Fred Thompson has made the tough enforcement of immigration laws a cornerstone of his presidential campaign platform, running television ads in Iowa titled "No Amnesty" and skewering rivals for their immigration records.
But at least twice as a US senator, Mr. Thompson personally intervened on behalf of immigrants at risk of deportation, according to papers in his Senate archives here and interviews with the immigrants.
In 1999, he pleaded with the US Immigration and Naturalization Service to reinstate a green-card application from a Korean family who became illegal when their visas expired. In 2000, Thompson passed a private law to grant green cards – or permanent residence – to a disabled Bolivian widow and three of her children. Under public law, the family would have had to leave the United States.
The episodes reveal a greater open-mindedness toward immigrants in legal limbo than has been evident from Thompson on the campaign trail.
"I'm very appreciating about what he do," the Bolivian widow, Jacqueline Salinas, of Memphis, Tenn., said in a phone interview last week. "He's a blessing for my family."
She says she became a US citizen this year.
In letters to federal officials and in remarks in the Senate at the time, Thompson said the families deserved special treatment for "humanitarian reasons" and their "extraordinary circumstances." In memos to Thompson, Senate aides also noted the prospect of positive media coverage.
The headline of an August 1999 news release from his Senate office read, "Thompson Introduces Legislation to Assist St. Jude Cancer Patient."
Ms. Salinas and her husband came to the United States in 1996 on tourist visas so their 7-year-old daughter could receive medical care for a rare cancer. About a year later, her husband and a 3-year-old daughter were killed in a car accident that Salinas says left her paralyzed while seven-months pregnant.
The family stayed in the United States by renewing six-month visas. "Because they do not meet the requirements for permanent residence under current immigration law … the Salinas family will be forced to leave the United States following the expiration of their tourist visas," Thompson said in a September 1999 letter asking Sen. Spencer Abraham, then chairman of the immigration subcommittee, to consider his private bill. "It is my hope that we can act soon to prevent another tragic setback for the Salinas family."
The Korean family, Seung and Eun Kyung Lee, came to the United States with their son in 1988 on business and tourist visas, Mr. Lee said in an interview. When the visas expired around 1994, they became "out of status," or illegal, according to Mr. Lee and a September 1999 memo to Thompson from an aide.
In 1994, the family paid a $1,000 penalty that allowed Ms. Lee's father, a US citizen, to sponsor a petition to "adjust" them to legal status. But in May 1999, with the petition still pending, the father died, which would normally trigger an automatic revocation.
A few months later, Thompson wrote to a senior INS official, asking that the petition be reinstated under a humanitarian exception. "To deport this family and send them back to South Korea now because of INS processing delays … would pose an undue hardship on the Lees and their children," he wrote, describing the family as "model citizens in the Nashville community."
The next month, the INS made the exception. A spokeswoman for US Citizenship and Immigration Services said the agency couldn't comment on specific cases because of privacy laws.
The Lees regained legal status in 2000 when their green-card application was approved, Mr. Lee said. "Mr. Thompson stood for my family," he said in a phone interview last week. "We were very, very happy."
Lee and his wife became citizens this year, he said. He owns a home-building firm, and the family lives in a four-bedroom house in the Nashville suburbs. His son graduated this year from Indiana University.
Both cases were causes célèbres in Thompson's home state of Tennessee. The Lees ran a popular market on Nashville's Music Row and enlisted the support of local music-industry figures.
The Salinas family was profiled in People magazine and championed by Marlo Thomas, the actress whose father, Danny Thomas, founded the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, where Salinas's daughter received pro bono treatment in Memphis.
Among its other merits, a private bill for Salinas and three of her children (a fourth born in the United States was already a citizen) "would likely receive positive media coverage in Tennessee," aides wrote Thompson in a July 1999 memo.
Private bills, unlike public ones, benefit specific individuals and are typically a last resort for people with no other legal recourse. Though Congress once passed dozens a year, in recent years few have succeeded, in part because of the rancorous debate over immigration policy.
Supporters say they're an important safety net. "They're meant to provide relief for people where there's no relief available in the public laws," says Anna Marie Gallagher, an immigration lawyer who wrote a book on the subject.
But critics say they take pressure off Congress to change the system for everyone and are unfair to the untold numbers of other immigrants with similarly compelling stories but no access to lawmakers powerful or willing enough to introduce them. When foreigners are made permanent residents through a private law, it reduces the number of green cards available to other would-be immigrants from the same home countries.
"The role of special legislation seems to come directly out of Animal Farm: that every person is equal, but some people are more equal than others," says Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University.
Since entering the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Thompson, who left the Senate in 2002, has been one of the GOP field's most outspoken advocates for the strict enforcement of existing immigration laws. Among other things, his immigration proposal calls for a ban on legal status for illegal immigrants and an end to the preference for adult children of US citizens. That preference set the Lees on a path to citizenship.
"What he did then was work with individuals who had entered the country legally and were in extreme humanitarian and family crises," a Thompson spokesman, Jeff Sadosky, said Friday. Asked whether Thompson would help such families in the same way now, Mr. Sadosky said, "Senator Thompson is always willing to do what he can, openly and in complete accordance with the law, for those law-abiding persons who face exceptionally challenging situations."
The campaign did not answer questions about seeming inconsistencies between his actions as a senator and his current policy proposals.
Not every immigrant who sought Thompson's help got results. His Senate archives contain requests for private bills for two illegal immigrants from Mexico. Thompson or his staff met with the immigrants' supporters, but offered no assistance, said a lawyer who represented one of the men and a Roman Catholic church official who represented the other.
Salinas says that thanks to Thompson, she is living the American dream. Her daughter Gabriela, whose cancer is in remission, and son, Alejandro, started college this year, she says. Her younger children, Omar Jr. and Danny Thomas (named after the St. Jude founder), are thriving in Catholic school.
Salinas says she survives on government disability checks, food stamps, and charity. She recently bought a three-bedroom house with the help of a government program and sees a bright future for her children. "All my life changed when we became residents," she says.
She said she invited Thompson to her son and daughter's high school graduation this spring, but that he sent regrets through an aide. "I know he will be a very, very good president because he has a big heart," she says.