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Step by malicious step, the Trump administration is turning the American immigration system into an apparatus of appalling, intentional cruelty.

The latest case in point is a relatively small program known as “medical deferred action,” in which immigrants without legal status who are suffering from serious medical conditions are granted a reprieve from deportation so that they can have access to much-needed medical treatment in the United States.

Trump halted the program this month, threatening to deport these patients, including children with leukemia, muscular dystrophy, or cystic fibrosis. The program’s termination means suspending or interrupting medical care, which in some instances is virtually a death sentence.

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Consider the case of Marie and her 13-year-old son. They were visiting Boston in 2013 when the boy fell ill. He was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia, a genetic condition for which he’s been treated at Boston Medical Center. She filed for medical deferred action almost immediately and they were approved in 2017. The status, valid for two years, meant she could get a work permit and he would be granted MassHealth and afford access to life-saving care. She is required to bring him into BMC for monitoring every two months; otherwise acute problems might arise that can result in brain damage or kidney failure, she said. Last week, Marie got a denial letter from US Citizenship and Immigration Services after filing for a renewal. They were instructed to leave within 33 days or else risk deportation.

“I can’t go back to Haiti,” Marie said in an interview after a press conference Monday organized by local immigration advocates to denounce the program’s cancellation. “I won’t find this medical care for him there.”

Marie, 35, of Haiti, spoke about seeking treatment in the United States for her 13-year-old sick son during the news conference.
Marie, 35, of Haiti, spoke about seeking treatment in the United States for her 13-year-old sick son during the news conference.Elise Amendola/AP/Associated Press

Marie’s son is part of a group of roughly 30 beneficiaries of medical deferred action in Boston known to advocates and whose status has been or will be terminated. The exact number of affected immigrants is unclear, but Mahsa Khanbabai, chair of the New England chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, put the number in the thousands nationwide. In a statement sent to AILA, the federal government confirmed it had halted the program Aug. 7, except for certain cases involving military members and their families.

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These families are now facing an impossible choice: Recede into the shadows, lose their work permits, and live under the threat of deportation; or go back to their home country and take their chances on receiving adequate care there.

The new policy is a significant departure from longstanding practice, legal experts said. “Deferred action” came into prominence when President Obama applied it in 2014 to the so-called dreamers, a special class of young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. But for decades, federal authorities have used it as a form of prosecutorial discretion for humanitarian purposes. It’s also a vital mechanism for practical reasons — the government simply does not have the resources nor the time to deport every single unauthorized immigrant.

While this may seem like a minor immigration policy change, affecting only a small number of noncitizens, it’s important to recognize that it’s part of a pattern. In the last six weeks alone, the administration has:

■  Overhauled US asylum rules to heavily restrict where people can apply for protection from persecution, while suspending the processing of most asylum cases in New England.

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■  Announced sweeping changes to the “public charge” rule — a mechanism long-used by the government to assess an individual petitioning for a visa or a green card — that would deny permanent residency to legal immigrants who use public benefits like food stamps or subsidized housing, effectively turning the rule into a “wealth test.”

■  Issued new regulations for keeping migrant children and their families in detention indefinitely, ending two decades of judicial supervision of the practice.

■   Decided it won’t give flu vaccines to migrant families held in border detention centers, despite the deaths of three migrant children from the flu in the past year.

The outrages now come with such regularity that each tends to distract from the last. But it’s important to protest not just these changes, but also their overriding intent: to remove all vestiges of compassion from the immigration system and make life as miserable as possible for immigrant families. Can this administration sink any lower than threatening to deport kids with cancer?