Family ties drive U.S. immigration. Why Trump wants to break the ‘chains.’

(Jan. 2, 2018) Liberals in Congress wanted to scrap the restrictive quota-based system that had governed U.S. immigration policy for decades. Conservatives feared that America’s ethnic and racial composition would be forever transformed.

So in 1965 they compromised: an immigration model that would favor “family unification.” By giving priority to the relatives of U.S. citizens, who were mostly of white, European descent, the Immigration and Nationality Act would ensure that future newcomers were overwhelmingly white and European, too.

It did not work out that way. But although the family unification model went on to enjoy broad support as a source of economic and social stability for immigrants, under President Trump it has earned a pejorative label as the enabler of “chain migration.”

Ahead of a meeting Wednesday between congressional leaders and White House staffers to discuss the administration’s immigration agenda, Trump said that ending “horrible chain migration” will be a condition of any deal that may protect those facing deportation after the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program expires starting in March. 

“The Democrats have been told, and fully understand, that there can be no DACA without the desperately needed WALL at the Southern Border and an END to the horrible Chain Migration & ridiculous Lottery System of Immigration etc.,” Trump tweeted Dec. 29. “We must protect our Country at all cost!”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and other Trump Cabinet members have also hammered at “chain migration” in recent weeks, calling it a threat to American workers and national security. 

They cite the Dec. 11 failed bombing attack on the New York subway by Bangladesh-born Akayed Ullah, who Trump said “entered our country through extended-family chain migration.”

Although the term “chain migration” is not a precise technical one, the White House launched a campaign last month with a slide show offering its own dictionary-style definition: “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 in the country.” 

Trump has endorsed a bill sponsored by Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) called the RAISE Act, which would limit visa sponsorship to spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens while implementing a Canadian-style point-based merit system to prioritize skilled workers. 

But of the nearly 1.2 million green cards issued during the government’s 2016 fiscal year, only about 240,000 went to the type of extended-family visa categories that the legislation would eliminate.

Democrats are unlikely to give ground. Critics see the attack on the family-based system as part of a broader attempt to slow the country’s transformation into a more diverse society whose growing rolls of nonwhite voters lean toward the Democratic Party.

They also point out that the diagrams often used to attack “chain migration” — showing a single immigrant bringing dozens of relatives to the United States — hardly reflect the reality of a system that does not move fast enough to allow exponential visa-sponsoring of this sort.

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Nick Miroff