Chain Migration Is Just Immigration

The far right popularized the term “chain migration” to stigmatize immigrant families. It’s how I got here.

Sign at the Women’s March in New York, NY, January 20th, 2018 — photo by Robert Stribley

Listening to Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton talk of “addressing chain migration” on Meet the Press recently, I puzzled over why Chuck Todd didn’t challenge Cotton to validate that this specific path to immigrating is even a problem to be addressed.

Cotton claimed that by giving amnesty to immigrants within the DACA program, “you’re going to create an entire new population, through chain migration, that can bring in more people into this country that’s not based on their skills and education and so forth.” Putting aside the fact that Cotton’s criticism of the dynamic reeks of discrimination, we also know that family immigrants are generally better educated than U.S.-born natives. Additionally, however, “chain migration” has long been limited, and chain migration via DACA recipients would face the same limitations.

Why though does it seem we’re suddenly seeing a shock-and-awe campaign aimed at convincing Americans we need to reduce “chain migration” — whether it applies to DACA immigrants or typical immigrants?

For decades, the term “chain migration” existed rather innocently as a term within the field of demographics. It simply meant that people are likely to move to other places on the planet to pursue opportunities based on their familial relationships there. That’s it.

So if lately some on the right have attempted to apply sinister undertones to the term, in fact, “chain migration” is really just “immigration.”

The Origin of the Term

Take a look at a 14 year’s worth of searches on Google for “chain migration.”

Occurrences for “chain migration” from 2004 to Present via Google Trends

The term “chain migration” practically didn’t exist in the popular discussion until about a year ago. Mentions before that were so few, they hardly warrant mentioning.

News occurrences for “chain migration” from 12/28/2008 to 1/28/2018 via Google Trends

Looking at the last decade of News Searches on Google, the term rarely rated a mention until 2017. Most years, it didn’t appear at all. For most of 2017 even, mentions were few and far between. Then in December 2017 mentions begin to spike. That’s about the time Trump blamed chain migration for an attempted terrorist attack in the United States. Specifically on December 11th, he said, “Today’s terror suspect entered our country through extended-family chain migration, which is incompatible with national security.”

Though it took off in December, the administration had set the term loose previously. As Media Matters shows, Trump made the same claim using the same term in September and November. So, too, Fox News used the term 295 times in 2017 versus zero times in 2016. Breitbart tagged articles with the term 70 times last year versus once in 2016. Clearly, someone made it part of the Trump administration’s playbook to deploy the term last year with this darker intent.

Trump tweeted about it too with his characteristic lack of subtlety — and with little concern for explaining how the system really works.

The term’s origins were more innocent.

Mentions of chain migration can be found in academic journals on Google Books as far back as 1935 in reference to various demographics studies. JSTOR confirms the term’s use as early as 1942. In their 1964 article “Chain Migration Ethnic Neighborhood Formation and Social Networks,” John S. MacDonald and Leatrice D. MacDonald elaborated on the term for The Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly.

The MacDonalds defined “chain migration” as follows:

that movement in which prospective migrants learn of opportunities, are provided with transportation, and have initial accommodation and employment arranged by means of primary social relationships with previous migrants.

To their credit, the MacDonald’s explained at the time that “chain migration across international borders has taken place within an elaborate framework of administrative hurdles.” They also pointed out that from 1885 to 1914, chain migration was essentially the only means of immigration to the United States for continental Europeans and immigrants were not expected to know English, neither did they typically have any other way to get here under their own initiatives or financing. What the MacDonalds refer to as the “impersonal organization of immigration” — immigration effected by foreign governments, domestic employers, shipping companies, land companies and other large enterprises — that was actually banned at the time. They did note that many immigrants came to the country to work for a while, then returned to their country of origin with their earnings. They closed however by noting, “The information available for the United States provides only positive instances of chain migration.”

Ultimately then, the term “chain migration” took root in the first half of the 20th Century, but it remained in academic circles and never reached the common parlance until recently.

My Own Story

An immigrant from lovely Perth, Western Australia, I came here via chain migration and the qualified “chain” ended with me — despite my having many, many relatives in Australia. Still, I had to work hard to take advantage of the process.

I came here in 1989 to begin my university studies and my parents immigrated shortly after via a unique clause in the immigration regulations which benefits religious organizations. (I’ve described it previously.) My parents petitioned for me to join them and because I wasn’t quite 21, I barely qualified to apply for a green card. That was just the beginning of my journey. Because I was a student, I could stay in the States, but only so long as I remained a student. The government told me at the time, however, I’d probably only have to wait a couple of years for my green card.

Three years later, I had a degree under my belt, but no green card. I could either enroll in another degree or leave the country — despite the fact that my entire immediate family now lived in the United States. So I looked into a few graduate programs, and fortunately my alma mater invited me to stay on for two more years as a student and graduate assistant teaching English. Come 1995 and I had two degrees under my belt and still no green card, despite staying on top of all the paperwork and visiting the immigration authorities in Charleston, SC. At this point, I could pursue a second graduate degree or leave the country. I did apply to further my studies and was accepted to some programs, but didn’t think I could pay for them. Instead, feeling adventurous, I moved to Korea to teach English and continued checking in on my green card status with the U.S. embassy there in Seoul. You can imagine their puzzlement as to why I, an Australian, was waiting for my green card in Pusan, Korea. Well, it was either that or — had I stayed in the U.S. beyond two months after graduating — I would’ve been living here illegally. I mention this not to judge those who may have decided to stay anyway — their situations and motivations are myriad. This is just my story.

Then after six years of waiting, I finally was granted a green card and I returned to the United States. As Portland, OR was my place of entry, I surrendered my fingerprints there (something no native-born American has to do) and finally I received a temporary green card. It was pink.

Sample temporary green card. Actually pink.

I wouldn’t seek and be granted citizenship until 2004, eight years later.

So. That’s just one real-world example of so-called “chain migration.” And let me acknowledge that as a white, English-speaking male, I’m sure I enjoyed some distinct advantages along the way.

Clarifying How Chain Migration Works

Those employing the term “chain migration” to sew fear depend on the fact that many of those listening do not understand how it works.

Critics of chain migration as it currently works point to 1965 as the year the United States decided to eliminate any cap on the number of immediate relatives, who could immigrate to the United States — a seemingly sane and humane change calculated to allow families to remain intact. Groups like FAIR claim this biases the immigration system against immigrants, who are better educated and have better skills. I’d note that I’ve yet to see these organizations offer any evidence to bolster their argument. In fact, some argue ending chain migration would only make it more difficult for the United States to attract skilled, educated immigrants. Furthermore, organizations like the innocuously named The Center for Immigration Studies actively mislead the public about chain migration.

Most important to note? The system does put caps on how many family members can immigrate. There are caps on married children and adult siblings and caps on how many people can even come from a single country. And no one qualifies for citizenship just by applying. Then, once you qualify to apply, there are all the additional hoops of paperwork, affidavits of support, medical reports, security checks, money to be paid and so on. It’s not unusual for the process to take many years. (As it did for me.) All of which makes Donald Trump’s claim that chain migration presents a national security problem pretty preposterous.

Also, the number of immigrants arriving here via family visas has dropped to its lowest point in a decade since Trump became President. In fact, the number of relatives immigrating who weren’t immediate family members plummeted 70% within the first 9 months of 2017, compared to the previous year. So somehow the Trump administration has found ways to chip away at chain migration without Congressional assistance.

You might not know any of that if you depended on learning about this issue from the Trump administration or its allies.

Catering to Our Worst Impulses

The term “chain migration” is being manipulated now to play into many people’s fears. The “chain” in “chain migration” coupled to Trump’s repeated and baseless argument that “truly evil” people, who may be terrorists are sneaking in with their families by the dozens. The “chain” now intended to conjure up a stream of faceless immigrants, who don’t look like us or speak like us and who simply aren’t going to fit in. In the same way, some have tried to smear immigrants for years, referring to them as “pests,” “vermin,” “rats,” “cockroaches,” or “swarms.” Even now, politicians crassly refer to immigrant children as “anchor babies.” Now that many people find this type of language offensive, however, the anti-immigrant forces deploy seemingly less loaded terms like “illegal” and, most recently, “chain migration.” But they consistently use these terms in contexts, which tap into the same brutal arguments, which have been leveled at immigrants for decades upon decades, whether they be African or Jewish or Irish or Italian or Japanese. Mexican or Syrian.

As the term “illegal” attained a negative and dehumanizing meaning, its critics began responding, “No human being is illegal.” As the Trump administration has begun to disseminate the term “chain migration” with this more menacing connotation, critics have begun to protest its use.

“It is deeply problematic that political leaders are increasingly referring to family-based migration as ‘chain migration,’” says Sister Donna Markham, president of Catholic Charities USA. “Families aren’t chains. They are mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, grandmothers, grandfathers and brothers, and sisters.”

It’s not true, as some on the left have gone so far to say, that right-wing critics of chain migration invented the term; however, as Linda Qui writes in the New York Times, they have “weaponized” it.*

To avoid these creeping connotations, some advocates of the current system prefer to refer to the dynamic as “family reunification.” Regardless of how we refer to it, it’s important to revisit the term and to remember that so-called “chain migration” is really just a common form of “immigration.” Though the specifics have changed throughout our history, this is how immigrants have always arrived to our shores.

Part of an on-going series on immigration by Robert A Stribley


*I recommend reading Linda Qui’s article on this subject. Note that she does similar research via Google Books and Google Trends on the origins of the phrase. (We arrive at some slightly different but complementary conclusions.) I discovered this while completing my piece but had already begun with a similar research. “Great minds,” I’d like to think.