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'Chain migration' doesn't work the way Trump tells you it does

'Chain migration' doesn't work the way Trump tells you it does
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The Trump administration’s immigration proposal guts provisions for family reunification that have been a core principle of U.S. immigration policy since the nineteenth century. To sell this radical break with American tradition, the strategy is apparently to deceive the public about the scope of the current law.

The White House deceptively portrays the current immigration system as one that allows infinite “chain migration.” During President’s Trump State of the Union address last week, he claimed, “Under the current, broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives.” An official press release claimed, “One immigrant can bring in their entire extended families (sic).” Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsBeto O'Rourke on impeachment: 'There is enough there to proceed' Rosenstein to appear for House interview next week Emmet Flood steps in as White House counsel following McGahn departure MORE recently delivered a speech on the administration’s immigration priorities in which he stated that the current system favors “anybody who has a relative in America — and not necessarily a close relative.”

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The administration’s claims are demonstrably false. The current law only allows U.S. citizens to sponsor their closest family members — spouses, children, parents, and siblings. The Trump proposal would only allow spouses and minor children, and keep out adult sons and daughters, parents, and siblings.

There are no current reunification paths for more distant family members. Under the existing law, grandparents, aunts, uncles, in-laws, and cousins cannot sponsor the immigration of a relative. There is no infinite-chain migration policy that needs to be fixed.

This false characterization of the current immigration system is a deliberate attempt to give cover to a plan that would upend more than a century of U.S. immigration tradition.

Until the late nineteenth century, the United States allowed virtually open immigration. There were no special provisions for family reunification because almost anyone could come.

As Congress experimented with different kinds of laws to select immigrants, a persistent theme was that families were good for America. Family reunification was recognized as so obviously beneficial to both the immigrant and the larger community that it was uncontroversial in Congressional debates. Policymakers wanted stable settlers who by supporting each other in family units were able to put down roots and integrate into the new society.

For example, the 1885 Foran Act that banned contract labor migration did not apply to individuals assisting the immigration and settlement of their families. The 1917 Immigration Act required immigrants to pass a literacy test, but it exempted several categories of immigrants from taking the test, including U.S. citizens’ children, fathers or grandfathers older than 55, wives, mothers, grandmothers, and unmarried or widowed daughters.

The preference for family members can also be seen in the quota system that assigned annual limits by nationality and banned most Asian and African immigration from 1921 to 1965. The first quota law exempted minor children of citizens from the quotas. Within each nationality quota, preference was given to wives, parents, siblings, minor children, and fiancées of U.S. citizens and legal residents who had registered their intent to naturalize. The next quota law added an exemption for wives and extended preferences to the parents and husbands of U.S. citizens. The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act expanded preferences to spouses of permanent legal residents.

The 1965 immigration reforms that ended the national-origins quota system reserved 74 percent of immigrant visas for family reunification.

Under the 1990 amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act, which is still in effect, spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and parents of adult U.S. citizens are exempt from the annual caps on immigration.

Current law includes other forms of family reunification with numerical limits. Every year 226,000 family preference visas are reserved for adult children and siblings of U.S. citizens, as well as the spouses, children, and unmarried adult children of legal permanent residents. Numerical limits apply to each sub-category. The number of preference visas is capped at 25,620 per nationality regardless of the size of the country’s population. In practice this works to the disadvantage of Mexicans and Filipinos by making their waiting times longer than for any other nationality. Filipino siblings of U.S. citizens are currently waiting 23 years for their visas to be processed.

The White House wrongly claims that its new plan will “Protect the nuclear family.” Under the current system, according to legislative director Marc Short, “you can’t get children and spouses in because you’re taking care of so many distant cousins.”

This claim is false on both counts. United States citizens cannot sponsor the immigration of their cousins. The backlog in visa processing times is not for spouses and minor children, whose visas take less than a year to process, but for other family relationships that the proposal would sever.

If the administration is truly concerned about protecting the family, it should maintain the reunification principle that has guided U.S. immigration law from the beginning. We thrive in community with our parents, children, and siblings. Those are real family values.

David Scott FitzGerald is the co-director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California San Diego, and co-author of “Culling the Masses: The Origins of Racist Immigration Policies in the Americas.”