What is the history of chain migration?

By Prem Calvin Prashad

“Chain migration” is the latest buzzword to define the ongoing immigration conversation in the United States: popularized by the extreme right to describe the process of immigrants gaining residency through a family visa from a relative established in the country. Anti-immigration advocates have made the spurious claim that these immigrants are arriving in “hordes” and are of a lower quality than those arriving in America on a professional or marriage visa.

Like the term “fake news,” which had a very specific definition before being applied simply to news that one dislikes, “chain migration” has been bastardized from its original demographic concept. Chain migration used to describe immigrants from a particular town or region following a trail laid down by others from the same region. It dates back to the first great wave of immigration – Germans, Irish, Italian and Chinese migration to the United States to ethnic enclaves in places such as New York. The first wave of migrants sets up restaurants and lodging, sets up linkages to employment and otherwise helps subsequent arrivals adapt to life in their new home.

Especially in the era before communication as rudimentary as the telephone, such a link was necessary for immigrants to consider leaving their homes for places they knew little about. This led to thriving communities, but also to jealousy and prejudice, as the “natives” soon found it necessary to discriminate and even riot in those enclaves. Indeed, many New Yorkers are the descendants of chain immigrants, as many of these communities put down roots all over the nation’s key entry point.

What may surprise some is that many of these migrants returned to their home countries, usually much wealthier than when they had left. New (largely racist) restrictions on naturalization to “protect the American race” changed this. Quotas on immigration, imposed by the Immigration Act of 1924, forced them to remain and become citizens, starting families and raising the next generation of Americans. The stricter immigration law raised the stakes. Knowing they couldn’t come back, migrants chose choose not to leave.

Consequently, this act essentially ended the “open border” nature of immigration to the United States, closing immigration to Asians and cutting immigration from Italy by 90 percent, to just 4,000 people a year. The quotas were scrapped in 1965, where the new immigration law emphasized family reunification — children, spouses and siblings of American citizens.

There exists a strong bias against immigrants who come for economic reasons, perhaps citing that regions of the United States suffer from chronic underemployment, as the country undergoes a painful transition from a manufacturing and extraction economy. Yet much of the developed world that restricts immigration, such as Japan, faces chronic labor shortages — a global phenomenon the U.S. has managed to avoid. That bias forgets our history and common origins. The fears of “chain migration,” radicals and the inability to assimilate led, a hundred years ago, to the most restrictive immigration law in American history. Yet just five years later, the country also experienced economic collapse for reasons that had nothing to do with immigration (much as was the case in 2009).

It was only through America’s immigrants that the country was able to emerge from the Depression, help to win a world war and enjoy peacetime expansion of the American economy, the fruits of which we enjoy today. The idea that we could “hand-select” the best immigrants is a myopic attempt to close immigration to all. We should strongly question the motivations of those who purport to protect us from an imagined threat.

Furthermore, according to the Government Accountability Office, the average wait time to complete a “link in the chain” (obtain a family visa) is six to 12 years — a fact to which many recent immigrants who have had to petition for a spouse or sibling can attest. Perhaps if lawmakers wanted to pursue a “deal” on immigration, they would address the massive backlog in the system, as opposed to falsehoods about hordes of people exploiting it.

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