Vanessa’s parents brought her to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 2 years old. For the past 18 years, she has lived in California.
In 2020, she graduated from high school and began classes at a community college in the state.
“I'm lucky I have the access to that education, but I can still see the limits in my future,” Vanessa, who did not disclose her last name, said Wednesday at a press conference.
When she turned 16, she qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy the Obama administration created in 2012 that allows recipients to work and go to school in the United States if they meet certain requirements. But before she could apply, federal courts blocked her and many others from doing so.
Virgilio Alema is from Honduras and has lived in the U.S. for 25 years. He is a Temporary Protection Status (TPS) holder — a program that allows migrants, whose home countries are considered unsafe, to live and work in the U.S. for a period of time if they meet certain requirements.
At 88 years old, he still works.
Although Vanessa and Alema have different U.S. immigration statuses, both could be able to become green card holders if Congress updates the cutoff date to the U.S. registry law, a section of U.S. immigration law that allows certain immigrants who have long been present in the United States to apply for permanent residence cards.
For an immigrant to qualify today under the registry process, the person must have lived in the United States since January 1, 1972, which is more than 50 years ago.
Neither Vanessa nor Alema qualifies, having arrived in the United States long after 1972.
Both shared their stories at a press conference where 46 House Democrats introduced a bill titled “Renewing Immigration Provisions of the Immigration Act of 1929,” which could create a path to citizenship for about 8 million documented and undocumented immigrants just by updating the existing registry law.
There is no specific date being suggested. Instead, House Democrats are proposing that applicants would have to have lived in the U.S. for seven years to become eligible, creating a rolling registry that allows new people to apply every year.
It's happened before
The registry provision has been updated four times since it was established in 1929. The most recent update came in 1986 during the Reagan administration.
Immigrant advocates said the cutoff date for eligibility is too far in the past, and the number of eligible applicants has severely dwindled. Between 2015 and 2018, only 305 people applied for permanent residence through the registry.
VOA requested U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ latest data on green card applications through registry, and a spokesperson said the information was not readily available.
Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren, the author of the bill, said the registry has been part of immigration law for almost 100 years.
“What's new is the Congress' failure to regularly renew the date, as has happened so many times historically, last under President Ronald Reagan,” Lofgren said Wednesday.
VOA reached out to the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, Representative John Katko of New York, but has yet to receive a response to repeated requests for comment.
To qualify, immigrants have to show they have not been convicted of crimes in any of several categories, have resided in the U.S. continuously since they entered, and have been people of good moral character.
Failed attempt under BBB
During 2021 negotiations over President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act, legislators considered a change in the immigration registry, but the initiative failed in the Senate.
Jorge-Mario Cabrera, director of communications for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said the bill is not amnesty and does not change the law itself. It only amends the cutoff date system.
If the registry bill passes the House, it would need to get three-fifths backing in the Senate to reach Biden’s desk. It could conceivably be melded with other immigration reform initiatives on Capitol Hill that currently have bipartisan support, such as the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. That bill, which would provide a path to legal permanent residency for undocumented agricultural workers and their family members, passed in the House and has some Republican support in the Senate.
On Wednesday, Vanessa, now 20, urged legislators to think differently about immigration — “not only as a continual crisis but as a normal, orderly, civil process. Updating this registry begins to do that by letting people like me, who have lived in and contributed to this country for many years, get a green card. It is possible. If we get enough people behind this bill, we might just be able to win once and for all.”