The White House seems to have it in for what it calls “chain migration.” Its website pronounces: “Most green cards … are awarded based on an antiquated system … of Chain Migration—whereby one immigrant can bring in their entire extended families, who can bring in their families and so on … familial relations are all that is required to obtain a green card and, in turn, become a voting U.S. Citizen within a short period of time . . . .”
Sounds alarming, doesn’t it? The words, plus the graphic that goes with it, evoke population concerns, with hordes of new entrants apparently streaming toward the U.S. borders and entry points; and security issues, if family connections are really “all that is required” to be handed a U.S. green card.
Public opinion and policy judgments will be formed and made based on our understanding of how the family immigration system works. So it’s important that we really do understand it. The trouble is, it’s different from what the White House website describes.
For starters, let’s remember that no one gets a green card until his or her family sponsor in the U.S. can prove a high enough income to support the person, and until the person passes various FBI and other security checks and proves that he or she is not “inadmissible” due to past crimes, diseases of public health concern, and so on. A family relationship has never been enough to overcome this.
Now let’s take a closer look at the family reunification portion of the U.S. immigration code–the defining the links in the “chain.” It allows U.S. citizens and green card holders to apply to sponsor foreign-born relations as follows:
- U.S. citizens can petition for their fiancés, spouses, parents (if the U.S. citizen is age 21 or older), children, and siblings.
- Lawful permanent residents (LPRs, or “green card” holders) can petition for their spouses and unmarried children.
In only a few of the above categories does the foreign-born person have an immediate right to a green card. Numerical limits on the numbers given out annually create long waits—many years long. Adult children of a U.S. citizen, for instance, typically wait between seven and 12 years (depending on what country they’re from) just to be able to apply for a green card (and getting through the application process often takes another year or so). Married children of U.S. citizens wait between 12 and 17 years to be able to apply. Siblings of U.S. citizens wait between 14 and 24 years to take the next step toward a green card.
For the sake of argument, however, let’s imagine we want to reduce U.S. immigration. Where would you draw the line?
Probably not at spouses of U.S. citizens—we probably all know people who fell in love with a foreign student, or met someone while traveling. U.S. citizens aren’t going to take kindly to being told they can’t sponsor that person for a green card. So assuming that category stays, let’s use spouses of U.S. citizens as a starting point—which it often is—to consider a series of “what ifs.”
What if the U.S. citizen’s immigrating spouse has young children from another marriage. Should they get green card at the same time? Most would agree that that’s reasonable. Indeed, U.S. law says the citizen can sponsor MINOR kids at the same time, if the marriage took place while the child was under 18.
What if the immigrating spouse has elderly parents–should they get green cards at the same time? Sorry, that will have to wait until the foreign-born spouse is not only a green card holder but a U.S. citizen. It’s a long process—maybe the parents can come in five+ years. (This appears to be how First Lady Melania Trump’s parents were able to become U.S. residents.)
What if one of the new spouse’s children is 22 years old? Should this child get a green card at the same time? At age 22 and even beyond, some kids are still plenty attached to their parents. But only after getting a green card can the immigrating spouse file to sponsor a 22-plus-year-old child, and in this category (2B), the waiting list is approximately six years long. So maybe green card approval will come in eight years, when that child is 30.
What if the immigrating spouse’s 19-year old child, who was all set to get a green card, gets married right before the visa interview at U.S. consulate. Oops. Only after getting not just a green card but U.S. citizenship can the immigrant spouse begin the process of sponsoring that child. The waiting list is so long that the child will likely be over 30 by the time of approval.
What if the immigrating spouse has an 18-year-old child who didn’t get married, but had a baby? Should the baby come in? People I’ve asked this question of say “yes.” But the U.S. citizen has no direct relationship to that baby, and can’t sponsor him or her. After the baby’s mother has a green card, she can file a petition for the child, but the wait is around two years for a visa, plus another several months processing time. The baby will likely be about four before coming to the United States.
What if the immigrating spouse is very attached to a brother or sister. Should that person be allowed to come, too? Not until the immigrating spouse is a citizen can he or she start the sponsorship process for siblings, and as mentioned, the wait can be decades long. This is a category there’s much talk of doing away with.
You won’t be surprised to hear that neither a U.S. citizen nor green-card holder has any direct way to help an aunt or uncle, grandparent, or cousin, either. The various “not now” and “not ever” aspects of the family immigration system thus create a lot of misunderstanding, tough decisions, and heartbreak. The statement that “one immigrant can bring in their entire extended families, who can bring in their families and so on” simply doesn’t hold up.