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A person is probably less likely to win private immigration relief than she is to win a lottery. But for Sopuruchi Victor Chukwueke, the dream of lawful permanent residency through a private immigration relief is now a reality.
Private immigration bills are an extremely rare and exceptional form of immigration relief, passed in exceptional circumstances. The fact that a private bill on behalf of Victor Chukwueke sailed through the United States Senate and the House of Representatives last year, before the President signed it, was a significant accomplishment not achieved by anyone else in the past few sessions of an increasingly partisan Congress.
Victor Chukwueke is no stranger to miracles. Originally from Nigeria, he developed a benign tumor in his early childhood, caused by Neurofibromatosis, which grew on his frontal and right facial area, subsequently resulting in a very significant facial deformity. Growing up in Nigeria where he could not get medical treatment for his condition, Victor was the subject of much ridicule from his peers and faced a life-time of hardship as a result of his medical condition. Unable to care for him, his parents left him at an orphanage and would later give him up for adoption. Fortunately, Rev. Mother Paul Offiah who ran a handicap (orphanage) center for orphans, abandoned and neglected disabled children in Nigeria, took Victor under her wing and found a physician in the United States who was willing to conduct Victor’s surgery. Victor arrived in the United States in August 21, 2001, when he was 15 years old on a B-2 visa. He was left in the care of Sister Immaculata Osueke and other nuns in Lansing, Michigan.
Since then, he has had eight major surgeries. Unfortunately, Victor’s application to extend his stay was rejected twice because he could not afford the application fee and he fell out of status. This happened while Victor was preparing for a painful surgery and he was merely 16 years old at the time, with little to no resources to help him navigate the complicated immigration system.
Despite huge obstacles and a life-threatening medical condition, which rendered him blind in one eye, Victor Chukwueke obtained his GED in 2004 and graduated from Wayne State University. He was the commencement speaker at his graduation and gained acceptance into the University of Toledo, College of Medicine. However, the medical school conditioned their acceptance on Victor receiving lawful permanent residence in the United States.
Refusing to give up, Victor sought the help of the National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, which referred his case to Duane Morris. While we were preparing a deferred action application for Victor, the President announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which would have given Victor the right to temporarily live and work in the country but not necessarily admission the University of Toledo, College of Medicine. However, Victor was set on pursuing a private immigration relief bill, introduced on his behalf by Senator Carl Levin, as that would get Victor permanent residency, admission to medical school, and spell the end of his immigration troubles.
Passing private immigration relief bills is no easy feat. Many private immigration bills are introduced year after year, simply to stay the deportation of an individual or a family, but never make it through the House or the Senate, let alone both chambers. While private immigration bills are rare, it is not impossible to introduce and pass them. Introducing them in the Senate has the effect of stopping a deportation during the session that it is introduced. This can be beneficial for an individual trying to buy more time.
One of the most critical things we need for the introduction and passage of a private bill is a supportive Senator who is willing to not just introduce the bill but shepherd it through. Individuals pursuing this option also need to be proactive and take charge of the process. The second most important thing is a compelling personal story. Victor had both going for him.
Victor was lucky to have the support of Senator Carl Levin (MI) and his hard-working staffers, who left no stone unturned in helping Victor’s bill navigate the complicated Senate and House procedures. With Victor’s help, I created a petition on Change.org that garnered the signatures of almost 3000 well-wishers who signed on in support of the private immigration relief bill. Along with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, we also wrote an organizational letter for Victor’s bill, and circulated it on our network, getting the support of organizations such as the Children’s Tumor Foundation, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), America’s Voice, Immigration Equality and the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA). Victor’s immigration counsel successfully helped Victor answer probing questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Levin’s office and the Department of Homeland Security.
His private immigration bill got through the Senate Judiciary Committee and sailed through the Senate with bipartisan support on July 25, 2012.
Alas, the House is run by Republicans, and no private bills had passed the House during the 112th session of Congress at that point in time. When Victor asked us whether he should just apply for DACA right before the elections, we put our heads together to consider our options. A Mitt Romney administration would certainly mean no DACA, but his administration would not necessarily eliminate deferred action. There seemed no harm in waiting until the lame-duck session, saving Victor $465, and trying to first get him a better form of relief. Besides, his medical school required him to have a green card, and despite letters of support from Senator Levin and several other Congressional members, the medical school refused to budge on allowing him admission without a green card.
I also found guidance on private immigration legislation suggesting that the House Subcommittee would be reluctant to consider private action for anyone in deferred action status. Given the circumstances, we advised Victor to stay the course and not give the House any reason to pass up consideration of his private immigration bill. He heeded our advice and decided to wait until the lame-duck session for the fate of his one-person DREAM Act.
On December 18, 2012, the House passed a bill for the relief of Victor Chukwueke with a voice vote, giving Victor an early Christmas present. The President signed the bill on December 28, 2012, making Victor eligible for lawful permanent residency in the United States.
When we called Victor with the good news, he was overjoyed, and told us that “this was the best Christmas present ever.”
I also prepared and filed his paperwork so that he could secure his green card, which he did earlier this summer.
Victor’s goal is now to get his medical degree and “alleviate the pain and suffering of others, especially those in underserved communities and nations.” Now that is one private bill beneficiary who will someday benefit us all publicly.