In recent weeks, the Trump administration has stated repeatedly that it will support legislation to protect Dreamers—but only if that also includes a fix to “chain migration.”
Far from an actual legal or policy term, “chain migration” is a slogan used mostly by immigration restrictionists, or those who want to reduce legal immigration. As immigration lawyer Hassan Ahmad pointed out Thursday, the term “exists nowhere in immigration law.”
Chain migration is another—some would argue less friendly sounding—way to say “family-based immigration” or “family reunification.”
When an immigrant comes to the U.S. legally and gains a green card or becomes a citizen, they are allowed to bring certain family members. In time, those people can bring their relatives. In other words, one immigrant can set off a "chain of migration."
Some two-thirds of the foreigners enter the U.S. to become permanent residents each year are approved because of family reunification, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Out of a total of nearly 33 million immigrants admitted between 1981 and 2016, more than 20 million ( 61%) came because of family members, according to the Center for Immigration Studies.
Trump has called the practice “horrible” and has said it benefits criminals and terrorists who want to come into the United States to do harm. Ironically, Trump is himself a benefactor of the practice, through his grandfather.
Democrats have called recent attacks on the policy part of a broader attempt to limit a diverse, multicultural United States.
After a meeting with the President Thursday, Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic Whip, told reporters he had explained to the President that the phrase "chain migration" was offensive. “African Americans believe they migrated to America in chains and when you talk about chain migration, it hurts them personally,” Durbin recalled telling the president.
What the law says now
Green card holders in the U.S. are entitled to sponsor their spouses and unmarried children for permanent residence. Citizens can petition for their spouses (and fiances), children, parents and siblings to get residence. Eventually, immigrant green card holders can apply for citizenship.
The process from application to entry into the U.S. is far from automatic. Sometimes it can take one year, other times decades. And anyone applying for entry in the U.S. through a family member has to go through a vetting process, including a criminal background check. They must show how they’ll be able to support themselves financially upon arrival to the U.S.
Caps on certain groups of immigrants that can enter each year through family reunification leads to lengthy waiting lists. As of November 2017, there were 3.9 million family members awaiting entry, according to the State Department. The 10 countries with the highest number of people waiting were: Mexico, Philippines, India, Vietnam, China, Dominican Republic, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Haiti and El Salvador.
How did it start?
Until 1965, the U.S. chose immigrants largely on the basis of national origin, giving preference to people from northern and Western Europe.
But by the early 60s, that practice was largely seen as discriminatory. So the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act did away with national origins, instead establishing preference for people with relatives already in the country.
“The idea was that you wouldn’t get many Asians or Africans coming in because they didn’t have relatives here,” Tom Gjelten, an NPR correspondent and author of “A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story,” said recently in an interview.
Obviously, that’s not the way it happened, Gjelten points out.
Demand to move to the United States actually shifted to people from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Today the United States issues more than 1 million green cards each year, and only about 8 percent go to European nationals, according to DHS statistics. Of the 1,183,505 green cards given out in 2016, just 93,567 (7.9%) went to people from Europe.
Who’s against it?
One of the earliest voices against this type of family-centered immigration policy was the well-known immigration restrictionist John Tanton, who also founded the Center for Immigration Studies and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), beginning in the 70s. The Southern Poverty Law Center considers the institutions to be “hate groups.” Tanton also helped create NumbersUSA, which has advocated strongly against "chain migration."
With Trump in office, these organizations now enjoy greater access and influence.
Trump has endorsed a bill sponsored by Republican Senators David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), called the RAISE Act, which would limit sponsorship only to spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens.
The White House launched a campaign last month called “ It’s Time to End Chain Migration.”
The irony is, Donald Trump himself is a benefactor of so called “chain migration.”
“In 1885, Friedrich Trump, Donald Trump’s grandfather, immigrated from Germany as a 16-year-old with little English to join his oldest sister. His sister “had immigrated to New York a year earlier,” according to Gwenda Blair, author of The Trumps: Three Generations of Builders and a President. After gaining success in America, Friedrich returned to Germany and found a bride, Elizabeth Christ, who immigrated to the U.S. with him and gave birth to Fred Trump, Donald Trump’s father.
In 1930, Mary Ann MacLeod immigrated to America from Scotland as an unskilled 18-year-old to live with her married sister in Queens. Six years later, she met Fred Trump at a party, they married and had children, one of whom was Donald Trump.”