When two Colorado undocumented immigrants received temporary reprieves to stay in the United States until 2019, they marched and sang and cheered in the streets.
Their lawyers thanked members of Congress.
Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and Reps. Ed Perlmutter and Jared Polis introduced private bills for Jeanette Vizguerra and Arturo Hernandez Garcia, two immigrants who had taken sanctuary in Colorado churches to avoid deportation. This rare legislative maneuver was only used a couple of dozen times in the House in the last Congressional term – and even less in the U.S. Senate.
It is now a target of the Trump administration and likely won’t be as successful in the future.
The private bill is supposed to be a place of last resort for people or groups who have exhausted every other resource and have no other route to get what they want. They have actually been around since the Roman times and were then crafted to help people gain privileges they wouldn’t normally get.
In the United States, they’ve been employed since the first Congress; during the Civil War they were common for getting some soldiers certain perks.
In modern times, they are mostly used to help undocumented immigrants receive temporary stays while federal officials review their cases.
Polis, a Democrat from Boulder, has introduced a handful of private bills for Vizguerra. She has received five stays from immigration authorities.
“It’s worked every time,” Polis said.
But earlier in May, the acting director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement alerted Congress (letter embedded below) that they would no longer honor private bills the way they used to. They won’t grant temporary stays for undocumented immigrants unless the request was made by a committee or subcommittee chair, and if a request is granted, it will only happen once.
The changes are disappointing to Perlmutter, who had never introduced a private bill until drawing one up for Garcia, a small business owner with American children who lived in a church in 2014 and 2015.
“I don’t think the private bill has been abused in any fashion,” Perlmutter said. “For me, I had never used it until 2015. It was not something I had sought for anybody. But I felt his case was special and I felt like we should get him home and out of the church where he was residing so he could take care of his family.”
Bennet also introduced a private bill in hopes of helping Garcia.
“He’s been a valued member of our community for two decades,” Bennet said. “And it seemed to me important and consistent with my view of how they ought to be enforcing their policies that we should ask them to take a second look at this.”
It turns out, because of the policy changes out of the Trump administration, Vizguerra and Garcia may be among the last recipients of relief from private bills – at least the way they were employed up until now.
Laura Lichter, Garcia’s attorney, said it was the private bill that gave Garcia two years of reprieve while she continued to work on his case.
“As much as I’d like to claim we’re amazing lawyers,” she said, “this is because there was a Congressional request.”