What Is Chain Migration?

Chain Migration and Related Terms

Senate supporters for reform bill. getty images

Chain migration is a term that has several meanings, so it's often misused and misunderstood. It can refer to the tendency of immigrants to follow those of a similar ethnic and cultural heritage to communities they've established in their new homeland. For example, it's not unusual to find Chinese immigrants settling in Northern California or Mexican immigrants settling in South Texas because their ethnic conclaves have been well-established in these areas for decades.

Reasons for Chain Migration 

Immigrants tend to gravitate to places where they feel comfortable. Those places are often home to previous generations who share the same culture and nationality. 

The History of Family Reunification in the U.S.

More recently, the term "chain migration" has become a pejorative description for immigrant family reunification and serial migration. Comprehensive immigration reform includes a pathway to citizenship that critics of the chain migration argument often use as a reason to deny unauthorized immigrants legalization.

The U.S. policy of family reunification began in 1965 when 74 percent of all new immigrants were brought into the U.S. on family reunification visas. They included unmarried adult children of U.S. citizens (20 percent), spouses and unmarried children of permanent resident aliens (20 percent), married children of U.S. citizens (10 percent), and brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens over age 21 (24 percent).

The government also increased family-based visa approvals for Haitians after the devastating earthquake in that country in 2010.

Critics of these family reunification decisions call them examples of chain migration.

Pros and Cons 

Cuban immigrants have been some of the prime beneficiaries of family reunification over the years, helping to create their large exile community in South Florida.

The Obama administration renewed the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program in 2010, allowing 30,000 Cuban immigrants into the country the previous year. Overall, hundreds of thousands of Cubans have entered the U.S. through reunification since the 1960s.

Opponents of reform efforts are often opposed to family-based immigration as well. The United States allows its citizens to petition for legal status for their immediate relatives – spouses, minor children and parents – without numerical limitations. U.S. citizens can also petition for other family members with some quota and numerical restrictions, including unmarried adult sons and daughters, married sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.

Opponents of family-based immigration argue that it has caused migration to the U.S. to skyrocket. They say it encourages overstaying visas and manipulating the system, and that it allows too many poor and unskilled people into the country.

What the Research Says 

Research — especially that performed by the Pew Hispanic Center — refutes these claims. In fact, studies have shown that family-based immigration has encouraged stability. It has promoted playing by the rules and financial independence.

The government caps the number of family members who can immigrate each year, keeping the levels of immigration in check.

Immigrants with strong family ties and stable homes do better in their adopted countries and they're generally a better bet to become successful Americans than immigrants who are going it on their own.