Reversing course in the face of sharp criticism, the Trump administration said Monday it would consider some pending applications by severely ill immigrants to remain in the United States legally to receive medical care.
The Citizenship and Immigration Services said it would review any application for a special status known as “medical deferred action” that was pending as of Aug. 7, according to a statement posted to its website. Applications after that date, however, will not be reviewed, except for those filed by military families.
The agency had previously said it was denying all pending applications and sent form letters to the lawyers of some immigrants warning that they would face deportation if they didn’t leave the country within 33 days. That drew an outcry from attorneys, doctors, and advocates who said it was made without regard to the health consequences to patients, including those suffering from such diseases as HIV and leukemia.
On Monday, advocates were heartened by the partial reprieve but criticized the Trump administration for making the change in the first place.
“They’ve realized that they’ve made a big mistake and departed from longstanding practice,” said Mahsa Khanbabai, a North Easton attorney who represents two immigrants currently receiving medical care through the program and two others who have applied for consideration.
The program grants stays of deportation in two-year increments, according to Dr. Sarah L. Kimball, who works in the Immigrant and Refugee Health Program at Boston Medical Center. It allows immigrants to be here legally, receive Medicaid, and work while getting treatment. The program doesn’t promise immigrants a future in the United States — only access to medical care, she said last week.
The agency said that its decision to close the program to future applicants was “appropriate” but that it would “complete the caseload that was pending on August 7.”
Ronnie Millar, executive director of the Irish International Immigrant Center, said the announcement gives some hope to families who had recently received denial letters.
“They are relieved that USCIS will reconsider their deferred action applications,” Millar said in a statement. “But this announcement does little to correct the injustice of ending deferred action, and only delays the cruel effects of the government’s decision. We all remain concerned that the government is ending this life-saving program.”
The center has helped families obtain the special status for 10 years and as of last week represented 19 families who had applied for the program.
The Trump administration said it had not deported anyone since halting review of applications.
“Deferred action is a discretionary determination to defer the deportation of an individual who is illegally present in the United States as an act of prosecutorial discretion on a case-by-case basis,” the agency said in a statement Monday. “Those denied requests that were pending on August 7 did not have removal orders pending, and have not been targeted for deportation.”
Local advocates and attorneys said that if the agency did not issue the medical deferred actions, it would affect at least a dozen children who are being treated at Boston hospitals. Thousands of other immigrants across the country could also be impacted by the decision, they said.
Halting the program was the latest move by the Trump administration targeting immigrants, including tougher detention policies at the border and the removal of legal protections for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the country as young children.
“I think it’s part of a bigger plan to reduce all types of legal immigration to this country,” Khanbabai said. “So I think they’ve mapped out all the areas they want to target.”
Khanbabai said Monday’s decision affects about 30 to 50 people in Massachusetts, and at least several hundred across the country. Her two clients are “extremely relieved” about the decision to reopen their cases, she said.
“Thankfully, they will have their cases reviewed, but essentially CIS is punting the ball,” Khanbabai said. “And whenever these people need to renew, or anyone new must apply for the first time, CIS will not consider their case.”
On Friday, about 100 congressional Democrats wrote a letter to the heads of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Department of Homeland Security that called the decision “another cruel action by the Trump administration to attack our most vulnerable immigrant neighbors.”
Among the signers were Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, along with Representatives Ayanna Pressley, James McGovern, Seth Moulton, and Katherine Clark.
David Spitzer, an immigration lawyer in Boston, said he represents six or seven families in the program, including a child from the Dominican Republic who has being treated here for a multitude of conditions, including cerebral palsy.
When he arrived in the United States several years ago, he was 6 years old and weighed only about 27 pounds because he couldn’t eat on his own and couldn’t receive the care he needed in his home country.
He was approved for the medical program at the end of 2016, and Spitzer assumed his renewal wouldn’t be a problem considering the severity of his case. “These renewals are typically a formality,” Spitzer said. “They’re almost routinely granted because you’ve already proven you can’t be cared for in your home country.”
The child’s renewal was denied on Aug. 7, when the agency stopped reviewing applications, so Spitzer is confident his case will be reopened. But what happens next remains unclear.
“The truth is that there’s not a lot that’s known about what it’s going to be like from here on out,” he said.
In an interview last week, Shonell Norville, 37, from Guyana, said she and her 7-year-old son, Joaquim, face deportation when their medical deferred action expires in March.
Joaquim has been diagnosed with epilepsy, and he has experienced major problems, including the removal of his large intestine due to an infection in his colon, requiring the use of a colostomy bag. His lungs have also collapsed during a seizure.
He receives regular care at Boston Medical and Boston Children’s Hospital. Norville fears for her son’s life if he must return to Guyana, she said last week. “I tell people, I feel like I’m signing my son’s death warrant,” she said, adding that she fought to stay in Boston “to save him — now, just to be pushed out. How do you comprehend that?”
Michael Levenson and Felicia Gans of the Globe staff contributed to this report. John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.