Robert Menendez

US Senator for New Jersey
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Leukemia Patient Recovering After Visa Denials Almost Prevented Her Bone Marrow Transplant

February 22, 2012

Yarelis Bonilla, a 5-year-old Leukemia patient in New Jersey, has been released from the hospital after successfully receiving a bone marrow transplant from her sister last month. But her life-saving procedure almost did not happen because her 7-year-old sister Giselle lived in El Salvador with the girls’ grandmother. After doctors diagnosed Yarelis with Leukemia in August, U.S. officials twice denied a visa for Gisselle to come to the U.S. to donate her bone marrow for her sister:

Gisselle and every member of Yarelis’ family were tested as possible donors when Yarelis was diagnosed with leukemia. Only Gisselle, who lived thousands of miles away, matched perfectly.

Without a transplant, the extremely acute form of leukemia is treated with three years of chemotherapy, [Dr. Alfred] Gillio said. The chance of survival is about 30 percent.

With a transplant, the chance of survival is 70 to 75 percent, he said.

The challenge was to get Gisselle to the United States. She lived with her maternal grandmother in Ilobasco, about 30 miles northeast of San Salvador. Her parents had left for the United States when she was a baby. Yarelis was born two years later in the United States, making her a U.S. citizen.

Family friends highlighted Yarelis’ plight to a local newspaper and Sen. Robert Menendez’s (D-NJ) office. Menendez intervened and the American Friends Service Committee pressured the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau before ICE granted Gisselle “humanitarian parole” in December to come to the U.S. for the procedure.

“The government’s role is to ultimately protect its citizen. [...] In this instance, that happens to mean having this young girl get her sister here to give her a transplant is something we should be able to do,” Menendez said in November. And after ICE granted Gisselle “humanitarian parole,” Menendez said it was “shocking” that “common sense could not prevail over bureaucracy to help save a young child’s life.”

But Nancy Erika Smith, the friend who told Menendez’s office about the visa denials, said she remains angry at ICE officials for denying Gisselle’s visa in the first place. And she is right — it should not require the intervention of a U.S. senator for the immigration system to work in a humane way.

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