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‘Chain migration’ is not bringing floods of terrorists to America

President Trump and Republicans in Congress say they want to put an end to “chain migration.” Here’s what they mean when they use this expression. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

As is so often the case with his discussion of immigrants, President Trump’s State of the Union description of “chain migration” — the process by which people in the United States can sponsor family members to join them — was long on fearmongering and short on accuracy.

“The fourth and final pillar protects the nuclear family by ending chain migration,” Trump said of his multipart immigration restructuring proposal. “Under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives. Under our plan, we focus on the immediate family by limiting sponsorships to spouses and minor children. This vital reform is necessary, not just for our economy, but for our security and our future.”

The idea that curtailing a process to bring in members of an immigrant’s nuclear family protects the nuclear family is one thing. But there is simply no way to defend the claim that “a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives.”

The White House, in a tweet last month, depicted that nefarious chain of entry as looking something like this.

Read as a family tree, the image shows one person — the immigrant — at the top, bringing in three children. Each of them brings in three children. Each of them brings in three children. And so on down the line — until there are 81 great-great-grandchildren of the original immigrant in the country.

Perhaps you see the flaw here. Each of those children would have to have their children outside the United States for this to make sense; after all, if the kids are born in the States, they’re citizens. So the idea appears to be that the new immigrant comes over without his children, who remain in the old country until each has three children of his or her own. The immigrant’s children come over and then begin the process of bringing over their own children — who can’t leave until they’ve each had three children. One of two things is happening in this family: Either this family is Duggaresque in its ability to produce offspring, or we’re talking about a period of decades and decades over which this bizarre process occurs.

Perhaps, though, the graphic isn’t meant to be a top-down family tree. Perhaps, instead, it’s meant to just show one person bringing over three others, who then bring over three others themselves — not necessarily children.

Well, now we hit another wall: There simply aren’t that many family relationships for which the family reunification process applies. (This is the rationale behind the policy that prioritizes family members for entry: allowing, primarily, for parents and children to be reunited.)

Last month, we noted that a number of members of the Trump administration were in the United States because they joined family members already here. Trump’s own mother and paternal grandfather arrived here by joining family that had already resettled. As part of that story, we illustrated the family relationships that qualify for prioritized entry. Citizens can bring over spouses, parents and children and, to some extent, fiances and siblings. Green-card holders — permanent residents — can bring over only spouses and children.

(There are nuances to those categories that are important for these petitions. Unmarried children older than 21 are handled differently than married ones, for example. For our purposes, though, we can simplify.)

Now, remember: We’re likely talking about a green-card holder in Trump’s formulation during the State of the Union. He was very clear about reserving certain rights and benefits for “citizens” (as opposed to saying “Americans”), so his here-pejorative use of “immigrant” implies a permanent resident.

That person can “bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives” assuming that those relatives are … the immigrant’s spouses or children. Maybe he meant distance in a spatial sense, not a familial one? Either way, there aren’t many people that qualify for expedited entry. Sure, those spouses (probably usually a spouse, singular) or children could then petition for their spouses or children once they get green cards, but we soon hit the limitations in the family-tree scenario above.

Now let’s layer on another important consideration, as immigration attorney David Leopold explained in a phone call with The Washington Post on Tuesday.

Citizens of the United States can petition for any number of immediate relatives to join them here (where “immediate relative” refers to parents, young children and spouses) without being subject to annual quotas.

For everyone else, quotas apply that vary depending on the country of origin and the applicant’s relationship to the citizen.

“If I am going to, as a U.S. citizen, sponsor my 30-year-old son — he’s unmarried, he’s 30 years old — and let’s say I’m from Europe,” Leopold said, referring to a child not eligible to skip the quota. “I’m looking at right now, as of February — unless I filed my application for him some time before March 15, 2011, he’s stuck in a quota. He’s not coming here unless the petition was filed sometime before March 2011.”

Europe is one of the shorter waits. Applicants from the Philippines being processed currently were added to the queue 13 years ago. Applicants from Mexico? Twenty-two years.

“And I’m talking about the highest level of preference,” Leopold said. If someone wanted to bring over a sibling from the Philippines this year, he would have had to start the process in 1994. If the brother was 20 back when that application was made, he is now 44.

This is only for citizens. Green-card holders are all subject to per-country quotas even for immediate family members.

On top of that, the process of being granted a visa isn’t instantaneous. There are multiple steps included. Step 1 for a citizen to bring over a spouse, for example, begins with the petition itself. Currently, Leopold said, they’re processing applications from July — so six to nine months for that step.

Then, there’s vetting through the consulate in the person’s home country. The length of that process varies, but Leopold estimates that the approval process in total would take about 18 months.

At that point, the spouse has a green card. If he or she wants to become a citizen — and facilitate the ability to bring in other relatives — that application process can begin after three years of being here. That application then adds another eight to 10 months.

From start to finish, for a citizen to bring over a spouse and make him or her a citizen would take more than five years.

And that’s a best-case scenario. I’d posited a service member who married a woman in Afghanistan and who wanted to bring over her brother. The service member can’t bring the brother over directly through the reunification process. So, five years until his wife becomes a citizen and can sponsor her brother, at which point he spends 14 more years stuck in the quota for that country. (That time period fluctuates. As of now, they’re processing applications made before July 22, 2004, but by the time the wife is a citizen, it could be even longer.)

“It’s very difficult to plan family reunification based on the current immigration system,” Leopold said. “I can’t even remember the last time I had a potential client ask me, ‘I want to bring in my brother.’ It’s completely impractical.”

“It’s easier for that person to go get a degree in higher education and come in on an employment-based visa,” he continued. Trump’s argument, Leopold said, “makes no sense.”

This is the point we made at the outset. Immigrants can’t come to the United States and sponsor 20 cousins who arrive four months later, the sort of ease-of-entry that Trump and the White House seem to imply. At best, an immigrant could bring in a spouse or child — after likely waiting an extended period for that application to be approved.

“You’re looking at years and years of waiting in this legal line,” Leopold said. “For anyone to say that the continuation of sponsorship based on family relationship is going to lead to an influx of people is either lying or doesn’t understand how the system works.”