Chain migration

Chain migration

Chain migration has multiple meanings. It refers to the social process by which immigrants from a particular town follow others from that town to a particular city or neighborhood, whether in an immigrant receiving country or in a new, usually urban, location in the home country. The term also refers to the process of foreign nationals immigrating to a new country under laws permitting their reunification with family members already living in the destination country. This mechanism is also known as serial migration.

Chain migration can be defined as a “movement in which prospective migrants learn of opportunities, are provided with transportation, and have initial accommodation and employment arranged by means of primary social relationships with previous migrants.”[1]


Chain migration and the accumulation of social capital

According to James Coleman, “social capital…is created when the relations among persons change in ways that facilitate action.”[2] Douglas Massey, Jorge Durand and Nolan J. Malone apply this theory to chain migration, positing that, “each act of migration creates social capital among people to whom the migrant is related, thereby raising the odds of their migration.”[3] In Massey et al.’s argument, social capital is the tool by which chain migration occurs. It the context of migration, social capital refers to relationships, forms of knowledge and skills that advance one’s potential migration. Massey et al. link their definition to Gunnar Myrdal’s theory of cumulative causation of migration, stating that, “each act of migration alters the social context within which subsequent migration decisions are made, thus increasing the likelihood of additional movement. Once the number of network connections in a community reaches a critical threshold, migration becomes self-perpetuating.”[4] Therefore, by initiating small social networks of migration, chain migration becomes a larger mass movement in and of itself.

Different forms of chain migration in American history

Different groups of immigrants to the United States throughout its history have employed different strategies to enter, work, and live in America. Some groups, such as Eastern European Jews, emigrated in families en masse from the Russian and Austo-Hungarian Empires of the late nineteenth century. One group of forgotten “immigrants” to America was African slaves brought over forcibly. However, many groups have immigrated to the United States throughout history via chain migration. These social networks for migration are universal and not limited to specific nations, cultures, or crises. Chain migration is an overarching theme of many of the immigration experiences in American history.

Italian immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century relied on a system of both chain and return migration. Chain migration helped Italian men immigrate to the United States for work as migrant laborers. Italians generally left Italy due to dire economic conditions and returned wealthy by Italian standards after working in the United States for a number of years. Italian immigrants were called ritorni[5] in Italy and grouped with other Southern and Eastern European migrant laborers under the term “birds of passage” in America. However, after the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, return migration was limited and led more Italians to become naturalized citizens. The networks that had been built up by information and money due to chain and return migration provided incentives for Italian permanent migration.

Mexican migration to the United States followed some of the same patterns as Italian immigration. The history of Mexican migrant labor in America and return migration to Mexico produced a network that allowed for chain migration once more restrictive legislation was passed hardening the border between the two nations. Chain migration based on the knowledge gained from migrant labor experience and relationships with American residents or citizens again provided some ease of immigration. From 1942 to 1964, the American government sanctioned Bracero Program allowed hundred of thousands of Mexican migrant workers to “familiarize themselves with U.S. employment practices, become comfortable with U.S. job routines, master American ways of life, and learn English,” thereby creating social and human capital.[6] After the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 disbanded the Bracero Program, the incentives and effects of chain migration perpetuated undocumented immigration to the United States. Absent any of the economic incentives, the Mexican American immigration relationship has a longstanding history and the effects of chain migration are pervasive when considering the number of Mexican American citizens, legal residents, and undocumented residents. Social capital provided by chain migration has helped perpetuate Mexican migration, whether it is undocumented or legal.

While immigrants from European nations during the period before the McCarran–Walter Act of 1952 were able to immigrate legally if with relative levels of ease depending on country of origin, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred almost all Chinese from immigrating to the United States. Nonetheless, many Chinese immigrants arrived in America by obtaining false documents. The Chinese Exclusion Act allowed the Chinese Americans already settled in America to stay and provided for limited numbers of family members of Chinese Americans to immigrate with the correct paperwork. This loophole and the fateful 1906 earthquake that destroyed San Francisco’s public records provided Chinese immigrants, almost entirely men, with the potential to immigrate with false documents stating their familial relationship to a Chinese American.[7] These Chinese immigrants were called “paper sons,” because of their false papers. “Paper sons” relied on networks built by chain migration to buy documentation, develop strategies for convincing authorities on Angel Island of their legal status, and for starting a life in America.

Ethnic enclaves

The information and personal connections that lead to chain migration lead to transplanted communities from one nation to another. Throughout American history, ethnic enclaves have been built and sustained by immigration. Different ethnic groups claimed distinct physical space in city neighborhoods to provide a reception for chain migration and maintain the community network it created. Examples of this trend include the many neighborhoods called Kleindeutschland, Little Italy, and Chinatown throughout the United States.

The same was true of rural areas in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Some rural towns in the Midwest were founded by immigrants and directly advertised in home countries. This case was especially true for many agricultural German immigrants of the nineteenth century. Certain towns were built on a homogenous group from a particular German principality. Additionally, many of these towns exclusively spoke German until the twentieth century. These enclaves and their contemporaries represent the close relationship between family, community, and immigration.

In the late nineteenth century, distinct Italian provinces and towns immigrated to the United States via chain migration. Regional ties in Italy initially divided Italian ethnic identity in cities like New York, and certain enclaves included only Southern Italians or immigrants from Naples. The community ties remained strong with first generation immigrants concerning social life. These communities were originally composed of only of men who immigrated for work. Once they had made enough money, many Italian men interested in settling began to bring their wives and families to America.[8]

The effects of Chinese Exclusion and discrimination prevented Chinese residents from assimilating into American society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Those factors, as well as social and cultural ties, precipitated the rise of Chinatowns as ethnic enclaves for Chinese Americans. Chain migration and the pseudo-familial nature of “paper sons” produced a relatively cohesive community that maintained ties with China.

Gender ratios of immigration

Single, young, male laborers were initially the largest group using chain migration to the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, each immigrant group maintained a unique composition due to circumstances in home countries, goals of migration, and American immigration laws. For example, Irish migration after 1880 had a 53.6% female majority, the only migrant group with that distinction.[9] Irish men and women faced economic crisis, overpopulation, and problematic inheritance laws for large families, thereby compelling many of Ireland’s daughters to leave with her sons. Italian chain migration was initially wholly male based on intent to return, but became a source of family reunification when wives eventually immigrated. Chinese chain migration was almost exclusively male until 1946, when the Chinese War Brides Act allowed Chinese wives of American citizens to immigrate without regards to Chinese immigration quotas. Before that time, chain migration was limited to “paper sons” and actual sons from China. The imbalanced sex ratio of Chinese immigrants was due to Chinese exclusion laws and the inability to bring current wives or to marry and return to the United States, inhibiting the corrective measure of chain migration. When immigrant groups react to economic pull factors in the labor markets, chain migration via family has been used informally to balance out the gender ratio in ethnic immigrant communities.


Remittances contribute to chain migration by aiding in both funding and interest in migration. Ralitza Dimova and Francois Charles Wolff argue that besides the recognized benefits remittances provide to the economies of the home countries of immigrants, money sent home can lead to chain migration. Dimova and Wolff posit that remittances can provide the necessary capital.[10] H. van Dalen et al. “find that recipients of remittances are more likely to consider migrating than non-recipients. This study also references the fact that causes of chain migration through remittances tend to be variable but include such pull factors as family ties and the possibility of success.”[11]

Besides the monetary remittances sent to families in the home country, immigrants’ letters generally included valuable information about their new life, their work, and information to guide other prospective immigrants in the family or community to ease their journey. Understanding the necessary steps, whether it is what port to leave from or who to seek out to get a job and apartment, was and is vital for successful immigration.


It was common in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for companies and even states to advertise to potential European immigrants in their home countries. These advertisements in magazines and pamphlets made information available for immigrants to find travel and decide where to settle once in the United States. Most of the advertising was done in the effort of settling the land in the Midwestern states in the wake of the Homestead Act of 1862. Consequently, many of the peoples whom this propaganda targeted were already living agricultural lives in Northern and Eastern Europe. Additionally, one the chain of migration had begun from a farm town in Europe, the pamphlets along with letters and remittances sent from America made migration an accessible opportunity for more and more of the people of that community. This chain eventually led to partial community transplantation and development of rural ethnic enclaves in the Midwest.

One example of this phenomenon is the chain migration of Czechs to Nebraska in the late nineteenth century. They were attracted by “glowing reports in Czech-language newspapers and magazines published [in Nebraska] and sent back home. Railroads, like the Burlington & Missouri Railroad, advertised large tracks of Nebraska land for sale in Czech.[12] Many similar advertisements were read in German principalities at the same time, accounting for parallel chain migration to the Great Plains. While the pull factor of these advertisements represent the potential for chain migration, and did in fact produce it, they must be understood within the context of the push factors all potential immigrants weigh when determining to leave their home country. In the case of Czech chain migration to Nebraska and many other similar circumstances in Europe, the various push factors provided the impetus to leave but the pull factors provided by pamphlets and letters provided the chain migration structure to the eventual immigration.

Legislation and chain migration

While the networks and effects of chain migration are in effect regardless of laws limiting immigration, the changing goals and provisions of immigration legislation nonetheless effect how the system of chain migration works. Exclusion and quotas have affected who chain migration draws as potential immigrants as well as how immigrants deal with their status once in the new country. However, family reunification policies in immigration law have served to promote chain migration through extended family visas.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and its successors creating the Asiatic Barred Zone, and the National Origins quota system built by the Immigration Act of 1924 were effective in limiting chain migration but could not end it entirely. Chinese immigrants took advantage of loopholes and false documents to enter the United States until the McCarran–Walter Act of 1952 gave them a migration quota.

Other migrant groups were limited in number by the National Origins quota system, which designated national quotas based on census ratios from 1890.[13] These ratios heavily favored Western European nations and older migrant groups, such as the English, Irish, and Germans. The ratios attempted to limit the rising number of Southern and Eastern European immigrants. The National Origins quota system provided limited family reunification as a means for chain migration and placed a preference on naturalization. If an immigrant became a U.S. citizen, he or she had the ability obtain non-quota visas for more family members, but as a resident that number was capped annually. Additionally, the Immigration Act of 1924 formally opened the door to chain migration from the entire western hemisphere, placing that group under non-quota status.

The abolition of the National Origins quota system came with the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. This legislation placed a heavy emphasis on family reunification, designating 74% of visas for that purpose. There was no limit on spouses, unmarried minor children, and parents of U.S. citizens. The percentages for family reunification were as follows: Unmarried adult children of U.S. citizens (20%), spouses and unmarried children of permanent residents aliens (20%), married children of U.S. citizens (10%), brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens over age 21 (24%).[14] These new visa preferences created a swell of new chain migration and immigration in general. The Third World began to outpace European immigration to America for the first time in history, surpassing it by the end of the 1960s and doubling the numbers of European migration by the end of the 1970s.[15]

In reaction to the flood of new immigrants brought by the Hart-Celler Act, and increasing numbers of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Latin America, Congress attempted to reverse the consequences of the 1965 legislation by enforcing border patrol, using amnesty for undocumented immigrants in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, and proposing limits to family reunification policies. The effects of the ending the Bracero Program were increased undocumented Mexican migration because of the social capital gained during that period. Chain migration had provided relatively easy access to migration for Mexicans that the immigration legislation of the 1980s to the present has attempted to deal with.

The current effects of chain migration in the United States

In the United States, the term 'chain migration' is used to partially explain why legal immigration has quadrupled from levels during the 1960s. As such, 'chain migration' is held up as one of the causes of the United States' current immigrant population boom.

Family reunification allows U.S. citizens and immigrants (Lawful Permanent Resident or "Green card" holders) to petition for visas for their immediate relatives. Until the late 1950s, America's family reunification policies included only spouses and minor children of immigrants. However, since that time, family reunification policies of the United States have included the ability of immigrants to sponsor not only their minor children and spouses, but also their parents, siblings, and adult children.

According to the theory of 'chain migration' as applied to immigrants to the United States, subsequent immigrant Lawful Permanent Resident parents and adult children can, in turn, sponsor their other children, parents, etc., thus representing a chain of immigrants following the first family member into the country. In practice, however, the wait times from when the petition is filed until the adult relative is able to enter the U.S. can be as long as 15–20 years (as of 2006). This is a result of backlogs in obtaining a visa number and visa number quotas that only allow 226,000 family-based visas to be issued annually. There are four family-based preference levels:[16]

First: Unmarried Sons and Daughters of Citizens: 23,400 plus any numbers not required for fourth preference.

Second: Spouses and Children, and Unmarried Sons and Daughters of Permanent Residents: 114,200, plus the number (if any) by which the worldwide family preference level exceeds 226,000, and any unused first preference numbers:

A. Spouses and Children: 77% of the overall second preference limitation, of which 75% are exempt from the per-country limit;

B. Unmarried Sons and Daughters (21 years of age or older): 23% of the overall second preference limitation.

Third: Married Sons and Daughters of Citizens: 23,400, plus any numbers not required by first and second preferences.

Fourth: Brothers and Sisters of Adult Citizens: 65,000, plus any numbers not required by first three preferences.

Backlogs in obtaining visa numbers range from four-and-a-half years (for preference level 2A) to 23-years (for preference level 4 immigrants from the Philippines).

While some backlogs have remained relatively steady for some time, since 1995, backlogs for other family-sponsored preferences have steadily increased. For first preference, adult children of U.S. citizens, for instance, the backlog for a visa number has increased from zero in 1995 to over 6½ years today.

Problems associated with chain migration

Currently there is a movement against chain migration and its effects. Specifically, the family reunification emphasis of the Hart-Celler Act had the unintended consequence of dramatically increasing levels of migration in general and chain migration in particular. FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a conservative think tank, promotes the idea that, “chain migration-and the expectations and long lines it produces-increases illegal immigration.[17] Additionally FAIR argues that, “illegal aliens given amnesty by Congress in 1986 are now fueling naturalization in record numbers. As these former illegal aliens become citizens, all of their immediate relatives qualify to come immediately to the United States, and start new migration chains of their own.”

NumbersUSA, a group that lobbies Congress for lower levels of immigration, states that, “one of the chief culprits in America's current record-breaking population boom and all the attendant sprawl, congestion, school overcrowding, and other impacts that reduce American's quality of life."[18] NumbersUSA cites the tradition of chain migration to America as a main cause for creating incentives for undocumented immigration.

NumbersUSA, FAIR, and other groups are working to change immigration law to limit chain migration favor. NumbersUSA cites a specific bill it supports. “On Feb. 4, 2009, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) introduced the Nuclear Family Priority Act (H.R. 878). The bill would eliminate the extended family visa categories (e.g., married sons and daughters of citizens, etc.), thus ending “chain migration” as recommended by the bi-partisan Barbara Jordan Commission in 1997.”[19]

Some academics agree. Massey et al. argue that while immediate family immigration provisions were created to promote and stabilize the family unit in American immigration and society, family reunification visas for extended family, such as adult siblings, are unnecessary when faced with rising immigration numbers.[20] Massey et al. support eliminating those quotas.


  1. ^ John S. MacDonald and Leatrice D. MacDonald, “Chain Migration Ethnic Neighborhood Formation and Social Networks,” The Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly, 42 (January 1964), 82.
  2. ^ James S. Coleman, Foundations of Social Theory, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 304.
  3. ^ Douglas Massey Jorge Durand, and Nolan J. Malone, Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration, (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002), 19.
  4. ^ Massey et al, 20.
  5. ^ Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life, 3rd ed., (Princeton, NJ: HarperPerennial, 2002), 189.
  6. ^ Massey et al, 42.
  7. ^ Daniels, 246.
  8. ^ Hasia Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 72-3.
  9. ^ Daniels, 141.
  10. ^ Ralitza Dimova and Francois Charles Wolff, “Remittances and Chain Migration: Longitudinal Evidence from Bosnia and Herzegovina,” (Discussion Paper, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA), March 2009), 1.
  11. ^ Dimova and Wolff, 2.
  12. ^
  13. ^ Massey et al, 145.
  14. ^ Massey et al, 216.
  15. ^ Massey et al, 220.
  16. ^ Visa Bulletin, State Department,
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^ Massey et. al., 162.

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