Immigrant Families aims to capture the richness, complexity, and diversity that characterize contemporary immigrant families in the United States. In doing so, it reaffirms that the vast majority of people do not migrate as isolated individuals, but are members of families.
There is no quintessential immigrant experience, as immigrants and their families arrive with different levels of economic, social, and cultural resources, and must navigate various social structures that shape how they fare. Immigrant Families highlights the hierarchies and inequities between and within immigrant families created by key axes of inequality such as legal status, social class, gender, and generation. Drawing on ethnographic, demographic, and historical scholarship, the authors highlight the transnational context in which many contemporary immigrant families live, exploring how families navigate care, resources, expectations, and aspirations across borders. Ultimately, the book analyzes how dynamics at the individual, family, and community levels shape the life chances and wellbeing of immigrants and their families.
As the United States turns its attention to immigration as a critical social issue, Immigrant Families encourages students, scholars, and policy makers to center family in their discussions, thereby prioritizing the human and relational element of human mobility.
Cecilia Menjívar is Foundation Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Kansas.
Leisy J. Abrego is Assistant Professor of Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Leah C. Schmalzbauer is Associate Professor of American Studies and Sociology at Amherst College.
Immigrant families, like those without a recent immigrant past, are varied, multifaceted, and dynamic. They often encompass modalities beyond the nuclear model and include a wide range of blood and fictive kin. They are comprised of chosen members, stepparents and stepsiblings, same-sex parents, and members with various legal statuses and migrant histories. Indeed, individuals' definitions of family and the boundaries around these characterizations are, in general, expanding and becoming more malleable (Powell, Bolzendahl, Geist, and Carr Steelman 2010).
Adding a layer of complexity to this heterogeneity, immigrant families often span national borders, as not all family members are able to migrate together and some never do. Some members may return to the country of origin; in other cases an adolescent or adult daughter or son may migrate first and then send for the parents or, if that is not possible, may remain separated across borders indefinitely. Families may be reconstituted units or newly formed ones; in the process of reunification; or already reunited and facing the challenges of new lives together. Indeed, migratory movements almost always entail the separation of families, as members live in at least two different contexts for varying lengths of time. During the period of separation a parent may establish a new union or the immigrant parents may have new children-actions that significantly alter the composition of the family. In many ways, therefore, these depictions defy conventions about what we think a family is and where it is located physically.1
Like all families, immigrant families are malleable and embody change; they are shaped by external forces that they must negotiate. Unlike their non-immigrant counterparts, however, immigrant families are made permissible or are barred through immigration laws in general and through family reunification laws in particular.2 These laws and continuously changing policies determine the composition of immigrant families through their definition of family (Hawthorne 2007), dictating who is allowed to come into the country, how long members stay apart, and which family relations take priority for immigration purposes (Lee 2013). Thus, for immigrant families, immigration laws and policies are fundamental in shaping their contour, location, and structure.
Immigrant families and kinship ties can certainly facilitate migration in some cases. Newcomers may find that settlement is easier when they are able to obtain an initial place to stay and a first job through a relative. Indeed, immigrant families can provide a range of resources for relatives in need (Boyd 1989; Foner 2009; Kibria 1993; Massey, Alarcon, Durand, and González 1987). However, immigrant families should not be assumed to always be a source of refuge, comfort, or support. In a world of inequalities, when many face restrictive laws and racially based discriminatory reception, families cannot always step in to help relatives ease into their new home (Menjívar 2000). Just like their non-migrant counterparts, immigrant families are complex. They have ups and downs, tensions, and fissures often rooted in inequalities along gender, generational, and other contextual inequalities. These inequalities shape what happens within immigrant families.
Immigration to the United States takes place in the context of families. The United States' policies, unlike those of other nations of immigration such as Canada, Australia, or Germany, encourage the largest sector of migration through the family (Kofman 2004). Therefore, studying the experiences of immigrant families provides access to most processes related to immigration, from decision-making to relationships to other institutions in society, to racialization, and to long-term experiences of settlement (Rumbaut 1997). In the process of entering and settling, immigrant families, through their interactions with communities, institutions, bureaucracies, and civil society, contribute to shaping the United States' social landscape. Consequently, examining immigrant families can help us understand key migratory processes as well as broader societal engines of change. Immigrant families provide what Robert Merton called a "strategic research site": "an area where processes of more general import are manifested with unusual clarity" (Merton, cited in Portes 1995: 2). Thus, a focus on immigrant families can reveal knowledge about the "standard North American family" (SNAF) (Smith 1993) by providing insights into the "ideological code" that shapes how we think about families and about living arrangements more broadly.
Background to Family Migration
Public discourses about immigration and immigrant families have a tendency to compare and contrast people's integration experiences by race, national origin, and across different historical periods. In particular, they celebrate what is perceived as the quick ascendancy of Asian-origin immigrants while simultaneously deploring that immigrants from Latin America do not immediately experience mobility or the economic gains achieved by their European counterparts in the past. To explore these matters and examine how contemporary immigrant families face the manner and the context in which they are received in the United States, we turn to the twin factors that frame our general examination of families in this book: the structure of immigration law and current economic conditions.
Immigration Law and the Legal Framework
Family migration is the most important mechanism for authorized immigration to the United States today.3 Immigrants have been coming as members of families since the founding of the nation. Many early immigrants in the nineteenth century, for instance, migrated in the context of the family, even if they arrived one by one and it took months or years to be reunited with family members (Thomas and Znaniecki 1996). This process is often referred to as "chain" migration (MacDonald and MacDonald 1964). Even the so-called "birds of passage"-those individuals who migrated alone in search of work-participated in migration with the idea of improving the lives of their family members: their intention had been to earn enough money to send their families and then to return to the origin country (Piore 1979).
These aspects of family migration-"chain" migration and the migration of "birds of passage"-have not changed over the years. What has changed, however, is the legal framework within which family members have been admitted to the United States. As Gratton, Gutmann, and Skop (2007) observe on the basis of their examination of ninety years of census data, the most important factor affecting family structure in different historical periods of US-bound migration is immigration policy. Their results, which are based on data for Mexican, Irish, Swedish, Italian, and Polish immigration flows, point to structural factors shaped by immigration policies rather than by the race or ethnicity of the immigrants themselves; these would be the sorts of factors that are central to shaping the evolution of immigrant family forms.
Since the 1960s, US immigration policies have prioritized families for the granting of legal status. By 2011 about two thirds of the 1 million immigrants who became legal permanent residents during that year were family-sponsored (US Department of Homeland Security 2011). As recently as November 2014, President Obama further reinforced the centrality of the category of family as deserving of lawful presence in the country when he issued an executive action to provide relief from deportation only to undocumented parents of US citizens or lawful permanent resident (LPR) children.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, immigration law centered more explicitly on the racial composition of flows, on the basis of attempts to limit the migration of certain national origin and racial groups. Regularly informed by racist and nativist immigration politics, the history of US immigration laws also includes "periodic waves of harsh exclusions and deportation campaigns," which targeted different groups of people deemed to be undesirable (Johnson 2007: 48) regardless of labor and population needs. As one of the most egregious examples of this, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred all labor migration from China to the United States. Asians were excluded, discriminated against, and barred from bringing their spouses (Glenn 2002). Upheld in different formats until the 1940s, this law prevented Chinese immigrants already in the country from thriving as a community (Takaki 1989). Developments from the 1950s onward, however, gave preeminence to family migration or family reunification and have structured a different type of "chain migration," which is less explicitly based on race. In contrast to the chain migrations of previous eras that were organized through direct family connections and social networks, post-1965 chain migration is formally organized by law. Indeed, "each new immigrant becomes a potential immigrant sponsor" (Jasso and Rosenzweig 1990: 213).
The McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 amended the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) to revamp the immigration system, abolishing racial restrictions (but leaving the quotas intact) and creating a path for the visa preference system established with the 1965 INA, which is largely still in place today. While the 1952 Act limited the total number of annual visas to...