Democratic lawmakers criticized federal immigration officials Wednesday for refusing to explain their decision to stop considering requests from immigrants seeking to defer deportation for medical treatment and other hardships.
Officials with two agencies — U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement — declined to answer many questions posed during a contentious House hearing, citing a recent legal challenge from civil rights groups. The officials also said their agencies are working on a plan for how to address such requests going forward, but declined to elaborate, citing the internal discussions.
‘‘This is the perfect Trump administration public policy,’’ said Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, who chairs the House Oversight Committee’s subcommittee on civil rights, which held the hearing. ‘‘We don’t know where it comes from, we don’t know why we have it, we don’t know who came up with it and we don’t know what it is.’’
New York. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez argued that the pending litigation isn’t sufficient legal grounds to resist answering a congressional inquiry and suggested House lawmakers consider issuing a subpoena if their questions aren’t sufficiently answered in writing by Friday.
‘‘I can only say that you’re arguing with the wrong person,’’ Daniel Renaud, an associate director at USCIS, responded at one point to Ocasio-Cortez. ‘‘I don’t know what else to say.’’
Last month, the USCIS issued denial letters to hundreds of families seeking ‘‘deferred action’’ for medical and other extenuating circumstances, saying it was no longer considering the requests. The agency said the applicants had 33 days to leave the country or risk deportation.
It has since said it will continue reviewing deferral requests that were pending as of Aug. 7, a partial concession to health and immigration activists who complained the termination of the decades-old humanitarian relief policy was done without the advance public notice and justification required by law.
The special status, which is good for up to two years and renewable, allows foreign nationals to temporarily work and receive health benefits, though it doesn’t provide a pathway to citizenship.
The decision to stop accepting the requests doesn’t affect requests from families of military members. It’s also separate from the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a similar policy the Trump administration is also trying to undo.
Democratic lawmakers spent much of Wednesday’s hearing slamming the Aug. 7 decision as a heartless and cruel policy at odds with American values.
Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, dismissed the hearing as political grandstanding by a Democrat-controlled House unwilling to address broader immigration challenges, such as the crisis at the country’s southern border.
‘‘We've got an overwhelmed system,’’ said Rep. Chip Roy, a Texas Republican. ‘‘The entire system is bulging at the seams because we refuse to do our job.’’
Former Acting Director of ICE Thomas Homan argued in his testimony that the USCIS deferral policy wasn’t necessary since ICE already has a process to consider such requests and is the agency best suited for the decisions.
‘‘Deferred action is the exercise of prosecutorial discretion,’’ he said. ‘‘It can only be done case-by-case and even then only by a law enforcement agency with prosecutorial powers.’’
But immigration law experts countered that the USCIS process doesn’t require the person to first go through the sometimes lengthy deportation proceedings, as ICE requires. Democratic House lawmakers also noted that ICE’s temporary deportation ‘‘stays’’ last less than two years and confer fewer rights to applicants.
Jonathan Sanchez, a 16-year-old from Honduras with cystic fibrosis, was one of two immigrants affected by the Aug. 7 decision who addressed House lawmakers.
He said his parents brought him to Boston in 2016 on a tourist visa in order to seek treatment for his illness, which affects the lungs and digestive system and has no cure.
Sanchez said going back to Honduras now would likely kill him. Doctors there had failed to diagnose the disease in his older sister and she died less than a year after birth. He also said many of the medicines he needs to survive are also simply unavailable in his native country.
‘‘It would not benefit this country to be known as the country that kicked out a lot of sick kids,’’ Sanchez said. ‘‘Deporting kids like me would be legal homicide. The rest of the world will not approve.’’