April 3, 2017

'Leave the US within 24 hours,' two Houston docs were told—then, a last-minute reprieve

Daily Briefing

Two prominent neurologists from India working in the United States were told they had to depart the country within 24 hours due to a problem with their travel documents, potentially leaving dozens of patients in the lurch—until Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) intervened and secured a reprieve.  

The issue may stem from two recent immigration memos issued by the Trump administration that address the treatment of some individuals with pending green card applications, the Houston Chronicle reports.

Monika Ummat, a neurologist specializing in epilepsy at Texas Children's Hospital, and her husband, Pankaj Satija, a neurologist who helped found the Pain and Headache Centers of Texas, have worked in the United States for a decade under temporary work authorizations that must be renewed every two years.

Anatomy of a crisis

Houston Methodist Hospital System sponsored Satija for his green card around 2008, but because of a yearly quota system and a backlog of applications, the "couple was provided a provisional status until their green cards become available," the Chronicle reports.

Due to their provisional status, the couple must renew their temporary work authorizations and travel documents every two years. But at the time they last renewed their documents, their travel documents were approved for only one year—a change that the couple did not notice. Compounding the issue, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials stamped their travel papers as expiring in June 2017, "when in fact U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services noted that their document[s] actually expired in June 2016," the Chronicle reports.

Their immigration problems came to a head last October when they returned from a trip to India to see a sick relative. A CBP official at the airport noted the problem with their travel documents but said it was a "common mistake," according to Satija, and allowed them to enter the country under a program called deferred inspection, which allows certain travelers with pending green card applications to enter the county without the correct paperwork so they can attempt to fix the error.

The couple immediately applied to renew their travel documents and checked in with CBP each month to extend their temporary permission to stay in the United States. On Monday of last week, they were told that they had been approved for new travel documents, which were in the mail—but "later when they again checked in with [CBP] officials, they were told the agency now had a new policy and was no longer able to extend their temporary permission to stay," the Chronicle reports. They were told they had to leave the country in 24 hours.

According to the Chronicle, the reversal may stem from two immigration memos released by the Trump administration in February which directed the country's three main immigration agencies to "sparingly" issue so-called parole documents that allow individuals with pending green card applications to stay in the country.

Patients in limbo

Early last week, Satija—donned in scrubs—called the paperwork problem a "technical error" that was the result of an oversight. "But taking me and Monika away from our patients right now jeopardizes so much for the citizens of this country," he said, adding, "We understand we need to take care of this but that should allow them to give us some time."

At the time, the couple said they were pushing for an extension of a few weeks so they could "reschedule all their surgeries and arrange for their children to skip school," the Chronicle reports. Satija explained that he had 90 patients scheduled for care over the next two days. "I'm just concerned they'll be left in the lurch. They could land up in the emergency room," he said.

Their lawyer, Gordan Quan, said their predicament was a symptom of the black-and-white view the Trump administration has taken toward immigration. "These are not criminals, not a threat to society," he said. "Instead of trying to work with people, the new administration is just trying to force them out, no matter what."

A reprieve

On Thursday—the day after they received the 24-hour notice to leave the country—Satija and Ummat called their legislators, including Cornyn, asking for help in securing a reprieve. That same day, they went to the airport, as ordered, and prepared to depart—only to be told by customs officials that the agency had changed course and would grant the couple a 90-day reprieve from removal.

In a statement, Satija thanked Cornyn and his staff for intervening on their behalf. "We truly appreciate the promptness and helpfulness with which Senator John Cornyn's staff understood the cause of our problem and helped resolve it," he said. "On behalf of our children and all our patients, we thank Senator Cornyn and his staff for their timely intervention and help in resolving our issue" (Kriel, Houston Chronicle, 3/31; Kriel, Houston Chronicle, 3/30; Kragie/Kriel, Houston Chronicle, 3/31).

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