Breaking Chain Migration: An Affront to the New Colossus?
In February 2018, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that grants green cards and U.S. citizenship, revised its mission statement by striking its characterization of the United States as a “nation of immigrants.” The phrase dates back to the 1800s and was popularized by President John F. Kennedy, who sought to remind Americans of the monumental contributions that immigrants have made to America. The removal of this iconic language is consistent with the President Trump’s “America first” agenda, including efforts to limit immigration by proposing to end or alter the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, ban immigration from several majority-Muslim countries, and build a wall along the Mexican border. This anti-immigration attitude has also led to attempts to curtail the family visa program, which allows U.S. citizens and permanent residents to sponsor certain family members applying for lawful permanent residency in the United States.
President Trump recently made immigration policy a priority with congressional leaders at Camp David, emphasizing his desire to end the “horrible system” of family sponsored visas, which he refers to as “chain migration.” Now, in exchange for softening their proposal to deport DACA recipients, President Trump and the Republicans are targeting the lower priority F3 and F4 category family visas, arguing that they threaten national security. In fact, President Trump blamed chain migration, also known as “family reunification,” for the terrorist attack on New York City in December 2017. The perpetrator of that attack entered on an F43 visa, the lowest priority family visa category reserved for children of parents who are sponsored by a direct relative who is a U.S. citizen. While the U.S. issues an unlimited number of visas to close relatives of U.S. citizens, the number of visas allotted for extended family, or “chain migrants,” is capped at 226,000 per year.
The political rhetoric surrounding chain migration has stoked fears about national security and who is entering the United States through family sponsored visas. But historically, the concept of chain migration was actually simpler and less nefarious than it has recently become. The term “chain migration” was coined as a politically neutral term in the 1960s and stands for the proposition that people are more likely to move to where their families live. Although opponents of family sponsored immigration often use “chain migrant” to denote any immigrant relative of a green card holder or U.S. citizen, the modern technical usage refers to extended relations and not immediate family.
Interestingly, conservatives originally supported family sponsored immigration through the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. The Act replaced the nationality quota system, which many viewed as overtly racist, with the family reunification program. Around 1960, immigration from Europe began to decline as the continent became more prosperous. Conservatives hoped that the new program would encourage European immigrants to bring their families to the United States. Today, only about eleven percent of immigrants are European, with forty-four percent coming from Eastern Europe, including First Lady Melania Trump and her parents. Meanwhile, the overall majority comes from Asia and Latin America.
While concerns about protecting national security are real, the visa category is not as important as the screening process itself. The screening process for family sponsored visa applicants is extensive. Applicants must submit to background checks and be evaluated on the likelihood that they will become an economic liability to the state. In addition, immigrants must have a financially stable relative vouching for them, with a household income of at least 125% of the poverty line including the visa applicant. Finally, because of nationality caps and visa backlogs, it can take many years to bring extended relatives to the United States. This limits the potential to build chains of immigrants, especially from countries like Mexico that have many more qualified applicants than distributable visas.
Although no safeguard is perfect, the potential for chain migration to overwhelm the U.S. is more limited than the Administration’s rhetoric would suggest. Unfortunately, this raises the question whether the fierce opposition to immigrant families is truly about security, or whether a fear of cultural and ethnic change is prompting the effort to end the family reunification program.
As of 2014, Hispanics and Asians are the fastest growing groups in the nation for two separate reasons. Hispanics have a higher fertility rate once they arrive in the United States, while Asian immigrants arrive in the greatest numbers. Meanwhile, the percentage of white Americans is declining. All of this suggests that immigration is making America more diverse and less familiar to white Americans, who make up eighty-one percent of the 115th Congress but just sixty-two percent of the U.S. population. In the House of Representatives, Democrats have eighty-three minority members while the Republicans have only twelve, despite holding forty-five more seats as of January 2018.
It is unclear how the Democrats will handle Republicans’ demands for ending the F3 and F4 family sponsored visa programs. Eliminating those visas may be the price of protecting the 800,000 individuals enrolled in DACA. However, Republicans have also run into trouble with this negotiation tactic. As recently as April 25, 2018, a federal judge in the D.C. Circuit decided that the DACA program must remain intact unless the Department of Homeland Security can explain why DACA is “unlawful” within ninety days. If the courts uphold DACA then its effectiveness as a bargaining chip against the family sponsored visa program is greatly diminished.
As an alternative to chain migration visas, President Trump has proposed both cutting immigration overall by forty-four percent over the next fifty years, and shifting to a merit-based immigration system. Republicans have also introduced bills to limit family sponsored immigration and increase the number of merit-based employment visas. Democrats are unlikely to accede to cutting immigration so drastically, and shifting to a merit-based system could imply breaking up families. However, the merit-based system has been successful in Canada, where emphasis on immigrant contributions has popularized immigration as a whole. In fact, Canadians feel significantly more positive about immigration than do many Americans. Canada proportionally accepts about three times more immigrants than the United States, but saves about two-thirds of the slots for merit-based applicants. This may have economic advantages, but it raises humanitarian concerns. On the other hand, if the alternative is slashing immigration across the board, then it might be a necessary compromise. Switching to a merit-heavy system, however, may signal an end to the democratic values of an America that once prided itself, at least superficially, on welcoming the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.