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What Does Immigration Have to Do with American Families?

In this essay April Schueths shares the story of how US immigration policy denies US citizens (and non-citizens) the right to choose their partners and live with their families.

Manuel and Abby Carrion[1] have been together for more than 6 years. During a research interview, Abby told me: “We’ve been through more in the six years that we’ve been together than I think a lot of people have been through in a lifetime. I always tell him [Manuel] that if we made it together this far, then nothing can stop us now.”

Abby grew up in a small rural town with a close knit family. Her community was predominantly white, with virtually no people of other race/ethnicities living there. “I never in a million years imagined that I would marry a Mexican man.” She met her now husband, Manuel at a restaurant where they both worked. They were friends for about a year and then something shifted between them. Abby and Manuel began dating. She said, “I knew I loved him; in a matter of weeks [after they started dating] I knew I was going to marry him.”

Similar to Abby, Manuel never imagined he would marry an American woman. For one, he wasn’t planning on staying in the states long. In addition, when he first came to the US he believed many false stereotypes about American women. He thought they were too wild for his conservative tastes. He said, “That they like to go out, drink too much, party.” He soon learned that this was indeed a stereotype and found himself attracted to Abby. He said, “I asked her if she wanted to go out with me…she said she needed to think about it and would let me know in a week.” The answer was yes.

Once they started dating Manuel and Abby were inseparable. They worked the same shift so they could spend all of their free time together. They got engaged, moved in together, and soon marriage and a baby followed. Abby says that since the day they started dating, “We were never apart.”

The Carrions didn’t realize that soon they would be forced to live in two different countries.

Manuel was honest with Abby from the beginning. At the age of 14, he crossed the US/Mexico border the first time. His parents were struggling financially in Mexico; there just wasn’t enough work to support their household. By the time Manuel met Abby, he had lived in the US as an undocumented immigrant for years.

Being undocumented means that Manuel didn’t have authorization to be in the United States. The Carrions are what’s referred to as a mixed-status family because they have differing legal statuses. Abby and her daughter are both US citizens, but Manuel is not. They are among the 9 million mixed-status families living in the United States[2] (Passel and Taylor 2010).

At this point you might be thinking, “Wait, she’s a US citizen and they’re married. Doesn’t that automatically make him a citizen?” The answer is no (Schueths 2012, 2014). In the late 1990s immigration laws became very strict, making it much more difficult for US citizens to sponsor immigrant spouses, especially spouses who have lived in the country without legal status. Popular culture, including movies like The Proposal and Green Card, continue to perpetuate the myth of the green card marriage (i.e. marriage automatically grants legal permanent residence to the non-citizen partner).

Now you might be thinking, “He shouldn’t have come to the US without legal status. He should have done it the right way. Stand in line like everyone else.” Again, the majority of Americans don’t realize that for individuals with little education, skills, and few resources, there really is no “right way” to come to the US, even just for a visit.

Abby illustrates how difficult it is for poor, low-skilled immigrants to legally get into the US, even as a spouse:

  • I’m an American citizen and my husband is an “illegal.” We went through 2.5 years of paperwork, thousands and thousands of dollars, and he got denied. How do you expect people who are in Mexico . . . I mean if it’s that hard for someone who’s married to an American, how are people who aren’t married to an American supposed to do it the right way before they come here “illegally”? Nobody gets what it’s like” (Schueths and Lawston 2015).

Manuel and Abby did in fact try to deal with Manuel’s immigration situation “the right way.” They hired reputable legal counsel, they completed and filed mountains of paper work required by the US government, and they were very honest about their situation. Honesty is always the best policy, right? Unfortunately, not in their case. Manuel had no criminal record. Their attorney even said they had a “clean case” and that it should be relatively smooth for Manuel to adjust his legal status.

If their case was denied, then what became of the Carrions? When I interviewed Abby and Manuel they were living in Mexico but not by choice. People who have more than one year of unlawful presence in the US, like Manuel did, are banned from the country for 10 years. There is an appeal process, but it’s hard to get. The Carrions appeal was denied. Manuel had to go.

“I can’t even describe it. I’m going to start crying if I talk about it. I hate to even think about it,” Abby said to me. “It was the hardest thing I had ever been through in my life. That day in the airport, when we had to say good-bye to each other, I totally broke down and freaked out… . I could hardly get my emotions under control to get him on the plane. Because I had no idea how long I’d be away from him. I literally think, since the day we started dating, we were never apart for more than forty-eight hours. It was like love at first sight” (Schueths 2015).

Unwilling to live apart from one another and unable to live together in the United States, Manuel, Abby, and their five-year-old daughter relocated to Mexico.

They stay in a rural part of the country where laundry is still cleaned by hand. Most people in their town can’t afford a washing machine. Manuel’s parents are proud to have tiled floors now. When he was growing up his family was quite poor, they would still be considered poor by the average American’s standard. Abby explains, “When he was little, it was like the mud walls, mud brick, falling down. His dad was outside and water that was warmed up by the sun…he grew up super poor and the only reason that his parents are alright now is because half the boys have gone to the States and sent money down.”

When asked what it’s like to live in Mexico, Abby says: “There’s no money, it’s really hard sometimes. Work is just not steady.” At the same time, she acknowledges the benefits of a slower paced life where family is central.

Conclusion

It’s easy to think that US immigration policy only affects non-citizens, but that’s wrong. US citizens like Abby and her daughter are having their families divided by the US government. In effect these policies are forcing US citizens to live in exile. Right now in the US, we are having a long serious talk about a person’s right to be with the person they love and have their love legally recognized. Many are arguing that everyone should have the right to be with the person they love. Our current US immigration policy denies citizens (and many more non-citizens) the right to choose their partners and be with their families.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Before reading this essay did you believe that marrying a U.S. citizen automatically granted citizenship status to the non-citizen partner? Do you think that marriage should extend citizenship to the non-citizen partner? Explain your answers.
  2. Do you feel US citizen children should have the right to have their parents present? Explain your answer.
  3. What is your reaction to learning that many US citizens are forced to live in exile in another country if they want to stay with their non-citizen spouses?
  4. If you could change US immigration policy, what changes would you make?

References:

  • Passel, Jeffrey S., and Paul Taylor. 2010. Unauthorized Immigrants and Their U.S.-Born Children. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center. http://pewhispanic.org/files/reports/125.pdf.
  • Schueths, April M. and Jodie Lawston. “Introduction: Living Together, Living Apart.” In Living Together, Living Apart: Mixed Status Families and Immigration Policy Eds. April M. Schueths and Jodie Lawston (forthcoming, November 2015 University of Washington Press).
  • Schueths, April M. “Life and Love Outside the Citizenship Binary: Mixed-Status Couples in the U.S.” In Living Together, Living Apart: Mixed Status Families and Immigration Policy. Eds. April M. Schueths and Jodie Lawston (forthcoming, November 2015, University of Washington Press).
  • Schueths, April M. 2014. “It’s Almost Like White Supremacy: Interracial Mixed-Status Couples Facing Racist Nativism.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 37(13): 2438–2456.
  • Schueths, April M. 2012. “Where Are My Rights?” “Compromised Citizenship in Mixed Status Marriage.” Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare 39(4): 97–109

  1. Not their real names  ↩

  2. Note this number includes families with a US citizen child and at least one undocumented parent.  ↩