Chain migration is a term with several meanings that is often misused and misunderstood.
It could refer to the tendency of immigrants to follow those of similar ethnic and cultural heritage to communities established communities 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 there for decades.
Immigrants tend to gravitate to places where they feel comfortable and those places are often those with previous generations of others like themselves.
More recently, however, the term chain migration has become a pejorative description for immigrant family reunification and serial migration. Critics of comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship often use the chain migration argument as a reason to deny unauthorized immigrants legalization.
Opponents of the reform efforts are often also opposed to family-based immigration. The United States allows U.S. citizens to petition for legal status for their immediate relatives – spouses, children, parents – without numerical limitations.
U.S. citizens also can petition for other family members, with some quota and numerical limitations: 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 United States to skyrocket, that it encourages overstaying visas and manipulating the system, and that it allows too many poor and unskilled people into the country.
But research, especially that by the Pew Hispanic Center, refutes all those claims. In fact, studies have shown that family-based immigration has encouraged stability, promoted playing by the rules and promoted financial independence. The government caps on the number of family members who can immigrate each year, keeping the levels of immigration in check.
It's hardly a radical assertion that immigrants with strong family ties and stable homes do better in their adopted country and generally are a better bet to become successful Americans than immigrants going it on their own.
Still, the Tea Party and many conservative Republicans cite chain migration as a major failing of the current immigration system. They believe the term "family reunification" is a euphemism for chain migration and birthright citizenship, which they regard as backdoor amnesty and open borders.
Even immigration moderates such as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of the Senate's “Gang of Eight” reform group, has said he opposes measures such as the DREAM Act because it would promote chain migration.
The Obama administration, besides supporting the DREAM Act, comprehensive reform and a pathway to citizenship, has made several rule changes to help keep families together while immigration issues are being resolved with the government.
The U.S. policy of family reunification began in 1965 when 74% of all new immigrants allowed into the United States were brought in on family reunification visas. Those included unmarried adult children of U.S. citizens (20%), spouses and unmarried children of permanent resident aliens (20%), married children of U.S. citizens (10%), and brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens over age 21 (24%).
Cuban immigrants have seen some of the prime beneficiaries of family reunification over the years, helping to create the large exile community in South Florida. In 2010, the Obama administration renewed the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, under which 30,000 Cuban immigrants were allowed into the country the previous year. Overall, hundreds of thousands of Cubans have entered the country through reunification since the 1960s.
The government also increased family-based visa approvals for Haitians after the devastating earthquake in 2010. Critics of these family reunification decisions call them examples of chain migration.