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US to End Medical Deferred Action

What will happen to families that are currently receiving deferred action, but will need to reapply once their two-year stay expires?”

Photo: Elise Amendola/AP

A story with life-threatening consequences has been developing since August 7, 2019, and has caused great concern among Americans. The series of events that make up this story starts with the sudden end of the government program called Medical Deferred Action. Although the program isn’t very big, it is responsible for saving the lives of immigrant children with fetal diseases. The program works through an application process in which immigrants who are receiving treatment for life threatening illnesses make their cases for staying in the country. 

In August, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) sent out letters to those families who were in the program saying that they will no longer be offering Medical Deferred Action. The letter threatened to take legal action if the recipient and their family did not leave the country within 33 days. After the news broke of the letters being sent, the USCIS released a statement saying that the medical deferred action requests are now being submitted to ICE. This switch in policy was not announced by the government, nor was it explained in the letters sent. ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, addressed the statement by explaining that ICE will review the cases and determine the status of the applicants. Even after the explanation given by two agencies, legal experts find the situation peculiar, with normally qualified applicants being turned down and still told that the medical deferred action is not being considered.

 It was later noted that an internal memo had been circulated from a top Trump immigration official saying that the USCIS should no longer delay deportations of undocumented immigrants who are recieving medical treatments. The memo suggests that in actuality, ICE will not accept any requests for deferred action. The deferred action for medical reasons is available for cases made through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for military members and their families.

Responses to the new policy came from families who are affected by it, concerned citizens, legal advocates, and U.S. senators. Many of those who spoke out make the argument that the change in policy is inhumane and cruel. Sending back children and their families with fatal illnesses has been called a “death sentence”, since many of the children who were under medical deferred action do not have the kind of treatment necessary to keep them alive in their home countries. 

One organization called the Irish International Immigrant Center (IIIC), which is dedicated to serving Irish immigrants and others from around the world, has clients who are under the medical deferred action program. One client who is affected by the change in policy is the Sanchez family. Sixteen-year old Johnathan Sanchez, son of Gary and Mariela Sanchez, was born in Honduras and was born with cystic fibrosis. He was diagnosed when blood samples were sent to the U.S. The family had already lost their daughter to cystic fibrosis at the age of 18. Since there are no specialists in cystic fibrosis in Honduras, the Sanchez family entered the United States in 2016 under a tourist visa. At first they were able to extend their stay, but the treatment was going to last longer than the six month extension, which then led to them applying for medical deferred action. He has been receiving treatments at Boston Children’s Hospital. Now, Johnathan Sanchez worries that he may have to go back to Honduras, where he is destined to die. 

Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey took a strong position on the issue, calling the policy change by the Trump Administration “the most inhumane of all of Donald Trump’s policies.” The Mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, also spoke out about the situation on Twitter, saying, “Disregarding immigrants’ requests to temporarily remain in the US for life-saving treatment is absurd and inhumane. We stand in support of our health and legal professionals who work tirelessly to eliminate barriers to care.”

After weeks of painfully waiting for news on whether the program will be restored, families can now breathe easy because Acting Homeland Security Department Secretary Kevin McAleenan has directed that the USCIS resume the program of medical deferred action for non-military families. Democrats and other activists are the ones who have pushed for the end of this inhumane policy.

 A House Oversight committee held a hearing on September 11 on the issue of medical deferred action. The hearing included testimonies from recipients of medical deferred action including Johnathan Sanchez. The committee has taken the task of answering questions that are still left to be answered. In his opening statement, Chairman Jamie Raskin said, “But there are still crucial questions left unanswered. Will anyone who applied after August 7th be eligible for relief? Does actually plan to grant who have reopened applications? What will happen to families that are currently receiving deferred action, but will need to reapply once their two-year stay expires?” He makes the point that the sudden restoring of the program was done solely for appearance and to avoid further criticism. Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings also points out that, “It should not take an emergency hearing by Congress — and threats for more — to force the Trump Administration to do the right thing.” Although this story is still has not reached its conclusion, one can now sleep better knowing that actions are being taken to solve this nightmare. 

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