Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio is retired bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Can our broken immigration system be reformed? I believe it can be to meet our nation’s labor, family reunification and humanitarian goals, and it can be done on the basis of sound information.

America has been the land of immigrants. The Statue of Liberty and the poem, “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus, have been symbols of our nation. Unfortunately, the “golden door,” referenced in Lazarus’ poem, has always been closed to many. Reform of the immigration system must be done on the basis of national interest and not prejudices.

Looking at the past 100 years, we see three periods. The 1920s had a national quota system excluding many Southern and Eastern Europeans, as well as Asians. 1965 saw the reform of that prejudicial law, which improved things.

1980 to 1990 saw the passing of the Refugee Act of 1980, which put the U.S. in conformity with the international laws on refugee acceptance. In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act legalized almost 3 million people.

In 1996, concerns over continued undocumented immigration gave rise to new restrictive laws. Since 1996, more restrictive laws and policies were passed, with immigration increasingly framed as a national security issue.


Immigration policies should meet national needs. Unfortunately, these policies have been politicized. An evidence-based system should guide the political process and can bring about a just and fair system.

One challenge is the regulation of undocumented people. This population is misunderstood and often demonized. The majority, however, have sought to build a secure life and contribute to their communities. Since 2010, the number of undocumented immigrants has been decreasing.

Unregulated immigration is not good for the country or for those without status who are excluded from full participation in our nation. As we look at reform, we must distinguish between different types of migrants and expand legal pathways for labor and family migration, as well as refugees, those seeking asylum and other humanitarian flows.

Reform must begin by dealing with those without status, and any reform must be flexible and continuous. Immigration reform deals with the lives of people and our national identity. We cannot revisit reform every 10 or 20 years.

A major contributing factor of the undocumented population is the backlog in the family-based visa system, which can stretch for decades. Many people, tired of waiting for long periods of time, come to join their families rather than stay abroad. Also, having a functional asylum system is critical because of the turmoil in Central America and other countries.

There are many children who have been brought here by their parents. These native-English speakers are well-integrated and deserve a chance to be educated and contribute to our nation.

We must learn from both our past mistakes and successes. In the Immigration Reform and Control Act process, 300,000 undocumented residents were not able to legalize. Legalization must be complete and meet the needs of all people in the U.S.

There is another older section of the immigration law that has been in effect since 1929, called “registry.” This provision allows people who arrived before a certain date to obtain status and eventually citizenship. In 1929, the entry date for registry was 1921. If immigrants had good moral character and had resided in the country since 1921, they could apply for permanent status.

This program recognized the equitable ties developed in the U.S. over a long period of residence. It has allowed many who have owned homes, started businesses and had American-born children to remain.

Congress last advanced the registry cutoff date in 1986 when it moved the date forward to Jan. 1, 1972. In order to use the registry program today, an immigrant would need to have lived in the U.S. for more than 50 years.

By changing this date to Jan. 1, 2012, Congress would be able to legalize the majority of the undocumented population. In addition to changing the registry date one time, Congress should allow this date to advance automatically into perpetuity.

This would prevent our nation from having long-term undocumented immigrants and one way to put the U.S. on the road to having an immigration system that is truly in the national interest.


Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio is retired bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the column “Walking With Migrants” for Catholic News Service and The Tablet.