A photo at an airport near an arrivals point. There is a sign that says "America=Immigrants"

EddieHernandezPhotography / Shutterstock.com


EddieHernandezPhotography / Shutterstock.com

“Chain Migration” Is Not a Thing

Trump's anti-immigrant agenda includes misleading the country about the family immigration process. Here's how it really works.

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As the battle for the DREAM Act rages on and DACA recipients are left in limbo, the Trump administration has made a curious rhetorical change in how they talk about immigration. Trump has moved on from his choice buzzword of “illegal immigration” to instead focus on the current legal immigration system. It is a conscious choice; after trying to terrify white America with allegedly high crime-rates in immigrant communities and in an attempt to make it seem like millions of people are pouring across our Southern border, Trump has stirred up enough animus against immigrants that his administration can now capitalize on this self-created hysteria in order to dismantle our current legal immigration system. It is to this end that the administration has started using the phrase “chain migration.”

But “chain migration” is not a thing. It is not a legal term, it is not the name of our immigration system, it is not even an accurate description of our immigration system. What it is is an intentional, dehumanizing, racist dog whistle intended to play on offensive stereotypes about immigrants. Despite what Trump said in his State of the Union, a single immigrant cannot “bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives.” The reality is that our immigration system is broken, but what the Trump administration is wrong about is that our system is not broken because it prioritizes family, it is broken because it tears families apart.

Trump wants to cut legal immigration to the United States by 40 percent, but immigrants are already waiting decades to reunite with their family in the United States under our family-based immigration system. Here’s how family-based immigration actually works:


Immigrants applying for admission to the United States through the family-based system are either admitted as “immediate relatives” of U.S. citizens or through something called the “family preference system.” To immigrate to the United States as the immediate relative of a U.S. citizen you must be the spouse of a U.S. citizen, the unmarried minor child of a U.S. Citizen, or the parent of an over-21-year-old U.S. Citizen. These immigrants still must meet numerous requirements in order to be admissible to the United States.

There are hundreds of reasons why someone is considered inadmissible to the United States, ranging from the seemingly obvious, like certain criminal history, to the more obscure, like practicing polygamists and relatives of people accused of international child abduction. People who entered the United States without authorization are inadmissible. People who ever misrepresented something in their immigration applications are inadmissible. People who accrue a certain amount of unlawful presence in the United States are inadmissible. In fact, the inadmissibility categories are so broad that the Department of Homeland Security had to create a system by which certain people can apply for a waiver for their inadmissibility in order to immigrate. Getting a waiver requires time, money, and a lot of paperwork, and it is not guaranteed to be accepted. Although there is not a set limit on the number of immediate relative visas that can be issued every year, the process can still take months.

If someone does not fit into the immediate relative categories and are trying to immigrate to the United States through their family, they can try to go through the family preference system. This is where the difficulty of our current immigration really comes across. Family preference visas are capped each year, which means that there are only a certain number of each type of visa available at any given time. The only people eligible to immigrate through the family preference system are unmarried adult children of U.S. Citizens, Spouses and minor children of Lawful Permanent Residents, Unmarried Adult Children of Lawful Permanent Residents, married adult children of U.S. Citizens, and brothers and sisters of U.S. Citizens. These immigrants need their U.S. Citizen or Lawful Permanent family member to petition for them, show that the relationship is legitimate, and agree to be financially responsible for them. Like immediate family members, immigrants who come in through the family preference system must be admissible, meaning they don’t trigger any of the hundreds of inadmissibility categories. If they are statutorily inadmissible and don’t qualify for a waiver, they cannot immigrate to the U.S.

That’s it. U.S. Citizens can petition for their eligible spouses, children, siblings and parents. Lawful Permanent Residents can petition for their eligible children and spouses. That’s the grand total of people who can immigrate to the United States using the family-based system. No “virtually unnumbered distant relatives.” In fact, no distant relatives at all. There are no visas available to cousins or aunts or nephews of U.S. Citizens or Lawful Permanent Residents.

And despite Trump’s State of the Union claim, these visas are actually very much numbered. For immigrants hoping to come to the United States through the family-preference system, there are only a certain number of visas available in each category each year. This means that people generally have to wait years for a visa number to become available so that they can join their family in the United States. For example, if a U.S. citizen wants to bring his unmarried, adult daughter to the U.S. from, let’s say, the Netherlands, in January 2018, her application would need to have been approved in 2011. That is seven years that the daughter is separated from her father waiting for her visa. Of course, that is not the only numerical limitation on family-preference visas.

In addition to the numerical cap on family-preference visas, there are also per-country caps. Each country is only allotted 7 percent of the total number of visas available. For 2018, that cap is 25,620. That means that no one country can get more than 25,620 visas this year. This number includes both family-based petitions and employment-based visas, but let’s stick with family-based visas, since that is what Trump is so concerned about. Because of these per-country caps, certain countries that tend to have more people who want to immigrate to the United States are plagued by waiting lists that are literally decades long.

For example, if a U.S. citizen wants to bring her Filipina sister to the United States this January, 2018, she would need to have an approved petition from 1994. People applying for visas for their Filipina sisters this month will likely have to wait another 20-plus years before they can hope to reunite in the United States. That is, if both of them are still alive. Because the waiting periods are so long, many people die before their visa number ever becomes current.

If a U.S. citizen wants to bring their married Chinese-citizen son to the United States this year, they would need to have applied and been approved in 2005. If their son is Mexican, then they would need to have applied in 1995. People who say that immigrants should just “get in line” don’t often realize that the line can be over 20 years long, if there is even a line available at all. In November, 2017 there were 3,947,857 people waiting for a visa number to become current.

It is impossible to break down our entire thousands-pages long immigration statute into one article, but Trump wants you to think that someone can immigrate to the United States with almost no vetting and then immediately bring in their entire family. That is simply untrue. The family-based immigration system only allows U.S. Citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents to bring in certain members of their immediate family that also have to go through a stringent application and vetting process. The process to get a family member to the United States can often take over a decade. Thousands of families throughout the United States are split apart while they wait for a family-member’s visa number to become current. This is no way to treat humans, no matter their country of origin.

The Trump administration and it’s supporters use the words “chain migration” because it dehumanizes the very human process by which people from all over the world immigrate, and the great challenges these people face in trying to immigrate to the United States. Conservatives argue that we should use the phrase “chain migration” because “rhetoric matters.” I agree, rhetoric does matter. That’s why we can’t let this amorphous, racist dog-whistle language overshadow the realities of our current immigration system.

Our immigration system is broken, but not because it allows “chain migration.” Chain migration doesn’t exist. Instead, we have a system that purports to support family reunification, but in reality leaves thousands of immigrants separated from their families and waiting for decades for the opportunity to come the United States. That’s why trading the passage of DACA for an even more limited family-based immigration system is unacceptable. Instead, we need a path to citizenship for DREAMers and a humane immigration system that keeps families together instead of tearing them apart. In the meantime, the word they’re looking for is “family-based” immigration, which sounds a whole lot less scary, doesn’t it?

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