Trump’s rhetoric reflects a shallow understanding of immigration policy

Ending chain migration is the latest in a long string of immigration policy targets. In a speech about its alleged perils, President Donald Trump intimated a connection between chain migration, illegal immigration and visa overstays, and the legalization of Dreamers. Not only does this type of rhetoric reflect a shallow understanding of immigration policy, it erroneously warps aspects of legal immigration to appear related and destructive.

Bottom line: family-sponsorship does not turn a limited, earned pathway to citizenship for Dreamers into a backdoor amnesty program.

Chain migration is a form of legal migration that refers to the family-based immigration system that is the bedrock of immigration policy in the United States. As a result of our historically conservative principles aimed at reuniting and preserving nuclear families, as well as facilitating quick assimilation, our migration system centers around giving preference to immigrants with family already in the U.S.

Painting family-based migration as a lax, unrestrictive process is deceptive. Only a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident can sponsor a visa for a relative. Part of this sponsorship requires proof of a legitimate relationship, minimum income, and a signed affidavit of support indicating that the sponsor will be financially responsible for the family member upon arrival.

Limits are imposed on the number of family-based preferences, as well as the type of family members eligible for sponsorship. Only close relatives — like spouses, children, brothers and sisters — count as eligible relationships. Although a U.S. citizen can sponsor an unlimited number of spouses, unmarried minor children, and their parents, the sponsorship of most other eligible relationships per year is limited to roughly 226,000 visas. Comparatively, about 140,000 employment-based visas are made available to immigrants each fiscal year.

Applying for and receiving a family-based visa is an arduous, painstaking process. Even eligible immigrants cannot enter the U.S. for a laundry list of reasons. Health-related grounds, criminal convictions, security and public safety grounds, immigration law violations, and draft-dodging disqualify many potential immigrants as inadmissible. This means that most illegal immigrants are ineligible for family sponsorship.

In addition to those hurdles, many family members must wait years, even decades, to enter due to per-country limits on the number of immigrants coming from Mexico, China, India, and the Philippines. Entry is based on the date the petition was filed — the priority date — and the family preference priority — F1, F2A, F2B, F3, or F4. Currently, the highest priority (F1) eligible immigrants from Mexico with approved petitions filed before February 1, 1996 are just now being admitted into the United States.

To be clear, chain migrants, family-based immigrants, have nothing to do with illegal immigration or visa overstayers. To overstay a visa necessitates that an individual have a nonimmigrant visa, which is issued only when an applicant proves their intent to return to their home country.

Family migration is, however, tangentially related to Dreamer legislationbut the link is weak. For example, the SUCCEED Act, introduced by Sens. Thomas Roland Tillis (R-N.C.) and Lankford (R-Okla.) prevents Dreamers from sponsoring their parents during their 15+ year path to citizenship. Even after Dreamers become U.S. citizens, most cannot sponsor their parents if they are in the country unlawfully, for instance — per the previously mentioned grounds of inadmissibility — so categorizing this type of migration as a backdoor amnesty program is absurd.

Critics of family-based migration often cite unity waivers as tickets to amnesty, but that too is misleading. Generally, individuals who stay in the U.S. unlawfully are barred from reentering the country again for either three or 10 years, unless they get a waiver for their unlawful presence. But even waiver recipients must still depart the United States and appear before a consular officer abroad for an immigrant visa interview, where it is determined whether the applicant is eligible to receive the visa and is admissible. 

Portraying legalized Dreamers as triggers of a flood of new migrants is inflated, particularly given the parameters proposed by legislation like the SUCCEED Act. But even more alarming is the way the Trump administration inaccurately frames the issue: family-based migration is a negative because those immigrants are usually low-skilled.

It is widely recognized that the U.S. benefits substantially from immigration, including from immigrants who work as unskilled laborers. As we allow workers to specialize skills doing tasks they do best, we increase opportunity for innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic gains. 

Even reorienting our immigration system to focus less on family-based immigrants and more on employment based immigration does not mean that family-based immigration would disappear. No country admits immigrants exclusively using the points system that awards higher-skilled, more educated immigrants, even in the widely heralded Canadian system, and for good reason.  

Studies suggest that the U.S. economy benefits most from allowing low-skilled workers to continue to work in the U.S., regardless of whether they enter on family-based or employment visas. And, contrary to popular belief, family-based immigrants tend to move up the socioeconomic ladder and experience high rates of self-employment and earnings growth. 

The potential legalization of Dreamers is likely the most viable vehicle for immigration reform under the Trump administration. Passing this important legislation will require compromise, but allowing this type of reckless hype to cloud informed negotiations will only operate to ensure that nothing is accomplished.

Kristie De Peña is the Senior Immigration Counsel with the Niskanen Center, a think tank and advocacy organization that promotes pragmatic immigration policies that have positive economic and social benefits. She earned her J.D. from the University of Iowa College of Law, and an LL.M. in National Security and Foreign Policy from George Washington University School of Law.

Tags Donald Trump Dreamers Immigration

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