On Wednesday, March 29th, neurologist and founder of the Pain and Headache Centers of Texas, Dr. Pankaj Satija, 40, and his wife, Dr. Monika Ummat, also a neurologist, specializing in epilepsy at Texas Children’s Hospital, were told by Customs and Border Police officials they had 24 hours to sort out their affairs, before being removed to India, along with their two US-born children, Ralph, 7, and Zooey, 4.
Dr. Pankaj Satija and his wife, both immigrants from India living and working legally in Houston, were abruptly told by immigration officials they had 24 hours to leave the United States, Houston Chronicle reported. A new policy, they were told, no longer allowed them to extend their temporary permission to stay while they waited for permanent authorization.
The two doctors, who have been here legally for more than a decade and are highly specialized in their fields, were first astounded, then hysterical. Satija had 90 patients scheduled before the end of the week. “I was breaking down every two hours,” said the 40-year-old neurologist who helped found the Pain and Headache Centers of Texas and performs about 200 operations a month.
The couple have never even been issued a parking ticket and pay their taxes quarterly, rather than once a year. Satija’s wife, Dr. Monika Ummat, is also a neurologist specializing in epilepsy at Texas Children’s Hospital. They have two young U.S.-born children.
Satija and his wife 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 surfaced last year after new but little-known regulations resulted in their travel documents being issued only for one year, unlike their employment authorization which is valid for two years.
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 fine print by another agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, noted that their document actually lapsed in June 2016.
But in the latest example of the government taking an unusually harsh stand on immigration and declining to consider cases on an individual basis, Customs and Border Protection officials told them late Wednesday that they were revoking their permits, giving them just a day to pack their bags, collect their children, and return to India where they haven’t lived in 15 years.
On Thursday, desperate, they called their legislators. They took to the media along with their attorneys to plead their case, wearing the blue surgical scrubs in which they had hoped to go to work. And they reported, as ordered, ready to leave the country, to customs officials at Bush Intercontinental Airport, where they were told the agency had suddenly reversed course.
“Somebody at a higher level has made that decision,” they were told by an agent. “I understand that you are physicians and a lot of lives are at stake.” The agency offered the couple three months of humanitarian parole, a rare measure allowing immigrants who are otherwise not permitted to enter the United States the opportunity to do so because of a “compelling emergency,” enabling them to sort out their paperwork.
The Chronicle reported that it was an unusual act of grace from an administration that has so far seemed intent on removing as many immigrants as it can, making few exceptions, even for those, like the Satijas, with good reasons to stay. The Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection did not respond to questions Thursday. Arwen Consaul, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said in an email that privacy rules meant the agencies could not comment on specific cases.
The couple had traveled to India last October after Dr. Satija’s father fell sick. Upon return, the Customs and Border Protection officials stamped their travel document saying that it expired in June of 2017. In fact, the USCIS noted that their document actually lapsed in June 2016. That set off the couple’s nightmare. Although, they were allowed back in the US through a program known as Deferred Inspection, they had to regularly report to CBP every month till they received new Advance Parole documents.
On March 29, they were told their Advance Parole documents were approved, and in the mail. But Customs and Border Protection officials told them that the agency now had a new policy and they were no longer able to extend their deferred inspection. They had to report to the airport the next day, would be deported to India.
But Satija’s lawyer, Amber Gracia with Quan Law Group, said the happy ending nevertheless reflects how harsh the administration’s policies have become. “The doctors are extremely lucky to have had the resources that they had,” she said from inside the lobby of the CBP offices at the airport shortly after they received the news. “But most people don’t have those resources. This shows that things are only going to get more difficult.”
The couple’s nightmare began with confusion over two conflicting dates on their paperwork. They have been here legally since 2002 after coming to do research and complete medical residencies and fellowships at such prestigious universities as Duke and Baylor College of Medicine.
Around 2008, the Houston Methodist Hospital System sponsored Satija for permanent residency, known as a green card. But because of rules limiting how many immigrants can actually receive permanent residency each year and a tremendous backlog in the overwhelmed system, the doctors were 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.