The Public Health Law Watch initiative identifies potential legislative and regulatory changes that have an impact to harm public health but have yet to break into the mainstream conversation, identifies ways to engage on these issues, and provides legal analysis and commentary.

Medical Deferred Action Program Still Faces Unclear Future

Medical Deferred Action Program Still Faces Unclear Future

By Faith Khalik

The future of medical deferred action is still unclear.

In yet another blow to immigrant healthcare in the U.S., the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) quietly eliminated its medical deferred action program on August 7th. The program allowed immigrants with serious medical conditions to remain in the country without fear of deportation.

After receiving much criticism, USCIS announced last Monday it will review deferred action renewal requests made up to August 7th. However, it did not say what will happen to requests made after August 7th, or whether the program will continue in the future.

The policy change first gained attention after The Boston Globe and WBUR reported individuals had received letters from USCIS denying renewal of their immigration status through the medical deferred action program. According to the denial letters, the agency will no longer consider deferred action requests, with exceptions for some military members.

Under the medical deferred action program, individuals can seek approval to remain in the U.S. in order to undergo medical treatment for chronic illness, rare diseases, and other serious health conditions that would go untreated in their home country. Many individuals in the program are part of clinical trials sponsored by academic medical institutions and hospitals in the U.S.

Jonathan Sanchez and his family applied for medical deferred action in November. The 16 year old, who was born in Honduras, has been getting treatment for cystic fibrosis (CF) in Boston for the past three years.

"If they deny the program, then I need to go back to my country, and I'll probably die because in my country, there's no treatment for CF," Sanchez told WBUR. "Doctors don't even know what's the disease. The only ones who can help me are here in the United States."

Since the initial reporting on the policy change, USCIS and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) engaged in a public back-and-forth, further obscuring the future of the program.

Initially, USCIS told WBUR that ICE would be taking over the program. When asked for clarification, ICE told WBUR that it was surprised by the policy change, and that it had no plans to take over the program. The following day, USCIS told WBUR that it is working with ICE to transfer the program. Then, ICE spokesperson Shawn Neudaur told WBUR that the program no longer exists.

Most recently, USCIS announced that it will review requests made until August 7th, while also stating that “limiting USCIS’ role in deferred action is appropriate.” It did not indicate whether the program has a future, either within USCIS or through another agency.

The reasons behind the policy shift are unclear. “The non-citizens affected aren’t entitled to federally supported health care,” wrote Wendy Parmet for WBUR. “Some have private insurance. Others are supported by state programs or private charities. Some are receiving treatment by participating in clinical trials. Money’s not the issue.”

Perhaps some of these questions about rationale, and the future of the program, will be answered tomorrow, when the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties holds a hearing about the policy change.

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