Little-known bills can grant residency - for one

There are an estimated 12 million people living without documentation in the United States, knowing they could be sent home at any moment. That is, unless they're one of a tiny handful who have been lucky enough to get the special attention of a member of Congress.

For those 66 individuals or families, a little-known legislative measure called a "private bill" can save them from deportation. CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes reports, however, that their cases are often among the most desperate.

The parents of Brenton Miraj say living in America saved his life.

Brenton was born in 2001 with congenital heart disease while the family was visiting Detroit from Albania.

He had two open heart surgeries before he was six days old, and spent the next three years in a New York hospital, paid for by Medicaid. At the same time, immigration officials were threatening to deport his parents for overstaying their tourist visas.

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"I went to immigration every day. I say this kid is sick. This kid cannot go nowhere," said his father, Llesh Miraj.

"I had four other children and they have to get fed. To get fed, I need a work authorization," said his mother, Emkeleda Miraj.

It took an act of Congress to keep them here; House Resolution 2763: "A private bill for the relief of the Miraj family."

It was a bill just for them, sponsored by their congressman, Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-NY.

"I think it's an extreme case. I think it's unusual case as well. It's really a case of life and death," Crowley said.

There are 66 private bills pending before congress. Even if they don't pass, they buy undocumented immigrants time.

One of them, House Resolution 564, was written for Rigoberto Padilla, a star student at the University of Illinois whose parents brought him here from Mexico when he was six.

Julie Myers Wood, a former Homeland Security official, says the special bills raise a question of fairness.

"You think about all the other people that have very compelling circumstances who didn't get that special stay and you wonder: Did they not have a relationship with a member of Congress? Were they not media savvy in order to get attention to their case?" Wood asked.

When these bills pass, which is rare, the recipients typically get permanent residency, not citizenship. The Miraj bill is still pending, so they have to reapply for a stay of deportation every year, though Brenton's father is allowed to work legally as a high school math teacher.

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    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' congressional correspondent.