How the Immigration Law Went Wrong


Immigration Levels
Under Recent Acts

Why is immigration in such disarray? Knowing how the present immigration system came about helps explain what went wrong. Three congressional acts gave us the system we have today: the 1952 Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA), the 1965 Amendments to the INA, and the 1990 Amendments to the INA. 1

The 1952 Immigration and Naturalization Act

The 1952 Act continued limits on the number of immigrants to be admitted annually based upon a country quota: Each country received enough admissions to match the national origin mix in the United States. According to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, "...the national origins quota formula was a rational and logical method of numerically restricting immigration...."2 During the 1950s, admissions averaged 270,000 per year. Half of all admission slots were set aside for immigrants with high educational credentials. In name, the 1952 Act is still on the books. However, its admissions system was gutted and completely replaced by the amendments in 1965.

The 1965 Amendments

The 1965 amendments to the INA were passed in the shadow of the civil rights movement. To the heightened sensitivities of that era, an admissions system based on national origins seemed inappropriate. So a new system was created emphasizing reunification of extended family members. Previous law limited admissions to the nuclear family (spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and resident aliens); the new system made other relatives eligible as well. Under this new system, every immigrant admitted starts an unending series of relatives who can immigrate. That is why the waiting list for people eligible to immigrate has more than tripled, reaching over three million.

The 1990 Amendments

In 1990, Congress passed an act that was pushed by special interest groups, such as associations of immigration lawyers-an act that increased the overall immigration ceiling by 40 percent. An example of the 1990 special interest amendments is 55,000 additional admissions a year handed out in a lottery (for which even illegal aliens are eligible). Although the 1990 amendments did not receive much attention at the time, they have turned out to be the most profound changes to the immigration system in the last thirty years.

The 1990s and beyond

Under the 1952 Act, we were taking in a quarter million immigrants a year. Since the 1990 amendments, we are now admitting immigrants four times faster-over one million a year. The 1990s brought over nine million immigrants to the United States, almost 20 percent more than any other decade. Clearly, the immigration system is broken down and needs to be changed. For that reason, FAIR supports comprehensive reform of our legal immigration laws and a moratorium on unnecessary immigration.

  1. As a technicality, modern references will still cite the 1952 INA because the '65 and '90 bills are amendments to the '52 act.
  2. U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on the Judiciary. The Immigration and Naturalization Systems of the United States. S. Rept. 1515, 81st Cong., 2d Sess. Washington, GPO, 1950. p. 455.

Updated 10/02

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