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‘Deportation . . . with this type of medical condition is a death sentence’: Outrage grows over federal policy change

Sirlen Costa of Brazil held her ill son, Samuel, after a press conference in Boston this week.Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe

A new Trump administration policy to deport families of seriously ill children receiving treatment in the United States provoked fresh outrage this week, as health care providers feared for their patients, elected officials demanded oversight, and advocates planned lawsuits to stop the action.

Senators Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ayanna Pressley said Thursday that they will send a letter to the administration demanding internal documents on its decision to suddenly end what’s known as “deferred action” — a policy that allows some immigrants to remain in the United States legally while they receive medical care for complex conditions.


Lawyers for some of the immigrants said Monday that US Citizenship and Immigration Services has begun informing families that it no longer considers requests for deferred action, and that the families must leave the country within 33 days. The change applies to children and adults with cancer, cystic fibrosis, HIV, epilepsy, and other diseases.

The policy change came as a surprise to patients, caregivers, lawmakers, and some federal officials, with no formal announcement.

“It is absolutely immoral to be deporting children with cancer,” Markey said Thursday. “We cannot and will not allow this to stand.”

Critics called the decision a new low for an administration that has aggressively targeted immigrants.

“Deportation from the United States with this type of medical condition is a death sentence,” Pressley said.

She and Representative Judy Chu of California also called for congressional oversight of the administration’s decision.

Massachusetts’ prestigious hospitals draw many patients from around the globe. Immigration lawyers estimate that at least 40 families in the state are vulnerable to the change in policy — with thousands affected nationally, said Mahsa Khanbabai,who chairs the New England chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Nationwide, about 1,000 people per year request deferred action for medical and other humanitarian reasons, according to the association.


Meanwhile, the change appeared to stir confusion among federal agencies. Officials at US Citizenship and Immigration Service, which has been notifying affected families, said the responsibility now falls to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Neither agency responded to requests for comment Thursday, but according to published reports and immigration attorneys, ICE officials appeared blindsided by the move.

“The agencies haven’t talked to each other,” Khanbabai said. “This is a haphazard attempt to try to create more fear and confusion.”

It’s unclear if the families told to leave the country would even be able to do so. Khanbabai said she has two clients who are in no position to return to their home countries: one young man is hospitalized for a mental illness, and the other, a 14-year-old girl, needs ongoing treatment at Boston Children’s Hospital for a complex heart condition.

The change in the deferred action program is one of many steps the Trump administration has taken to tighten immigration. The New York Times reported that in a separate action, the administration was clamping down on a special protective visa, known as the U visa, that allows crime victims who have helped law enforcement authorities with investigations to stay in the United States.

The policy change for sick immigrants drew a rebuke from Democratic candidates for president, including Warren, who called it “heartless,” and former vice president Joe Biden.

“There is no national security justification for further traumatizing sick kids at their most vulnerable,” Biden said on Twitter. “Like all bullies, Trump is purposefully targeting the little guys — but I would have thought even he would understand that kids with cancer and cystic fibrosis were off-limits.”


Markey tweeted that ICE officials told his staff they would force the affected families to go through deportation proceedings before deciding their fate, which he called “dehumanizing,” while immigration lawyers called it a grueling and unworkable option for people receiving medical treatment.

Legal groups are considering litigation to try to halt the policy change.

“The ACLU will fight to protect these sick children and their families, and to hold this administration to account. Every option is on the table, and we’re currently exploring litigation options,” Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement Thursday.

Children’s Hospital officials said in a statement that they are deeply concerned about the policy change.

“We are encouraged by the visibility that has been generated by the many advocates who share our concern,” hospital officials said. “We are hopeful that their advocacy on behalf of children will result in a reversal of this policy.”

Boston Medical Center officials said in a statement that they “oppose any actions that could prevent people from accessing the health care they need.”

Dr. Fiona Danaher, a pediatrician at Mass. General’s clinic in Chelsea, said 33 days is not nearly enough to plan the transfer of a patient overseas. And for some children, the treatment or equipment they need — such as breathing and feeding tubes — may not be available in their home countries.


“This administration has been taking many steps to undermine the health of immigrant children, and this is just the latest,” she said. “It’s appalling.”

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.