- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2017

Top Democrats accused Homeland Security of trying to punish illegal immigrants by refusing to halt their deportations even as Congress debates bills to grant them special legal status, saying Monday that it was the latest “mean-spirited” move by the Trump administration to upend longstanding protections.

The move appears to be aimed at cutting off a method Democrats could have used to protect a select group of high-profile migrants from ouster.

For years, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had a policy of holding off on deportation of someone if members of Congress had written legislation granting them legal status — something known as a “private bill.”

But Thomas Homan, acting director at ICE, notified Congress late last week that his agency will no longer automatically follow that practice, saying it would run afoul of President Trump’s new executive order pushing deportation for criminals and public safety risks.

ICE will now only stop a deportation if it gets a specific request from the chairman of the Judiciary Committee or the relevant subcommittee in either the House or Senate. And ICE will only allow one stay, Mr. Homan said, meaning that illegal immigrants can’t be protected indefinitely by congressional request.

In practice, the number of people affected is small.

Just 27 private bills were introduced in the last Congress, spanning 2015 and 2016. So far this year 15 private bills have been filed, suggesting an uptick — but still far from a flood of requests.

The bills rarely go anywhere, however.

No private bills were signed into law in either of the last two Congresses, and just three have been enacted over the last decade.

Mr. Homan said since so few of the immigration bills ever become law, holding off on deportations doesn’t make sense.

“The stay mechanism, combined with the repeated introduction of bills, which are rarely, if ever enacted, could prevent ICE from removing aliens who fall within the enforcement priorities outline [by the president], including those who pose a risk to public safety or national security,” Mr. Homan wrote.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Richard J. Durbin, ranking Democrat on the immigration subcommittee, said the Trump administration was scrapping decades’ worth of precedent without even working with Congress.

They said it was the most deserving immigrants — ones whose cases were strong enough to rise to the notice of members of Congress — that would be affected.

“Children’s and families’ lives are on the line,” the senators said in a joint statement. “Private immigration bills are a critical safety net that Democrats and Republicans alike have carefully used for a small number of the most critical cases.”

Private bills used to be a popular practice in Congress, with thousands of them introduced in the 1970s — and hundreds enacted into law. They apply not only to immigration but also to property deals and to the award of military honors.

Still, immigration cases have generally been the most common use of private bills. Usually the bills ask for a waiver of the part of federal law that requires illegal immigrants to return home for up to 10 years before being eligible to return to the U.S. under legal status.

“This administration has already demonstrated a willful disregard for the Constitution’s separation of powers in the name of the president’s deportation agenda,” the two senators said. “For DHS to threaten to deport a handful of immigrants before Congress can act to protect them shows just how far this administration will go.”

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