Family Reunification vs. Chain Migration: What’s the Difference?

“Chain migration”—officially known as “family reunification” in federal law—is the process by which US Citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents may petition for their family members. US Citizens may petition for their spouses, children (adult and minor, married or unmarried), parents, and their siblings. Lawful Permanent Residents may only petition for their spouses, minor children, and adult unmarried children. While “chain migration” and “family reunification” refer to the same process, the terms themselves carry partisan implications. So, what should you call it?

“Chain migration” was originally a neutral phrase used by academics to describe the immigration process.  However, the term “chain migration” has increased in popularity during President Trump’s time in office since he favors it and uses it often. “Under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives,” Trump said in a past State of the Union address.  He has often called for the end of “chain migration” and instead favors the implementation of a merit-based system.

But many oppose the negative implications the term arguing it overlooks the difficulty and untimely nature of actually petitioning for a relative.  The immigration system is limited. Approximately half of the family-sponsored visas last year went to “immediate relatives”—spouses, parents, and minor children of US Citizens.  These people don’t have to suffer through long waiting times, other than the actual processing time (currently taking about a year to a year and a half). But the other half of those visas went to the other family categories mentioned above. Although approximately half went to these categories, those who received them had been on a wait list for years, and some for decades. Unmarried adult children of U.S. citizens take top priority, followed by green card holders’ spouses and unmarried children. Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens take third preference, and siblings of U.S. citizens come last.  There are also per-country limits that make certain country-specific relatives wait extreme wait times.   For example, unmarried Mexican sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, the first priority category, who applied after 1996, have not been able to get visas yet, according to a report from the State Department.  That means they’ve been waiting over 20 years now on a wait list.  These wait times significantly limit the family “chain” President Trump often refers to.

Nevertheless, the lesson is that “chain migration” and “family reunification” refer to the same process. So in the end, what term you chose to use really depends on your political inclinations more so than on any practical distinction.


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