Legalization Through Registry: The Benefits of a “Rolling Registry” Program

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With one statutory change, Congress could extend legal status to millions of undocumented residents through an existing legalization program known as the “registry.” In past decades, the program legalized thousands of long-term undocumented residents, but virtually no undocumented residents today would qualify unless Congress revises the legislation. If updated, the program could extend legal status to millions.

Congress established the registry program in 1929 to allow non-citizens to apply for legal status as long as they had continuously resided in the US since 1921. The program also required that applicants demonstrate “good moral character” and not be subject to deportation under US immigration laws. Subsequent revisions eliminated the latter requirement but still barred individuals on various criminal or national security grounds, such as drug and human trafficking crimes. Under these revisions, individuals who entered the country without inspection or overstayed their visas remain eligible for the registry program.

Throughout the twentieth century, Congress continually albeit infrequently advanced the required entry date. But Congress has not updated the program since it passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Since then, the required entry date has remained frozen in time at January 1, 1972. From 1985 to 1998, the registry program adjusted the status of over 60,000 immigrants, but with the passage of time, increasingly fewer immigrants have been able to access this program. To qualify for adjustment of status in 2022, an undocumented resident must demonstrate half a century of residence. Virtually no undocumented individuals today meet this requirement. In a recent paper, CMS proposed that Congress advance the entry date to January 01, 2012, an action that would make 58 percent of the 10.35 million US undocumented residents eligible for legal status.

Legalization programs have substantial benefits for undocumented people, their families, and US communities. By empowering immigrants to pursue opportunities and invest in themselves, legalization programs boost overall wages, stimulate consumption, create jobs, and generate more tax revenue. The current system’s restrictions on pathways to legal status instead depress wages, limit access to opportunities, destabilize families, and facilitate exploitation and cruelty.

CMS also recommends that Congress create a rolling registry program with an automatically advancing registry date. By “obviating the need for future legalization bills,” a rolling program would help depoliticize legalization programs and ensure continuity in US immigration policy. In the early 2000s, federal legislators considered but ultimately did not pass three bills that would have created a rolling registry program.

Two decades later, in 2021, Senate Democrats attempted to include registry reform in a budget reconciliation bill, but the Senate Parliamentarian ruled against the provision citing the Byrd rule, which dictates that provisions must directly impact federal spending or revenue to be included in reconciliation bills. Reform advocates urged Congress to override the Parliamentarian’s non-binding judgment, but registry reform has yet to pass. Despite its obstacles, a rolling registry is a promising reform with strong bipartisan precedent.

The federal government’s failure to regularly update the registry program or create a rolling program is symptomatic of a larger policy failure. Federal reforms in the last fifty years have created an immigration system that has not adapted to evolving migration trends and labor market conditions.

The existence of a large undocumented population is a consequence of inflexible, short-sighted policies that leave few pathways for legal immigration. Removal policies result in immense harm to undocumented individuals, their families, their communities, and the United States at large. A rolling registry program – or any broad legalization program – represents a sustainable, practical, and humane policy option.

For more on registry and potential legalization programs, read the Journal on Migration and Human Security paper, "Ready to Stay: A Comprehensive Analysis of the US Foreign-Born Populations Eligible for Special Legal Status Programs and for Legalization Under Pending Bills".


By Scott Brown

Center for Migration Studies
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