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Chain Migration: Political Representation and Human Reality

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August 21, 2019

In recent years, chain migration has become a contentious concept in debates over immigration to the U.S. Those who support a particular vision for changes to pathways to legal immigration present chain migration as a form of immigration to the United States that is constantly proliferating, uncontrolled by current laws and, by its size and nature, a threat to the nation’s security, economic stability, and character.

This framing accompanies the White House’s proposals for immigration reform, which aim to limit family-based immigrant visas to the spouses and minor children of citizens and permanent residents, to divert the majority of visas granted annually into a consolidated skills-based “Build America Visa,” and to work towards “ending extended family chain migration.”

Such an understanding of chain migration has been applauded by those who share the Administration’s desire to reduce the level and change the origins of legal immigration. In response, some voices on the left have called for the term to be purged from general usage, mistakenly identified it as the creation of racially-motivated anti-immigrant hardliners intent upon rolling back the family-sponsored immigration that has been a key reason for the nation’s growing racial diversity since the latter decades of the 20th century. A third voice in this argument, that of social scientists and scholars of migration, points out that since at least the 1960s, “chain migration” has provided a valuable method for understanding and explaining the process by which individuals and families have relocated throughout human history.


Gráinne McEvoy is an independent scholar based in South Bend, Indiana, and is currently writing a book on American Catholic social thought and immigration policy in the 20th century.


This gap between the political representation and the human reality of chain migration, particularly in how it actually works in the U.S. today, demands that we pay close critical attention to the ways in which the concept has been politicized.

What do we lose when we politicize “chain migration”?

Scholars of migration have called upon academics, policymakers, and the general public to retain chain migration as a valuable method for understanding why and how people migrate. The concept, as explained by historians Arissa Oh and Ellen Wu, “helps us to see the nuances in how ordinary people migrate, while keeping in mind the political and policy context in which they make their decisions.”

Chain migration can help us consider the broad stroke social trends, economic pressures, political upheavals, or religious persecutions that have encouraged the movement of millions of people across generations. At the same time, it allows us to keep an eye on the deeply personal, individual decisions made during conversations around a kitchen table, a break at work, or via letter, phone call or email. It points us toward the importance of remittances (money or other resources sent home by immigrants) in ongoing migratory flows, to the ways in which gender and age have shaped decisions made within family groups, and to the formation and growth of ethnic enclaves and religious communities in new environments.

Chain migration also reminds us of the emotions and humanity at the heart of practical but life-changing decisions made by ordinary people. Migrants might decide whether to move and where to settle on the basis of securing better wages, educational opportunities, or new cultural experiences, forces that can perhaps be measured by economic or data analysis. But, love and friendship can be equally, if not more powerful motivations. It perhaps goes without saying that couples and their children want to live together, but it can also be true that adult siblings want to raise their families in the same neighborhood, and that aging parents want and need to spend their later years near their children and grandchildren. Manipulating the concept of chain migration denies the value and power of these human relationships, and, in the process, squanders its usefulness for the formulation of effective, responsive and, crucially, humane policies around immigration.

Chain Migrants: Our Immigration Past and Present

Last summer, I was part of a team that produced an online project entitled “Immigrant Stories,” published by Experience Magazine. Our goal was to create an interactive experience whereby users would build empathy toward immigrants, past and present. Users are invited to follow in the footsteps of fictional immigrants, make difficult decisions, and experience the challenge of factors beyond their control. All eight immigrants are composites of documented, historical, real life experiences. Although only a portion of the myriad immigrant stories that make up our nation’s history of immigration, the characters were developed to reflect that diverse, complex past. We cast a long chronology from the young Irishwoman Margaret, who arrives in 1853, to Iranian student Hamid, who arrives in 2003. Our four women and four men originate in China, Italy, El Salvador and Ghana, to name a few, arriving in the U.S. as laborers, students, refugees, and undocumented children.

Reflective of the nation’s immigrant past and present, most of the immigrant’s stories involve chain migration:

  • In 1848, Margaret’s parents make the difficult but pragmatic decision to leave their 13-year-old daughter in Ireland as they emigrate to Boston with her younger, more dependent siblings. After acquiring skills as a seamstress and reaching adulthood, Margaret travels to Boston in 1853 to be reunited with her family.
  • After 10 years working in the U.S., Li Wei, a laborer from China, meets and marries Ling during a visit home in 1878. After the introduction of laws prohibiting most Chinese immigration, Li Wei struggles to bring his wife and infant son to live with him in the U.S. resorting, in one version, to smuggling them into the country through Canada.
  • In 2004, Ghanaian nurse Ama, who obtained her immigrant visa through the Diversity Visa lottery in the mid-1990s and became a U.S. citizen in 2002, brings her mother to live with her in the Bronx. As the only child of an elderly widow, could we really expect her to do anything else?

These “Immigrant Stories” reflect that while the nation’s laws have changed over time in ways that can obstruct or facilitate chain migration, migrants will always strive to protect their families, acting out of love, fidelity, and friendship. In order to be effective and humane, immigration law must take these lived realities into account. 

The Need for Honesty

The representation of the current realities of family-based migration is, at best, highly misleading. It exaggerates the number of people who can obtain visas through familial relationships, misrepresents the ease with which such visas can be secured, and distorts the socio-economic impact of the immigration of the parents, siblings and other relatives of new Americans. Readers may familiarize themselves with other perspectives on chain migration by consulting some of the reading suggested below. 

American citizens and residents must pay close attention to calls for change, remaining vigilant and critical of the reasons given for such reforms. Critics of the attempt to end “extended family chain migration” argue that these proposals are a seemingly neutral front for racially-motivated policy objectives, given that, since the latter decades of the 20th century, immigration has been dominated by new arrivals from Asia, Latin America and Africa largely due to the expansion of family-based visa categories. Such smokescreens are not uncommon in the history of U.S. immigration policy. 

An attentive American public deserves and requires transparency and honesty not bogeymen and buzzwords that obscure how migratory patterns work, what existing regulations allow, and how ordinary people – families and communities - make choices within these laws.