The individualistic logic of citizenship employed by modern states overlooks the mediating role of family in the citizen-state relationship. Mixed-citizenship couples' position at the crossroads of immigration, citizenship, and family law reveals the limits of our individualistic formulation of (non)citizenship and its consequences, which jeopardize the stability of the state, mixed-citizenship families, and society at large. Mixed-citizenship families underscore our radical dependency upon one another––both within families and in society at large––and their experiences highlight the failings of a citizenship regime that ignores the reality of these ties.
Mixed-citizenship couples meet and marry in the same ways as other couples, but their relationships often confront unique challenges as a result of each partner's different citizenship status. Before they have to navigate the complexities of US family reunification law, though, mixed-citizenship couples must first meet and "fall in love." This chapter introduces five mixed-citizenship couples whose lives ultimately follow very different trajectories because of their family-level immigration status and challenges readers to determine whether these couples' differential treatment under the law can be justified.
Family reunification law for mixed-citizenship couples is enshrined in the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act, the 1986 Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendments, and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Collectively, these laws impose a narrower definition of family, "legitimate" marriage, and Americanness as applied to mixed-citizenship families seeking family reunification. This narrowed definition of family prioritizes some couples (wealthier, Whiter, more highly educated) for reunification while it leaves other families with little hope of legal acceptance. In the process of limiting which kinds of citizens, noncitizens, and relationships qualify for family reunification, these laws have also shaped our social understandings of who gets to be a family and which families get to be "American."
The law alone does not determine mixed-citizenship couples' family reunification outcomes. When and how couples engage with the law directly affects reunification outcomes. Consulting with experts, developing strategic plans, and intentionally timing applications are all steps couples can take to improve their chances of submitting a successful family reunification application. In this way, family reunification is much like a high-stakes game of poker, in which both the cards couples hold and how they play those cards directly affect couples' odds of winning the "game."
Family-level citizenship status shapes individual and familial spatial integration, determining both where families can live and how freely they can move within and beyond those spaces. Families with legal status enjoy the best of both worlds, living where they want to live and building strong relationships in both of their countries of membership. Families without legal status experience spatial disintegration––when they are pushed outside of the physical boundaries of the country––and/or spatial isolation––when their lack of status impedes them from freely moving within the geographies they do inhabit.
Individual-level (non)citizenship status directly affects family-level access to and benefits from institutional belonging. Mixed-citizenship families with legal status experience full structural and institutional belonging. Mixed-citizenship families without legal status can still access some educational, economic, and bureaucratic institutions through their citizen family members, but often that access is curtailed by their incomplete legal belonging. Many such families make extraordinary sacrifices in order to maintain the citizen family members' ongoing institutional access. The experiences of formerly unauthorized families demonstrate that these structural exclusions stem solely from a family-level lack of legal status.
Family reunification outcomes determine families' sense of belonging and national identities. Families granted family reunification and legal immigration status in the United States build strong bonds in both of their countries of membership. Families who have been explicitly rejected by the US government experience social disintegration and rejection. Families with an unresolved immigration status (whose access to family reunification has neither been definitively granted nor denied) identify a liminal sense of belonging to the US.
Because the family is a central institution through which integration happens, American laws and policies that punish immigrants contribute toward the alienation and disintegration of immigrants and their citizen family members. In this conclusion, I reiterate that denying legal immigration status to the spouses of US citizens is a policy of disintegration––forcing either the dissimilation of the entire family from society or the dissolution of the family itself––and recommend policy changes that could directly support mixed-citizenship families and help create a more equitable family reunification system.