The Immigration Act of 1990, adopted by Congress in late October, increases U.S. legal immigration by about 35%, prohibits deportation of spouses and children of newly legalized immigrants, and extends by a year the deadline for completing the second phase of the amnesty process.
Among other provisions significant to Latinos, the measure offers an 18-month period of safe haven for hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans who live in this country illegally.
The legislation contains the most sweeping changes in 40 years of U.S. law governing legal immigration. It follows by four years the passage of the landmark Immigration Reform and Control Act, which resulted in extending legal residency to 3.1 million illegal immigrants living in this country.
Assessing the significance of the 1990 law depends on one's point of view. The measure was a compromise among various groups with different interests in reform.
Advocates of immigrants rights were happy about the measure's expansion in the issuance of visas for immigrants to this country. This increase and the liberalizing of per-country limits, advocates hope, will relieve the long waits of people who otherwise qualify to move to this country. This is expected to be especially true for Mexican visa applicants, who often have waited up to 10 years.
The advocates applauded provisions barring deportation of amnesty applicants' immediate relatives who can show they have been in the country since before May 5, 1988. This clause is expected to have a wide impact in Los Angeles because nearly 1 million amnesty applicants live here. Amnesty applicants were also given an additional 12 months to satisfy Second Phase requirements for U.S. history, government and English instruction.
The advocates were disappointed that some of their immigration reform goals were not met.
"I guess the glass is half full, rather than half empty," said Linda Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights in Los Angeles. "We still have to do more work in the family unity area to ensure that the Immigration and Naturalization Service carries out its mission."
Mitchell said immigrants advocates favored the House version of the measure, which would have allowed nearly 800,000 visas each year. The final version provided for 700,000 visas annually from 1992 to 1994, dropping to 675,000 in subsequent years. About 500,000 people annually have immigrated legally in recent years.
Cesar Noriega-Pena, directing attorney for One Stop Immigration & Educational Center in Boyle Heights, said the law's benefits will be too limited to apply to many Mexicans and other Latinos. "Other than the Salvadorans' safe haven, I don't see much benefit in this bill for Latinos," he said.
On the immigration enforcement side, some former INS officials also were disappointed. They were chagrined that a provision allowing for the experimental use in three states of a national identification card was knocked out before the measure was adopted by both houses. Such a card is seen by supporters as one way to verify a person's legal status in this country.
"There are terrific things in this bill, but we will never regain control of our borders without a tamper-proof ID card," said former INS Western Regional Commissioner Harold Ezell.
"Call it what you like--driver's license, a Social Security card, a national ID card, whatever. We have to have one."
Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles) and other Latino lawmakers threatened to delay passage of the historic measure because of the experimental card provision. They argued that a national ID card was an Orwellian attempt to curb civil liberties.
The major sponsors of the bill--Rep. Bruce Morrison (D-Conn.), Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.)--agreed to drop the provision after caucusing late into the night.
The Senate approved the measure Oct. 26 on an 89-8 vote. The next day, the House followed suit on a 264-118 vote.
How the law will be administered by the INS will not be clear until the agency issues new regulations. The agency's resources have been stretched to the limit by the 1986 immigration reform law.
INS critics caution that the lines at agency offices could be extremely long if a rush of applicants deluge ill-equipped INS personnel.
To help streamline the INS, Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh named a panel of outside managers to reform the immigration service and cited the sweeping reform's passage as a major reason for his action.
THE IMMIGRATION ACT OF 1990