Saturday, February 10, 2018

On the unreality of imagining chain migration to be a bad thing

I have been paying attention to the world, as best as I can; I have been paying attention to demographics, though sadly not here. (Looking at the posts gathered together in the "Demographics" category at my blog, A Bit More Detail, should give you an idea as to what I've been watching.) I have not, for reasons including my mixed unhappiness and concern and confusion at ongoing trends in American politics and my ability to ignore these trends somewhat as a Canadian, have not been paying that close attention to the United States. Imagine my surprise, then, when the course of an exchange on my Facebook friend Andrew's page after Donald Trump's recent State of the Union address, I found out that the term "chain migration" had become a catch-phrase in the American far right, used to denote the sorts of immigrants and the sort of immigration that the United States should repel.

Over at VICE, Keegan Hamilton and Taylor Dolven in their article "How Trump made “chain migration” an anti-immigrant buzzword" did a good job of looking at how a perfectly useful academic phrase became an alt-right object of hate.

The current wave of nativism isn’t exactly new. In the early 20th century, U.S. immigration laws were highly discriminatory and favored white immigrants from Western Europe. The Immigration Act of 1965 ended racial quotas, but members of the far right, and occasionally the left, have sought to bring back restrictions that keep immigrants out. FAIR emerged in the late 1970s and was later followed by NumbersUSA and the Center for Immigration Studies in leading the charge to pull up the drawbridge and stop future generations of immigrants from coming.

The problem for this movement is that most American families — including many members of the White House — have benefitted from some version of chain migration somewhere along the line. Krikorian is aware that this paradox can make his position a difficult sell.

“There was a common cliche, ‘I’m not against immigration, I’m only against illegal immigration,’” Krikorian said. “For a lot of people, that was a way of talking about their concerns over immigration in a way that was either PC or that maintained their own cognitive balance because you know their grandma came through Ellis Island and they were conflicted against the issue, but at least they could be against illegal immigration.”

The increasing focus on “chain migration” tracks with the rising influence of far-right immigration groups. Historians have pointed out that social scientists and other scholars have been using the term for decades to describe the various waves of the Great Migration in the United States. It has appeared in official government records, including a 1988 report by the General Accounting Office that described how backlogs in the visa system were making it take decades for links in the chain to form. Since then, the clogs have only gotten worse. It can take anywhere from five to 25 years or more, depending on the country and the type of family member, for the government to process visa requests and families to be reunited.

Krikorian notes that as recently as 2010, Sen. Dick Durbin, a leading proponent of immigration reform, mentioned chain migration on the Senate floor, and he insists it’s not a loaded phrase. But it has taken on undeniable baggage in the current political climate, in which some on the far-right consider ending chain migration is an even higher priority than delivering Trump’s border wall.

Detailed criticisms of Trump's use of the term "chain migration" abound, done by Miriam Valverde at Politifact and done by Philip Bump at the Washington Post and done by Raquel Aldana at The Conversation. Trump's representation of chain migration, in the American context, as something that allows the rapid and nigh-unlimited resettlement of large numbers of relatives of even recent immigrants in large numbers is simply false. Trump is using a term that has one established meaning and, without even bothering to indicate that he is trying to change the meaning, do so. People less generous than me might call him a liar, or a fool. (Should I join them?)

Chain migration is normal. Chain migration is usually the way immigrants come to the United States, or come to any country. This was noted this week by Jonathan Blitzer in The New Yorker, in his examination of the work of a freelance genealogist.

Jennifer Mendelsohn, a freelance writer based in Baltimore, has a low tolerance for bad faith. Last summer, after Stephen Miller, the White House senior policy adviser, went on television to support a bill that would penalize immigrants who didn’t speak English, Mendelsohn took to Twitter. “Miller favors immigrants who speak English,” she began. “But the 1910 census shows his own great-grandmother couldn’t.” Her tweet, which included a photograph of a census document indicating that Miller’s ancestor spoke only Yiddish, went viral. “It’s hilarious how easy it is to find hypocrisy,” Mendelsohn said. “And I’m a scary-good sleuth.”

Miller wasn’t the only person she skewered after scouring the Internet for clues. She searched articles in local papers for the names of anti-immigrant activists’ family members, then plugged the information into search engines (,, which gave her birth and death records and marriage notices. “Someone called it ‘ancestor doxing,’ ” she said. “Please—it’s called journalism.” The grandmother of the Iowa Republican congressman Steve King—who has said that “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies”—arrived at Ellis Island as a child, in 1894. Mendelsohn discovered that the great-great-grandfather of the Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren—“Respect our laws and we welcome you. If not, bye”—had been indicted for forging citizenship papers, in 1917. A Swiss ancestor of Lahren’s colleague Tucker Carlson—“Why does America benefit from having tons of people from failing countries come here?”—came to America looking for work, in 1860. Mendelsohn started publishing entries from census ledgers, turn-of-the-century news clippings, and memoirs shared among relatives. “The historical record doesn’t lie,” she said.

[. . .]

Then Donald Trump came along. His Administration prefers to call family-based immigration by a more sinister-sounding name, “chain migration.” Mendelsohn isn’t having it: “They’re telling the American people that chain migration is some new thing to be afraid of. I’m saying, ‘Not on my turf.’ ”

Last month, a White House official named Dan Scavino said that chain migration was “choking” America. “He’s lucky, or unlucky, that he’s Italian,” Mendelsohn said. After researching a Sicilian adoption, she’d recently learned how to search Italian records. Several days after his pronouncement, she had a message for Scavino. “So Dan,” she wrote on Twitter. “Let’s say Victor Scavino arrives from Canelli, Italy in 1904, then brother Hector in 1905, brother Gildo in 1912, sister Esther in 1913, & sister Clotilde and their father Giuseppe in 1916, and they live together in NY. Do you think that would count as chain migration?”

It isn't even about family migration. "Family reunification" is but one element of chain migration. Chain migration is a sort of migration that not only families but entire communities participate in. This, frankly, is something anyone should have expected. How often is it that close friends and intimates, the sorts of people one would expect to report truthfully about their experiences in the places where they went in pursuit of their destinations, would only consist of biological relatives? Wikipedia's article on chain migration provides plenty of examples of this sort of migration. I don't think I myself can be said to have partaken in this--I did know plenty of people in Toronto by the time I moved here from Prince Edward Island, but I did not follow other Islanders I knew to this metropolis--but there is a long tradition of a coherent pattern of Atlantic Canadian migration to this city, one described in Greg Marquis' 2010 article for Atlantic Canadian journal Acadiensis, "Confederation’s Casualties: The “Maritimer” as a Problem in 1960s Toronto". (Apparently my co-regionals tended to initially concentrate in the poor neighbourhood of Parkdale, abused alcohol, and were prone to knife fights.) Turning to the example of the United States, the exceptional granularity of immigration to the United States becomes clear. "Welcome to Oaxacalifornia" and more recently in a scholarly format in his 2015 Social Justice article "From Hometown Clubs to Transnational Social Movement: The Evolution of Oaxacan Migrant Associations in California". (Far Outliers, meanwhile, has a nice 2007 post outlining the origins of this diaspora and its often evangelically Protestant nature.)

Chain migration is normal. Chain migration, in that it lets prospective migrants save precious social and economic capital by helping them plug into communities in their destination regions, is a good thing. I really fail to see how trying to discourage chain migration could possibly lead to better outcomes, for migrants or their destination countries. Do we really want to transform population movements, across internal and international borders, from coherent patterns to an atomized collection of individuals? Noah Smith recently made the point over at Bloomberg View that opposing chain migration--in his narrow argument, migration connected to family not to wider communities--would badly hurt Asian Americans.

In 1960, before the immigration reform, there were fewer than 1 million people of Asian descent in the U.S. -- less than half a percent of the population. As of 2016, there were more than 21 million, representing almost 7 percent of the population. That’s about three times the number of Jewish Americans, and about half the number of black Americans. In states such as California and Hawaii, the Asian percentage is even larger.

Unlike Mexico, Asian countries don’t share a land border with the U.S. This means that there are two main ways for Asians to move to the country -- employer-sponsored visas like the H-1B, or family reunification. In 2016, Asians were the biggest users of family preference immigration -- one kind of legal immigration that Trump would mostly do away with[.]

Without family-reunification immigration, there would still be many Hispanic Americans and black Americans, but there wouldn’t be nearly so many Asian Americans. Combined, family preference and immediate family immigration (which includes spouses, minor children, and parents) accounts for a very large percent of the growth of Asian minorities[.]

If adult children, parents and siblings of U.S. citizens were barred from immigrating, as under Trump’s plan, the growth of Asian America would slow dramatically. The slowdown would be even worse than these graphs show, because some highly skilled employer-sponsored immigrants would refuse to come work in the country if they couldn’t bring their elderly parents with them.

That would certainly be a slap in the face to Asian Americans, since many would take the restriction as a declaration that they are undesirable as a group. What’s more, to repudiate family-based immigration is tantamount to wishing that Asian America as we now know it had never come into existence.

Though high-skilled immigrants come from all regions of the globe, and all have been successful in the U.S., the achievements of Asian Americans are particularly well-known. Despite language barriers and lack of local ties, Asian Americans tend to be economically successful, comparing favorably to the Norwegian immigrants Trump declared he wanted[.]

Asian Americans also have persistently lower unemployment rates than white Americans, and their average wealth has been increasing rapidly. Beyond these blunt economic statistics, Asian Americans have contributed to the fabric of American society in countless key ways -- starting companies such as YouTube, Yahoo and NVIDIA; inventing the birth control pill and AIDS treatment; directing Hollywood movies; serving in the U.S. Senate; and helping defeat the country’s enemies on the battlefield. And those are only a few famous individuals -- there are many more, in addition to the countless less famous Asian Americans who have added in a million small positive ways to the fabric of the country. Meanwhile, this new group of people been integrating rapidly and deeply into American society -- 46 percent of U.S.-born Asian Americans intermarry with Americans of other backgrounds.

The point here is not to glorify Asian Americans over other immigrant groups, or to imply that only famous or high-earning individuals contribute to America. The point here is merely to illustrate one clear example of a case where “chain migration” added something special to the U.S. that wouldn’t even exist otherwise.

I am still, at the end of this post, still taken aback that chain migration is supposed to be a bad thing. How are migrants supposed to learn local conditions and build communities in new homes without knowing people they trust who have done this? Why is this sort of informed migration bad?

Of course, the people who are making these arguments are lying about their opposition to chain migration being economically rational. Would they be talking about chain migration in this pejorative way if it was the immigration of Norwegians instead of Mexicans they were paying attention to? And why, I ask, would their language differ, change, as they moved from talking about the first movement to talking bout the second? Frankly, opposing chain migration strikes me as proof of the idea that cruelty is rarely rational. Not letting migrants make and sustain networks hurts everyone.


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