RSF Authors and Scholars on Family Reunification and “Chain Migration”

February 23, 2018

Last week, two bills on immigration—a GOP-backed bill and a bipartisan bill—both failed in the Senate, continuing the Congressional stalemate over immigration reform and leaving the fate of nearly 800,000 DACA recipients unresolved. While both bills had outlined paths to citizenship for “Dreamers,” the GOP bill, championed by President Trump, had also included provisions for the construction of a border wall, and new restrictions on legal immigration, including significantly scaling back family reunification, or what Trump has called “chain migration.”

A number of commentators and scholars have criticized both the contents of the GOP bill and Trump’s use of the phrase “chain migration,” including Karthick Ramakrishnan (University of California, Riverside), a former RSF visiting scholar and co-author of the book Framing Immigrants (2016). In a recent op-ed for CNN, Ramakrishnan wrote, “Trump is shifting the narrative on family migration by using an ideologically loaded term—“chain migration”—instead of the more neutral terms that have long been used in America to describe an essential feature of immigration policy: ‘family reunification’ or ‘family migration.’”

While chain migration was once a largely neutral term limited to academia, Ramakrishnan notes that more recently, it has been co-opted by “conservative groups whose apparent aim is to reduce immigration—both legal and illegal—to the United States. Such groups, like NumbersUSA and Federation for American Immigration Reform, use the term to mischaracterize family immigration and cast it in a negative light.” As Ramakrishnan points out, these groups use the term to imply that family-based visas will lead to “an overwhelming and unstoppable” explosion of immigration.

Current visiting scholar Philip Kasinitz (CUNY Graduate Center) also recently addressed Trump’s comments on chain migration in an article for the New York Daily News. He wrote, “The President has demonized ‘chain migration’ as permitting the entrance of uneducated and dangerous people only distantly related to earlier immigrants. In fact, being related to a citizen is by no means a blanket entitlement to come to the U.S.” As Kasinitz points out, family reunification applicants must pass strict security checks and often wait for years to be approved.

What’s more, Kasinitz argues, there is is less distinction between “skilled” immigrants and those who arrive on family visas than Republicans have suggested. Immigrants who receive family visas “include many relatives of skills-based immigrants, who, not surprisingly, tend to be highly skilled themselves.” Even those who are unskilled often benefit from their ties to family members who are already established in the U.S. “Family reunification works,” Kasinitz concludes. “It has enabled the United States to integrate large numbers of newcomers into our economy and society to the benefit of most Americans.”


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