Immigration Act of 1990
Title: Immigration Act of 1990
Bill Number: S. 358/H.R. 4300
Sponsors: Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA)/Rep. Bruce Morrison (D-CT)
Cosponsors: 4/32

Overall Impact on Legal Immigration

The Immigration Act of 1990 increased the overall ceiling on family-based immigration to 480,000 from 216,000 and, for the first time, included the spouses, minor children and parents of citizens under that ceiling. However, because admissions of spouses, minor children and parents of citizens remained unlimited under the 1990 Act, the act required that a minimum of 226,000 visas be reserved for the family-preference categories. This meant that the ceiling of 480,000 would be breached as soon as admissions of spouses, minor children and parents of citizens surpassed 254,000, which happened in 1993. Both the pre-1990 Act preference system and the 1990 Act system for family-based immigration included "trickle-down" provisions, so that any visas not used by one category of relatives are passed down to the next category and added to that category’s ceiling. The act raised the ceiling on employment-based immigration from 54,000 annually to 140,000. It created a new, permanent lottery program under which immigrant visas are distributed randomly among applicants from countries with low immigrant-admission rates. This lottery program accounts for more than one-third of the 10-year cumulative increase in permanent immigration caused by the Immigration Act of 1990. Finally, the act established a short-term amnesty program to grant legal residence to up to 165,000 spouses and minor children of immigrants who were amnestied under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).

Impact on Legal Immigrant Categories

Spouses and minor children of citizens
The Immigration Act of 1990 had no direct impact on admissions in this category. It is likely, however, that by increasing overall immigration, and thus the number of immigrants who would become eligible to naturalize and bring over these family members, the act indirectly increased admissions in this category.

Parents of citizens
As with the category above, the Immigration Act of 1990 had no direct impact on this category, but likely had an indirect impact since it increased overall immigration.

Adult unmarried children of citizens
The Immigration Act of 1990 lowered this category’s ceiling from 54,000 to 23,400. Since actual admissions were below even the new ceiling through 1997, the act had no immediate impact on admissions. It is projected that admissions will be limited by this lower ceiling for the first time in 1999.

Spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents (LPRs)
This category and the following one (adult unmarried children of LPRs) were combined under one ceiling of 70,200 prior to the 1990 Immigration Act. An average of 77 percent of admissions under the combined category were spouses and minor children of LPRs in the years immediately before the act took effect. The 1990 Act increased the overall ceiling to 114,200 and specified that spouses and minor children should be allotted at least 77 percent (or 87,934) of those slots.

Adult unmarried children of LPRs
The Immigration Act of 1990 allotted this category no more than 23 percent (or 26,266) of the combined ceiling of 114,200 for spouses and minor children and adult unmarried children of LPRs.

Married children of citizens
The Immigration Act of 1990 reduced this category’s ceiling from 27,000 to 23,400. Since neither actual nor projected admissions of married children of citizens exceed this new ceiling, the 1990 Act had no numerical impact on this category.

Adult siblings of citizens
The ceiling on this category was raised only slightly, from 64,800 to 65,000, by the Immigration Act of 1990. Because of the trickle-down system, however, sufficient visas would have been available to this category under the old system to make up for the slightly lower ceiling. Thus, the 1990 Act had no real numerical impact.

Skilled workers/investors
Prior to the 1990 Act, there were two employment-based preference categories, each of which was allotted 27,000 visas. The first category was for highly skilled professionals and the second was for skilled and unskilled workers. Since INS statistics did not break out the number of unskilled workers who entered under the old system, the reported occupations of workers who entered under the second category were used to determine that an average of 6,400 unskilled workers were admitted annually in the years immediately before the 1990 Act took effect. That means the total number of skilled-worker admissions was 47,600 under the pre-1990 system. The Immigration Act of 1990 increased the total ceiling for skilled workers to 120,060, and included a permanent investor-visa program under that ceiling for wealthy foreigners willing to invest in a job-creating business in the United States in exchange for an immigrant visa.

Unskilled workers
The Immigration Act of 1990 placed a ceiling of 10,000 on admissions of unskilled workers. Although there was no specific ceiling on unskilled workers under the pre-1990 preference system, an average of 6,400 were admitted annually immediately before the 1990 Act took effect (see the Skilled worker/investor description).

Special immigrants
Prior to the Immigration Act of 1990, there was no limit on special immigrant admissions, which included ministers, retired employees of international organizations, and several other small, ad hoc subcategories. The 1990 Act placed a ceiling of 9,940 on this category and included it under the overall employment-based immigration ceiling of 140,000. The act also created a new subcategory for religious workers, which now accounts for a large portion of all special-immigrant admissions. Since this category was unlimited prior to the 1990 Act, the only numerical impact that act had was the creation of the new religious worker subcategory.

Lottery
The Immigration Act of 1990 created the first permanent visa lottery program and set admissions at 40,000 from 1992 through 1994, and 55,000 thereafter. The lottery was intended to increase immigration from countries with previously low-admission rates.

Asylees
Since aliens granted asylum in the United States theoretically are admitted only on a temporary basis (until the situation in their home country improves), they are not counted in immigration statistics until they adjust to legal permanent resident status, which they may apply to do after residing here as asylees for one year. The Immigration Act of 1990 raised the ceiling on the number of asylees who may adjust to permanent resident status each year from 5,000 to 10,000.

Amnestied aliens
The Immigration Act of 1990 created a temporary amnesty program under which up to 165,000 spouses and minor children of aliens amnestied under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) could be granted legal permanent resident status.

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