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Dec 27, 2021 | Documented and Rommel H. Ojeda

The Immigration Act of 1990, Explained

Signed into law with the purpose of changing the level and preference system for admissions of immigrants into the U.S, the act of 1990 became the first major act to overhaul the immigration system in a quarter century.

-> This article is part of Documented’s Glossary. We want to make it easier to understand the U.S. immigration system. If you want to know more about different visa types and immigration terms, please check our library here.

-> To find useful information for immigrants, such as where to find free food or legal representation, check out our master resource guide.

The Immigration Act of 1990 overhauled the legal immigration system by outlining three different paths by which people could immigrate to the U.S.: family sponsored, employment based and diversity based. 

Signed into law by former President George H.W. Bush, the act was meant to “change the level, and preference system for admission of immigrants to the United States and to provide for administrative naturalization.” It became the first major restructuring of the U.S. immigration system in a quarter century.

The act established new family-based and employment-based preference systems. 

The family-based route

The family-based route allows U.S. citizens to sponsor their spouses, children and parents, while legal permanent residents may sponsor their spouse and unmarried children. 

  • First preference: unmarried children of U.S. citizens
  • Second preference: spouses and unmarried children of lawful permanent residents
  • Third preference: married children of U.S. citizens
  • Fourth preference: siblings 21 years old or older of U.S. citizens

Also read: I-9, the Purpose of Employment Eligibility Verification

The employment-based route

Employment-based immigration system allows petitioners, most commonly sponsored by a U.S. employer, to apply to one of five different visa categories:

  • First preference: individuals with extraordinary ability, outstanding professors or researchers, and multinational executives or managers
  • Second preference: professionals holding an advanced degree or individuals with exceptional ability
  • Third preference: skilled workers, individuals holding a bachelor’s degree, or unskilled workers in sectors with a shortage
  • Fourth preference: broadcasters, religious workers, medical graduates, and certain government employees
  • Fifth preference: investors creating employment at a specified minimum number of new jobs

The diversity-based route

Finally, the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program makes 50,000 visas available to citizens from the six continents via a lottery based system that randomly selects individuals to apply for a diversity visa. The countries selected must have had fewer than 50,000 immigrants entering the United States in the previous five years, and no country can get more than 7% of the available visas. 

The new law instituted an annual cap on immigration, limiting the number of available immigration-based visas. It largely did not affect asylum and refugee immigration pathways.

Also read: Visa H-2B: a program for temporary jobs in the US

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