Immigration reform: When is family reunification also 'chain migration'?

Immigration reform legislation promises expedited reunification for millions of families awaiting visas, but critics caution that the overhaul could also produce uncontrolled 'chain migration.'

Jim Mone/AP
Demonstrators calling for immigration reform marched to the Minnesota State Capitol for a May Day rally in St. Paul, Minn., on May 1.

The bipartisan immigration reform legislation being debated in the US Senate would have a massive effect on families split by America's current immigration system, with proponents cheering the reunification of husbands with wives and children with parents, while detractors see only a surge in what they call "chain migration" that would bring many new, low-skilled workers into the country.

The bill has high stakes for people like Lance Paxton, a Michigan man who is weighing the need to move to Canada in order to reunite with his family.

Mr. Paxton’s wife, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico when they married nearly a decade ago, is barred from returning to the United States for most of the next decade under existing US law and is living in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, with the family's two young daughters.

While Paxton, a real estate salesman, sends the vast majority of his earnings to his family in Mexico, the financial situation isn’t tenable over the long term. His wife found a job in Canada and will soon find out whether her visa application has been approved. Without reform, Paxton says, he and his family are moving to Canada – or he’s moving to Mexico. 

A proposed Senate bill, however, would revamp how the American immigration system deals with families like the Paxtons and millions more separated by long wait times for certain family visas or young undocumented Americans who have seen parents and other family members deported at record levels under the Obama administration

The proposed Senate bill offers several avenues for families who have been separated to be brought back together.

  • It allows all US citizens and permanent residents to petition for their spouses, children, or parents who have been deported or barred from the US to reenter the country under a more-generous standard of hardship, for example.
  • It would also allow young undocumented people, known as DREAMers for the bill that would give them a special path to citizenship, who have been deported in recent years to apply for a similar waiver, allowing them to return to the US.
  • The bill also would wipe out the 4.5 million people waiting in family-based immigration backlogs over the next decade, bringing those who could have lingered as long as 20 years into the country over the next decade.
  • Another provision ensures that some families aren’t split apart in the first place. Legal permanent residents, also known as green card holders, will be allowed to bring spouses and children into the US with them immediately. It would also allow some temporary workers to enter the US with their children and spouses.

The bill also cuts back on some family-based immigration policies, including eliminating the ability for US citizens and permanent residents to bring their siblings into the country and restricting applications for adult children to those under age 31. 

There aren’t any promises of waivers for families already separated by violations of immigration law, advocates say, but, even so, the entire package is something to be lauded.

“This bill is a real victory for nuclear families,” says Randall Emery, president of American Families United, a group that advocates on behalf of separated spouses, such as Paxton. “It’s not a guarantee – but it’s a much fairer process.”

These provisions do have critics, however. When immigration reform skeptics look at the policy, they don’t primarily see family reunification. They see “chain migration,” a concept whose connotation is almost as poisonous as “amnesty” among the bill’s detractors.

The groups of people with expedited tracks to US permanent residency under the Senate legislation – 4.5 million people in family backlogs, an estimated 1 million to 2 million DREAMers, and 800,000 farm workers, along with new petitions from current US citizens and permanent residents – add up to millions of new immigrants, and especially lesser-skilled immigrants, over the next decade.

“This would be a huge increase in family migration. In net, you’re going to have a big increase there, and it’s changing the long-established law that had limits on the amount of chain migration that might occur,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, a leading opponent of the Senate bill, in a call with reporters on Friday.

Given the bill’s already-expanded channels for employment-based immigration, the addition of family members only heightens the pain for American workers, who would face more competition for scarce jobs and have less bargaining power, critics say.

“The coming decade better be the best jobs bonanza in American history, or we will continue to see consistently high unemployment,” said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates lower immigration levels. “And worse, we will continue to see Americans withdrawing from the labor market.”

While the Senate will begin voting on amendments to the bill this week, it’s unclear how those such as Senator Sessions may attempt to change the legislation. Sessions could offer amendments to “responsibly control future flow [of immigrants] to defend the American worker,” said a spokesman in an e-mail, but declined to say where, exactly, the senator would attempt to make alterations.

Meanwhile, the bill’s supporters, particularly the network of young DREAMers who have been energetic advocates for their cause, will try to protect the family reunification measures that already exist in the bill – and, perhaps, slightly expand them.

Evelyn Rivera, a 24-year-old DREAMer whose mother was deported to Colombia in 2007, says she will join other activists in Washington, D.C., next week to lobby lawmakers to allow DREAMers to petition for their parents to return to the US before they’ve finished their five-year path to permanent residency, for example.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, a key immigration reform negotiator, appeared to pour cold water on such hopes over the weekend, when a release from his office rebutted claims by Sessions and others that legalizing DREAMers would lead to a wellspring of new immigrants while also pointing out that the bill contains "no special exceptions for Dreamers to quickly bring in family members from abroad."

But even as it is, those with family members stranded overseas are already dreaming about what might happen if the bill reaches President Obama’s desk.

Jose Machado, a onetime DREAMer who is now a permanent resident, said he thinks often about reuniting with his mom, whose deportation in 2011 forced him into the Miami foster care system. He dreams about picking her up at the airport, where “we’re going to have a movie moment, running to each other, and we’ll hug,” he says.

Others, like Paxton, are almost afraid to hope.

Roughly two years ago, Mrs. Paxton went to Mexico to apply for a hardship waiver to resolve her immigration status, the way the current law requires. She was denied. But since the law at that time also barred those who had been in the US illegally for more than a short time from returning to the country for at least 10 years, Mr. Paxton could return home, but his wife has been living in Puerto Vallarta ever since.

(Since the Paxtons' attempted to navigate the system, the Department of Homeland Security has changed its requirements to allow the undocumented to apply for waivers inside the US, in part to avoid situations like that of the Paxton family.)

“I don’t want to get my hopes up about anything because I’ve been heartbroken before," he says. "At the same time I pray every day that it does go through."

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