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E.g., 06/22/2017

The Immigration Act of 1990: Unfinished Business a Quarter-Century Later

Policy Briefs
July 2016

The Immigration Act of 1990: Unfinished Business a Quarter-Century Later

The Immigration Act of 1990 was a significant milestone, representing the first major overhaul of the U.S. legal immigration system in a quarter-century. The law, which remains the framework for today's legal immigration, attempted to create a selection system that would meet the future needs of the economy by moving away from a near-total focus on family-based immigration and toward admission of more immigrants based on their skills and education.

Congress has not significantly revised the U.S. immigrant selection system since the law was passed, despite a number of efforts. In the intervening 25 years, the number and percentage of immigrants selected on the basis of their skills has increased, but only modestly—representing just 15 percent of all immigrants admitted for permanent residence in 2014, up from 9 percent in 1990—and other changes the legislation enacted are now out of date.

This issue brief discusses what the 1990 Act has accomplished, including its creation of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and the diversity visa program, and where it has fallen short in the 25 years since its inception.

The authors find that an immigration policy that remains static for a quarter-century in an economy as large and dynamic as the United States represents serious neglect of the potential that immigration holds for economic vitality and competitiveness. Lawmakers must develop a system that introduces needed flexibility into a visa allocation system that is currently frozen in a 25-year-old design.

Table of Contents 

I. Background

II. Major Provisions of the 1990 Act

A. Immigrant Visa Changes

B. Nonimmigrant Visa Changes

C. Other 1990 Act Changes

III. Congressional Goals and the Results of the 1990 Act

A. Shifts in Legal Immigration Patterns

B. H-1B Temporary Professional Workers

C. EB-5: The Rise of Immigrant Investors

D. Employer Sanctions and the Growth of E-Verify

E. The Diversity Visa Program

IV. Implications for Today's Immigration Debate