Chain Migration

"The United States has been engulfed by what seems likely to be the greatest wave of immigration it has ever faced....The extraordinary truth is that, in almost all cases, Americans will have say over the arrival of these new claimants on their national community[.] U.S. law in effect treats immigration as a sort of imitation civil right, extended to an indefinite group of foreigners who have been selected arbitrarily and with no regard to American interests."
-Peter Brimelow, Alien Nation, 1995.

In 2001, the United States admitted 1,064,318 immigrants--enough people to create a major city the size of Chicago. Why is immigration so high? One of the reasons is chain migration. In chain migration, one immigrant sponsors several other immigrants for admission, who then sponsor several others themselves, and so on. Naturally, chain migration drives immigration numbers up; annual immigration has tripled since chain migration began in the mid-1960s and has led to additional millions consigned to visa waiting lists.

Chain migration happens because present U.S. immigration policy is based on the principle of broadly defined family reunification; immigrants are able to sponsor their relatives back home to be admitted as immigrants here.1 In other words, most immigrants are admitted simply because they have a relative here who sponsors them, not because of what they might be able to contribute to our society.

Because of the chain reaction described above, immigration numbers continue to rise. Under the "immediate relatives" category, the parents, spouse, and children of a U.S. citizen are admitted without limit. Therefore, once the law was changed in 1965 to create the so-called family reunification system, chain migration caused the numbers in this category to steadily rise. Five years after chain migration began, the number of immediate relative admissions had nearly doubled (from 32,714 in 1965 to 79,213 in 1970); ten years after, it had almost tripled (to 91,504 in 1975); 15 years after, it was nearly five times higher (151,131 in 1980); 20 years after, it was nearly six times higher (204,368 in 1985); 25 years after, it was seven times higher (231,680 in 1990); less than 30 years after, it was eight times higher (249,764 in 1994); and in 2001, 36 years later, the number of immediate relatives admitted 443,964-over 13 times higher.

Since most immigration categories have a limit to the number of people who can be admitted each year, immigrants' relatives back home must often wait for years to be admitted. Because of chain migration, over three million aliens have been told they are eligible to immigrate but have to wait. Many of them do not, figuring that, since they are eligible anyway, they should not have to wait for the U.S. government to get around to doing the paperwork. In this way, chain migration-and the expectations and long lines it produces-increases illegal immigration.

The problem will get worse. The illegal aliens given amnesty by Congress in 1986 are now fueling naturalization in record numbers. As these former illegal aliens become citizens, all of their immediate relatives qualify to come immediately to the United States, and start new migration chains of their own.

The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform (USCIR) studied the issue of chain migration and proposed limiting family-sponsored immigration to only the spouse and minor children of a U.S. citizen or a legal permanent resident (LPR) and the parents of a U.S. citizen (as long as they are supported by the sponsor)-with a ceiling of 400,000 per year. This compares with family-sponsored immigration in 2001 of 676,107 people. What would be cut would be visas for siblings of U.S. citizens and adult sons and daughters of both U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents (LPRs).

Unfortunately, Congress has not yet acted to eliminate either the immigrant backlog, nor, more importantly, the system of chain migration that causes it. Ignoring the recommendations by the bipartisan USCIR that would have begun to rationalize the system, Congress has failed to fix the soaring levels of immigration which it created (inadvertently, according to some of its sponsors).

relative admission chart

[1] Four of the five admissions categories for family immigration are reserved for U.S. citizens. This means that immigrants must become naturalized citizens to be able to sponsor relatives in those categories. An immigrant is eligible for naturalization five years after being admitted as a legal permanent immigrant (three years for the spouse of a U.S. citizen).

Updated 10/02