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Editor’s Note: Karthick Ramakrishnan (@karthickr) is professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside and is the co-author, most recently, of “Framing Immigrants: News Coverage, Public Opinion, and Policy.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN) —  

The media has focused relentlessly on Donald Trump’s closed-door meeting last week with US senators, where he reportedly referred to African nations as “shithole countries.” Republicans and Democrats alike have rightly condemned the language as disrespectful and unacceptable, and news outlets have covered the speculation and controversy over whether Trump used that exact phrase or a different one.

Karthick Ramakrishnan
PHOTO: Woodrow Wilson Center
Karthick Ramakrishnan

By contrast, very few are paying attention to another of the President’s word choices – less outrageous but nevertheless, one with huge potential consequences.

Trump is shifting the narrative on family migration by using an ideologically loaded term – “chain migration” – instead of the more neutral terms that have long been used in America to describe an essential feature of immigration policy: “family reunification” or “family migration.”

These terms accurately describe the ability of US citizens and immigrants to sponsor family members for visas. By contrast, “chain migration” is a phrase used by conservative groups whose apparent aim is to reduce immigration — both legal and illegal — to the United States. Such groups, like NumbersUSA and Federation for American Immigration Reform, use the term to mischaracterize family immigration and cast it in a negative light.

For over 50 years, family unification has been one of two main pillars of US immigration policy. When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, a landmark bill that abolished national origin restrictions, he said that “from this day forth those wishing to immigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills and their close relationship to those already here. This is a simple test, and it is a fair test.”

Americans have, by and large, affirmed the fundamental fairness of this test and of valuing both family visas and high-skilled visas. For example, the Gallup organization asked Americans in 2013 if they would prioritize high-skilled workers or people with family members already in the United States. It found that roughly equal proportions of Americans supported each priority.

More recently, in August 2017, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey asked Americans what they thought of a White House-backed immigration bill that would cut legal immigration by half and “would mean that many immigrants who have family members in the United States would not be allowed to live here permanently.” Forty-five percent of Americans thought this policy change was a bad idea, and only 27% thought it was a good idea.

Despite significant support for family visas, public opinion on immigration could well change, particularly given the agenda-setting power of the White House. By using the misleading and ideologically charged “chain migration,” President Trump is pushing public support away from family-based visas.

First, portraying his so-called “chain migration” as some kind of American “problem” is deeply misleading. On the contrary, according to the Department of Homeland Security, visas to extended family members of US citizens, like siblings and married adult children, account for less than 10% of all green cards issued in recent years.

The term “chain migration” also carries faulty implications. It shifts our mental images away from families reunited in a country offering opportunities for a fresh start, and gets us to think instead of immigration as a malign chain reaction, an overwhelming and unstoppable process.

Indeed, the explainer page on “chain immigration” by a prominent immigration restriction group features a graph showing explosive population growth, starting with one immigrant and increasing to 128 in very short order. By contrast, immigration data from the Department of Homeland Security shows a steady — not rapidly climbing – level of extended family visas over the last decade.

Incidentally, the White House “explainer” on “chain migration” also features a striking graphic representation, drawn to suggest even bigger exponential growth, while offering no data to support the image.

This is not the first time that conservatives have fixated on simple word changes to move public opinion on immigration. In 2005, conservative pollster Frank Luntz advised Republicans they could defeat any attempt at immigrant legalization by consistently referring to it as amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

“If it sounds like amnesty, it will fail,” Luntz noted, and our survey research shows that this strategy does indeed work, causing public support to decline even for immigration policies like DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which are temporary and targeted solutions that fall far short of so-called “amnesty.”

What is new in the anti-immigration gambit that is before us now, however, is the messaging push to portray even legal immigration as suspect and undesirable. Indeed, as Reuters reports, immigration restriction organizations are increasing their efforts to restrict legal immigration, including with a national advertising campaign against “chain migration” by NumbersUSA. These organizations are hoping to make that phrase as powerful as “amnesty” in pushing for more immigration restriction.

Unfortunately, groups like NumbersUSA have found a willing ally in President Trump, who is mainstreaming immigration restriction by including “chain migration” in his tweets, his remarks, and in official White House statements. Indeed, even news outlets like National Public Radio are now using the term descriptively rather than critically, with a recent story implying that chain migration is a more common expression than family reunification, while indeed the opposite has been true for decades.

There is a fundamental shift taking place in the way that we think and talk about legal immigration, with potentially far-ranging consequences for policy. Those who care about immigrants’ contributions to American vitality should be as alarmed by the propaganda on “chain migration” as they are by the President’s alleged most recent profane and derogatory remarks.