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Under-Appreciated 1990 Immigration Law that Changed Koreatown

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Posted every Monday, the Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority.

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A."¨
Law: 1990 Immigration Act
Year: 1990
Jurisdiction: Federal
Nominated by: Edward J.W. Park

The passage of Public Law 101-649, better known as the Immigration Act of 1990, led to Los Angeles and Southern California as a whole towards becoming more diverse, more skilled, wealthier and more sprawled.

The Act led to gentrification in Koreatown and growth in the San Gabriel Valley. The Act meant more Ethiopian restaurants in the Fairfax district, more Japanese automotive professionals in Torrance and more Brazilians, Russians and Armenians - for example - living in and around the city.

And the Act even changed the nation's collective understanding of who is an immigrant and what it means to arrive in America.

All the above is a simplification of the far more sophisticated analysis and observations of Edward J.W. Park, a professor at Loyola Marymount University** and director of the school's Asian Pacific American Studies program.

He calls the Act "under-appreciated."

Why? Because this updated federal policy - the first such significant immigration law update since the 1965 Immigration Act, which Departures has covered here - accomplished three things, Park says, that are essential for understanding how Southern California has changed during the years since.

"The first thing that it did was increase the number of immigrants who could come to the United States because they have a high degree of education and skills," Park says of the Act. "The second very important change was to put new emphasis on temporary visa programs... [And the third] is that it created a new category of immigrants who are wealthy investors."

Prior to the 1990 Act, 500,000 visas were issued annually for internationals seeking to move to the U.S. That number increased to 700,000 when the legislation passed, sliding as scheduled to 675,000 annually by 1995.

Previously, family connections were paramount and a lack of perceived high-end skill sets weren't as substantial an obstacle for American entrance.

But the 1990 Act created designations such as the H1B Visa for college-educated and equivalent immigrants [see Figure 5 of this report] and the 0-1 Visa synonymous now with the "extraordinary ability" clause. [Read Jess Espanola's Arrival Story for a related anecdote about The Simpsons.]

The law at the same time capped "unskilled" immigrants to 10,000. This marked a major departure from the previous lack of a cap and arguably from the language inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore."

The 1990 Act also offered green cards to internationals able and willing to invest $1 million or create 10 jobs in this country. Or, via E1 and E2 Visas, green cards to people with $50,000 in savings who purchase or set-up a small business. "One way of thinking about the 1990 Immigration Act," Park says, "is the intersecting of the flow of money with the flow of people. You can migrate because you can invest."

And the Act established a lottery system that led to new arrivals from nations that had been previously underrepresented. Clearly, this federal law has been consequential nationally and globally. But the effects are particularly noticeable in the City of Angels. "Los Angeles is an immigrant city," Park says. "We are going to experience these policy outcomes in a much more intense way."

Diverse businesses in Koreatown | Photo by turbowombat used under a Creative Commons license
Diverse businesses in Koreatown | Photo by turbowombat used under a Creative Commons license

Park has written extensively about Korean Americans and about L.A.'s Koreatown. The 1990 Act had a tremendous effect on that neighborhood, as a higher number of Koreans came to America on the temporary investor and small business and visas allowed by the Act.

"How do we explain the explosion of Koreatown?" Park asks. "I think the answer there is this influx of people on temporary visas. And particularly by allowing investors who must own business and build business, what we have done is expanded Koreatown's geographic footprint."

The rents for both commercial and residential units skyrocketed in the wake of the Act, the professor says. "Right before the real estate bubble [burst], the median home price in Koreatown was over $800,000. It was twice the median price of L.A. County and it was even higher than Orange County."

Park continues: "If we recall that in 1992 we were writing the obituary of Koreatown (after the L.A. Riots) to sort of imagine this kind of outcome was inconceivable." So what happened? "We didn't realize then," Park says, "how U.S. immigration was changing and how L.A. would be the sort of epicenter of these changes."

Park says that another key lesson of the 1990 Act is that "immigrants follow other immigrants - it's the sort of chain immigration effect." A related assertion: "Money is not color-blind," Park says. "Money recognizes ethic ties and national affinities."

Park also points out that the 1990 Act's addition of various new categories of visa recipients, along with the three-year - albeit renewable and filled with other work-arounds - intended initial duration for many such stays, led to vast permutations among immigrant status.

"In totality, what this has done in Los Angeles is brought hundreds of thousands of foreigners into our region who are on a whole myriad of legal statuses," Park says. "So some of them are here as investor, others are here as temporary workers. You have a family where you have U.S.-born children but a temporary visa father and a permanent resident mother. I think one of the greatest puzzles here in Los Angeles is that the footprint of the immigrant population is much larger than the strict traditional definition of what an immigrant is would suggest."

None of this means that the 1990 Act was a panacea, or that sober and non-partisan public discourse about a contemporary update to the Immigration Act isn't much needed.

"Complexities are lost in today's understanding of immigration and the economy and the Los Angeles region," Park says. "I think we rightly should be concerned about South Los Angeles. We rightly need to be concerned about the poverty rates of Latinos and all of these social justice issues. But what our focus on issues has sort of left out is these other dynamics that are happening."

Park continues: "And so, Holiday Inn is building a hotel in the San Gabriel Valley that is going to cater to Chinese investors. They brought all of these feng shui experts, they are going to have slippers in the rooms. I think these dynamics are just as important in shaping the region."

Top Photo: Before the 1990 Act: Bill King, Western Regional Director of the Immigration reform bill, is shown holding the [then-] new "green" card. L.A. district director, Ernest Gustafson, points out the new expiration date portion of the card that will now be pink. Photo dated: August 23, 1989. Photo by Akili-Casundria Ramsess. Courtesy of The Los Angeles Public Library.

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