By Basab Dasgupta
I learned about the concept of chain migration from discussions with other graduate students on student visas like me almost as soon as I arrived in the USA. Student visas had several limitations like we were not allowed to work off-campus. Wives of married students could not work anywhere and lived lives of confinement while their husbands were at school. Every time we went out of the country, there was a limitation on how long we could stay abroad and we required reentry permits to return. It was also understood that we were to return to our home country on completion of studies.
The coveted item was a “green card” – a document that changed the immigration status from student to a “permanent resident”. For all practical purposes, a permanent resident has all the privileges of a citizen except for voting rights. During my first few years, we were advised not to even apply for a green card because the Vietnam War was still raging, and there was a fear of being drafted into the military.
There are several avenues to get a green card. One can convince the Immigration and Naturalization Service that one is talented and qualified enough to benefit the American society with one’s presence. The second path requires the help of a potential employer who has to sponsor the applicant by certifying that the applicant has special skills which are rare to find. The third possibility is to simply marry a US citizen or a green cardholder. One can also get a green card if one is a child or parent of a permanent resident or sibling of a citizen. There are other options such as seeking political asylum and financial investment in this country. One can also have a child, while on a temporary visa, who is automatically a citizen by birth. The child can bring the parents back when he/she becomes an adult, a long but legitimate process.
All incoming foreign nationals can be divided into two broad groups: one who spends a few years to complete their mission, be it getting a degree or serving a temporary assignment, and then go back. They usually do not even apply for a green card. For the second group, a green card is just an admission ticket, not only for indefinitely living in this prosperous country but also for gradually bringing their entire family into this country.
It typically starts with one member of the family, the one most qualified to get a student visa. He/she completes the graduate degree and starts working while changing visa status, either to a permanent resident or a temporary work visa such as a J visa. In some cases, foreign scholars return to their country if they fail to secure a green card. In certain professions, a foreign national can directly apply and get a green card without even going to school here. Once financially established, and with a green card on hand, they sponsor their parents to come here as permanent residents.
Once the parents get used to American life and conveniences, they usually lobby the first child, once he/she becomes a citizen, to sponsor their other children so that they can also get immigration visas. The siblings get to come here even if they do not have the necessary education and/or skill set to come on their own. If the siblings are married and have children, their spouses and children also get to come automatically.
Once the siblings are settled down, they are often inclined to bring their in-laws and the cycle or the “chain” continues much like a chain reaction in a nuclear explosion.
On the surface, this policy seems to be both fair and reasonable. It is certainly a good scenario for the immigrant and it is an appropriate gesture for the host country to offer such a policy to entice talent from overseas countries to come here.
Much has been said about a “brain drain” i.e., the US is draining the collective brainpower of India and other countries by only admitting the best and the brightest students and then tantalizing them with the dream of American life. I do not subscribe to this theory. It is not the US government but individual universities and companies who look for foreign resources to satisfy their selfish and immediate needs. Besides, India has enough unemployed college graduates to do new major projects with them.
It is not just Indian Americans but every ethnic group in this country that builds up in this way. The result is a rich multicultural nation and hence the cliché we frequently hear: America is a nation of immigrants. Even an illegal immigrant can initiate the chain migration when he/she becomes a citizen, by amnesty or asylum for example.
However, not everyone is thrilled about the concept. Donald Trump was in favor of discontinuing the policy for siblings and in-laws. He did not see the point of spending US resources to educate and develop foreign workforces when there are many qualified unemployed or underemployed US citizens. He also had an argument that terrorists are coming under the umbrella of this chain migration from countries like Syria, Somalia, and now Afghanistan. This can have dangerous consequences like the 9/11 tragedy.
Political debate aside, I would like to point out several not so widely discussed social aspects of chain migration. First, consider the potential feuds within a family itself. All the family members immigrating on the coattails of the first member impose both financial and social burdens on the latter until they establish themselves. This can lead to frictions about many details of family life and in extreme cases, emotional issues out of a feeling of insecurity and loneliness. In particular, clashes of cultures can ensue between the elders and the younger members.
Subsequent members in the chain may not be geared up to be Americanized, especially if they have not gone through an educational or professional experience in this country. This can pose difficulties in getting them to stand on their own feet and they are less likely to embrace this country as their own. The extended family is then viewed as a stereotypical “ethnic” family which may not be desirable for the purpose of getting assimilated into American society. Families resulting from chain migration often prefer to live in communities heavily populated by their countrymen. As a result, neighborhoods like “China Town” or “Little Tokyo” pop up, which leads to racial segregation.
For children born here, growing up in an extended family environment, even if they do not live in the same household, can be confusing because of the mixed messages they receive.
Finally, elder members not belonging to this chain who are left behind in India can feel miserable both emotionally as well as physically, especially when they suffer from various illnesses with no one to take care of them.
I must confess that I am less than enthusiastic about this chain migration scenario. Perhaps I am biased because of my own personal experience with a “chain migrant” which led to unfortunate consequences. Perhaps I am sad because both my parents passed away without even an opportunity to visit the US. Perhaps I envy the Indian IT engineers on H1B visas who can afford to go back and forth between India and the US and live a “double life”.
I am not against chain migration nonetheless and wish the best to all immigrants in their pursuit of a better life.
(Basab Dasgupta has a doctorate in physics from the University of Wisconsin and worked with Sony as Vice President of an operating division. Retired, he now lives in San Clemente, CA.)