So you want to be American?: Chain migration and family unification

Jackson Pierce-Felker, Contributing Writer

There has been a lot of talk of chain migration in the news, particularly after the Trump Administration reported that the United States annually resettles more immigrants than the entire population of Washington, D.C. Before passing judgment on new immigration policies, we should fully understand the systems currently in place.

Those who seek lawful, permanent residence in the the United States have four options. There’s employment-based immigration, diversity-based immigration (which now relies on a lottery system), seeking refuge through asylum, and family reunification. Family reunification is by far the most popular and most successful avenue, as reported by

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), if you’ve attained citizenship, you may petition for a close family relative to receive a permanent residence Green Card, a fiancé visa, or a K-3/K-4 visa. Green Card petitions can be extended to spouses, children, parents, and siblings. Adult children of American citizens are given first preference, while siblings are the least preferred.

To petition for an alien relative, you must file Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. Once you’ve provided proof of your status as a permanent resident, submitted evidence of your relative’s connection to you and their legal name change documents, your petition is sent to the National Visa Center (NVC).

The NVC then forwards your documentation to the appropriate U.S. consulate, who will eventually interview your relative and hopefully grant them an immigrant visa. When you enter the country, you will have to wait another 45 days or so to receive your actual Green Card. Considering that millions of people emigrate to America each year and there is already a heavy backlog of applications, this is a slow process. Some immigrants allege that they have waited for 15 years and have not yet received their green cards to this day.

To put it simply, there’s a lot of red tape involved in getting one person to America legally. Following any of the four routes provided by USCIS requires literacy, a stable internet connection, and patience. If you’re seeking refuge from a war-torn country, living in fear of gang violence, or suffering from severe poverty, you may not have consistent access to any of those. Entering the United States legally also requires some serious cash to cover the extensive visa fees, not to mention normal border fees and travel expenses. Even the legal routes to citizenship and residency contain significant barriers to potential immigrants.

Chain migration is an alternative term used to describe family unification, most recently by the Trump Administration. The fear of chain migration seems to operate on the principle that once one immigrant brings in a relative, that relative will bring in another, who will bring in another, until soon their entire community legally resides in America and has access to federal resources. This terror seems largely misplaced, since even a single link in such a chain would require several years and hundreds of dollars to form. Given the bureaucratic realities of this situation, family reunification seems to be a more suitable term to describe the policy.

Rhetoric on the White House website seems to suggest that a merit and skills-based system would be better for the country. One statement claims that chain migration, “de-skills the labor force, puts downward pressure on wages, and increases the deficit…[it] also undermines national security, by failing to establish merit-based criteria for evaluating entrants into the United States.”

It’s important to note that, despite these claims, chain migration also provides important support structures for incoming immigrants. The presence of family members can help newcomers assimilate more quickly. Family members can also provide child care and household assistance that enables others to participate in the labor market.

Chain migrants experience significant success as well: a 2013 report from the American Immigration Council found that family admissions have the most socio-economic mobility of all American workers. They also tend to make a great deal of human capital investments, which benefits the entire economy. When they can actually make it to the states, these family members occupy important roles in our society.

No matter the particulars of terminology, we have a responsibility to address the massive backlog of visa applications that have prevented law-abiding immigrants from starting new lives on our soil. We would also do well to remember that the only true chain migration occurred when African peoples were forcefully brought to America, as slaves. 

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