leave the country within 33 days of the date of being notified ­– even if it means suspending medical treatment. The alternative is deportation, and a ban from the US for up to 10 years. Pending cases will also be in jeopardy.

The Irish immigration center has helped families obtain medical deferments for almost a decade. Medical deferred action is granted in two-year increments, at government discretion, for people who require medical care in the US.

Representatives from Boston Medical Center, Health Law Advocates, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association New England chapter also spoke at the press conference on Monday.

“In terms of litigation, we have teams working on that,” said Mahsa Khanbabai, the New England Chapter chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Khanbabai said she estimates thousands of people across the country will be impacted by the policy change. She and USCIS were unable to provide numbers of how many people will be impacted in Massachusetts.

Dr. Sarah Kimball, a primary care physician at Boston Medical Center who cares for families with deferred action, decried the new policy. “Halting medical deferred action is yet another policy change that will cause harm to my immigrant patients,” she said. “Imagine you’re visiting the US when you’re told for the first time your kidneys have failed. You’ll need dialysis to stay alive, a treatment not available in your home country. For patients with kidney failure, being deported is equal to being denied medical care.”

Mariella Sanchez, a Honduran national who lost one child to cystic fibrosis 18 years ago in her home country, now fears losing a second child to the disease. Jonathan Sanchez was thirteen when he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis in 2016.

Sanchez said she worries, because her son suffers from frequent bacterial infections and pneumonia, the kinds of things that doctors monitor him for constantly in Boston. She said treatment for the disease is not available in Honduras “We will have to wait to see what we can do, what our attorneys tell us,” Sanchez said Monday.

Similar denial notices have been reported in California and North Carolina. Form letters denying both medical and non-medical requests for deferred action suggest that deferrals stopped as of August 7. This does not impact immigrants with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a legal status for immigrants brought to the US at a young age.

Deferred action has existed since 2003, when the Department of Homeland Security made it available for groups of undocumented immigrants with strong humanitarian claims against deportation.

On Monday at noon, a USCIS official told CommonWealth, “Importantly, the changes to our internal guidance do not mean the end of deferred action. Instead USCIS is deferring to ICE, the DHS component agency responsible for removing individuals from the United States. As deferred action is a type of prosecutorial discretion used to delay removal from the United States, USCIS will generally defer to the DHS component agency responsible for removing individuals from the United States – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – to make most non-DACA, non-military deferred action determinations.”

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 Citizenship and Immigration Services didn’t have exact numbers but said that it has not historically received many non-military and non-DACA deferred action requests. “For the past few years, USCIS has received approximately 1,000 deferred action requests annually,” a spokeswoman said, adding that the majority have not been approved.