WASHINGTON — “Chain migration,” or family-based immigration, has emerged as a key point of negotiations — and the subject of heated, inaccurate exchanges — as Congress tries to reach a deal on giving legal status to undocumented migrants who arrived in the United States as children, known as Dreamers.
President Trump has argued that chain migration has benefited terrorists, while Republican hard-liners say it could reward those who have broken immigration laws. Some Democrats have inaccurately characterized attempts to limit what they call “family reunification.”
Here’s an assessment.
Under current immigration law, American green card holders can sponsor their spouses and unmarried children for permanent residence. Additionally, United States citizens can petition for residence for their parents, siblings and married adult children.
It is implausible that Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in the attack in October in Manhattan, enabled 22 to 24 people to immigrate to the United States. He immigrated to the United States in 2010 from Uzbekistan, married another Uzbek immigrant in 2013 in Ohio and fathered three children in the United States. And as a green card holder, he would not have been able sponsor any extended family.
Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, an advocacy group that favors more limits on immigration, said he was unsure what Mr. Trump was referring to in Mr. Saipov’s case. But “it’s obviously not the relatives” sponsored by the attacker, Mr. Krikorian said, given the waiting period and limits to family-based immigration.
Theoretically, had Mr. Saipov obtained citizenship, he could have petitioned for his parents and three sisters (whose spouses and children under 21 could have also immigrated with them) to gain residency. Even in this hypothetical, it would have taken more than a decade for Mr. Saipov to sponsor 22 to 24 relatives.
Because there are numerical limits for family-based immigration each year, there is a long queue for visas. (As of Nov. 1, more than 3.9 million people were waiting in line.) After a petition is filed and approved, would-be immigrants are essentially handed a ticket number called the “priority date” and can only apply for a green card when the State Department calls their number.
The waiting period can last a few months to more than two decades, depending on the country of origin, the sponsor’s immigration status and the applicant’s relationship to their sponsor. In January, for example, Uzbek immigrants sponsored by American-citizen siblings could begin to apply for a green card if their priority date was before June 22, 2004, a waiting period of 13.5 years.
Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas argued on the Senate floor on Monday that immigrants who came to the United States as children could petition their relatives for green cards, including “the very parents who brought them here, in violation of the law, in the first place.” Representative Dave Brat of Virginia, in an interview this month on Bloomberg, estimated that giving legal status to some 800,000 people who entered the country as part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy could lead to an influx of “three to four million”
potential relatives when “multiplied by chain migration.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Brat said the congressman based his estimate on research showing one immigrant could lead to an average of an additional 4.2 people coming to the United States, with higher numbers from South and Central America. That figure comes from a 2008 book on chain migration by Bin Yu, a professor at Rhode Island College.
In an interview, Mr. Yu said he believed chain migration also included the American-born children of immigrants, whom he included in his 4.2 immigration multiplier average. It should be noted, however, that people who are born in the United States are generally given American citizenship. By confining so-called chain migration to foreign relatives, Mr. Yu’s research shows that one immigrant could result in the sponsorship of an average of 2.1 additional people.
Marta Tienda, a Princeton University professor and an author of a 2013 study that updates Mr. Yu’s work, said it was inaccurate to just apply the estimated multiplier to the Dreamer population. Her study estimated that each immigrant sponsors an even higher average of relatives — 3.45 — but she emphasized that included all immigrant groups and was driven by employment visas holders, who are much likelier to be naturalized and sponsor foreign relatives.
“You can’t just multiply by 800,000. That’s crazy,” Ms. Tienda said, adding the average number of relatives sponsored by Dreamers would “absolutely be much lower” than 3.45.
To apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, immigrants had to be younger than 31 on June 15, 2012, and must have proof of having arrived in the United States before 16. So their children are likelier to be American citizens, and their spouses also legal residents, citizens or Dreamers themselves.
If Dreamers are given a pathway to citizenship through legislation, their parents could indeed eventually obtain legal status. But those who entered the United States illegally are required to leave the country and wait three or 10 years before applying for an immigration visa. That’s “a significant barrier most would be unlikely to contemplate,” according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Because these factors, the Dreamers would sponsor, on average, about one family member over their lifetime, the institute estimated.
Representative Adriano Espaillat of New York characterized chain migration as parents who want to “reunite with their children.” Representative Luis V. Gutiérrez of Illinois defined it as immigrations petitioning for their spouses.
Republicans are not suggesting the elimination of family-based immigration, but rather limiting it to a so-called nuclear family — that is, a set of parents and their children.
Over the summer, Mr. Trump endorsed a bill sponsored by Mr. Cotton that eliminates family-based immigration for parents, siblings and adult children. But the bill would still allow American citizens and green card holders to sponsor their spouses and children under 21.
It also establishes a visa class for foreign parents to visit their children who are American citizens. House Republicans introduced a similar bill on Wednesday that limits family-based green card programs to spouses and children who are minors.
In 2013, the Senate passed a bill that also eliminated visas for siblings and married sons and daughters over 31, and instead established a point-based system for their immigration. No Democrat voted against it. Though the House did not consider that legislation, Mr. Gutiérrez was a sponsor of a bill with similar provisions that year, despite characterizing Mr. Trump’s demands to end chain migration and to build a border wall to limit immigration as “ransom.”