By Donna R. Gabaccia, Rudolph J. Vecoli Professor of Immigration History and Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota
Human beings continue to act like human beings--to fall in love, marry, have babies, and want to preserve family ties--even as they migrate across national boundaries. Their completely normal choices pose fundamental
challenges to common assumptions about citizenship. They complicate the already-complex politics of devising and implementing immigration policies.
This week, newspapers were full of stories about love, marriage, and childrearing among migrants. Suddenly, â€śmixed status families,â€? â€śbirthright citizenshipâ€? and â€śfamily reunificationâ€? have all joined the already long list of problems supposedly associated with immigration.
Politicians have been quick to propose solutionsâ€”by denying citizenship to the American-born children of â€śillegalâ€? immigrants or by reducing the visas available to family members.
Unfortunately, changes in law that affect immigrants usually also affect citizensâ€”and sometimes in surprising ways. In the nineteenth century, for example, Americans wanted â€śdependentâ€? wives and children to share the
citizenship of the man who headed their families. When an immigrant man decided to become a citizen, so did his foreign-born wife (whether or not she spoke English). Worse, when an American woman married a foreigner, even in the U.S., she lost her American citizenship.
Faced with the overwhelmingly male migrations of the late nineteenth century, the U.S. also very much wanted to encourage families to stay together. Every time Congress restricted the numbers of immigrants, it also
created loopholes to encourage family reunification.
The result? Almost half of the 500,000 visas available recently to prospective immigrants are claimed by those with â€śfamily-sponsorship.â€? Roughly 150,000 remain for persons with desired skills and professions. Almost none of those visas are open to unskilled workers, who then enter the country â€śillegallyâ€?--without visas. Meanwhile, another 400,000 immigrants enter because they are exempt from visa restrictions. Is this unfair? Perhaps not. That group is made up entirely of the spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens.
Germany has no birthright citizenship and it has historically had very strict requirements for naturalization of foreigners. Is this a possible model for the U.S? Millions of German-speaking grandchildren of the â€śguest workersâ€? of the 1960s have never been in the country of which they are citizens and do not even speak its language. Germans have actually eased naturalization requirement in recent years, fearing the consequences of alienation and exclusion of its sizeable â€śalienâ€? population of German-born non-citizens.
When law, love, and families entangleâ€”as they inevitably do in immigration policyâ€”we should be skeptical of easy solutions. Whatever the proposal to fix the â€śproblemâ€? caused by immigrants will have consequences for citizens,
Contributor Contact Information:
Donna R. Gabaccia Rudolph J. Vecoli Professor of Immigration History
Research and Director Immigration History Research Center
311 Elmer L. Andersen Library
222-21st Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55455