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Chain Migration and DACA: An Explainer

What is “chain migration”? 

“Chain migration” is a term commonly used by advocates of restricting immigration to describe legal, family-based immigration. Under current U.S. immigration law, citizens may sponsor certain relatives for green cards. Green card holders may, in turn, sponsor a smaller group of relatives for green cards. Collectively, this ability of immigrants, who later become green card holders and citizens, to sponsor their family members is described by some as a “chain” of migration.

How does family-sponsored immigration work?  

Family-sponsored green cards have been part of immigration law since at least 1965 and account for about 65% of new legal immigrants to the United States each year. Current immigration law provides for two lanes for U.S. citizens and green card holders to sponsor their relatives.

  • Immediate Relatives:  U.S. citizens, (both native-born and naturalized) can sponsor their spouse, children under 21, or parents (if the citizen is at least 21).  
    • There are no annual limits on how many green cards can be issued each year to this group. 
  • Preference Relatives: 
    • U.S. citizens can also sponsor their adult children (and their spouses and grandchildren) for green cards, as well as their brothers and sisters, but there are annual caps. 
    • Current green card holders can sponsor their spouses, minor children, and unmarried adult children, for green cards, again subject to annual caps. 
    • In addition to total annual caps on each of these categories, immigrants from any single country cannot be more than seven percent of the total in any given year. This means that some of these relatives would need to wait as long as a decade or more before they could be eligible to get a green card, even after they are sponsored. 

“Sponsorship,” in the immigration context, means that the U.S. citizen or current green card holder must file a petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on their relative’s behalf. This petition documents that there is a family relationship between the U.S. citizen and their relative that qualifies under one of the categories above. However, to actually obtain the green card, the relative has to apply either outside of the U.S. for an immigrant visa (which grants a green card after entry), or, if they are already in the country and eligible, they can apply to “adjust status” to a green card.

This second process requires the family member who is the beneficiary of the petition to prove they are “admissible” to the United States as an immigrant. This step includes criminal and background checks, proof of ability to support themselves, no disqualifying medical conditions, and no previous violations of immigration law. For those who are currently undocumented in the United States, this second part may prevent them from actually getting a green card, even if they have been “sponsored” by a relative.

What is the issue with “chain migration” and DACA legislation? 

There is broad support among members of Congress, President Trump, and the public for legislation that would provide a permanent status to so-called DREAMers, undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. Many of these individuals held work authorization under the Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Some have raised concerns that allowing DREAMers to sponsor their parents to get green cards would generate “chain migration” since the legalization would extend beyond this population.

How many individuals could DREAMers sponsor for green cards under DREAMer Legislation?

The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) estimates that DREAMers could sponsor an average of 0.65 to 1.03 family members under the parameters set by the Recognizing America’s Children (RAC) Act, the 2017 DREAM Act, the Hope Act, the SUCCEED Act, and the Border Security and Deferred Action Recipient Relief Act. While other organizations have made claims that these individuals would sponsor as many as six family members, these analyses assume that DREAMers are similar to other green card holders, but DREAMers are less likely to have non-U.S. family members than other immigrants.

First, MPI notes that DREAMers arrived in the United States as children, making it less likely that they would have children living outside the United States to be sponsored; their children would more likely be born in the United States, making them U.S. citizens. Because DREAMers grew up in the United States, it is also more likely that those who are married met their spouses in the United States, and that their spouses are U.S. citizens, green card holders, or fellow DREAMers. The undocumented parents of DREAMers may also have other U.S.-born citizen children who could sponsor them once they turn 21, meaning that the parent, if they were eligible, might be sponsored by someone other than the DREAMer. The most likely family members for DREAMers to sponsor would be siblings who reside out of the country–a category that has extremely large backlogs and decades-long wait times, especially for Mexico, where the most DREAMers are from. In short, demographic profiles of this population would likely lead them to sponsor fewer family members over time.

Could undocumented parents of legalized DREAMers get green cards under DREAMer legislation?  

Even if DREAMers were to sponsor family members, many of them might not be eligible for green cards. None of the bills currently pending in Congress for DREAMers would provide a direct path to a green card for their undocumented parents. However, the bills would allow DREAMers to eventually apply for citizenship. As noted above, it is more likely that DREAMers would sponsor siblings that live outside the country than their parents.  However, even if a naturalized DREAMer over the age of 21 filed a petition to sponsor their parent, realistically the parent would not be able to get a green card in this way. As described above, in order to get a green card, the parent would have to either adjust status or apply outside of the United States and prove that they are “admissible” as an immigrant. This is the part that would keep most parents of DREAMers from getting a green card. Most parents of DREAMers are likely to have entered the United States illegally. Under current immigration law, individuals who enter the United States illegally are not eligible to adjust status in the United States at all. They would have to leave the United States and apply from abroad.

However, if the parent has been undocumented in the United States for at least 6 months, they would not be able to get an immigrant visa abroad unless they stay out of the country for at least 3 years. That bar increases to 10 years if they have been undocumented for an aggregate of one year-no matter how many different visits they had in the United States. If they returned illegally, after having been deported or after a previous unauthorized stay of a year or more, they are permanently barred from an immigrant visa. In practice, these bars would establish significant delays or complete barriers for qualifying undocumented family members of newly-legalized DREAMers to get green cards.

There are provisions in law that allow for waivers of the three and 10-year bars, but not the permanent bar. However, these provisions apply only if the immigrant can show “extreme hardship”1 to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse or parent. In other words, the fact that their sponsor is their U.S. citizen child would not allow DREAMer parents to qualify for the waiver, unless they are also married to a U.S. citizen or green card holder, in which case, that citizen or permanent resident spouse would be more likely to sponsor them than their grown child. Estimates by MPI are that only around 14 percent of all unauthorized immigrants are married to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.

Is there any way that a DREAMer could get their parent a green card? 

If their parent is not someone who entered illegally, but instead was an “overstayer”—someone who entered with a visa and never left—then theoretically they could adjust status and get a green card based on a petition from their child.  However, under almost all of the proposed legislative solutions for DREAMers, it would take a DREAMer anywhere from 13 to 15 years to earn citizenship. Meaning the earliest a parent could theoretically obtain a green card would be more than a decade after any legislation passed. Combined with the additional time restriction of the bars to adjustment or visa issuance for those who entered illegally, parents of DREAMers could wait as long as 25 years for a green card, making any of these bills an extremely unlikely path to a green card for DREAMer parents.

1 “Extreme Hardship” is not defined in statute or regulations but its definition has evolved on the basis of adjudicative case law and appeals. According to USCIS policy manuals: “USCIS recognizes that at least some degree of hardship to qualifying relatives exists in most, if not all, cases in which individuals with the requisite relationships are denied admission. Importantly, to be considered “extreme,” the hardship must exceed that which is usual or expected. But extreme hardship need not be unique, nor is the standard as demanding as the statutory “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” standard that is generally applicable to non-lawful permanent resident cancellation of removal.  (USCIS Policy Manual, Volume 9, Part B, Chapter 2, at

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