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How updating an old Herbert Hoover law would offer new hope to undocumented immigrants

The Registry Act of 1929 is premised on the widely held view that undocumented immigrants who have lived here honorably for a long time deserve a better break.

An update to the immigration registry could help more than 250,000 undocumented immigrants in Illinois obtain legal status in the U.S.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

An untapped provision of U.S. immigration law could allow some 75 % of the undocumented immigrants now living in Illinois to establish lawful status while they seek citizenship, based solely on their long-standing — and law-abiding — presence in our country.

The law is nothing new. It was enacted back in 1929 and has been updated since. It needs only to be updated again, which we urge Congress to do, to bring greater order and humaneness to our nation’s immigration policies.

The Registry Act of 1929 allowed immigrants to apply for a green card, giving them lawful permanent residency, if they could provide evidence they had arrived in the U.S. before 1921 and were of “good moral character.” This put them on the road to citizenship, a status of “lawful” entry being a requirement for naturalization.

Congress has updated the Registry Act’s date-of-entry cutoff — the year in which the migrant must have arrived in the U.S. — three times since then, but unfortunately not in the last three decades. As a result, the registry has grown creaky and old and faded into irrelevance. The last update, approved by President Ronald Reagan, came in 1986. It requires people to show proof they have lived in the U.S. since 1971.

The vast majority of our nation’s undocumented immigrants, obviously, have not been living here for 50 years.

Congress should update the registry’s eligibility date, as it has before, and create a rolling automatic change in the date so that it continuously includes all undocumented immigrants who have lived here for some agreed upon length of time, say 10 or 15 years.

Most undocumented immigrants today are not even aware of the registry because it’s useless to them. From 2015 through 2019, only 305 people received green cards through the registry. But between 1985 through 1989, more than 58,900 immigrants achieved legal status through registry, according to FWD.us, a pro-immigration lobbying group.

How long should an undocumented person be required to have lived in the U.S. before being eligible for the registry? That figure shifted up and down throughout the 20th century, ranging from just 8 years when the registry was created to 20 years beginning in 1968. But the widely shared view behind the law, that legalization is most appropriate for longtime residents of good character, remains strong.

Immigration advocates are calling for Congress to update the registry to build in a rolling eligibility date of 10 to 15 years, said Carlos Guevara, associate director of immigration policy at UnidosUS, the largest national Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States. That would honor the spirit and intent of the registry — that it apply to people who have demonstrated a long-term and positive commitment to their new American home — while offering new hope for citizenship to a sizable chunk of the undocumented population.

If the registry’s cutoff date were updated to the year 2005, for example, about 5,650,000 immigrants — 51% of the undocumented population in the U.S. — would be eligible to adjust their status under the registry, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

If the year were adjusted to 2010, about 7,957,000 immigrants would be eligible. That would be 72% of the undocumented population.

What we like about the Registry Act, which was first signed into law by Republican President Herbert Hoover, is that it’s premised on a counter-narrative to the immigrant-bashing so common in our nation, then and now.

It does not demonize the undocumented as “thugs” and “rapists” (in the words of that other former president) but sees them for what they overwhelmingly are: Good men and women seeking a better life, asking only for a chance to prove themselves.

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