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W&L’s Nora Demleitner on Family Migration

“Family migration rules tell the world what we value and who we are as a country and a society.”

The following opinion piece by Nora Demleitner, Roy L. Steinheimer Jr. Professor of Law at Washington and Lee, appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on March 2, 2018, and is reprinted here by permission.

Nora V. Demleitner column: Let’s celebrate family migration – and quit calling it ‘chain’ migration

I applaud Melania Trump for having sponsored her parents. Yet I wish she would speak up about it rather than hide behind their privacy while her president husband vilifies “chain” migrants. As a beneficiary of the current system, I know how much of the burden falls on the U.S. citizen sponsor even though family immigration benefits not just the individual but the United States.

Family migration is a very limited benefit available primarily to U.S. citizens. Permanent residents, the so-called green card holders, have very restricted sponsorship privileges: They are permitted to bring a spouse and unmarried children into the United States. Citizens may also sponsor a married child and, if they are over 21, siblings and parents. Most of these categories though are subject to annual numerical limitations, restricting the number of immigrants who can come into the country under them. Only spouses, minor children, and parents of U.S. citizens are not subjected to these quotas. Some of the other categories have decade-long waiting periods. The funnels are narrow and clogged.

Family members usually have to wait many years to join the sponsor unless they have other avenues of immigration available to them. An internationally acclaimed nuclear physicist who marries a green card holder would be better advised to come in under the employment category. If she marries a U.S. citizen, however, it would likely be cheaper and quicker to immigrate through him. We do not know how many family immigrants are also desirable employment-based immigrants. But employment is not the only way in which sponsors and their family members contribute to the United States.

Family brings countless benefits to individuals. When close family members join the sponsor, life in the United States becomes permanent for everyone, allowing them all to contribute fully and in all ways, as economic, political, and social actors. Family members may bring their talents and their financial resources here where they spend or invest them in ways they wouldn’t if they lived abroad. Many sponsored parents help raise their U.S. citizen grandchildren, providing tangible and intangible support. As other countries have learned, excluding the spouses and children of migrants creates social instability, detracts from integration efforts, and leads migrants to suffer from depression and other mental health problems. That does not bode well for successful integration.

Immigrating to the United States requires financial resources and patience. Leaving behind one’s home country also takes an emotional toll. The process can take months, if not years, and the administrative costs associated with it are substantial. Sponsors have to show that they have sufficient financial resources available to provide for their entire family, including the sponsored family member. They remain financially responsible for the immigrant family member until that person has worked about 10 years, becomes a citizen, or leaves the United States. In some cases the sponsorship period terminates only with death. This means that during the entire time, the sponsor is legally obligated to maintain the family member’s income at about $15,000 a year and to repay any means-tested assistance the sponsored individual may receive. A draft executive order leaked last year would have defined these means-tested programs yet more broadly and increased enforcement of the support obligation. Even without it, the sponsor’s financial exposure is substantial.

Immigrants made an intentional, and in some cases less than intentional, choice to come to this country — for love, for work, to study, as refugees — and then they stayed. Joining the United States should not mean that they have to cut off their children, parents, and siblings. That is certainly not how we understood the bargain. As my Australian-born physical therapist said to me, “Did they want me to leave my 89-year-old father to die alone?”

Family migration rules tell the world what we value and who we are as a country and a society. Let’s not limit them further but instead celebrate Melania and her parents.

Nora V. Demleitner is the Roy L. Steinheimer Jr. Professor of Law, Washington and Lee University, and 2017-2018 Senior Fellow, Baldy Center, University of Buffalo. She may be contacted at demleitnern@wlu.edu.