Humanitarian parole: US immigration's emergency pass into the country

U.S. immigration officials are able to grant humanitarian parole passes that allow foreign nationals to enter the U.S. to receive emergency medical care or attend to family matters. But the temporary admissions aren't easy to come by.

As President Barack Obama attempts to shore up a creaky federal immigration policy, there's one program that is — and could remain — largely discretionary: humanitarian parole.

Widely unknown, the government venture allows foreign nationals to enter the country temporarily to attend court proceedings and funerals and deal with medical emergencies.

Last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection granted 3,054 requests for humanitarian parole. It accepted 6,726 the year before, according to agency spokesman Bill Brooks. Citizenship and Immigration services granted another 353 in 2012, agency spokesman Daniel Cosgrove reported.

Two of those rejected last year are Mexicans Jose and Ninfa Sanchez. The couple, both 48, applied twice for humanitarian parole in December at an immigration center in Hidalgo, Texas, so they could visit their 26-year-old daughter before she died of an inoperable spinal tumor. The Sanchezes did not get to see their daughter until her casket returned home Jan. 6, the Los Angeles Times reports.

They suspect they were rejected because Jose was deported from Texas over a decade ago for working there illegally.

Brooks would not tell the Times why the Sanchezes had been denied, but told the paper that immigration officials suggested to Ninfa that she reapply for humanitarian parole by herself, or contact the Mexican consulate for an escort. She declined to do both.

Most noncitizens who apply for humanitarian parole are not accepted. American Immigration Lawyers Association President T. Douglas Stump told the Times that in general, only 20 to 25 percent of the candidates find their way legally into the U.S.

Without proper preparation, immigration attorneys say, receiving humanitarian concern can be as random as rolling dice, even if the applicant's case appears to be strong on the surface.

"It's a crapshoot," Charles Printz, a special counselor at the Teplen Law Group specializing in international human rights law, told MSN News. "You can walk in three different doors and get three different answers."

Printz and his firm often represent individuals seeking humanitarian parole so they or their loved ones can receive vital — sometimes life-saving — medical care in the U.S. But much more goes into an immigration official's decision than just the severity of the disease.

Despite the sometimes random nature of acceptance, Printz and his team are able to give their clients a fighting chance by putting together "advocacy" packages that demonstrate not only medical exigency but also scientific expertise. They also aim to show that their clients don't pose a risk of remaining in the U.S. past their granted parole.

"The standpoint of Immigration is that anyone who comes here for whatever reason is an intending immigrant who plans to stay here," Printz says.

To overcome this obstacle, Printz and his team aim to prove — if possible — that applicants have no relatives living in the U.S. who could file a Petition for Alien Relative on their behalf, which would allow the applicants to remain in the U.S. permanently. They also set out to establish that candidates will be able to support themselves financially during their parole and that they have no compelling reason to settle down in the U.S. after their parole ends.

Printz reaches out to academic medical centers and medical specialists in the U.S. to confirm that his clients' health concerns are valid, urgent and cannot be adequately handled in the petitioner's native country. The veteran immigration attorney also urges his clients to make sure that their local physicians are thorough and supply specialists' evidence that the patient's affliction cannot be treated in the country he or she currently lives in. Too many times, Printz says, candidates and their families consult only family physicians who do not assemble a thorough package of evidence. Those shallow applications are easily dismissed by immigration officers.

"In my opinion, if you have a good case — you've dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's so the reviewing officer has no concern, and it's not just Harry Jones, M.D., down the street affirming your case, and it’s the chair of Department of Neurology at Mount Sinai, things of that ilk — then the person will get the treatment at one of the better medical facilities, and there will be no one in doubt about their medical need," Printz explained.

While a large amount of humanitarian parole requests involve the U.S. and Mexico, program applicants come from around the world. Some of the cases end up becoming high-profile matters.

Stateless Mikhail Sebastian, who is gay and was originally born in Azerbaijan, became a minor celebrity of sorts in American Samoa while he was marooned there awaiting a hearing on his humanitarian parole case. After leaving Azerbaijan, Sebastian settled in Turkmenistan, where he was forced to flee because homosexuality is illegal in the country. He then sought asylum in the United States but become trapped in an immigration morass.

While Sebastian never obtained asylum, authorities had no place to deport him to, as the former Soviet Union where he was born had collapsed. Sebastian was declared stateless and allowed to remain in the U.S. under a program that protects vulnerable, stateless individuals.

But when he vacationed in Samoa two years ago, officials declared that he had self-deported and could not return to the U.S., despite the fact that he'd gone to American Samoa, a U.S. territory.

This month, Sebastian, who's been stuck living in American Samoa on a $50-per-week stipend for more than a year, will be allowed to re-enter the U.S. temporarily under humanitarian parole, as immigrations officials decide what to do with him. 

"People are sad to see him go, but are definitely happy at the same time," La Paosa, a radio reporter in American Samoa, told Global Post. "I know I had some drinks with my friends, and we cheered for him."

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