Sick immigrant kids relying on treatment in the US for dire illnesses face death sentences after deportation, thanks to a change to a medical program by the Trump administration. Here’s what to know.
Immigrants in the United States who had been granted “medical deferred action” by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), were informed through boilerplate letters from the agency on August 7 that their reapplications for the medical visas were being denied — and that they had 33 days to get out of the United States, or face deportation. Medical deferred action is a program that allows immigrants to remain in the US legally, receive Medicaid, and work while they or their family members receive treatment for severe illnesses. Exceptions for deportation will only be made for military families.
The shocking policy change, which was not publicly announced, is particularly cruel, even for the Trump administration, which is currently keeping thousands of children in cages in filthy conditions at detention centers at the US-Mexico border. Learn more about the policy change, and what it could mean for vulnerable, legal immigrants and their children going forward:
1. The Trump administration never publicly announced the policy change, instead surprising applicants with denial letters. Families with pending applications for medical visas were notified by letter from USCIS that they would no longer be able to stay in the United States to seek medical treatment. Instead, they would have 33 days to leave the country, or risk deportation. These appeared to be form letters, as shown in five letters sent to families, obtained by WBUR in Boston, which first reported the USCIS news.
2. USCIS gets around 1000 medical deferral requests per year. Immigrants and/or their families who request medical visas are dealing with conditions including various forms of cancer, HIV, cerebral palsy, leukemia, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, and epilepsy. The USCIS receives around 1000 applications per year, according to the agency. Immigrants in the United States on medical visas must renew their applications every two years.
3. This will be a death sentence for sick immigrant children, who face poor, or no, treatment for their conditions in their home countries. Jonathan Sanchez, 16, has cystic fibrosis, and is fighting to stay in the United States for treatment; he has been in the country with his parents on a tourist visa, and risks being deported to Honduras, where there is no treatment for CF. “If they deny the program, then I need to go back to my country, and I’ll probably die,” he said at a press conference on September 2. His mother, Mariela Sanchez, told the AP that she has “panic attacks over this every day. Her daughter, Jonathan’s sister, died in Honduras of CF before the went to the US to help Jonathan.
4. Politicians are condemning the USCIS policy change. “Kids with cancer, cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy are now being told that they must leave the country or be put in the hands of ICE,” Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) said at a September 2 press conference with other Massachusetts politicians. “These patients could be facing a de facto death sentence.” He added that USCIS was “too ashamed” to publicly announce the policy change. “This is a new low, even for Donald Trump. This administration is now literally deporting kids with cancer.”
Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) spoke of a five-year-old from Brazil who suffers from a rare condition that prevents him from ingesting solid food. He came to the US on a visitor visa for treatment, and faces deportation to a country where treatment for the illness doesn’t exist. “He won’t be able to receive the life-supporting nutrients that he needs to live,” Pressley said, reiterating Markey’s declaration that this is a ‘death sentence.’
Representative Judy Chu (D-CA) said that, “all of our families have struggled with such things. Imagine on top of that facing deportation on top of a cancer diagnosis. There’s no better proof of the cruelty of Donald Trump’s war on immigrants… than to kick kids with cancer out of their hospital beds. [The deferred action program] is “a commonsense policy that was only utilized by about 1,000 individuals each year. That is not a large population, but it is a vulnerable one.”
5. The USCIS announced a partial reversal of the new policy, but critics are wary. The agency told media outlets on September 3 that deferred action applicants can bring their cases to ICE now. However, this option was never communicated to the applicants — or to ICE. An anonymous ICE official told ABC News that the agency didn’t know of this policy change until it was announced to the press, and there is no process in place at this time to accept the deferred action applications. Now, USCIS said in a statement that while limiting the deferral program was “appropriate,” they would “complete the caseload that was pending on August 7,” when the initial announcement was made.
In their statement, they noted that deportation proceedings have not been initiated for anyone who received their denial letter. They did not clarify if immigrants would continue to be granted extensions to stay in the US, or if the current caseload is the last batch of applications to be approved. An unnamed agency official told The New York Times on background that the agency “is taking immediate corrective action to reopen previously pending cases for consideration. Whether a very limited version of deferred action will continue forward at USCIS is still under review. More information will be forthcoming.”