Chain Migration and the Labor Market: Boon or Bust?

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By Laura D. Francis

President Donald Trump has vowed to end an immigration program that allows permanent residents and citizens to sponsor relatives for entry to the U.S. The president’s promise to end “chain migration” is based on national security concerns, but any move in that area is likely to have labor market implications as well.

“The truth is that American workers,” especially black and native-born Hispanic workers, “have been severely impacted by the outrageous increase in lower-cost foreign labor, both legally and illegally, over the last 30 years,” Thomas Broadwater, president of Americans4Work, told Bloomberg Law Dec. 13.

The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, the “seminal immigration act of our time,” was “well-intended,” but it was never meant to increase the number of people that came into the country, said Broadwater, whose Washington, D.C.-based organization advocates on behalf of employment opportunities for black and Hispanic citizens. The law replaced the prior immigration system, which set national origin quotas that favored northern and western Europeans.

Despite the goal of diversity in immigration, the system has been “exploited,” and “we are seeing abuses across the board,” he said.

Response to New York Incident

The president said Dec. 12 he plans to end chain migration, responding to a pipe bomb explosion the day before in a walkway under New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. The suspect is a 27-year-old Bangladeshi immigrant, Ayaked Ullah, who is the child of a naturalized citizen’s sibling. The citizen who petitioned for Ullah’s parent obtained a green card through the diversity visa lottery, a program Trump also vows to end.

Ullah came to the U.S. through “the most remote possible family connection,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director L. Francis Cissna said at a White House press conference Dec. 12.

Cissna and Trump both called for an end to the programs, but such a move would have to come from Congress. Limits on these and other forms of legal immigration have been floated by the White House as part of a package that includes legal status for undocumented immigrants in the deferred action for childhood arrivals program, which the administration ended in September.

Lawmakers have yet to reach any kind of a deal addressing the DACA program.

But the term “chain migration” isn’t really defined, David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, told Bloomberg Law.

If you include everyone who received a green card through some kind of family connection, that would amount to 84 percent of all green cards issued in 2015, he said. And that figure has “pretty much been the same for the last decade,” totaling close to 8 million people, he said.

That means more than 8 million people would be excluded from the economy if this type of immigration were curtailed, Bier said.

In fact, if you include refugees and those seeking asylum, 94 percent of the immigration system is based on non-economic factors, he said.

Reduced Wages, Opportunities

George Borjas, a labor economist at Harvard University, has found that immigrants who came to the U.S. between 1990 and 2010 reduced the average annual earnings of U.S. workers by $1,396 in the short term. Those without a high school diploma were the hardest hit, seeing a wage reduction of 2 percent to 5 percent, he said.

If workers are grouped by education level and age, a 10 percent increase in the size of that group as a result of immigration reduces the wages of all native-born workers by 2.5 percent.

Using the same education level and age grouping, a 10 percent increase in the size of the group reduced the proportion of native-born blacks in that group holding a job by 5.1 percentage points, Borjas said.

The focus on a “single terrorist episode” like the one in New York distracts from the “tragic impact” of immigration on the American labor market, Broadwater said.

There’s been “some suggestion that it’s racist” to oppose immigration, he said. But it’s a “racist exploitation of the system” to have chain migration that increases the low-cost labor supply in areas where blacks traditionally have worked, such as retail, food and beverage, and blue collar sectors, he said.

It’s not just green cards, but also the exploitation of temporary visa programs such as the H-1B and J programs that has resulted in the displacement of black and Hispanic workers, Broadwater said.

Increased Education Level

Recent trends, however, show that immigrants in all visa categories increasingly have higher levels of education. A June report from the Migration Policy Institute found that 48 percent of immigrants who came to the U.S. between 2011 and 2015 had a college degree, compared with 31 percent of U.S.-born adults in 2015.

Many immigrants “have skills that our economy needs, and are going to contribute,” Bier told Bloomberg Law.

A 2016 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that immigration has little to no negative impact on native-born workers’ employment, and that high-skilled immigrants actually have a positive effect on the wages and employment of native-born workers.

“It’s incorrect to say that chain migration has been a negative for the country or the economy,” Bier said. The Trump administration is basing its immigration policy on a “very small sliver of the labor force"—high school dropouts—and their lack of employment opportunities can be traced to factors other than immigration, he said.

On the flip side, eliminating the labor force pool generated by family-based immigrants would result in a “very, very modest increase in wages of about 2 percent” for high school dropouts, and “an overall negative impact on every other educational level for the vast majority of the labor force in the United States, who have a high school degree and above,” Bier said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laura D. Francis in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Terence Hyland at

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