Immigrant Bills Zero in on Few
Lawmakers seek breaks for those deemed worthy.Michael Doyle, Sacramento Bee, Jan. 31
WASHINGTON — Justice may be blind, but Congress is not.
At least when it comes to strict immigration rules. The congressional penchant for tough immigration laws is softened by sympathy once the laws are applied on a flesh-and-blood basis.
Consider the Buendia family of Reedley, the Arreola family of Porterville, the Cabrera family of Los Angeles.
Each family faces deportation for breaking U.S. immigration laws.
Each is now the beneficiary of a private bill introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., shielding them from deportation. Each family is described as uniquely deserving.
“I have tried to take only those cases that I believe are exceptional,” Feinstein said in an interview, “particularly those families that have been here a long time.”
Feinstein added that “we do our due diligence” in choosing which families will benefit from a private immigration bill. Many more immigrants seek such legislative help than end up receiving it.
After all, Feinstein elaborated in a statement, the Buendias’ daughter, Ana Laura, is a student at Reedley High School, “where she has earned a 4.0 GPA, which shows she is a highly motivated student.”
Similarly, Feinstein called Porterville’s Nayely Arreola “an outstanding student with a 3.91 grade point average who ranks fourth in her class of approximately 300 students.” The Cabrera family daughters were described as “especially gifted academically,” with one earning a coveted math-and-science scholarship.
“These are heart-rending cases, and I think compassion and mercy are part of the American dream,” Feinstein said. “There are certainly compelling cases where I think there can be exceptions to the law.”
Congress omitted grade-point averages or academic promise when it wrote the current immigration laws. In theory, the laws apply across the board. In practice, as Feinstein noted, some cases prompt far more sympathy than others. These gather the kind of political and media attention that can sway outcomes.
But it all adds up, some fear, to a system where political sentiment undermines the evenhanded application of the rules.
“You need to have some exceptions, some wriggle room,” said Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies. “The problem with the immigration system, though, is that it is so penetrated by exceptions and exemptions, and so buffeted by political pressure for lax enforcement in individual cases.”
Congress, Camarota added, “wants stringent enforcement in the abstract, but in individual cases it wants leniency.” One result, Camarota said, is an “arbitrariness” to the immigration decisions that are made.
Congress deploys several weapons on behalf of individual immigrants. The most dramatic is the introduction of so-called private bills. They rarely become law, but can still resonate.
Since January 2003, lawmakers have introduced about 80 private bills. Some have advanced — Feinstein’s private bill on behalf of the Arreola family passed the Senate last year — but none have become law. In 2002, five private bills became law; in 2001, only one survived.
“They’re virtually impossible to get through,” Modesto immigration attorney Solange Altman said.
Even so, the bills still provide at least temporary cover.
Feinstein said that once a private immigration bill is introduced and a background check is requested from the Department of Homeland Security, deportation procedures are put on hold.
Feinstein characterized this procedure as part of Senate committee rules. Within the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, the deference to Congress appears to be more a traditional courtesy than a rigid rule.
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, for instance, has tried for three years to help Eureka resident — and Taiwan native — Kuan-Fan Hsieh stay in the United States. Hseih’s visa expired in January 2001, but immigration officials have not tried to deport her while Thompson’s office is involved.
Beyond bill-writing, lawmakers weigh in with letters and phone calls — a lot.
Last year, for instance, Feinstein’s office wrote immigration officials on 2,275 cases. Immigration questions and controversies make up “over 50 percent” of all constituent casework for Fresno-area Democrat Cal Dooley, said Dooley’s press secretary, Tommy Barletta. Mariposa Republican George Radanovich’s office is working “on an average of 15 or 20 immigration cases a day,” according to Radanovich press secretary Geoff Embler.
“In general, the (agency) is quite responsive to intervention on behalf of constituents,” said Bret Ladine, press secretary for Merced Democrat Dennis Cardoza. “On deportation issues specifically … letters clearly help, but they can’t always work miracles.”
Recently, for instance, Cardoza urged immigration authorities not to deport Turlock resident Felipa Gutierrez. Ladine said this was a fairly conventional constituent case made atypical only by the media attention it has drawn.
Gutierrez entered the United States illegally in 1989. She’s now married and, as Cardoza mentioned to a House committee this week, she’s also the mother of a 5-year-old autistic son. She faces deportation because, she says, her initial immigration lawyer did a bad job. She’s hoping the deportation will stall long enough for her to secure a marriage visa.
Solange Altman, Gutierrez’s current lawyer, said the congressional intervention can help tilt the balance with immigration officials.
“It makes a difference,” Altman said. “They know that someone is watching over them.”
Altman recalled talking once with an immigration official who was flipping through a file. The official stopped and made note of a supportive letter from a congressional office, Altman said. The message rang loud and clear.
“I may be writing letters, and get no response,” Altman said. “If they get a letter from a congressman, they listen.”
Besides, federal immigration officials have plenty of other people to deport, most relatively powerless. About 1 million cases are pending in federal immigration courts. In fiscal 2002, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, nearly 80 percent of all cases resolved led to the immigrant leaving the United States.
Fifty-five percent of the immigrants whose cases were resolved in 2002 didn’t even have a lawyer representing them in court, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review’s annual report.