President Donald Trump used the attempted New York terrorist attack this week to renew his call to end “chain migration.” That’s the term immigration restrictionists use to describe allowing U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents to help their family members immigrate to this country.
The president and his allies insist ― without evidence ― that this kind of immigration is a threat to the nation because it lets in suspect people. They argue that limiting Americans’ ability to bring in family members will help prevent attacks like Monday’s incident, which was allegedly perpetrated by a legal permanent resident from Bangladesh whose uncle, a U.S. citizen, had sponsored him to come to the U.S. in 2011. (The investigation so far suggests he became radicalized some years later.)
The fact is that Trump, like millions of other Americans, has personally benefited from the same sort of migration he now decries.
If the U.S. didn’t allow immigrants to follow their family members, Trump might have led a poorer and lonelier life. Some of his ancestors might not have come to the U.S. to join family, long the most common form of immigration. His in-laws’ options for joining his wife, herself an immigrant from Slovenia, in the U.S. would have been notably limited. His businesses could not have hired certain talented workers. And the president himself might not have been born in the U.S. at all.
Trump’s ancestors followed family members to the U.S.
Trump backs the RAISE Act, a bill from Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) that would restrict U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents from requesting family-based immigrant visas for anybody but their spouses and minor children. This would make it much harder for them to bring over their adult children, siblings or parents to reunite with them in the U.S.
Trump’s grandfather and mother both followed their siblings to this country. The president’s grandfather, Friedrich Trump, left Germany in 1885. His sister had already immigrated to New York and settled in a Manhattan enclave known at the time as Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany. The president’s Scottish-born mother, Mary Anne MacLeod, also followed family to New York, joining two sisters in the city in 1929, according to The New Yorker.
Migrants like Friedrich and Mary Anne didn’t need their family members to sponsor them for immigrant visas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the U.S. had a liberal policy of admitting European settlers. But migrating to join siblings or other relatives, as Trump’s ancestors did, is precisely the phenomenon the president has repeatedly pledged to end.
Trump’s in-laws followed their daughter Melania to the U.S.
If it becomes law, the RAISE Act could also block Trump’s in-laws from officially immigrating ― if they have not done so already. According to news reports, first lady Melania Trump’s parents live at least a significant part of the year in New York, where they reside at Trump Tower. Her sister, Ines Knauss, also lives in New York.
Immigration records are private in the United States. A spokeswoman for the first lady said the office does “not comment on the First Lady’s family in an effort to protect their privacy,” and the White House did not respond to a request for comment on how the president’s ancestors immigrated to the U.S.
David Wildes, an immigration lawyer who currently represents Melania Trump on immigration issues, likewise declined to comment on the status of her immediate relatives.
Assuming the first lady’s parents are still visitors, family reunification wouldn’t be their only option for taking up full-time residence in America. Investing $1 million in this country or sinking $500,000 into an enterprise that creates at least 10 jobs would qualify them for an EB-5 investor visa. If one of them showed “extraordinary ability” in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics, they might qualify for a green card on those merits ― as Melania Knauss did when she applied to become a legal permanent resident in 2001 to pursue a modeling career. If the first lady’s parents faced persecution in their home country of Slovenia, they might qualify for refugee status.
But the main reason Viktor and Amalija Knavs are living in the United States, according to multiple reports, is to care for their daughter’s child. That’s exactly the logic that drives U.S. immigration law to privilege family reunification. From the day Melania Trump took her oath of citizenship in 2006, she could have petitioned for her parents to immigrate to the United States. Even if she chose not to sponsor her parents for permanent residence, the law affords multiple ways to bring her family here for extended periods.
“It appears that Trump’s own family takes advantage of the immigration system when it suits them,” immigration attorney David Leopold told HuffPost. “And it’s completely hypocritical for Trump to then turn around and blame all immigrants for a horrible attack in New York that occured years after this guy got here.”
“Chain migration” has helped Trump’s businesses.
The president’s companies have also benefited from the policy he blamed for Monday’s attack. Trump’s modeling and Miss Universe businesses attracted top foreign candidates with the lure that they could also bring relatives to the U.S., according to Wildes, the immigration attorney who represented those two enterprises for more than a decade.
During that time, Wildes said, he processed hundreds of visa applications. More often than not, he said, negotiating green cards or work authorization for the employee’s family members was part of the deal.
“It’s hard to find talent,” Wildes told HuffPost. “And when they find talent, they generally want to negotiate family members to make sure their lives are more robust and meaningful. … Say we’re soliciting a visa for somebody and that person says, ‘I’m only going to come if you sponsor a visa for myself and green cards for my whole family so I can resettle here.’”
Wildes, a Democrat, called Trump’s comments after Monday’s terrorist attack “well-intended,” but disputed the idea that family-sponsored immigration should be blamed for such crimes.
“We have always appreciated the good cheer and solicitation of talent coming to the United States, including family members of those people so that they would be more motivated to work,” Wildes said. “This whole notion of ‘chain migration’ being negative is a new phenomenon and this vocabulary is emanating from people that are xenophobic and do not have a proud sense of our immigration legacy.”
Elise Foley contributed reporting.