Sessions wants immigration like Canada or Australia, but they have chain migration too

A man leaves the Department of Immigration and Border Protection offices in Sydney.
A man leaves the Department of Immigration and Border Protection offices in Sydney. AP

Attorney General Jeff Sessions called Tuesday for the end of chain migration in the U.S. and a merit-based system that more closely resembles that of Canada and Australia.

But although those countries admit a much smaller share of their immigrants under chain migration – more commonly known as family-based migration – they have not eliminated the program altogether. And while some critics of family migration want to end the program in the U.S. altogether and admit immigrants’ immediate family members only under existing employment-based categories, others say getting rid of the program altogether would have detrimental effects not only on immigrants, but on the country.

Family-sponsored immigration came under renewed scrutiny following the attempted terrorist attack in New York City on Monday. The suspect came to the U.S. from Bangladesh in 2011 on a visa for children of siblings of U.S. citizens, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). President Donald Trump called for Congress to end chain migration after the attack, and Sessions echoed those calls in a speech Tuesday morning.

“The President has also proposed ending chain migration and switching to a merit-based system like they have in Canada and Australia,” Sessions said. “That means welcoming the best and the brightest and turning away not only terrorists, but gang members and criminals.”

About two-thirds of U.S. immigrants are admitted through family-sponsored immigration every year: 679,000 out of 1.05 million in 2015, according to DHS. In Canada, about 28 percent of immigrants admitted in 2017 were coming to join family, and in Australia it was 31 percent in 2016-17. (In the U.S. and in Canada, family-sponsored migration is actually higher than those figures because immigrants admitted under merit-based policies also bring their spouses and dependent children, who in those cases don’t count as being family-sponsored.)

Most immigrants admitted to the U.S. as family members are spouses or minor children, according to DHS’s 2015 figures, which are the most recent available.

Admissions based mainly on employment skills accounted for 58 percent of immigrants in Canada in 2017, 67 percent in Australia in 2016-17 and about 14 percent in the U.S. in 2015 — although Canada’s and Australia’s systems are point-based and quite different from what’s used in the United States. In both countries, an applicant needs a minimum number of points, which are awarded based on factors such as work experience, educational background, language proficiency and age.

However, family-based migration in those countries is not point-based and works much as it does in the United States, according to Doris Meissner, director of U.S. immigration policy program at the Migration Policy Institute.

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization seeking to reduce legal immigration to the U.S., said he doesn’t think it’s enough to place more limits on family-sponsored migration to the U.S. It needs to be eliminated.

“No one is advocating that those who get in under a merit-based system shouldn’t be able to bring their immediate family,” Mehlman said. “But there’s no identifiable public interest served by chain migration, and it affects people already in this country – in our tax system, our classrooms and our economic opportunities. You may get some people who benefit the country in that pool, but that’s by luck. It should be by design.”

Critics such as Mehlman use the term chain migration due to what they characterize as a chain reaction – if the brother of a citizen gets in under that category, he can bring his wife, who can bring her sister, and so on.

“In any other area of the law, we would call it nepotism and outlaw it,” Mehlman added.

Meissner, who was commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service for nearly a decade, said she would support a U.S. system with a more even balance between family-based and economic-based immigration. But the family-based system in the U.S. has been beneficial not just for the immigrants themselves, but for the U.S. generally, and it costs less than integration services provided in Canada or Australia, she argued.

Family migration “gives a landing platform for successful immigration,” Meissner said, and among other things provides a natural social safety net for those arriving. “There’s entrepreneurial spirit that works closely within immigrant families — think of all the family-owned stores, especially in New York City, where families are all part of the payroll and are sharing the wages and burden.”

Systems for integrating immigrants into countries such as Canada and Australia make immigration more expensive than in the U.S., according to Meissner. Allowing families to migrate together or to join established family members gives them an easier path to assimilation at little to no taxpayer cost.

The U.S. immigration system does need to be revamped, Meissner said, but mostly to eliminate long waiting times and big backlogs. A plausible way to cut down on that would be to narrow the definition of family, but Meissner said another concern is that many cultures consider aunts, uncles and cousins to be close family.

“If we want a more timely process, we need to narrow the definition. We want immigrants when they’re younger, during their productive, prime earning years so they can contribute to our tax system and society,” Meissner said. “Many immigrants who don’t get in for a decade or longer give up. But if they don’t, and they come here at 45 or 55 years old, we’ve missed out on an opportunity.”

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071, @kateirby