“I was reading on a website about a way that immigrants who are undocumented could get legal if they had been in the country since the 1970s.  I didn’t do much research because it seemed ridiculous.  Is this true? Why would such a law exist? It seems like it wouldn’t help anyone.”

A law called registry definitely does exist, and has been on the books since its creation way back in 1929. Registry allows undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to apply for legal status provided they meet certain criteria, chief among them a continuous residency requirement since the registry date on the books.

Those who can avail of registry must have entered the U.S. prior to January 1, 1972 and have lived here ever since. At this point in time, 38 years on, it’s highly doubtful that registry provides a means to permanent legal status for anyone, but 60,000 people have become legal through the mechanism since 1985.

Registry was created in 1929 as a way to help those who came to the U.S. at the start of the century, but had no documented record of arrival. At that time, those eligible to legalize in accordance with registry had to have arrived in the U.S. on or before June 3, 1921.

The registry date has been updated a few times. In 1940 it was moved to July 1, 1924, and then in 1958 it changed to June 28, 1940.

Also at that time, the terms of registry were broadened to allow those who had entered the country illegally or overstayed a visa to avail of its legalization mechanism, provided they were otherwise eligible to become permanent residents.
There have been two subsequent changes to the registry date since, the first to June 30, 1948, and then to the current date of January 1, 1972.

There have been bills put forth in Congress to once again move the registry date forward, given that it would assist virtually no one as it stands at this point, but those efforts have languished.

To qualify for registry as it currently stands, an applicant must have entered the U.S. prior to January 1, 1972, and must have resided here continuously since that time. (Short absences from the country are permissible.) The registry applicant must also be a person of good moral character.

Obviously, an applicant for registry would have to provide a substantial amount of evidence to show eligibility. A passport stamp showing the date of entry prior to January 1, 1972 would have to be produced, or if not, some other form of proof showing residency in the U.S. at that time.

The applicant would also have to have documents showing continuous residency since that date.  This could come in the form of bank records, mortgage/rent records, school records, etc. Obviously a skilled immigration professional would be needed to get the process going.

Registry, an already existing law, would seem like a perfect way to deal, at least in part, with the issue of illegal immigration in the U.S., especially if the uphill efforts to enact comprehensive reform are once again defeated.