After a week of confusion around a long-standing medical deferment program for immigrants with serious illnesses, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Friday made things clear: the program no longer exists.
ICE spokesperson Shawn Neudauer told WBUR in a statement that "ICE does not exercise discretion on a categorical basis to exempt entire groups of aliens from the immigration laws enacted by Congress."
Though ICE does have a process by which individuals can apply for a temporary reprieve from removal, people must first be ordered deported by the government in order to be eligible. Many of the immigrants applying for medical deferred action do so in an effort to secure permission to stay in the U.S. and avoid being thrust into deportation proceedings.
On Friday, 127 members of Congress, led by Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, along with Rep. Ayanna Pressley, sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and ICE, urging the Trump administration to reinstate the program. The letter gives the administration until Sept. 13 to provide details about the decision around ending the program:
We write to express our grave concerns with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) recent decisions to end consideration of non-military deferred action requests and, supposedly, to transfer processing authority to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This decision will needlessly endanger vulnerable children and families nationwide seeking medical deferments for individuals receiving life-saving treatment for serious illnesses. We urge you to immediately reverse this shift in policy, resume consideration of these urgent requests, provide the justification for the policy change, and provide clarification on the agency’s plans for implementation.
Every member of the Massachusetts delegation except U.S. Rep. Bill Keating signed the letter.
USCIS initially told WBUR Monday that the office is no longer handling medical deferred action but that ICE would be taking over, however; ICE told WBUR Wednesday that it was caught off guard by the shift in USCIS policy and has no program, policy or plan in place to take over the administration of medical deferred action requests.
On Thursday, USCIS told WBUR that the office is no longer handling medical deferred action requests because it is not an enforcement agency. In a statement, a USCIS spokesperson said it's working with ICE to implement the change and take over the program. The statement from ICE on Friday doesn't mention collaboration with USCIS.
Following ICE's statement, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, announced the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties will hold a hearing Sept. 6 about the "apparent revocation of medical deferred action for critically ill children."
The end of medical deferred action comes as a surprise to immigration advocates and attorneys. There have been no press releases or public statements issued by the federal government.
For years, USCIS processed requests for delayed removal based on medical need, according to legal experts.
Anthony Marino, legal director at the Boston-based Irish International Immigrant Center, said the center has submitted applications for medical deferred action for 20 clients, most of them children. He questioned the sudden change in policy and said most of the applications USCIS handles stave off some sort of removal from the country.
"If somebody is applying for an adjustment of status the result is that, if approved, that person is not removable anymore and ICE never gets involved," Marino said. "Processing applications for relief is kind of the whole purpose of USCIS."
A representative from the center has been asked to testify during the Sept. 6 hearing.
USCIS said this change will only impact a limited number of people but, according to Marino, most of his affected clients are particularly vulnerable.
"That 'limited number of people' is mostly terminally ill kids. They're kids with cancer and HIV and horrific terminal illnesses," he said.
Sixteen-year-old Jonathan Sanchez entered the country in 2016 with his parents. They left their home country of Honduras seeking treatment in Boston for the teen's cystic fibrosis. The Sanchez family has extended their tourist visas in the past and last year, applied for medical deferred action, hoping to remain in the country to continue what they say is lifesaving treatment.
"I'll probably die because in my country, there's no treatment for CF [cystic fibrosis]," Sanchez said, when asked what would happen if he goes back to Honduras. "Doctors don't even know what's the disease. The only ones who can help me are here in the United States."
Sanchez received a denial letter from USCIS earlier this week.
This article was originally published on August 30, 2019.