Trump immigration officials are threatening to remove two prominent Houston doctors Thursday after refusing at the last minute to extend their temporary permission to stay in the U.S., potentially jeopardizing the care of dozens of patients who have specialized surgeries scheduled with the two doctors in coming weeks.
It's the latest example of the government taking an unusually hard line on immigration and declining to consider cases on an individual basis.
"I have 50 patients today and 40 patients tomorrow," said Dr. Pankaj Satija, a neurologist who helped found the Pain and Headache Centers of Texas. "I'm just concerned they'll be left in a lurch. They could land up in the emergency room."
The couple has been here legally for more than a decade after coming here from India to do research and complete their medical residencies. The Houston Methodist Hospital System sponsored Satija for his green card around 2008 and the Labor Department certified that no Americans could perform his job in 2010.
But because of rules limiting how many immigrants can actually receive permanent residency each year and a tremendous backlog in the process, the couple was provided a provisional status until their green cards become available. The category for India is currently so behind that only immigrants who applied for the labor certification before June 2008 are receiving their green cards.
Satija and his wife, Dr. Monika Ummat, who is also a neurologist specializing in epilepsy at Texas Children's Hospital, renewed their temporary work authorizations and their travel documents every two years as required. They bought a house in West University Place and had two children, Ralph, who is 7, and 4-year-old Zooey.
The problem began last year when for some reason their travel document was issued for only one year, unlike the typical period of two years like their employment authorization.
Further confusing the issue was that Customs and Border Protection officials stamped their travel document saying that it expired in June this year, when in fact U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services noted that their document actually expired in June 2016.
The surgeons did not notice the discrepancy. They had an unusually busy year and were not planning international travel. Then last October, Satija's brother called from Delhi and said that their father was extremely ill and had been admitted to intensive care. The family needed to go right away.
They immediately bought plane tickets and packed their bags. Upon returning to the United States about a week later, a Customs and Border Protection official at the airport noted the discrepancy on their travel document and that in fact it had already expired four months previously.
"The officer looked at it and said it's a common mistake, that it was no big deal," Satija said.
They were allowed in through a program known as deferred inspection, which allows certain travelers without the correct paperwork to enter the country so that they can fix the error.
The Satijas immediately applied to renew their expired travel document, which is known as advanced parole and allows immigrants waiting on their green cards to leave the country while their applications are processing.
As required, they checked in with Customs and Border Protection officials every month to extend their temporary permission to stay while they awaited the more permanent approval from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
They were informed Monday that they had been approved, but that the paperwork was still in the mail.
Later when they again checked in with Customs and Border Protection officials, they were told the agency now had a new policy and was no longer able to extend their temporary permission to stay.
"Somebody up there has decided you have to leave the country in the next 24 hours," the agent told the couple as he gave them one more day to sort out their affairs.
In two expansive immigration memos the Trump administration issued in February, it directed the nation's three main immigration agencies to "sparingly" use the practice of parole, though it hasn't yet detailed the new regulations.
Neither the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services or Customs and Border Protection responded to questions on the case Thursday.
The Satijas have appealed to Customs and Border Protection to extend their temporary permission for at least a few weeks so they can reschedule all their surgeries and arrange for their children to skip school.
If the agency doesn't decide to do so Thursday, they either have to leave to India right away or could be detained by immigration officials as they wait to argue their case before a judge. Their lawyer, Gordon Quan, is also considering filing a temporary restraining order to stop their removal.
"There's been a technical error made here and our situation is completely an oversight, an error made in innocence," said Satija, wearing his surgical scrubs Thursday as he furiously juggled phone calls. "But taking me and Monika away from our patients right now jeopardizes so much for the citizens of this country. We understand we need to take care of this but that should allow them to give us some time."
Quan said the dilemma illustrates not only the black-and-white view the Trump administration has taken on immigration matters, but the harshness of the system, the complexity of which most Americans who urge legal immigration don't understand.
"These are not tough decisions. These are not criminals, not a threat to society," he said. "It's just the rigidity of the system ... and instead of trying to work with people, the new administration is just trying to force them out, no matter what."
If they are removed, the Satijas will be able to return — but it could take weeks. Tuesday Satija has a surgery to remove hardware from a woman's spine.