Leaving Mom Behind: Immigrant Families & State of the Union


Sometimes my husband and I talk about the future needs of our aging parents and how we anticipate the details of their care. We are only a couple years away from being part of what is often called the “sandwich generation,” meaning adults in their 40’s and 50’s raising minor children and with parents over 65. One challenge we have often discussed in considering future care is the fact that my husband’s parents are Guatemalan and live at home in Guatemala City.

In last week’s State of the Union address, President Trump laid out his four-pillar framework for addressing immigration reform. He discussed a path to citizenship for DACA recipients, securing the southern border, and ending this visa lottery program. He also addressed family unification measures, using instead the newly popular term “chain migration.” Trump said, “Under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives. Under our plan, we focus on the immediate family by limiting sponsorships to spouses and minor children.”

This rhetoric, common in inflammatory conversations about immigration today, promotes unchecked misconceptions about the realities of sponsoring immediate family members. According to the U.S. Department of State, lawful immigrants with green cards (permanent residents) can currently only sponsor spouses and unmarried children. When Trump suggests that immigrants are bringing “unlimited numbers of distant relatives,” that is simply not true.

U.S. citizens, however, can file petitions for additional family members, including married children, parents, and adult siblings. This pillar of Trump’s legislation would restrict U.S. citizens from being able to legally bring their children, parents, and siblings into the country. I think of my own mother-in-law and recognize that, while both my husband and I are U.S. citizens, we would not even have the option to invite her in our own home.

As people of faith, it’s also important to note how this language of “chain migration” and “unlimited distant relatives” only serves to fuel fear and concern about immigrants attempting to enter the country legally. The Bible often mentions chains in the context of them being broken. Consider Psalm 107:14: “He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness, and broke away their chains.” In Acts 12, we witness the chains fall of Paul’s wrists when the angel comes to free him from prison. And again, in Acts 16, the chains fall off all prisons as God orchestrates another miraculous release.

Chains often symbolize bondage and are broken in dramatic fashion. But when we describe immigrant families as chains we need to break, we deny their humanity and isolate ourselves from their reality. The more accurate description of these immigration policies is “family unification.” We are allowing permanent residents to apply for spouses and unmarried children and U.S. citizens to additionally petition for married children, siblings, and parents.

Numerous Evangelical leaders have vocalized their condemnation of the loaded term. To CBN News, Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition was quoted saying "the appropriate term is family unification, not chain migration. By changing the language many obfuscate the human toll of separating families." Additional leaders, including Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; Sister Donna Markham, president of Catholic Charities USA; and Matthew Soerens, US Director of Church Mobilization for World Relief also expressed their concern about family unification being framed as “chain migration.”

Evangelicals have often been leaders in supporting nuclear families, and this mission should not be distracted by nation of origin. We should be supportive of all families working to be together and support one another. Current immigration policies require that sponsors for family members take financial responsibility for new arrivals. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, applicants are required to demonstrate that they “have the financial means to live in the United States without needing welfare or financial benefits from the U.S. government. The law requires that the sponsor demonstrate that he or she is able to assist you financially.”

Families are designed to foster stability and support. Legislation that provides avenues for family unification is important for realizing these support structures. My mother-in-law is not a link in a chain to be broken. She is my husband’s mom and my children’s grandmother. She is an important part of our family. As people of faith, we value the nuclear family, and legislation aimed at fracturing these crucial bonds must be redirected so all families are valued.