Here’s how it works: Any U.S. Senator or Representative may file a “private bill,” proposing relief for a person who has been denied asylum, but still wants to live in the United States. The bill gets referred to the Judiciary Committee, which generally does not act on private bills. If the appropriate subcommittee requests a report, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) allows the individual to stay in the country under “deferred action.” At the start of the next Congress, the bill’s sponsor simply re-files the bill, restarting the process.
In the 112th Congress, dozens of such bills were filed by members of both parties and several resulted in requests for reports. While the individual stories are often compelling, this little-noticed loophole allows those who can attract the support of a Member of Congress a great advantage over those will equally compelling stories but no such access.
More curious, though, is that some of the lawmakers who have offered private immigration bills in the past two Congresses have been otherwise staunch opponents of reforms that would provide the same chance for others — even opponents of President Obama’s “deferred action” order for young immigrants brought to the U.S. as small children.
Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-CA) has proposed eliminating the constitutional guarantee that all humans born in the United States will be citizens and vocally opposed deferred action for DREAM Act-eligible young people whose parents brought them to the U.S. illegally. But a private bill he filed for the third consecutive Congress would grant immigration visa — to a Colombian family of four who were denied asylum despite their claims that they were being extorted by guerrillas who threatened to kidnap the young son.
The proposal, as written, would make each of the four “eligible for issuance of an immigrant visa or for adjustment of status to that of an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence upon filing an application for issuance of an immigrant visa.” Additionally, the bill would reduce — by four — the number of immigrant visas available to other natives of their home country.
Hunter opposed the DREAM Act and co-sponsored the HALT Act, a bill to halt deferred action in most cases. When the Obama administration announced last year it would stop deporting DREAM-eligible youth, he responded, “The idea that illegal immigrants will be rewarded with a form of legal status, even if it’s on a temporary basis, is an insult to the rule of law and anyone who has ever entered the U.S. through the front door or those who are legally waiting for their opportunity… This policy sends the message that laws are simply a tool of convenience and they are subject to arbitrary enforcement.”
Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Hunter told ThinkProgress that the situations were different as the Colombian family had “entered legally, on a visitor visa, then applied for asylum.” He added that “more than enough information has been put forward to make a very compelling case that the family is at significant risk. It’s also enough to necessitate the legislation. But there’s a difference between asylum, as intended here, and selective amnesty, especially when the decisions to initiate reprieves fall outside the parameters of the law.”
Another HALT Act cosponsor, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) blasted Obama’s deferred action as “a betrayal of American young people.” But he also authored a private bill in 2012 to aid a Pakistani physician who helped the CIA catch Osama bin Laden.
Kristin Ford, a spokeswoman for United We Dream — an immigrant youth organization that advocates for immigration reform — told ThinkProgress, “We are challenging politicians who seek to offer a path to citizenship only to the most deserving immigrants, if any at all. It is hypocritical for politicians to sponsor ‘private bills’ to help individual immigrants while blocking our communities from accessing a clear, direct path to citizenship.”
A spokeswoman for ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.