Donald Trump

Lies About Chain Migration Are Donald Trump's 'Welfare Queen,' a Tall Tale To Comfort the Base

Politicians, especially presidents, should be held accountable for telling patently false anecdotes about real people.


President Donald Trump appeared this morning on Fox & Friends, which is reportedly his favorite TV show this side of The Apprentice franchise. Here's a clip from his interview with host Brian Kilmeade:

When discussing immigration policy, Trump repeatedly insists that "chain migration" allows for the fast and uncontrolled importation of huge numbers of family members. In today's interview, he says, "Chain migration is a disaster. You look at what's going on where someone who comes in is bad and has 24 family members yet not one of them do you want in this country."

Note that Trump here is talking about legal immigration, not illegal entry. His defenders often say it's illegal immigration that bothers them, but the fact is that the president, along with many leading Republicans, are working to reduce legal immigration by as much as 50 percent. The term "chain migration," which originally described a well-observed pattern by which residents of one town or area in a foreign country ended up settling in a particular new town or region because they followed previous migrants, is designed to conjure up images of one new arrival in America (someone bad, in Trump's formulation above) quickly and deviously smuggling in enough people to field a high school football team. Yet as Shikha Dalmia has written,

Beyond spouses and minor children, American law allows immigrants to sponsor only parents, adult children, or siblings—not aunts, uncles, and cousins. Moreover, they can do so only after they themselves receive green cards or become naturalized citizens.

It can take up to 45 years for an immigrant to show up in the United States, gain citizenship, and bring in the next single link in this chain. As a result, the U.S. annually admits only about 2 to 2.5 family members of immigrants per 1,000 residents, the same rate as Canada and Australia, countries with skills-based systems Trump says he favors. Dalmia further notes that fully two-thirds of immigrants sponsored by other immigrants are spouses and minor children.

Last December, the White House tweeted this chart, which is supposed to drive home the insidious nature of chain migration:

If this is the ticking demographic time bomb that keeps Trump up late at night, he should rest easy. Dalmia again (via Katherine Mangu-Ward):

If a typical 26-year-old foreign woman were to get married to an American citizen, and then sponsor her 25-year-old sister to get a green card, that sister would be 40 years old before she could obtain permanent residency. If she's a Filipina, her sister would be closer to 50 years old. If the sister then sponsored some other immediate relative, that person would have to go through a 15- to 25-year process as well. Over a half a century, then, most families could at best traverse two links in the alleged "chain," hardly the kind of thing that would result in mass migration.

The White House chart is illustrating a process that would unfold over centuries, not months or even decades. The larger conversation about immigration is misleading in other ways, too. While the percentage of the U.S. population that is foreign-born is at a recent high (13.5 percent in 2016, a level not seen since the period between 1870 and 1920), the rate of growth in net migration of legal and illegal immigrants is slowing along with overall rate of population and the raw number of illegal immigrants has been declining for at least a decade (the illegal population was 11 million in 2016, down from a 2007 peak of 12.2 million). The number of illegal Mexicans, an early and sustained focus of Trump's ire, also peaked in 2007.

While Trump's description of chain migration and its effects on American population is false and misleading, it serves a clear political function. It's a signal to his base that he gets it and is looking out for their interests, which include not simply making America great again but rolling back the supposedly still-growing tide of newcomers invading the country from non-traditional places such as China, India, and Mexico (currently the three largest sender countries, in decreasing order of immigrants).

His hammering on "chain migration" calls to mind Ronald Reagan's oft-repeated story about a welfare cheat in Chicago. Though he never named her, Reagan is widely understood to be talking about a woman known as Linda Taylor (among other aliases). Drawing off accounts in the Chicago Tribune (which coined the term welfare queen), Reagan first told the tale in January 1976, during his run for Republican presidential nomination:

In Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record…She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans' benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.

By October, reported Slate's Josh Levin in 2013, Reagan was claiming that she had "three new cars, a full-length mink coat, and her take is estimated at a million dollars." He attributed his facts again to investigative reporting by the Tribune, wrote Levin, but "I can't find anything in the Tribune to support the claim that Taylor's take reached $1 million." There's no question that Taylor was a criminal—she was convicted in 1977 of ripping the government off of $8,000 in various welfare scams—but the distance between that and a million dollars is vast.The welfare queen was understood to be black, as was the "strapping young buck" whom Reagan claimed in other speeches was using food stamps to buy "T-bone steak…while you were waiting in line to buy hamburger." Tellingly, outside of the South, Reagan referred to "some young fellow," a less racially charged description. Did such a person exist? Perhaps, but the point wasn't to be factually accurate but to connect with what he took to be his overwhelmingly white audience's sense of outrage and solidarity against the Other.

This sort of fabulism and exaggeration is appalling when it comes from anybody purporting to traffic in facts. It's all the more troubling when, in the cases of both Reagan and Trump, it's being used to demonize ethnic and racial minorities whose political power and cultural standing is marginal at best. That presidents of all people stoop to such tactics in unconscionable and my first inclination is to call out the racism and xenophobia in Trump's comments along with his made-up example.

But that's a losing strategy, actually, when it comes to Trump. Among the many genius elements of his rhetorical style is his ability to tie his critics up in knots. Just last week, he artfully managed to get Democratic politicians to burn air time defending members of the violent MS-13 gangs as something other than "animals." What's the old saying? When you wrestle a pig, you both get dirty and the pig enjoys it. If you talk about factual inaccuracy and racism with Trump or his supporters, suddenly you're going to be talking about racism plain and simple.

There's no reason to play Trump's game. He is wrong about chain migration, pure and simple, just as he is wrong more generally about the costs and benefits of immigration. The next time you see him (or his supporters), ask him (or his supporters) to produce his magical immigrant and the 24 relatives he has brought in via America's glacially-paced immigration system. He (and they) won't be able to, which should at least give them pause, if not the deeper shame they should feel about bullshitting all the time.

Related: "The 5 Best Arguments Against Immigration—and Why They're Wrong"

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