In its latest move for immigration reform, the Trump administration issued a call Friday for an end to chain migration, the immigration process by which immigrants are able to sponsor their immediate and extended family to join them in the United States.
Chain migration, as defined by the White House, is "the process by which foreign nationals permanently resettle within the U.S. and subsequently bring over their foreign relatives, who then have the opportunity to bring over their foreign relatives, and so on, until entire extended families are resettled within the country."
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What this means in practice is that the admission of a single immigrant—including through the controversial "diversity visa lottery," which admits immigrants from countries otherwise underrepresented in immigration patterns—can lead to an inflow of other immigrants who are part of the first person's extended family.
Estimates by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) find that each new immigrant brings an average of 3.45 additional relatives to the United States, which adds up to about 61 percent of immigrants arriving overall between 1981 and 2016. (The White House suggested the number was closer to 65 percent.)
President Donald Trump further attacked chain migration in his weekly address, calling on Congress to implement a more merit-based approach to migration.
"It is time to create a merit-based immigration system that makes sense for a modern economy—selecting new arrivals based on their ability to support themselves financially and to make positive contributions to U.S society. Base it on love of our country. We want people that come in, that can love our country," Trump said.
Chain migration has been a feature of U.S. immigration policy in some form or another since at least 1924, when spouses and children were not counted towards national quotas under the contemporary immigration system. In 1952, Congress extended those "chains" to parents, adult children, and adult siblings; the 1965 reform did away with national quotas and increasingly prioritized chain-migrating immigrants over those who immigrated on skilled migration basis.
Today, immigration law distinguishes five categories of family preference immigration. The first, containing spouses, minor children, and parents of full citizens, can immigrate without limit. The other four, including unmarried adult children, the immediate relatives of lawful permanent residents (LPRs), and the married children and siblings of citizens, are legally capped.
All of this is in line with the goal of "family reunification," one of several goals which have been a component of U.S. immigration law since 1952. But, many critics contend, this focus has come at the cost of adverse impacts on national security and the economy.
Chain migration, the White House said in its release, reduces skill in the labor force by bringing in large numbers of low-skilled laborers, who in turn drive down the price of their work, further reducing employment for low-skilled citizens and driving down wages. It may also place a burden on federal and state social services resources, further exacerbating state and federal deficit and debt.
Harvard immigration economist George Borjas has provided evidence for the common-sense notion that an increase in the supply of low-skilled labor depresses low-skilled wages. His analysis of the decennial census between 1960 and 2010 suggested that a 10 percent increase in a skill group due to immigration leads to a 3-4 percent drop in the wage rate.
This, Borjas argues, is why many Americans refuse to take jobs staffed by immigrants: because immigrants are willing to do more work for less money, often because of illegal labor practice.
Tom Broadwater, president of labor advocacy group Americans4Work, told the Washington Free Beacon that he sees chain migration as part of a broader overall threat to the wellbeing of America's least-privileged citizens.
"A dramatic increase in the numbers of people immigrating here legally and coming here illegally has had a dramatic impact on the labor market, and has displaced a large number of middle-aged and lower-echelon blue collar American laborers from the workplace earlier than they would have anticipated stopping work. It has had a much more severe impact on African-Americans and Hispanic-American citizens," Broadwater said.
The administration also claimed that chain migration poses a threat to national security, insofar as it reduces merit-based criteria for admission to the United States. Such concerns have been thrown into stark relief following both successful and attempted terror attacks in New York; one arrived via chain migration, while another came via the diversity lottery and had since sponsored 23 others.
Last week, Francis Cissna, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, noted during a White House press briefing that he is concerned about the safety implications of chain migration and its "vulnerability to exploitation by terrorists because of the low eligibility criteria and because of the prevalence of fraud."
Those who immigrate through chain migration are not subject to lessened security screening as compared against other admissions, but they may acquire priority for receipt of one of the limited number of visas (675,000) issued per year, and so are more likely to immigrate as compared against an immigrant admitted for employment purposes.
Calls for a more "merit-based" system have been on the lips of not only Trump, but many congressional Republicans. Sens. David Perdue (R., Ga.) and Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) have sponsored the RAISE Act, which would end chain migration and the visa lottery, replacing them with a points-based system that admits immigrants on the basis of their perceived value to the U.S. economy.
"I think the mood, in our caucus anyway, is that ending chain migration is a top priority. The majority leader of the Republican caucus says that he is in favor of eliminating chain migration. I think that's a milestone," Perdue said at a panel on immigration hosted by CIS.