Civil rights groups sued President Donald Trump's administration Thursday over its decision to stop considering requests from immigrants seeking to remain in the country for medical treatment and other hardships.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a lawsuit in Boston federal court challenging the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' decision to end its "deferred action" program as of Aug. 7.
The agency, in letters sent out last month, denied pending applications and ordered applicants to leave the country within 33 days or face deportation.
The civil rights groups argue the decision to end the decades-old humanitarian relief policy was done without the advance public notice and justification required by law before changing a substantial federal government regulation.
It also argues the move was "driven by racial and ethnic animus" and a desire to limit non-European immigration and therefore in violation of the Constitution.
Days before his agency ended the program, acting USCIS Director Kenneth Cuccinelli suggested in an interview that the famous phrase etched onto the Statue of Liberty to "give me your tired, your poor" referred to "people coming from Europe" and not those from other nations, the lawsuit notes.
The ACLU and Lawyers for Civil Rights also cite a litany of Trump's public statements and policy decisions seeking to restrict legal and illegal immigration from non-European nations.
"The Trump administration is hell bent on causing as much suffering as possible for immigrant families," said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. "This attack on children and their families is inhumane and unlawful."
The immigration agency said it does not comment on pending litigation.
The suit was filed on behalf of the Irish International Immigrant Center, a Boston-based organization that represents 19 families from the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa who had received or were seeking deferrals for the treatment of cancer, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and other serious conditions.
"Granting deferred action for medical conditions is a valuable humanitarian lifeline for these families," said Ronnie Millar, the organization's executive director. "Our clients are very brave and have suffered greatly already."
"Deferred action" allows foreign nationals who would otherwise be considered to be living in the country illegally to work and receive health benefits while they or their family members receive medical treatment.
The temporary status is good for two years and is renewable but does not offer a pathway to citizenship. The immigration agency has said it receives around 1,000 deferral requests citing medical reasons or other hardships each year.
The August decision didn't affect requests from families of military members, which the agency says it will still consider. The agency also said it will continue reviewing deferral requests that were pending as of Aug. 7, a partial concession to objections raised by health and immigration activists.
The deferred action program for medical care is separate from the controversial, Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which the Trump administration has already begun phasing out.