Why Cutting Chain Migration Must Be Part of an Immigration Deal

Immediate relief for ‘Dreamers’ but an end to chain migration in 15 years? No, thanks.

By Jessica M. Vaughan on February 1, 2018

Democrats and their guests sat in stony silence through most of President Trump's State of the Union address last night, but one part of the speech drew audible gasps and boos — the mention of chain migration.

The president raised the issue while describing the four pillars of a deal that has emerged from discussions with key members of Congress to resolve the issue of the so-called Dreamers (the illegal aliens who arrived here as minors "through no fault of their own"). Described in a document released last week by the White House, the deal would offer amnesty for 1.8 million Dreamers along with provisions for border security and offsetting reductions in legal immigration. The president said:

The fourth and final pillar protects the nuclear family by ending chain migration. Under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives. Under our plan, we focus on the immediate family by limiting sponsorships to spouses and minor children. This vital reform is necessary, not just for our economy, but for our security, and our future.

Many Democrats, predictably, have taken offense. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said, "He's laying out pillars that are not going to get him a deal from Democrats. A lot of empty rhetoric. ... Those words were not helpful."

Recently on "The View", Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said: "When someone uses the phrase chain migration, it is intentional in trying to demonize families, literally trying to demonize families and make it a racist slur. It is not right!"

And after the State of the Union address, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara tweeted, perhaps unintentionally confirming how expansive chain migration is:

Together with other amnesty proponents on the right, these Democrats insist that the president and congressional Republicans must instead pass what they call a "clean" DREAM Act, meaning an immediate, no-strings-attached amnesty, ideally for Dreamers and all their family, friends, and perhaps neighbors too. They have called the proposed curbs on chain migration anti-family, anti-immigrant, draconian, racist, and, more to the point, unrelated to the situation of the Dreamers.

On the contrary, the president's proposed cuts to chain migration, which are based on the RAISE Act, a bill introduced last year by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue, are a nonnegotiable element of any amnesty legislation. The cuts are necessary to reorient our immigration system in favor of immigrants with education and skills. They will also help mitigate the fiscal costs of the amnesty (estimated to be $26 billion by the Congressional Budget Office) and forestall runaway growth in chain migration in the future.

No other advanced country has an immigration system as generous as ours, which allows immigrants to sponsor grown sons and daughters (and their children), siblings (and their children), parents (and their relatives), and new spouses (and their relatives). According to Princeton University researchers, in recent years each new immigrant has sponsored an average of 3.45 additional relatives.

The parents and spouses of U.S. citizens may enter in unlimited numbers, and they represent the bulk of chain migration. The "parents" category, in particular, has been the fastest growing, bringing in about 174,000 in 2016, which is more than quadruple the number who came in 1986, the year of the last big amnesty.

The chain-migration multiplier would be even higher but for the numerical limit of 226,000 on the extended-family categories that Congress wisely imposed. Over time, a lengthy waiting list of extended family members has built up, now numbering nearly four million people. These applicants wait between two and 23 years to apply, with the longest waits in the "sibling" category.

A memorable recent chain-migration case was that of Akayed Ullah, the Port Authority bomber. Ullah immigrated from Bangladesh at age 20 with his parents and siblings after being sponsored by his aunt and uncle, who had won the visa lottery. Over the past several decades, the combination of the visa lottery and the chain-migration multiplier have created new pipelines of immigration from Bangladesh, Nigeria, Ukraine, and other countries that before the enactment of the visa lottery sent few immigrants, but that are now major sending countries.

Over the past 35 years, chain migration has made up 60 percent of total legal immigration. Essentially, our system lets yesterday's immigrants choose most of tomorrow's immigrants.

A big share of recent immigration has been chain migration launched by the 1986 IRCA amnesty of about three million illegal aliens. Amnesties always go on longer and benefit more people than anyone can imagine at the time they are enacted. The government did not issue the last IRCA green cards until 2015, when 13 direct beneficiaries and 19 family members got their green cards, 29 years after Congress passed the bill. Since chain immigrants tend to resemble their sponsors in terms of education and skills, many of today's legal immigrants resemble the illegal aliens who received amnesty in 1986. This helps explain why today's immigrants tend to be less educated and tend to work in lower-paying jobs, and why about half of all immigrant-headed households are dependent on welfare programs.

This is another major reason that the chain-migration cuts are so vital. Without changes, an amnesty for the Dreamers is an amnesty for their parents, too — the ones who chose to come here illegally. I estimate that each Dreamer put on the path to citizenship will probably sponsor an average of two additional relatives — in all likelihood, one or both parents and possibly siblings who are here illegally or living abroad. Without other cuts, a Dreamer amnesty would cause a huge increase in legal immigration that could dwarf the size of the initial amnesty, as happened in the past.

Trump's proposal is to offer immediate legalization to 1.8 million Dreamers, some 700,000 of whom currently have work permits issued, unconstitutionally, under President Obama, and more than a million others who also arrived as children but did not qualify for DACA because of age or failure to complete high school, or some other reason.

To offset these numbers, the Trump plan would cut off sponsorship of adult relatives outside the nuclear family, including parents, and end the visa lottery. Those changes would reduce legal immigration by about 33 percent from today's levels.

Unfortunately, in an effort to mollify high-immigration fans from both parties in Congress, the chain-migration cuts under the Trump plan would not go into effect until the entire waiting list of family chain-migration applicants is cleared. This would take at least 10 years. Then it would take another five years or so before the future chain-migration cuts could offset the 1.8 million new green cards for the Dreamers.

So, if the proposal becomes law, the Dreamers will obtain relief from deportation immediately upon passage of the bill, but Americans will have to wait 15 years for relief from chain migration.

Even more concerning, a proposal now being hammered out by Senate Republicans reportedly would create a new form of residency visa for parents of naturalized citizens, including the parents of the Dreamers. In this scenario, there would be very little decrease in immigration to offset the amnesty, which could then cover about six million people.

No one thought that reaching a deal for the Dreamers would be easy, but it's not urgent, either. Now that a federal judge in California has ordered the government to resume renewing DACA work permits for the foreseeable future, there is no deadline on DACA. Given that Trump's initial offer of a deal has gone over like a lead balloon with Democrats, and that squishy Senate Republicans are likely to take his proposal and dilute it beyond recognition or value, Trump should step back from the table. Making a deal for the sake of a deal will be a bad deal for Americans. Take a break and let the Democrats (and GOP amnesty-pushers) ponder their choice: permanent status for the Dreamers, or preserving future chain migration? Americans won't tolerate both.