Visa Granted to Sister of New Jersey Girl with Cancer

The sister of a 5-year-old girl being treated for a life-threatening case of leukemia was granted a temporary visa to try and save her sister’s life.

United States Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey announced on Friday night that federal immigration officials had granted a humanitarian visa to the sister of Yarelis Bonilla, who needs a bone marrow transplant. Her sister, Gisselle, is her closest match. The case had become a source of contention among some immigration advocates because Gisselle, 7, lives in El Salvador and her family, after realizing she was a match, had applied for a visa on humanitarian grounds – but was denied twice.

At a press conference at a hospital in Newark, N.J. where Yarelis is undergoing treatment, Menendez, a Democrat, announced that this time, after his office personally pleaded on the family’s behalf, the federal government decided to reconsider. A frail and pale-looking Yarelis, wrapped in a light-blue fleece blanket with a surgical mask covering her mouth, sat in a wheelchair scribbling on a notepad during the press conference.

“This was what the humanitarian visa was designed for,” Menendez told reporters at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. “It was a life or death situation.’’

Yarelis Bonilla, who lives in New Jersey with her mother, was diagnosed with leukemia in May. The prognosis for childhood leukemia is relatively positive, but Yarelis had not responded well to several rounds of aggressive chemotherapy, said Dr. Peri Kamalakar, the director of hematology/oncology for three hospitals in northern New Jersey and who is part of the team that is treating the girl.

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A bone marrow transplant was her best chance for survival. After efforts to find a match, doctors in El Salvador confirmed that Yarelis’s 7-year-old sister was the closest match – but a visa stood in the way of coming to her sister’s aid.

Gisselle, who has an appointment at the American Embassy in San Salvador on Monday to finalize the necessary paperwork, has 30 days to travel to New Jersey to donate her bone marrow. Her humanitarian visa allows her to stay for three months.

The mother of the two sisters, Maria Bonilla, said at the press conference that she was grateful for the positive outcome and had always been hopeful that things would end up working out.

“I’m glad,” she said. “But I always had faith.”

A timid Yarelis curled up in the wheelchair next to her mom. A doll with a red hat sat next to her as she played tic-tac-toe by herself. At one point, she interrupted the press conference to say she was hungry.

“This gives her hope for life,” said Mariam Habib, a lawyer for the American Friends Service Committee who had formally applied for humanitarian parole for Gisselle. “Now it’s in the hands of her doctors and in the hands of God.”

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