Chain Migration and the Diversity Visa Program: Legal Immigration at Its Worst

Millions of future migrants are selected under obsolete current law that has nothing to do with advancing the U.S. national interest.

By Phillip Linderman on September 18, 2023

The American Conservative, September 18, 2023

Mayor Eric Adam’s remarks that migrants will “destroy New York City” foreshadows the coming battle over legal immigration reform. Democrats know that President Biden’s radical open-border policies have overreached, and the American public is concerned. Even establishment, left-leaning polling operations are reluctantly picking up the trend that more and more Americans see immigration as a problem.

The legal immigration debate, of course, is not a “yes” or “no” question, although that is how pro–mass immigration groups like to frame the issue, as Gallup did in publishing its recent polling results. This misleading slant obscures serious failures in our poorly conceived immigration system that most Americans would soundly reject if they understood it.

Conservatives can win the immigration debate when they focus on the questions of how many migrants should be admitted and how those should be selected. This will require smart work in Congress designed not only to reduce widespread immigration fraud, but to push all admission numbers down and, most crucially, restrict “family reunification” to only the nuclear family.

Conservatives acknowledge that the United States, a prosperous, continent-spanning country of 330 million, will always take in some number of legal migrants. For example, admitting just the foreign spouses of American citizens brings in some 250,000–300,000 immigrants yearly. Yet that number is artificially high as a result of the current flawed system; the high number mainly represents newly-minted American citizens, who, having recently immigrated themselves, are now reaching back to the home country for brides and husbands. Curtail the current system’s poorly conceived family-reunification process and over time the foreign spouse number will also begin to drastically fall.

In winning hearts and minds, our presidential candidates and allies in Congress should return to two initiatives that have eluded us in previous legislative fights. First, they must end chain migration by eliminating the visa categories that authorize arrived adult immigrants to later bring their parents, grown children and siblings to the U.S. These subsequent immigrants, selected for no other reason than their family relations, arrive in America and repeat the exact same cycle that made their arrival possible: They file paperwork for their extended families—parents, adult children and siblings—and the process repeats like a never-ending chain letter.

As discussed below, this system does not promote assimilation, does not select migrants for skills, training, or youth, and does not serve any real U.S. national interest except perhaps growing the country’s aggregate population.

The second conservative priority should be ending the diversity visa program. Based on the dubious premise that some countries send too few migrants to the U.S., the program is exploited by international fraudsters who spread corruption and carry out criminal scams that far outweigh its benefits.

Terminating both chain migration and diversity visas would reduce legal immigration by over 300,000 yearly. Just as important, turning away these arrivals will also impact millions of future potential immigrants, given that our current system—as illustrated by the foreign spouse example above—is designed to facilitate recent newcomers in later bringing in other family members from the home country.

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Pre-Biden, about 1.1 million lawful immigrants typically entered the country each year. The arrivals all become “Legal Permanent Residents” (LPRs, also called “green-card” holders). Of that total, some 700,000 are admitted through the family reunification process. What is crucial to emphasize is that the current system does much more than keep the nuclear family together, but it is an extended family reunification process, leading to an unending chain of millions of new migrants.

Established in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1965, the extended family reunification process is stubbornly defended by America’s powerful immigration-industrial lobby, which profits immensely from the status quo. American lawyers alone earned $8.5 billion in 2022, mainly from migrant families, guiding them through the INA’s incredibly byzantine rules. Like most federal laws, the INA is a complicated, antiquated statute that has, for over half a century, fiercely resisted common sense change.

In simple terms, the INA authorizes all immigrants to bring along their nuclear family when they first enter the U.S.; that is, the principal immigrant can bring a spouse and minor children when he gets off the airplane. Conservatives should have no problem with such a pro-family arrangement, to the extent America accepts any immigrants at all; after all, the nuclear family is the indispensable building block of all communities, and immigrants coming with spouses and minor children assimilate better and Americanize faster.

The problem is the INA also entitles these new migrants, once established in America, in most cases after having obtained U.S. citizenship, to then file paperwork (“petitions”) that starts the process of bringing extended family—grown children, parents and siblings. These three extended-family visa categories bring in more than 250,000 immigrants yearly, and thereby set in motion the admission of additional millions in the future.

A key reason these admission numbers are not even larger is that many extended-family would-be migrants are on waiting lists. Yearly admissions under the brother-sister category are capped at 65,000 per year. Admissions for adult children are also capped, although they still account for close to 100,000 annual immigrants. There are no numerical limits on the number of parents who can be admitted, and typically around 150,000 arrive annually, many of them elderly and past their economically productive years.

Since all adult immigrants are allowed to file petitions, regardless of whether the visa category already has a waiting list, there are now almost four million foreigners and counting who believe they have a right to immigrate to the U.S. Legally, they have no such entitlement, and Congress should act to make that indisputably clear.

The simple fact that they are on a waiting list has been used by DHS Secretary Mayorkas as flimsy cover to unlawfully permit some of those from Colombia and Central American countries to immediately enter the U.S. as parolees—another brazen example of the Biden administration’s lawlessness.

In offering all these visas to extended family, the INA does not even pretend to serve any U.S. national interest, such as identifying young Anglophone migrants who would arrive on our shores with specifically sought professional skills. The INA actually works against quick assimilation, by not encouraging new immigrants to cut ties with their old countries and previous loyalties, but keeping the new arrivals focused on constantly filing petitions for their extended family, thus creating new waves of similar immigrants.

Reality long ago demolished the INA’s quixotic pretense that international extended families need immigrant visas to maintain their ties. In our globalized world, they have access to instant communication, seamless money transfers, and affordable regular jet travel. While there is great value in keeping immigrant mothers, fathers, and minor children together, conservatives must expose how the extended family reunification concept of the INA is an anachronistic drag on forging new Americans.

Of course, the pro-immigration lobby counterattacks. In particular, they raise the compassion issue of immigrants’ care for their elderly parents. In response, conservatives, who first fell for this argument back in the 1990s, should respond that U.S. national interests—in this case, a compassion for aging Americans—must discourage the arrival of elderly immigrants. There is more than enough challenge in caring for our own aging population.

For example, some seven million LPRs are 65 or older with perhaps four million enrolled in Medicare. Under complicated Medicare rules, elderly immigrant parents, after five years of residency, are entitled to substantial benefits in the overburdened Medicare system. How is such an arrangement fair to Americans who have labored a lifetime paying for Medicare and similar programs? Should not younger immigrants who arrive in this country have to accept that one of the conditions is they cannot bring their elderly parents?

Although there are exceptions, elderly immigrant parents would likely receive better care in their home country, where medical treatment, funded by remittances, is certainly less expensive, and they can also be cared for by extended family in their original communities. Moreover, today’s immigrant parents who join their adult offspring already in the U.S. inevitably leave behind other children, who have no immediate visa option, utterly defeating the INA’s declared notion of keeping families together.

Ultimately, the powerful pro-INA lobby defends the extended-family-reunification system, not on account of its faulty premises, which are also tied to arbitrary mechanisms (e.g., why a yearly cap of 65,000 siblings?), but simply because it is the main motor to keep overall migrant numbers constantly growing.

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Conservatives should also work to end the diversity visa program, another task where we have failed in the past. First created in 1990, the DV program has brought in well over 1.5 million migrants to date, who have petitioned on the order of four million additional relatives, now present in the U.S. through the same chain migration.

The DV program was originally justified as a way to bring in newcomers from countries that traditionally sent few migrants to America. Today, there is a very strong argument that contemporary America lacks no significant immigrant “diversity,” but in advocating for its elimination, conservatives need to stress the corruption, fraud, and criminality this program unintentionally unleashes on the world.

Some 20 million people around the planet yearly submit entries to the State Department in the hope of being selected for one of the annual 50,000 visas awarded. The ruthless paperchase to be picked as a DV winner has produced in numerous countries sophisticated criminal enterprises that fleece vast numbers of desperate, would-be migrants. For years, U.S. policymakers have basically ignored comprehensive reports documenting the high levels of criminal activity surrounding the program. Much of this fraud is perpetrated in the name of the United States.

In truth, visa processing in many countries involves considerable levels of fraudulent activities, often connected to document authenticity, particularly birth and marriage certificates. U.S. consular and diplomatic staff spend considerable time and effort in trying to verify such documents, sometimes using screening tools such as DNA testing and background field investigations. But visa applicant numbers are too large and foreign government corruption is too widespread; in many countries corrupt officials issue authentic documents to unauthorized persons, making fraud virtually impossible to detect. The sad result is that the number of legal immigrants today in the U.S. who have used such tactics to gain their status as LPRs would probably shock most Americans.

Diversity visa scamming is the worst. Some countries like Nigeria have made scamming the DV program a national industry, using online tools to reach around the world. In my own diplomatic experience, I encountered sophisticated visa scam operations that even involved American criminal co-conspirators working abroad and posing as U.S. officials. Many foreigners conclude that the U.S. government must actually be involved in, or at least receiving a kickback from, these con-games.

In a word, immigration romantics in the United States need to be disabused; we should end the DV program because it is a corruption multiplier and certainly not worth the theoretical diversity contribution of 50,000 yearly migrants.

There is much to do on immigration. At this moment, Biden’s open-border migration disaster is overwhelming the country, and thwarting illegal immigration should be the highest priority. But a national debate is beginning to brew about remaking legal immigration, presenting smart conservatives, whether they are on the presidential campaign trail or in the halls of Congress, a golden opportunity. Tomorrow is a new day.