When Suhas Khamgaonkar came to the United States 14 years ago as the wife of a chemical engineer with an employer-sponsored visa, she thought that her legal immigration status in the country was assured. But when her husband died suddenly of a heart attack in 2015, Khamgaonkar was warned by her immigration attorney that she might be forced to leave the country—even though she had a pending application for permanent U.S. residency.
On her attorney’s advice, Khamgaonkar, a dual citizen of India and Australia, applied to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for deferred action, a discretionary status that does not excuse prior illegal presence in the United States, but prevents deportation for humanitarian reasons.
But on August 9, Khamgaonkar, whose application for a green card has been delayed for nearly a decade because of a quota on the number of Indian admissions to the country, received a letter denying her request.
“Thank you for your request for deferred action,” the letter stated. “U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field offices no longer consider deferred action requests, except those made according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security policies for certain military members, enlistees, and their families. As such, your request for deferred action has been denied.”
Khamgaonkar was devastated.
“I feel as if I’m being punished for my husband’s death,” Khamgaonkar said tearfully on a call with reporters on Thursday. “Now I stand being separated from my daughter, who is my only family member.”
“We have been unable to heal as a family amidst this chaos,” Khamgaonkar added.
USCIS did not announce the sudden cancellation of the program. The decision only became public after Boston National Public Radio station WBUR reached out to the agency about letters denying medical deferrals to children with cancer, cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, and HIV. The rollback has been widely condemned by lawmakers, immigration advocates, and attorneys as targeting the most vulnerable immigrants, almost all of whom entered the country legally to seek medical treatment.
“Kids with cancer, cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy are now being told that they must leave the country or be put in the hands of ICE,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass), who joined other Massachusetts politicians at a Monday press conference denouncing USCIS’s decision.
“These patients could be facing a de facto death sentence,” Markey added, noting that USCIS was “too ashamed” to publicly announce the policy change until inquiries from the press. “This is a new low, even for Donald Trump. This administration is now literally deporting kids with cancer.”
USCIS, which receives roughly 1,000 applications per year for deferred action, has stated that those seeking deferred action can simply request it from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But ICE has no deferred action program, and officials at the agency have said that they have no intention of creating one.
“The fact that the government is making this change really quietly shows us how little regard that they have for people,” said Mahsa Khanbabai, northeast chapter chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “Claiming that ICE will take this on, I think we see that this was really an afterthought.”
Already, Khanbabai said, she has had two clients see their applications for deferred action be denied, including that of a 14-year-old girl who came to the U.S. on a visitor visa for heart surgery.
“They know that most of their policies are unconscionable, and that even Republican senators and reps would not agree to most of these,” Khanbabai said, who called the move part of the Trump administration's “larger scheme” to limit all immigration, legal and illegal alike.
Khanbabai likened those policies to fighting an unending boxing match, with new opponents popping up in order to distract from those immigration attorneys are already fighting.
“Disingenuously, the government is trying to move on and trying to come up with other changes to distract us from the other problems that they’re creating,” Khanbabai said, in an apparent reference to another USCIS policy announced on Wednesday that limits access to citizenship for some children of U.S. service members born abroad.
Lawmakers on the call characterized the policy as deeply cruel, even by the standards of an administration that has pushed forward plans to indefinitely detain migrant children, punish legal immigrants for utilizing social services, and forced asylum seekers to remain in Mexico.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) cited the case of a Brazilian five-year-old with a rare medical condition that prevents him from eating solid food. The boy, Pressley said, came to the U.S. on a visitor visa for treatment, and now faces returning to a country where treatment for his condition doesn’t exist.
“He won’t be able to receive the life-supporting nutrients that he needs to live,” Pressley said, calling the removal of people like him “a death sentence.”
“All of our families have struggled with such things,” Pressley said. “Imagine on top of that facing deportation on top of a cancer diagnosis.”
“There’s no better proof of the cruelty of Donald Trump’s war on immigrants... than to kick kids with cancer out of their hospital beds,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), who called the deferred action program “a commonsense policy that was only utilized by about 1,000 individuals each year. That is not a large population, but it is a vulnerable one.”
Although Pressley vowed to push for a review of the policy change by the House Oversight Committee and legal advocates are preparing to challenge the policy in court, Khamgaonkar and others seeking deferred action may soon be out of time. The letters received by those whose deferred action petitions were rejected require recipients to leave the country within 33 days.
“The roadblocks placed at every turn of our journey are serving their exact purpose of exhausting us,” Khamgaonkar said. “No matter how deep we dig for inner strength, we seem to be treated with no empathy, no fairness.”
“ICE doesn’t consider it unless people have been through removal proceedings,” Brent Renison, Khamgaonkar’s attorney, said. “Unfortunately, this is a dead end for us, because Suhas does not have any kind of removal proceedings. For her to go through removal proceedings would be extremely detrimental to her case—it would result in a 10-year bar. There is no hope for us to get deferred action.”
“We are at a dead end—there’s nothing more we can do,” Renison said. “This was a last-ditch effort.”
The cruelty of such a decision, Markey said, is the point.
“We will not let Donald Trump hide from the consequences of his inhumanity,” Markey said. “If you kicked Donald Trump in the heart, you would break your toe.”