Dems, do not take the bait on family immigration
© Getty Images

The Trump administration has placed ransom on the heads of DACA recipients, and it entails not border enhancements, but also changes to the family-based immigration system.  The Democrats might be tempted to pay the ransom, but they should refrain from sacrificing immigrant families, which would fundamentally alter the U.S. legal immigration system and the social fabric of the nation.

It is unclear what the administration and others mean when they complain about “chain migration,” but it likely includes the elimination of categories that allow U.S. citizens to petition for family members other than spouses and minor children.  Parents, adult children, and brothers and sisters—hardly extended family members —would be out of luck.  Legislation recently introduced in the House by Rep. Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteNo documents? Hoping for legalization? Be wary of Joe Biden Press: Trump's final presidential pardon: himself USCIS chief Cuccinelli blames Paul Ryan for immigration inaction MORE (R-Va.) eliminates those categories.


First, such a fundamental shift in the main purpose of our immigration system—family unification—should not be made lightly.  The family-based system has served our nation well over the past fifty-plus years. 

Families act to protect, support and employ their members.  They also integrate their members into society, helping them learn English and learn our culture and legal system.  In purely economic terms, they pay for themselves and more.

Immigrant families are economic entrepreneurs, starting businesses and creating jobs.  Any strip mall across America likely has a business—dry cleaners, restaurants, stores—started and owned by an immigrant or refugee family. A 2016 National Academy of Sciences study found the family-based immigration system is a net benefit to the U.S. economy.

Second, giving away family categories for other purposes paves the way for a merit-based system which favors the highly-skilled and wealthy and fails to meet the multi-faceted needs of the largest economy in the world.  It would start the momentum toward the administration’s goal of reducing legal immigration by one-half and making the American dream a myth, as it would only be available to the most advantaged.  Skilled migration can be increased without sacrificing family unity—it is not a zero-sum game.

The U.S. economy is in need of workers of all skill-levels, not just the highly skilled.  Studies from the Department of Labor and the National Academy of Sciences have shown that without lower-skilled immigrant workers—many of whom are forced to come under family-based categories—a worker shortage could develop in many industries over the next decade.  We are not Canada or Australia, Mr. President.

Finally, any changes to the legal immigration system should come in the context of a broader debate on the entire U.S. immigration system, not as a disproportional swap to protect one group, however deserving.  The 2013 Senate bill eliminated some family categories, but it enhanced others.

Keeping families together in the U.S. immigration system is in our interests, both socially and economically.  Families operate where the government does not, in providing support to newly arrived family members, who are then put in a better position to succeed.  A recent study by scholars at the University of Albany, New York, found that immigrants who arrive with family support are more upwardly mobile in the workplace.

Undocumented youth deserve protection and a path to citizenship, but not at the expense of changing the cornerstone of our immigration system, family unity.  A family ban, as the administration and some in Congress are proposing, would not only weaken the social fabric of our country, it would hurt us economically.  Immigrant families helped build this nation and will help keep it great in the future.

The writer is senior director for international migration policy for the Center for Migration Studies of New York and the Scalabrini International Migration Network.