Politics & Policy

Just Don’t Call It ‘Chain Migration’!

President Trump with RAISE Act sponsors Senators Tom Cotton (left) and David Perdue in August. (Photo: Andrea Hanks/White House)
The widely used phrase has suddenly become too honest for pro-immigration activists.

To assist the amnesty push planned for 2001 by President George W. Bush and Mexico’s President Vicente Fox, the National Council of La Raza conducted focus groups on the best terminology to use. They found that the word “amnesty” should be avoided.

The Dallas Morning News wrote about the results of those focus groups:

Amnesty: It’s the politically charged word that won’t cross the lips of U.S. and Mexican government officials who are debating an initiative that could place many of the 3 million to 4 million Mexicans living illegally in the United States on a path to legal residency.

Instead, they talk of “regularization” and “legalization” — or, in Spanish, regularizar and legalización.

This campaign was successful in “controversializing” the previously unremarkable word “amnesty” and getting pro-amnesty politicians and media to chastise those who used it.

The same campaign is now underway regarding the term “chain migration.”

For over 50 years, naturalized citizens have been able to petition for the immigration of parents, adult siblings, and adult sons and daughters, all of whom can bring their own spouses and children. When those spouses and children naturalize, they may, in turn, sponsor further relatives, and so on. The result is chain migration, in which yesterday’s immigrants decide who tomorrow’s immigrants will be.

My colleague Jessica Vaughan has found that each green-card recipient eventually sponsors an average of more than three additional immigrants, a multiplier that has grown in recent years. For some nationalities, the multiplier is larger; the average immigrant from India or the Philippines eventually sponsors more than five additional immigrants, and the multiplier for immigrants from Mexico and China is over six.

Over the last 35 years, some 20 million of the 33 million legal immigrants admitted (61 percent) were chain-migration immigrants. Though they undergo the same perfunctory health and security checks as all legal immigrants, those who come via chain migration are not selected on the basis of their skills or potential to contribute to the well-being of the American people. They qualify to move permanently to the United States on the basis merely of whom they’re related to.

Changing this nepotistic arrangement has long been a priority for immigration skeptics. But only now is there any political muscle behind the effort. The Trump administration is making a concerted effort to repeal the family-immigration categories that result in chain migration, and insisting that such a change be part of any package to amnesty illegal aliens who got work permits through President Obama’s illegal DACA program. Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue have sponsored the RAISE Act, which, along with Representative Lamar Smith’s companion bill in the House, would interrupt chain migration by limiting the relatives who have special immigration privileges to spouses and minor children.

Those who come via chain migration are not selected on the basis of their skills or potential to contribute to the well-being of the American people.

In response to the White House push to end chain migration, immigration expansionists and the media are doing their best to taint the phrase. Google “so-called chain migration” and you get hits from CNN, The Hill, the New York Daily News, Politico, and plenty of others. The New York Times has labeled the term “pejorative,” while the Wall Street Journal reports (in a news story, just to be clear) that “Mr. Trump and his allies have begun derisively using the term ‘chain migration.’” The Associated Press refers to “what critics and the White House refer to as ‘chain migration,’” while the Washington Post writes about “a practice that critics call ‘chain migration.’”

Immigration expansionists who aren’t reporters, on both the right and left, have also weighed in. Technology immigration lobbyist Stuart Anderson, for instance, writes on “the myth of chain migration,” claiming that it’s “a contrived term that seeks to put a negative light on a phenomenon that has taken place throughout the history of the country.” His allies at People for the American Way call it “the anti-immigration movement’s term for policies that allow immediate families to stay together,” while Media Matters derides the term as “a misleading nativist buzzword.”

Of course, until ten minutes ago, “chain migration” was just the regular term for earlier immigrants’ sponsoring future immigrants. For instance, just two years ago NPR’s Tom Gjelten wrote A Nation of Nations; A Great American Immigration Story, a celebratory book on the post-1965 immigration wave. Explaining how events unfolded over the past six decades, he writes that “the presence of even a single naturalized U.S. citizen with family members in the home country proved sufficient to set in motion an ever-widening process of chain migration.”

The Obama administration’s favorite immigration think tank, the Migration Policy Institute, uses the term routinely. A search of Google Scholar for “chain migration” and “immigrants” (the term is also used in neurology) returns thousands of hits just for the past five years. The Google Books ngram viewer shows a sharp and almost uninterrupted rise in the use of the term since 1966, just as the phenomenon itself was growing.

Whatever you call it, a federal program that gives certain foreigners special immigration rights based simply on who they know, not what they know, is bad policy. The immigration commission in the 1990s headed by civil-rights icon Barbara Jordan doesn’t seem to have used the term, but it did endorse the kind of reforms the White House is promoting two decades later. As one of its reports noted in understated prose:

Unless there is a compelling national interest to do otherwise, immigrants should be chosen on the basis of the skills they contribute to the U.S. economy. The Commission believes that admission of nuclear family members and refugees provide such a compelling national interest. Reunification of adult children and siblings of adult citizens solely because of their family relationship is not as compelling.

The media can call “chain migration” a banana if they like, so long as we can bring it to an end.

READ MORE:

An Immigration-Enforcement Fairy Tale from the New York Times

End the Visa Lottery

The Agony of the Wall

Mark Krikorian — Mark Krikorian, a nationally recognized expert on immigration issues, has served as Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) since 1995.

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