Advocates say reuniting, not separating families, should be top priority in fixing a broken system

As Congress and President Donald Trump continue to argue over immigration reform, some advocates — including Catholic leaders — hope an end to the use of the term “chain migration” can help people see the value in helping immigrants reunite their families.

Used in the past to describe the phenomenon of an immigrant’s civic neighbors following him or her to another country, the definition of “chain migration” has evolved into what Trump and others now use to describe the practice of taking advantage of immigration rules benefiting family members of immigrants with the goal of obtaining U.S. citizenship. 

The term has become loaded with implications. Those who use it refer to a pattern of immigrants, related by blood, streaming one after another into the country. But others decry “chain migration” as a needlessly negative and even misleading term.

Families as chains?

The president used the term “chain migration” twice in his State of the Union address as he outlined his “four pillars” of immigration reform: A path to citizenship for 1.8 million illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents at a young age; a southern border wall coupled with stronger enforcement and security measures; terminating the annual visa lottery; and an end to “chain migration.”

Claiming that this last measure would protect the “nuclear family,” Trump claimed that “under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives. Under our plan, we focus on the immediate family by limiting sponsorships to spouses and minor children.”

The president’s use of the term further clouded an already confusing debate, said Ashley Feasley, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) office.

“We don’t use that term as we think it’s a hurtful term to describe family reunification,” Feasley told Angelus News. “Families aren’t ‘chains.’ To hear families described as ‘chains,’ or nameless faceless entities, is hurtful and also harmful as well as dehumanizing.”

For Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez, the term is not only damaging but factually misleading.  

“I disagree with many of the specifics in President Trump’s plan and I was deeply disappointed that he resorted to using extreme examples in making his case on ‘chain migration,’ ” the archbishop said in a Feb. 13 response to the White House’s plan, alluding to the president’s comments about the violent MS-13 gang with Salvadoran links. 

“Throughout American history, immigration policy has always been about more than economics. And it has been about families, not just individuals. … Immigrant families have built vibrant neighborhoods, churches and civic institutions in every part of America. It only makes sense that we keep family unity at the heart of our immigration policy.”

The archbishop added that “family means more than just mother and father and sister and brother. It also means grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins.”

‘Narrow’ view of family

Immigration advocates contend that the president’s proposals might actually create more problems than they solve. For example, by strictly defining families as spouses and minor children, Feasley said Trump ignores the practical reality of immigrant family life.

“If I’m here as a wife, and I want to bring in our children, I can’t bring in a 19-year-old child,” she said. “That’s an extremely narrow view of not only what a family is, but even what a nuclear family is.”

Feasley and other advocates also added that, contrary to the picture painted by the president, families actually help immigrants successfully — as well as safely — integrate into U.S. society.

This case is outlined in a paper written by two professors at the State University of New York at Albany, Joanna Dreby and Zoya Gubernskaya and promoted by the Congregation of the Missionaries of St. Charles.

“Family-based migrants constitute roughly 65 percent of the total annual number of immigrants to the United States in any given year,” the authors noted in the paper, titled “U.S. Immigration Policy and the Case for Family Unity.” 

“Family-sponsored immigrants are also likely to receive help from their U.S.-based relatives with housing, healthcare access, transportation, school enrollment, and enrichment activities for children. The informal exchange of goods and services goes both ways as recent immigrants, especially older parents, often assume caregiver responsibilities and contribute to unpaid household labor,” the authors added.

The president also floated his plan for a “merit-based immigration system” in his State of the Union address, arguing that highly skilled individuals are more likely to successfully integrate into U.S. society than low-skilled workers belonging to immigrant families. But this proposal also has its flaws, Dreby and Gubernskaya said.

“Highly skilled migrants often experience downward mobility post-migration because their foreign degrees, credentials and work experience are not directly transferable to the U.S. job market,” the authors wrote, noting low-skilled immigrants are more likely to go into family businesses and stay off public assistance simply because they have a support network lone immigrants often lack.

‘A sign of hope’

Despite the fact it’s clear Catholic leaders are not huge fans of Trump’s immigration proposals, Feasley and others welcomed the president’s willingness to allow 1.8 million immigrants brought here as undocumented minors a chance to stay.

“This is a sign of hope,” Archbishop Gomez said. “It means our leaders recognize what we have been telling them for many years: that no matter how these people entered this country, they are brothers and sisters who are trying to make their own contribution to the American dream.”

On Feb. 15, however, the Senate failed to pass any legislation that would have ended the immigration debate impasse.

Feasley noted that the Church agrees with the president and his supporters that border security is important, but simply want immigration law to reflect the nation’s humanitarian values.

“The bishops support common sense security and humane border protection measures, as well as vetting immigrants and refugees to make sure that the people here living in their communities are safe,” she said, adding that keeping immigrant families together is one of the best ways to do just that.

To learn more about the U.S. bishops’ views on immigration and refugees, visit

Rob Cullivan is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon.

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