For three years before law school, I worked as an immigration counselor for immigrants and refugees. My colleagues and I helped with many things — green cards, citizenship, work permits, etc. — but for a huge number of our clients, the most important thing was bringing over relatives. Many had been separated for years and were desperate to be reunited.
I cannot count the number of times a client asked whether it would be possible to bring over a particular relative, and I had to say no. Can my aunt come? No. My uncle? No. My mother or father? If you’re a refugee or green-card holder, no. My sister’s child, whom I raised as my own? No. My adult child? Again, if you’re a refugee, no. Oh, and if you’re undocumented? You can’t bring anyone.
Our system allows immigrants to bring over only a narrow class of relatives. Refugees may petition only for spouses and minor children. Green-card holders may also petition for adult children. And immigrants who become U.S. citizens, a process that usually takes at least five years, may petition for parents and siblings as well.
Then, even if a relative is eligible to immigrate, there is the wait. The interminable wait! Much of our family-based immigration system is governed by strict quotas — a complicated system of numbers or percentages based on the applicant’s relationship status and country of origin. A certain number of visas are available for each category each year.
If all those visas get used up, well, get in line and wait until next year. A naturalized U.S. citizen bringing over an adult son would currently have to wait more than seven years to be reunited. If the son gets married, he’s put in a different category and the backlog leaps to 13 years. If a U.S. citizen wants to bring over a sibling, the wait is currently about 14 years. And if that sibling is from the Philippines, the wait is 23 years. Twenty-three! (Each country has a quota, and there are a lot of Filipinos in line.)
Imagine that for a second. Say you get a rare, employment-based visa to the United States. You leave your brother in the Philippines, promising to try to bring him over soon. You arrive here, and find out you cannot petition for your brother to join you until you are a U.S. citizen. You do everything as fast as possible, but it still takes five years to be naturalized. Then you file for your brother and discover you must wait 23 more years for his visa to be approved. So your brother might — might — be able to come, 28 years after you arrived, assuming he passes background checks, medical screenings, consular interviews — and heck, is even still alive and interested in beginning a new life in the United States.
So when President Donald Trump claims that “chain migration” allows a “single immigrant” to bring in “virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives,” that claim is false. Directly and disastrously false.
In fact, the whole way that the president and many others talk about “chain migration” is spiritually bankrupt. Our family-based immigration system is about — you guessed it — families. Beautiful, messy, hilarious families. Cranky husbands. Precocious children. Scolding mothers. Goofy brothers. Using the term “chain migration” — a derogatory term meant to raise fears about a limitless flood of indistinguishable, grimy migrants — is dehumanizing. And wrong.
Consider my friend Patrice, a naturalized U.S. citizen. Patrice is currently bringing over his mother from Cameroon. She is widowed and elderly — not exactly a high-skilled entrepreneur who’s going to boost the economy. But Patrice hasn’t seen her in years and longs to be reunited before she dies. Under the plan the president is seeking in negotiations with Congress, Patrice’s mom would be barred. Worse, if the president had his way, Patrice wouldn’t even be here, since he came under the diversity lottery. And without Patrice, my life would be poorer, my neighborhood less vibrant, my church less alive.
The Scriptures talk about a sacred idea that people — all people — reflect the “image of God.” More than ever, we must affirm the image of God in our refugee and immigrant friends — and their families. If you are a person of faith, a person who supports families, a person concerned about justice — heck, anybody — please reject the dehumanizing label of “chain migration.” And speak out in support of our immigrant sisters and brothers. They need us more than ever now.
Andrew Haile, a Massachusetts assistant attorney general, is a former accredited representative of the Board of Immigration Appeals. He wrote this article for the Washington Post; the views represented are his own.