An undocumented South Jersey couple who had been ordered to leave the United States — with or without their cancer-stricken 8-year-old daughter — has been granted permission to stay so the child can continue to receive lifesaving treatment in Philadelphia.
It’s a victory in a wider battle between parents of desperately sick children and the Trump administration, which has sought to remove family members to homelands that often provide mediocre medical care. Many mothers and fathers say that would mean certain death for their children.
Maria Perez and Josue Hernandez of Vineland have been granted a two-year deferment from deportation, which allows them to continue to help their daughter, Jonayra, an American citizen by birth. The girl receives care at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, and the parents feared a forced return to Mexico would mean her death.
“She needs attention immediately when she is sick, and as her parents, we know exactly what she needs and how to anticipate when she will be ill after chemo,” Perez said. “Only a mom or dad can anticipate the medical needs of a child with cancer.”
Hernandez said, “There was so much fear all time that we could be deported… and with that the fear that my daughter would die if we had to leave.”
A spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services declined to comment, saying the agency does not discuss individual cases.
In mid-August, with no public notice, USCIS stopped accepting applications for what’s called “deferred action,” ending a small humanitarian program that the government had run for decades. It allows undocumented families to live and work in the U.S. while fighting serious illnesses including leukemia, cystic fibrosis, spina bifida, and cerebral palsy.
Families were told to get out or face deportation — sparking outrage from medical professionals, elected officials, and advocates.
After a month of criticism, USCIS restored the program and began accepting applications anew. The government gets about 1,000 requests a year for deferred action, which grants no immigration status but shields families from removal.
Perez and Hernandez were told by the government in August that they had 33 days to leave the U.S. Two weeks later, the ground shifted again: The federal government would examine their case because they had met newly established filing deadlines.
Then came news that the program would be restored.
“It’s thrilling that they were approved,” said Audrey Allen, the family’s Conshohocken-based attorney. “They were just so relieved. They’re really the only ones that can anticipate [Jonayra’s] needs.”
The grant of deferment, Allen said, opens avenues for the family to live a normal life, to obtain work permits and driver’s licenses and openly participate in American society.
Hernandez, 38, and Perez, 36, crossed the border in 1999, and today live in Vineland, a city of 61,000 where he works a construction job. Hernandez has had one contact with law enforcement: In 2006, he was stopped for driving under the influence, and entered the New Jersey Pretrial Intervention program, which offers an alternative to prosecution.
Like Jonayra, her 12-year-old brother, Josue, who also has health problems, was born in the United States.
Last February, Jonayra came home from school with a swollen right knee. Her parents took her to a doctor, who immediately referred the girl to Cooper University Hospital in Camden, which two days later transferred her to St. Christopher’s.
Surgeons removed part of Jonayra’s back and neck, excising a mass nearly two inches wide. She was diagnosed with stage 4 large B cell lymphoma, which had metastasized to her liver, spleen, kidney, and bones.
Jonayra didn’t leave the hospital for three months. Today, after intensive chemotherapy, she is home and healing, able to return to school, but weary and confronting follow-up care.
Technically, only the parents are in danger of deportation, but the children are fully dependent on their parents. Relapse rates are much higher in developing nations, even when patients get similar treatment, studies show.
Hernandez and Perez never married, but have lived together as a family since the birth of their son in 2007.
Jonayra was a healthy baby, but at age 5, her parents learned that she, like her brother, had immunodeficiency, specifically, common variable immune deficiency. CVID patients are more prone to develop certain forms of cancer.
“Especially with lymphoma,” Perez said, “it often comes back three or four times. If we are not in the United States, she will die. With deferred action we know we can be here to take care of our daughter and she will continue to get life-saving treatment.”