Restore Basic Function
Fixing America’s Immigration System Starts With Updating the Registry
Congresswoman Norma J. Torres
March 7, 2023
When something isn’t working like it should—such as a car making a strange noise or a computer laboring to perform basic tasks—our human reaction is often to ignore the problem and hope that it goes away. We do this as long as possible, even as our avoidance is clearly allowing the situation to get worse.
In the United States, this is the path we have taken with our immigration system, which we have left broken and ignored for too long.
The problem is that we have no real function to allow people who come to this country, and who work hard and contribute to our communities, to pursue legal status. And because we have avoided addressing the problem, more than 10 million people in our communities live in the shadows, without legal status, and barred from full participation in society. People even wait 30-40 years in line for their documents to be processed. That is all part of the systemic failure we have seen.
We call the U.S. immigration system broken because it doesn’t perform the basic functions it’s intended to carry out.
Now, how often when we finally seek help and take a car to an auto mechanic do we hear that one little part is causing all the problems? It’s a relief and almost an embarrassment to know that our long-avoided problem has such a simple answer.
This too is reflected in U.S. immigration policy.
The Immigration Act of 1929 set up a registry to assist people who came to the U.S. without legal status. It was understood even then that we are better off knowing the people around us are not hiding in the shadows. The registry, which is still the law of the land, offered a rigorous process by which long-time residents could obtain permanent legal residence, and one of the provisions of that process was that a person resides in the U.S. before a cutoff date. Originally, this date was June 3, 1921. It has been updated four times through the years and is currently Jan. 1, 1972.
That’s a long time ago. I had just come to the U.S. two years earlier, at age 5, with my uncle, from Guatemala, which was embroiled in a dangerous civil war. I became a citizen 20 years later. The system worked for me. And that is part of why, in the 117th Congress, I co-led H.R. 8433: Renewing Immigration Provisions of the Immigration Act of 1929. This bill would simply update the cutoff date that, again, exists in current law.
It shouldn’t surprise us that one little provision in our system that hasn’t moved in half a century is broken and needs to be replaced. This bill is a simple change that would have a major impact on the quality of life of so many people. People will be able to present themselves at financial institutions, register their kids at school, go to the doctor, and contact federal, state, and local agencies without being afraid because they don’t have a legal document. While it wouldn’t solve every problem for every person in the U.S. without legal status, it would be a major step forward.
For the thousands of immigrant workers, our neighbors and friends who have been in the community a long time and who have been good Americans in every way, except on paper, we have an opportunity to be better neighbors to them. Delay and avoidance will lead to only more brokenness, and now, we have a path forward.
Let us work to make our communities whole—the time to do registry is now.
Rep. Norma J. Torres represents California’s 35th District. She has served in Congress since 2015.