Make the compromise: Ending chain migration is a small price to legalize Dreamers

The most controversial of the four pillars in President Donald Trump’s “Framework on Immigration Reform & Border Security” is his demand for an end to chain migration.  

It would be a shame if Trump’s proposal, which offers legalization for 1.8 million Dreamers, is rejected to maintain a practice that was originally established to ensure that immigrants would continue to come mainly from white, European countries.  

“Chain migration,” is a legitimate sociological term that has been used for more than 60 years.  The Routledge Handbook of Migration and Language (2017) defines it as:

“A process where relatives who have previously migrated to a new country sponsor family to migrate to the same country.  It entails a tendency by foreigners from a certain city or region to migrate to the same areas as others from their city or region.”

Trump would make an exception for the spouses and children of American citizens and lawful permanent residents (LPRs). They are part of the citizen or LPR’s nuclear family.

The history of chain migration.

The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act established a quota system based on national origins. It reserved about 70 percent of the visas for immigrants from Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany.

{mosads}In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson supported a bill that would replace the national origins quota system with a preference system that would allocate 50 percent of the immigrant visas to applicants who have special occupational skills or education that would benefit America’s economic interests.  The rest would be distributed to refugees and immigrants with close family ties to citizens or LPRs.

The House Judiciary Committee Chairman, Rep. Michael Feighan (D-Ohio), mobilized bipartisan resistance to Johnson’s immigration bill. Ultimately, however, he agreed to accept Johnson’s bill if he eliminated its emphasis on merit and skills and reserved most of the visas for immigrants with family ties to citizens and LPRs (chain migration).  

Pursuant to this agreement, nearly three-quarters of the total annual visas were allocated to the four chain migration categories, which at that time favored European applicants. Feighan expected this to maintain the nation’s white-European ethnic and racial makeup.

The agreement cleared the way for passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965.

Feighan’s plan backfired. When he made his deal with Johnson in the 1960s, 75 percent of the immigrants were coming from Europe. Since then, however, economic conditions improved in Europe, so fewer Europeans wanted to come to America; and violence and poverty in other parts of the world increased immigration from outside of Europe.  By 2010, 87.9 percent of the immigrants were coming from outside of Europe.

Trump’s proposal to end chain migration is not a new idea.

The bipartisan Commission on Immigration Reform (Commission) recommended the termination of chain migration more than 20 years ago.

The Commission was established by the Immigration Act of 1990 to conduct a nonpartisan review of immigration issues. The commissioners were chosen by Democratic and Republican leadership in the House and the Senate, and the chairman was chosen by President Bill Clinton.

Clinton appointed Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Texas) to be the chair of the Commission. He gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom that same year. She served as the chair of the Commission until her untimely death in January 1996.

The Commission rejected a point system, preferring to rely instead on the judgment of American families and employers within a framework that protects U.S. workers from unfair competition.

In its final Report To Congress in 1997, the Commission concluded that the present legal admission system should be “shifted away from the extended family and toward the nuclear family and away from the unskilled and toward the higher-skilled immigrant.”  Immigrant policy should serve the national interest by ensuring the entry of immigrants who will contribute the most to our society.  They should be “chosen on the basis of the skills they contribute to the U.S. economy.”


A compromise is possible. It does not have to be a choice between the current chain migration system and a purely merit-based system. The two systems can be merged with the use of a point system.

Visas currently allocated to extended family members can be transitioned to a merit-based point system that provides extra points for family ties to a citizen or LPR.  The merit-based aspect of the point system would eliminate the main objection to chain migration, which is that it allocates visas to extended family members who do not have skills or experience that America needs.

Trump’s framework also would terminate the Diversity Visa Program. Those visas could be transitioned to the new point system too.

This would be a small price to pay for a legalization program that would provide lawful status for 1.8 million Dreamers.      

Nolan Rappaport was detailed to the House Judiciary Committee as an executive branch immigration law expert for three years; he subsequently served as an immigration counsel for the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims for four years. Prior to working on the Judiciary Committee, he wrote decisions for the Board of Immigration Appeals for 20 years.

Tags Bill Clinton Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act Chain migration Demography Diversity Immigrant Visa Donald Trump Immigration Immigration and Nationality Act Immigration to the United States Population

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