The 25th Anniversary Of The Immigration Act Of 1990 Is No Cause For Celebration

Ian Smith Immigration Reform Law Institute
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Twenty-five years ago last Sunday President George H. W. Bush signed into law the Immigration Act of 1990. The act would take the revolutionary and needless changes created under the Immigration Act of 1965 and make them dramatically worse. Although the economy was in recession at the time, the 1990 act raised general immigration levels by over 30 percent and increased employment-based entry provisions by three times. In spite of this, it had very little public debate due largely to a serious budget fight between President Bush and the Democrats which shut down the government for a brief time. As former Cornell labor economist Vernon Briggs reflects, this smokescreen together with it being signed on the final day of session, it was “doubtful” any member of Congress actually read the act.

Programs and provisions that would never withstand a citizen referendum on their own abound in the 1990 act. Take the “diversity lottery visa.” The point of the diversity lottery, which applies mainly to people from Africa and South Asia, is simply to bring in immigrants of a particular race. Because of this low standard, over 10 million people apply for the 55,000 slots made available each year. Ironically, because of its emphasis on race and national origin, the program harks back to the pre-1965 national quotas system, which was started in 1921 to keep immigration low and ensure assimilation. It fell victim to the heady days of the civil rights era because it had a built-in preference for descendants of America’s settler-stock and for migrants from countries that made up the first immigration wave of 1860-1890. China, Japan and Israel are just a few nations that have such systems today.

Then there is the act’s creation of so-called Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a program that open-borders pushers point to as precedent for President Obama’s unilateral actions on amnesty. TPS ‘temporarily’ stalls deportation of illegal aliens whose home country is ravaged by war or suffers a natural disaster. It initially only applied to then-war-torn El Salvador; however, TPS has since grown to include no fewer than 11 other countries. And although the relief’s supposed to be “temporary,” the program’s been consistently renewed by DHS even when the problems back home have long since subsided.

Two of the more blatant corporate giveaways in the act deserve mention. Disney, a company facing multiple suits for discriminating against American IT professionals, got its own special program under the act. The Q visa, aka the “Disney provision,” created a special worker category for native performers at amusement parks. Meanwhile, under the “McDonald’s Program,” foreign students were given work permits to work off-campus specifically at the billion-dollar burger chain as well as on certain on-campus research projects. Although that program was found to have “pervasive adverse effects” on the job opportunities in the labor markets surrounding the foreign students’ colleges, it later grew into a far wider program called Optional Practical Training (OPT), a “backdoor H-1B visa” according to Michelle Malkin and John Miano in their new book, Sold Out. When the Homeland Security Department unilaterally expanded OPT for STEM-grads looking to work in IT, the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI) sued the agency. IRLI found during its ongoing litigation that the original plan for OPT’s expansion was hatched during a private dinner between Microsoft lobbyist, Jack Krumholtz, and then-DHS Secretary, Michael Chertoff.

Perhaps the biggest example of our corporatized immigration system is the H-1B program itself, also created under the act. Among all the “skilled” guest-worker programs, the H-1B is “Grandfather of All American Worker Sellouts” according to Malkin and Miano in their book. Although riddled with problems, the H-1B’s most serious is perhaps that H-1B employers needn’t try to hire Americans first. This puts the U.S. within a special class among developed nations. Luckily, this loophole and others is currently being challenged by a bipartisan bill sponsored by Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin in the Senate.

Crucially, the ’90 act also did nothing to cut the ’65 act’s visa-preferences-for-relatives system, which has had the unintended effect of favoring Hispanic immigration and has needlessly disrupted the nation’s cultural continuity — The ’65 act’s lead sponsor, Senator Ted Kennedy, would later lament over “the inadvertent restriction on immigration from the old seed sources of our heritage.” (Emphasis mine.)

A major effect of giving relatives visa-preferences is that most new immigrants settle in just a few selected metropolitan areas where earlier immigrants of similar ethnicity were already established. This creates what Elizabeth Bogen’s called “ethnic hiring networks” which she estimated in 1988 actually cut out the native-born in New York from “tens of thousands” of jobs. In a similar study from the Wall Street Journal in 1995, immigrant shopkeepers also in the New York area stated they wouldn’t hire American blacks specifically due to their greater propensity to complain about “low wages or lousy working conditions” and were “less intelligent,” “less honest,” and “more prone to criminal acts.” As the piece concluded, “it’s like an unwritten law” that immigrant employers won’t hire blacks.

Interestingly, the 1990 act also contained a commission to study the implementation and impact of this legislation on the U.S. economy. The committee, made up of community and industry leaders, then went on to rebut the very act itself by voting 8-1 that immigration levels should be reduced to 550,000 with the complete elimination of both the diversity visa and the unskilled immigrant visa (unsurprisingly, the dissenting vote was from the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the nation’s largest immigration attorneys’ lobby).

The 1990 act was a disaster, but it can be fixed. Trumping well-worn clichés is a start, for instance, “that immigration ‘enriches’ the American people,” including those who must directly compete with new immigrants. Or, “that immigration brings the world’s strivers and its best and brightest,” including those who’ve simply arrived via a lottery system or who are merely following their relatives. Briggs was right when he said the 1990 act “cemented into existence the phenomenon of mass immigration as an ongoing feature of American life for as long as it remains in effect.” But as he implies, such phenomenon does not have to remain in effect forever.