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Immigration Registry
A potential pathway to citizenship for many immigrants

This immigration process has existed in law for almost a century. With one small update, Congress could make it accessible to millions of immigrants living in the U.S. today.

The Great Hall, commonly known as the "Registry Room" at Ellis Island, pictured in 1912 on the left and in the 2000s on the right. This was the main receiving room for arriving immigrants; these contrasting pictures reflect how the U.S. immigration process has evolved over the last century.

For a century, immigration registry has provided a legal means for undocumented immigrants to secure a lawful status on the basis of their long-standing presence in the United States. However, Congress has not updated the law since 1986, and the eligibility dates exclude most undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today. By advancing the date, Congress could allow millions of undocumented immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for a long time to once again access a legal, existing path to legal status and citizenship.

History of immigration registry

Immigration registry is a process for immigrants to become lawful permanent residents (green card holders) on the basis of their long-standing presence in the country, regardless of their status or method of entry to the country.1 The Registry Act of 1929 established a process for immigrants to apply for a green card if they could prove that they had arrived before 1921 and had maintained continuous presence, were of “good moral character,” and were not deportable under immigration law. This “registry” process would create an immigration record, including documentation of effective lawful entry, which was a requirement for naturalization.

Congress has updated the immigration registry process throughout its history. Congress has advanced the date of entry cutoff multiple times so that more recent arrivals would be eligible to adjust, and has made minor adjustments to eligibility requirements.2 In 1958, Congress eliminated the requirement that individuals not be deportable under immigration law, expressly extending eligibility to individuals who entered the U.S. unlawfully or overstayed a visa.

A CENTURY OF CHANGES TO REGISTRY LAW

Timeline of legislative changes to registry law, 1929-1996

Registry process established; cutoff date of entry set to 1921

Cutoff date advanced to 1924

Congress preserved the registry and assigned it its own section by creating INA 249; no changes to cutoff date

Cutoff date advanced to 1940; eligibility requirement changed, deportability no longer disqualifies, shifted to inadmissibility for “criminals, procurers and other immoral persons, subversives, violators of the narcotics laws or smugglers of aliens”

Cutoff date advanced to 1948

Cutoff date advanced to 1972 (current date)

Added ineligibility if inadmissible as participant in Nazi persecution or genocide

Individuals barred from applying for five years after missing an immigration hearing (if given prior notice)

Added ineligibility if deportable for terrorism charges; Immigration Act’s five year bar extended to 10 years

How it works

The immigration registry process is still in effect today. Individuals can apply to adjust status through registry if they arrived in the United States before January 1, 1972; have lived in the country continuously since then; are determined to be “of good moral character”3; and meet other admissibility and deportability requirements. 4

Since 1985, more than 73,000 immigrants have secured a green card through registry; however, as time passes, fewer immigrants are able to meet the cutoff entry date requirement, evidenced by the declining number of immigrants who adjust each year. This is why Congress has repeatedly passed legislation to advance the registry date. Unfortunately, the cutoff date has not been advanced since 1986, meaning individuals have to have lived in the U.S. for nearly 40 years to qualify under current requirements.

Existing process for future legalization efforts in Congress

By advancing the date of entry cutoff, Congress could extend access to immigration registry for millions of undocumented immigrants who have lived, worked, and raised families in the United States for years,5 allowing them to secure legal status.

Tables: Estimates of undocumented immigrants who could benefit from registry adjustment

MILLIONS OF UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANTS COULD ADJUST THEIR STATUS WITH A CHANGE OF DATE IN REGISTRY
Undocumented immigrants by year of entry, in millions
Source: FWD.us analysis of augmented 2019 American Community Survey data.
Note: Years in U.S. as of January 1, 2021.
Year of entry Years in U.S. Number of undocumented immigrants
1990 or earlier 30 1.0M
1995 or earlier 25 1.9M
2000 or earlier 20 3.5M
2005 or earlier 15 5.3M
2010 or earlier 10 6.7M

THOUSANDS OF UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANTS IN EACH STATE COULD BENEFIT FROM REGISTRY ADJUSTMENT
Estimates – number and percent – of undocumented immigrants, by year of entry and state
Source: FWD.us analysis of 2019 American Community Survey augmented data
Note: Estimates rounded to the nearest 10,000. Undocumented immigrants consist of Dreamers, including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders, Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) holders, asylum seekers waiting on a decision, those waiting on an adjustment or change of status, and other undocumented immigrants.
  Entered U.S. 2010 or earlier
(10 years or longer in U.S.)
  Entered U.S. 2005 or earlier
(15 years or longer in U.S.)
State Estimated number of undocumented immigrants % of state's undocumented immigrants Estimated number of undocumented immigrants % of state's undocumented immigrants
Alabama 40,000 66 20,000 44
Alaska <10,000 53 <10,000 24
Arizona 180,000 75 160,000 65
Arkansas 50,000 76 40,000 62
California 1,420,000 79 1,270,000 65
Colorado 100,000 70 80,000 57
Connecticut 60,000 59 50,000 47
Delaware 20,000 66 10,000 49
District of Columbia 10,000 60 <10,000 38
Florida 430,000 55 340,000 42
Georgia 220,000 68 180,000 56
Hawaii 20,000 55 10,000 40
Idaho 20,000 84 20,000 64
Illinois 290,000 75 250,000 64
Indiana 70,000 67 60,000 52
Iowa 30,000 66 20,000 49
Kansas 50,000 62 40,000 49
Kentucky 30,000 62 20,000 48
Louisiana 30,000 51 20,000 41
Maine <10,000 41 <10,000 26
Maryland 120,000 59 90,000 43
Massachusetts 70,000 58 50,000 42
Michigan 50,000 61 50,000 48
Minnesota 50,000 63 40,000 48
Mississippi 10,000 72 <10,000 50
Missouri 30,000 61 20,000 43
Montana <10,000 86 <10,000 72
Nebraska 30,000 68 20,000 57
Nevada 120,000 74 100,000 61
New Hampshire 10,000 41 <10,000 31
New Jersey 230,000 60 180,000 46
New Mexico 40,000 81 30,000 62
New York 360,000 64 270,000 48
North Carolina 200,000 72 170,000 58
North Dakota <10,000 22 <10,000 22
Ohio 50,000 51 30,000 35
Oklahoma 50,000 70 40,000 54
Oregon 60,000 77 60,000 66
Pennsylvania 80,000 56 60,000 41
Rhode Island 10,000 50 <10,000 40
South Carolina 50,000 57 40,000 45
South Dakota <10,000 62 <10,000 33
Tennessee 90,000 66 60,000 47
Texas 1,210,000 72 970,000 57
Utah 70,000 65 60,000 55
Vermont <10,000 61 <10,000 47
Virginia 160,000 63 120,000 48
Washington 170,000 69 150,000 55
West Virginia <10,000 58 <10,000 47
Wisconsin 50,000 72 40,000 59
Wyoming <10,000 92 <10,000 79

THOUSANDS OF UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANTS IN EACH METRO AREA COULD BENEFIT FROM REGISTRY ADJUSTMENT
Estimates – number and percent – of undocumented immigrants, by year of entry and metropolitan statistical area (MSA)
Source: FWD.us analysis of 2019 American Community Survey augmented data
Note: Estimates rounded to the nearest 10,000. MSAs with 10,000 or more undocumented immigrants are listed. Undocumented immigrants consist of Dreamers, including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recepients, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders, Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) holders, asylum seekers waiting on a decision, those waiting on an adjustment or change of status, and other undocumented immigrants.
  Entered U.S. 2010 or earlier
(10 years or longer in U.S.)
  Entered U.S. 2005 or earlier
(15 years in U.S.)
Metro area Estimated number of undocumented immigrants % of metro area's undocumented immigrants Estimated number of undocumented immigrants % of metro area's undocumented immigrants
Albuquerque, NM 10,000 80 10,000 62
Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton, PA-NJ <10,000 51 <10,000 36
Amarillo, TX <10,000 65 <10,000 49
Asheville, NC <10,000 47 <10,000 42
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA 160,000 65 130,000 53
Austin-Round Rock, TX 80,000 72 60,000 57
Bakersfield, CA 50,000 93 40,000 75
Baltimore-Columbia-Towson, MD 30,000 53 20,000 34
Beaumont-Port Arthur, TX <10,000 70 <10,000 52
Birmingham-Hoover, AL <10,000 63 <10,000 37
Boise City, ID <10,000 89 <10,000 68
Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH 60,000 59 40,000 42
Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT 30,000 61 30,000 48
Brownsville-Harlingen, TX 30,000 81 20,000 68
Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL 20,000 65 10,000 54
Charleston-North Charleston, SC <10,000 41 <10,000 32
Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, NC-SC 50,000 62 40,000 50
Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI 280,000 76 240,000 65
Cincinnati, OH-KY-IN <10,000 48 <10,000 28
Cleveland-Elyria, OH <10,000 54 <10,000 37
Columbia, SC <10,000 66 <10,000 53
Columbus, OH 20,000 53 10,000 41
Corpus Christi, TX <10,000 83 <10,000 60
Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 380,000 69 310,000 57
Deltona-Daytona Beach-Ormond Beach, FL <10,000 53 <10,000 44
Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO 70,000 72 60,000 58
Des Moines-West Des Moines, IA <10,000 57 <10,000 46
Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, MI 30,000 58 20,000 43
El Paso, TX 30,000 73 20,000 48
Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers, AR-MO 20,000 71 10,000 56
Fort Wayne, IN <10,000 66 <10,000 49
Fresno, CA 40,000 82 40,000 69
Gainesville, GA <10,000 77 <10,000 69
Grand Rapids-Wyoming, MI 20,000 72 10,000 58
Greensboro-High Point, NC 20,000 78 10,000 60
Greenville-Anderson-Mauldin, SC <10,000 55 <10,000 43
Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT <10,000 50 <10,000 38
Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 350,000 69 280,000 54
Indianapolis-Carmel-Anderson, IN 30,000 68 20,000 47
Jacksonville, FL <10,000 47 <10,000 35
Kansas City, MO-KS 30,000 59 20,000 44
Knoxville, TN <10,000 64 <10,000 36
Lakeland-Winter Haven, FL <10,000 73 <10,000 60
Laredo, TX 20,000 73 20,000 57
Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV 100,000 73 80,000 60
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 620,000 81 530,000 68
Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN <10,000 69 <10,000 59
McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, TX 80,000 84 60,000 65
Memphis, TN-MS-AR 20,000 71 10,000 50
Merced, CA 20,000 84 20,000 72
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 210,000 54 160,000 39
Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI 30,000 71 20,000 60
Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 30,000 63 30,000 50
Modesto, CA 20,000 91 20,000 82
Myrtle Beach-Conway-North Myrtle Beach, SC-NC <10,000 61 <10,000 53
Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island, FL 20,000 85 10,000 66
Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro-Franklin, TN 40,000 65 30,000 47
New Haven-Milford, CT 10,000 62 10,000 54
New Orleans-Metairie, LA 10,000 58 10,000 44
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 540,000 63 410,000 47
North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton, FL 10,000 58 10,000 49
Ogden-Clearfield, UT <10,000 66 <10,000 65
Oklahoma City, OK 20,000 63 20,000 47
Omaha-Council Bluffs, NE-IA 20,000 69 20,000 61
Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL 50,000 48 40,000 34
Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA 50,000 86 30,000 74
Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE 70,000 59 50,000 43
Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ 140,000 76 120,000 66
Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA 60,000 78 50,000 64
Port St. Lucie, FL <10,000 56 <10,000 46
Providence-Warwick, RI-MA 20,000 51 10,000 42
Provo-Orem, UT <10,000 57 <10,000 38
Raleigh, NC 40,000 71 30,000 50
Reno, NV 20,000 79 10,000 67
Richmond, VA 20,000 57 10,000 39
Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 150,000 82 140,000 72
Sacramento--Roseville--Arden-Arcade, CA 40,000 76 40,000 64
St. Louis, MO-IL <10,000 58 <10,000 35
Salinas, CA 60,000 91 50,000 73
Salt Lake City, UT 40,000 66 40,000 59
San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX 70,000 75 50,000 56
San Diego-Carlsbad, CA 80,000 74 60,000 58
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA 150,000 69 110,000 51
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA 80,000 69 50,000 47
Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA <10,000 56 <10,000 54
Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, CA 30,000 71 20,000 55
Santa Rosa, CA 20,000 86 10,000 63
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 90,000 61 60,000 42
Stockton-Lodi, CA 30,000 81 20,000 68
Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL 50,000 62 40,000 48
Trenton, NJ 10,000 52 10,000 44
Tucson, AZ 20,000 79 20,000 67
Urban Honolulu, HI <10,000 50 <10,000 36
Vallejo-Fairfield, CA 10,000 68 10,000 59
Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC <10,000 47 <10,000 32
Visalia-Porterville, CA 20,000 87 10,000 78
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD 210,000 64 160,000 48
Wichita, KS <10,000 67 <10,000 50
Winston-Salem, NC 20,000 81 10,000 67
Worcester, MA-CT <10,000 54 <10,000 43
Yakima, WA 20,000 79 20,000 67
Yuma, AZ <10,000 54 <10,000 52

Advancing the immigration registry date is not a novel concept and is in line with Congressional intent. Registry has been enshrined in law for nearly a century, and Congress has expressly intended registry to be a mechanism for undocumented immigrants to adjust to lawful permanent resident status. Additionally, eligibility requirements for immigration registry are broad, so many people can qualify,6 but relief is discretionary and considered case by case.

Congress has a few options for modernizing the immigration registry process. Congress could advance the cutoff date as it has done before, typically about 10 to 15 years before the date of a bill’s passage (e.g., the 1986 bill established an entry date of January 1, 1972). To avoid having to update the registry date, a more robust immigration system permitting more immigrants to enter the country would be needed

An additional option is a “rolling” cutoff date that automatically adjusts. The date could advance by one year with each year that passes,7 or could be determined by the individual’s date of entry, so they would be eligible to file a registry application after being present in the U.S. for a set period.8 This approach would be the most flexible, and would strongly underscore Congressional intent to recognize long-standing presence as a positive factor for an individual seeking legal status.

Conclusion

The immigration registry process has been in place for nearly a century, and reflects our nation’s historical sense of fairness to allow undocumented immigrants who have lived in the country for a long time an opportunity to adjust to a legal status.

Whatever the process, it is critical that Congress establish a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. They grow and distribute our food, help nurture our children and elderly, maintain our infrastructure, and serve as a significant source of our essential workers while combating the global coronavirus pandemic. This would benefit all Americans, and is urgently needed.

Notes

  1. Legislation passed in 1924 had imposed permanent numerical limits on immigration and expanded grounds for deportability, leading to an increase in the unauthorized population. The immigration registry process was established in response to concerns over this increased unauthorized population. In a way, registry provided a remedy to legalize the population who had already lived in the country for a long time but were now considered unauthorized, Congressional Research Service, “Legalization Framework Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA),” https://fas.org/sgp/crs/homesec/R45993.pdf.
  2. The date of entry cutoff has been advanced four times: in 1940, advanced to 1924; in 1958, advanced to 1940; in 1965, advanced to 1948; and in 1986, advanced to 1972, the current date. In 1958, Congress removed the requirement that applicants not be deportable under immigration law, extending eligibility to individuals who entered unlawfully or overstayed visas. In 1988, Congress barred eligibility for individuals with ties to the Nazi party; in 1990, Congress barred individuals who missed an immigration hearing from applying for five years; and in 1996, Congress extended that bar to 10 years, and further barred eligibility for individuals who are deportable for ties to terrorist activities, Congressional Research Service, “Immigration: Registry as Means of Obtaining Lawful Permanent Residence,” https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/RL30578.html
  3. “Good moral character” is a concept in immigration law and a requirement to be eligible for naturalization. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) defines good moral character as “up to the standards of average citizens of the community in which the applicant resides.” USCIS officers review records, statements, and oral testimony to make a subjective determination if an applicant meets the “good moral character” requirement. Some criminal convictions and other actions can result in permanent bars to establishing “good moral character.”
  4. Individuals cannot adjust through registry if they are deportable because of ties to terrorist activity; are inadmissible because of participation in Nazi persecution, genocide, torture, or extrajudicial killings; are broadly determined to be “a criminal, procurer, other immoral person, subversive, violator of the narcotics laws or alien smuggler”; or are permanently ineligible for citizenship. (This mainly refers to individuals who requested an exemption from military service because they are immigrants who left the country to avoid being drafted, or who deserted their military service, see https://www.uscis.gov/policy-manual/volume-12-part-i-chapter-4.) Regardless of meeting the above criteria, the individual may still be denied if it is deemed that he or she does not merit favorable exercise of discretion. For more, see https://www.uscis.gov/policy-manual/volume-7-part-o-chapter-4.
  5. When Congress advanced the immigration registry cutoff date in 1958, the Senate cited the growing number of private bills being introduced to allow long-term residents to receive permanent status as justification for updating the law. Since the 112th Congress (2001-2002), hundreds of private bills have been introduced to grant relief and legal status to individual undocumented immigrants.
  6. The broad and flexible requirements for immigration registry are a stark contrast to the rigorous requirements typically included in one-off legalization proposals. In fact, Congress debated updates to registry in the 1990s because of legal challenges to the implementation of the legalization program established under IRCA that prevented many people from adjusting status; while Congress did not advance the date, it did pass and implement the LIFE Act (Pub. L. 106-553), which allowed for adjustment for certain individuals who would have been eligible under IRCA and who had filed to join class action lawsuits.
  7. This approach was proposed in bills like the Working Family Registry Act of 2001 (S. 562), though this bill would advance the entry date only through five years; after 2006, the date would stay static.
  8. For example, H.R. 2713 in the 107th Congress would have permitted an individual to file a registry application after 15 years of continuous presence in the U.S.
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