Some Immigrants Are More Likely to Create Chain Migration than Others

By David North on February 28, 2020

Chain migration is worrisome for two related reasons:

  1. If Migrant B cannot be admitted on his or her own credentials, but can be if Migrant A wants him admitted, then the whole selection process has been altered, perhaps appropriately, but altered; and
  2. To the extent that we are dealing with unlimited migration, we have in many circumstances expanded the number of admissions in an uncontrolled matter.

If you are not bothered by the prospect of the United States becoming both more over-populated and tilted toward more poverty, you need not worry about chain migration and can stop reading here.

If, on the other hand, such matters are of interest, it should be noted that all incoming legal migrants are not equally likely to lead to chain migration. Let me cite two extreme examples.

Carolyn is 86 and Hubert is 90. They have been married for 60 years and had a single child. Neither Carolyn nor Hubert has any surviving siblings and, of course, neither has a living parent. Their one child is a citizen of the United States who has filed for their admission. In short, neither Carolyn nor Hubert has any potential chain migration relatives in their lives. It is conceivable that upon arrival in the United States they divorce, and one or both of them marry aliens, thus creating some chain migration, but that is not likely.

On the other hand there is Mary, a 21-year-old living at the edge of the United States with many potential chain migrants waiting on the other side of the border. Mary secured her citizenship a few years ago as a result of her father becoming a citizen, after prior years as a green card holder. Mary's mother, an alien in her 40s, is divorced from her father and lives on the other side of the border along with some of Mary's full and half siblings. Mary is engaged to a distant cousin from the adjacent nation. Two of Mary's four grandparents, though not eligible to migrate to the States for this reason, still might do so as the parents of her father. Mary's admission, a few years ago, has created the possibility of hatching half a dozen different migration chains; there could be even more if she were to go through one or more divorces and remarriages.

Between the extremes of Carolyn and Hubert, on one hand, and Mary on the other, there is a spectrum of legal migrants in terms of their likelihood of starting further chains of migrants. Let's look at some of the variables at work here.

First, there is citizenship. Citizens can produce far more migration chains than green card holders, simply because of the stipulations in the law. Only citizens can file papers for their parents, green card holders cannot; there is no numerical ceiling on the spouses of citizens, but there is on the spouses of aliens, etc.

Second, then there is the matter of time. Carolyn and Hubert will not have many years left to file papers for anyone; Mary may well be filing papers off and on for the next 60 years.

Finally, there is the variable of historic family sizes of first generation migrants. The more kids per family, the more likely that the chain migration will be more substantial than if the families are smaller in size.

I have sketched below how the factors suggested above interact with some of our major immigration categories.

Estimated Likelihood of Chain Migration from Various Migration Categories

Category De Facto Minimum Age for Prime Beneficiary Derivative Beneficiaries at Initial Arrival Potential for more Chain Migration
Numerically limited family migration No minimum Whole families, often large ones Largest
Refugees No minimum Whole families, often large ones Largest
Diversity (i.e., visa lottery) About 18 Whole families, often large ones Very large
Numerically limited, employment-based About 20, most are college grads Whole, but smaller, families Large
Spouses of citizens and green card holders 16 Some children (but, by definition, no additional spouses) Medium
Parents of adult citizens About 40, most are much older None Minor

Source: Estimates provided by the Center for Immigration Studies.

Policy Implications. There has been much discussion about DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) workers, whether their current temporary legal status should be extended, and whether they should get full legal status, and, if so, over what time period.

The odd implication of the above analysis is that the dimensions of this problem diminish over time, assuming that the definition of DACA remains fixed. One element is that the whole number of DACA recipients is slowly diminishing, as every year a few die, a few leave the country, some get full legal status another way (mainly through marriage), and some simply drop out of DACA status.

In addition, as we have shown above, as a population gets older the number of years in which its members can apply for more migrants diminishes. Back in 2012 when this program was launched, the age range of beneficiaries was 12 to 35. Now this population is marching toward, if it is not in, middle age, meaning that those limits will be from 20 to 43 a few months from now. The less time that a population of migrants has to file for follow-on migration, the fewer the new chain migrants will be. (There may be too many DACA recipients for the United States to absorb, but that is a different question.)

The other policy implication of the general question of what groups of migrants produce what numbers of follow-on, or chain migrants is this: We should not be speculating about this.

DHS should do a sample study of, say, the 2018 cohort to find out how many of that group were follow-on migrants and what percentage of the follow-ons are double-chain migrants who came here as the indirect result of prior chain migration and so on.

I did something like that 40 years ago, when one fed computers punch cards. We got the old INS to identify a sample of more than 1,000 1970 migrants, and put them in various migration classes, such as people brought in as workers and those who arrived as, for example, relatives of relatives. We then linked those migrants to their Social Security cards, and got the Social Security Administration to tally the wages for each of the 1970 arrivals in 1975, a tedious process in those days. The annual earnings in that year are shockingly low by current standards, but they showed that people from the Eastern Hemisphere admitted as workers had earnings of $8,623 compared to the earnings of immediate relatives of citizens of $4,851. All this was funded by a Labor Department, which was then curious about such things.

Though we were not thinking in terms of chain migration, what we found is that these secondary migrants earned much less than those who were selected because they were workers. By extending such a study today to welfare records we could get an even deeper picture of the relative contributions to society of prime migrants, their dependents, first-round chain migrants, and second-round chain migrants.

The Obama administration, though sensing the utility of social research in some fields, did not want to know the answers to questions about chain migration, and the current administration has not shown any interest in this kind of research, even if it were to support some of its policies.

But perhaps this administration could conduct such a study. It should.