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President Donald Trump drew boos when he said during his first State of the Union address that under what Republicans call "chain migration" -- and Democrats refer to as family reunification -- a "single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives."
PolitiFact National rated his claim Mostly False. Lawful permanent residents (green card holders) can petition for a spouse and unmarried children to come to the United States; and U.S. citizens can also petition for married children, parents and siblings.
But neither permanent residents nor citizens can directly petition for an aunt, uncle, cousin, niece, nephew, in-law relative or grandparent.
Nevertheless, Trump’s remark underscores a broader claim made by U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., on the ways in which legal immigrants enter the United States. Johnson’s claim is different than Trump’s, but helps provide a clearer picture of the sources of legal immigration.
On Jan. 12, 2018, more than two weeks before the State of the Union, Johnson was interviewed about immigration on Wisconsin Public Television’s "Here and Now" show. He said he wants to limit "the abuse of chain migration" and then made a four-part statistical claim, telling host Frederica Freyberg:
From my standpoint, we have got to start closing the loopholes created by bad law, bad legal precedent that incentivize people to come to this country illegally. We have to limit "chain migration" to a common-sense level. Right now, Frederica, we let about 1.1 million people in this country legally -- in terms of permanent, legal residence -- every year. Sixty-five percent of that is some kind of "chain migration"; 22 percent is diversity lottery, "asyling" and refugees. Only about 14, 15 percent has anything to do with work. That is a crazy system, when you have literally millions -- probably hundreds of millions of people want to come to this country -- we can’t assimilate all those people. We’ve got to limit and we’ve got to limit it on a merit-based system. So, we’ve got to fix our system.
Chain migration, Johnson continued, "allows an immigrant to allow in their parents, their children -- but what ends up happening is, it does chain, where those people can bring in their children, their parents; and all of a sudden, one individual and you’ve got cousins and adult children and adult siblings -- that’s what we need to limit to something that just makes common sense."
As we’ll see, three parts of Johnson’s four-part claim are essentially on target.
But a major part of his claim -- saying that 65 percent of legal immigration is through "chain migration" -- is misleading.
To back Johnson’s claim, his office cited data from from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security yearbook of immigration statistics.
The first part of his claim, on the total number of legal immigrants -- 1.18 million in 2016 -- is correct.
As for the other three parts, here are figures for 2016, the latest year available, based on how Johnson breaks down legal immigrants:
804,793 -- 68%
Diversity lottery, refugees, asylees and other
240,819 -- 20%
137,893 -- 12%
(Diversity lottery allocates visas to individuals from countries with historically low rates of immigration to U.S.; a refugee is a person outside his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution; an asylee is a person who meets the definition of refugee and is already present in the United States or is seeking admission at a port of entry.)
So, Johnson’s claim -- based on the way he breaks down immigration groups -- is within several percentage points on the second and third categories for 2016. Moreover, those two percentages have been roughly stable for years, experts told us.
But his reference to "chain migration" -- a relatively new term in the Washington lexicon that the New York Times says has been "weaponized" to sway public opinion -- is misleading in alluding to the immigration of extended-family members.
Individuals in that category are admitted to the United States based on family relationships, as opposed to the other two categories Johnson cites.
But in round numbers, only 120,000 of the 800,000 immigrants that Johnson lists as "chain migration" were not the spouses, children or parents, according to Stephen Legomsky, a Washington University law professor emeritus and immigration law specialist.
That means extended-family members, based on Johnson’s categories, make up only 10 percent of the 1.18 million total legal immigrants.
Syracuse University political science professor Elizabeth Cohen, whose specialties include immigration, told us:
This idea that an immigrant receives a visa and all of a sudden five or 10 close and distant relatives are being pulled in on a chain is completely unrepresentative of how our immigration system actually works.
Johnson says about 1.1 million people legally enter the U.S. each year as permanent residents -- "65 percent of that is some kind of chain migration; 22 percent is diversity lottery, ‘asyling,’ refugees; only about 14, 15 percent has anything to do with work."
He’s correct on the total number, and his breakdown of two of the categories is essentially on target.
But to say that 65 percent come through "chain migration" -- which typically refers to the extended-family members of an immigrant in the United States -- is misleading. The vast majority of individuals in that group are spouses, children or parents, not more distant relatives.
Johnson’s statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details -- our definition of Half True.
Related fact check: Would Trump bill have kept his grandfather and Melania from immigrating to U.S.? (And you, too?)
Wisconsin Public Television, Ron Johnson interview (4:35), Jan. 12, 2018
Email, Sen. Ron Johnson spokesman Ben Voelkel, Jan. 22, 2018
U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Table 7 of "Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2016"
PolitiFact National, "Arkansas senator says of 1 million green cards issued, few are employment-based," Feb. 14, 2017
PolitiFact National, "Trump, Republican senators present bill to reform legal immigration," Aug. 2, 2017
Wall Street Journal, "The Curious History of ‘Chain Migration,’" Jan. 19, 2018
PolitiFact Florida, "Marco Rubio says only 6.5 percent of immigrants ‘come here based on labor and skill,’" Jan. 16, 2013
PolitiFact National, "Donald Trump's misleading claim about chain migration, unlimited sponsorship of distant relatives," Jan. 31, 2018
New York Times,"Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address," Jan. 30, 2018
Interview, Cato Institute immigration policy analyst David Bier, Jan. 29, 2018
USA Today, "What is 'chain migration' and why does President Trump want to end it?" Jan. 11, 2018
Center for Immigration Studies, "Immigration Multipliers Trends in Chain Migration," September 2017
Email, Syracuse University political science professor Elizabeth Cohen, whose specialties include immigration, Jan. 29, 2018
Interview, Washington University law professor emeritus and immigration law specialist Stephen Legomsky, Jan. 29, 2018
Washington Post Fact Checker, "A White House chart on ‘chain migration’ has numbers that add up, but it lacks context," Jan. 25, 2018
Interview, Center for Immigration Studies director of research Steven Camarota, Jan. 26, 2018
PolitiFact Wisconsin, "Would Trump bill have kept his grandfather and Melania from immigrating to U.S.? (And you, too?)," Jan. 19, 2018
The Hill, "What is chain migration?" Jan. 25, 2018
New York Times, "The Facts Behind the Weaponized Phrase ‘Chain Migration,’" Jan. 26, 2018
Interview, Brookings Institution vice president and director of governance studies Darrell West, Jan. 29, 2018
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