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by  Cyrus D. Mehta

May 25, 2000


On March 31, 2000, the Clinton administration sent to Congress proposed legislation that would amend Section 249 of the Immigration and Nationality Act to allow certain aliens who entered the U.S. before 1986 to become permanent residents.

This bill would alter an obscure provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act known as  “registry” by changing the eligibility date from 1972 to 1986. At present, those who can document that they have been in the U.S. since January 1, 1972, can apply for permanent residence.   If approved, the “Legal Restoration Act of 2000” (H.R. 4172) would permit individuals who have lived continuously in U.S. since 1986 and who are deemed to be of good moral character to apply for permanent residence.

It is estimated that H.R. 4172, introduced in Congress on April 4 by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), could benefit as many as 500,000 undocumented aliens who were excluded from the wide-scale 1986 amnesty program.  Some 350,000 of these individuals have been stuck in class action lawsuits with the government, claiming that they were improperly excluded from the 1986 program because of their short-term absences form the U.S.  Many view the new proposal as a move by the government to put an end to those lawsuits.

Vice President Al Gore said that the legislation “would not only provide humanitarian relief to many long-term migrants, but also reduce or eliminate the need to continue litigating some of the large class action suits” that have resulted from the 1986 program.  In addition, he said, the proposal would ensure “fair and even-handed treatment to immigrants with substantial ties to this country.”  Administration officials calculate that, if approved, H.R. 4172 would affect about eight percent of the estimated six million undocumented aliens currently in the U.S., many of whom reside in California.  Both Vice President Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush are openly courting the Hispanic vote, and California voters, in their respective presidential bids.

A bill subsequently introduced in the Senate by Senators Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) (S. 2407) would not only forward the registry date from 1972 to 1986, but would also create a rolling  registry date system beginning on January 1, 2002, which would automatically move the registry date up one year. Thus, in 2002, the registry date would move to January 1, 1987. This advance by one year would continue until January 1, 2006, at which time the registry date would be January 1, 1991.

While these proposals have been introduced to provide relief to late amnesty applicants, many immigration advocates feel that these people would have been citizens by now had it not been for the government’s mistakes during the last amnesty program. Even though the new program would benefit a large group of people, it would involve filing new applications and lead to further disputes about how the new law is interpreted.  

Prospects for rapid passage of these proposals remain rather slim, and movers of this bill are seeking to attach the measure as an amendment to the H-1B reform bills, a topic that is currently the focus of much activity. Given that Lamar Smith, an immigration restrictionist, controls the immigration agenda in the House, chances of these amnesty provisions becoming law are still quite remote. Smith has already passed an H-1B measure through the Judiciary Committee that is not supported by business.  

Cyrus D. Mehta, a graduate of Cambridge University and Columbia Law School, practices immigration law in New York City.He is the trustee of the American Immigration Law Foundation and recipient of the 1997 Joseph Minsky Young Lawyers Award.He frequently lectures on various immigration subjects at legal seminars, workshops and universities and may be contacted at 212-686-1581 or