WWS Reacts: Trump’s Border Wall, DACA and "Chain Migration"

Dec 17 2018
By B. Rose Kelly
Source Woodrow Wilson School

So-called “chain migration” is in the news again as House Republicans try to introduce a government funding bill that includes $5 billion in funding for a border wall between the United States and Mexico. Just last week, President Donald Trump threßatened to shut down the government if he doesn’t get the funding for the wall in a heated exchange about border security with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

We discussed the ins and outs of “chain migration” — including the true figures — with Marta Tienda, Maurice P. During Professor in Demographic Studies and professor of sociology and public affairs, in the Q&A below.

Q. Can you briefly explain the effects of chain migration? Based on your research, what are the true numbers?

Tienda: The term “chain migration” has been grossly mischaracterized in several media outlets to buttress claims that the family reunification sponsorship provision in U.S. immigration law leads to an endless supply of future immigrants. This is patently false.

Family reunification chain migration refers to the process by which U.S. citizens and legally admitted migrants sponsor family members under the provisions and country-specific ceilings and preference categories stipulated by U.S. immigration law. U.S. citizens can sponsor immediate relatives — spouses, parents and unmarried children under age 21. These visas are not subject to numerical limits. Visas for adult offspring and siblings of U.S. citizens are subject to annual caps, and immediate relatives of legal permanent residents are as well.  

Q. What is the difference between legal permanent U.S. residents and U.S. citizens in terms of sponsoring family members to come to the country?

Tienda: Compared with U.S. citizens, opportunities for legal permanent residents to sponsor relatives are very limited: in 2017, fewer than 120,000 visas were issued to spouses and dependent children of legal permanent residents — just 10 percent of the 1.2 million visas issued that year. By comparison, 46 percent of the immigrants admitted in 2017 were immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. I estimate that immigrants admitted between 1981 and 2000 sponsored an average of 1.8 relatives, which is the “migration multiplier.” Although the current policy debate is focused on Mexico, truthfully immigrants from India and China sponsored far more family members. For the three top immigrant sending countries — India, China and Mexico — the family migration multipliers (or sponsored relatives) were 6.4, 4.4 and 0.8, respectively, over the same period. Importantly, this period includes the large cohorts that received legal status under the 1986 Immigration Control and Reform Act.

The major takeaway is that the current system restricts family sponsorship for legal permanent residents, irrespective of origin country, until they become U.S. citizens. Only 15 percent of family visas issued in 2017 were for spouses and dependent children of legal permanent residents; U.S. citizens, including naturalized immigrants, are the primary consumers of the family reunification entitlement. Visa queues for sponsored relatives from top-sending countries like China, India and Mexico span well over a decade from the petition date, partly because naturalization rates differ, but mostly because of annual limits on the number of immigrants from a specific country combined with highly restricted opportunities for legal permanent residents to sponsor relatives.

Q. Last month, the Department of Justice filed a motion to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). How does DACA — and the ability of the “Dreamers” to live and work legally in the United States — factor into the figures? What would an end mean?

Tienda: Claims that young people granted relief from deportation under DACA will produce a surge in family migration are implausible and irresponsible. For starters, the size of the DACA population is under 700,000 — not remotely close to the 3 million that some news outlets claim. The size of the DACA population is a matter of public record because deferred action requires eligible youth to register with the federal government. Furthermore, if granted legal permanent resident status, none of the young people are eligible to sponsor relatives, except for spouses and dependent children born and living abroad. By definition, DACA youth have spent most of their childhood and adolescence in the U.S., so are highly unlikely to have dependent children and spouses living abroad. What’s more, even if some DACA holders have a foreign sweetheart, the twin breaks on sponsorship stemming from annual country caps and relatively few visas designated for dependents of permanent residents mean that only a handful, if any, will contribute to family reunification chain migration.

WWS Reacts is a series of interviews with Woodrow Wilson School experts addressing current events.