What is registry?
Registry is a provision of immigration law that allows individuals to apply for lawful permanent resident status (i.e., a “green card”) provided they entered the United States before a particular date – the “registry date –” and have continuously resided in the United States.
Registry is still a valid process for legalizing immigrants, but the registry date was last updated via the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) to January 1, 1972. Because the 1972 statutory deadline for arrival in the United States has not been updated by Congress for almost thirty-five years, only a small handful of long-term resident immigrants and nonimmigrants can benefit from the policy in its current form.
Ordinarily, an immigrant who entered the United States without authorization, overstayed a visa, or violated terms of a temporary entry would lack a path to permanent residency or otherwise be barred from green card eligibility. However, adjustment of status through registry allows such individuals to obtain permanent resident status.
Who can apply for status under registry?
An immigrant who arrived in the United States before January 1, 1972, and has continuously resided in the country since then, is eligible to apply for a status adjustment under registry. In addition, the individual seeking relief must: be “of good moral character,” not otherwise be ineligible for naturalization, not be inadmissible under the INA (on criminal, national security, or other specified grounds), merit a favorable exercise of discretion, and file Form I-485 while within the United States.
Registry eligibility is broad. However, it is a discretionary process. Hence, an individual could be denied permanent resident status even if they have satisfied all requirements.
Because the registry cutoff date has not been updated since 1986, there are few, if any, immigrants still eligible to take advantage of the provision. From 1985-1989 over 58,000 immigrants were granted registry adjustments of status. Numbers have dwindled over the years, and from 2015-2019, only 305 individuals were granted relief through registry adjustment. As it stands, an immigrant must have continuously resided in the United States for almost fifty years to take advantage of the provision.
Longtime resident nonimmigrant workers potentially may be able to avail themselves of registry adjustment, although it is unlikely that any would qualify under the current cutoff date.
What are the benefits of registry adjustment?
Registry adjustment allows immigrants living in the United States to obtain lawful permanent resident status, and ultimately, a pathway to citizenship. Absent registry eligibility, undocumented individuals who have spent extensive periods in the United States have few alternatives to obtain lawful status.
Furthermore, the unlawful presence bars are not applicable to registry, so they would not prevent individuals with unauthorized presence from obtaining legal status.
Has Congress considered updating the registry date?
No active bills that would update the registry date have been introduced in the 117th Congress. In recent decades, Congress has focused on other approaches to provide for earned legalization. Throughout the 20th century, Congress moved the registry date repeatedly and several bills were introduced in the 1990s and early 2000s to update the registry date. Nevertheless, since IRCA, no proposal to move the registry date has been enacted.
How would Congress update the registry date?
An update to the registry provision would be a simple way to offer relief to millions of undocumented immigrants who have spent long periods of time living and working in the United States.
Congress could advance the registry date in one of two ways: through a simple update or by implementing a rolling cutoff date. First, Congress may update the cutoff date from January 1, 1972. Generally, updates to the provision have changed the cutoff date to approximately fifteen years prior to the date of the new bill’s passage. Under this approach, a registry bill adopted in 2021 would extend the cutoff date to 2006. If the registry date were updated to 2006, an estimated 6,233,000 immigrants, or 51% of the unauthorized immigrant population in the U.S., would be eligible for status adjustment. Alternatively, if Congress opted for a later cutoff date, a larger proportion of the undocumented population could obtain lawful status. If Congress moved the registry date to 2010, an estimated 7,957,000 immigrants would be eligible for lawful permanent resident status, representing 72% of the undocumented population. Updating the provision in this way would be relatively simple– Congress need only approve the new date to effectively reinstate the registry process.
Alternatively, Congress could impose a rolling update of the registry provision. Under such an approach, the cutoff date would automatically advance one year with each year that passes. Under a rolling date, the cutoff date could also be used to determine a required date of entry for an individual, essentially mandating that an applicant spend a certain number of years within the United States before applying for permanent resident status. While more complicated, a rolling update would ensure that registry adjustment remains available to long-term immigrants who have resided in the United States without subsequent legislation.
Currently, without a congressional update, adjustment of status under the registry provision is effectively dead-letter, with only a handful of longtime immigrant residents qualifying to adjust status under the provision.
When was the registry provision first enacted?
The registry provision was first implemented by the Registry Act of 1929. The Registry Act permitted immigrants who had been continuously present in the United States since June 3, 1921, were of “good moral character,” and were not otherwise deportable, to apply for permanent resident status.
Since then, the cutoff date for registry has been advanced four times, usually as part of comprehensive immigration reforms. Legislation passed in 1958 to update the registry date to 1940 also eliminated the requirement that applicants were not subject to deportation. This change permitted individuals who had entered the United States without inspection or overstayed a visa to apply for a green card. The only individuals barred from registry adjustment were applicants who previously had lawful permanent resident status, or posed a national security threat. Subsequent amendments have increased the number of offenses that would bar an individual from seeking a green card under the provision, including narcotics and smuggling violations.
The National Immigration Forum would like to thank Rebekah Rosenberg, policy intern, for her extensive contributions to this fact sheet.