Opinion – Leave the Chains Unbroken

by Larry Floersch

As part of immigration reform, there’s a push to ban “chain migration.” According to the Washington Post, Trump has said ending “horrible chain migration” will be a condition of any deal that may protect those facing deportation after the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program expires.

According to the White House, chain migration is “The process by which foreign nationals permanently resettle within the U.S. and subsequently bring over their foreign relatives, who then have the opportunity to bring over their foreign relatives, and so on until entire extended families are resettled in the country.” The White House wants to replace that process with a merit-based system.

I disagree that the current process is “horrible” and find the proposed change unsettling. As I’ve discovered through my work on Ancestry.com, I, like many others in this country, am the product of chain migration.

My mother’s father was brought as a boy of six to the United States. His parents emigrated from the German state of Pomerania, which is now part of Poland, to the Chicago area because a cousin was already living there.

My mother’s grandmother was Swedish. She emigrated from central Sweden to the United States when she was about 18. Although I have not yet confirmed this, I am convinced she had family or family friends in the Chicago area. Why else would a single young woman choose to travel that far alone, and to Chicago of all places, in the late 1800s? Someone must have been waiting for her.

The story of my father’s family is similar. His great grandfather came from Germany to Chicago accompanied by his brother. They were cigar makers and had family in the area. Although they spoke German, my father’s mother’s family came from what was termed “Russian Poland.” They, too, had family and friends in Chicago.

Both sides of my extended family were connected through friendships and intermarriage with two other emigrant families. It was through these chains of interconnectedness that my father and mother met.

Had there been a merit system in place in the mid and late 1800s, I doubt many of my ancestors would have qualified for entry. Most were farmers, although there were a couple of carpenters along with the cigar makers in the mix. They were all largely unschooled. In the U.S., most of them turned to farming by working for other farmers or renting at first and then buying small farms when and if they could. My Swedish great grandmother worked as a household servant for a wealthy Chicago family for several years before she met and married my great grandfather, who was a renter farmer.

My ancestors were lucky. They came from “desirable” areas in Europe and not one of those places recently labeled with a scatological epithet. They were white and of “Germanic” origin. This country has a history of changing immigration policies dating back almost to its founding. As white Europeans, my ancestors would have been admitted under the Naturalization Act of 1790, which attempted to restrict immigration to Europeans or “Caucasians” only. Since they weren’t of Chinese or Asian descent, they didn’t have to worry about the Page Act of 1875 (restrictions on Chinese immigration) or the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. These were enacted  around the time many of my ancestors came to this country. In fact, even if they had arrived later than they did, they would not have had to worry about the Immigration Act of 1924, which was intended to limit the immigration of southern and eastern Europeans, especially Italians, Jews, and Slavs. And they were not Irish, against whom there was a swell of resentment because so many had arrived destitute as a result of the potato famine.

Even the current president is a product of chain migration. According to Wikipedia, Friedrich Trump, the current president’s grandfather, emigrated at age 16 from Kallstadt in Bavaria to New York City, arriving on October 19, 1885. The immigration records list his name as “Friedr. Trumpf” and his occupation as “none.”

If the immigration changes currently being proposed had been in place back then, Friedrich Trump might have been ineligible to enter the U.S. on two counts. First, on arrival, he moved in with his older sister, Katharina and her husband, Fred Schuster. They had emigrated in 1883. That would have violated a ban on chain migration. Second, although he had trained as a barber, Trump listed his occupation as “none,” because he had never held a job. It would be difficult for someone with no occupation to claim merit as a reason for entering the U.S.

If Friedrich Trump had been denied entry, his grandson would have been born outside the United States and therefore ineligible to hold the office of president.

As the debate over immigration reform moves forward, it behooves us all to remember that the urge to “close the door behind us” ebbs and flows, and to think about our own families. We are a nation of immigrants, and many of us are here through the process of chain migration.

We should also keep in mind that to the First Nations, the passengers on the Mayflower and all who followed are immigrants. And they entered without the permission of those nations, making them illegals.

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