Private bills

Almost every New Yorker and music-lyrics aficionado knows the name Amadou Diallo.

After the 23-year-old West African immigrant was killed in the foyer of his Bronx apartment building in 1999 after being shot 41 times by four police officers, Wyclef Jean, Akon, Mos Def, Lauryn Hill and, most famously, Bruce Springsteen recounted his untimely death in song. 

But they’re not the only ones who weighed in.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) has repeatedly introduced a bill to grant several of Diallo’s family members permanent residency. Diallo’s mother, sister, two brothers and five other relatives have requested to stay in the country.
“The boy came with a dream to live in America,” Rangel spokesman Emile Milne said. “His family is seeking to adopt his dream.”

In the 110th Congress alone, 56 similar bills, known as private claims bills, have been introduced. Such bills — also known simply as private bills — provide relief to people with no other recourse, the House rules state.

When a representative introduces a private bill, it is referred to the House Judiciary Committee’s Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law panel. The subcommittee, through formal action requiring normal quorum and a vote on the record, can then ask for a report from the Department of Homeland Security on the specific case. Traditionally, once the report is received, it places a hold on a person’s deportation  - called a stay - until the end of the session, a House aide with knowledge about the bills explained.

In the upper chamber, a senator writes a letter to the comparable committee’s chairman, urging him or her to consider the case. The chairman requests a report, and the affected person is granted a stay until the end of the session.
Some lawmakers are reluctant to introduce private bills because they believe the immigration problem on the whole must be fixed, the aide said.

“I guarantee you there are a ton of other stories,” the aide said. “If you can fix the law, you should do that instead. We’re taking a look at all private bills. [They are] teaching us where problems in the law are … where we can fix the law.”
Such bills hardly ever get anywhere in the legislative process because they aren’t needed — once the bill is introduced, the immigrant is safe. Last session, none passed in the House.

Not all private bills are immigration-related. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to change the law for a specific case, the aide said, citing as an example a woman who did not receive government benefits because her deceased husband forgot to fill out paperwork.

Like Rangel, Texas Rep. Gene Green (D) has been trying to aide a family who lost a son.

The Soriano family’s only son, a Marine, died from non-combat-related injuries in Fallujah, Iraq.

Though one of his sisters is a citizen, Soriano’s parents and other sister are not legal immigrants. His parents have been picked up by immigration officials and now are at risk for permanent deportation.

“Their son died for our country,” said Green, who has been working since 2003 to ensure that the Sorianos are not deported.

It is the only private bill Green ever introduced. But the Lone Star lawmaker has been unable to garner key Republican support on the matter.

“[The former] chair of the Judiciary Committee, Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), said that the parents were benefiting from an illegal act and wouldn’t give me a hearing on it,” Green said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that there’s more of a chance [that these bills could be passed under Democratic leadership]. We have a sympathetic chair,” he said, referring to House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.).

Private bills can be sensitive matters. Some offices did not return calls requesting comment about their legislation; others would not comment, saying they wanted to protect the privacy of the persons concerned.

One office that has been quite vocal on the subject is that of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), which has lent its backing to two Mexicans living in California.

Alfredo Plascencia Lopez and his wife, Maria del Refugio Plascencia, have lived in the U.S. since 1988. But due to “inattentive legal counsel,” they were told that they would have to leave the country 15 days prior to deportation. They have four children who are all American citizens, Feinstein said.

“Removing Mr. and Mrs. Plascencia from the United States would be most tragic for their children. These children were born in the United States and, through no fault of their own, have been thrust into a situation that has the potential to alter their lives dramatically,” Feinstein said on the Senate floor recently. “I believe that [the Plascencias embody the American] spirit that we must nurture wherever we can find it.  Forcing the Plascencias to leave the United States would extinguish that spirit.”

Similarly, Griselda Lopez Negrete, a Mexican immigrant living in South Carolina, would have been deported if Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) had not introduced a private bill.

Negrete, who was brought to the U.S. by her parents at the age of 2, was translating for an aunt at the Charleston Immigration office in 2004, when she was 16. When an official asked her about her own status, she was taken into custody and told that she would have to leave the country, according to press reports.

Unlike most private bills that never gain passage, the Senate approved Graham’s bill in 2004. He reintroduced the legislation again this session.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has introduced at least eight private bills this Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is likely to take up immigration reform next Monday.

In the House, immigration reform hearings will commence in June.

“Somehow we have to fix [these problems, be it] with special bills or comprehensive bills,” Green said.