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Chain Migration and DACA: An Explainer

By Theresa Cardinal Brown

Thursday, November 2, 2017

What is “chain migration”? 

“Chain migration” is a term used mostly 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 can also 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 85% 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 get 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 this group to sponsor their parents to get green cards, it would enable a larger legalization than just DREAMers.  

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

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. While under current law a naturalized DREAMer over the age of 21 could file a petition to sponsor their parent, realistically most of their parents 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 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 3 and 10-year bars (but not the permanent bar). However, these provisions apply only if the immigrant can show “extreme hardship” 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 the Migration Policy Institute 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. That would mean the earliest a parent could theoretically get 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.