Washington — The Trump administration on Monday announced it would reopen and process some applications from seriously ill immigrants who asked for a temporary reprieve from deportation while they undergo life-saving medical care in the U.S., reversing course in part on a decision that has drawn withering criticism from immigrant advocates and Democrats.
Without notifying the public, the administration had stopped allowing certain immigrants to stay in the country to receive life-saving treatment, a policy shift that quietly went into effect on August 7. Now, caseworkers will reconsider some applications that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) recently denied, as long as they were pending on August 7.
The unexpected move by the administration on Labor Day could be a stopgap reprieve to some immigrants and their families who recently applied for the relief, known as deferred action, which is designed to shield immigrants with serious medical conditions and other extraordinary circumstances from deportation. Hundreds of sick immigrants have benefited from the program, including children with life-threatening health conditions.
But the program will still be closed to future applicants and to those who did not have a renewal petition pending on August 7. USCIS said Monday that its controversial decision to make the relief available only to U.S. service members and their families was "appropriate."
"As USCIS' deferred action caseload is reduced, the career employees who decide such cases will be more available to address other types of legal immigration applications on a more efficient basis," the agency said in a statement.
Earlier this month, immigration attorneys and their clients who applied for medical deferred action or a renewal began receiving denial notices in which USCIS said it was no longer considering petitions for the relief. The letters also said immigrants who are not authorized to remain in the country should leave within about a month or face deportation.
On Monday, USCIS said the applicants who had pending cases as of August 7 have not been targeted for deportation.
Like the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative for young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, medical deferred action was part of small set of temporary relief options offered by USCIS. The immigrants granted this protection under humanitarian grounds would not be prioritized for removal by the government.
USCIS has said it has received about 1,000 deferred action requests a year, but that the "majority" have been denied. Going forward, USCIS said it will defer to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) so that agency can determine whether to grant non-military deferred action.
ICE has said its agents have the discretion to determine which individuals will be prioritized for deportation. But an agency official recently told CBS News that ICE does not accept "applications" for deferred action.
Along with their arguments that the decision to scrap the program will jeopardize the lives of vulnerable immigrants and children, Democrats and immigrant advocates have lambasted the administration for not notifying the public or Congress about the shift in policy.
Inat the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees USCIS, more than 100 congressional Democrats said they were concerned about what amounts to USCIS outsourcing 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.