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What is a private immigration bill, and how and when should it be used?

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What is a private immigration bill?

A private immigration bill is a bill passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by the president of the United States that gives an immigration benefit – usually lawful permanent resident status – to one or more specific individuals (called “beneficiaries”). Private immigration bills can be thought of as specific laws passed to benefit specific individuals (or a group of individuals); or, looked at differently, a specific law that exempts a person from the general law. Private bills are therefore different from public bills, which are far more common and typically affect large segments of the population.

Private immigration bills are often only considered when a person – the beneficiary – has a compelling need for an immigration benefit, and all other options – including administrative and legal options – have been exhausted.

How often are private immigration bills enacted?

Private bills are rarely enacted, and should be viewed as a last option when all other options have failed. Private bills are contemplated in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress the power to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Private bills were relatively common before 1971, but have significantly decreased in frequency. Since 2007, only six private immigration bills have been enacted. However, the rate of enactment appears to have increased since the election of Joe Biden. As an example, during the 117th Congress alone (from 2021-2022), 39 private immigration bills were introduced, and three were passed – an enactment rate of 7.7%.

For a recent list of private immigration bills, their sponsors, and their outcomes, see here. For an example of a recent private immigration bill, signed by President Biden in December 2022, see here (An Act for the Relief of Rebecca Trimble).

Who might consider a private immigration bill?

Private immigration bills are often considered by those who are being threatened with removal from the United States, and who have exhausted all options to remain in the U.S. Exhaustion of other options usually includes both administrative options (through the executive branch, such as the Department of Homeland Security or Department of State) and legal options (through the judicial branch, including district courts).

For example, the beneficiary might have already attempted to secure relief by seeking residency status through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Department of State, and might have then sued the government once administrative options to secure residency status were exhausted. If relief is unavailable from both the executive branch and the judicial branch, it might be time to turn to the legislative branch to pursue a private immigration bill.

Keep in mind that enactment of private immigration bills is rare, and the beneficiary’s ability to point to significant hardship can make a significant difference. The successful beneficiary will usually be able to point to extraordinary harm that the beneficiary or those dependent on the beneficiary will face if the beneficiary is required to leave the U.S. For example, the beneficiary might be responsible for caring for a sick U.S. citizen child or parent, or the beneficiary might require significant and extensive medical treatment for their own ailment.

What are the risks of a private immigration bill?

The process of pursuing a private bill requires that the beneficiary be very public about their immigration status and circumstances, which they must share with the U.S. government. The beneficiary will likely need to disclose, among other things, details about all of their past entries into and departures from the U.S., all past applications for immigration benefits, and any criminal history. They may also need to disclose the current status of their family members in the United States, which could draw the government’s attention to those individuals. For a sense of the broad range of information that must be shared for a private immigration bill, see the House Rules of Procedure for Private Immigration Bills here. Congress might also ask government agencies (such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE) for additional information regarding the beneficiary’s case or history.

Because beneficiaries are often facing removal from the U.S., it can be risky to draw the government’s attention to the beneficiary’s circumstances. If the private bill does not materialize, the beneficiary and their family members might be left with no other options and may face removal.

What is the process to request and enact a private immigration bill?

A private immigration bill can be initiated in either the House or Senate, and the procedure is the same as that applied to other legislation.

Oftentimes the beneficiary (or their legal representative) will initiate the private bill process by contacting the congressional representative of the state where the beneficiary lives, and explaining the circumstances of their situation and why a private bill is necessary. The beneficiary and their attorney may draft the proposed private bill. The Congressperson, if they agree to do so, would refer the bill to the relevant subcommittee, such as the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship.

The congressperson will usually testify in support of the bill. To learn more about the process in the House, see the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship’s Rules of Procedure for Private Immigration Bills here. For an example of how information about the beneficiary is presented to Congress, see the Committee Report for the Bill for the Relief of Rebecca Trimble, here. To read a transcript of a congressperson’s testimony in support of a private bill, see here.

Once the bill is enacted by Congress, it will be presented to the president for signature. The president may also choose to veto the private bill. Once the president signs the bill, it goes into effect.

What protections or benefits are given to me once I request a private immigration bill?

Introduction of a private immigration bill does not, in and of itself, confer any protections on the beneficiary or change their status in the United States. Nor does introduction of the private bill result in an automatic stay of removal. However, once the private bill is introduced, Congress can request an investigative report from ICE regarding the beneficiary, which ICE has suggested would result in the agency temporarily refraining from immigration enforcement actions against the beneficiary. In practice, one’s chances of receiving a stay of removal are likely better if the private bill is submitted to the Senate rather than the House.

Is there anything else the beneficiary must do to improve the chances that the private bill will be enacted?

Yes. A private immigration bill is a piece of legislation. Just like any legislation, the chances of it being passed are far higher if Congress sees that there is strong public support for it.

Therefore, the beneficiary and their attorney should think carefully and creatively about how to publicize the need for the private bill’s enactment – including, for example, by drawing local government and media attention to the hardship that the beneficiary and their family will face if the law is not passed. Community members should be encouraged to contact their government representatives to express their support for the bill.

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