NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Congress has taken the unusual step of waiving immigration restrictions for two Japanese citizens fighting to live in the United States.
The private immigration bills passed by the House on Wednesday – they had already been passed by the Senate – are the first to be approved in more than five years. The measures now go to President Barack Obama for his signature.
One bill would clear the way for the granting of legal status to the widow of a Tennessee Marine who gave birth to their son after he was killed in Iraq in 2008. Another would provide relief to a Japanese man living in California whose mother was killed in a car crash when he was a teenager and who was never legally adopted.
"I have always seen myself as part of this whole American society, and I am American, just like my friends but without the status or papers," said the man, Shigeru Yamada, now 28. "For me to finally become, or have the potential to become a permanent resident, it means a great deal to me, it really does. I can't really express how happy I am."
Congress can vote to let individual immigrants in exceptional cases live in the country legally but hasn't done so since the 108th Congress, in 2003-04. Immigrant advocates see such bills as a last resort when other efforts to obtain a green card have failed.
"The logjam has been broken open for the first time in five years," said Brent Renison, an immigration attorney who represented Hotaru Nakama Ferschke, whose husband Marine Sgt. Michael Ferschke died in Iraq in 2008.
The couple married by telephone while she was in Japan and he was in Iraq. She was already pregnant with his child. But their marriage was not considered valid under immigration law because they did not consummate it, since he died in combat before they could be reunited.
The Marine's mother, Robin Ferschke, was elated when Republican congressman John Duncan of Tennessee called her in Maryville on Wednesday morning to tell her know Congress had passed the relief measure after many legislative setbacks. Ferschke hopes the actions open the door for more private bills to be considered by Congress.
"These bills are tragedies and they shouldn't just sit there for years," she said.
A private bill is one that benefits or provides relief to specified individuals or companies, often when no other remedy is available. Subjects of private bills include immigration, taxation, public lands, medical affairs and Armed services decorations.
Anywhere from a few dozen to more than a hundred private immigration bills are introduced each session of Congress, though most don't go anywhere, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.
Private immigration bills were more common until a corruption scandal involving payoffs for the sponsorship of legislation in the 1970s. Use of the bills declined further after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, with only four enacted in the 108th Congress, the report said.
But immigration attorneys say that even getting a member of Congress to introduce a private bill can help an immigrant facing deportation.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds off on deporting immigrants who have private bills pending in the Senate, or those whose cases have been vetted by the House immigration subcommittee and for whom an investigative report has been requested from ICE.
Carl Shusterman, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles, said he has four clients who have private bills pending in Congress – the only protection that keeps them from being deported.
The bills expire soon after the end of each session, and new ones are typically introduced when Congress starts up again. But most private bills don't pass.
"Some of our people are on their fourth private bills already," Shusterman said.
Lawmakers may use private bills to help individual citizens but also to gauge whether there's a need for broader changes in immigration policy.
Shigeru Yamada came to the United States on a visa with his mother from Japan when he was 10 years old. She was killed in a car crash three years later, in 1995, and he went to live with his aunt in Chula Vista, Calif., but was never formally adopted.
He finished high school and attended community college. But Yamada, known to his friends as "Shiggy," was arrested by U.S. immigration agents in 2004 while riding a bus to downtown San Diego.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Bob Filner introduced bills on behalf of Yamada, which prevented his deportation. On Wednesday, he planned to celebrate with friends after getting off work as a coordinator at a Lasik center, but noted that the president still must sign the bill into law.
Republican lawmakers have resisted passing private bills in recent years, arguing that immigration should be tackled on a policy, not an individual, level, said Gregory Chen, director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
The Ferschke case won them over, he said, and that led to a compromise with Democrats working on Yamada's behalf.
"To break an almost six-year blockade on these cases of private bills, I think, is an example of an opportunity to work together on these," Chen said. "It certainly eliminates arguments where people have been resisting private bills, saying private bills are not, as a policy, the way such matters should be handled."
Duncan had been working for more than a year on his private bill for the Ferschke family, along with Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, a combat Marine in Vietnam and former Navy secretary. Webb was the sponsor of the version that the House passed on a voice vote Wednesday. The two measures allow the Japanese citizens to be eligible for permanent resident status upon filing an application.
"Helping people caught up in extraordinary circumstances like the Ferschkes' is one of the most basic and important jobs of Congress," Duncan said, "and I am so grateful for all the bipartisan support in the House and Senate."
Since Michael Ferschke's death, his mother has only been able to see her grandson, Mikey, during temporary visits. Nearly two years old, he's starting to look a lot like his Marine father and is speaking English and Japanese words, she said.
"Just to hold that baby means so much to me," she said. "When I hold him, I am holding my Michael."