What is Chain Migration?

"Ethnic enclaves", like this Chinese neighborhood in Singapore, are said to come as a result of chain migration. Photo credit: NG ZHENG HUI.

Chain migration is a term used to describe several scenarios. One of the scenarios is the common practice of immigrants to follow populations of a similar cultural and ethnic heritage to settlements they have found in their new homeland. When a population continually facilitates the movement of other people to their new community, a chain of people constantly moving from region to region is established, and it is supported by the population who occupy the new community before them. Chain migration can also refer to the process of foreign individuals immigrating to a new nation under laws accommodating their reunification with their respective families already residing in the destination country. A good example of this phenomenon is the settling of immigrants from Mexico in South Texas since Mexican conclaves have been firmly established in the region for decades. Immigrants tend to move to regions where they feel most comfortable such as those regions with a population which shares similar nationality and culture.

A Brief History of Chain Migration in America

Various immigrant groups have used different strategies to settle and work in the US. Italian immigrants flocked to the nation in the late 19th to the early 20th century. Chain migration facilitated the entrance of Italian men to work as migrant laborers. The Italians left Italy because of depressing economic conditions, and after some years they went back to their nation wealthy by the country's standards. The adoption of the 1924 Immigration Act restricted return immigration and resulted in many Italians becoming naturalized citizens. The networks that had emerged through money and information and because of chain and return immigration encouraged the Italian permanent migration. Mexicans in the US have also exhibited the same migration patterns as the Italians. The restrictive legislation was subsequently adopted to harden the border between the two nations. The Bracero Program (1942-1964) helped thousands of Mexican immigrants to assimilate into the US culture. When the program was done away in 1965, the many Mexicans who had settled into the country helped others gain entry and facilitated undocumented immigration to the US. In 1882, limitations to Chinese immigration was done through the Chinese Exclusion Act. The law did little to deter the immigration of numerous Chinese by the use of false documents. A Chinese immigrant had only to state his familial relationship to any Chinese American and the use of fraudulent documents earned these immigrants the name "paper sons."

Examples of Ethnic Enclaves in the US

Since Chinese immigrants were excluded and discriminated against in the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, most of them found it difficult to assimilate into American society. This situation in addition to cultural and social ties resulted in the proliferation of Chinatowns which served as enclaves for Chinese Americans. One of the largest of these Chinese enclaves is situated in San Francisco, and it emerged as a port of entry for the early immigrants between the 1850s to the 1900s. The immigrants provided large companies with labor and some of them worked on the Central Pacific railroad. Some of the immigrants worked as independent prospectors aspiring to make wealth in the course of the 1849 Gold Rush while others preferred to be engaged as mine workers. Chinatowns cropped up in nearly every large settlement along the West Coast from Victoria to San Diego.

Italian immigrants and their subsequent generations have established Little Italy in the US including several in New York such as the Italian Harlem in Manhattan and Country Club, Belmont, Morris Park, and Pelham Bay in the Bronx. Some American rural towns were created by immigrants such as New Glarus in Wisconsin. The town was developed by Swiss immigrants who named it after the canton of Glarus situated in eastern Switzerland. The canton faced poverty in the 1840s after some years of failed crops. The government identified migration to America as a solution to unemployment. The Glarus Emigration Society was founded in 1844 and it provided loans to residents to assist them in purchasing land in the New World. Swiss volunteers settled on a region in the Little Sugar River which was an untamed wilderness. The pioneers were traders, carpenters, farmers, and mechanics who lent their knowledge to developmental activities in the new community. The town is recognized today for its Swish heritage, and it has continued to maintain old world traditions. Such Swiss customs as flag tossing and yodeling remain alive in the town.

What are Some of the Advantages and Disadvantages of Chain Migration?

Chain migration has triggered a lot of debate in the US. Cuban immigrants are among the major beneficiaries of the US family reunification program. This reunification is well illustrated in the development of a large exile settlement in South Florida. Hundreds of thousands of Cuba nationals have benefited from reunification programs since the 1960s. Opponents of chain migration cite some of these large numbers as a cause for alarm as it has resulted in the skyrocketing of migration to the nation. The US allows citizens to petition for legal status for their parents and spouses as well as minor children without numerical restrictions. The citizens can further petition for additional family members with numerical restrictions, however. Opponents of the system claim it allows a lot of unskilled and poor individuals into the country, and it encourages manipulation of the system and the overstaying of visas.

What Does the Research Say?

Research, such as the one undertaken by the Pew Hispanic Center, illustrate that family-based immigration is a recipe for stability. Chain migration is seen as promoting financial independence and adhering to laws and regulations. The government caps the number of family members able to immigrate annually to restrict immigration. Furthermore, immigrants in stable homes with strong family links in their adopted nations can assimilate and contribute to the new society more easily than immigrants who do not have such benefits.


Remittances sustain chain migration through money and interest in migration. Ralitza Dimova, in association with Francois Charles Wolff, proposes that other than the identified contributions remittances provided to the economies back home, the funds can also facilitate chain migration. The study explores the reality that causes chain migration via remittances are often variable but involve such pull factors as the possibility of success and family ties. The communication of immigrants with the people back home is often characterized with information about their new homeland and work and also information to guide potential immigrants in the family and community in their relocation.


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