The Land of the Free and The Home of the Migrant

President Trump’s Slovenian in-laws, Viktor and Amalija Knavs, recently became United States citizens in a private ceremony in Manhattan, leading some critics to accuse the president of hypocrisy.

The ostensible reason for that charge was Mr. Trump’s repeated and vehement objection to what he calls “chain migration” — the “family reunification” element in American naturalization law.

The Knaveses were sponsored by their daughter, Melania Trump, for their “green cards,” or Lawful Permanent Residents permits, and then, after the required five years of residency, they applied, as parents of a citizen, for their own citizenship, which was granted. (Mrs. Trump reportedly entered the country in 2001 on a so-called Einstein visa for “individuals of extraordinary ability,” as a fashion worker, and became a United States citizen in 2006.)

But there is really no inconsistency in advocating for the tightening of family reunification policy even while taking advantage of current laws, any more than there would be in advocating for tax reform while applying for currently available tax exemptions.

The president’s concern, in any event, is about terrorists with American relatives receiving visas to enter the country. The Knaveses are in their 70s and would make highly unlikely terrorists. So the president shouldn’t be criticized for not preventing his in-laws from attaining citizenship. And we should all wish the new American couple well.

The high-profile case, though, does bring the issue of family reunification to the fore, and it is one that deserves to be better understood.

U.S. citizens and green card holders may petition for visas for their immediate relatives including their children, spouses, parents and siblings. It’s not a simple or quick process. The wait times from when a family reunification petition is filed until an adult relative is able to enter the U.S. can be as long as 15 to 20 years (as of 2006), the result of backlogs and visa quotas that only allow 226,000 family-based visas to be issued annually.

What is more, all immigrants admitted to the U.S. undergo rigorous security screening. The case of a terrorist “chain migrant” that the president and others have repeatedly cited is that of a Bangladeshi who entered a Manhattan subway passage with a homemade pipe bomb strapped to his body. But the man was radicalized only after coming to live in the U.S.

President Trump and his supporters in Congress want to limit family unification visas to only spouses and minor children, to cut the number of green cards from about a million annually — the current level — to half of that over a decade, and to institute a strict “merit-based” policy, which would give preference to immigration candidates who have English proficiency and education, and have undergone job training.

Defenders of family member immigration argue that it is unfair to punish the hundreds of thousands of foreigners who enter the U.S. each year and become law-abiding members of society because of the actions of one would-be bomber.

They maintain, further, that family members become support networks for immigrants as they start learning English, going to school or entering a foreign labor force. And that immigrants have come to America as family units since the nation’s founding, the vast majority becoming law-abiding contributors to the nation’s cultural and economic growth.

According to a recent survey, the number of immigrants approved for family-based visas dropped in 2017 to the lowest level in more than a decade. So even without new laws, the government has already begun to close the “chain migration” gate.

Most people agree that Americans and legal residents should be allowed to bring their immediate relatives (spouses, minor children and parents) along with them. As to married adult children, siblings or nieces and nephews, there is room for reasoned debate.

And security concerns should undoubtedly be part of deliberations about family reunification.

But the history of Jewish immigration to America and the current rise in anti-Semitism in some European countries certainly sensitizes us Jewish Americans to the importance of our country as a harbor for the persecuted and a place where family members born elsewhere can reunite with their relatives.

And so, any proposed changes to that role that our country has played in the past need to be considered with great care, and in a spirit of humanitarian concern, not one of unreasonable fear.