According to a Pew Research Center article, the latest statistics we have indicate there are about 10 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Of those two thirds, or six and a half million, have been in the United States for over 10 years. That is a lot of immigrants with nothing better to do than to live in the shadows, work under the table, and hope that one day, somehow, they will be able to emerge and enter the mainstream of American society. A group of House Democrats just introduced a bill, entitled the Renewing Immigration Provisions of the Immigration Act of 1929, that would allow such undocumented immigrants to apply for immigration papers after seven years in the country. The bill incorporates a rolling component so that future legislation would not be required to update what is called this “registry date.” It is estimated about eight million immigrants could benefit by the bill’s passage. What has not been adequately highlighted so far, however, is how the American immigration system and America as a country would also benefit from the passage of this legislation.
The Registry Act of 1929, the predecessor to this current bill, introduced the registry provision for the first time. Immigrants who had been continuously present in the country since June 3, 1921, who possessed “excellent moral character,” and who were not otherwise subject to deportation, were eligible to seek permanent resident status under that legislation. The deadline for registering has been moved up four times since then, usually as part of other significant immigration reforms. The requirement that applicants be immune from deportation was repealed by legislation that updated the registry date to 1940 in 1958. This modification made it possible for anyone who entered the country illegally, or overstayed their visa, to apply for a green card.
Current Registry Eligibility Requirements
At the moment, the following requirements must be met in order for a person without a record of lawful admission for permanent residence to be eligible for the registry:
The applicant must:
- have entered the United States before January 1, 1972,
- have resided continuously in the United States since entry,
- be physically present in the United States at the time of application,
- be of good moral character,
- not be barred from entry to the United States because of certain grounds (such as having been convicted of certain crimes),
- not be eligible for a waiver of inadmissibility or other forms of relief, and
- not be barred from entry for any other reason.
- not be ineligible for citizenship or deportable under terrorism-related grounds, and
- merit the favorable exercise of discretion
What is significant about the provision is that no medical test, no financial affidavit of support, and no U.S. petitioner are required for registry candidates to succeed. Instead, all that is required to apply, is for an applicant to submit an adjustment of status application, together with the appropriate fee, to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
That said, it is a long way from introducing a bill in the House of Representatives to getting legislation passed by Congress. So why should we deal with this?
The registry date was introduced for several reasons. For one, it was felt that there was a point beyond which an undocumented immigrant’s contribution to this country outweighed the harm done. For another, Registry was a recognition of the impracticality of chasing such people forever. Like in law where there are limitation periods associated with prosecutions of offenders, fairness required some means for certain long-term residents to make amends.
Of course, some criminal immigrants deserve to be deported and should be. We can all agree with that. It is estimated there are about one million such immigrants. We are not talking about those people here.
But in considering how to deal with the remaining long-term undocumented immigrants in America, it is important to recognize that removing these individuals will not be so easy. For example, they are protected by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments which provide them the right to due process. Undocumented immigrants also have other legal protections, including the right to counsel, albeit at their own expense.
What all this means is that to remove all undocumented immigrants from America would require hearings in courtrooms with judges, prosecutors, defense counsel as well as the persons concerned all trying to coordinate their calendars to schedule mutually agreeable dates for hearings before the undocumented immigrant can be deported. If you multiply this by some 9 million cases, you have a better idea of why legally removing the undocumented immigrant population from America will take a long time and will be very expensive. In short, deporting all the remaining long-term undocumented immigrants is a mission impossible given what other priorities America needs to deal with.
That is why this new initiative, as hopeless as it may seem, makes sense. These long-term undocumented immigrants now have deep roots in America. They have made lives for themselves and their families here. They have come to share the same values other Americans share. They belong to the same community organizations, their children go to the same schools, and many attend the same churches and have the same hopes and fears as other Americans.
Passage of such a relief measure by fixing the Registry Date would relieve America of one of its greatest burdens and enable the country to attend to what is more urgent. The American immigration system would finally be able to address the important problems it is facing today having rid itself of the burden of this legacy of the past.