WASHINGTON — On the morning of Jan. 28, federal agents knocked on Shirley Tan's door, showed her a deportation letter and then put her in handcuffs.
"I was put into a van with two men in yellow jumpsuits and chains and searched like a criminal in a way I have only seen on television and in the movies," said Tan, 44, a housewife and mother from Pacifica.
But today Tan is still in the United States, and she says there's only one reason why: "the great compassion" of California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
People seeking to get around U.S. immigration laws have found a good friend in the state's senior senator, who is going to unusual lengths to help her constituents avoid deportation.
Feinstein, a member of the Judiciary Committee, is the Senate's leader in using "private bills" as a way to keep people in the country who otherwise would have been forced to leave.
Private bills are relatively rare: Only 35 are pending in the Senate this year; 14 of them -- or 40 percent -- bear Feinstein's name. Thirteen of Feinstein's bills date back to previous sessions of Congress but were reintroduced this year.
The bills usually fail because of their narrow appeal, but deportation procedures are oftentimes put on hold when a member of Congress introduces a private bill.
When Feinstein offered a bill on behalf of Tan, her deportation was delayed until 2011.
Feinstein said her private bills are aimed at helping families or individuals who face "exceptional" circumstances.
"These are people who, if sent back to their home countries, would face enormous hardship," she said. "These individuals have no criminal backgrounds, they're financially secure, they pay their taxes, their children excel in school. They've truly embraced the American dream."
She acknowledged that private relief bills seldom pass "and many of my colleagues in the Senate have a policy never to introduce them." But she added: "My staff and I have thoroughly reviewed these cases and believe they merit such extraordinary relief as a private bill."
California's senators take drastically different approaches to private legislation. While Feinstein leads the Senate in private bills, Democrat Barbara Boxer has not introduced a single private bill since joining the Senate in 1993.
"Senator Boxer believes the most effective way to help her constituents is through great casework," said her spokesman, Zachary Coile. "Our caseworkers in California do an exceptional job of helping constituents resolve their problems."
The practice of introducing private bills has always raised questions of special treatment, said Jan Ting, who teaches immigration law at Temple University Law School in Philadelphia and who served as assistant commissioner at the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the early 1990s. But whenever a member of Congress took an interest in a case, he said, it prompted an immediate internal review.
"That was enough to put a sticker on the file. ... Our sense was that, well gosh, we owe it to Congress, who controls our funding, to at least see how the private bill plays out," Ting said.
But he said congressional leaders look disapprovingly at private bills, "as kind of clogging up the works."
"They don't feel that that's how immigration matters should be handled," Ting said. "And if you let too many private bills actually pass, you will then be deluged with private bills." But even if they don't pass, Ting said, "they work to focus attention on the case."
Only 36 private bills were approved and signed into law from 1995 until 2007, according to the Congressional Research Service. In a report to Congress, the research service said that private bills "warrant careful consideration" because they're "a special form of relief allowing the circumvention of the public laws" governing immigration.
For many members of Congress, private bills fell out of favor in the 1970s, after Abscam and a series of other corruption scandals involving payoffs for the sponsorship of private bills. Ting said that private bills then "were thought to be one more manifestation of the fruits of corruption."
Tan said she believes Feinstein lent her a sympathetic ear because her deportation would have resulted in the breakup of her family.
"The main reason is she doesn't want families to be torn apart, and a mom shouldn't be taken away from her American-born children," said Tan.
Feinstein has defended her private bills in speeches on the Senate floor.
She asked her colleagues to provide permanent resident status to Joseph Gabra and his wife, Sharon Kamel, Egyptian nationals living with their four children in Camarillo. Feinstein said they entered the U.S. in 1998 on tourist visas and immediately filed for political asylum based on religious persecution. She said the couple would "endure immense and unfair hardship" if forced to leave the country.
The couple fled Egypt because they had been targeted for their involvement in the Coptic Christian Church in Egypt. Gabra was employed from 1990-98 by the Coptic Catholic Diocese Church as an accountant and project coordinator. He was responsible for building community facilities such as religious schools, among other things. His wife was employed as the director for training in the human resources department of the Coptic Church.
Feinstein asked the Senate to approve a private bill for Esidronio Arreola-Saucedo, Maria Elna Cobian Arreola and their children, Nayely and Cindy, all living in the Fresno area. She said the family has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years and faced deportation because of "grievous errors committed by their previous counsel," who has since been disbarred.
And the senator introduced legislation to help Robert Liang and his wife, Alice Liang, of San Bruno, who entered the U.S. more than 25 years ago as tourists and overstayed the terms of their temporary visas. Robert Liang is a foreign national and refugee from Laos, while his wife is a citizen of Taiwan. They sought to change their immigration status in 1993, but the INS did not act on their application until five years later. An immigration judge said their request likely would have been approved if it had been acted on in a timely manner, before immigration laws changed in 1996.
In Tan's case, Feinstein intervened after federal courts denied her bid for asylum. After living in the U.S. for more than 20 years, Tan faced deportation back to her native Philippines. She said the law discriminates against her because she is a lesbian and cannot be sponsored for citizenship by her longtime partner, Jaylynn Mercado.
Tan pressed her case before the Senate Judiciary Committee in June, telling members of Congress that she merely wants to keep her family, which includes a pair of 12-year-old twins, together.
"We have a home together," she said. "Jay has a great job. We have a mortgage, a pension, friends and a community. We have everything together and it would be impossible to re-establish elsewhere."
In an interview, Tan said she is happy to be one of Feinstein's constituents.
"I'm just thankful and I feel so lucky that I was given a private bill by my senator, " Tan said. "Because if not for her, I would have been deported. It's only a senator that can do that."