The 1990s will be the decade of immigration. The immigrant flow during the final years of the century is likely to surpass the peaks reached during its first decade (1901-10) when annual entries reached a million or more.
Already in 1990, the foreign-born population stood at approximately 18 million, exceeding the previous high mark of 14 million reached in 1930. This record number will be amply surpassed in the coming decade thanks to two remarkable pieces of legislation: the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and the Immigration Act of 1990.
The 1986 law was supposed to bring illegal immigration under control. Instead, it created two immense new forces encouraging additional migration. First, the approximately 3 million former unauthorized immigrants legalized under the law have spouses, children and other relatives who sooner or later will become eligible for entry. Hence, the legalization program not only produced a large increase in the foreign population entitled to U.S. residence but also created an instant basis for millions more to claim this entitlement in the future.
Second, the enforcement provisions of the 1986 act, through which new illegal immigration was supposed to be prevented, contained a giant loophole that has allowed the flow to continue. In theory, the idea was to discourage new arrivals by fining employers of illegal workers. In practice, employers are only required to sign a form attesting that they have seen some document presented by the worker, but do not have to check its validity. Predictably, a giant underground industry of well-manufactured ''papers'' has emerged, allowing employers to fulfill the letter of the law and unauthorized workers to continue finding jobs with relative ease.
Further, the experience of the legalization program has given impetus to the clandestine inflow by indicating to prospective immigrants that they too could some day gain legal U.S. residence and by providing them with new sources of social support from recently legalized kin and friends.
These tendencies are further reinforced by the remarkably generous provisions of the 1990 Immigration Act. Under its new ''fairness'' doctrine, spouses and children of immigrants legalized by the 1986 act are granted reprieve from deportation, a measure immediately benefiting hundreds of thousands.
At the request of human-rights groups and the government of El Salvador, an estimated half-million Salvadorans have also been granted ''safe haven'' despite their illegal status. The law further provides 55,000 special visas for 3 years to facilitate family reunification and 55,000 ''diversity'' visas to encourage new arrivals from countries sending few immigrants in recent years. In practice, most of these ''diversity'' visas will be used to legalize the tens of thousands illegal Irish immigrants already living in Boston and nearby eastern cities.
If to the millions of Mexicans, Central Americans and others legalized under the 1986 act, one adds their immediate relatives, the Salvadorans and the Irish, the recent laws will entitle some 5 million new persons to legal residence in the United States.
This is not all, because the 1990 act increases the ceiling of legal immigration to 700,000 a year during 1992-94 and 675,000 thereafter and makes this ''cap'' easily pierceable by arrivals of immediate kin of U.S. citizens. Despite the new ''diversity'' visas, other provisions of the law insure that Mexico, the Caribbean and Asia will remain dominant as sources of immigration and that the inflow from each of them will accelerate.
The social and economic impact of this movement will be large. Cities like Los Angeles, Houston and Miami will repeat the experiences of New York and Boston at the turn of the century, when half or more of the local population was foreign-born. Traditional cities of immigration like New York, Boston and Chicago will re-enact their own past. In cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia where the immigrant flow during the 1970s and 1980s was dominated by a few thousand entrepreneurial Koreans, other groups will make their appearance, adding rapidly to the local ethnic mix. Already communities of Salvadorans, South Americans and West Indians are visible in these cities.
The administration and the Congress both believe that the effect of this massive wave will be benign. In signing the 1990 act into law, President Bush declared that it would be ''good for families, good for business, good for crime fighting and good for America.''