Next week, Congress returns to work and a group of House members is expected to present its version of a comprehensive immigration bill — intended to address the status of an estimated 11-million undocumented people in the U.S. But there are other immigration bills on the table in the House — some that benefit just one individual.
Before the House Committee on Immigration and Border Security began a recent hearing on farm labor and other related subjects, member Zoe Lofgren of San Jose called her colleagues' attention to a different sort of measure under consideration: private immigration bills. She told lawmakers all four of the bills should be familiar to the subcommittee: "In fact, all four passed the House in the 112th Congress as well, but the Senate has failed to take any of them up."
One of those bills was introduced on behalf of Allan Kelley, who was brought to the U.S. as an 11-year-old after his single mother in the Philippines gave him up for adoption. His bill is sponsored by Congressman Henry Waxman. The L.A. Democrat says, due to "bad legal advice and the change in immigration law in 1996," the adoption process wasn’t completed until 1997. But, by that time, Kelley was 19 years old. In other words, Waxman says, "Allan is in no man’s land."
Kelley’s adoptive father fought for permanent residency, but a federal appeals court dismissed the case on a technicality. Kelley was scheduled to be deported. That’s when his father showed up at his Congressman’s office. Waxman says they tried to figure out some way to help, "but everywhere we looked, there was an obstacle."
The only solution: Waxman introduced a bill solely for Allen Kelley's benefit.
Senate Historian Donald Ritchie says private bills "are actually designed to make government work in those individual cases where, for some reason, they don’t fit the parameters of the larger law." He notes the first private immigration bill was introduced in 1839. A combination of U.S. immigration quotas and a flood of World War II refugees sent the number of these bills skyrocketing in the late 1930s and '40s.
There was another surge in private bills three decades ago that ended the political careers of several lawmakers. Ritchie says it came to a head in 1980 "when the FBI conducted a sting known as Abscam, in which an FBI agent dressed as an Arab sheik tried to buy his way in the country." One Senator and five House members were convicted of bribery and conspiracy.
Private immigration bills have been rare ever since. Congress has passed fewer than 50 over the past two decades — 11 of them sponsored by California lawmakers.
Even the loudest critics of immigration reform are sanguine on the topic of these individual bills. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies — a think tank that supports tighter control on immigration — says "most things in immigration policy don't work very well, but that at least sort of seems to be working the way it's supposed to."
Krikorian says there are going to be extraordinary cases where Congress will want to intervene, "but it really does need to be for truly exceptional cases. And that seems to be the way it’s working now."
The Kelley family declined to be interviewed for this story. Waxman has persevered even though Allan Kelley no longer lives in his district.
The Congressman’s bill on behalf of Kelley, now in his mid 30s, has a long way to go. The subcommittee is waiting for a report from Homeland Security before sending the bill to the full committee, then to the floor. Waxman says he has to "wait and see what mood the Senators are in because, in the Senate today, one Senator can stop everything."
Waxman says that’s where Kelley’s private bill died in the last Congress. The U.S. Senate hasn’t approved a private immigration bill since 2004.
Listen to an extended interview: