WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama on Wednesday signed two rare private Congressional bills waiving immigration restrictions for two Japanese citizens fighting to live in the United States.
The private immigration bills are the first to be approved in more than five years.
One approves legal status to the widow of a Tennessee Marine who gave birth to their son after he was killed in Iraq in 2008. Another provides 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," the man, Shigeru Yamada, now 28, said earlier this month. "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.
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, 2001 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.
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, California, 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.
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.
Since Michael Ferschke's death, his mother, Robin Ferschke, 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."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.
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