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What Trump's Proposed Changes Mean For Family-Based Immigration


The Trump administration's list of immigration priorities mostly centers on enforcement. Build the wall. Reduce funding for sanctuary cities. But the administration also wants to end the central idea of U.S. immigration policy, something they call chain migration. And that's what we're going to talk about now with Stephen Lee, who teaches immigration and administrative law at the University of California, Irvine. Welcome to the program.

STEPHEN LEE: Glad to be here.

SIEGEL: And to start, what is chain migration or, as its advocates would say, family-based immigration?

LEE: Right. So our system migration is based on sponsorship. Members, usually citizens, sponsor new individuals to come to the United States and receive green cards. Chain migration refers to the process by which a citizen or sometimes a green card holder sponsors a new member. And that new member turns round and sponsors yet another new member based on family-based relationships.

SIEGEL: And is there a limit to how many family members you can bring or whom you can bring, what relationship?

LEE: Well, the answer is it depends. Family-based opportunities are further divided between immediate relatives and everyone else. Under the immigration code, immediate relatives are spouses and children under the age of 21 and parents if you yourself are over the age of 21. For those individuals, there's no quota that's limited.

The only criteria for exclusion would be the kinds of criteria apply to anyone. So for example, if that person is a terrorist, they wouldn't be able to come to the United States whether or not they were your spouse. By contrast, if, for example, you have an adult child who's over 21 years old or a brother, all of those categories of non-citizens would be subject to the annual quota.

SIEGEL: Well, the Trump administration evidently wants to end extended family migration and replace that with a merit-based system. They say it would be a points-based system for green cards. And would sort of impact might that change have on efforts to recruit high-skilled labor - say, doctors or engineers - from other countries?

LEE: Well, I would be curious to hear what sorts of skills that they would be looking for in the merit-based context. Certainly anything that is more punitive would have a chilling effect. I mean, look at it from the perspective of, let's say, a doctor or an engineer in India. And they're considering coming to the United States, and they're also considering going to another country like Germany or the U.K. Why wouldn't they go elsewhere if they're facing an overly punitive immigration system?

SIEGEL: You mean if they wouldn't be able to, say, bring their elderly parents over with them at some point.

LEE: That's right. That's right.

SIEGEL: Canada is often referred to as a country that has a point-based - a merit-based system of immigration. As far as you know, is there a remarkably different role for relatives of immigrants there? Is it much harder to join your adult sibling or your cousin in Canada?

LEE: Well, Canada is an interesting example. And I just say that I'm not opposed necessarily to a merit-based system, but I do think that the public doesn't often appreciate the full extent of the costs associated with that system. In a merit-based system, it's often the case that applicants are communicating directly with the government, which means that there are more applications for the government to review. In the United States, by contrast, we have a sponsorship system where the majority of people who come to the United States are here by virtue of a private citizen taking on the responsibility of overseeing and being financially responsible for the new person who comes to the United States.

It's also worth pointing out that in Canada, the government there plays a much larger role in helping immigrants incorporate. They often pay for civics classes to help them become full-fledged members. We don't see any of that in the United States. So if we do switch to a merit-based system, it's important to be aware of the full array of costs that will inevitably follow from that choice.

SIEGEL: That's Stephen Lee, immigration and administrative law professor at the University of California, Irvine. Professor Lee, thanks for talking with us today.

LEE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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