Cite as "AILA InfoNet Doc. No. 01092159 (posted Sep. 21, 2001)"
Current Immigration Laws
Current U.S. immigration law is based on the Immigration and
Nationality Act of 1952 ("INA," codified at 8 U.S.C. §1101 et.seq.), which
has been amended many times over the last 40 years. Following are some of
the most important and recent amendments to the INA:
Legal Immigration and Family Equity ("LIFE") Act of 2000
At the end of the 106th Congress the LIFE Act was enacted as part of
the Omnibus budget deal negotiated between Congress and the Clinton White
House. The LIFE Act included five major provisions:
- Temporary Restoration of Section 245(i): Temporarily restores
Section 245(i) through April 30, 2001. (See section below on 245(i)
legislation for discussion of Section 245(i).)
- New temporary visas for spouses and children of legal permanent
residents: Creates a new "V" nonimmigrant visa for spouses and children
of permanent residents who have been waiting at least three years for
their green card. Allows them to enter the U.S. and obtain work
authorization while waiting for their green card to be issued.
- New temporary visa for spouses of U.S. citizens married abroad:
Expands the current "K" visa for fiancés and fiancées of U.S. citizens
to allow spouses of U.S. citizens who are married abroad, and their
minor children to enter the U.S. instead of waiting abroad for their
- Relief for certain members of the "late legalization" class action
lawsuits: Allows individuals who were wrongly denied the ability to file
for amnesty under the 1986 IRCA law (see below) and who were members of
three class-action lawsuits filed against the government to file new
adjustment applications. Also allows their family members to stay in the
U.S. and get work authorization.
- Provides certain waivers and protections for applicants under the
Haitian Refugee and Immigrant Fairness Act and NACARA: Allows the
Attorney General to waive certain deportation provisions to allow
otherwise-eligible individuals to apply for permanent residence under
H-1B Legislation -American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement
Act of 1998 ("ACWIA") and the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century
Act of 2000 ("AC21")
In 1998, the 105th Congress passed and President Clinton signed into
law the American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act ("ACWIA,"
Title IV, P.L. 105-277) to address the demand for H-1B professionals by
increasing the cap from 65,000 (where it had been since 1990) to 115,000.
ACWIA also added a requirement for domestic recruitment and a prohibition
on laying off U.S. workers to employers that use a high percentage of
foreign professionals, and required all employers sponsoring H-1Bs to pay
a $500 fee to fund education and training programs for U.S. workers. The
106th Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law the American
Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act (P.L. 106-313) in October 2000.
AC21 increased the cap on H-1B visas to 195,000 for the next three fiscal
years. The law also increased the ability of H-1B professionals to change
employers once they are in the United States, increased the fee employers
must pay to educate and train U.S. workers in technology occupations to
$1000, and made some changes to prevent INS delays from hurting H-1B
professionals who are applying for green cards. Finally, the law allows
all available employment-based green cards to be issued each year,
regardless of the nationality of the applicants.
Section 245 (i) Legislation -State Department Authorization Act of
1994 and Departments of Commerce, Justice and State, the Judiciary and
Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 1997
Included in the 1994 State Department Authorization Act was a provision
(Section 245(i)) that allowed for adjustment of status to permanent
residence for persons who had fallen "out of status" upon payment of a
penalty fee. This provision was set to expire in three years. In 1997,
Congress decided to cancel the 245(i) program but allowed for
"grandfathering" of individuals who had filed a petition or application
for LPR status or who had a labor certification on file before January 14,
1998. The 1997 legislation also created a new §245(k) that allows certain
employment-based visa applicants to adjust status in the United States as
long as they have not been out of status for more than a total of 180
Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act of 1997
Provided for adjustment of status for all Nicaraguans and Cubans who
were present in the United States since December 1, 1995 and provided for
limited ability to apply for suspension of deportation for certain
Salvadorans and Guatemalans who had applied for asylum before April 1,
1990, and for Eastern Europeans who entered the United States before
December 31, 1990 and had applied for asylum before December 31, 1991. The
law reduced the availability of employment-based immigrant visas for
lesser-skilled workers by half and reduced the diversity visas by 5,000 to
accommodate the new immigrants under this act.
Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of
1996 (Welfare Reform Law)
This law prevented lawful permanent residents from receiving most
means-tested public benefits, including welfare, Medicaid, food stamps,
supplemental security income (SSI), and others, regardless of their length
of residence in the United States or their participation in the Social
Security program. Allowed a sponsor's income to be included in
calculations of income when determining need, and made the affidavit of
support for immigrants legally enforceable. Since passage of this Act,
subsequent laws have restored many benefits to legal residents who were in
the United States at the time this law was enacted.
1996 Laws - the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant
Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRAIRA) and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective
Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA)
Together these laws:
- Significantly expanded the categories of offenses (including
non-violent crimes) for which an immigrant could be deported. The
immigration definition of "aggravated felony" now includes more than 30
crimes, including such offenses as shoplifting and check kiting.
- Allowed criminal deportation provisions to be applied retroactively,
causing long-term legal residents to be deported for minor crimes
committed decades ago.
- Eliminated certain waivers of deportation and curtailed the ability
of long-term residents to show community ties and extreme hardship to
obtain relief from deportation.
- Established a summary removal procedure, without review, for persons
arriving to the United States without documents or with fraudulent
documents, or who an immigration inspector believes is attempting to
enter the United States by misrepresentation. This provision allows for
limited screening of persons who claim a credible fear of persecution if
returned to their country.
- Created special deportation provisions and courts to hear "secret
evidence" against foreign nationals deemed to be terrorists.
- Eliminated judicial review of most deportations for persons
convicted of criminal offenses.
- Required creation of an automated entry-exit control system at all
land, sea and air ports-of-entry to track all non-U.S. citizens.
- Significantly revised the administrative judicial process for
removal of aliens from the United States.
- Created new and far-reaching grounds of inadmissibility, including a
3 year or 10 year bar to readmission for persons "unlawfully present" in
the United States for lengthy periods of time, for persons who have not
received vaccinations against vaccine-preventable diseases, for health
care workers who do not have appropriate certifications, for persons who
falsely claim U.S. citizenship or vote in an election, for persons who
renounce their U.S. citizenship for tax reasons, for foreign students
who attend public school without permission, and others.
Immigration Act of 1990 (IMMACT 90)
Representing the first major overhaul of the legal immigration system
since 1952, IMMACT 90 substantially changed the preference system for
immigrants by establishing separate categories, with separate annual caps,
for employment-based immigrants and family-sponsored immigrants. It
removed from annual quotas immigrants who were immediate relatives
(spouses, minor children, and parents) of U.S. citizens, and established a
diversity immigration program by lottery for applicants from
IMMACT 90 also made significant changes to the temporary (nonimmigrant)
visa categories, including the H-1B category for temporary workers in
specialty occupations, which, for the first time received an annual cap of
65,000, and required employers to file a labor attestation with the
Department of Labor regarding wages and working conditions. An annual cap
was also placed on the H-2B category for temporary or seasonal workers.
Other changes included the creation of new categories (O and P) for
foreign nationals of extraordinary ability in their field, athletes and
entertainers, a new Q visa for intercultural exchange, and an R visa for
religious workers, among others.
The law established a relief from removal called Temporary Protected
Status (TPS) that enables the Attorney General to designate nationals of
certain countries from areas suffering from political or environmental
upheavals to remain in the United States for temporary periods. The law
refined and broadened the provisions concerning deportable and excludable
criminal offenses. IMMACT 90 also reorganized and removed outdated grounds
of exclusion and deportation.
Because of the breadth of IMMACT 90, the next year two technical
amendments laws were enacted to solve "holes" in IMMACT 90, the Armed
Forces Immigration Adjustment Act of 1991, which created a special
immigrant status for individuals who had served honorably in the armed
forces and allowed grandfathering for those who had filed petitions under
the pre IMMACT 90 scheme. The Miscellaneous and Technical Immigration And
Naturalization Amendments of 1991 (MTINA), reinstituted court ceremonies
for naturalization which had been removed in IMMACT 90, and made technical
changes to the H-1B, O and P categories.
Immigration Nursing Relief Act of 1989 (INRA)
This law established a new temporary visa category for Registered
Nurses (H-1A) for a period of five years, which included strict
requirements for employers to demonstrate efforts to recruit and retain
U.S. workers, including a labor attestation for H-1A nurses. The law also
allowed for immediate adjustment of status to permanent residence, without
regard to quotas, for nurses who had been employed for three years. This
law sunsetted in 1994.
The Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendments of 1986 (IMFA)
Although less-well known than IRCA, this law aimed to prevent illegal
marriages for "green cards." Among other provisions, it established a
two-year period of "conditional permanent residence" for foreign nationals
who married U.S. citizens or Lawful Permanent Residents ("LPRs"), at the
end of which time the couple must prove to the INS that the marriage is
legitimate, and was not entered into for the sole purpose of getting a
The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA)
IRCA introduced the concept of penalties against employers for
knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants. IRCA requires all employers to
verify the employment eligibility of all new hires, but prohibited
discrimination in employment based on citizenship status or nationality.
IRCA also established several amnesty programs for various groups of
undocumented immigrants in the country, in an effort to "clear the slate."
These included a general amnesty for immigrants who had arrived before
January 1, 1982, an amnesty for Cuban and Haitian refugees, an amnesty for
immigrants who had been present in the U.S. for long periods of time prior
to 1972 (called "registry"), and two programs for agricultural
The Refugee Act of 1980
This Act removed refugees from the overall immigration quotas (set in
1976 at 290,000 visas), and gave them a separate cap of 50,000 or more
visas each year (to be set by the President).