Study: Chain Migration Drives Unsustainable Population Growth

Think tank shows reduced levels of immigration could course-correct U.S. demographic trends

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 14 Feb 2017 at 11:25 AM

Curtailing “chain migration” would slow U.S. population growth to a manageable rate, according to a study released Tuesday by a think tank that advocates maintaining a stable population.

The study by the Alexandria, Virginia-based Negative Population Growth, found that immigration resulting from new citizens sponsoring extended relatives is a significant driver of overall population growth. This is because of the immigrants themselves — each new citizen from 1981 to 2009 sponsored an average of 3.45 additional immigrants — and because of their U.S.-born children.

“In the case of the United States, immigration is bringing in more people that we can employ. It’s skewing our labor market. We have a surplus of people in low-skill occupations.”

From 1972 to 1997, new immigrants sponsored 2.1 new immigrants, on average, and had an average of 2.2 children. The 5 million new immigrants, added to 10.6 million sponsored family members and 10.3 million U.S.-born children of the original migrants, equals 25.9 million additional people over that time period. That accounts for 41.3 percent of U.S. population growth during that period.

“In the case of the United States, immigration is bringing in more people that we can employ,” said the study’s author, Jessica Vaughan, who also serves as director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies. “It’s skewing our labor market. We have a surplus of people in low-skill occupations.”

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Much of the low-skill immigration to the United States occurs as a result of visas given to family members of new citizens, who can sponsor parents and other adult relatives, according to the study. Reams of research indicates that immigrants without advanced skills or education do not earn enough money to pay for the government services they receive.

Vaughan said the population growth also leads to urban sprawl, taxes the environment, and strains government services.

Chain Migration
Year of AdmissionNew immigrantsFamily Sponsored
1981-1985889 0302 300 562
1986-19902 238 3502 474 425
1991-19952 375 6373 327 977
1996-2000979 1763 392 130
Total6 482 19311 495 094
Source: Negative Population Growth

“I can’t think of any advantage of adding more people to the population,” she said.

Chain migration exceeds new immigration by a ratio of roughly two to one, according to the report. Family based visas accounted for more than 16 million of the 26 million immigrants admitted from 1981 to 2009. Over that period, chain migration never has been less than half of total immigration and has averaged about two-thirds of immigration.

Family based migration also appears to be accelerating; each new immigrant sponsored an average of only 3.46 new immigrants from 1996 to 2000. In the previous five-year period, the average number was 1.4, and it was 1.11 from 1986 through 1990.

Vaughan said the years after 1986 were artificially low because of an amnesty granted to 3 million illegal immigrants that year. It took time to process the amnesty applications, and recipients had to wait three years before they could sponsor family members in foreign countries. That led to a buildup in waiting lists.

Eliminating chain migration except for spouses and minor children is part of legislation offered last week by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) to cut legal immigration in half within 10 years. Vaughan said the research she has examined suggests that might be an ambitious goal, but she added that the reduction would be significant.

"It depends on a lot of things, where they come from and whether there's an amnesty," she said. "That's a tough thing to calculate with the information we have."

Data indicate a wide variation in chain migration from region to region and country to country. From 1996 through 2000, for instance, the rate ranged from a low of 1.67 sponsored immigrants by European migrants to a high of 5.31 per immigrant from South America and Oceania.

Mexican immigrants during that period sponsored an average of 6.38 new immigrants, followed by 6.24 from China.

The study challenges one oft-repeated argument in favor of immigration — the need to make the U.S. workforce younger to counter the demographic time bomb that threatens the sustainability of Social Security and Medicare. The study cites statistics indicating that the share of immigrants older than 50 sponsored by new citizens grew from 17 percent among new immigrants arriving in the 1980s to 21 percent for those arriving in the 1990s.

"That's significant, because it means fewer working years for the immigrants we're getting," Vaughan said.

She said older immigrants with shorter work spans contribute relatively little to old-age income and health programs but will add to the overall costs of those programs.

The report makes several recommendations:

  • Congress should eliminate entire categories of immigration visas and green cards reserved for extended family members, like adult children and siblings. Admissions of these two categories account for about 85,000 immigrants each year, or about 8.5 percent of all legal immigration.
  • Congress should eliminate the Diversity Visa lottery program, which awards up to 50,000 green cards each year to applicants selected at random.
  • Congress should limit admissions of parents of prior immigrants. Currently, about 110,000 to 125,000 immigrants from each year under this program. Cutting that number to 65,000 per year — combined with the other proposed reductions — would cut legal immigration by 200,000, or 20 percent.
  • Cut in half the 165,000 people who entered the country through presidential discretion, such as refugee and asylum seekers.
  • President Donald Trump should direct immigration authorities to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies determine the environmental impact of government actions. The Immigration Reform Law Institute sued the government last year to force such compliance.
  1. Birth Rate
  2. chain migration
  3. Green Cards
  4. immigration
  5. Population Growth
  6. Visas
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