Politics & Government

Private bills can halt deportation, but rarely bring resolution

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein intervened in 2003 to help Nayely Arreola of Porterville, Calif., and her family avoid deportation to Mexico, answering her prayers. But Arreola now thinks it was a mixed blessing.

The legislation Feinstein introduced on Arreola's behalf -- a so-called private bill -- has languished in committee and might never be approved. Feinstein has reintroduced it to keep it alive and could do so again in January.

As long as the bill is pending, the Arreola family can stay in the United States. But until it passes, they remain in limbo, knowing that one day they may have to leave.

"It has been helpful," said Arreola, who graduated in May from Fresno Pacific University with a bachelor's degree in business administration. But she added: "It's very nerve-racking for my parents, who have to sit and wait. ... It's like a roller coaster."

A private bill can lead to permanent legal residency and often is a high-profile affair, generating headlines about the end of an immigration nightmare. That was the case Tuesday, when Feinstein introduced a bill on behalf of Arthur Mkoyan, a Bullard High School valedictorian who had faced deportation to Armenia.

But after the attention fades, those who benefit from such bills find that their plight is far from over.

Arreola said she must apply each year for authorization to work in the United States, even though she has lived here since she was a baby. Every time she changes her job or address, she must alert immigration authorities.

And it's unclear what will happen if Congress never passes a bill on her behalf. The Arreola family probably will have to approach Feinstein's successor to keep the bill alive after she leaves office.

The only long-term solution, advocates say, is comprehensive immigration reform.

"We need political courage," said David Leopold, vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "What Congress needs to do is pass a workable, user-friendly immigration law."

Only 41 of the 945 private bills introduced by House and Senate members since 1997 have been enacted, records show. This is a success rate of less than 5%.

Congress grew even more leery of private immigration bills in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Congressional Research Service noted in a 2005 study of the subject.

Once a bill is introduced, immigration officials halt deportation as "a matter of custom and courtesy," Congressional Research Service analyst Margaret Mikyung Lee noted in her study.

Lee wrote that if a bill dies and is not reintroduced, immigration authorities typically will set a new deportation date for February of the next congressional session.

"If there is no bill pending, we will move forward with the removal," said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

One of the few successful private bills was for a former South Vietnamese helicopter pilot named Nguyen Quy An. An, who lost both his arms in combat, moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. Congress was impressed with his service, which included saving the lives of four U.S. airmen, and lawmakers approved a private bill on his behalf.

Feinstein has won approval for four of 25 private bills she introduced since 1992, including one that helped a battered wife from Iran named Mina Vahedi Notash.

"I take these private bills very seriously," Feinstein said. "I insist that my staff work up and vet the case thoroughly. This is not a casual decision. It takes compelling circumstances for me to offer a private bill."

In 2003, the Arreola family's story grabbed attention in the central San Joaquin Valley.

Nayely Arreola was a baby when her parents brought her into the United States illegally in 1986 from Mexico. In the late 1990s, her father, Esidronio Arreola, hired a San Francisco attorney to help obtain legal status for himself, his wife, Nayely and another daughter.

Esidronio Arreola said he followed his attorney's advice and lied to immigration officials about being politically persecuted in Mexico. The lawyer was later disbarred for misconduct. An immigration judge ordered the four to leave the country.

Supporters characterized the Arreolas as hard-working, law-abiding immigrants who were victimized by bad legal advice. Feinstein's office said at the time that Esidronio Arreola would have been eligible for permanent residence through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers program had he known he could apply.

Nayely Arreola was 16 and had a 3.9 grade-point average at Granite Hills High School in Porterville when her deportation was halted by the bill. Three of her siblings are U.S. citizens.

Arthur Mkoyan's story was different in its details, if not in its emotional appeal.

Mkoyan, 17, and his mother, Asmik Karapetian, were ordered to leave the United States in late June for Armenia. Arthur's 12-year-old brother, a U.S. citizen, would have had no choice but to leave with the family, family members have said. Ruben Mkoian, Arthur's father, was scheduled to leave for Armenia from a detention center in Eloy, Ariz. He was released after Feinstein introduced her bill.

Arthur's family had entered the United States on tourist visas after fleeing the former Soviet Union. They then sought asylum from 1992.

Rep. George Radanovich, R- Mariposa, wrote a letter to Feinstein in support of a private bill for Mkoyan. But Radanovich doesn't believe in picking winners or losers in an immigration dispute, said Spencer Pederson, a spokesman for Radanovich. And Pederson said Radanovich also believes a private bill is easier to introduce in the Senate than the House.

The House and Senate judiciary committees have different rules for private immigration bills, according to the Congressional Research Service. The House panel will only get involved in cases of "extreme hardship," and the lawmaker must make a formal request at a public meeting of the immigration subcommittee.

The Senate does not require the "extreme hardship" standard to be met, and a formal meeting of the subcommittee is not required.

The bill filed on behalf of the Arreola family currently sits in the Senate judiciary committee.

Arreola said her recommendation to Arthur Mkoyan is to not lose hope, enjoy each day -- and prepare for the unexpected.

"We are still stuck in limbo not knowing anything," Arreola said. "Either the bill is passed, or there's a reform in immigration law."