The U.S. unemployment rate hovered around 6.2% entering a recession while international conflicts displaced unheard of numbers of people not seen since World War II. An outbreak of a deadly virus appeared and spread globally with little understanding of its source nor its harms. Protests and unrest echoed from country to country against government corruption, injustices and the sanctity of black lives. Tensions and uncertainty reigned as two superpowers vied for hegemony while the collapse of nations and a genocide loomed large for the coming future.

This is not a summary of the craziness of 2020 but a glimpse into the everyday life in the early 1990’s. The Soviet Union still existed and waves of protests in the Soviet states persisted towards its demise in 1991. Outrage solidified globally over injustices against black lives and for the support to end South Africa’s apartheid while the future of global stability hinged on the ability of two superpowers, the U.S. and U.S.S.R., to navigate against built up decades of distrust and competition. Little was known about AIDS and how to treat it as it gained more traction in the public consciousness. Within a year, Somalia’s government would topple leaving a country without leadership to this day and the world watched in horror at the atrocities of the Rwandan genocide.

Now, thirty years later, what seemed like a once in a lifetime chaotic world doesn’t seem too different from our lives now. The Covid-19 global pandemic coupled with a dramatic economic downturn led me to find myself sitting in my living room playing Super Mario Brothers 3 on an outdated Wii from 2006. This was the first time I played this game on my own since its release in 1990. My sister, ten years older than me, was the better gamer and I remember sitting patiently on the floor watching her move from one stage of the game to the next hoping for my turn to be a flying Mario raccoon. Americans find a lifeline in their computers, smartphones, wi-fi and Zoom meetings to get their work done, but imagine living under this pandemic operating on Microsoft Windows 3.0 and the first version of Microsoft Office. The internet as we know it was not widely available to the public. By the middle of the 1990’s, only 14% of U.S. adults had internet access requiring the use of a landline telephone to tap into that recognizable buzzing tone, to wait for electronic mail to sllooooooowwwwwlyyyyy appear on the newly available American Online (AOL).

This was the reality in 1990, which was also the last time the U.S. Congress took action to truly revise our entire immigration system. The Immigration Act of 1990 came at a time when one party controlled the presidency while the other controlled Congress. And like now, it was a long time coming, aiming to finally upgrade our immigration system by revising the Immigration Act of 1965. The 1990 Act created new visas for highly skilled temporary workers to support our rapidly changing economy and country, providing opportunities to diversify where people were immigrating from and helping to increase the number of people able to immigrate.

Yes, it is true: the last major modernization of the U.S. immigration system was at a time when I was ten years old, in fourth grade, sporting a perm that my mother made me get (see photo evidence above). I went to my first concert, New Kids on the Block, and watched the very first episode of “The Simpsons” that fueled my love of Homer and characters like Milhouse. Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice Baby” was the first rap single to reach #1 on the U.S. charts and everyone knew all the words and dance moves.

Our current immigration system is based on a time when the movies “Ghost” and “Home Alone” topped the box office, Madonna “vogued” like crazy, Janet Jackson introduced folks to “Rhythm Nation” and Milli Vanilli told us to “blame it on the rain” on MTV. And the updates made to our immigration system helped fuel a booming U.S. economy and advancements and growth in technology companies. Study after study have shown that immigration helps bolster a country’s economy. That is exactly what happened through the 1990’s as we reached the new millennium.

We may find ourselves nostalgic for the 1990’s and be forgiven for our fashion and music choices. To this day, I still wish my first concert was a punk rather than boy band, but I guess it is a rite of passage for all pre-teens to obsess over something later seen as embarrassing. But what we must not be forgiven for is our inability to hold Congress and our government accountable to move our immigration system into the 21st Century. The U.S. immigration system of 2020 is running on the equivalency of 1990’s Windows 3.0. No one in business could function still stuck with technology from thirty years ago, dial-up internet and all.

People smarter than me can give specifics of what aspects of the Immigration and Nationality Act should be stricken and new programs created or modified. A simple idea is to get rid of the “unlawful presence” provisions that make it difficult for people to leave the U.S. to “fix” their immigration status and return with a new lease on their already established lives in this great country. What we can and should do is contact our congressional representatives and tell them to stop the partisan bickering and politicization of immigration and push for a long-needed update to make our system allow for what our country and economy needs here in the 21st century.

We did it before, back when I sported a perm and sang to “The Right Stuff.” It took me four years to discover Bad Religion’s “21st Century Digital Boy” and variations of punk rock. Even now, that song released in 1990 and re-released in 1994 is dated. We can and should push for updating our immigration system now with this new administration before another few decades pass leaving our country trying to compete in a world where other countries aren’t hobbled by outdated and out-of-touch immigration laws like ours.


AILA members and others looking for some new resources to start off 2021? Check out AILA’s offerings, including free resources, on our Agora page. And don’t miss AILA’s Crimes and Immigration Conference recordings.