Column: Don’t attack legal immigration

Jonathan T. Weinberg

If you hate legal immigration, then Trump’s new plan is for you.

The White House this week made public its legislative plan for immigration reform. That plan would give us a nearly 40 percent cut in what President Trump calls “chain migration,” and the rest of us call “family-based migration” — legal immigration to the United States to join a close family member who is a U.S. citizen or green card holder. Trump’s plan is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how U.S. immigration law works, and what immigration to this country has always looked like. This plan isn’t an attack on illegal immigration; it’s an attack on the legal immigration that has made this country strong.

The first place this plan goes wrong is in its proponents’ understanding of current law. Congress member (and Senate candidate) Lou Barletta claimed yesterday that U.S. immigration law allows citizens and green card holders to sponsor “distant foreign relatives.” But that’s wrong. Under the law, if you’re a citizen or a green card holder, you can sponsor your husband, wife, or child — sometimes after a long wait. The waiting list for a person from Mexico seeking to enter as the adult son or daughter of a U.S. citizen, for example, is more than twenty years long. If you’re a U.S. citizen and you’re over 21, you can also sponsor your mom or dad, or a brother or sister — but again, the waiting list can be long. A person seeking to enter the United States as the brother of a U.S. citizen faces a fourteen-to-twenty-four-year waiting list after his application is approved, depending on what part of the world he or she comes from. That’s all the law allows — so if the administration is worried about “distant family members” flooding into this country, there’s nothing to fix.

The second place the plan goes wrong is that it flies in the face of the way legal immigration to the United States has always worked. For the past 200 years, immigration to this country has been family-based: people have made the trek to the United States to join their family members. One person would make the move first, and later he or she would be joined by a spouse, or a parent, or a brother and sister. In the 1800s, for example, a shipping clerk named Fred Schuster made the move from Germany to New York City. His financial prospects weren’t good — once in New York, he could only manage a succession of low-paying clerk jobs — but he had cousins already in the United States who helped support him. His fiancée Katherine joined him later, and a year later Katherine’s younger brother Friedrich moved in with them. Years after that, Friedrich brought his then-wife Elizabeth (born in Germany) to this country.

A quarter-century later, Mary MacLeod moved to this country from Scotland. She was unskilled and unemployed, and so she moved in with her older sister, who had come to the United States before her. Mary married Friedrich and Elizabeth’s son, and the child of that union was Donald Trump. That’s a staggeringly ordinary American family history.

The Trump administration is now urging Congress to change the immigration law so that people like Fred, or Friedrich, or Mary will no longer be able to move to the United States. Under the new proposal, parents, or siblings, or adult children of U.S. citizens and green card holders will no longer be eligible to immigrate — not at all, not even after a twenty-or-more-year wait. That would eliminate almost 40 percent of today’s family-based immigration, and about a quarter of all legal immigration to the United States. Congress should say no.

Jonathan T. Weinberg is a professor at Wayne State University Law School.