Immigration Act of 1990

By James Parker
July 28, 2022

In addition to creating new ways for alien and temporary visitors to stay in the U.S., the Immigration Act of 1990 also adjusted existing immigration law. The act made adjustments to immigration numbers, set new priorities for existing channels, and increased legal and health reasons to exclude and deport immigrants.

When the Act was signed, it imposed new annual limits on the total number of immigrants allowed to enter the country. From 1992 to 1994 the U.S. would issue up to 700,000 visas annually before dropping the cap to 675,000 from 1995 onward. This is known as a “flexible cap” because there are certain circumstances where more than 675,000 immigrant visas may be allowed such as issuing a conditional resident visa to the spouse of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident or allowing a refugee asylum. 

In addition to limiting the total number of visas issued, the Immigration Act of 1990 has also set limits on how many of each kind of visa may be issued. From 1995 onwards, the limits have generally followed the same count:

  • Family: 480,000 visas
  • Employment: 140,000 visas
  • Diversity Lottery: 55,000 visas

This division accounts for the flexible cap of 675,000 annual visas being issued.

In addition to limiting the number and type of visas, the Immigration Act of 1990 also set a new preference system for how family and employment visas would be issued. This preference system would guide how the limited number of visas are issued.

Family visas were arranged in a four-tiered system. At the top of the preference list for family visas are unmarried children of U.S. citizens. Second are spouses and unmarried children of lawful permanent residents. The third preference is given to married children of U.S. citizens. Finally, the lowest priority is given to siblings 21 years or older of U.S. citizens.

Similarly, the Immigration Act of 1990 sets a hierarchy of preferences for employment visas. There are 5 tiers of preference for employment visas. Those 5 tiers are:

  1. Individuals with “extraordinary ability,” outstanding professors, researchers, or multinational executives and managers.
  2. Professionals with an advanced degree or with exceptional ability
  3. Skilled workers, immigrants with a bachelor’s degree, unskilled workers in a sector with a labor shortage
  4. Broadcasters, religious workers, medical graduates, government employees
  5. Investors creating a specified minimum number of jobs

These preferences create a system that prioritizes employees who the writers of the Immigration Act considered to be of higher value to the United States.

The final major change enacted by the Immigration Act of 1990 is the expansion of reasons to be deported or denied entry into the United States. These reasons are primarily classified under either criminal or health reasons.

Under prevailing immigration law, any non-citizen can be removed or deported if they commit a crime defined as an “aggravated felony.” The Immigration Act expanded the definition of an aggravated felony to include all violent crimes with a sentence of at least five years, crimes committed outside the U.S., as well as drug trafficking and money laundering. In addition to expanding the list of aggravated felonies, the Act also cut the timeframe that an individual could request a judicial review of their final removal order in half to only a month.

In addition to criminal expulsion, the Immigration Act of 1990 also revised the criminal, health, security, and other grounds for inadmissibility into the nation. Health-related denials discussed in the act included denying people with a communicable disease, physical or mental disorders, or addiction if they were considered a threat to public health or safety.

Criminal and security grounds for inadmissibility are somewhat more extensive than the health-related section. Criminal grounds for inadmissibility include convictions for “crimes involving moral depravity,” drug use, prostitution, or people convicted of multiple crimes. Meanwhile, security grounds make individuals inadmissible if it is believed that the individual intends to perpetrate activity that opposes the U.S. government, engage in terrorist activity, affiliate with a totalitarian party, negatively impact foreign relations, or if the individual has a history of participation in Nazi persecution or genocide.

Finally, miscellaneous reasons for denial cover a wide berth of reasons that are less focused. Reasons for inadmissibility include suspicion that the individual will be dependent on government assistance, the individual practices or practiced polygamy, or has previously broken immigration law.

Bottom Line

If you are an immigrant and are looking to take advantage of paths to citizenship or a nonimmigrant seeking a temporary visa using the pathways established by the Immigration Act of 1990, you will need the help of an experienced Immigration Law attorney. An Immigration Law attorney will be able to advise you and advocate on your behalf in order to get you the best possible outcome for your case.

Using their legal expertise, trial tactics, and expert witnesses, your Immigration Law attorney can explore your alternative options to deportation as well as present your case in the most compelling light possible and deftly navigate the complex processes of immigration bureaucracy as well as the obscure functions of immigration court.

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