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Administration reinstates protections from deportation for sick immigrants after massive uproar

Families slam rollback of immigration policy

Washington — In a rare policy reversal, the Trump administration on Thursday announced it will reinstate a program granting temporary reprieve from deportation for immigrants facing life-threatening medical conditions and other humanitarian circumstances, undoing a decision that sparked widespread condemnation. 

The Department of Homeland Security notified Congress that Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan instructed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to resume considering all applications for deferred action, as the relief is officially known.

Without notifying the public or Congress, the administration had stopped granting non-military requests for this relief from deportation, a policy shift that quietly went into effect on August 7. After massive public uproar, officials partly reversed course earlier this month, saying they would reopen cases that were pending on the date the change was instituted. 

But Thursday's announcement appeared to be a full reversal, with USCIS confirming that it would "revert" to the adjudication guidelines in place on August 6. A USCIS official also said the agency had already reopened about 400 petitions it had denied this summer. 

The outcry over the decision started after attorneys representing children and families undergoing life-saving medical care in the U.S. began receiving denial notices from USCIS that said the agency was no longer considering applications for non-military deferred action. Immigrants like 16-year-old Jonathan Sanchez, who is receiving treatment for cystic fibrosis in Boston, had portrayed the decision as a death sentence.

"In my perspective, it's making legal homicide," he told CBS News in August.

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Democrats, who had been scathing in their criticism of the controversial move, welcomed the administration's reversal. But they said the relief should never have been terminated in the first place.

"It should not take an emergency hearing by Congress — and threats for more — to force the Trump Administration to do the right thing," Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, who chairs the House Oversight Committee that received Thursday's notification, said in a statement. "Because of the secrecy and obstruction surrounding this policy, we will be taking additional steps to verify that these children and their families do not need to live in fear and uncertainty." 

Along with saying the decision to scrap the program would jeopardize the lives of vulnerable immigrants and children, Democrats and immigrant advocates had lambasted the administration for not notifying the public or Congress about the shift in policy. 

In a letter to top officials at the Department of Homeland Security late last month, which oversees USCIS, more than 100 Democrats in Congress said they were concerned about USCIS effectively saying it was outsourcing non-military deferred action requests to ICE, an agency most undocumented immigrants fear because it carries out deportations.

"Requiring that prospective applicants request this humanitarian relief by applying to an immigration enforcement agency that detains and deports hundreds of thousands of immigrants annually, will deter many vulnerable children and families from coming forward and seeking life-saving protection," the lawmakers wrote. 

On Friday, the executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Ben Johnson, said USCIS recognized it was heading in the "wrong direction" and praised recipients of the relief for raising awareness about the program's abrupt and short-lived termination. 

"We welcome the decision of the agency to reverse the change in policy. Impacted clients, many of them children, brought the cruelty of this rescission to light through their bravery and courage sharing their stories with the agency, the media, and Congress," Johnson said. 

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