Sirlen Costa, of Brazil, holds her son Samuel, 5, as her niece Danyelle Sales, right, looks on during a news conference, Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, in Boston. Costa brought her son to the United States seeking treatment for his short bowel syndrome. Doctors and immigrant advocates say federal immigration authorities are unfairly ordering foreign born children granted deferred action for medical treatment to return to their countries.
The Trump administration is ending a federal program that removed the threat of deportation, at least temporarily, for immigrant families facing serious illnesses such as cancer.
The administration quietly gutted the bulk of a “medical deferred action” policy that allowed immigrants with serious illness — and their families — to apply to stay in the United States while receiving care, and to request extensions.
The Miami Herald obtained denial letters sent to Florida applicants by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service that said the agency would now only accept applications and renewals from military members and their families. Before, anyone could apply.
Some Florida examples of people applying to the program, or for renewals of their protection under the program, include a girl with an eye malignancy and another young girl with cerebral palsy, as well as the father of three American-citizen children who has a terminal liver illness, according to their attorney, Milena Portillo.
“We as a country, we are losing our humanitarian side,” Portillo told the Miami Herald. “We’re not reviewing case by case, but we’re just giving a blanket ‘no’ to everyone.”
A USCIS spokesperson would not say how many Florida families are enrolled in the program, but said there are about 1,000 annual applicants nationwide. The agency called the policy change a “redirection of agency resources.”
“USCIS field offices will no longer consider non-military requests for deferred action, to instead focus agency resources on faithfully administering our nation’s lawful immigration system,” the spokesperson said. “Instead USCIS is deferring to [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement], the DHS component agency responsible for removing individuals from the United States.”
The story about the policy change was first reported by the Boston Globe.
Deferred action on immigration enforcement — meaning a delay in attempting to deport an undocumented immigrant — can take many forms. It includes DACA — deferred action for childhood arrivals. That program allows individuals with unlawful status who were brought to the country as children to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and become eligible for a work permit.
Deferred action is also available to victims of domestic violence under the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. Other undocumented victims of crime can apply through law enforcement agencies for a “U Visa” to stay in the U.S.
Those who receive the protection of deferred action are legally allowed to be in the country for set increments of time, but must apply for renewal under the program. The USCIS said that deferred action does not excuse any prior or future periods of illegal presence in the U.S.
Historically, ICE has occasionally become involved in deferred-action cases. For example, an informant in a criminal case might receive deferred action from ICE in exchange for assisting with a prosecution.
Three officials with ICE, who asked not to be named due to fears of speaking outside official channels, told the Miami Herald that the agency was blindsided by the move from USCIS. High-level sources said that management at the agency “had no idea” USCIS was transferring over deferred action responsibilities, noting that ranking officials were scrambling to respond to the unexpected move.
When asked for comment, an ICE spokesman sent a terse statement saying, “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.”
Portillo, the Orlando-based immigration attorney, said she was given no indication by federal authorities that the program was ending. Then a couple of weeks ago three requests for deferred action for medical reasons involving her clients were denied at the same time.
Before the change, the program was an enormous help for the parents of American citizen children who had serious medical conditions, allowing them to apply for work authorization and a driver’s license, Portillo said.
“For most of my clients, that’s what they wanted: being able to drive back and forth from the doctor and not fear being stopped because they didn’t have a valid driver’s license,” she said.
The policy change has brought the looming threat of deportation hanging over the heads of Portillo’s clients. Both of the families of the sick girls, she said, have a family member with protection under medical deferred action set to expire at the end of the year.
The Herald is not naming the clients due to fears of deportation related to their immigration status.
The Herald also reviewed the case of a Miami man from Venezuela whose wife has a brain blood-flow malformation, and whose child was diagnosed with metastatic Stage 4 neuroblastoma, a type of cancer that develops in nerve tissue. The man received a rejection letter for his application to the medical deferred action program on Aug. 13.
“These cases aren’t our meat and potatoes, they are our Hail Marys,” said Tammy Fox-Isicoff, the family’s attorney, noting that the program is “small but necessary.”
“It’s like the administration is stripping every ounce of immigration policy that’s merciful or human,” she added.
Fox-Isicoff said she is asking U.S. Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, a Republican who represents her client’s district in southwestern Miami-Dade County, for intervention.
The man told the Miami Herald he is desperate to stay in the country and remain with his daughter.
“I can’t go,” the man said. “My daughter needs me so that every ounce of her energy can go to her trying to live, not to her having to worry about where is her daddy.”
Portillo, the Orlando-based attorney, said it has been challenging to explain the policy change to her clients.
“It’s difficult to tell them, ‘I’m sorry, but what was available a couple of days ago is no longer available to you,’” she said.
Portillo said she was confused about having her clients submit their deferred-action requests to ICE, saying that none of the rejection notices or denials they received mentioned ICE.
“So we don’t know whether they are going to shift to ICE or what they are doing,” she said.