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Immigration 101: What is Family Migration (or so-called ‘Chain Migration’)?

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The family migration program has  been around since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and allows U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to bring in their immediate relatives to the U.S. This law did away with the racially discriminatory national origins quota system from the 1920s.

Through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), U.S. permanent residents (or “green card” holders) can sponsor their spouses and unmarried children for permanent residence. U.S. citizens can petition for residence for their parents, siblings, and married adult children. There are 480,000 family migration visas available every year.

Donald Trump wants to restrict family migration, but it’s already hard enough: at the current rate of visa distribution, families are forced to wait years or decades before being able to reunite with family members.

Donald Trump and family migration

Family migration is sometimes referred to as “chain migration” by opponents who want to cast it in a threatening light. This is a misleading, inaccurate, and derogatory term used by Donald Trump and other anti-immigrant extremists to slander immigrants who want to reunite with their families.

Trump has called family migration an instrument for terrorism, which is completely false. He and other right-wing Republicans have also referred to family migration as a backdoor method for legalizing the undocumented, which is also false. For example, a U.S. citizen who marries a Mexican national who entered without inspection likely would not be able to sponsor him through family  migration channels, because those who enter the U.S. without documents are required to return to their home countries and wait 10 years before they can obtain a visa.

Furthermore, because there are only a certain number of family migration visas available every year, the waiting process to obtain one can be very long. According to the New York Times, more than 3.9 million people from around the world are currently waiting in line for immigrant visas, and many have been waiting for decades.

Donald Trump said he wants to replace the current family migration policy with a so-called merit-based system.  The idea is to have potential immigrants judged on a point scale, with points doled out for education, existing knowledge of the English language, a firm job offer, and other criteria.  Put simply, “merit-based immigration” in Trump-speak is code for “English-speaking, educated, affluent, and white.”  

The goal of this policy is twofold.  Not only do proponents hope to slow-down the “browning” of America, but they also want to reduce the overall number of immigrants coming to the U.S.  This is in line with the far-right immigration playbook and immigration restrictionists’ long-time goals of decreasing legal as well as undocumented immigration.

Trump currently backs the RAISE Act, a bill sponsored by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA) which would limit visa sponsorship to spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens while implementing a point-based merit system to prioritize skilled workers. The number of family migration visas would be cut in half, and immigrant family reunifications would be made much more difficult.

Trump’s opposition to family migration is interesting, considering how much his own family has benefitted from the policy he is attempting to modify. His Scottish-born mother, Mary Anne MacLeod, and grandfather, Friedrich Trump, followed their siblings to America. Trump’s German-born grandmother, Elizabeth Christ, also arrived in America using family ties. And, Trump’s own foreign-born wife, Melania, helped her Slovenia-born parents live in the United States. As Columbia University historian Mae M. Ngai noted, “Donald Trump is a product of ‘chain migration.’”

The economics of family migration

“The contributions of family-based immigrants to the U.S. economy, local communities, and the national fabric are manifold. They account for a significant portion of domestic economic growth, contribute to the well-being of the current and future labor force, play a key role in business development and community improvement, and are among the most upwardly mobile segments of the labor force”, reports the American Immigration Council.

According to the Council, relatives sponsored through family migration help their family members with child care and provide other household assistance, facilitating greater workforce participation for those who hired them. Their family members provide them with resources and information not provided to other new immigrants, allowing them to quickly adjust to American life. And they often have high employment rates and high earnings growth, allowing them to contribute to the U.S. economy and their communities.

A prime example of the successful achievement of the “American Dream” by an immigrant entrepreneur is John Tu (ranked No. 87 on the Forbes 400 list) who came to the US via family migration. Tu successfully created billions in wealth with his company Kingston Technology, and – in a rare move generating worldwide attention – after selling his company, distributed $100 million in profits in bonuses to his American employees. Ranging from $100,000 to $300,000, Tu’s generosity proved life-changing for funding the “American Dreams” of his employees and their children.

Trump’s move to create a less family-friendly admissions policy would have serious negative implications to our nation’s economy, as noted by economist Harriet Duleep:

Family visas are…an important complement to high-skilled visas; skilled immigrants have families too. In considering which country to move to, will an emigrating scientist be more likely to move to a country where his family members, including siblings, parents, and adult children, can also live, or to a country where only certain family members are welcome? Would Einstein have continued to live in the U.S. had he not been able to bring over his sister Maja? A family-friendly policy may be one reason the U.S. has been able to attract immigrants with stellar qualifications.

The emotional benefits of family migration

Of course, family-friendly policies are also important to Americans and to the U.S. independent of economic benefits. As Jen Smyers of Church World Service recently said:

Being able to see your family members, hold your children, and live with your family are the most basic of family values. That is what is being attacked by proposals that would redefine family under U.S. immigration law and keep U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents from sponsoring their parents, siblings, and even children….To redefine family and prevent family reunification would not only devastate individuals’ lives, it would turn our backs as a nation to our collective future and invalidate our claim to prioritize family values.

Policy experts have repeatedly defended family migration. The White House’s rhetoric about ending “chain migration” in exchange for a possible DACA deal “is reminiscent of what brought about shameful moments in history like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1992 or Japanese incarceration during World War II,” said John C. Yang, President and Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC).  He further stated the proposed immigration cuts “are completely counter to what our nation values the most – family, which is the cornerstone of the community. Lawmakers who purport to be for family values should value families.”

AAJC recently spearheaded a sign-on letter in Support of Family Immigration, Diversity Visas, and Refugees, in which it reminded congressional leaders that the currently family migration system established by the INA of 1965 was created to end previous racist national origin quotas heavily favoring Northern and Western Europe. Yang also expressed concern that a “merit based system” will reduce the parity of women in the workplace by prioritizing the “immigration of men over women due to gender discrimination in other countries where women do not have equal opportunities.”

In short, our current system of family migration is beneficial to the U.S. economically as well as emotionally. Americans value united families, and Congress should honor that by ignoring Trump’s rhetoric and protecting family migration policies.

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