MIAMI — If Jonathan Sánchez is deported to Honduras, he will die.
The 16-year-old suffers from cystic fibrosis, the same illness that killed his older sister, though the government official who sent Jonathan’s parents a letter telling them that they all should leave the United States within a month didn’t seem to care.
That letter was essentially a death sentence for Jonathan.
“What will happen if you are sent back to Honduras?” I asked him during an interview via satellite, shortly after his parents had received the letter. “Well … basically, I will die,” he told me.
Jonathan was talking to me from near Boston Children’s Hospital, where he receives a treatment that is helping him deal with a lethal cough. Among other things, cystic fibrosis causes a buildup of mucus in the lungs that cannot be removed.
“This has happened before,” he told me. “If I miss treatment one day, I start coughing a lot. I get tired. I find it hard to breathe. I have stomach aches and can’t digest food.”
America’s war against immigrants is now targeting the weakest and most vulnerable. Not content with separating children from their parents at the border, placing minors behind bars or threatening to put an end to birthright citizenship for children born on American soil to undocumented parents, the Trump administration is now going after children like Jonathan, with life-threatening illnesses.
The government is doing everything it can to limit the number of foreigners coming to the United States, particularly those from Latin America. (Let’s not forget President Trump’s remarks in June 2015 about Mexican immigrants: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”) The 2020 presidential campaign will be a battle over what kind of country we want to be.
Jonathan and his parents, Gary and Mariela, entered the United States three years ago on tourist visas. They then applied to stay in the country on medical grounds under the federal government’s “deferred action” program so that Jonathan could receive treatment. Roughly 1,000 people benefit from the lifesaving program each year, according to a recent report in The Times.
However, last month, without any advance warning or formal announcement, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency responsible for issuing these immigration permits, decided to cancel most of them. The withering message, in Jonathan’s words, was: “basically, that I must leave the country within 33 days or I will be deported.”
Mariela, Jonathan’s mother, couldn’t believe it, so she called the agency for an explanation. “They just said that our application had been denied,” she told me. “That our extension could not be granted. It was a complete shock for us.”
The Sánchez family has already been through tough times; they are well aware of what lies ahead. Jonathan’s older sister died in Honduras from cystic fibrosis.
“When our daughter was born, the doctors didn’t have a clue in terms of a diagnosis,” Gary recalled. “Nobody knew what disease it was.” Desperate, the family sent a frozen sample of their daughter’s blood to the United States for analysis.
The results were sent back to Honduras: It was cystic fibrosis. Unfortunately, it was too late to act. She had already died. Fearing that Jonathan would suffer the same fate, the Sánchez family traveled to the United States so he could be treated.
The last time I spoke to Gary, he sounded disheartened. “At this moment, we appear to be short of options,” he said. “We simply don’t know what to do. We have been waiting months for the outcome of our application, and suddenly we hear that it’s been denied.”
“Some anti-immigrant folks like to say: ‘We’re not against immigration, we’re against “illegal” immigration,’ ” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the congresswoman from New York, posted on Twitter recently. “If that were true, then we would make documented immigration easy & safe. But each & every day, this administration is grinding legal, documented immigration to a halt.”
She’s right. Jonathan and his parents acted within the law. They legally entered the United States, and they applied for the medical permit and renewal through the proper channels. Despite all this, the Trump administration said no. That is, until it suddenly reversed course on Sept. 2.
The president isn’t used to apologizing or changing his mind. On the contrary, he gloats equally about his good and bad decisions. But this time he seems to have yielded to pressure from Jonathan and other patients like him who told their heartbreaking stories online and in the news media.
Even when we are at our most vulnerable, we can always find a way forward by telling our stories. That’s what Jonathan did, and it saved his life.
In a quiet announcement that didn’t include any admission of wrongdoing, officials from the immigration services agency said they would re-evaluate pending medical cases like Jonathan’s. Gary confirmed that the family’s lawyers had, in fact, been directed to reapply for an extension on their behalf. That should keep Jonathan safe for now.
I wish I could say that the moral of this story is that good always triumphs in the end, or that, as some people say, everything happens for a reason.
But I don’t buy any of that. No, I think this whole situation has a far simpler explanation: President Trump leads one of the most virulently anti-immigrant administrations since 1954, when “Operation Wetback” resulted in the deportation of one million Mexicans. In its efforts to reduce immigration levels and reverse the nation’s increasingly diverse demographic trends, the Trump administration is targeting even those migrants who are suffering life-threatening illnesses.
I asked Jonathan what he would say to those who wanted to deport him. “Please don’t kill me,” was his response.
Nothing is more compelling and moving than a child fighting for his own life.