What Does Chain Migration Mean? We Get An Explanation As U.S. policymakers debate immigration, the term "chain migration" is being bandied about. Morning Edition dives into the meaning of the term.

What Does Chain Migration Mean? We Get An Explanation

What Does Chain Migration Mean? We Get An Explanation

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As U.S. policymakers debate immigration, the term "chain migration" is being bandied about. Morning Edition dives into the meaning of the term.


Let's ask what people really talk about when they talk about chain migration.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Chain migration is a total disaster which threatens our security and our economy.


HENRY CUELLAR: ...What we call chain migration. How many people can a person...


TOM COLE: ...And dealing with chain migration, I think a reasonable proposal. So...


TRUMP: The lottery system and chain migration - we're going to end them.

INSKEEP: You heard President Trump's voice there, also a couple of congressmen - Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar and Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole. President Trump is saying he wants to end chain migration as part of any immigration deal. So let's discuss this with NPR's Tom Gjelten, who wrote a book about immigration called "Nation Of Nations" (ph).

Tom, good morning.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What exactly is chain migration?

GJELTEN: Well, when an immigrant comes here legally and ultimately becomes a U.S. citizen, he or she has the right to bring family members along behind, not just spouses or children, but parents, even adult siblings and their spouses. And in time, those people can, of course, then bring in their relatives, so one immigrant coming here legally can set in motion a whole migration chain. And actually, this is how about two-thirds of all legal immigrants moving to this country come in now.

INSKEEP: Well, let me just ask you, Tom, if I say chain migration, it sounds kind of bad, kind of unsavory, but can I call the very same thing family reunification?

GJELTEN: You can. You know, in my book that you referenced, I'd used the term chain migration throughout the book because I just thought it was a descriptive pattern. You can say it in a neutral way or you can say it - it all depends on context and tone. When President Trump says it's horrible, you know, that sounds pretty bad.

INSKEEP: How did we end up with this policy that emphasizes family reunification?

GJELTEN: Well, it was actually a compromise because up until 1965, we chose immigrants on the basis of national origin, giving - actually giving preference to people coming from northern and Western Europe, the idea...

INSKEEP: Basically, from whiter countries, if we're going to be brutal about it.

GJELTEN: Well - exactly. I mean, the idea was that white Europeans made the best Americans. Then along came the 1960s. We decided this is a discriminatory policy; we need to change it. But there was concern, mostly from conservatives, that if you moved to, let's say, a merit-based immigration system, there's no control over who's going to come into the country. And so they came up with this compromise, that - let's do away with national origins, but let's give preference to people who have relatives here already. That would be a way to make sure that we just sort of had the same people coming as we're already here.

INSKEEP: Did that happen?

GJELTEN: No, it didn't happen. And, you know, it's interesting because people who were opposed to national origin quotas thought that this is, like, a backdoor way to get to the same thing. What no one realized is that the demand to move to the United States had changed, and it was no longer coming from Europe. It was coming from Asia, Africa, the Middle East. And as long as you had one person coming here on a student visa or an employment visa, they could bring their family members with them, and it opened the door to a huge surge of immigration from those regions.

INSKEEP: People of color coming from different parts of the world.

GJELTEN: Immigrants of color - it was exactly the outcome that it was originally intended to preclude.

INSKEEP: So let me just ask you, Tom, can we really talk about chain migration without referencing, in some way, this racial backdrop that you just described?

GJELTEN: Well, that was certainly the historical background to it. I do think that you can - you know, you can move to a different system. Family unification, you know, is actually a pretty functional way to do it.

INSKEEP: There's also the question of whether you could go to a skills-based system, though. There is this other way you could talk about it.

GJELTEN: That's the way it's done in Canada.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.

GJELTEN: You bet, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

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