Overview of INA, IRCA, IMMACT, and IIRIRA

Lately, I’ve been finding myself needing to look back on what laws were in place at a certain time and whether certain provisions were retroactive or could still be used, etc. This has mostly come up in the context of criminal matters, but I thought it might be beneficial to share a brief timeline of the major changes in the immigration laws in case anyone finds themselves in a similar situation, or for general knowledge (or being able to answer questions while watching Jeopardy!).



  • Immigration and Nationality Act
  • Public Law 82-414
    • Also known as the McCarran-Walter Act
      • Pat McCarran (D-NV)
      • Francis Walter (D-PA)
    • Enacted June 27, 1952
      • In effect since December 24, 1952
    • What you should know:
      • Strongly opposed by President Truman, who called it “un-American” and “discriminatory”
        • Veto was overridden by Congress
      • Maintained the national origin quota system (restricting eastern Europe, in response to anti-Communist sentiments)
      • Created a categorized selection system within each national quota
        • High education or exceptional abilities (50%)
        • Specific relatives of U.S. citizens and LPRs (50%)
      • Expanded U.S. nationality to include Guam, in addition to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands



  • Immigration Reform and Control Act
    • Public Law 99-603
    • Also known as the Simpson-Mazzoli Act
      • Romano Mazzoli (D-KY)
      • Alan Simpson (R-WY)
    • Enacted November 6, 1986
    • What you should know:
      • Signed into law by President Reagan
      • Revisions regarding illegal immigration had been considered since the early 1970s
      • Implemented sanctions for employers who knowingly hired persons unauthorized to work in the U.S.
        • Amnesty was granted to about 3.2 million immigrants living in the U.S.
      • Established a legalization program for eligible persons in the U.S. prior to 1982
      • Created special agricultural worker program
        • Provided labor protections



  • Immigration Act of 1990
    • Public Law 101-649
    • First introduced by Sen. Ted Kennedy
  • Enacted November 29, 1990
  • What you should know:
    • Signed into law by President Bush
    • Shifted focus to legal immigration due to concerns about the preference system and visa backlogs
    • Created preference systems for family, employment, and diversity
      • Employment-based: increased from 54,000 to 140,000
    • Capped H-1B visas
    • Created the O and P visa categories
    • Permanent provision for diversity immigrants (lottery)
      o Introduced temporary protected status (TPS), providing the first such status to El Salvador
      o Granted to a temporary stay/work authorization to immediate relatives of people granted legalization through IRCA
      o Eliminated exclusion (inadmissibility) based on homosexuality and AIDS



  • Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act
    • Public Law 104-208
  • Enacted September 30, 1996
  • What you should know:
    • Signed into law by President Clinton
    • Borne out of recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform
    • Adopted stronger penalties against unauthorized entry
      • Introduced the 3 and 10-year bars for unauthorized presence
    • Streamlined deportation proceedings by limiting the appeals process
      • “Deportation” proceedings became “Removal” proceedings
      • Suspension of deportation was eliminated; replaced by Cancellation of Removal
    • Restricted the use of public welfare benefits for new immigrants
    • Expanded the definition of aggravated felony and applied retroactively


For more information, check out FAIR (fairus.org/facts/us_laws)

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