Tuesday, December 3, 2019

What’s Wrong with ‘Chain Migration’?

"A Letter from Pat in America."
Immigrant letters home helped sustain the immigration flow.  
It's a shame that in the debate over how to fix America’s broken immigration system, the term “chain migration” has been distorted by politicians. Republicans are now using “chain migration” to describe the “family reunification” admissions category under which most immigrants have come to the US since 1965. It’s easy to understand the choice of words. If you want to reduce family-based admissions, calling them something that has a mechanistic ring makes sense.

In reaction, some Democrats have begun to characterize “chain migration” as an offensive term, because enslaved Africans came to America in chains. Others have condemned it as a nativist label intended to “dehumanize immigrants.” Certainly, meanings of words can and do change, but “chain migration” has for decades aptly described a major means of migration. This was particularly the case for the Irish, who were at one time its prime practitioners.

It’s a truism to say that the United States has always been an immigration nation, but during colonial times, immigrants came in relatively small numbers, a few hundred here, a thousand or two there. It was the Irish and Germans who in the 1800s gave meaning to the phrase mass immigration. By the 20th century, both countries had sent millions to America.  Yet the Irish and Germans came in different ways. The Germans traveled in family units, often as part of colonization schemes. The Irish tended to come in ones and twos. Once here, Irish pioneering immigrants, the anchors, maintained contact with families and friends at home, contributing to a massive trans-Atlantic exchange of letters. 

As early as the 1830s, the Irish of New York were sending through Liverpool some 700,000 letters per year. The numbers increased in the years following the Great Famine (c. 1845-1851). Drawing from the annual reports of the U.S. Postmaster General for the period 1854-1875, historian Arnold Schrier estimated a total of some 60 million letters sent from the United States to the United Kingdom, with the majority likely destined for Ireland.

Far fewer letters flowed in the reverse direction. The chief reason for the imbalance was that so many missives from America were “money letters” bearing small sums the emigrants had saved to relieve family distress at home. Much of the money paid rent, put food on the table, and otherwise served as a safety net for relatives left behind. Much of it was also intended to “bring out” family and friends. Historians estimate that some 40% of remittances were sent as prepaid tickets for the voyage to North America.

The immediate objective of Irish immigration was to escape grinding poverty in Ireland, but the ultimate goal was to reunite with family in America. This the Irish did better than any other immigrant group if we use Ireland’s massive transfer of population as a measure. Between 1847 and 1900, some 3 million came to the US, and Ireland’s population plummeted from 8 million to 4.5 million. The exodus has often been described as a desperate flight. That it was disorganized in the wake of the Great Hunger cannot be denied, but once the famine immigrants began to find work in America, they set about bringing over kin with deliberate efficiency.

“Chain migration,” like any metaphor, simplifies a more complex reality. We envision a single immigrant skimping and saving to bring over a brother or sister, the two then pooling pennies to send for another sibling—each a link in the chain. Yet, the chain was rarely a single-strand. It added links this way and that, pulling behind in-laws, cousins, neighbors, and friends. In To the GoldenDoor, George Potter described the process— “Behind the young Irish farm laborer or servant maid who set off alone for America was a waiting family, and behind them the friends.” Always "the friends," a term the Irish used promiscuously, often lumping together blood relatives and acquaintances.

Today, no one is talking about the admission of friends. Those days are gone. The current debate is about what kinds of immigrants we take and how many? These are not easy questions, but they should be addressed without muddling them with distorted rhetoric.

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