MEMO: House SC Hearing On Medical Deferred Action

Medical deferred action is a humanitarian policy enacted by U.S.CIS, which allows individuals who suffer from serious illnesses and their family members to remain in the U.S. without fear of deportation while they receive medical care. On Wednesday, the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held an emergency hearing on the Trump administration's move to end this policy. Tensions were high, as representatives to the right of Chairman Jamie Raskins (MD-08) called the hearing a political drama, intent on embarrassing the Trump administration, while representatives to his left defined it as a serious inquiry into the administration’s apparent attack on a particularly vulnerable population of migrants. The hearing was split into two panels of witnesses. The first panel was comprised of witnesses willing to cooperate with the committee's inquiry, while the second was not. 

The first panel, with a witness table including two individuals that would be seriously affected by the removal of medical deferred action, three experts on the various effects of the policy, and one former chief of ICE (presumably the witness chosen by the minority party) - was remarkably cooperative and responsive to the questions of members of this committee. Witnesses with severe medical conditions expressed how their deportation would effectively be a death sentence; as their physicians feared they might not survive the journey, or that their home countries lacked the appropriate resources to address their medical needs. The Democratic representatives on the committee used most of their allotted questioning time to provide witnesses the opportunity to express their fear, confusion, or frustration with the removal of medical deferred action. Representative Rashida Tlaib (MI-13), however, used her allotted time as a guest on the committee to point out that Thomas Homan, the former chief of ICE at the witness table, has an undeniable past of ruthless and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. Apart from that one interaction, no other democratic representative addressed Homan for the remainder of the hearing.

By contrast, the few republican representatives that showed up to the hearing did not ask Maria Isabel Buesos or Jonathan Sanchez (the witnesses with severe medical conditions), a single question. Instead, they either used their allotted time to argue the purpose of the hearing (sometimes with the legal experts at the table) or to provide Homan the space to describe the supposed ‘crisis at the border’. In one particular instance, Representative Jim Jordan (OH-04) began by accusing the subcommittee of starting a ‘false narrative’ to tarnish the Trump administration, and then simply asked Homan if there was a crisis at the border. Most members of the public in the room sighed at the spectacle that ensued. 

In the second panel, with two federal immigration officials at the witness table, inquiries from the committee were completely stonewalled. In this panel, federal officials were asked to speak to the origins and the rationale of the policy. Citing pending litigation, both witnesses refused to answer. Subsequently, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) cited a Supreme Court precedent, which deems the use of litigation as an illegitimate reason for refusing congressional inquiry. This had no effect on the witnesses, as they continued their refusal to answer. This frustrated representatives on both sides of the aisle. The result of this frustration was the demand for a written response to all questions asked, no later than Friday, with the threat of a subpoena from Representative Ayanna Pressley (MA-07). 

In case it was not already evident in the administration’s last-minute withdrawal of this policy decision, this hearing made it crystal clear that the revocation of medical deferred action was a complete failure. Further, it is unambiguous and on the record that this is nothing short of a humanitarian emergency and a moral crisis. Hearing the life stories of those affected by this unnecessary attack on migrants, as well as the way in which Republican members of congress dehumanized them, captures many faults of American politics today. For the families with terminally ill children, who were given less than 33 days to leave the country or face deportation hearings, it is clear that everything is at stake for them. As for the federal officials that sent these warnings, but were unwilling to defend them, it is clear that these families did not matter to them. Moreover, the fact that no answers were provided on: whose idea the policy was; where it came from; why it was enacted; how it was justified; or even what exactly the policy dictates - this ordeal truly exemplifies the policy-making process of the current administration.

In light of this, we need to hold the administration accountable. If federal officials continue to refuse to answer congressional inquiries on illegitimate grounds, we will need to show support for the oversight and reform committee members demanding subpoenas. If U.S.CIS puts forward its plan to hand over medical deferred action cases to ICE, as it seems to intend to, we will need to demand more hearings like this one. As citizens of a free country with the opportunity to save lives, we cannot allow trivial arguments about one’s immigration status sentence children to death. To do so would represent a moral failing of us all. As Rep. Pressley said in Wednesday’s hearing, “This is not a political drama, these are just the facts”.


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