Trump administration ends relief program for immigrants with medical issues

PHOTO: Immigrants prepare to become American citizens at a naturalization service, Jan. 22, 2018, in Newark, New Jersey.PlayJohn Moore/Getty Images, FILE
WATCH Trump administration highlights rule changes for detaining migrants

Serena Badia has undergone heart surgery five times. Three of those procedures were back home in Spain where doctors told her she wouldn’t live past age 12.

Interested in Trump Administration?

Add Trump Administration as an interest to stay up to date on the latest Trump Administration news, video, and analysis from ABC News.
Add Interest

She came to the U.S. with her mother and sister, hoping doctors here would be able to help where the Spanish surgeons failed. Serena, now age 14, has been seeing doctors in the U.S. for over a year as they attempt to rebuild her pulmonary artery.

PHOTO: Serena Badia sits on a hospital bed between procedures for her congenital heart condition at a Boston childrens hospital. Courtesy Conchita Badia
Serena Badia sits on a hospital bed between procedures for her congenital heart condition at a Boston children's hospital.

But her treatment here is in jeopardy after immigration authorities told her family they have 33 days to leave the U.S. or risk not being able to return.

“If they don't let us come back to the United States, then I won't be able to get treated,” the 14-year-old told ABC News. “We don't know what to do because we don't want to be illegal here.”

“Yes, it’s very scary,” she added.

The Trump administration has started denying pleas by non-citizens who are trying to extend their time in the U.S. in order to treat severe medical conditions. Letters issued by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and obtained by ABC News, tell those applying for medical relief that agency offices, "no longer consider deferred action requests," except for members of the military.

Former Vice President and 2020 candidate Joe Biden weighed in at a campaign stop Thursday, criticizing President Trump for “targeting” children with severe illnesses.

“We are running out of words to condemn the inhumanity of this administration,” Biden said in a statement. “There is no possible national security justification for further traumatizing sick kids at their most vulnerable.”

A 16-year-old with cystic fibrosis, a 13-year-old with muscular dystrophy and a 4-year-old girl with cerebral palsy are also among the children whose families received letters denying their applications.

PHOTO: Serena Badia receives treatment for a congenital heart condition at a Boston childrens hospital in an undated handout photo. Courtesy Conchita Badia
Serena Badia receives treatment for a congenital heart condition at a Boston children's hospital in an undated handout photo.

They're represented by Anthony Marino, an immigration lawyer with the Irish International Immigrant Center. He said the administration has effectively ended the program that ensures his clients have access to critical medical services.

"People are terrified and confused," Marino told ABC News. "I don't know how people react to their government telling them to disconnect from lifesaving health care."

The letters warn that if they don't leave the within 33 days, it could make them ineligible to return to the U.S.

"You are not authorized to remain in the United States," the USCIS field office in Boston wrote in one letter. "If you fail to depart the United States within 33 days of the date of this letter, USCIS may issue you a Notice to Appear and Commence removal proceedings against you with the immigration court."

USCIS, the agency in charge of legal immigration and processing visas, told ABC News that "this does not mean the end of deferred action" but rather that any requests must be submitted to a different agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is the department in charge of deportations.

But the enforcement agency wasn't aware of the policy change until reports surfaced in the press, according to an ICE official. The agency doesn't have a process to accept the medical deferment applications that were previously reviewed by USCIS, the official said.

"ICE reviews each case on its own merits and exercises appropriate discretion after reviewing all the facts of each case," an ICE spokesperson said in a statement.

Marino's clients include a mix of citizens and non-citizens whose families are trying to avoid deportation. For example, one of Marino’s clients is the mother to the 4-year-old who suffers from cerebral palsy. The 4-year-old is a U.S. citizen, but her mother is not.

His clients may be able to pursue other ways to avoid deportation, but their options have been limited.

"What we do next is probably sue them," Marino said. "We're certainly keeping that option open."

ABC’s Anne Flaherty and Molly Nagle contributed to this report.