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White House Ends Congressional Bill Allowing Deportation Delays For Immigrants


Federal authorities recently gave 30 people in the U.S. illegally permission to stay here a while longer. They're some of the last beneficiaries of a longstanding system in which members of Congress intervene in immigration cases. By drafting what's known as a private bill, under the Trump administration, they don't carry the weight that they used to. Colorado Public Radio reporter Allison Sherry reports.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Spanish).

ALLISON SHERRY, BYLINE: Those are the sounds of celebration in downtown Denver this month after Arturo Hernandez Garcia and Jeanette Vizguerra got news they can stay in the United States at least until 2019. The two unauthorized immigrants had lived in Colorado churches to avoid deportation. Several members of Congress introduced private bills on their behalf. Colorado Democratic Senator Michael Bennet helped Garcia.

MICHAEL BENNET: He's been a valued member of our community for two decades, and it seemed to me important to - and consistent with my view how they ought to be enforcing their policies that we should ask them to take a second look at this.

SHERRY: The private bill is literally ancient history. The concept has been around since the Romans. In the United States, lawmakers have employed them since the very first Congress as a tool of last resort. They are rare. Only a few dozen are introduced each year. Laura Lichter is Garcia's Denver-based attorney.

LAURA LICHTER: There was always a sense that if a congressperson was willing to put their political capital on the line for somebody, that it was probably reasonable for the agency to hold off on a deportation.

SHERRY: In the past, private bills, even if they were just introduced, delayed deportations for years. Take Jeanette Vizguerra. The outspoken immigrant activist is one of Time Magazine's most influential people of the year. Her story also caught the attention of Democratic Congressman Jared Polis.

JARED POLIS: It's worked every time we've tried it. We have introduced private bills on her behalf since 2013. And she's gotten five stays of removal as a result.

SHERRY: Most of these bills never pass. They just get reintroduced. So the Trump administration has alerted Congress it will no longer honor the legislation the way it used to. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it will only grant stays if one or two high-ranking members of the judiciary committee makes a written request. That's a high hurdle if the immigrant doesn't live in that lawmaker's state.

The agency also will not grant more than one six-month reprieve. On Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats are calling that mean-spirited. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Dick Durbin said in a joint statement that family's lives are on the line. They said the Trump administration shouldn't deport people before Congress can act to protect them. Michele Waslin is a researcher at the American Immigration Council. She says private bills have been a bipartisan tradition.

MICHELE WASLIN: People that have been, you know, singled out by members of Congress - both Democrats and Republicans introduce these private bills. It's kind of a last-ditch attempt to try to protect somebody from deportation when everything else has failed.



SHERRY: Back in Colorado, Arturo Hernandez Garcia and his family have been pursuing legal status in the United States for almost two decades. Since receiving a temporary reprieve, he has returned to his work in the flooring business and recently attended his daughter's high school graduation. But Garcia faces another deadline in 2019, and his lawyer says she is working on even more creative ways to convince authorities to allow him to stay. For NPR News in Denver, I'm Allison Sherry. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Sherry