WASHINGTON — Fresno resident Nayely Arreola was a high school junior when a U.S. senator first protected her from deportation. The year: 2003.
Nayely is now 25, newly married and a graduate of Fresno Pacific University. She and her family still remain protected, thanks to special bills that need not pass to exert influence.
"Perhaps the greatest hardship to this family, if forced to return to Mexico, will be (Nayely's) lost opportunity to realize her dreams and further contribute to her community and this country," Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein declared.
As she has regularly since 2003, Feinstein in March re-introduced a so-called private bill on behalf of the Arreola family. It effectively blocks deportation, even without final approval from Congress.
Private bills, though controversial in some circles, have become a part of Feinstein's arsenal.
Feinstein this year has introduced 13 private bills to block deportations, more than any other member of Congress. Her private bills account for one-fifth of the 64 private bills introduced in the entire House and Senate, records show.
Each bill would grant specific individuals legal U.S. residency. To balance the immigration books, each bill correspondingly reduces the number of visas available to others. All told, Feinstein's 13 bills would grant 28 illegal immigrants U.S. residency.
Once introduced, the bills essentially freeze immigration enforcement actions. Consequently, the private bills reintroduced every Congress amount to permanent ad hoc solutions.
"It's been a huge blessing to have these bills," Nayely said Friday.
Nayely Arreola Carlos, as she is now known, works as an admissions counselor at Fresno Pacific while she's studying for a master's in business administration. The private bills, she said, have opened opportunities including her undergraduate scholarship.
Nayely's father, Esidronio, first entered the United States illegally in 1986 as a migrant farmworker. Feinstein said "poor legal representation" by a subsequently disbarred attorney cost Esidronio and his wife, Maria Elena, a conventional shot at legal residency.
Even under the private bill shield, though, Nayely acknowledged anxiety. Every year, her family is reinvestigated. The future brings uncertainty.
"Not knowing what happens if Senator Feinstein is no longer in office," Nayely said, describing her big looming concern.
Fresno truck driver Ruben Mkoian and his family have likewise stayed in the United States with the help of private bills repeatedly introduced by Feinstein. So has a San Bruno couple from Laos and Taiwan, a Pacifica resident from the Philippines and a Reedley family originally from Mexico, among others.
Critics call the private bills a bad habit. In the past, some private bills in particular have given lawmakers a black eye.
Last year, reflecting in part the congressional discomfort, only two private bills were signed into law. One was Feinstein's. In 2009, no private bill became law.
"Private bills should only be used for very extraordinary circumstances, not just because someone is a good student," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
While acknowledging that "there is a potential role" for rare private bills, Krikorian warned that "the danger is that they become a goodie you can give to friends and supporters." Choosing beneficiaries can also become very subjective, he cautioned.
Gregory Chen, advocacy director for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, added that private bills require "particularly compelling circumstances." Different people can have different ideas of what qualifies, he stressed.
On Friday, noting that "California is a state of 38 million residents," Feinstein said she has introduced private bills "on rare occasions ... for cases that were compelling, for one reason or another."
Private immigration bills were once common, with hundreds passing annually. The Congressional Research Service noted private bills began to decline after the 1970s following "a series of corruption scandals ... involving payoffs for the sponsorship of private immigration laws."
When she introduces them, Feinstein casts the private bills as justice for families filled with high-achievers and hard-workers.
Ruben Mkoian, for instance, was a police officer in Armenia who was reportedly attacked when he blew the whistle on corruption. He, his wife, Asmik Karapetian, and their 3-year-old son, Arthur, fled to the United States in the early 1990s but eventually were denied political asylum.
Arthur is now a junior at the University of California at Davis, studying chemistry.
"The Mkoians have worked hard to build a place for their family in California," Feinstein stated.
In a similar vein, Feinstein in 2004 first introduced a private bill to aid the family of Ana Laura Buendia, a straight-A student at Reedley High School. Later this year, still protected by the latest private bill, Ana Laura will graduate from the University of California at Irvine.
"The Buendias," Feinstein said, "have shown that they are committed to working to achieve the American dream."