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The Immigration Act of 1990

The Immigration Act of 1990


The Immigration Act of 1990 marked a profound shift in the United States immigration policy, increasing the number of immigrants who could legally enter the country. The act drastically changed the way the U.S. government regulated the influx of new residents, establishing new immigration categories and prioritizing family reunification. The primary objective of the Act was to create a more just and humane immigration system. This article explores in detail the key provisions of the Immigration Act of 1990 and its impact on the American immigration landscape.

Historical Context of the 1990 Immigration Act

The United States immigration policy underwent significant changes in the 1980s. The Reagan administration passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986, which focused on curbing illegal immigration by creating a path to citizenship for undocumented residents. However, IRCA was harshly criticized for being too lenient on employers that hired undocumented workers. As a result, calls for more comprehensive immigration reform intensified.

The Immigration Act of 1990 was the outcome of years of public debate, political wrangling, and lobbying by a diverse range of groups. The act represented the most significant overhaul of U.S. immigration laws since the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

Key Provisions of the 1990 Immigration Act

The 1990 Immigration Act consisted of a series of provisions that reflected an effort to create a more just and humane immigration system. Some of the key provisions are outlined below:

Increased Number of Visas

One of the main objectives of the 1990 Immigration Act was to increase the number of visas available to immigrants. The act increased the annual limit of visas issued from 540,000 to 700,000, the highest number seen at that time. The Act created a new employment-based immigration category, EB-5, for foreign investors who could invest $1 million in the U.S. economy, or $500,000 in certain targeted employment areas. This program was aimed at promoting economic growth and creating jobs in the United States.

Family-Based Immigration

The 1990 Immigration Act made significant changes to the family-based visa system, which has long been a cornerstone of U.S. immigration policy. The Act allowed more immediate family members, including siblings and married children, to immigrate to the United States. The act also created a new visa category, the Diversity Visa, which allocated 55,000 visas annually to people from countries with historically low levels of immigration to the United States.

Employment-Based Immigration

The 1990 Immigration Act created new categories of employment-based immigration visas, which increased the number of skilled and unskilled workers who could enter the country legally. The Act also created a new category of priority workers, which included individuals with extraordinary ability in science, arts, education, business, or athletics.

Immigrant Investor Program

The 1990 Immigration Act created an investor visa program, also known as the EB-5 program, which aimed at promoting economic growth by attracting foreign investment. The program allowed foreign investors to immigrate to the United States, provided they created at least 10 permanent jobs in the country.

Asylum and Refugee Law

The 1990 Immigration Act made significant changes to U.S. asylum and refugee policies. The Act allowed those who faced persecution in their home countries to seek asylum in the United States. The Act also revised the definition of a refugee to include individuals who are unable or unwilling to return to their home countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Impact of the 1990 Immigration Act

The 1990 Immigration Act had far-reaching consequences for the American immigration landscape. The Act expanded immigration eligibility to non-European countries, increasing the diversity of the new immigrants and contributing to the growth of the immigrant population. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the number of immigrants in the United States rose from 19.8 million in 1990 to 44.9 million in 2019, with the major share coming from Asia and Latin America.

The Act allowed more family members to reunite in the United States, brought skilled and unskilled workers, and opened doors for foreign investors to create jobs and improve the economy. The Act also strengthened the U.S. refugee and asylum program and emphasized the importance of humanitarian concerns in the immigration policy.

The 1990 Immigration Act had long-term implications for the U.S. economy. The Act allowed skilled and unskilled laborers to enter the country legally, reducing the dependence on undocumented workers. According to a report by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Act had a positive impact on the U.S. economy, raising the GDP by 0.06% in the long run.

Current Immigration Policies in the United States

The Trump administration attempted to significantly overhaul U.S. immigration policies, with a focus on reducing legal and illegal immigration. The administration introduced several measures, including the travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries, restrictions on asylum seekers, and aggressive removal policies.

However, the Biden administration has taken a more lenient approach to immigration. President Biden has proposed a sweeping immigration bill that aims to provide a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. The bill would also increase the number of family-based and employment-based visas and provide asylum seekers with more protections.


The Immigration Act of 1990 was a landmark moment in U.S. immigration policy. The act expanded immigration eligibility to non-European countries, increased the diversity of the immigrant population, and brought families together. The Act also allowed more foreign investors to create jobs and emphasized the importance of humanitarian concerns in immigration policy.

Today, debates around immigration and pathway to citizenship are as intense as they were in the 1990s. With the Biden administration introducing a comprehensive immigration bill, the future direction of U.S. immigration policy remains uncertain. Nevertheless, it is essential to appreciate the significance of the Immigration Act of 1990, which created a more just and humane system and led to significant social and economic changes in the United States.

Enacted on November 29, 1990, the Immigration Act of 1990 was an amendment in United States immigration law that increased the number of legal immigrants that entered into the United States every year. In addition, the the amendment introduced a “lottery” system which assigned visas to immigrants randomly. The main reason for this was to change previous United States immigration law that prohibited the granting of visas to immigrants from certain countries. Other immigration law changes that were included in the act was a stipulation that prevented immigrants from entering the United States because of their homosexuality. Another restriction that was lifted as a result of the enacted United States immigration law was restrictions against ¬†immigrants that are HIV-positive.

The Immigration Act of 1990 is considered to be one of the most considerable changes to United States immigration law since 1965. The results of the act increased the number of legal immigrants from about 500,000 to about 700,000. Also, prior to the enforcement of the act, about 54,000 visas were available yearly to immigrants, but were limited to members of immediate families or people that were sponsored by their employers. The act raised the number of visas to 140,000 per year and each one of these visa claims were divided into separate categories.

The first group of legal immigrants that were selected for visas was “priority workers”. They were considered aliens that possessed extraordinary ability, such as highly-skilled professors, researchers, and certain top executives and company managers. In order for these groups of people to be considered to have “extraordinary ability”, they would require recorded and recognized acclaim within their field, such as sciences, arts, and even athletics.

The second category for visa grants was for aliens who were “advanced professionals and those of exceptional ability”. This group included individuals that have received advanced degrees in their field of study and are considered to have “exceptional ability” in the fields of science or business.

What defines exceptional ability? Exceptional ability is a vague term and is not clearly identified. The Immigration Act of 1990 does state, however, that a degree or certification does not automatically grant a visa to an alien for exceptional ability. Those wishing to participate in this second category are required to also seek certification from through the U.S. Labor Department.

The third category for aliens seeking visas are for those considered to be skilled workers. This term signifies that he or she is able to perform labor that requires more than two years of preparation and training. Other workers are included in this category but are for labor occupations that are considered “unskilled”. Before 1990, there were no restrictions placed on “unskilled workers”, but the ceiling was established as 10,000 in the new act.

All of these aliens receiving visas must also be in occupations that are considered to have a shortage of U.S. qualified workers and are needed to fill the positions.

In addition, immigration law changes included the reduction of certain immigration categories, such as unmarried children of U.S. citizens, and married children of U.S. citizens.