A Primer on Family Reunification/Chain Migration

by Scott Garfing

The terms “chain migration” and “family reunification” have been tossed around frequently in the current immigration debate. This article outlines the legal basis for this concept.


The fourth and final pillar protects the nuclear family by ending chain migration.  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.

President Trump – State of the Union – Jan. 30, 2018

The term used to describe the legal process for bringing family members of U.S. citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents (LPR) to the U.S. is different depending on the viewpoint of the speaker. If you’re a pro-immigration advocate, you’re likely to use the term “family reunification.” If you’re an immigration hardliner, the phrase “chain migration” is likely the wording of choice. Regardless of the terminology, both sides are referring to what the State Department simply refers to as “family-based immigrant visas.”

Though inane battles over words and phraseology are the norm in the partisan halls of Capitol Hill, the debate around this particular policy lays bare the deep underlying differences in how each side thinks the United States should handle everything from legalization of certain groups of undocumented immigrants, to overall levels of legal immigration. This post will provide information on exactly what “chain migration” is beyond the talking points.

What does the law say on “Chain Migration”?

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), U.S. citizens and LPR’s may petition U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to sponsor a qualifying relative. If the sponsor can establish the proper familial relationship and has enough assets to support that person, they will be eligible to receive LPR status.

Once eligible, the qualifying relative, if they are not subject to the immediate relative exceptions mentioned below, will then be placed on a waitlist with others attempting to immigrate from the same country or region. The family-based visa caps stated in the INA limit the number of people who leave the waitlist every year. Once the relative reaches the front of the line and are taken off the waitlist, they still must apply for a visa and pass a background check.

Importantly, there are limits on the type of relatives that may apply based on whether the sponsor is a U.S. Citizen or an LPR. A U.S. citizen may file a petition for a husband or wife and married or unmarried children. A U.S. citizen that is over 21 years old may also petition for parents and brothers or sisters. LPR’s may file a petition for a husband or wife and unmarried children of any age, but not for their parents, siblings, or married sons or daughters. In addition, neither U.S. citizens nor LPRs may sponsor an aunt, uncle, cousin, niece, nephew, in-law, or grandparent.

Whether or not a relative is subject to a waitlist, and therefore the visa caps in the INA, is determined by the legal status of the sponsor and the familial connection of the relative to the sponsor. If the sponsor is a U.S. citizen and the relative is a spouse, unmarried child under 21, or parent, the relative is not put on a waiting list and may apply for a visa as soon as their relationship to the sponsor is proven to USCIS. These people are known as “immediate relatives.” All other relatives of U.S. citizens and LPRs must wait in line and are subject to numerical visa caps and preferences listed in section 203 of the INA. For LPR’s, there is no exception for immediate relatives and all relatives must wait in line.

Why has the term “chain migration” been in the news?

At the center of January’s government shutdown was an attempt by democrats to force a legislative solution on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in exchange for a long-term government-funding bill.

At one point during the DACA negotiations leading up to the shutdown, it seemed as if a bipartisan agreement crafted by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) was in reach. The deal would have created a path to citizenship for DACA recipients in exchange for border security funding and other changes to legal immigration. One of these changes to legal immigration included a provision on “chain migration,” which would have made parents of legalized DACA recipients ineligible to receive LPR status. Currently, U.S. citizens may apply for LPR status for their parents. In the end, the White House eventually came out against the compromise anyway.

The shutdown ended with an agreement to pass a short-term funding bill to open the government until February 8 while the parties worked on a DACA bill in the intervening weeks. During the State of the Union in late January, President Trump named his “four pillars” of immigration reform as a guide for his priorities in any potential DACA bill, with the fourth pillar being an end to chain migration. A new budget passed on February 8 after a brief government shut down without a DACA bill.

Chain Migration vs. Family Reunification

The use of the term “chain migration” by immigration hardliners clouds the practical realities of the family-visa process. Groups such as Numbers USA have created TV ads that paint a picture of an endless string of immigrants flooding America with no rules and regulations. This oversimplification was repeated in the above quote by President Trump in the State of the Union, as well as in speeches around the country. The term uses a lack of context to push a particular political viewpoint. Ads such as this paint the most common program for bringing in immigrants to the United States legally as a loophole. Many immigration advocates in Congress believe there are racial overtones to the use of the term as well.

The use of the term “chain migration” glosses over the realities of family-sponsored visas and the time it takes to complete the process. If a visa applicant is a relative of an LPR and subject to the statutorily capped family-sponsored preference, the current wait for that relative is anywhere from 2 to 13 years depending on the relative’s preference category. If the relative is from Mexico, the wait is considerably longer and may take anywhere from 2 years to over 22 years. In theory and only to a certain extent, President Trump’s claim that a single immigrant can result in a family of immigrants becoming LPR’s may eventually become true. But, this process would take significant time and there are limitations on who may come, since despite what President Trump and other republicans have stated, neither U.S. citizens nor LPRs may sponsor an aunt, uncle, cousin, niece, nephew, in-law, or grandparent.

This also relates to why immigration advocates believe the term “family reunification” makes the most sense. The name of the visas, along with other historical evidence, makes it clear that the United States has always believed reuniting family members makes for good policy. The structure of the family-based visa program also shows that the U.S. has prioritized legal status for immediate family members of U.S. citizens and provided a pathway, perhaps a very lengthy one, for more peripheral family members. Family reunification is the most common method of legal immigration in the United States. Of the more than 1 million new LPR’s coming to the United States in 2015, and over 60% of them were either immediate relatives or entered through one of the family-sponsored visa preferences.


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