Fox and Breitbart are helping Trump mainstream the term “chain migration,” a misleading nativist buzzword

As President Donald Trump rehashes his plan to end so-called “chain migration,” Fox News and Breitbart have been using the pejorative term for family-based immigration more often. The term serves to downplay the many advantages of family reunification policies and falsely conjure images of an unbridled flow of unskilled, unvetted immigrants into the country.

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Trump often finds reasons to admonish “chain migration”

CNN: Trump blamed “chain migration” for an attempted terrorist attack in New York. As reported by CNN, on December 11, President Donald Trump responded to a failed terrorist attack carried out by a Bangladeshi national, who is a lawful permanent resident and has lived in the United States since 2011, saying the current immigration system “allows far too many dangerous, inadequately vetted people to access our country.” Trump also added, “Today's terror suspect entered our country through extended-family chain migration, which is incompatible with national security.” [CNN, 12/11/17]

Trump has used other events to admonish what he calls “chain migration.” In November, Trump exploited another terrorist attack in New York to call for an end to “chain migration.” Earlier, in September, Trump also tweeted about “chain migration” during ongoing negotiations surrounding immigration reform, saying, “CHAIN MIGRATION cannot be allowed to be part of any legislation on Immigration!” [Bloomberg, 11/1/17; Time, 9/15/17]

In 2017, the use of the term “chain migration” surged on Fox News and Breitbart, who often link it to security threats and unlimited immigration

Fox News has used the term “chain migration” 295 times in 2017, compared to zero times in 2016 and three times in 2015. A search of “chain migration” on the web-based application Television Explorer found that between January 1 and December 10, 2017, Fox News used the term 295 times. Between January 1, 2013, and December 31, 2016, the network used the term only seven times: zero times in 2016, three times in 2015, once in 2014, and three times in 2013. On Fox, the term has been used to link current immigration policies to terror attacks. [Television Explorer, accessed 12/12/17; Fox News, Fox & Friends, 11/1/17]

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Breitbart applied the tag “chain migration” to over 70 articles in 2017, compared to one article in 2016 and two articles in 2015. Breitbart significantly increased its use of the tag “chain migration” in 2017. Between January 1 and December 12, the website applied the tag to 73 articles. In 2016, the site tagged only one piece and in 2015, it tagged two articles under “chain migration.” The tag has been applied to several stories claiming that immigrants are using “chain migration” to bring an increasing number of family members to the U.S. [Breitbart, accessed 12/13/17, 12/5/17, 11/30/17, 11/14/17]

“Chain migration” is a pejorative buzzword used to discredit the family-based immigration system, which replaced a racist quota system

American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA): “Chain migration” is “a pejorative term” used to describe family-based migration. The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) defined “chain migration” as a “pejorative term” that carries with it a number of “negative myths” about the family-based immigration system. This family-based system, AILA explained, “allows U.S. citizens to petition for their immediate relatives who are not subject to numerical limitations.” Citizens may also petition for other family members, but relatives outside of the immediate family “are subject to a quota or numerical limitation.” Lawful permanent residents can petition for spouses, unmarried children under the age of 21, and unmarried sons and daughters (of any age), but they are all subject to numerical limitations. [American Immigration Lawyers Association, 6/5/07; U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, accessed 12/13/17]

Migration Policy Institute: Family-based immigration replaced the national-origins quotas, a policy established “at a time when eugenics theories were widely accepted.” The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute explained that the family-based immigration system implemented in 1965, known as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, repealed “national-origins quotas, in place since the 1920s, which had ensured that immigration to the United States was primarily reserved for European immigrants.” According to the Migration Policy Institute, the “national-origins quotas” were proposed “at a time when eugenics theories were widely accepted.” [Migration Policy Institute, 10/15/15]

“Alt-right” activist Travis Hale described “chain migration” as a “niche topic” of white nationalists. Replying to one of Trump’s tweets about “chain migration,” “alt-right” activist Travis Hale wrote, “I remember days when chain migration was a niche topic,” saying that he discussed it with Jared Taylor, publisher of the white nationalist magazine American Renaissance, and Peter Brimelow, founder of the white nationalist anti-immigration site

[Twitter, 11/1/17]

Family-based immigration system facilitates integration for new immigrants and benefits all Americans

American Immigration Council: Family-based immigration encourages the socio-economic success of new arrivals and helps the economy at large. The American Immigration Council explained that “families and ethnic communities have traditionally acted, together with the workplace, as powerful integrating institutions” for new immigrants in the absence of public policies seeking to facilitate an immigrant’s assimilation into American life. As a result, “New immigrants—the majority of whom enter the United States on family visas—have become the most upwardly mobile of American workers.” The council also noted, “This benefits not only immigrants, but also the economy at large.” [American Immigration Council, 3/14/13]

NY Daily News: “A family-friendly policy is one reason the U.S. has done well attracting talented scientists and engineers despite increased international competition for the best.” Mark Regets and Harriet Duleep of the Institute of Labor Economics wrote in an op-ed for the New York Daily News that family-based immigration has attracted “talented scientists and engineers despite increased international competition.” The authors mentioned a National Science Foundation study that “found that family was most often cited as the most important reason” for scientists and engineers to immigrate to the U.S. From the October 7 op-ed:

Would Albert Einstein have continued to live in the U.S. had he not been able to bring over his sister Maja? When the National Science Foundation studied why immigrant scientists and engineers come to the U.S., they found that family was most often cited as the most important reason.

A family-friendly policy is one reason the U.S. has done well attracting talented scientists and engineers despite increased international competition for the best.

Perhaps counterintuitively, family-based immigrants add dynamism to the U.S. labor markets precisely because their skills do not instantly fit. Rather than being recruited for a specific job, family-based immigrants often have to adapt their skills to the U.S. labor market. They invest in U.S. human capital at astonishing rates, both through formal enrollment in schools and training programs and in their willingness to change jobs and occupations. As they learn new skills, they also become increasingly able to make their older skills valuable in the U.S. economy.

In this way, they provide the U.S. with a continuous stream of persons who are willing to learn new skills, giving the U.S. an extraordinarily flexible labor force that responds — sans government intervention — to business innovations. [New York Daily News, 8/7/17]

Visa applicants sponsored by family members go through the same vetting process as other immigrants and can be denied a visa under suspicion of terrorism. Stephen Lee of the University of California, Irvine, told NPR that incoming immigrants who are sponsored by family members are subject to the same type of “criteria for exclusion” as anyone. Additionally, the State Department has wide discretion to reject a visa application on suspicion of terrorism or other unlawful activity. [NPR, 10/9/17; U.S. Department of State, accessed 12/12/17]

Time: Moving away from family reunification policies “may have the unintended consequence of reducing skilled immigration.” Writing for Time magazine, economists Guillermina Jasso and Mark Rosenzweig, both of whom were research directors of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, explained that "there is not much difference in the education of people who come under many family-based visas and skill-based visas,” and “the difference in the longer-term success in the United States of those who are brought in based on employment criteria and those sponsored via family ties narrows over time.” From the August 4 piece:

First, education upon entry is a poor metric for predicting subsequent productivity in the US workforce — and even then there is not much difference in the education of people who come under many family-based visas and skill-based visas. When you look at measures of productivity over time, the gap narrows even more. This is not to mention the effect on the attractiveness of a U.S. job offer to potential skilled immigrants of prohibiting them from reuniting their families in the U.S.


Under the current system, even sponsors of family immigrants favor the skilled. The difference in skill levels between employment-based immigrants and family-based immigrants at the time of immigration is much less than is commonly believed, and the difference in the longer-term success in the United States of those who are brought in based on employment criteria and those sponsored via family ties narrows over time.


The current immigration system emphasizing family-based immigration thus is not a system that significantly favors unskilled immigration. It is a system that places responsibility, including financial responsibility, for immigration in the hands of private U.S. citizens, who have an interest in individual immigrant success and who are highly informed about who they bring in, rather than in the hands of government bureaucrats and politicians or based on rigid formulae making use of limited information. [Time, 8/4/17]

Congressional Research Service: The family-based system has had “modest effects” on the number of new arrivals. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, hypothetical claims of a family-based immigration system inflating the number of immigrants to the U.S. are unfounded. The report explained that impediments like “long wait times for visas” discourage an unbridled flow of immigrants “under the family-preference categories,” and studies show that many of those eligible for sponsorship through family living in the U.S. make the choice not to immigrate. From the February 17, 2016, report (citations removed):

Although family-based immigration could hypothetically generate sizeable impacts, empirical studies of actual “immigrant multipliers” estimate more modest effects. Several factors limit the impact of chain migration. First, with the exception of the 2nd family preference category, family-sponsored admissions require that sponsoring immigrants possess U.S. citizenship. However, recent studies indicate that many LPRs who are eligible to become U.S. citizens choose not to do so. Second, not all persons eligible to immigrate to the United States wish to do so. Both decisions—to naturalize for U.S.-based LPRs and to emigrate for relatives overseas—are affected by an array of individual characteristics and macro-level conditions in both the United States and the origin country. Consequently, estimates of multipliers are likely to vary substantially by country and period considered. Finally, as discussed above, long wait times for visas pose an impediment for many immigrants sponsoring relatives under the family-preference categories. [Congressional Research Service, 2/17/16