Originally published by The NY Times
Midway through January, a White House immigration meeting made headlines for a choice vulgarity the president deployed to describe some foreign nations. Recounting the meeting to reporters, the Democratic senator Dick Durbin also dwelled on another curious moment. “When it came to the issue of, quote, ‘chain migration,’ ” he recalled, “I said to the president: ‘Do you realize how painful that term is to so many people? African-Americans believe they migrated to America in chains, and when you talk about chain migration, it hurts them personally.’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s a good line.’ ”
Durbin’s contention was perplexing on several levels. The trans-Atlantic slave trade is not a matter of belief; it happened. It also is not typically described as migration, which implies agency and means. Slavers migrated; slaves were transported. What’s painful is having to spell that out, especially when there’s no evidence that black people have ever associated chain migration with slavery.
Durbin seemed to be telling this story to signal his opposition to the president’s language — and, by proxy, to the president. But “chain migration” hasn’t always been a source of political rancor. For decades, it was a neutral description of a routine migration pattern, one in which migrants traced the previous paths of family members, friends or members of their communities. Social scientists used it to talk about black Americans moving from the South to the North in the Great Migration of the 20th century, Southern Italians venturing to New York in the late 1800s and rural Indians gathering into cities like Delhi and Calcutta. The story it told was a simple, uncontroversial one: Humans follow the humans they know.
Today, though, the use of the phrase “chain migration” encodes your stance on immigration. Nativists use it to signal support for American interests and a skepticism about whether would-be immigrants serve them; immigrant advocates avoid and criticize the term. The White House website dedicates three web pages to chain migration, all demanding that it end immediately. When the president reaffirmed this opposition during the State of the Union, Democrats booed.
Even the question of whether the phrase is partisan has a partisan edge. Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, tweeted in January that chain migration was “a made-up term by the hard-line anti-immigration crowd” and insisted that using it at all was akin to “declaring a side.” The conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg, on the other hand, insisted in a USA Today op-ed that “the only inventing going on is coming from liberals determined to weaponize a term to make a policy — and party — they don’t like seem racist.”
Durbin’s foggy assumption — that “chain migration” was offensive to someone, somewhere, and probably on a racial level — is a product of all this jockeying. Lost in its own political signals, chain migration has become a collective Mad Lib: Everyone scribbles in whatever definition of it might generate a good line.
The long drift of chain migration from academia to politics began in the 1950s, when sociologists and demographers adopted a new metaphor for the networks that developed within immigrant communities. Like links in a chain, established residents would connect with newcomers from their countries of origin, helping them find jobs and housing and offering information on how to navigate their new home. Eventually those newcomers might offer the same assistance to the next set of arrivals. This is how Friedrich Trumpf, the President’s grandfather, got his start in the United States: Arriving from Bavaria in 1885, he debarked in New York and was hosted by his sister Katherine and her husband.
Such chains weren’t limited to family relationships. The published proceedings from a 1956 Unesco conference, convened to study how governments and other bodies could help immigrants assimilate, found “chains of migration operating from a particular locality in the country of origin to a particular locality in the country of settlement.” Connections ran through points of departure, ports of entry, the industries migrants entered. A bricklayer from Laurenzana, Italy, might migrate to Utica, N.Y., then write home detailing the sights and opportunities; the parish priest might then share the news and arrange smooth passage for the next migrant Laurenzanesi, who might arrive in Utica and learn bricklaying from the first. This was the definition of chain migration that first flowed into everyday writing. A 1978 New York Times article on the Arab-American community in Detroit reported that Lebanese immigrants “were followed by Yemenites, Iraqis, Syrians and others, each following in the footsteps of a brother, an uncle or a father who had gone ahead, setting up what anthropologists call ‘chain migration.’ ”
By 1984, however, a shift was underway. As Congress battled over an immigration-reform bill, a Times Week in Review analysis from Robert Reinhold noticed public sentiment turning against immigration, and said that even if undocumented arrivals could be stopped, “the long-term prospects for controlling the tide are not good, in the view of many experts. This is because the law encourages what might be called ‘chain migration,’ whereby immigrants who have established residence, as would many under the amnesty provision, can bring in their relatives.” Chain migration was now being described not just as a process but also as a ploy, a loophole threatening our control of a looming tide. The bill died in committee, but two years later, with a new version under debate, Representative Hal Daub, a Nebraska Republican, argued that any amnesty provision for the undocumented would, under existing immigration rules, bring relatives pouring over the borders in unending reams, like a string of hankies gushing from a clown’s pocket — an issue, he said, “referred to in a number of articles by a number of scholars as the impacting problem of chain migration.”
The bill passed, amnesty intact, but “chain migration” had been repurposed. A benign academic term had been borrowed and converted into a “problem,” a ready-made salvo against lax immigration policies. It didn’t seem to matter that these lax policies didn’t quite exist. In theory, Daub was referencing the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the quota system of years past and prioritized family members as new immigrants. But the rush to sponsor family members had created a huge queue for that immigration category, which had, and still has, a yearly cap. A Government Accountability Office report from 1988 found that it was native-born citizens who filed 64 percent of sponsorship requests, and that those sponsoring family members typically waited about 12 years for their arrival. Once “chain migration” became wedded to United States immigration anxieties, though, these kinds of nuances were quickly lost. Chain migration became a scheme, a cheat — a way to take advantage.
For the next 30 years the two branches of “chain migration” would coexist: Demographers and urbanists still used the term to describe any network of support, and polemicists still maintained a conspiracy to circumvent border controls. Representative Alan K. Simpson, a Wyoming Republican and the author of those mid-’80s bills, wrote in a 1995 Wall Street Journal op-ed that he still aimed “to end the problem of ‘chain migration’ — where one immigrant can bring in 30, 40, 50 or 70 people who are in-laws.” The president echoed this language when he claimed that Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in last October’s Manhattan truck attack, brought over “22 to 24” people. But Saipov, as a green-card holder, could only sponsor a spouse or unmarried children under 21, and did neither. On the Senate floor, Jeff Sessions of Alabama opposed the Dream Act’s provisions for people brought to the United States as children: “First they receive conditional status, then legal permanent-resident status and finally citizenship. After they are naturalized, they can then, through the chain migration process, apply to bring in their relatives.” The Congressional Record doesn’t indicate whether Democrats booed this statement, but even if they had, they would have been a decade late.
When Senators Durbin and Murphy object to talk of “chain migration,” they are taking a stance against the implicit prejudice behind it — the way that the term, like “anchor baby” and “green-card marriage,” dehumanizes immigrants and misrepresents the difficulty of immigrating. Likewise, when the president and attorney general use the term, they’re pushing against the naïveté that shades some blanket defenses of all immigration. But neither group furthers the immigration debate or acknowledges the actual history of chain migration.
The chain is just a pattern of movement; the immigration system is the patchwork of policies and institutions that shape that movement. Deciding how this system should work is the point of politics. We could discuss the ways that immigrants bolster key American industries, whether surplus labor stagnates wages, how ICE flouts legal arrest procedures, how to prevent terrorism, the ways that Muslims in America are unjustly and ineptly surveilled, how much securing borders would improve public safety or how expensive walls can be. We know that immigration connects these concerns. And yet we’ve never been willing to address them all that honestly. “Chain migration” is part of the tradition of cunning partisan one-upsmanship and brokering we’ve had instead. It has produced many a good line. What seems more useful would be good policy.