NEW YORK – “Chain migration.” It’s a term that’s on the lips of lots of people in the immigration debate. Stephen Miller, the Trump aide who has been the most forceful proponent of immigration restriction, uses the term constantly. Originally, “chain migration” referred to the repeated use of family-reunification immigration — a man brings in his wife, who brings in her sister, who brings in her husband, who brings in his brother, and so on. Now, though, restrictionists have begun to use the term to refer to any and all family-reunification immigration.
Reducing legal family-based immigration is such a huge priority for this administration that President Donald Trump offered to give unauthorized immigrants a path to citizenship — something Republicans have long opposed — in exchange for cuts to family reunification. Restrictionists’ primary target is shifting from those who enter illegally to those who enter to be with their families.
Family reunification has been one of the main ways to enter the U.S. since the reforms of 1965. Whether you want to label it “chain migration” or not, there’s no doubt that it has changed the face of the country. One of those big changes has been the creation of an important new group — Asian-Americans.
In 1960, before the immigration reform, there were fewer than 1 million people of Asian descent in the U.S. — less than half a percent of the population. As of 2016, there were more than 21 million, representing almost 7 percent of the population. That’s about three times the number of Jewish-Americans, and about half the number of African-Americans. In states such as California and Hawaii, the Asian percentage is even larger.
Unlike Mexico, Asian countries don’t share a land border with the U.S. This means that there are two main ways for Asians to move to the country — employer-sponsored visas like the H-1B or family reunification. In 2016, Asians were the biggest users of family preference immigration — one kind of legal immigration that Trump would mostly do away with.
Without family-reunification immigration, there would still be many Hispanics and blacks, but there wouldn’t be nearly so many Asians. Combined, family preference and immediate family immigration (which includes spouses, minor children and parents) accounts for a very large percentage of the growth of Asian minorities.
If adult children, parents and siblings of U.S. citizens were barred from immigrating, as under Trump’s plan, the growth of Asian-America would slow dramatically. The slowdown would be worsened by some highly skilled employer-sponsored immigrants refusing to come work in the country if they can’t bring their elderly parents with them.
That would certainly be a slap in the face to Asian-Americans, since many of them would take the restriction as a declaration that they are undesirable as a group. What’s more, to repudiate family-based immigration is tantamount to wishing that Asian-America as we now know it had never come into existence.
Though high-skilled immigrants come from all regions of the globe, and all have been successful in the U.S., the achievements of Asian-Americans are particularly well-known. Despite language barriers and lack of local ties, Asian-Americans tend to be economically successful, comparing favorably to the Norwegian immigrants Trump declared he wanted.
Asian-Americans also have persistently lower unemployment rates than white Americans, and their average wealth has been increasing rapidly. Beyond these blunt economic statistics, Asian-Americans have contributed to the fabric of American society in countless key ways — starting companies such as YouTube, Yahoo and NVIDIA; inventing the birth control pill and AIDS treatment; directing Hollywood movies; serving in the U.S. Senate; and helping defeat the country’s enemies on the battlefield. And those are only a few famous individuals — there are many more, in addition to the countless less famous Asian-Americans who have added in a million small positive ways to the fabric of the country. Meanwhile, this new group of people been integrating rapidly and deeply into American society — 46 percent of U.S.-born Asian-Americans intermarry with Americans of other backgrounds.
The point here is not to glorify Asian-Americans over other immigrant groups, or to imply that only famous or high-earning individuals contribute to America. The point here is merely to illustrate one clear example of a case where “chain migration” added something special to the U.S. that wouldn’t even exist otherwise.
When Miller and Trump say the words “chain migration,” you shouldn’t imagine a faceless horde of invaders coming to claim welfare benefits and live off of the largesse of the native-born. Instead, you should imagine all the good and noble human beings who have made America what it is today — the mothers and fathers, the workers and inventors, the good neighbors and friends. Before changing the country’s immigration system, we should stop and reflect on all the real benefits we wouldn’t have without it.
Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University and he blogs at Noahpinion.