scorecardresearch Skip to main content

The most inhumane of Trump’s immigration policies

Sirlen Costa of Brazil held her son, Samuel, who is treated at Boston Children’s Hospital for short bowel syndrome but now may be forced to leave the country.AP/Elise Amendola/Associated Press

President Trump’s latest outrageous immigration policy has become a bureaucratic hot potato — an attack on sick immigrants so cruel that seemingly no part of the federal immigration system wants to implement it.

And really, why would they? Unless the administration takes the hint and withdraws the proposal, it’s asking officials to take actions that ought to haunt their conscience — and the country’s.

The policy shift involves immigrant families who are in the United States as part of a longstanding program that allows them to receive medical treatment here. In August, dozens of patients and their parents began receiving letters informing them they’d have to leave within 33 days or face deportation.


What that means in practice is that noncitizens — some of them children — may lose access to their health care. Forcing patients to leave the United States and its health system amounts to a virtual death sentence if patients’ home countries can’t handle the complex medical needs that brought them here in the first place.

The letters came from the US Citizenship and Immigration Service, but after an outcry the agency said Monday it was partially reversing its decision: It will re-open the cases that were pending on Aug. 7, when USCIS effectively stopped the program for all non-military applicants. It doesn’t mean the agency will approve all those requests — it just means USCIS will “complete the caseload that was pending” by that date.

The Monday announcement came after USCIS insisted it wasn’t actually ending the medical program, despite letters that plainly told families to leave the country. It was really just transferring oversight to another agency, Immigration and Customers Enforcement.

That was news to ICE. In a shocking twist, ICE admitted that the agency was caught by surprise and unaware of USCIS’s move to transfer the responsibility of the program . “This is a [Citizenship and Immigration Services] issue and they need to own it,” a senior official at ICE told Commonwealth Magazine. ICE, he said, has no plans of launching a new program to deport beneficiaries of the medical policy.


Superficially, the abrupt reversal and airing of bureaucratic infighting in public just reflects the Trump administration’s incompetence and lack of preparation. A significant change to immigration policy that could have such a dramatic impact on the lives of sick immigrants really should have been thought through in advance. There was no public notice or stakeholder input before the change, which families only learned about as they began receiving denial letters from USCIS.

Yet it also looks like both agencies recognize that they can’t defend what they’re being asked by the president’s anti-immigrant ideologues to do.

The Trump administration is now “literally deporting kids with cancer,” said Senator Ed Markey. “Perhaps that is why it was too ashamed to announce this policy publicly.”

Representative Judy Chu of California said members of Congress are now gathering signatures for a letter to be sent to USCIS acting director Ken Cuccinelli to demand data on the number of requests for medical deferred action per fiscal year, as well as answers to basic questions — such as why USCIS is transferring responsibility to ICE and how the change will be implemented.

House Oversight and Reform Committee chairman Elijah Cummings has scheduled for September 6 an emergency hearing on the policy change. And if there were ever an outrage that demanded congressional oversight, this is it. As Markey put it, “There must be accountability for this inhumanity.”