Illegal Border Crossings Today:

Sunset capitol building


History of U.S. Immigration Laws

Key Facts

  • Since its initial passage, the INA has been modified several times by means of the Immigration Act of 1990, the Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 and others.
  • Contrary to the popular narrative that America has always been a nation of mass immigration (“a nation of immigrants”), U.S. immigration policy has, in reality, alternated between more permissive and more restrictive schemes. As a result, America has experienced both “great waves” of immigrants and “great lulls,” with very little immigration.
  • Despite periodic efforts by Congress to strengthen enforcement, the overall trend in U.S. immigration policy since the 1960s has been toward liberalization of immigration laws and increasingly lax enforcement.
  • While in office President Trump used the authority granted to him by Congress to improve immigration enforcement and address the worsening crisis at our southern border. However, those efforts were frequently been blocked by activist courts and partisan gridlock in Congress, as well as their unwillingness to amend our current immigration laws.

Naturalization Act of 1790

The Naturalization Act of 1790 established the first rules for acquiring citizenship in the United States of America. The act created a uniform rule of naturalization and a residency requirement for new citizenship applicants. The law required immigrants to live in the United States for two years and their respective state of residence for one year prior to applying for citizenship.


Congress Enacted the First Significant Federal Legislation Relating Specifically to Immigration

Among its provisions, it: (1) established the continuing reporting of immigration to the United States; and (2) set specific sustenance rules for passengers of ships leaving U.S. ports for Europe.


Centralized Control over Immigration

Congress first centralized control over immigration under the Secretary of State with a Commissioner. The importation of contract laborers was legalized in this legislation.


Fourteenth Amendment Passed

The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted to guarantee American citizenship rights to black Americans following the abolition of slavery and the defeat of the Confederacy. The goal was to prevent states from disenfranchising former slaves, but the amendment has more recently been misused to grant citizenship to U.S.-born children of illegal aliens.


Direct Federal Regulation of Immigration

Direct federal regulation of immigration was established by a law that prohibited entry of prostitutes and convicts.


The Chinese Exclusion Law

The Chinese exclusion law curbed Chinese immigration. Also excluded were persons convicted of political offenses, lunatics, idiots, and persons likely to become public charges and those deemed “lunatics” and “idiots. The law placed a head tax on each immigrant.


Admission of Contract Laborers was Banned


Provisions were Adopted for Expelling Aliens

Provisions were adopted—the first since 1798—to provide for expulsion of aliens.


The Bureau of Immigration

The Bureau of Immigration was established under the Treasury Department to federally administer all immigration laws (except the Chinese Exclusion Act).



Immigration law was consolidated. Polygamists and political radicals were added to the exclusion list.


English Language Requirement

Procedural safeguards for naturalization were enacted. Knowledge of English was made a basic requirement.


Restrictions for Medical Conditions

A bill increased the head tax on immigrants, and added people with physical or mental defects or tuberculosis and children unaccompanied by parents to the exclusion list. Japanese immigration became restricted


Restrictions for Medical and Moral Conditions

Added to the exclusion list were illiterates, persons of psychopathic inferiority, men as well as women entering for immoral purposes, alcoholics, stowaways, and vagrants. A bill increased the head tax on immigrants, and added people with physical or mental defects or tuberculosis and children unaccompanied by parents to the exclusion list. Japanese immigration became further restricted.


First Numeric Limits

The first quantitative immigration law was adopted. It set temporary annual quotas according to nationality.  A book titled Not Like Us: Immigrants and Minorities in America, 1890-1924, discusses this period.


Quota System

The first permanent immigration quota law established a preference quota system, nonquota status, and consular control system. It also established the Border Patrol.


Quotas Made Permanent

The annual quotas of the 1924 Act were made permanent.


Start of the Bracero Program

Legislation provided for the importation of agricultural workers from North, South, and Central America—the basis of the “Bracero Program.” At the same time the Chinese exclusion laws were repealed.


War Brides

Procedures were adopted to facilitate immigration of foreign-born wives, fiance(e)s, husbands, and children of U.S. armed forces personnel.


First Refugee Provisions

The first U.S. policy was adopted for admitting persons fleeing persecution. It permitted 205,000 refugees to enter the United States over two years (later increased to 415,000).


Communist Exclusion

The grounds for exclusion and deportation of subversives were expanded. All aliens were required to report their address annually.


The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952

The multiple laws which governed immigration and naturalization to that time were brought into one comprehensive statute, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. It (1) reaffirmed the national origins quota system, (2) limited immigration from the Eastern Hemisphere while leaving the Western Hemisphere unrestricted, (3) established preferences for skilled workers and relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens; and (4) tightened security and screening standards and procedures.


Refugee Relief Act of 1953

The Refugee Relief Act also referred to as the Special Migration Act of 1953 was a law passed by the 83rd Congress. After the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 expired in 1952, this legislation became the nation’s second refugee resettlement law and increased the admission rate to over 200,000 refugees.


Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

The Hart-Cellar Act abolished the national origins quota system but still maintained was the principle of numerical restriction by establishing 170,000 Hemispheric and 20,000 per country ceilings and a seven-category preference system (favoring close relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens, those with needed occupational skills, and refugees) for the Eastern Hemisphere and a separate 120,000 ceiling for the Western Hemisphere.


Refugee Changes

The 20,000 per-country immigration ceilings and the preference system became applied to Western-Hemisphere countries. The separate Hemispheric ceilings were maintained.

1978—The separate ceilings for Eastern and Western Hemispheric immigration were combined into one world-wide limit of 290,000.


Refugee Act

The Refugee Act removed refugees as a preference category and established clear criteria and procedures for their admission. It also reduced the world-wide ceiling for immigrants from 290,000 to 270,000.


Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA)

The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was a comprehensive reform effort. It (1) legalized aliens who had resided in the United States in an unlawful status since January 1, 1982, (2) established sanctions prohibiting employers from hiring, recruiting, or referring for a fee aliens known to be unauthorized to work in the United States, (3) created a new classification of temporary agricultural worker and provided for the legalization of certain such workers; and (4) established a visa waiver pilot program allowing the admission of certain nonimmigrants without visas.


Nursing Exemption

A bill adjusted from temporary to permanent status certain nonimmigrants who were employed in the United States as registered nurses for at least three years and met established certification standards.The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was a comprehensive reform effort.


Birth of the Current Category System

Comprehensive immigration legislation provided for (1) increased total immigration under an overall flexible cap of 675,000 immigrants beginning in fiscal year 1995, preceded by a 700,000 level during fiscal years 1992 through 1994, (2) created separate admission categories for family-sponsored, employment-based, and diversity immigrants, (3) revised all grounds for exclusion and deportation, significantly rewriting the political and ideological grounds and repealing some grounds for exclusion, (4) authorized the Attorney General to grant temporary protected status to undocumented alien&nbs


Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA)

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), enacted in 1996, resulted from the process of deliberating on the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform established by President Bill Clinton and the Congress to examine both legal and illegal immigration issues.


American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act

Increase in H-1B visa cap. New fees and penalties for abuse of the H-1B system.



On November 19, 1997, President Clinton signed into law the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA). NACARA provided permanent residence (“green cards”) to certain Nicaraguans, Cubans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, nationals of former Soviet bloc countries and their dependents.


Haitian Amnesty

Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act (HRIFA), which was enacted in December 2000 applied to Haitians who had been the beneficiaries of an earlier DED designation in 1995.


American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act

Removed effective caps on H-1B by allowing for more renewals of H-1B status without counting against the cap. 


Homeland Security Act

Created the Department of Homeland Security. All immigration enforcement and adjudication now located within DHS.


L-1 Visa Reform Act of 2004

Added new penalties for abuse of the L-1 intra-company transfer visa.


H-1B Visa Reform Act of 2004

Added 20,000 new H-1B slots for foreign students graduating with a masters degree from American universities.



Established federal standards for identification documents.


Secure Fence Act

Authorized construction of a partial border fence along 700 miles of the 1,954-mile U.S. — Mexico border.




President Barack Obama announces the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which offered deferred action from deportation (renewable every two years) and eligibility for a work permit for illegal aliens brought into the U.S. as children. DACA was a presidential executive order and was widely criticized as unconstitutional.


DACA Expanded, DAPA Introduced

President Obama issued another executive order announcing the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), which deferred the deportation of illegal aliens living in the United States since 2010 who had children who were American citizens or legal permanent residents. His executive order simultaneously expanded DACA.


Trump Launches Pro-American Immigration Reforms

President Donald J. Trump issued numerous executive orders furthering a pro-American immigration reform agenda. These included orders authorizing border wall construction, withdrawing the U.S. from the TPP, “Buy American and Hire American,” withholding funds from sanctuary jurisdictions, protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry, ensuring proper vetting, and phasing out DACA.

History of U.S. Immigration Policies: 1950s - Present

Table of Contents

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 Refugee Admissions in the 1950s and 1960s
Refugees and the Refugee Act of 1980  The 1970s through 1990s: Immigration Issues, Review, and Revision
 The INA Amendments of 1965 and Their Aftermath Illegal Immigration and the IRCA of 1986
Legal Immigration and the Immigration Act of 1990 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (1996)
American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act (1998) American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act (2000)
Homeland Security Act (2002) L-1 Visa Reform Act of 2004
H-1B Visa Reform Act of 2004 REAL ID Act (2005)
Secure Fence Act (2006) DACA and DAPA (2012 – 2014)
The Trump Reforms  

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952

  • The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1952 was passed in the context of Cold War rivalry with a growing international communist threat. The legislation was, in many ways, an attempt to resolve the tension between the desire to improve America’s image outside of Western Europe – in Asia as well as Central and Eastern Europe – and the national security imperative to keep out attempted communist infiltration during a period of rapid and aggressive red expansion on a global scale.
  • Merged multiple laws governing immigration and naturalization into one comprehensive statute.
  • Reaffirmed the national origins quota system. Limited immigration from the Eastern Hemisphere, while leaving the Western Hemisphere unrestricted.
  • Repealed the last of the existing measures to exclude Asian immigration and eliminated laws preventing Asians from becoming naturalized American citizens.
  • Established preferences for skilled workers and relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens.
  • Tightened security and screening standards and procedures.
  • Granted the Chief Executive broad powers to exclude groups of aliens deemed harmful to U.S. interests. Thus, Section 212(f) states: “Whenever the President finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate.”
  • Although subsequently modified – in particular by the 1965 amendments, which repealed the national origins quotas – the INA of 1952 remains the chief basis of U.S. immigration law.

Refugee Admissions in the 1950s and 1960s

Major refugee admissions occurred outside the national origins quota system during the 1950s. The Refugee Relief Act (RRA) of August 7, 1953, and the amendments of August 1954, authorized the admission of 214,000 refugees from war-torn Europe and escapees from Communist-occupied countries. Thirty percent of the admissions during the life of the Act were Italians, followed by Germans, Yugoslavs, and Greeks.

The RRA originated as an Administration bill, and combined humanitarian concern for the refugees and escapees with international political considerations. Quoting from President Eisenhower’s letter which accompanied the draft legislation:

“These refugees, escapees, and distressed peoples now constitute an economic and political threat of constantly growing magnitude. They look to traditional American humanitarian concern for the oppressed. International political considerations are also factors which are involved. We should take reasonable steps to help these people to the extent that we share the obligation of the free world.”

In particular, the inclusion of the category of escapees from communist domination in this and subsequent refugee legislation reflected the preoccupations of this Cold War period. This concern was also a major factor in the admission of refugees from the unsuccessful Hungarian revolution of October 1956. A total of 38,000 Hungarian refugees were eventually admitted to the United States, 6,130 with RRA visas and the remainder under the parole provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

The Act of September 11, 1957, sometimes referred to as the Refugee-Escapee Act, provided for the admission of certain aliens who were eligible under the terms of the Refugee Relief Act, as well as refugee-escapees, defined as persons fleeing persecution in Communist countries or countries in the Middle East. This was the basis for the definition of refugee incorporated in the INA from 1965 until 1980. A total of 29,000 entered under the temporary 1957 refugee provisions, led by Hungarians, Koreans, Yugoslavs, and Chinese.

During the 1960s, refugees from persecution in communist-dominated countries in the Eastern Hemisphere and from countries in the Middle East continued to be admitted, first under the Fair Share Law, enacted July 14, 1960, and subsequently under the INA. About 19,700 refugees entered under the 1960 legislation. Its primary purpose was to enable the United States to participate in an international effort to close the refugee camps which had been in operation in Europe since the end of World War II. U.S. participation was limited to one-fourth of the total number resettled.

Cuban refugees began entering the United States with the fall of the Batista government and the subsequent communist takeover in 1959, and continued throughout the 1960s and, in smaller numbers, during the 1970s. Approximately 700,000 Cuban refugees had entered the United States prior to a new influx which began in April 1980. The United States has accepted the Cubans as refugees from communism through a variety of legal means.

The INA Amendments of 1965 and their Aftermath

The October 1965 amendments to the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) repealed the national origins quota system and represented the most far-reaching revision of immigration policy in the United States since the First Quota Act of 1921. In place of nationality and ethnic considerations, the INA amendments (P.L. 89 236; 79 Stat. 911) substituted a system based primarily on reunification of families and needed skills.

The circumstances which led to this major shift in policy in 1965 were a complex combination of changing public perceptions and values, politics, and legislative compromise. It can be argued that the 1965 immigration legislation was as much a product of the mid-1960s and the heavily Democratic 89th Congress which also produced major civil rights legislation, as the 1952 Act had been a product of the Cold War period of the early 1950s.

The 1965 amendments adopted an annual ceiling on Eastern Hemisphere immigration of 170,000 and a 20,000 per country limit. Within these restrictions, immigrant visas were distributed according to a seven-category preference system placing priority on family reunification, attracting needed skills, and refugees. The 1965 law also provided that effective July 1, 1968, Western Hemisphere immigration would be limited by an annual ceiling of 120,000 without per-country limits or a preference system.

The INA Amendments of 1976 (P.L. 94-571; 90 Stat. 2703) extended to the Western Hemisphere the 20,000 per-country limit and a slightly modified version of the seven category preference system. Legislation enacted in 1978 (P.L. 95 412; 92 Stat. 907) combined the separate ceilings into a single worldwide ceiling of 290,000 with a single preference system. The Refugee Act of 1980 (P.L. 96 212; 94 Stat. 102) eliminated refugees as a category of the preference system, and set the worldwide ceiling at 270,000, exclusive of refugees.

Since 1965, the major source of immigration to the United States has shifted from Europe to Latin America and Asia, reversing the trend since the founding of the nation. According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), Europe accounted for 50 percent of U.S. immigration during the decade fiscal years 1955 to 1964, followed by North America at 35 percent, and Asia at eight percent. In fiscal year 1988, Asia was highest at 41 percent, followed by North America at 39 percent, and Europe at 10 percent. In order, the countries exceeding 20,000 immigrants in fiscal year 1988 were Mexico, the Philippines, Haiti, Korea, India, mainland China, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and Jamaica.

These figures reflect a shift in both accessibility and conditions in the sending countries. For example, Asian immigration, which was severely limited prior to the 1965 amendments, subsequently has been augmented by the large number of Indochinese refugees adjusting to immigrant status outside the numerical limits. On the other hand, Irish immigration fell from 6,307 in fiscal year 1964 to 1,839 in fiscal year 1986, with 734 entering under the preference system and the majority entering as the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. Ireland had been heavily favored under the national origins quota system.

In more recent years, the above trend has largely continued. According to Pew Hispanic: “The regions of origin for immigrant populations residing in the U.S. have dramatically shifted since the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act. In 1960, 84% of immigrants living in the U.S. were born in Europe or Canada, while only 6% were from Mexico, 3.8% from South and East Asia, 3.5% from the rest of Latin America and 2.7% from other areas. Immigrant origins now [as of 2016] differ drastically, with European and Canadian immigrants making up only a small share of the foreign-born population (13.2%) in 2016. South and East Asians (26.9%), Mexicans (26.5%) and other Latin Americans (24.5%) each make up about a quarter of the U.S. immigrant population, followed by 8.9% who were born in another region.”

The proponents of the 1965 INA repeatedly assured American society that the amendment was far from radical. For instance, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) claimed:

First, our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually. Under the proposed bill, the present level of immigration remains substantially the same (…). Secondly, the ethnic mix of this country will not be upset (…). Contrary to the charges in some quarters, [the bill] will not inundate America with immigrants from any one country or area, or the most populated and deprived nations of Africa and Asia (…). In the final analysis, the ethnic pattern of immigration under the proposed measure is not expected to change as sharply as the critics seem to think.

In reality, every single assurance Kennedy offered has been proven wrong by subsequent events. As FAIR President Dan Stein pointed out on its fiftieth anniversary:

By any objective standards, the 1965 Immigration Act would have to be considered an abject failure, and it is incumbent upon today’s leaders to fix a law that has produced countless unintended consequences that threaten our nation’s future (…). The law has resulted in reckless population growth, growing dependence of the social welfare system, and overwhelmed the country’s capacity to assimilate immigrants and their children into the social, cultural and economic mainstream.

Immigration History:  The 1970s to the Present

The 1970s through 1990s: Immigration Issues, Review, and Revision

The patterns of immigration and the policy considerations relating to it in the 1970s resembled in some respects those of the 1950s after the enactment of the Immigration and Nationality Act. In both decades, the entry of aliens outside the provisions of the basic law—both illegally as undocumented aliens, and legally as refugees was increasingly the dominant pattern in immigration and the basis for the major issues confronting the Congress. Legislative response to the issue of refugees in 1980 and undocumented aliens in 1986 was followed in 1987 by a shift in congressional attention to legal immigration.

The 1981 report of the national Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy contributed to congressional review of immigration issues. The sixteen-member Commission was created by legislation enacted in 1978 to study and evaluate immigration and refugee laws, policies, and procedures. Its basic conclusion was that controlled immigration had been and continued to be in the national interest, and this underlay many of its recommendations. The Commission’s recommendations were summed up by Chairman Theodore Hesburgh in his introduction:

“We recommend closing the back door to undocumented, illegal migration, opening the front door a little more to accommodate legal migration in the interests of this country, defining our immigration goals clearly and providing a structure to implement them effectively, and setting forth procedures which will lead to fair and efficient adjudication and administration of U.S. immigration laws.”

Refugees and the Refugee Act of 1980

Between 1975 and 1980, refugees and refugee-related issues dominated congressional concern with immigration more than they had since the years following World War II. Beginning with the fall of Vietnam and Cambodia to the communists in April 1975, this five-year period saw the admission of more than 400,000 Indochinese refugees, the enactment of major amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act in the form of the Refugee Act of 1980, and the exodus from Mariel Harbor, Cuba, to southern Florida.

The 1980 refugee legislation was enacted in part in response to Congress’s increasing frustration with the difficulty of dealing with the ongoing large-scale Indochinese refugee flow under the existing ad hoc refugee admission and resettlement mechanisms. By the end of the 1970s, a consensus had been reached that a more coherent and equitable approach to refugee admission and resettlement was needed. The result was the amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act contained in the Refugee Act of 1980, enacted on March 17, 1980 (P.L. 96-212; 94 Stat. 102).

The Refugee Act repealed the limitations which had previously favored refugees fleeing communism or from countries in the Middle East and redefined refugee to conform to the definition used in the United Nations Protocol and Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The term refugee is now defined by the Immigration and Nationality Act as a person who is unwilling or unable to return to his country of nationality or habitual residence because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The 1980 amendments made provision for both a regular flow and the emergency admission of refugees, following legislatively prescribed consultation with the Congress. In addition, the law authorized federal assistance for the resettlement of refugees.

Shortly after the enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980, large numbers of Cubans entered the United States through southern Florida, totaling an estimated 125,000, along with continuing smaller numbers of Haitians. The Carter Administration was unwilling to classify either group as refugee, and no action was taken on the special legislation sought by the Administration. Beginning in 1984, the Reagan Administration adjusted the majority of the Cubans to lawful permanent resident status under P.L. 89 732, 1966 legislation enacted in response to the Cuban refugee situation in the 1960s. However, the status of the Cuban/Haitian entrants was not resolved finally until enactment of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which included special legalization provisions.

Illegal Immigration and the IRCA of 1986

Immigration legislation focusing on illegal immigration was considered and passed by the 99th Congress, and enacted as the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 P.L. 99-603 (November 6, 1986; 100 Stat. 3359), consists primarily of amendments of the basic 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), amended (8 U.S.C. 1101 et seq.).

Reform of the law relating to the control of illegal immigration had been under consideration for 15 years, i.e., since the early 1970s. The 1986 legislation marked the culmination of bipartisan efforts both by Congress and the executive branch under four Presidents. As an indication of the growing magnitude of the problem, the annual apprehension of undocumented aliens by the Department of Justice’s Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) increased from 505,949 in 1972, the first year legislation aimed at controlling illegal immigration received House action, to 1,767,400 in 1986. In 1987, after the adoption of IRCA, INS apprehensions dropped by a third to 1,190,488.

The prospect of employment in the United States is an economic magnet that draws aliens here illegally. The principal legislative remedy proposed in the past, and included in the new law, is employer sanctions, or penalties for employers who knowingly hire aliens unauthorized to work in the United States. In order to avoid a major law enforcement problem dealing with aliens who established roots here before the change in policy, a legalization program was established that provided legal status for otherwise eligible aliens who had been here illegally since prior to 1982. Second, the legislation sought to respond to the apparent heavy dependence of seasonal agriculture on illegal workers by creating a 7-year special agricultural worker program, and by streamlining the previously existing H-2 temporary worker program to expedite availability of alien workers and to provide statutory protections for U.S. and alien labor.

Overall, the 1986 amnesty was a failure because the number of illegal aliens in the United States has since quadrupled: from the approximately 3 million amnestied in 1986 to approximately 12.5 million in 2017.

Legal Immigration and the Immigration Act of 1990

After enactment of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which adopted a major change in deterrence against illegal immigration, congressional attention shifted to legal immigration, including the 1965-adopted system of numerical limits on permanent immigration. This was an issue for a number of reasons. Concern had arisen over the greater number of immigrants admitted on the basis of family reunification compared to the number of independent non-family immigrants, and over the limited number of visas available to certain countries under the preference system. There was also concern about the growing visa waiting lists (backlogs) under the existing preference system and about the admission of immediate relatives of U.S. citizens outside the numerical limits.

Major legislation addressing these concerns passed the Senate and was introduced in the House in the 100th Congress (1987 to 1988). However, only temporary legislation addressing limited concerns passed both, leaving further consideration of a full-scale revision of legal immigration to the 101st Congress.

The Immigration Act of 1990 (IMMACT90) was signed into law as P.L. 101-649 by President Bush on November 29, 1990. It constituted a major revision of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which remained the basic immigration law. Its primary focus was the numerical limits and preference system regulating permanent legal immigration. Besides legal immigration, the eight-title Act dealt with many other aspects of immigration law ranging from nonimmigrants to criminal aliens to naturalization.

The legal immigration changes included an increase in total immigration under an overall flexible cap, an increase in annual employment-based immigration from 54,000 to 140,000, and a permanent provision for the admission of “diversity immigrants” from “underrepresented” countries. The new system provided for a permanent annual level of approximately 700,000 during fiscal years 1992 through 1994. Refugees were the only major group of aliens not included. The Act established a three-track preference system for family-sponsored, employment-based, and diversity immigrants. Additionally, the Act significantly amended the work-related nonimmigrant categories for temporary admission.

IMMACT90 (P.L. 101-649) addressed a series of other issues. It provided undocumented Salvadorans with temporary protected status for a limited period of time, and amended the Immigration and Nationality Act to authorize the Attorney General to grant temporary protected status to nationals of designated countries subject to armed conflict or natural disasters. It also authorized a temporary stay of deportation and work authorization for eligible immediate family members of the IRCA-legalized aliens, and made 55,000 additional visas available for them annually during fiscal years 1992 to 1994.

As a response to criticism of employer sanctions, IMMACT90 expanded the anti-discrimination provisions of the IRCA, and increased the penalties for unlawful discrimination. It significantly revised the political and ideological grounds for exclusion and deportation which had been controversial since their enactment in 1952.

Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (1996)


The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA), enacted in 1996, resulted from the process of deliberating on the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform established by President Clinton and the Congress to examine both legal and illegal immigration issues.

The Commission was chaired until her untimely death in 1996 by The Hon. Barbara C. Jordan who had served in the U.S. House of Representatives (D-TX) 1973-79, and was a professor at the Univ. of Texas-Austin 1979-96. The Commission’s members included distinguished experts in immigration law and history and others with experience in national politics and business.

After a long and arduous effort to develop bipartisan legislation dealing with both reform of legal and illegal immigration, Congress narrowed its focus on illegal immigration provisions with a promise by many that they would return soon to the effort to reform legal immigration.

“Credibility in immigration policy can be summed up in one sentence: Those who should get in, get in; those who should be kept out, are kept out; and those who should not be here will be required to leave…For the system to be credible, people actually have to be deported at the end of the process.”
(Barbara Jordan, February 24, 1995 Testimony to House Immigration Subcommittee)

The provisions of IIRAIRA were aimed at adopting stronger penalties against illegal immigration, streamlining the deportation (removal) process by curtailing the never-ending legal appeal process that was used by immigration lawyers to keep their clients in the United States until they found a sympathetic judge who would grand suspension of deportation (cancellation of removal). Other toughening provisions adopted in the same year aimed at curbing the ability of terrorists to use the immigration process to enter and operate in the United States and to restrict the use of public welfare benefits by new immigrants contrary to the intent of the immigration law.

“For our immigration policy to make sense, it is necessary to make distinctions between those who obey the law, and those who violate it.”
(Barbara Jordan, address to United We Stand, America Conference, Dallas, TX, August 12, 1995)

Major Provisions of IIRAIRA

  • Authorized 5,000 additional Border Patrol agents by 2001 and included several hundred additional investigators to pursue employer sanctions violations, document fraud, and visa overstays. 
  • Barred legal admission for removed illegal aliens (for 5 to 20 years depending on the seriousness of the immigration violation) and permanently barred admission for deported or removed aggravated felons. 
  • Authorized a 14-mile-long triple fence at San Diego, California. 
  • Authorized necessary funds to expand the “IDENT” program to include fingerprinting of all illegal and criminal aliens apprehended nationwide. 
  • Facilitated deportation of criminal aliens by expanding the definition of aggravated felony to include crimes carrying a prison sentence of one year or more rather than time served. 
  • Stopped the release of criminal aliens from custody prior to deportation. 
  • Expedited the removal of inadmissible aliens by limiting judicial review. 
  • Made excludable or deportable those aliens who falsely claim U.S. citizenship. 
  • Required states to phase in, over six years, drivers’ licenses and state-issued I.D. documents that are tamperproof and counterfeit-resistant. 
  • Increased criminal penalties for document fraud and smuggling. Added alien smuggling and document fraud to RICO (anti-racketeering) offences and granted the INS the authority to use wiretaps for such investigations. 
  • Required that sponsors of immigrants have income at least 25 percent above the poverty level and made affidavits of support by the sponsors legally binding. 
  • Tightened the Attorney General’s authority over special admissions by requiring “urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit” as grounds for admittance, and allowed for such admissions only on a case-by-case basis.

American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act (1998)

  • ACWIA temporarily increased the H-1B cap to 115,000 for FYs 1999 and 2000, and to 107,500 for FY 2001 while establishing an affirmative role for U.S. employers to assist with education and training efforts. The cap was to return to 65,000 in FY 2002.
  • An H-1B Nonimmigrant Petitioner Fee account was established to fund training and education programs administered by the Department of Labor and the National Science Foundation.
  • Employers, unless explicitly exempt under the law, were required to pay a $500 fee for each H-1B worker sponsored. Employers who qualified as an institution or organization described in section 212(p)(1) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) were exempt.
  • Imposed quarterly and annual reporting requirements on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigrations Services (USCIS) concerning the H-1B fee, fee exemption, and demographic H-1B worker data. The ACWIA fee of $500 was initially set to sunset on October 1, 2001.
  • New, tougher, more explicit penalties for abuse of the H-1B system.

American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act (2000)

  • The legislation was passed as a complement to the ACWIA of 1998.
  • Removed effective caps on H-1B by allowing for more renewals of H-1B status without counting against the cap.
  • Made it easier for workers on H-1B visas to switch jobs.
  • Temporarily raised the H-1B cap to 195,000 for FYs 2001, 2002 and 2003 while exempting certain H-1B workers from these numerical limits. Starting in FY 2004, the H-1B cap was to be reduced back to 65,000 per fiscal year.

Homeland Security Act (2002)

  • The HSA of 2002 was introduced in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack by the radical Islamist terror group Al Qaeda.
  • Created the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), within which all immigration enforcement and adjudication was now located.
  • The authorities of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) were transferred to three new agencies within DHS: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

L-1 Visa Reform Act of 2004

  • Added new penalties for abuse of the L-1, a non-immigrant intra-company transfer visa for aliens employed overseas by a firm with an affiliated entity in the U.S., who come to our country to perform services for the international entity that involve specialized knowledge.
  • Required that all L-1 temporary workers must have worked for a period of no less than one year outside the United States for an employer with a qualifying relationship to the petitioning employer. Previously, participants in the “blanket L-1” program could participate after as little as six months of qualifying employment.
  • Created a new fraud detection fee of $500 for the L-1 visa imposed on top of other fees.

H-1B Visa Reform Act of 2004

  • Added 20,000 new H-1B slots for foreign students graduating with a master’s degree from American universities not subject to the annual congressionally mandated H-1B visa cap of 65,000.
  • Reinstituted the ACWIA fee (originally set at $1,000) – which had expired on October 1, 2003 – and raised it to $1,500.

REAL ID Act (2005)

  • The REAL ID Act of 2005 implemented the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation that the federal government “set standards for the issuance of sources of identification, such as driver’s licenses.”
  • Established minimum security standards for state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards for accessing federal facilities, entering nuclear power plants, and boarding federally regulated commercial aircraft.
  • REAL ID allowed compliant states to issue driver’s licenses and identification cards to illegal aliens, but the cards must clearly state on their face that they are not acceptable for official purposes and must use a unique design or color to differentiate them from compliant cards.
  • Tightened laws dealing with asylum – by introducing stricter standards of proof and required corroborating evidence – and the deportation of aliens “engaging in terrorist activities.”
  • Allowed for waivers of laws interfering with the construction of border barriers.
  • Eliminated the 10,000 annual limit for previously approved asylees to adjust to permanent legal residence.

Secure Fence Act (2006)

  • Authorized and partially funded the construction of a border fence along 700 miles of the 1,954-mile U.S. — Mexico border.
  • Authorized more vehicle barriers, checkpoints, and lighting.
  • Authorized DHS to increase the use of advanced technology like cameras, satellites, and unmanned aerial vehicles.
  • The SFA was weakened by a 2007 amendment introduced by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), which stated that DHS would not be required “to install fencing (…) if the Secretary determines that the use or placement of such resources is not the most appropriate means to achieve and maintain operational control over the international border at such location.”

DACA and DAPA (2012 – 2014)

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

  • The executive directive was announced by President Barack Obama on June 15, 2012; USCIS began accepting applications for the program on August 15, 2012.
  • Offered deferred action from deportation (renewable every two years) and eligibility for a work permit for illegal aliens brought into the U.S. as children.
  • Individuals could apply for deferred action if they had come to the U.S. before their sixteenth birthday; were under age 31; had continuously resided in the United States since June 15, 2007; and were in school, graduated or had obtained a certificate of completion from high school, obtained a General Educational Development (GED) certificate, or were an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States.
  • Those convicted of a felony or a significant misdemeanor were ineligible, but applicants who had been convicted of up to two other misdemeanors were eligible.
  • DACA was widely criticized as unconstitutional.
  • Update: In 2018, a federal judge ruled that DACA was likely unconstitutional but allowed it to temporarily remain in place as the litigation process continues.

Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA)

  • President Obama announced DAPA – another executive action – on November 20, 2014.
  • Deferred the deportation of illegal aliens living in the United States since 2010 who had children who were American citizens or legal permanent residents.
  • DAPA beneficiaries would also receive three-year renewable work permits.  
  • The executive action simultaneously expanded DACA by including illegal aliens who entered the U.S. before 2010, eliminating the requirement that applicants be younger than 31 years of age, and extending the period of DACA and work authorization from two to three years. 
  • Update: DAPA was overturned by a Federal District Court in the Fifth Circuit in 2015.

The Trump Reforms

  • Since assuming the presidency, Donald J. Trump has embarked on a series of immigration reforms aiming to put Americans first, restore immigration enforcement, and secure our borders.
  • For a complete list of President Trump’s immigration reforms and accomplishments, please visit the Trump timeline.