LOS ANGELES (AP) — U.S. authorities have said they are reducing the amount of time they will delay deporting the few immigrants in the country illegally awaiting congressional decisions to legalize their immigration status after lawmakers file so-called "private bills" supporting their last-ditch bids to remain in the country.
In a letter to lawmakers, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Acting Director Thomas Homan said the agency will only hold off deporting immigrants with legislation pending on their behalf for up to six months with the possibility of one 90-day extension.
In the past, authorities held off deporting people much longer, in some cases years, while these bills wound through one or more sessions of Congress.
In addition, the agency said congressional leaders of the judiciary committees or key subcommittees must now formally ask authorities to delay carrying out deportations, Homan wrote in the letter late last week.
The move changes how federal immigration authorities handle cases of immigrants with cases compelling enough for U.S. lawmakers to sponsor bills on their behalf in final efforts to help them avoid deportation.
The change affects few people but comes as the Trump administration seeks to tighten immigration enforcement and build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Few of these bills are offered by lawmakers, and fewer still pass. Only 94 private immigration bills were enacted between 1986 and 2013, according to a Congressional Research Service report that analyzed the bills that passed.
Democratic Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Dianne Feinstein of California criticized the decision to change longstanding practices they said was made without consulting lawmakers.
"To threaten to deport a handful of immigrants before Congress can act to protect them shows just how far this Administration will go," they said in a statement.
The immigration agency said in a statement the change sought to prevent authorities from being blocked from carrying out deportations if the bills are introduced repeatedly.
Authorities granted at least 70 stays of deportation over the last six years because of bills filed on immigrants' behalf, the agency said.
Examples of immigrants who avoided deportation and got congressional approval in 2010 to stay in the U.S. included the Japanese widow of a U.S. Marine who gave birth to their son after he was killed in Iraq and a man whose mother was killed in a U.S. car crash when he was teen who had never been legally adopted.
Gregory Chen, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said immigrants could now be deported before lawmakers review bills on their behalf.
The agency "is really tightening down on all aspects, including areas where Congress might be able to engage on extraordinary cases," he said. "It wants greater latitude to deport more people."