“Chain” Migration Unchained

The American public overwhelmingly supports protecting Dreamers — undocumented immigrants who arrived in this country as children. In one poll taken last September, 86 percent favored allowing Dreamers to remain in the country, and other polls show majority support for a path to citizenship.

The need to do something is urgent. Last year, President Donald Trump ended the Obama-era program knowns as DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. As of March 5, Dreamers could be subject to deportation if Congress fails to pass legislation legitimizing the status of the nearly 700,000 people covered by DACA.

Yet, as with curbing gun violence, Congress appears unable or unwilling to act on a popular mandate. There is little doubt that a clean immigration bill — one that protects the status of Dreamers without any other immigration issues attached to it — would command the votes of enough Democrats and Republicans to pass. Trump once said he would support a clean bill, but conservatives in Congress and the president have prevented such a bill from reaching the floor of either chamber. 

President Trump meeting with bipartisan members of Congress on immigration reform.

Trump and congressional conservatives muddy the waters by insisting on what is called “comprehensive” immigration reform — attaching other provisions to a bill to protect Dreamers. High on the list is border security — which for Trump means his “beautiful” wall, a non-starter for many Democrats. Also, immigration opponents include an end to what the right-wing calls “chain” migration, which has become a slur for a highly popular program that allows naturalized Americans to provide a path for family members to join them in this country. 

“Chain” migration is used derisively by immigration hardliners like Arkansas Conservative Republican Senator Tom Cotton. Supporters of the program believe family-based migration is desirable because it unites families who would be separated by borders. “It’s offensive to me to use that word [chain], because it’s really about family reunification,” said Representative Luis Gutiérrez, an Illinois Democrat. “It’s about a mom bringing their children, about children bringing their moms, about husband and a wife, those are the visas they’re going after,” he added. 

Given the disparate positions of proponents and opponents of the program, it might be instructive to investigate when and how the family reunification program became part of U.S. immigration law. “Chain” migration was part of immigration reform legislation in 1965 and was proposed by an immigration hardliner who wanted to keep certain immigrants out of the country.

Representative Michael Fieghan, an Ohio Democrat who crafted the family reunification program.

Representative Michael Feighan, a conservative Democrat from Ohio, is the godfather of the program, which allows American citizens to sponsor family members. He saw family reunification as a method to give preference to immigrants from northern and western Europe. Prior to 1965, the National Origins Act of 1924 — which governed immigration policy — dictated that the United States would issue immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the country as of the 1890 national census, and it excluded all immigration from Asia. The purpose of the law was restrictive, so 1890 was chosen because much of the population then resident came from northern and western Europe. The years after 1890 witnessed the influx of Jewish, Italian, Polish, and other southern and eastern Europeans who were deemed by the racists and xenophobes of the day as inferior to Anglo-Saxons. 

By 1965, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, many viewed such a policy as racist and discriminatory. President Lyndon Johnson favored a merit-based system for admitting new immigrants. Feighan feared that would open the doors for too many people of color. His solution: Give preference to people who already had relatives here. Remember, the population of the United States in 1965 was largely white and European. Feighan and his conservative — and, yes, racist — allies saw the family reunification program as a tool to preserve the national origin system. Besides, who could oppose reuniting families? Racists in 2018, it turns out, since the 1965 immigration law is a story about unintended consequences. 

In the 1960s, seven out of every eight immigrants hailed from Europe. But, that changed. Few Norwegians (Trump’s apparent country of preference) want to migrate to the United States, but people from Mexico, Central America, Africa, and other developing areas of the world do. By 2010, nine out of every 10 immigrants to the United States came from outside of Europe. 

So, a program intended to preserve the “whiteness” of America now contributes to the nation’s “browning.” And, the family reunification program becomes “chain” migration. The choice of the term is not accidental; after all, everyone knows who came to the Americas in chains. The African slave trade was the original chain migration.

The fate of Dreamers is now tied, in part, to the history of the family reunification program. If Congress does not act, young Dreamers, aged mostly between 16 and 35, who have done nothing wrong, who are either enrolled in high school or have a high school diploma, and who often do not speak the native language of their parents (at least not fluently), may be subject to deportation to a country they do not remember.

What kind of member of Congress, what kind of human being, what civilized society visits the sins of the parents on their children?

Posted February 20, 2018

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