Chain Migration and Legacy Admissions

"Operation Immigration Blues"

By Andrew R. Arthur on March 22, 2019

The recent college-admissions scandal, which as NBC News reported was uncovered by the FBI as part of an investigation captioned "Operation Varsity Blues", has brought to the fore many different complaints about the college-admissions process. U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling has framed it as an egalitarian morality tale, stating: "There can be no separate college admission for the wealthy, and I will add there will not be a separate criminal justice system either." It has also subsequently prompted criticism of so-called "legacy admissions", the favoritism in some college admissions shown to the children and grandchildren of alumni. The same criticisms, if not more, could be directed toward our chain-migration system.

The U.S. immigration system is the ultimate "legacy" admissions process. For example, from the January 7, 2018, "Weekend Edition Sunday" on NPR comes the following colloquy between host Lulu Garcia-Navarro and John Burnett:

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Chain migration — talk us through it. Is this part of the nation's legal immigration system?

BURNETT: Right. It's the visa program through which immigrants already residing here can bring their family members over. Some call it family reunification. The way it works is visas are granted according to the family tree. Green card holders or legal residents can petition the Immigration Service to bring over their spouses and their minor children. And once the petitioner gets citizenship, they can apply to bring over parents, married children and adult siblings.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So if I've just become a citizen, I could petition for my sister who's living in another country who's not a citizen to get a visa and come to the United States. But what do critics say?

BURNETT: Well, they say it's a system stuck on autopilot — that these extended immigrant families, like your sister coming over, can grow and grow with no regard to who's actually coming. President Trump joins a long line of immigration restrictionists. For years, they sought to reduce the number of family-based visas, and their ultimate goal is to slash the overall numbers of immigrants who come to America.

Take that exchange and substitute "legacy admissions" for "chain migration", and imagine how it would work. Some portion of the candidates for the Class of 2023 at a school, say Stanford University, would be picked by the parents, children, spouses, and siblings of those candidates who happen to be alumni.

How big a portion of the incoming Class of 2023 at Stanford University would we really be talking about? About 61 percent of the class, if the 35 years of immigration admissions between 1981 and 2016 were a guide, as my colleague Jessica Vaughan explained in a September 2017 Backgrounder. U.S. News and World Report in its 2019 edition of "Best Colleges" states that Stanford "has a total undergraduate enrollment of 7,062." Dividing by four (and rounding up to the next whole numbers), and assuming that admission trend follows, 1,077 of the 1,766 students in the incoming class would be "chain admissions".

Of course, certain visa categories are not capped, so they allow an unlimited number of admissions, as Vaughan has noted:

Two categories, spouses and parents of U.S. citizens, are not subject to numerical limits. Admissions in these categories, which are primarily chain migration, have fluctuated at certain times, but in general have been on an upward trajectory at least since the mid-1980s. The number of admissions of spouses and parents today is approximately double the number that it was in 1986.

So, there is no guarantee that the incoming class of 2023 at Stanford University will consist of 1,766 students. Maybe more, maybe fewer. Probably more.

This is not to suggest that this unquantifiable number of chain admittees would not be "Stanford caliber". It is possible that they performed as well or better in school, have the same or better test scores, and bring the same or better skills and abilities to Stanford University that their chain alumni family members do; there is just no guarantee of that fact. Chances are they wouldn't, particularly if the same nonexistent screening process for talent, skills, and ability were applied to the theoretical Stanford admissions process as is applied to the chain-migration admissions process.

And of course, once you graduate (or in certain instances, matriculate), you can then help your other relatives gain admission to Stanford. And they can help theirs. How likely is it that as a result of this process the aptitude of the student body will remain the same or increase? Good question, but there are no guarantees. Again, there would be no screening for skills or abilities. Class rank would not be considered, nor would SAT or ACT scores, the challenges that the incoming candidates overcame to achieve, or the quality of their high school educations. Relationships would be everything.

All of this would be parody, if the stakes were not so high. Again, simply being admitted to Stanford is no guarantee that you will graduate, or that you will ultimately be successful in your career goals. Being admitted as a lawful permanent resident to the United States, on the other hand, guarantees you increased economic opportunities, ideally ensures a better way of life and better health care, includes a likelihood that you will become a citizen, and provides that at some point you will have the right to claim public benefits and entitlements, including the ability to get more of your relatives into the United States.

Obviously, neither Stanford nor any other college would let its alumni choose 61 percent of its incoming classes — so why should we do this with immigration, where the stakes are much higher than they are in college admissions? Don't expect an FBI investigation into "Operation Immigration Blues." It is all legal, even if it does not make much sense.