Chain Migration and Assimilation

By Andrew R. Arthur on December 20, 2017

On December 15, 2017, the White House issued a release captioned "It's Time [t]o End Chain Migration". That release includes a package of graphs and slides that detail the effect of chain migration on immigration to the United States.

That package begins with an introductory paragraph that includes the following:

Chain Migration also undermines national security, by failing to establish merit-based criteria for evaluating entrants into the United States — instead, familial relations are all that is required to obtain a green card and, in turn, become a voting U.S. Citizen within a short period of time, with access to Federal welfare and government benefits.

Even before the White House issued that release, President Trump had argued that chain migration poses a danger to national security, in response to the arrest of Akayed Ullah, a Bangladeshi national and lawful permanent resident, in connection with an attempted bombing in Manhattan on December 11, 2017. NBC reported that the president called that incident an "attempted mass murder attack", and said in a statement that Ullah "entered our country through extended-family chain migration, which is incompatible with national security."

Almost immediately, the president was attacked about the validity of those statements. For example, the Baltimore Sun published an editorial on December 12, 2017, headlined "Chain migration didn't light the New York pipe bomb". Indicative of the tone in that editorial is the following passage:

President Trump touts immigration reform for the same reason he lashes out at illegal immigration at a time when such behavior is in decline, not on the rise. It's a constant appeal to the most base of human instincts, to be fearful of, and angry at, individuals who are new, who are of color, who practice a different religion from the majority. There is absolutely a reasonable conversation to be had about encouraging merit-based immigration, but there's also one to be made about keeping families intact. Does anyone think we're going to have a sensible policy discussion in the current climate of xenophobia and Islamophobia?

The Sun does not offer any examples of the "current climate of xenophobia and Islamophobia" that it references, and one could question whether the ad hominem statements it put forth are worthy of the former paper of H.L. Mencken (a man who had his own issues with racism). One could also ask how far a degree of consanguinity and affinity the United States should accept to "keep[] families intact". Both of these observations are, however, beside the point.

Chain migration poses a national security risk for a simple reason (aside from the risks of fraud): It offers no guarantees of assimilation.

One of the more common arguments that is made in support of "deferred action for childhood arrivals" (DACA) recipients is that they have grown up in the United States and are fully "American", except in the eyes of the law. The implication is that they are familiar with, and attached and contributing to, the institutions, customs, and values of this nation. By further implication, because of their familiarity and attachment, they have a contributed to the success of this country and to the success of those institutions and their fellow "countrymen".

The same facts are not necessarily true, however, with respect to chain migrants. There's no guarantee that an extended family member will have any attachment to or relationship with his or her petitioner, let alone any attachment to the laudable and exceptional principles and values of the United States.

Notwithstanding the Sun's apparent low opinion of the community it serves, I live in Baltimore, and am not familiar with any xenophobes or with individuals who expound "Islamophobic" opinions; such individuals would be shunned as bigots. To the contrary, while Voltaire never actually said "'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it", the truth is that the vast majority of Americans embrace the sentiment and consider it part of our national creed.

Want proof? On a daily basis, our troops put their lives on the line to protect peoples of different nationalities, religions, ethnicities, and even political opinions around the world. Remember the Thalys train attack in August 2015? There were 554 passengers on that train from Amsterdam to Paris, but it was three Americans who disarmed a Kalashnikov-wielding madman, and then one of them (an American airman, wounded himself) tended to another victim. Alek Skarlatos, one of the trio, was quoted as saying: "We just did what we had to do. You either run away or fight. We chose to fight and got lucky and didn't die."

Not quite as nobly, but in the same vein, millions of Americans posted "Je suis Charlie" on Facebook and Twitter following the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack; it may have been safe defiance of an attack on freedom of speech, but it was defiance nonetheless. Finally, don't forget that when hundreds of thousands of individuals marched in the streets of Washington, D.C., to protest Donald Trump two days after his inauguration, there were no attempts at violence and no arrests. The fictional Monsieur Arouet would have been pleased.

That said, there is a curious self-loathing, or at least lingering embarrassment, among certain Americans when comparing themselves to those in other developed countries. We (including, apparently, the Sun's editorial staff) think that our fellow citizens are less welcoming of strangers or accepting than other countries. That has not been my experience, nor is it borne out by the facts.

One of the things that I was struck by in Germany was a police presence near the synagogue down the street from my hotel, a step taken by the government in response to anti-Semitic attacks. Germany is not alone. According to the U.S. Department of State "Country Report for Human Rights Practices for 2016", the year before there were 808 anti-Semitic incidents in France, 277 anti-Semitic crimes in Sweden, and 570 reports of anti-Semitic acts in Belgium.

Nor are such attitudes limited to anti-Semitism. The State Department noted that 69 percent of respondents to the Pew Research Center's Spring 2016 Global Attitudes Survey in Italy held an unfavorable opinion of Muslims. The Huffington Post reported in March that the German interior ministry identified 3,500 attacks against recently arrived migrants, "many of them refugees coming from predominantly Muslim countries", in 2016.

By contrast, there are numerous churches (of all denominations), synagogues, temples, and mosques within a short drive of my house, and not a cop or a squad car to be seen near any of them. In fact, when a man was recently carjacked (in an apparent random act of theft) near a synagogue not far from my home, there was an uproar in the community. Such crimes are not rare in Baltimore (as the linked article notes), but that offense was implicitly notable because it occurred in close proximity to a house of worship, eliciting special disgust even among those who are not adherents of the Jewish faith. As for attacks on migrants, the chief justice of California complained when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attempted to lawfully arrest illegal aliens.

Moreover, according to the aforementioned State Department report, in the United Kingdom:

During the year the Labour Party faced criticism for its members' anti-Semitic acts and comments. In March the party suspended the membership of its vice-chairman in Woking, Surrey, for anti-Semitic Tweets. MP Naz Shah was temporarily suspended in April for comments made on her Facebook page in 2015 before she became an MP: Under an outline of Israel that was superimposed on a map of the U.S. with the headline "Solution for Israel-Palestine conflict — relocate Israel into United States," Shah commented, "Problem solved." Shah apologized in Parliament for the comment and then apologized to the members of a synagogue in her constituency and in an opinion piece in the Jewish News.

In April, Ken Livingstone, former MP and former London mayor, was suspended from the Labour Party for anti-Semitism. Livingstone, when asked about Shah, called her comments "rude" but said they were not anti-Semitic. He said it was important "not to confuse criticism of Israeli government policy with anti-Semitism." He then suggested that Hitler was a Zionist, which led to his suspension.

On October 3, Labour Party activist Jackie Walker was removed from her post as vice-chairman of Momentum, the campaigning group supporting Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn, following remarks in which she criticized the International Holocaust Remembrance Day and counterterrorism security at Jewish schools, although Momentum claimed that she had not said anything anti-Semitic. Walker was also suspended from the Labour Party and then readmitted in May despite claiming that Jews were the "chief financiers" of the African slave trade, a proposition described by the Legacies of British Slave Ownership project at University College, London, as based on "no evidence whatsoever."

It is inconceivable that any politician in the United States could dare make such statements and continue in the public sphere. The British appear a bit more forbearing, however.

Plainly, the United States is not perfect. That said, respect for political, ethnic, and religious differences are not only the norm, but an expectation that each of us has of our fellow citizens. It is also a standard that we should set for any foreign national who seeks to enter our country, and definitely one that potential immigrants should meet. There is no guarantee, however, under our current chain migration policies, that those who immigrate as distant relatives will share these values.

Nor is there any guarantee that those individuals will even integrate into the communities in which they live. Again, there is no requirement that there be an emotional relationship between the petitioner and the chain migrant, just a biological one. Some families are close knit, with uncles like fathers and cousins like siblings. We use the word "avuncular", which derives from the Latin for maternal uncle, to describe a gentleman who is kind and genial. But in fact, there are no assurances that the citizen uncle who immigrates his foreign-national nephew will even associate with him in the United States, let alone look out for and guide him once here.

There's also no guarantee that chain migrants will bring with them any skills that will allow them to succeed in the United States. More than five years ago, Olivier Roy, a professor of political science, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times captioned "Loner, Loser, Killer", in which he described Mohammed Merah, a French Muslim who attacked a Jewish school and a group of soldiers in Toulouse and Montauban, respectively, in March 2012. That piece, which was generally sympathetic to the disenfranchised youth of the banlieues, focused on Merah's marginalization even within his own society, and noted that he was a "loner and a loser" who "found in al Qaeda a narrative of solitary heroism and a way, after months of watching videos on the Internet, to achieve short-term notoriety and find a place in the real world."

The parallels to Ullah are striking. NBC reports that he had worked as a cab driver from March 2012 to March 2015, and had several traffic tickets on his record. He also apparently worked as an electrician, but the extent of that work is not clear. His wife and one-year-old child live in Bangladesh, according to CNN, and he "told investigators he was motivated in part by pro-ISIS Christmas attack propaganda circulated about a month ago online with an image of Santa Claus over Times Square."

None of this is to say that most, or even many, chain migrants are going to carry out terrorist attacks. It calls into question, however, the process by which the United States gives away a precious commodity: lawful permanent residency. Five years ago, Gallup issued a report that stated that 150 million adults worldwide would move to the United States, "giving it the undisputed title as the world's most desired destination for potential migrants since Gallup started tracking these patterns in 2007." Even that number seems a bit low, and I would venture to guess that given the improvements to the U.S. economy in the interim that the number today would be significantly higher.

If one out of every 50 people in the world has a desire to come to this country, the United States should implement a process by which it selects for immigration those individuals who have the skills and ability to succeed and prosper here, and to contribute to and improve the well-being of all Americans. In particular, we should choose those foreign nationals who are most likely to assimilate, to build up our institutions, and to embrace our values.

With chain migration, the United States rolls the dice that each new immigrant will integrate and be self-sufficient, let alone successful. By moving to a merits-based system, as proposed in the RAISE Act, S. 354 (and in the House companion Immigration in the National Interest Act, H.R.3775) we will be able to stack the deck and bring in the best and the brightest. I'm not a gambling man, but I know which game I would prefer to play.