Immigration Statute of Limitations?

By Robert Bernstein   |   October 10, 2023

Trump claimed that he was going to go after “bad hombres” who were illegally in the U.S. But then he went after people like Juana Flores, right here in Goleta. She had been in the U.S. since 1988. Her husband and her many children and grandchildren were all legal U.S. citizens. She probably would have been, too.

Except that she went to Mexico in 1999 while her Green Card application was pending. It is a technicality unknown to most Americans that you are not allowed to leave the U.S. while your application is pending. Even if it is to deal with a family emergency. Juana’s mother was very sick and then died.

Trump targeted her for deportation to Mexico in 2019. Even though she had no family in Mexico by then. It was a foreign country for her. She was in fact deported to a place where she had no place to go. In the U.S. she was a caregiver to her family and her son was in the Air Force.

Congressman Carbajal sponsored a bill to allow undocumented family members of service members to stay in the U.S. temporarily. She is back now, but she cannot stay indefinitely.

In 2010, I watched a memorable BookTV program with political science professor Joseph Carens talking about his book Immigrants and the Right to Stay. His point: Most crimes have a statute of limitations. Immigration law should be no different. A country has the right to secure its borders and control who enters. But what about someone who has lived in a country “illegally” for most of their lives?

He gave the example of Marguerite Grimmond, who had lived her entire life in Britain. At age 80 she left the country for the first time, to visit family in Australia. Upon returning at Heathrow, she was told she is not a British citizen and cannot stay. It turned out she was born in Detroit to a British mother and was taken to Britain as an infant. It turned out she was only a U.S. citizen.

Fortunately, sanity prevailed and the British government recognized the fact that she was British in every way that mattered.

Carens noted many aspects of this case. Suppose she were 60? Or 40? Suppose she had come to Britain at age 20 instead of as an infant? Under her own will, not of a parent. In his view it should not matter. After a certain number of years, you are a part of the country you call home and live in. The government has a certain number of years to expel you. But, after that, the statute of limitations should have expired.

After he spoke, there was a panel discussion. Conservative legal scholar Carol Miller Swain attacked Carens and the “liberal elite” for “placing poor foreigners ahead of Americans.” She is Black. Carens pushed back. He noted that 100 years ago the same argument was made that jobs and benefits should be prioritized for white people. Blacks were seen as not fully American. In fact, surveys still show that Asian Americans are seen as less “American” than
African Americans.

Carens noted that millions of people were brought to the U.S. as children and know no other country. He emphasized that these people are Americans.

It turns out Carens’ suggestion is already a part of U.S. law! It was originally called the “Immigration Act of 1929.” It said that anyone who was in the U.S. by 1921 was now eligible to become a permanent resident and then a U.S. citizen. That date was updated to 1924, 1940, 1948, and 1972.

House bill HR1511, called the “Registry Bill,” would restore this precedent, making the updating automatic. It would provide a seven-year statute of limitations for immigrants.

It would legalize eight million Americans who currently can be deported to a country they have never known. One of those people is a dear friend of mine who has been here for decades. His status affects me.

Would this encourage more illegal border crossings? Did you know that the top destination of Ukrainian refugees is Russia? Desperate people are just trying to survive in the moment. They are not looking at a seven-year plan.  


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