POLITICAL GENEALOGY

Chain Migration: What’s Changed?

Megan Smolenyak
6 min readFeb 13, 2018
Scottish family with 9 children upon arrival in New York City, 1890

The immigration debate is permeated by a forgetful nostalgia that frequently bubbles up the declaration, “But my ancestors came here legally!” Others have explained that this ignores how incredibly easy this was to do until the 1920s, so I’d like to address a few additional, underappreciated aspects of chain migration that seem to have been conveniently forgotten.

Yes, I know. “Chain migration” is an anti-immigrant and racist term, but that wasn’t always so. Before being co-opted and corrupted by white nationalists, it was considered a neutral phrase and used widely in fields ranging from population studies to genealogy. Most Americans wound up here as the result of a kind of long-distance game of tag played by their ancestors, and “chain” was meant to convey the links in this border-crossing endeavor.

Large Families

For understandable reasons, the preferred term is “family reunification,” but this wording fails to capture some nuances of our earlier patterns of migration. For instance, the White House is trying to sell the message that a single immigrant can multiply into dozens of new foreigners settling in America. Tucking aside that this overlooks the time-consuming and selective citizenship process we currently have, the reality is that if you meander back in time a few…

--

--

Megan Smolenyak

Genealogical adventurer & storyteller who loves solving mysteries! You may not know me, but chances are you’ve seen my work. (www.MeganSmolenyak.com)