During his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Donald Trump singled out one American immigration policy to be blamed for everything from stealing jobs to terrorism: “chain migration.”
“Under the current, broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives,” Trump said. “This vital reform is necessary, not just for our economy but for our security and for the future of America.”
For a growing faction of Republicans, including influential members of Trump’s staff, it’s no longer enough to crack down on illegal immigration. The goal is to decrease the number of legal immigrants, too.
One way Trump has rallied his base to the cause is to call it “chain migration,” a once-obscure term used by academics to describe “family reunification,” which allows U.S. citizens the ability to sponsor relatives to come to this country. Over the last year, the term has taken on a negative connotation and become a right-wing buzzword akin to “anchor baby.”
Trump’s remark about chain migration was misleading. Under the current law, citizens can only sponsor certain types of relatives for lawful immigration, including parents, siblings, children, and spouses. Lawful permanent residents can only sponsor children and spouses. And a processing backlog means it can take years for just one close relative to immigrate.
"If you're going to amnesty 1.8 million people, there needs to be offsets"
Ending chain migration is a centerpiece of Trump’s immigration framework, and a key policy the White House wants as part of an immigration package that provides eventual citizenship to 1.8 million Dreamers, or undocumented people who were brought to the U.S. as children. Trump also wants $25 billion in taxpayer funds for his border wall as part of a budget deal that must be negotiated before Feb. 8, when funding runs out for the government.
Anti-immigration hard-liners have criticized the plan for not going far enough. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that advocates for reduced immigration, told VICE News that members of the Trump administration had contacted him personally to offer assurances that the proposal would result in a long-term net reduction in immigration.
“The people who are putting this together have pitched to me that it probably would reduce immigration a little bit,” Krikorian said. “I’m not 100 percent convinced it would turn out that way.” He noted he isn’t necessarily opposed to granting legal status to Dreamers, but, he said, “If you're going to amnesty 1.8 million people, there needs to be offsets — you need to reduce other immigration in a comparable amount.”
Mainstreaming the fringe
The White House proposal has mainstreamed some ideas that were once confined to the extremist fringe of the immigration debate, thanks in part to Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior adviser for policy. As a former aide to Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the Senate, Miller played a key role in derailing attempts at immigration reform, including the 2010 DREAM Act and the Gang of Eight bill, a bipartisan attempt to reform the nation’s immigration system that fizzled in 2013. But where Miller and Sessions once represented a vocal minority, they are now shaping the debate.
“Those people did not previously have a seat at the table,” said Leon Fresco, a former lawyer with the Justice Department’s Office of Immigration Litigation. “Now those people have a very big seat at the table.”
“Those people did not previously have a seat at the table.”
It isn’t just Trump. There are key GOP players pushing to curb chain migration in the House and Senate, most notably Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arizona, and Sen. David Perdue of Georgia. They have received support and inspiration from a trio of anti-immigration policy groups: The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), NumbersUSA, and the Center for Immigration Studies.
Goodlatte, Cotton, and Perdue all support the White House proposal, which seeks to “protect the nuclear family” by allowing citizens and permanent residents to only sponsor their minor children and spouses for legal status. Cotton is also the sponsor of the RAISE Act, which would overhaul the immigration system to favor skilled workers.
Spokespersons for Goodlatte, Cotton, and Perdue did not respond to requests for on-the-record comments about their support for cutting legal migration.
FAIR and NumbersUSA responded to inquiries from VICE News by sending their press releases about the White House immigration proposal, which they believe isn’t harsh enough. FAIR opposes the plan because it’s not a “credible approach to curtailing illegal immigration and reducing massive flows of legal immigration.” NumbersUSA said it “would allow chain migration to continue for decades” because up to 4 million people who have already applied could eventually be allowed into the country.
"It’s not about national security or national safety anymore.”
“Trump started his campaign saying he’s only opposed to bad hombres, rapists, and criminals, but really that’s not true,” said Anna Law, an associate professor at Brooklyn College who specializes in immigration policy. “He wants to cut back on even legal immigration. It’s not about national security or national safety anymore.”
The new nativism
The current wave of nativism isn’t exactly new. In the early 20th century, U.S. immigration laws were highly discriminatory and favored white immigrants from Western Europe. The Immigration Act of 1965 ended racial quotas, but members of the far right, and occasionally the left, have sought to bring back restrictions that keep immigrants out. FAIR emerged in the late 1970s and was later followed by NumbersUSA and the Center for Immigration Studies in leading the charge to pull up the drawbridge and stop future generations of immigrants from coming.
The problem for this movement is that most American families — including many members of the White House — have benefitted from some version of chain migration somewhere along the line. Krikorian is aware that this paradox can make his position a difficult sell.
“There was a common cliche, ‘I’m not against immigration, I’m only against illegal immigration,’” Krikorian said. “For a lot of people, that was a way of talking about their concerns over immigration in a way that was either PC or that maintained their own cognitive balance because you know their grandma came through Ellis Island and they were conflicted against the issue, but at least they could be against illegal immigration.”
Read more: How Trump's war on immigrants could backfire
The increasing focus on “chain migration” tracks with the rising influence of far-right immigration groups. Historians have pointed out that social scientists and other scholars have been using the term for decades to describe the various waves of the Great Migration in the United States. It has appeared in official government records, including a 1988 report by the General Accounting Office that described how backlogs in the visa system were making it take decades for links in the chain to form. Since then, the clogs have only gotten worse. It can take anywhere from five to 25 years or more, depending on the country and the type of family member, for the government to process visa requests and families to be reunited.
Krikorian notes that as recently as 2010, Sen. Dick Durbin, a leading proponent of immigration reform, mentioned chain migration on the Senate floor, and he insists it’s not a loaded phrase. But it has taken on undeniable baggage in the current political climate, in which some on the far-right consider ending chain migration is an even higher priority than delivering Trump’s border wall.
Krikorian’s group has long made the economic case for reduced immigration, but that argument has been challenged by experts. More recently, Trump has played the national security card. In his State of the Union, Trump said chain migration is partially to blame for two incidents of terrorism: The truck attack in Manhattan in October 2017 and the thwarted bomb attack at Port Authority Bus Terminal in December.
“In the age of terrorism, these programs present risks we can just no longer afford,” he said. “It is time to reform.”
Trump has claimed — falsely — that the Uzbekistani immigrant arrested for the New York City truck attack that killed eight people last October brought more than 20 family members to the U.S. through chain migration. The Bangladeshi immigrant accused of detonating the subway bomb was brought to the U.S. through family unification, but prosecutors say he was radicalized in the U.S. long after he arrived.
Cecilia Muñoz, vice president of policy and technology at New America, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, said Trump’s rhetoric reveals how chain migration became a term “designed to scare you into thinking there are faceless hordes invading the United States.”
“It’s infuriating because it’s being reported as if this is the way our immigration system actually works,” said Muñoz, a former Obama administration staffer. “This wording makes you think, ‘Holy mackerel, one guy from China can end up bringing dozens of relatives.’ That’s intended to scare you.”