Two high profile immigrants who took sanctuary in Denver churches were each granted a two-year stay of removal last week by immigration officials. Arturo Hernandez Garcia and Jeanette Vizguerra were given the temporary postponement of deportation on May 11 after receiving support in the form of personal legislative bills sponsored by U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and U.S. Reps. Jared Polis and Ed Perlmutter.
But in a letter released just before the stays were announced, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Acting Director Thomas Homan laid out changes to ICE protocol that now limit the ability of such legislation to aid undocumented immigrants as they pursue permanent residency in the future.
Private immigration bills seek to help individuals who no longer have any other recourse to stay in the country. Garcia and Vizguerra had both been through the court system and upon given final notices of deportation, entered sanctuary, although at different times.
Garcia left sanctuary at the First Unitarian Society of Denver almost two years ago after receiving a letter from ICE indicating he was no longer a deportation priority. He left the church, and returned to his daily life until he was detained by ICE again on April 26, 2017 at his workplace. He spent several days at the ICE Denver Contract Detention Facility in Aurora until he was granted a 30-day stay of removal and released. The two-year stay granted on May 11 will give his lawyers additional time to work on his immigration case.
Although Vizguerra was given a final deportation order in 2013, she has survived with six-month to year-long stays of removal until her most recent one ran out in the beginning of February. But on Friday, May 12, she walked out of the First Baptist Church in Denver after spending the previous 86 days in sanctuary. The mother of four, grandmother of one celebrated after being granted a two-year stay of removal that allows her to remain in the country without fear of deportation until March 15, 2019. She has a pending U Visa application as a victim of a violent crime that happened more than a decade ago, which if approved will give her a pathway to citizenship.
There have been about 50 private bills, like the ones that benefitted Garcia and Vizguerra, introduced in the last two years. Although private legislation rarely gets passed (just three such bills have been enacted in the last decade), they have been an effective legislative tool to postpone deportations while immigrants pursue other legal options for staying in the country. Rep. Polis had previously introduced private legislation for Vizguerra in 2014 and 2015, in addition to 2017. Rep. Perlmutter introduced legislation for Garcia in 2015 as well as this year, and Sen. Bennet supported both of them with bills this year.
“In the past, I have used private bills as a last resort after all other avenues have been exhausted, and they have worked to keep families together,” Polis says in an email statement. “The fact is that millions of aspiring Americans are unfairly stuck in a gray area because our system is broken. Private bills used to be a way to give aspiring Americans with exceedingly compelling factors more time to resolve their cases.”
Homan outlined the changes to ICE policy regarding private bills in a letter sent to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the past, ICE granted stays of removal to people when they received a request for an investigation into the individual case. Stays could be granted to a person until Congress took action on the private bill in their name.
But Homan wrote that private bills are regularly reintroduced, yet seldom enacted, effectively granting an ongoing stay of removal for a person. This, he wrote, “could prevent ICE from removing aliens who fall within the enforcement priorities outlined” in a January executive order issued by President Trump that broadened the group of immigrants ICE should be motivated to detain and/or deport.
Now, Homan wrote, ICE will issue a one-time, six-month stay of removal only after it receives a written request from the chair of the Judiciary Committee or Subcommittee —requests for further investigation “will no longer trigger an automatic stay of removal,” he wrote. The ICE director, at his or her discretion, can issue a one-time 90-day extension on the six-month stay, and reserves the right to remove people who have been granted a stay if they discover “derogatory information” about the person.
“The threshold that ICE has laid out effectively ends private bills as a tool for members of Congress to use to help immigrants who have exhausted all administrative options but whose cases present exceptional humanitarian factors that are above and beyond the norm,” Polis says.
After their two-year stays expire, Garcia and Vizguerra will again be subject to deportation unless their immigration status or ICE protocol changes in the meantime.