Family reunification has stood as a central pillar of the U.S. immigration system, dating back to 1965. Despite this, a new study by researchers Maria Enchautegui and Cecilia Menjivar shows that current immigration laws actually work to keep many families apart. Not surprisingly, the authors’ analysis reveals that immigrant households have a “high incidence of persons married with spouses absent, a high share of male-headed households, and high proportions of children not living with their parents or separated from the parents.”

In principle, our immigration law recognizes the right of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to be reunited with close family members born abroad. By doing so, the law embraces the value of family life as a “matter of personal intimacy as much as physical support, of giving and receiving ‘care’ in the broadest sense.” However, a closer look at the actual impact of current immigration laws on families reveals that family reunification is threatened by various legal provisions, some of which reflect competing principles.

Specifically, the authors found that the following provisions sometimes frustrate the goal of family reunification:

  • visa categories and numerical limits
  • minimum income requirements for sponsoring a family member
  • bars to reentry for individuals who previously resided here unlawfully
  • situation of unauthorized immigrants and those in temporary protected status

For example, the combined effect of numerical limits on family visa categories with higher demand and the annual limit of visas issued to each country has resulted in significant backlogs. This means that aspiring immigrants from certain countries may have to wait several years to obtain a visa. Meanwhile, individuals who have previously resided in the country without documentation for more than 180 or 365 days are barred from being re-admitted into the United States for 3 or 10 years, respectively. And even individuals who are applying to become lawful permanent residents while in the United States may be subject to the 3 or 10 year bar if required to return home to obtain their visa.

Economic factors also contribute to family separation. U.S. citizens or permanent residents who petition for their family members must submit an affidavit of support demonstrating that their immigrant relatives will not be a “public charge” (i.e., be a financial burden on the government). In communities with high poverty rates, the income requirement is hard to meet. Finally, unauthorized immigrants or individuals in temporary protected status (TPS) simply cannot petition for their family members to join them.

In sum, this new report reveals that immigration laws not only determine who is allowed to immigrate and through which channels, but they also shape the composition of immigrant families and, by doing so, they affect immigrant households’ economic opportunities and their ability to integrate to the United States. From a policy perspective, this analysis is a good reminder that immigration laws have implications that go well beyond actual admissions.

Photo by Jonathan Cohen.