Published: 14-02-2012, 11:50

Immigration Act of 1990

The Law: Federal legislation that increased quotas for legal immigration into the United States

Date: Enacted on November 29, 1990

Significance: This legislation has been seen as a return to the pre-1920’s open door immigration policy of the United States. It allowed for an increase in the number of legal immigrants into the United States and waived many of the conditions that had previously restricted immigration of certain groups. The act allowed for sanctuary in the country and increased the numbers of work visas and visas awarded to immigrants hoping to become permanent residents of the United States.

The Immigration Act of 1990 allowed for an increase of those seeking immigrant visas. Such visas are given for numerous reasons, but are primarily granted to foreign workers seeking permission to work or become permanent residents of the United States. This category includes persons sponsored by American employers and by family members already in the United States, and priority and skilled workers, including college professors, athletes, and professionals in the arts, sciences, and medical fields.

The primary goal of the Immigration Act was to supplement the depleting skilled worker class of the United States. Many leaders in government feared that illegal immigration was flooding the workforce with unskilled and non-English speaking workers who threatened slowly to push skilled labor jobs out of the United States to other nations with less stringent labor laws, such as Mexico and India. The act allowed for an increase fromroughly the 50,000 immigrant visas per year of the past to 140,000 visas by the end of the fiscal year 1991 for skilled positions. For the majority of these positions, employers or employees were to submit documentation showing that no skilled American workers were available for the jobs offered to immigrants. Some opponents of the law argued that this important requirement was often ignored by American employers seeking cheaper labor.

In addition to allowing skilled immigrant laborers into the United States, the act allowed for the creation of additional visas to be granted via a lottery system. This lottery system became important for immigrants from countries not regarded by the U.S. government as reliable providers of skilled and priority labor. To allow for an increase in immigrants from previously nonpriority countries, the 1990 law eased the requirements for Englishlanguage competency during the immigration phase and simplified the previously lengthy process for seeking permanent residence in the United States. Although standards were generally lowered, the United States still placed a cap on the total numbers of immigrants allowed per year. The cap was 675,000-700,000 through the first five years the law was in effect, and it remained steady at afterward. At the same time, to avoid overrepresentation from any single country, a limit of 48,000 was placed on the total number of immigrants from one nation.

The first several years after passage of the law saw a steady increase in skilled labor immigrants. The 1990 act was the first major overhaul in U.S. immigration law since the 1960’s, and its passage prompted increased numbers of both skilled and nonskilled laborers from other nations to immigrate. The largest increases in legal immigration came from Mexico and the Philippines. Other nations that saw increases in numbers of immigrants during the first five years the law was in effect were India, Canada, China, and many African countries.

Impact of the Law

The Immigration Act of 1990 was enacted primarily to increase skilled labor positions in the United States. As a result, the medical fields (such as doctors), the arts, sciences, education (including professors), and athletes all experienced increases in the number of skilled positions in the United States. In an attempt to lure and keep these skilled workers in the country, other laws pertaining to deportation and exclusion were weakened.

This weakening of other laws, as well as new rules and regulations for accepting nonimmigrant visas, accepting immigrants of previously disallowed countries, and the increase in temporary work visas, allowed nonskilled workers to find many loopholes in the new immigration law. This unexpected event produced both positive and negative effects. First, the increase in skilled workers allowed the United States to compensate for the depletion of skilled workers in many fields. However, the parallel increase in nonskilled laborers aggravated problems already evident in the country, notably an overflow of non-English speaking, nonskilled workers. Meanwhile, the positive and negative effects of the law increased the need for policing the nation’s borders and ports of entry. The overall effect of the act increased border patrol spending, safety, and procedures for handling high-priority cases for the country.

Keith J. Bell

Further Reading

  • Geyer, Georgia Anne. Americans No More. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996. Critical examination of the impact of the Immigration Act of 1990, which Geyer describes as the “most comprehensive reform of our immigration laws in sixty-six years.” 
  • LeMay, Michael C., and Elliott Robert Barkan, eds. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Broad history of U.S. immigration laws supported by extensive extracts from actual documents. 
  • National Immigration Project. Immigration Act of 1990 Handbook: The Complete Practical Guide to the 1990 Act. 9 vols. New York: Clark, Boardman, Callaghan, 1991-1999. Massively detailed guide to the 1990 law. 
  • Shanks, Cheryl. Immigration and the Politics of American Sovereignty, 1890-1990. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Scholarly study of changes in federal immigration laws from the late nineteenth century through the Immigration Act of 1990. Pays particular attention to changing quota systems and exclusionary policies. 

See also: Congress, U.S.; Economic consequences of immigration; Guest-worker programs; History of immigration after 1891; Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996; Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965; Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S.; Immigration law; Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy.