The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why immigration advocates must take back the term ‘chain migration’

The term is too valuable to let the restrictionist right hijack it.

Protesters demonstrate against President Trump during an Oct. 5, 2017, rally in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, near Trump Tower in New York. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Image)

As scholars and teachers of immigration history, we have been startled by the recent battle over the term “chain migration.”

Restrictionists — those who want to slash legal immigration in part by eliminating family-based immigration categories — have hijacked and weaponized the term “chain migration.” They describe chain migration in language designed to raise the specter of undesirables crashing through America’s gates, overwhelming welfare systems and draining resources. Some now call it a racist slur.

The White House’s own explainer on “Chain Migration” (which it capitalizes) uses dubious “evidence” and images to heighten these fears. One diagram claims that a single “low-skilled” immigrant can bring in unlimited numbers of “foreign relatives.” By depicting new arrivals trailing scores of others behind, the diagrams evoke a vermin infestation — an age-old trope in the nativist toolbox.

This was made clear in this week’s State of the Union address: “Chain migration,” the president warned, is tantamount to “open borders,” allowing terrorists, gang members and drug dealers to flood into the country and threaten good Americans.

This is just the latest attempt by the right to co-opt and rebrand certain concepts (“family values,” “security,” “freedom”) to suit its own political purposes.

Yet, we must not cede the term “chain migration” to the anti-immigrant right. It is a valuable analytical concept — one that should remain in use in academic and policy circles and by the public at large. It 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.

For decades, immigration historians have used the term “chain migration” to explain the ways that social networks shape how people move and where they settle. A person would migrate to the United States, tell their family, friends and community members back home what it was like here and then help them to also migrate. Many groups came this way: Germans, Irish and, yes, Norwegians. “Chain migration” also describes movement that is not strictly immigration in the classic sense, such as the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South in the early and middle part of the 20th century.

In 1917, Congress explicitly acknowledged the right of immigrants to bring family members into the country. Since then, it has upheld this right even when those family members were from countries or racial groups that the United States considered undesirable.

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act further solidified the nation’s commitment to chain migration by allotting a majority of visas to family members of U.S. citizens. Under the “family reunification” provisions of the 1965 law, a U.S. citizen can sponsor the immigration of a limited group of family members: spouses, parents, children or siblings.

Family-based chain migration is by no means easy or automatic. A citizen petitions for a family member, who then undergoes a long, expensive application process that involves biometric screening, health exams and an interview. The fees are high, and the backlogs are long. But when immigrants arrive in this way, with family members and a community already in place to support them, they flourish.

When Congress passed the 1965 law, it did not anticipate that large numbers of non-Europeans would use its family reunification provisions. Before the 1965 immigration act, nearly half of all immigrants came from six European countries. But in fact, most post-1965 immigration has come from nonwhite countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Today, none of the 10 largest immigrant groups are European.

This is the true concern of immigration restrictionists. “Chain migration” (in the pejorative sense) is a rallying cry for those who are alarmed at the country’s increasing racial diversity and who feel that it threatens the essential character of America. By closing off family-based migration, the right aims to effectively enact a racial restriction under a seemingly neutral guise — and thus reverse the browning of America to preserve its narrowly conceived, white American culture.

For us, “chain migration” has long been useful in both our research and in the classroom. It is a term that succinctly distills the complexities of individual and household-level decision-making, as well as large-scale patterns of movement and settlement. And now, by actively claiming it, we resist its capture by white supremacists.

To be sure, we might use other terms instead. Many have suggested that we abandon “chain migration” to the xenophobes and use “family reunification” instead. But family-based migration is only one type of chain migration — a crucial distinction that is being lost as immigration activists look for language to counter restrictionists. It also prioritizes heterosexual nuclear families above all others and ignores the nonbiological kin networks that facilitate migration.

Ultimately, the disagreement over terminology goes far beyond the discussion on immigration. By allowing rightists to define the terms of the debate, we allow them to spread misinformation, reframe the discussion at will and bend reality to their desires. That is enough reason to resist ceding this language. But in this case, the lives of immigrants and their families and communities are at stake. To abandon the terms of debate to the right is an enormous abdication of power, and one that we refuse to accept.