As Feds Reopen Some Medical Deferral Cases, Boston Patients Find Hope

7 hours ago
Originally published on September 4, 2019 9:54 am

On the 10th floor of a Boston hospital, 33-year-old M.K. lifts himself up in his bed, pulling on a handle dangling from above. He’s wearing a Boston Red Sox hat. It’s a birthday gift, he says, from hospital staff. He calls it his lucky hat.

“I’ve had countless treatments and surgeries,” he explains, “and it’s almost impossible for me to leave [this hospital] now.”

M.K. was a software engineer in his home country of Morocco. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with a rare vascular tumor. He sought treatment in Belgium, Germany and South Korea. No one in those countries would operate on him.

“And I do tests, and then they said, like, ‘We’re sorry. We can’t do that surgery, because we’ll kill you,’ ” he explains. “And then [I had] been looking in research papers, and then I found two doctors here in Boston.”

We’ve agreed to use only M.K.’s initials — and not identify the hospital where he’s being treated — because he’s afraid speaking with WBUR could lead to repercussions from the federal government.

M.K. says he’s been in Boston since 2017, when he entered the country on a tourist and medical visa. After extending as many times as he could, he applied for medical deferred action through U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) — the agency that has for decades reviewed these applications — knowing it was likely his last option. Ten months later — as WBUR first published news about a decision by USCIS to stop taking medical deferral applications — M.K. got his answer.

“What happen[ed] is I read your article before I even saw the letter, and I called a family member to check out the mail and surprise, surprise, there’s the letter,” he explains.

The letter told M.K. medical deferred action requests were no longer being considered by USCIS, and he had 33 days to leave the country. He says he got the news on the same day his doctors suggested yet another surgery.

Following public outcry, USCIS released its first public statement on Monday about the program’s end — and said it will reopen cases, like M.K.’s, that were pending as of Aug. 7. That’s the date the office says it stopped processing requests. But at that time, the government made no formal announcement about the end of the deferrals.

Complicating matters further has been the apparent in-fighting between USCIS and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) over who is responsible for managing this process. Initially, USCIS told WBUR that ICE would take over processing applicants. But ICE soon after told WBUR it was caught off guard by USCIS’ decision and has no program, policy or plan in place to handle medical deferred action requests. There was no mention of a switch to ICE’s authority — or of any other potential avenue for deferred action for sick people — in USCIS’ denial letters. 

Massachusetts’ Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Rep. Ayanna Pressley, are among several prominent politicians calling for more answers and oversight into how USCIS made its calls on medical deferred action.

For M.K., all this boils down to a cautious hopefulness. He says he’s somewhat relieved to hear USCIS plans to reopen cases like his, and he’s told his family back home the news. He says he hopes the government will “do the right thing,” but knows there are no guarantees.

“If it was up to me, I would go home and come back and keep it simple,” he says. “But, it’s impossible for me to go back. It would be like a death sentence.”

Sixteen-year-old Jonathan Sanchez has cystic fibrosis. He and his family have been in Boston since 2016, when they left their home country of Honduras. They came on tourist visas and applied last year for medical deferred action, hoping to maintain the teen’s regular treatments at Boston Children’s Hospital. Sanchez says the uncertainty of his future has been taking a toll.

“Every night I start woken up, like, at 2:55, 3 a.m., thinking, I will wake up tomorrow,” he says. “I won’t. I’ll be alive. I’ll be dead. What will happen to me?”

Last week, the Sanchez family received the same denial letter sent to M.K. But like his case, their request should be reopened. This is good news for the family, but it comes after a tumultuous and painful week.

“It’s not easy because we leave everything, only with a dream: a better life for Jonathan. A life for Jonathan,” says Gary Sanchez, Jonathan’s father.

He says his daughter died of cystic fibrosis in Honduras. He says doctors there had no idea how to treat her condition. On her death certificate, he says the cause was left blank.

“I have a dream that one day, I can see my son like a man, with a wife, children,” Sanchez says, fighting back tears. “But now I see that dream broken. I don’t want that my son die because he’s all my life.”

There’s no guarantee the Sanchez family and M.K.’s cases will be approved. But, for now, they have something to hope for.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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