Dismaying immigrants and advocates, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) sent out letters saying the agency will no longer consider most deferrals of deportation for people with serious medical conditions, documents show.
The agency is now saying those decisions will be made by another agency: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
That was not made clear to Boston-area immigrants who received the denial letters last week. Advocates said they received no formal announcement of a change in policy.
The small program known as "medical deferred action" allows people to remain in the U.S. for two-year periods if they can prove extreme medical need. Many of the people affected by the policy change came to the U.S. through a visa or other permitted status and are requesting to stay beyond those terms to receive medical treatment.
Hours after this story was published Monday, a USCIS spokeswoman responded to several requests for clarification about the policy shift to say that "medical deferred action requests are now submitted to ICE for consideration."
This shift in policy has not been announced publicly by the government, and immigration advocates and attorneys question why this new process wasn't mentioned in the denial letters.
In response to a WBUR request for details, a spokesman for ICE sent this statement late Tuesday morning: "As with any request for deferred action, ICE reviews each case on its own merits and exercises appropriate discretion after reviewing all the facts involved."
Anthony Marino, director of legal services for the Irish International Immigrant Center (IIIC), explained that up until now, federal immigration officials would routinely permit eligible sick people to stay in the country under this program. But last week, five of his clients — who he says would have typically qualified — received what appeared to be template denial letters with the exact same language.
"The denials say specifically that the immigration service is just no longer considering deferring action at all in these cases, which would be a first in decades," he said.
Marino added many of the affected clients at the center are families whose children are battling cancer, cystic fibrosis, HIV, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and epilepsy.
According to the apparent form letters, USCIS field offices “no longer consider deferred action requests, except those made according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policies for certain military members, enlistees, and their families.”
The dated letters notified families they must leave the country within 33 days of the government's writing. Otherwise, they face removal and exclusion from the U.S. for several years. Legal advocates across the country have reported clients receiving similar denial letters.
“This attack on children and their families is inhumane and unjust,” said Ronnie Millar, executive director of IIIC, in a press release. “These families are all here receiving treatment that is unavailable in their home countries, and our government has issued them a death sentence.”
In a statement, Marilu Cabrera, a public affairs officer with USCIS, confirmed that field offices will no longer consider non-military requests for deferred action and instead, will direct resources to administering "our nation's lawful immigration system."
The statement went on to say that this reallocation of resources does not affect Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or other deferred action requests processed at USCIS service centers.
The IIIC held a noon press conference Monday about the government's decision, where some affected families were in attendance.
"If they deny the program, then I need to go back to my country, and I'll probably die because in my country, there's no treatment for CF [cystic fibrosis] ... The only ones who can help me are here in the United States."Jonathan Sanchez
One of the center's clients, 16-year-old Jonathan Sanchez, has a pending request with USCIS and fears his request will be denied given the procedural change. Sanchez, who was born in Honduras, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a baby, after his parents sent blood samples to the U.S.
His father, Gary Sanchez, told WBUR he already lost a daughter to the disease 18 years ago.
"Before my son, we had a daughter with cystic fibrosis, but she died in our country, since, in our country, there are no medical specialists or centers specialized in cystic fibrosis," he said.
The Sanchez family entered the U.S. on tourist visas in 2016 and were first able to extend, but the treatment was longer than the six-month extension so they applied for medical deferred action in November. Now, the teen said he's feeling stressed and scared he might need to leave the U.S.
"If they deny the program, then I need to go back to my country, and I'll probably die because in my country, there's no treatment for CF [cystic fibrosis]," Sanchez said, crying and trying to catch his breath. "Doctors don't even know what's the disease. The only ones who can help me are here in the United States."
Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey, a Democrat, was among advocates and politicians the center asked to address reporters at the news conference. (Boston Mayor Marty Walsh was also invited to speak, but could not attend the press conference. Instead, he issued a statement and tweeted a strong rebuke of the government's denials.)
Markey sharply criticized the Trump administration's move, repeatedly calling it "inhumane" and saying it is an attempt to "terrorize sick kids with cancer who are literally fighting for their lives."
"It is unconscionable. It is wrong. And we are here to say that we will fight," Markey said. "We have gathered many times in the last two and a half years since Donald Trump was inaugurated — many times, these same groups have come together. We have now reached the bottom though — the most inhumane of all of Donald Trump's policies are the ones we are here to speak about today."
Correction: The post has been updated to reflect that Jonathan Sanchez is concerned he will receive a denial letter due to the government's procedural changes. He has not received one. We regret the error.
This article was originally published on August 26, 2019.
This segment aired on August 27, 2019.