Originally published by The Washington post
More than a month after the Trump administration canceled a legal provision that allows critically ill migrants to stay in the United States while they receive medical treatment, administration officials appearing before Congress on Wednesday said they were unable to explain how or why the policy came about, who ordered it — or what it actually means.
Word of a policy shift spread after 424 people, including seriously ill children and their caregivers, received letters from the government last month saying that they had 33 days to leave the country or risk deportation.
The letters were succinct — “boiler plate,” as one testifying attorney put it — denials of the immigrants’ requests for medical “deferred action,” an accommodation that had previously allowed them to be in the country for medical treatment. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would no longer provide such an accommodation to those outside the military, according to the letters.
The letters offered no outlet to appeal, leaving patients such as Jonathan Sanchez, a 16-year-old with cystic fibrosis, feeling terrified and desperate.
“I started crying and telling my mom, ‘I don’t want to die,’ ” the teenager told lawmakers in a House Oversight subcommittee hearing Wednesday. “It is incredibly unfair to kick out kids who are in hospitals or in treatment at home to save their lives.”
Following public outrage from activists and lawmakers, USCIS announced last week that it would reconsider those 424 denials — but offered little further explanation.
Officials from USCIS and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that handles deportations, testified Wednesday that the two-year, renewable deferrals, which allowed patients and their families to stay in the country and obtain temporary work authorizations, are no more.
Instead, critically ill people would have the opportunity to ask ICE for a stay of their deportation after receiving a final order of removal from the United States, and ICE would use its discretion on a case-by-case basis to offer delays of up to one year, they said.
USCIS officials say the elimination of such deferred action requests would allow the agency to shift its resources to prioritize the processing of other types of immigration benefits applications, including permanent residency and citizenship. The agency receives approximately 1,000 requests for medical deferred action each year — 0.01 percent of the total applications it receives.
Daniel Renaud, associate director for field operations at USCIS, declined to answer questions from Democrats about why the agency decided to eliminate a program representing such a small portion of its caseload, and one that specifically benefits those with uniquely serious needs.
Renaud noted that the agency was being sued and repeatedly said he could not answer lawmakers’ questions because of “pending litigation.”
“You can’t tell me why there’s a new policy. You can’t tell me what motivated the new policy. And you can’t tell me what the policy is,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee’s civil rights and civil liberties subcommittee. “Is that a correct assessment?”
“That is my testimony, sir,” Renaud replied.
Renaud also testified that he could not specify when more than 700 immigrants with pending requests, including the 424 who were initially denied, would know whether they would be allowed to stay in the United States for medical treatment.
Asked whether ICE would be taking any steps to ensure that critically ill immigrants would continue to receive the protections afforded by deferred action, Timothy Robbins, the acting executive associate director of enforcement and removal operations for ICE, said the Department of Homeland Security is “still considering a pathway forward, and those are internal discussions that we are not prepared to discuss.”
Renaud and Robbins addressed the committee after lawmakers heard from legal experts, a pediatrician, and two young people, both of whom said they were dependent on lifesaving medical treatment available to them in the United States through deferred action. A forced return to their native countries, Guatemala and Honduras, they said, would be a “death sentence.”