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Our system of family-based immigration works for America

February 1, 2018
In The News

Emiliana was born in the Phillippines. Her father was a World War II veteran who fought for the United States and was able to become a citizen. However, he was forced to leave his family in the Philippines behind. When Emiliana’s aging father started to need full-time care, he petitioned for her to join him.  When it was granted, she, at the age of 60, moved from the Phillippines to Oakland to be there for him.

This is what our family-based immigration system looks like. As Congress works to find a permanent, legislative solution to protect our nation’s Dreamers, President Trump is focused on attacking this system. He derisively refers to it as “chain migration,” a term that conjures up negative stereotypes of hordes coming into our country. In reality, our family-based immigration system has contributed to the success of America.

The current family reunification system has been in place since 1965, after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The law changed a decades-long discriminatory immigration system that favored Nordic Europeans and excluded those from elsewhere in Europe such as Italians and Jews, and completely banned Arabs and Asians.

It was President Kennedy that started the process to make the system more inclusive, and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) that shepherded the bill through Congress. Through much debate, Congress changed our immigration system so that it would be based on family reunification instead of ethnic exclusion. It established a system of preferences through which Americans could petition for family members. The bill passed with a strong bipartisan vote establishing the family immigration system we have today.

Years later, that bipartisan law, born of the civil rights era, is under fresh attack from myths and misunderstandings. It is a myth that an immigrant can bring dozens of family members over with them. There are no hordes of family members flooding into the United States, as Trump claims. Our system doesn’t even allow one to petition for grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews. In fact, it often takes years or even decades to successfully reunite with one family member. Further, before coming, the family sponsor must demonstrate financial means of support for their relative.

Since the immigration reforms of 1965, America’s immigrants have grown much more diverse.  They come not only from Europe, but from Mexico, Asia, Latin America, and yes, Africa.

President Trump believes that we should have a points-based system, or what he calls a “merit-based” system of immigration.  However, the current system of family-based immigration works. Family members are a built in support network and help each other to integrate into America. They pool money together to start small businesses. They provide loans to each other when a bank won’t. And relatives and grandparents often help to raise the children while parents are working hard at the American Dream. As a result, our immigrants are the epitome of the American success story. 

Consider this, from the Center for American Progress: thanks in part to family immigration, immigrant-households who are well below the poverty line by as much as 200 percent are still less likely to rely on public benefits than a US-born household of similar income. Immigrants are buying homes at a faster rate than native-born Americans. And, true to the American Dream, this trend continues to the next generation. Compared to all Americans, the U.S.-born children of immigrants are more likely to go to college, and less likely to live in poverty.