LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
President Trump is meeting with congressional leaders at Camp David this weekend, and immigration is at the top of the agenda. Trump has a long list of demands, among them - eliminating the nation's, quote, "horrible system" of so-called chain migration, a byproduct of the family visa system. Through September of last year, family visas made up roughly 37 percent of all immigration visas to the United States. To better understand just what chain migration means, we turn now to NPR's John Burnett in Austin. John, hey.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hi, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Chain migration - talk us through it. Is this part of the nation's legal immigration system?
BURNETT: Right. It's the visa program through which immigrants already residing here can bring their family members over. Some call it family reunification. The way it works is visas are granted according to the family tree. Green card holders or legal residents can petition the Immigration Service to bring over their spouses and their minor children. And once the petitioner gets citizenship, they can apply to bring over parents, married children and adult siblings.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So if I've just become a citizen, I could petition for my sister who's living in another country who's not a citizen to get a visa and come to the United States. But what do critics say?
BURNETT: Well, they say it's a system stuck on autopilot - that these extended immigrant families, like your sister coming over, can grow and grow with no regard to who's actually coming. President Trump joins a long line of immigration restrictionists. For years, they sought to reduce the number of family-based visas, and their ultimate goal is to slash the overall numbers of immigrants who come to America.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So proponents, though, say we're a nation of immigrants. You know, what are they worried about?
BURNETT: Well, the president claims that chain migration takes jobs from Americans and threatens national security. Remember the Bangladeshi man who tried to set off a pipe bomb in the New York subway last month? Trump points out that he entered the country through extended-family chain migration.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So if Trump and his supporters don't want chain migration, what is the model that they want?
BURNETT: Well, what they want - it's called a merit-based scheme. It's similar to what Canada has. It gives preference to job training and English proficiency and education. Trump and his supporters in Congress want to cut the number of green cards from about a million annually - that's the current level - to half of that over a decade.
Defenders of the status quo claim it's fear mongering to say that family-based visa system lets in terrorists. They say all immigrants admitted to the U.S. undergo rigorous security screening and that that Bangladeshi subway bomber was radicalized after he got here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So where does the business community come down in the debate over this type of migration? Obviously, there's a lot of interest and concern about restricting immigration in a country right now where there is very low unemployment and many businesses say they need migrants.
BURNETT: Exactly. And the pro-business types say we need more immigrants, not less, especially in those tech fields that depend so heavily on them. And they worry that if we reduce immigration, there won't be enough workers for a healthy economy and we'll keep out the people who've given America its genius for innovation. The model they want is to let the market, not the government, decide how many immigrants get to come here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I've been seeing these TV ads that have been showing - by NumbersUSA, which is an anti-immigration group, and the White House also says this - that a single illegal immigrant can result in hundreds of family members coming in. Is that accurate?
BURNETT: Well, the current system does not set limits on how many spouses and minor children of parents a legal immigrant can bring in. It does set caps on married children and adult siblings. And there are also caps just on the total immigrants who can come from each country. For instance, if your sister was coming from Mexico or India or the Philippines, they could wait 10 to 20 years or more to immigrate to the U.S.
I should add that a survey published last week by Reuters shows the number of immigrants approved for family-based visas, which is what we're talking about, dropped in 2017 to the lowest level in more than a decade. So even without new laws, the government has already begun to narrow the gate.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's John Burnett. Thank you so much.
BURNETT: You bet, Lulu.
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