Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly said that former Florida state representative Bill McCollum (R), now the state's attorney general, faced official condemnation for sponsoring a private immigration bill. McCollum was criticized for the proposal, but he did not face official censure.

Some Immigration Bills Aim for Little Victories

Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.) with Malik Jarno, a teen from Guinea on whose behalf private bills have been filed. The bills did not pass. (Courtesy Of International Friendship House)

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By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 30, 2007

Congress has repeatedly snubbed plans that would hand out green cards to millions of illegal immigrants. But how about one for Genevieve Vang?

Vang's 17-year quest to gain political asylum through normal channels has been frustrated at every turn. But under Senate Bill 1648, permanent U.S. residency would be granted to Vang, her husband and two of their children -- Laotians living in Michigan -- and to them alone.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), is one of nearly 60 pending "private" bills that would grant permanent residency, or green cards, to specific immigrants battling deportation, including a Bangladeshi man facing a death sentence in his homeland, a Kenyan woman whose American husband died before he could make her a legal resident and a German teen who has spent half his life in Ohio.

"He's still in danger of being deported, and so we want to get him some kind of legal status," said Rep. Paul E. Gillmor (R-Ohio) of his bill on behalf of the German teen, Manuel Bartsch, who was brought to America by his step-grandfather and jailed two years ago after contacting immigration authorities for records he needed to take a college entrance exam.

For those whose requests have been denied by federal officials and rejected by immigration judges, Congress is the court of last resort. Touched by their stories and convinced of the need for occasional flexibility, lawmakers have introduced more than 500 private immigration bills since 1996.

The method has critics. Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin calls it "instant amnesty." Some immigrant advocates call it special treatment for people with common problems. Those concerns have contributed to a low success rate. Since 1996, just 36 private immigration bills have passed.

Still, dozens of bills are introduced, sometimes several sessions in a row. Immigration authorities typically postpone deportation while a private bill awaits action.

Common beneficiaries are foreign children adopted by U.S. citizens after their 16th birthdays, making the adoption irrelevant for immigration purposes, and immigrants whose American spouses perished. Many have attracted media attention to the point that they are local celebrities.

"Some have been working for a number of years, and the family is getting ready to be broken up," said Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), who has sponsored a bill for the second year that would give legal residency to 34 Mexican, Polish, Tanzanian and Serbian immigrants, not all of whom Rush has met. "I was inspired by the harm that would take place in the families."

Private bills were once more popular -- and fruitful. Thousands were enacted during the first hundred Congresses. But today's heated immigration debate and other factors have led to a decline, experts say.

A 1965 law emphasized family reunification as a criterion for immigration, and that previously was the basis of many private claims. At the same time, scandal has been a deterrent to private bills. In the 1980 Abscam sting, FBI agents posing as Arab sheiks offered payments to members of Congress for private immigration bills, leading to the ouster of seven lawmakers. Two decades later, Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) faced censure for a private bill to aid the son of a state Republican Party leader.

Some members of Congress refuse to sponsor private bills because they fear "an onslaught of requests," said Christopher Nugent, a Washington immigration lawyer who represents Malik Jarno, a mentally retarded teenager from Guinea.


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