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US lawmakers lay plans to intervene in Elian's case

But these days Congress seldom steps in to aid individual immigrants.

By James N. ThurmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 20, 2000



President Clinton's cautionary advice to Congress to steer clear of the Elian Gonzalez case is unlikely to be heeded, at least for now.

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Already, a cadre of lawmakers from Florida is planning to ask Congress to enact legislation granting the Cuban boy US citizenship - possibly as soon as next week.

In a Monitor interview, Mr. Clinton stopped short of saying he'd take steps to halt any such congressional action, but, in fact, he may not need to. In recent years, legislation designed to benefit an individual or small group of would-be immigrants - so-called private bills - has fallen much out of favor in Congress.

"Congress is designed to grind its wheels slowly, and this case is a lot more complicated than is being let on," says David Martin, former general counsel for the Immigration and Naturalization Service and now a law professor at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville.

Still, it's easy to see why lawmakers are tempted, on occasion, to circumvent the INS.

"There are no political costs for members, only benefits," says Jonathan Turley, a constitutional-law expert at George Washington University in Washington. Indeed, intervention on behalf of an Elian or other high-profile migr does not affect the budget, touches only a few people directly, and can bring political rewards in certain circles.

For Sen. Connie Mack (R) of Florida and three of the state's US representatives, introducing legislation on behalf of Elian is by no means a guaranteed success.

The number of private bills in Congress plummeted after 1980, largely because of the Abscam bribery investigation. In that probe, federal agents posing as foreign businessmen solicited members of Congress, offering money for congressional intervention in their immigration status. The transactions were caught on videotape and played back to the nation.

Now Congress keeps tight control of the legislative process surrounding private bills.

"The House is very conservative and uncomfortable with just handing out citizenship," says a House immigration source.

In 1995-96, for example, 14 private bills were introduced; two were enacted. Contrast that with the pre-Abscam 1977-78 session, when 1,024 such bills were introduced and 138 enacted.

Moreover, celebrity does not necessarily help. Congress didn't pass private bills submitted for Elizabeth Taylor's son or tennis star Ivan Lendl.

And lawmakers sometimes submit a private bill knowing it will fail. "They want to show they went to bat for a constituent. They can say, 'I tried,' " says Mr. Martin.

Nevertheless, in recent years Congress has seen fit to expedite the immigration status of a chosen few.

"It does serve a unique role in allowing a very special action where the need is strong," says Viet Dinh, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown University in Washington.

Congress, for example, gave Winston Churchill and Mother Teresa US citizenship. It was posthumously granted to Raoul Wallenberg for saving the lives of Jews during the Holocaust.

More recently, Swiss bank employee Christoph Meili set the congressional speed record for winning permanent residency. Former New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) championed his case after Mr. Meili revealed document-shredding and a cover-up of Jewish assets held by Swiss banks.

"He exposed it. He divulged everything, and we started paying attention to him," says Gregg Rickman, author of "Swiss Banks and Jewish Souls." "It usually takes years [to get permanent residency]. It took weeks in this case."

Despite the emotion and attention Elian's case is generating, and despite polls showing a significant majority of Americans think the boy belongs with his father, the matter is far from resolved.

"This is not Winston Churchill," Clinton said when pressed to divulge whether he'd sign a private bill into law. "I don't think they [Congress] should put themselves in the position of making a decision that runs contrary to what the people who have had to do all the investigation [the INS] have done."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society