Private Immigration Bills = Congressional Earmarks = Executive Pardons

By David North on September 26, 2010

A recent issue of Immigration Daily reminded me that there is yet another way to thwart the enforcement of the immigration law, one that is available to only a select few.

This is through the introduction of private immigration bills in the Congress. These are a sort of migration-oriented version of the congressional earmarks we hear so much about, the appropriations for members' pet projects that get funded outside the normal budget process.

The bills, which are always entitled "For the relief of ...", say in effect that it is OK to continue to deport other people, but not the one or more aliens specified by name in the bill introduced by a single member of the House or the Senate. Usually the effort to defeat deportation for the person or persons concerned is joined with a provision for the granting of legal status.

The bills rarely pass, but while they are alive they usually prevent the deportation of the named beneficiaries. Sometimes the same bill is introduced in Congress after Congress. Sometimes the window of non-deportation created by the bill or bills is long enough so that the beneficiaries find other ways to legalize their status.

While this is a questionable tactic, it is a legal and public one, and works the same way as presidential or gubernatorial pardons do – it sorts out individual lawbreakers for special, favorable treatment.

It is also one that has lost a lot of its popularity over time. In the 90th Congress, more than 40 years ago, there 7,393 such bills introduced, but only 218 of them passed. Those numbers can be found in table 75 of the 1990 Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service; the successor volumes no longer track them.

By September 2009, by contrast, only 35 private bills had been introduced in the Senate during the first nine months of the session, together with a somewhat larger group in the House. It is cheering to think that some place in the immigration system the loopholes are growing smaller.

Many members avoid these bills completely but, as a McClatchy Newspapers reports, some make extensive use of them. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), had introduced 14 of 35 of those before the Senate last year.

This is not just a Democratic practice. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), the House member who gained attention when he shouted "You lie: during a presidential speech on the health care bill, has introduced such a bill on behalf of an illegal alien from Gambia, a person who had switched from the Moslem to the Christian faith and argued that he would be persecuted if he returned home to that West African nation. For more on that see here.

For a damning view of the practice, generally, see Michelle Malkin's blog on the subject.

The practice has fallen out of favor, in recent decades, largely because the congressional immigration subcommittees have effectively sought to discourage the practice.

Back in 1972 I did a little opposition research on this issue; my client, though I never met him, was Jay Rockefeller, then in his only losing election contest, his first race for governor of West Virginia. My contribution, which made a bit of a splash in the state papers and the New York Times, was to point out that when you matched the campaign contributions for then-governor and former Rep. Arch Moore (R-WV), Rockefeller's opponent, with the list of the beneficiaries of Moore's private bills, you often got an overlap. Years later Moore was sent to prison for corruption.

In those days, West Virginia would only allow citizens to practice medicine; most, if not all the beneficiaries of Moore’s private bills were physicians who held green cards, but who had not yet been naturalized. Moore argued, at the time, that he was bringing physicians to under-served areas in the state by his private bills, which granted full citizenship.

Now both Rockefeller, in the upper house, and Moore's daughter in the lower house, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), serve in Washington.