Commentary: Trump’s ‘chain migration’ straw man

Wind of the Spirit advocates for immigrants at the 2018 Women’s March on NJ, in Morristown. Photo by Jeff Sovelove
Wind of the Spirit advocates for immigrants at the 2018 Women’s March on NJ, in Morristown. Photo by Jeff Sovelove

Editor’s note: The opinions below are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.

By Barbara Franz

Chances are good that you or someone in your family came to the United States through the family reunification program.

Laila Lalami of The Nation shows that family reunification was the policy that allowed Mike Pences grandfather, Richard Cawley, to come here in 1923 to join his brother.

It also allowed Donald Trumps mother, Mary Anne MacLeod, to join her sisters here in 1930.

And it is family reunification that likely will allow Viktor and Amalija Knavs, Melania Trump’s Slovenian parents, to live here permanently.

Barbara Franz
Barbara Franz

The current GOP administration misuses populist language to mislead its supporters.

For example, what the president callschain migrationand wants to have stopped, because it allows a single immigrant to bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives, has nothing to do with chain migration and the actual immigration system.

Moreover, these labels are not rooted in facts. But that has not stopped the president from using them.

Chain migration is a term in the field of Migration Studies that refers to a specific migration pattern in which people from a particular town or geographic area hear of a locals success in another country, and decide to follow the same path.

But Trump is using the term chain migration to refer to family reunification, which is the program that allows immigrants to sponsor their spouses and children and allows citizens to sponsor their parents and siblings — the same program through which his mother, his in-laws, and Mike Pence’s grandfather came to this country.

William Kandel of the Congressional Research Service has shown that, of the 1,183,505 immigrants admitted to the United States in the fiscal year 2016 as lawful permanent residents, 804,793 (68 percent) were admitted on the basis of family ties.

Annual caps already exist on the number of such visas, and the waiting lists are so long for some relatives, such as parents and siblings, that it takes many years for them to be processed.

Family reunification is embodied, for example, in the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which also specifies per-country limits on total family-based immigration.

There always will be ways for well-connected elites, even if they once were chauffeurs and pattern makers (as were Melania Trump’s parents) in a long-forgotten communist country, to travel and move to other countries.

We should not buy into the simplistic populist rhetoric that promises us aggressive anti-elite, ultra-nationalist changes. These will not occur, for the in-laws of the president always will be granted residence here.

A better educated electorate will see the populist language of this administration for what it is: A smokescreen!

Instead of listening to the populist rhetoric, we should look at the proposals and actual policies implemented by the current GOP administration, and ask why the administration has chosen them. As the expression goes, “Follow the money…”

Paul Pierson has shown that the GOP’s organized supporters, many large corporations and wealthy individuals, such as the Koch brothers, conservative Christian organizations, and the National Rifle Association, have supported the current president during his campaign not because of his raving populism, but based on their calculations about governance.

The elite’s assessment was focused on its long-standing demands for cuts in social spending, tax reductions for the wealthy, and the gutting of consumer, worker and environmental protections.

And the current government has followed through just as these wealthy supporters have wanted, with the tax reform and the repeal of a number of environmental regulations, such as the Clean Power Plan (which imposes restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants), and has started the review of the Waters of the United States Rule (which limit pollution in bodies of water).

But what of this question, which the GOP feeds to its blue collar supporters: “Why arent we looking out for our own first before we allow these immigrants to remain in the country?”

The problem, in both the U.S. and the world, is one of inequality and inequitable distribution of resources. On an international basis, why has the Bill Gates Foundation opposed the administration’s “America First” principle and instead spent more on global health and development programs than on domestic projects?

The world is rich enough today to stop hunger, disease and poverty from crippling the lives of millions. This is an issue of distribution and good will, not of absolute impossibility and intemperance.

The same is true for America. The United States is the richest country on the planet, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture states that 16.5  percent of American households were food-insecure in 2016.

According to the US Census, 27.3 million people (8.6 percent of the population) lacked health insurance coverage in 2016. According to Fareed Zakaria, 28 percent of American employees have no sick leave, and therefore go to work when ill.

In no uncertain terms, the wealth distribution in this country is slanted toward the very rich; today the wealth of the top 0.1  percent is almost the same as that of the bottom 90 percent.

According to research by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, both segments hold about 23 percent of the total US wealth. And the gap is widening. The top 0.1 percent included about 160,000 families with total net assets of more than $20 million in 2012.

By contrast, the share of total US wealth owned by the bottom 90 percent of families fell from a peak of 36 percent in the mid-1980s, to 23 percent in 2012.

We need to reverse this trend. And in terms of fairness—we need to think about how to give the largest group of people, if not everybody, the best chances to succeed and to rise to their potential.

It has become clear that the neoliberal so-called free market does not give us the tools to do so. Instead, this commentator, being a product of Keynesian capitalism herself, wants to emphasize the broad opportunities and chances that cooperative and state investments in the educational system and civic life can bring to underprivileged groups in society.

As discussed in a previous commentary, immigration increases America’s wealth. Blaming the problems of America’s less affluent citizens on immigrants is a calculated deception by the GOP administration.

We do not need immigration reform, the ending of the family reunification program, and the building of a wall.

What we need in the United States is election campaign finance reform (repealing Citizen United), a broad reform of the education system, the redistribution of wealth through taxes, and international trade and environmental regulations that begin to avert the worst exploitations of global neoliberalism.


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  1. How about this: Undocumented residents commit fewer crimes than native born citizens, so do legal immigrants. Undocumented and legal immigrants have a higher employment rate than native born citizens.

  2. Legal immigrants, once settled can petition to bring their parents, adult children and adult siblings. Once settled those children and siblings can petition to bring their spouses. Once settled, those spouses can petition to bring their parents, adult siblings and adult children. Rinse, repeat and behold the power of chain migration.