1995 and 1996: when Immigration was almost curtailed

In the mid 1990s Congress came close to reducing the volume of legal immigration. It failed. It did enact a bill to focused on cracking down on illegal immigration, which eventually had no impact on the volume of illegal residents. Below is a capsule history of these failed efforts. Read this with 2016 in mind.


The 1980s saw a great increase in the award of green cards (legal permanent residency) due to the Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986. That act legalized three million immigrants who had entered the U.S. before 1982. The underlying rate of green card issuance to new arrivals stayed at around 600,000. Unauthorized immigrant migration grew, from 3.5 million in 1990 to 5.7 million in 1995.

First, California politics blows up over immigration

Southern California experienced the surge acutely, with the foreign born population of Los Angeles Country growing from 11% in 1970 to 33% in 1990.

Pete Wilson, a Republican who as mayor of San Diego (1971 – 1983) and U.S. Senator (1983 – 1991) had been arguing for a formal guest worker program for many years, served as state governor between 1991 and 1999.

While he was governor, California became the first state to enact a law, through Referendum 187 in 1994, that severely restricted access of undocumented residents from public services, such as health care and education. A federal court ruled in 1998 that the law was unconstitutional.

Wilson was running for gubernatorial re-election in 1994, against Democrat Kathleen Brown, a member of the Brown political dynasty. In 1993, Wilson issued an “open letter” to the national media saying that illegal immigration was an intolerable burden to state and local governments. The 1994 election year, punctuated by the Northbridge earthquake, saw a loud debate about immigration, resulting in 59-41 vote in favor of Proposition 187 and Wilson’s re-election. 66% of those with a high school or less education voted in favor.

Then, Congress fumbles

In his 1995 State of the Union address, President Clinton said, “All Americans, not only in the states most heavily affected, but in every place in this country are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country.” In the Spring, the Jordan Commission issued a report recommending a sharp reduction in family-based green cards. Family based green cards, a feature of the 1965 immigration reform, were mainly granted to Mexicans. The Commission intended to reduce green card awards by about a third in total. The house of Representatives, now in the hands of Republicans for the first time in decades, created a immigration task force chaired by immigration restrictionist Elton Gallegy.

A bill reflecting the Commission and the task force was submitted June 22. The bill called for lower green card issuance, penalties employers who hire undocumented workers, and other measures. A key feature of the bill was the inclusion of both legal and illegal immigration provisions. A house sub-committee approved a version of the bill in the Fall on a largely party line vote, under the oversight of Congressman Lamar Smith.

Opponents to the bill were a strange coalition of church groups (who were pro-family reunification and pro refugee settlement), businesses that relied on cheap labor, such as hospitality, and Republican politicians (such as Jack Kemp) wanting not to alienate non-white constituencies. The Democrats were largely united in opposition. The opponents’ strategy was to split the legal and illegal immigration parts, to better protect the status quo of legal immigration laws.

Senator Alan Simpson submitted his own bill in November 1995 which would drastically lower family based immigration and lower employment based immigration by one third, and also lower refugee settlement.

Eventually most of the reductions in legal immigration were removed, and in the mid 1996 the House passed by 228-101 and the Senate by 78-21 the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. The last remaining provision that was removed was that of denying the right of undocumented children to receive a public education (the Gallegly amendment). The court and enforcement system for unauthorized persons of today was largely created by this law.

Kicking legal immigrants off public assistance

Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 constrained legal immigrants from government services. First, most non-citizens who arrived in the country before August 22, 1996 were to be removed from SSI and food stamp rolls within a year. (This provision of the legislation, however, was never fully enforced).
Second, immigrants who entered the United States after August 22, 1996 are prohibited for five years from receiving most types of public assistance. The ban is lifted when the immigrant becomes an American citizen. (This summary by George Borjas, here). This restriction was carried in the Affordable Care Act.


The new Republican Congress failed to reduce the level of legal immigration. It pursued, and got President Clinton to sign, new provisions that beefed up law enforcement and prevented / discouraged legal immigrants from accessing public programs. In sum, those who were concerned about foreigner free-loading off the country gained a partial victory. As Lamar Smith said at the time, “Immigration is not an entitlement, it is a privilege.” Republicans tried to make English the exclusive legal language, but abandoned the effort in face of a certain Clinton veto.

And, the law had little effect on the volume of both legal and illegal immigration in the years after.

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