Marco Antonio Reyes Alvarez, the undocumented Ecuadorian immigrant who has found sanctuary from deportation in a church downtown, might face a prolonged stay at First & Summerfield due to a new directive that limits the ability of members of Congress to halt removal orders.
Federal legislators have regularly introduced “private immigration bills,” which, if passed, would grant permanent legal residency to a person who entered the country illegally. More importantly, while the private immigration bills were being considered, federal agents at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) used to hold off on deporting the individual. If a U.S. senator was willing to stick his neck out for an undocumented immigrant, authorities would take that into consideration before kicking the immigrant out of the country.
But effective this year, agents are no longer waiting to see if a private immigration bill can pass both chambers and get Donald Trump’s signature. Unless a committee chairman pens a letter, ICE will proceed with enforcement actions, regardless of a congressman’s intervention.
That might interfere with Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s last-ditch attempt to shield Reyes from removal.
In a statement to the Independent, Blumenthal expressed outrage at the policy change.
“Private bills are one useful means of addressing the shortcomings of our broken immigration system in especially egregious cases of injustice,” the senator said. “The Trump administration’s shameful policy changes make the need for comprehensive immigration reform all the more urgent.”
On Aug. 3, just before the Senate broke for a summer recess, Blumenthal introduced a private immigration bill for Reyes — five days before the 45-year-old father of three would skip his flight back to Ecuador, a country he hasn’t seen in 20 years, and take refuge in a church.
Blumenthal’s bill is governed by new rules, issued on May 5, when ICE’s acting director, Thomas Homan, informed the chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees that his agents would no longer automatically grant a stay of removal each time a private immigration bill is introduced.
The one exception: the chair of the full committee or a subcommittee — all Republicans — can still request a stay in writing. Even then, Homan’s directive says immigrants can receive only one stay, shortened to six months.
Because the bill was filed in the last hours of the legislative session, Blumenthal didn’t have time to send a letter to his colleague Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee, and ask for a stay of removal. (Grassley has requested at least one private immigration bill for his own constituents.) Under the new rules, absent a letter from Grassley, ICE will continue to target Reyes for deportation.
“The Trump administration’s policies are cruel and unjust and ignore considerations relating to family ties, lack of criminal record, and pending appeals — a round-up, in effect, of anyone whose immigration status may be in question,” Blumenthal stated. “They mark an abrupt and arbitrary change from longstanding policies that prioritized serious criminal offenders and others who are dangerous.”
(Thirty immigrants, whose private relief bills were introduced this session before Homan’s letter went out, were granted stays until March 2019, according to Shawn Neudauer, a spokesperson for ICE’s New England office.)
ICE said it altered the process because few of the private immigration bills ever become law. Between 1986 and 2013, close to 100 private immigration bills were signed into law, only eight of which were introduced after 9/11. These days, most die in committee.
“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” that Trump outlined in an executive order on sanctuary cities, Homan wrote.
A Democratic congressman from Colorado, Rep. Jared Polis, said he believes ICE’s policy was drafted in response to a stay for Jeanette Vizguerra, a mother of four and grandmother of one. Vizguerra spent 86 days in sanctuary in the First Baptist Church in Denver before gaining a two-year stay.
“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 told his hometown Boulder Weekly in May. “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.”
Reyes’s attorney, Erin O’Neil-Baker, is separately requesting a stay of removal from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, while she tries to reopen his cases before the Board of Immigration Appeals and the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services.