In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Family-Based Migration (Chain)

  • Introduction
  • The Numbers Debate
  • Government Documents and Policy Proposals

Latino Studies Family-Based Migration (Chain)
Sergio Saenz-Rivera
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0275


Chain migration is the assumption that one legally admitted migrant will generate an exponential number of admissions if that foreigner sponsors his or her relatives and they in turn invite others. The debate is not only a scholarly debate but one that takes place in popular opinion and political circles. The very term “chain migration” is politically loaded. While scholars would rather use the term ‘social networks.’ critics of migration use the former to point out to the failures of the current Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA [1996]) to prevent future migrants. President Trump used chain migration in speeches as candidate and also as president. In his first State of the Union Address (2018) he promised to end chain migration because. “ . . . a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives.” Following this speech, the Associate Press stopped using “chain migration” in their manual of style. Others called on Trump saying that the First Lady brought her own parents by chain migration. Scholarly work on the subject has injected a certain sense of objectivity into the highly politicized debate. By anchoring their findings—for and against—into theory, chain migration may be one of those rare subjects where the ivory tower sometimes does feed popular and political debates. As demonstrated by the literature below, there is no unified theoretical approach to chain migration. The division stems from the very object of the different studies: from the origins of migration to its effects, from the continuation of and sustainability of chain migration over the long term to the remedies to migration. Another division is the methodological approach to those studies. While some scholars study chain migration using macro- or microeconomic or rational choice approaches there are other qualitative oriented scholars who highlight variables such as interconnection, family ties, enclaves, migrant solidarity, and other critical social thresholds to be met before the migration snowball effect happens. Despite their varied approaches most of these scholars point out that that family migration does beget more family migration. However, most agree that the process is complex and point out that the current immigration law is too restrictive to make chain migration the explosive demographic event that it is made out to be by the politicians. The availability of family-based immigration visas varies on the migration status, depending on either US citizenship (USC) or legal permanent residence (LPR). US citizens can bring their immediate relatives (spouses, unmarried minor children, and parents) without limitations. They still have a waiting period for their status to become regular depending on the processing center (up to two years). USCs can also bring their unmarried adult children and siblings but these petitions will take longer depending on the country of origin. LPRs can bring only spouses and children and will have to wait a significant amount of time, up to fourteen years, depending on the quotas by country of origin authorized by Congress. Illegal border crossings automatically disqualify migrants from obtaining LPR or entry visas. They must wait for a consular officer to issue a “waiver” or, if denied, they have to wait from three to ten years as a penalty for the illegal entry. Spouses of US citizens can qualify for US citizenship after three years. Other permanent residents can apply for citizenship after five years. There is vast availability of web resources and data about migration—for example, the Pew Research Center Hispanic Trends among others offers large and free resources on the topic. However, “chain migration” has not been studied extensively or specifically by itself. The topic is generally subsumed and implicit in many types of arguments dealing with migration (e.g., the study of migrant enclaves will carry implicit assumptions as to whether the migrants will settle or return). The traditional scope of the social sciences studies migrants as guest workers and has rarely focused on resettlement and integration.

Approaches to Chain Migration

This section explores the different schools and academic “stances” of the study of chain migration. The debate largely mirrors the divide between quantitative and qualitative studies, with little dialog in between. However, it is important to show that the earlier economic studies and variables (e.g., wages as incentives to migrate) have influenced even ethnographic and cultural studies on immigration in general. The quantitative repertoire of such studies focuses on rational decision making and cost-benefit analysis as constructive incentives to migrate; family connections, networks, and ethnic enclaves diminish the cost of such decisions. The qualitative repertoire focuses more on intrafamilial relations and ethnic, cultural, and psychological causes of the chains.

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