Consider the latest affront: A small program, known as “medical deferred action,” allows people to remain in the U.S. for two-year periods if they can prove extreme medical need. These families usually came to the U.S. through a visa (or some other permitted status) and are now requesting to stay beyond those terms to receive medical treatment.
Now the Trump administration, in a denial letter, has ordered them to leave. Some 1,000 families are thought to be affected by this policy change.
Up until now, federal immigration officials routinely permitted eligible sick people to stay in the country under this program. But last week, several clients received denial letters warning them of the policy change. The denials say specifically that the immigration service is no longer considering deferring action on these cases.
In short, distressed and dying children and their families are summarily being kicked out of the country.
Many of those affected are families whose children have cancer, cystic fibrosis, HIV, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and epilepsy. The families who received denial letters have 33 days to leave America from the date of the denial letter; some letters have arrived as late as two weeks after that posted date.
This sudden policy change will result in a death sentence for almost all, if not all, of those forced to leave because their countries of origin do not have the medical expertise to address such dire medical cases.
Exactly how this story will end is currently unclear as the Trump administration has, so far, offered little clarity on their sudden policy change.
At this juncture in our history, which is filled with such vitriol, Americans might well remember another era — the late 19th and early 20th century, a period of tumultuous migration in which our government extended extraordinary kindness and medical care to all sickly immigrants passing through Ellis Island.
Lorie Conway, a documentarian who wrote and directed “Forgotten Ellis Island,” offers insight about Ellis Island Hospital, a 22-building hospital complex, one of the largest public health undertakings in U.S. history and, at the time, one of the best infectious disease facilities in the world.
“Some children — those with potentially deadly contagious diseases — were placed in quarantine, apart from their parents, who were not allowed to visit them. Nonetheless they were made to feel safe and at home.”
Immigrant children were tracked, treated, often healed and then safely returned to their parents. Importantly, all medical care was free to adults and children.
This was remarkable given that the era was awash in nativism and many Americans, worried about their own economic futures, viewed spending so much money for free medical and hospital care on the so-called American invasion was wasteful.
Yet despite public concerns, goodness prevailed at Ellis Island Hospital, and that goodness today stands in contrast to the Trump administration’s policies regarding immigrants. In fact, Ellis Island Hospital remains to this day the gold standard of humanitarian operations.
Moreover, no major epidemic was ever traced to an immigrant treated at the hospital, and nine out of 10 patients treated at the hospital were cured and allowed to enter the country. This was quite a feat, as antibiotics were not yet available.
There was a time in America that it seemed whatever it took for refugees and immigrants to get through Lady Liberty’s “Golden Door,” it was worth it.
“One would like to think, a century later, that we are a more advanced society,” adds Conway. “One would like to think that people today would more easily understand the plight of the migrant”
Herein lies the reality for those who dare leave their homes in the 21st century hoping for a safer, better, healthier life in America. While millions have benefited from our ancestors’ courage and the opportunities of America, at this grim time in the nation’s history, the price of leaving may be just too high.
Dim is a historian, novelist and essayist. Her latest book is the forthcoming “Lady Liberty — An Illustrated History of America’s Most Storied Woman.”