On Tuesday, the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing with the less-than-impartial title, “President Obama’s Executive Overreach on Immigration.” But many of the same members of Congress who are decrying the president’s unilateral decision to halt the deportations of some undocumented immigrants are using their own unilateral power to effectively halt deportation of individuals of their own choosing.
Sunday, Senator-Elect and current Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR), sharply criticized last month’s executive action. “The president just lost an election, in no small measure because wages for working families are declining and unemployment is still too high in too many places, and the first big action he took after the election was to make it easier for illegal immigrants to get jobs, not for working families to get jobs,” he told Meet the Press host Chuck Todd. In earlier interviews, he threatened to defund such action and suggested the possibility of blocking judicial nominees to retaliate for what he termed “President Obama’s lawless actions.”
But a little-noticed bill filed by Cotton in June would grant similar protections to a trio of non-citizens, “Notwithstanding subsections (a) and (b) of section 201 of the Immigration and Nationality Act.” His bill would have allowed Meriam Yahya Ibrahim (a Sudanese woman later granted asylum after being sentenced to death for apostasy after converting to Christianity) and her children eligibility “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.” While the House never acted on Cotton’s bill, it was not necessary.
Here’s why: any individual U.S. senator or representative can file a “private bill,” proposing relief for a person who has not been granted asylum or citizenship, but still wants to live in the United States. The bill gets assigned to a committee, but almost never comes up for a vote. While in committee, the administration is asked to weigh in on the merits of the person in question. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) almost always allows the individual to stay in the country under “deferred action,” as long as the bill is technically pending in Congress. The end result is that sponsor is unilaterally able to do much the same thing as the “deferred action” granted by President Obama and his predecessors in both parties. At the start of the next Congress, the bill’s sponsor simply re-files the bill, restarting the process.
Similarly, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) filed a private bill in 2012 to grant relief to Dr. Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor who helped the U.S. capture Osama Bin Laden. But after President Obama’s executive action, Rohrabacher decried it as “autocratic contempt for our democratic governing system” a “naked power grab,” and and a “lawless action.” A spokesman for Rohrabacher told ThinkProgress that he sees “no contradiction” between the positions as the “executive action was an attempt to defy the will of Congress,” while the private bill effort “defines congressional will.”
Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH) has also been a vocal critic of the executive action, likening his bypassing of Congress to a “grenade” from the president. A private bill he filed in January to grant relief to John Cheruiyot Kemboi and Winnie Njeri Kemboi, a married Kenyan couple who had sought asylum. A Tiberi spokeswoman told ThinkProgress that one of their children, a U.S. citizen, has health problems and the Kembois want to stay in the country to care for him. “If anything the Kemboi family situation is yet another example of our broken immigration system,” she explained, and “Congressman Tiberi believes that the president should work with Congress to fix the nation’s immigration problems, not just issue mandates from the Oval Office.”
Rep. Peter King (R-NY) blasted President Obama’s executive action as “unconstitutional” and designed to divide the GOP. His own “private bills” have spared Alemseghed Mussie Tesfamical from deportaiton back to Eritrea for the past several Congresses. And Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), who opined that “the President’s ‘go it alone’ approach drives a political wedge into ongoing reform efforts and recklessly disregards our nation’s lawmaking process,” filed a private bill last year to assist Ibrahim Parlak, a controversial Kurdish immigrant.
While most of the critics have been Republicans, a handful of Democrats have also objected to the executive action. One, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) warned that executive action would “cause more problems” than it it would solve. But he filed a private bill to help Corina de Chalup Turcinovic, a French-born widow.
The offices of Reps. Cotton, King, Lipinski, and Upton did not immediately respond to a ThinkProgress inquiry about the bills and the apparent contradiction.