This week, the Trump White House sent out a chart designed to scare us into thinking that America’s immigration policies result in the entry of hordes of disconnected foreigners. Enough to fill stadiums or even whole cities! On the basis of family ties alone!
The chart was followed by a White House proposal widely covered as a breakthrough in the impasse over the future of hundreds of thousands of DREAMers—undocumented immigrants whose parents brought them to the United States as children. The price? $25 billion for a wall on the US/Mexico border, reallocating slots in the diveristy visa lottery, and preventing people from sponsoring their parents, adult children or siblings as immigrants to the U.S. In other words, the White House proposes reducing the hordes that they have been hyping, and taking a bite out of “chain migration,” or migration centered around family reunification.
This is an effort to use the DREAMers’ desperation as leverage to undo a fundamental premise of our legal immigration system: allowing American citizens to reunite with their closest family members, a premise that dates back to a 1965 civil-rights focused law that established family reunification rather than racially-based quotas as the basis for immigration to the United States. Under this law, when you fall in love and marry that guy you met while working in Shanghai, our immigration law is set up so that you can bring him home. And his two-year old. And when your family grows and you’d like his parents to help with childcare, while it takes quite a few years, you’d ultimately be able to bring them, too.
If we had a family immigration system without limits, this structure could theoretically lead to the dreaded chain migration. In addition to allowing you to bring that Chinese spouse, his child and ultimately his parents, once your spouse is a U.S. citizen, he can petition for his sister and her family. And in theory, once her spouse becomes a citizen, he could do the same for his siblings. But we don’t have an unlimited system. In fact, back in 1988, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) found that the immigration system’s waiting lists make chain migration a theory that doesn’t really happen in practice. This is because each link in the chain takes years—and sometimes decades—to complete. Bluntly put, America isn’t being overrun by Chinese and Mexican-born grandmas.
The GAO made this judgment because, back in the late ‘80s, the waiting list for a typical family visa was 6 to 12 years, depending on the country. Now those waiting lists are much longer. It takes 5 years for your Chinese spouse to become a U.S. citizen and petition for his sister. The family visa system is badly backlogged; the U.S. is currently processing sibling visa requests for China that were filed in 2004, making the total wait for a visa just shy of two decades. For Mexico and the Philippines, the total wait now exceeds 25 years.
Chain migration, put another way, is a myth—it takes too long for a chain to form.
The vocabulary chosen by the White House is no accident. They are using the same terms that anti-immigrant organizations like the Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR) and Numbers USA have been pushing for years. These organizations, both of which have well-documented ties to white supremacy, exist to decrease immigration of all kinds. Family-sponsored immigration, most of which comes from Latin America and Asia, is a particular target. The terms of debate now being driven by the White House (look at those numbers! It’s chain migration!) are a targeted assault on Americans’ ability to reunite with their closest family members, using a misleading vocabulary straight from the playbook of some hate groups. That vocabulary is now being echoed in much of the press.
The threat is not just fundamental to who we are as a nation of immigrants; it is also an assault on our families and our economic vibrancy. It is well established that immigrants, who tend to come in their prime working years, make enormous economic contributions to the United States. This was underscored by a 2016 panel assembled by the National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine, which found that “immigration is integral to the nation’s economic growth. The inflow of labor supply has helped the United States avoid the problems facing other economies that have stagnated as a result of unfavorable demographics, particularly the effects of an aging workforce and reduced consumption by older residents.”
Family immigrants are essential to this economic growth, both because of their contributions in the workforce and because a generous family immigration policy is essential to attracting the talent we hope to bring from around the world. Think about it: We train entrepreneurs and other highly skilled economic players from across the globe at our first-rate universities. We hope that they will stay, building companies and driving innovation in the U.S. If we create obstacles for them to bring their loved ones, we will lose them to countries with more thoughtful family immigration regimes, like Canada. Family immigration isn’t just a sentimental approach, it’s an essential economic strategy.
We should call the Trump administration’s efforts to curtail legal immigration by attacking family immigration exactly what they are: an attempt to torpedo an engine of economic growth and prosperity, driven by a not-so-thinly-veiled racial agenda masquerading as an economic one. Don’t fall for it.