Immigration Act (United States) (1990)


The Immigration Act of 1990 was the first major revision of U.S. immigration policy since the Immigration and Nationality Act (1965), which had been passed in the midst of the cold war. The act maintained the national commitment to reunifying families, enhanced opportunities for business-related immigration, and made provision for underrepresented nationalities. It also raised the annual cap on immigration from 270,000 to 675,000 (700,000 for the first three years).
The 1990 Immigration Act divided the immigration preference classes into two broad categories—family sponsorship and employment related—and provided for annual review of the number limits in each category. Those who wished to restrict immigration favored the measure because it established an annual cap on family-based immigration. Those opposed to restriction supported the measure for its guaranteed base of preference visas and for the raising of percountry visas annually from 20,000 to 25,600, which promised some relief for the backlog of applications from Mexico and the Dominican Republic, among other countries. The measure also provided for an 18-month “Temporary Protected Status” for Salvadorans who had fled political violence in their country during the 1980s. In fact, the measure’s caps were easily pierced, because refugees, asylees, Immigration Reform and Control Act legalizations, and Amerasians fell outside its provisions. Between fiscal years 1992 and 1998, average annual immigration under the act was just over 825,000.
Family-sponsored preferences ranged between 421,000 and 675,000 annually, depending on previous admissions. The formula limited worldwide family sponsorships to “480,000 minus the number of aliens who were issued visas or adjusted to legal permanent residence in the previous fiscal year as 1) immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, 2) children born subsequent to the issuance of a visa to an accompanying parent, 3) children born abroad to lawful permanent residents on temporary trips abroad, and 4) certain categories of aliens paroled into the United States in the second preceding fiscal year, plus unused employment preferences in the previous fiscal year.” The measure also established a minimum of 226,000 family visas per year. First preference for admission was given to unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens and their children; second preference to spouses, children, and unmarried sons and daughters of permanent resident aliens; third preference to married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens; fourth preference to brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens (at least 21 years of age).
The employment-based preference limit was set at 140,000 plus unused family preferences from the previous year. Immigrant applications were ranked according to the following preferences: 1) priority workers; 2) professionals with advanced degrees or exceptional abilities; 3) skilled workers, professionals, or unskilled workers in high demand; 4) special immigrants; and 5) investors. Per country limits were set at 7 percent of total family and employment limits.
Finally, the Immigration Act provided for 55,000 annual “diversity immigrants,” (40,000 during the first three years). Countries sending 50,000 immigrants during the previous five years were ineligible to participate in the diversity program. All eligible countries were divided into six regions, and per country limits determined by a formula including admissions during the previous five years and the total population of the region. The annual maximum for each country under the diversity program was 3,850.

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