In August alone, the Trump administration laid out plans to make it more difficult for legal immigrants to use social services, eliminate limits on how long families can be detained at the border, and stop providing flu vaccines to migrants held in border detention facilitiesThe administration was proud enough of these efforts to announce them publicly, but there was one move so despicable that they apparently felt it would be best to roll it out quietly.
But there was one move so ugly that the Trump administration, apparently, felt it would be best to roll it out quietly. On August 7th, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) quietly eliminated a medical deferred action program that allowed severely ill undocumented immigrants and their families to remain in the United States to receive potentially lifesaving treatment. The decision to axe the policy was not announced publicly. Instead, families with pending applications were notified through letters from immigration officials informing them they have 33 days to leave the country or risk facing deportation. USCIS confirmed this week that it was ending the program.
“This is a new low,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) told the Associated Press, which reported the policy change on Sunday along with Boston’s NPR affiliate, WBUR. “Donald Trump is literally deporting kids with cancer.”
Cancer is only one of the conditions for which an undocumented immigrant or their family typically request deferred action. Others include HIV, cerebral palsy, leukemia, muscular dystrophy, and epilepsy. The USCIS has said that is receives around 1,000 deferred action requests per year.
One such request highlighted by the AP is that of Mariela Sanchez, a Honduran woman who applied for deferred action so her 16-year-old son Jonathan could be treated for cystic fibrosis. Sanchez brought her family to America to seek care for Jonathan after her daughter died in Honduras of the same condition. “He would be dead,” if they had remained in Honduras, she told the AP of her son. “I have panic attacks over this every day.”
USCIS has told media outlets that Sanchez and other deferred action applicants can now bring their cases to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But not only was this option was not outlined in the letters received by families, an ICE official told ABC News and other outlets that the agency was not aware of the policy change until it was reported in the press, and that no process in place to accept deferred action applications.
“They’re lying,” Anthony Marino of the Irish International Immigrant Center, which represents several families in Boston who received notices, told Rolling Stone of the USCIS’s claim that ICE can now handle the requests. “These cases were being denied … They didn’t want to own that they were eliminating a program that protected children with cancer from being torn from hospital beds and being deported. They didn’t want to own that. They’re response is to just lie about it rather than not do it.”
Marino is currently looking into what kind of litigation the Irish International Immigrant Center may be able to pursue on behalf of its clients, but the prevailing emotion in the conversations his office has had with the affected families has been helplessness. “It’s been a lot of very difficult phone calls, a lot of very difficult conversations,” he says. “We don’t really have good advice to give people when the government tells you you have to take your child off the treatment that keeps them alive and leave the country. I’m still at a loss to grapple with this. There’s a lot of crying and desperation and fear.”
In some cases, the sick child is an American citizen but the rest of the family is not, putting the undocumented parents who applied to be with their child as they receive care in a heart-wrenching predicament.
“I wish for my clients’ sake that I had a good answer for them as to whether they should orphan their child in the hopes that they may live longer,” Marino says. “That’s what’s just so mind-blowing about the whole thing. Those are conversations that are happening—”
He pauses to take a deep, pained breath.
“I can’t answer that question for people.”