As Congress takes up an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, the use of private bills to address the immigration status of individuals has become part of the debate.
WASHINGTON -- As Sen. Charles Schumer works to legislate a public path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people living illegally in this country, he is trying to pass a private route to legal residency -- for one man.
At the request of a Long Island nun, Schumer (D-N.Y.), joined by Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) in the House, has sought in the past 10 years to prevent the deportation of a former soldier who says he fled his African country of Eritrea because he was tortured there and fears for his life if he is sent back.
Schumer, after exhausting all other options turned to a little-known remedy known as a private bill that addresses only the specific case of a person, family or group.
If they don't take that step, Tesfamical will be deported. And if that happens, "he's going to his death," Schumer said.
Scores of noncitizens are being kept in this country by pending private bills despite -- like Tesfamical -- being under an order for deportation.
Private bills have little chance of passing Congress under strict House rules in place since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, but many of them are filed simply to block deportations.
In the past 10 years, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has filed the most: 69 bills to keep 39 people here, records show.
The Center for Immigration Studies, which favors strict laws and no citizenship for those here illegally, describes the bills as "just another exception to the law" and a form of "individualized amnesty."
Schumer and King rarely file private bills, but say Tesfamical's case was an exception.
King did not respond to requests for comment.
Tesfamical said he was an Ethiopian who ended up living in Eritrea in 1993 after it broke away from Ethiopia. He was forced into the Eritrean army in 1998 as the two countries warred and was repeatedly abused because of his ethnicity.
The worst torture came after he helped another native Ethiopian report that she had been raped, Schumer said. "They stripped him and tied him down in the desert and put milk and sugar on him so the insects, birds and animals would eat him," he said.
Tesfamical escaped and came to the United States to apply for political asylum.
An immigration judge rejected his asylum application, saying in her decision his testimony was inconsistent. In addition, she said, he wasn't entitled to asylum as an army deserter.
Barbara Fortson, an attorney with Catholic Charities in Manhattan who is representing Tesfamical, told Newsday then that any inconsistencies in his testimony were minor and that he deserved to stay.
Tesfamical was put on a plane for Eritrea in May 2003, but officials in Turkey, where the plane stopped, returned him to the United States.
That October, Tesfamical faced deportation again. He tried to hang himself.
Schumer said he asked senior immigration officials what to do, and they told him to file a private bill. "They said that while the private bill was pending, they couldn't send him back," Schumer said.