Chain Migration refers to the endless chains of foreign nationals who are allowed to immigrate to the United States because citizens and lawful permanent residents are allowed to sponsor their non-nuclear family members.

It is the primary mechanism that has caused legal immigration in the U.S. to quadruple from about 250,000 per year in the 1950s and 1960s to more than 1 million annually since 1990. As such, it is one of the chief culprits in America's current record-breaking population boom and all the attendant sprawl, congestion, and school overcrowding that damage Americans’ quality of life.




Chain Migration starts with a foreign citizen chosen by our government to be admitted on the basis of what he/she is supposed to offer in our national interest. The Original Immigrant is allowed to bring in his/her nuclear family consisting of a spouse and minor children. After that, the chain begins. Once the Original Immigrant and his/her spouse becomes a U.S. citizen, they can petition for their parents, adult sons/daughters and their spouses and children, and their adult siblings.

The Family-Chain categories are divided into four separate preferences:

  • 1st Preference: Unmarried sons/daughters of U.S. citizens and their children (capped at 23,400/year)
  • 2nd Preference: Spouses, children, and unmarried sons/daughters of green card holders (capped at 114,000/year)
  • 3rd Preference: Married sons/daughters of U.S. citizens and their spouses and children (capped at 23,400/year)
  • 4th Preference: Brothers/sisters of U.S. citizens (at least 21 years of age) and their spouses and children (capped at (65,000/year)



    Due to Chain Migration, distant relatives of original immigrants may come to see immigration as a right or entitlement. When they realize that they may, in fact, have to wait years for a visa to become available because of annual caps and per-country limits on several of the family-based immigration categories, many decide to come illegally while they wait for their turn.

    According to recent Visa Bulletins prepared by the U.S. Department of State, green cards are currently being issued to Philippino-born adult brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens (the fourth preference under the family-sponsored categories) who first filed their green card applications in the early-1990s. While these adult family members are guaranteed green cards under current law, the wait time is so long, these family members instead choose to come to the United States and remain here illegally until their green card becomes available. In fact, the long wait times created by Chain Migration was one factor leading to Congress' decision to increase the annual caps on legal immigration in 1990.




    Immigration Act of 1924 -- Congress exempted spouses and unmarried adult children between 18-21 from per-country quotas

    Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 -- Congress created chain categories for parents, adult children, and adult siblings in a limited number of countries. Highly-educated or skilled immigrants, however, received priority.

    Immigration Act of 1965 (Hart-Celler Act) -- Congress extended the chains to every country of the world and reversed the priority so that the chain categories had preference over skill categories.

    Immigration Act of 1990 -- Congress raised the caps on chain categories.

    The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act established a four-category selection system for countries in the Eastern Hemisphere (Northern and Western Europe were heavily favored). As in the past, the Western Hemisphere was not subject to numerical limitations. The first preference, accounting for 50 percent of all green cards issues, went to skilled immigrants. The next three categories were divided among specified relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens.

    • 30 percent were made available to parents of U.S. citizens aged 21 or older.
    • 20 percent were made available to the spouses and children of lawful permanent residents.
    • Unused visas (capped at 25 percent per country) were made available to adult siblings and adult children of U.S. citizens.

    From "A Brief History of U.S. Immigration Policy" by Joyce Vialet, Congressional Research Service, December 22, 1980:

    Although U.S. immigration policy incorporated family relationships as a basis for admitting immigrants as early as the 1920s, the promotion of family reunification found in current law originated with the passage of the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (INA, P.L. 82-414). While the 1952 act largely retained the national origins quota system established in the Immigration Act of 1924, it also established a hierarchy of family-based preferences that continues to govern contemporary U.S. immigration policy today, including prioritizing spouses and minor children over other relatives and relatives of U.S. citizens over those of lawful permanent residents (LPRs).

    Immigration numbers soared during the second half of the 1950s and early-1960s, with more than half of all immigration coming from the Western Hemisphere which was not subject to numerical limitations. According to the Congressional Research Service:

    The gradual recognition that the national origins quota system was not functioning effectively as a means of regulating immigration was an important factor leading to the major policy revision which came in 1965.

    The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act made two significant changes that, in combination with the chain categories, doubled immigration over the next 25 years.

    • Revised the means by which immigration was regulated by replacing the national origin quotas with annual limits:
      • 170,000 annual limit for the Eastern Hemisphere
        • 20,000 per country
      • 120,000 annual limit for the Western Hemisphere
        • 20,000 per country (added in 1976)
    • Reversed the priority system for the Eastern Hemisphere so the chain categories gained preference over education and skills.
      • Amendments in 1976 applied the preference system to the Western Hemisphere as well.

    In 1976, Congress amended the 1965 bill by reversing the priority system -- family-sponsored then employment-based -- for both the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. Then, In 1978, Congress ended the per-county limits and replaced them with a single worldwide cap of 290,000. Through passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, Congress reduced the worldwide cap to 270,000, but removed Refugees as a preference.

    The 1990 Immigration Act raised the annual caps on these chain categories in bold (P.L. 101-649, Section 111):

    • unlimited for parents of adult U.S. citizens
    • 23,400 for unmarried adult children of citizens
    • 114,200 for spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents; and unmarried adult children of LPRs (with 77% reserved for spouses and minor children)
    • 23,400 for married children of citizens
    • 65,000 for adult siblings of citizens age 21 and over




    The Immigration Act of 1990 called for a bi-partisan commission to "review and evaluate the impact of this Act and the amendments made by this Act" and to issue findings and recommendations on (among other things) the "impact of immigration...on labor needs, employment, and other economic and domestic conditions in the United States."

    The commission, chaired by Barbara Jordan, recommended the elimination of the chain migration categories.

    "Unless there is a compelling national interest to do otherwise, immigrants should be chosen on the basis of the skills they contribute to the U.S. economy. The Commission believes that admission of nuclear family members and refugees provide such a compelling national interest, even if they are low-skilled. Reunification of adult children and siblings of adult citizens solely because of their family relationship is not as compelling." – Barbara Jordan, June 28, 1995

    Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) introduced legislation that would end Chain Migration based on the Jordan Commission's recommendations – the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act (S. 354). The bill would reduce legal immigration by up to 50% by ending future chain migration and the diversity visa lottery.

    Chain Migration
    Legal Immigration