FRESNO (Fresno Bee)–Bullard High School valedictorian Arthur Mkoyan, whose family faces deportation to Armenia, got the graduation gift he was hoping for Tuesday, as Senate leaders introduced a bill that would allow his family to remain in the United States at least temporarily.
A big smile spread across Arthur’s face when he learned of the bill shortly after graduating at the Save Mart Center in Fresno.
"It’s amazing. I was just hoping. I just had faith," Arthur, 17, said.
Arthur, a 4.0 grade-point-average student, drew national media attention after his story first appeared in The Bee. A Chicago band that sings about immigration issues even wrote a song about him. Despite several television cameras focused on Arthur at the graduation ceremony Tuesday, the graduation went on as normal. None of the speakers mentioned Arthur’s plight.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement ordered Arthur and his mother to leave the United States by late June and return to Armenia, a country Arthur hasn’t seen since he was 2. His 12-year-old brother, who is a citizen because he was born in the US, has no choice but to leave with Arthur and his mother if they’re deported, the family has said.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced a private bill late Tuesday on behalf of Arthur, who was accepted to the University of California at Davis for the fall semester. The bill would grant permanent legal residency to Arthur and his mother and father.
"This is a family that has deep roots in the community and has worked hard," Feinstein said. "The children have excelled in school. So I am introducing a private bill to ensure that they can stay in this country."
While Arthur’s case and others like it often attract widespread sympathy, some argue that private bills are bad policy. Steven Camarota with the Center for Immigration Services in Washington, D.C., which favors immigration curbs, said immigration laws must be enforced before individual exceptions are made. Camarota, who did not know the details of Arthur’s case, said immigrant children "often suffer for the transgressions of their parents."
Arthur’s family, who entered the United States on tourist visas, fled the former Soviet Union and has been seeking asylum since 1992. Arthur’s father, Ruben Mkoian, ran a general store and worked as a sergeant in the equivalent of a department of motor vehicles, according to a federal court summation of the family’s claims. Mkoian refused a bribe to register stolen vehicles and reported a co-worker who took a bribe, the family told the federal court. He was then "subjected to attacks."
Mkoian’s application for asylum was rejected. Mkoian, who spells his name differently from his son, appealed to the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The court rejected his appeal, saying he didn’t demonstrate that Armenian officials would be unwilling to protect him or that he would be tortured if he returned to Armenia. Mkoian is being held at a detention center in Arizona.
Feinstein’s bill now means Arthur’s family will get a reprieve.
Once a private bill is introduced, the author alerts the chair of the Senate immigration subcommittee–currently Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. The immigration subcommittee chair will then ask immigration authorities for a report on the individual. Under standard practice, immigration authorities will freeze in place any deportation procedures once they hear from the immigration subcommittee. This has the effect of blocking deportation, even if the private bill never becomes law.
Getting bills passed to avoid deportations are an "uphill battle," said Scott Gerber, a spokesman for Feinstein. But "we’re going to work to see that it is passed."
Private bills are tricky. They rarely pass, but they can still have clout.
As long as the bills are reintroduced each congressional term, they protect the named individuals from deportation.
Since January 2005, congressional records show, members of the House and Senate have introduced 301 private bills. Some of these have been duplicates, carried over from one Congress to another. Many, although not all, of these private bills deal with immigran’s and refugees.
Only one of these private bills, though, was passed by Congress and signed into law.
At the Mkoyans’ two-bedroom apartment Tuesday morning, the family already had begun packing their possessions into boxes in case the family’s efforts to remain in this country failed. Neighbor Bobbie Blackwell walked in with a big cake that read "Congratulations Arthur."
Three of Arthur’s friends also showed up at the apartment to lend support.
"Everybody thinks it’s dumb. Everybody agrees he should stay," said 18-year-old Max Rosendahl, a fellow Bullard High School senior.
Friends, teachers–even Reps. Jim Costa and George Radanovich–wrote letters to Feinstein’s office in support of the family’s case.
Before the family learned of Feinstein’s bill, Arthur’s mother, Asmik Karapetian, said she was having second thoughts about allowing Arthur to tell his story.
She said the stress of not knowing their fate and having the family’s personal affairs publicized caused her to lose sleep–and lose weight.
Hours later, when she learned that Feinstein had introduced a bill on the family’s behalf, her tired, dark eyes brightened again and she smiled.