On December 29 President Trump tweeted that “there can be no DACA without the desperately needed WALL at the Southern Border and an END to the horrible Chain Migration & ridiculous Lottery System of Immigration etc.” As usual, he had no idea what he was tweeting about, but there’s a lot of confusion about these terms in the general public—especially about “chain migration,” which is now misused to describe what was previously known as “family reunification,” “family-based immigration,” or the “family preference visa.”
Here's what we say in The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, second edition, Chapter 4, “Why Can’t They Just ‘Get Legal?’”:
Can’t immigrants bring their extended families here?
If you’re a U.S. citizen, you can generally apply to bring your “immediate relatives”—spouses, parents or unmarried children under twenty-one—here as permanent residents, although there are plenty of hoops to jump through, and it’s not always quick or easy. For other types of “family preferences,” an even more complex set of rules lays out “priority” categories and annual caps based on the family relationship and country of origin. Waiting times of ten to twenty years are not uncommon. In February 2015 the government was still processing family visa applications from as far back as August 1991. While they wait, applicants are disqualified from visiting the United States because they have shown “immigrant intent” by applying for immigrant visas.
Some conservatives now object to the “family preference” system, but it was actually introduced into the 1965 Immigration Act as a concession to conservative politicians who wanted to keep Asians and Africans out of the United States. Family preferences would mean “there will not be, comparatively, many Asians or Africans entering the country,” Representative Emmanuel Celler, a liberal New York Democrat who cosponsored the 1965 law, said in Congress during the final debate on the bill, “Since the people of Africa and Asia have very few relatives here, comparatively few could immigrate from those countries because they have no family ties to the U.S.”
What about the work visa and the “visa lottery”?
The government can also issue up to 140,000 immigrant visas a year for five categories of workers, and each of these has its own numerical limitations. The categories include professionals, people with special skills, and cultural or sports figures. There are openings for religious workers, former U.S. government employees, and investors, but only 5,000 visas can be issued to unskilled workers.
In 1986, Congress created a temporary category of “diversity” visas to bolster immigration from Europe, which had slowed thanks to a growing European economy. The Immigration Act of 1990 made the program permanent starting in 1995. The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, often called the “visa lottery,” allocates 50,000 immigrant visas to different parts of the world under a formula favoring regions that have sent relatively few immigrants in the previous five years. Natives of countries that have sent more than 50,000 immigrants to the United States during the past five years are disqualified from participating in the lottery.
[We’re occasionally posting excerpts from the new edition of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers. You can order here or from your favorite bookseller.]