Family separation and reunification
In an effort to deter the mainly Central American migrants arriving at the United States–Mexico border and seeking refugee status, the Trump administration in early 2018 separated children from their parents as they were held at various detention centers. Facing public outrage, the administration ended the practice six weeks later. However, family separations have continued for parents who are flagged for cases of fraud or prior criminal history, including minor offenses, in a departure from previous administrations’ border-control efforts. Critics of the administration have decried the cruelty of family separation, often referring to the United Nations’ declaration of family unity as a form of human right. Many commentators have noted the painful history of immigrant families’ separation and detention in the United States while asserting the sanctity of family reunification. However, lauding family reunification without a critical evaluation of sexual values embedded in familial claims may obscure the ways that efforts to preserve family unity can lead to exclusionary practices.
Explicitly stated, making family reunification the centerpiece of US immigration policy can uphold conservative ideals of family—one that is unyieldingly heteronormative and privileges biological kinship. For example, until the US Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the ban on same-sex marriages in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, US citizens and permanent residents were unable to sponsor their same-sex spouses for immigration. This illustrates the importance of investigating the gendered and sexual values assumed or idealized in conceptions of family that undergird policies like family reunification.“Family reunification has been an important feature of immigration policy and practice in the United States ever since it began to formally regulate immigration, even during the era of national-origins policy.”
By making sexuality central to taken-for-granted institutions like family, we can gain a deeper understanding of processes such as immigration, particularly as it relates to family reunification. The US government today reserves 70 percent of visas for permanent legal immigration to family reunification, and two-thirds of all permanent legal immigration are the result of family sponsorship. When family reunification replaced the earlier racist national-origins policy with the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, lawmakers and scholars writing about the era heralded it as a civil rights achievement and a part of the trifecta of civil rights reforms of the 1960s that includes the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, family reunification has been an important feature of immigration policy and practice in the United States ever since it began to formally regulate immigration, even during the era of national-origins policy. Furthermore, family reunification today has not guaranteed liberal expansive rights for immigrants. Instead, immigrants confront obstacles to family unity and integration into the national fabric despite the official pronouncements of support for family reunification.
To understand this seeming paradox in family reunification, we must recognize that family reunification is not simply the physical reuniting of family members. Instead, family reunification is an expression of what constitutes a legitimate family, which families should be united, and whether such families should be allowed to join the nation. Thus, immigration stakeholders, such as lawmakers, anti-immigrant groups, and immigrant advocate organizations engage in what I call family ideation—a conceptualization of what family means, constitutes, and features in terms of its idealized characteristics, such as gender or sexual norms, class values, and racial or ethnic attributes.1Catherine Lee, Fictive Kinship: Family Reunification and the Meaning of Race and Nation in American Immigration (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2013): 6. In advocating legislation that either supports or limits family reunification, immigration stakeholders have to define what a family is and how immigrant families may fit those ideals or threaten them.
Not all families—with their varying national origins, racial or ethnic background, and gender or sexual make-up—are equally accepted even as the official immigration policy celebrates the sanctity of family unity. For example, in the post-1965 era when the US government has formally supported family-sponsored immigration, many lawmakers and anti-immigrant activists have successfully fought for legislation that make family immigration more difficult. This has included limits on welfare support for newly arriving immigrants as well as calls for ending some forms of family-sponsored immigration.2Lee, “’Our Nation’s Efforts to Protect Families Has Fallen Far Short’: Pluralist Ideals and Vulnerable Families,” chap. 5 in Fictive Kinship, 99–119. Immigration foes invoke images of undeserving and racially and economically inferior immigrants who stand as potential threats to the nation’s economic and cultural well-being to justify these efforts. They may even suggest these immigrants’ family arrangements or sexual practices, such as the number of children they bear, are deviant.
Family research and the Sexuality Research Fellowship Program“Whereas most prior research had focused on men’s reasons for migration and the resulting impact, essays in the 1984 collection highlighted the empirical and theoretical importance of looking at women’s migration.”
My work on family ideation and family reunification were made possible by a growing scholarship on gender and migration as well as the support of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). Two seminal collections on gender and migration bookended my graduate training in sociology. Fifteen years before I began my dissertation research, International Migration Review (IMR) published a special issue, “Women in Migration.”3Mirjana Morokvasic, “Birds of Passage Are Also Women…” in “Women in Migration,” special issue, International Migration Review 18, no. 4 (1984): 886–907. Whereas most prior research had focused on men’s reasons for migration and the resulting impact, essays in the 1984 collection highlighted the empirical and theoretical importance of looking at women’s migration. Not long after I finished my PhD and over three decades after the 1984 IMR special issue, the journal published another collection of essays but this time called attention to the topic of “gender and migration.”4Katharine M. Donato et al., “A Glass Half Full? Gender in Migration Studies,” in “Gender and Migration Revisited,” special issue, International Migration Review 40, no. 1 (2006): 3–26. The collection developed from an SSRC-sponsored Working Group on Gender and Migration. In titling the group and the special issue “gender and migration” versus “women in migration,” the group’s organizers and collection editors recognized two crucial developments had occurred over the period. First, scholars—including many who had contributed to the earlier “Women in Migration” issue—showed the importance of female migration across multiple disciplines, highlighting the global demographic trend that was occurring. Second, migration scholars argued migration is a gendered process that requires more sophisticated theoretical and analytical tools than those that treated sex as a dichotomous variable.
I was fortunate to gain the kind of theoretical and analytical tools the “Gender and Migration Revisited” editors pushed for as a dissertation fellow of the SSRC’s Sexuality Research Fellowship Program (SRFP). The program called for greater support and training for research that recognized sexuality as constitutive of social categories like gender and social processes such as migration. Thus, for example, the meaning of femininity or gender roles has to consider notions of sexual desires, performance, and efforts to control them. Likewise, such actions may shape conditions for migration, including domestic abuse and sex trafficking across borders.
For a graduate student beginning her dissertation research on the US government’s varying treatment of Chinese and Japanese immigration at the turn of the last century, the SRFP provided crucial support. It aided my efforts to identify the significance of state regulation of Chinese and Japanese immigrant women’s sexuality as a way to control immigration more generally. Praising heterosexual, familial arrangements amongst the Japanese while attacking the supposedly sexually deviant conditions surrounding Chinese immigrants, such as prostitution and the predominance of bachelor communities, supported anti-immigrant lawmakers’ calls for passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first and only ethnic-specific exclusionary law.
When Japanese immigration, which had initially raised little notice, began to grow in number, exclusionists wanting to halt their permanent family settlements along the West Coast of the United States focused on Japanese women’s supposedly high birth rate. Anti-immigrant lawmakers decried the supposed racial colonization that these Japanese families represented. I was able to show that exclusionary measures against Japanese and Chinese immigrants were not simply similar for reasons that both groups were Asian. Rather, I showed that gender and race mattered in varying ways at different historical moments by making sexuality integral to understanding their exclusion.5Catherine Lee, “‘Where the Danger Lies’: Race, Gender, and Chinese and Japanese Exclusion in the U.S., 1870–1924,” Sociological Forum 25, no. 2 (2010): 248–271.
Intersectional research and confronting challenges
My insights on the shifting significance of race, gender, and sexuality in Asian immigration and exclusion, therefore, grew from knowledge gained in scholarship on gender and migration over the past three decades. Together, these works have demonstrated the importance of seeing the intersectional relationship between gender, sexuality, race, and class in migration.“Particularly vulnerable groups, including women, children, and LGBTQ migrants, may face the greatest threats of violence.”
It is this critical approach—one that does not treat these categories in additive terms—which continues to provide valuable insight into migration processes and the challenges we face today. For example, family separation is not the only harm confronting migrants at the US southern border. Many of the Central American migrants seeking asylum protection are escaping violence, which is layered and complicated by gender and sexuality. Violence by state police, paramilitary groups, criminal gangs, or domestic partners may be meted out in varying levels and experienced differently by migrants according to their gender or sexuality. Particularly vulnerable groups, including women, children, and LGBTQ migrants, may face the greatest threats of violence. Yet focusing on traditional notions of family, which frame children as needing protection who should not be separated from their families and characterize other groups like gender nonconforming asylum seekers as deviant may prevent the news media, lawmakers, and the public from seeing violence in the immigration and detention process for all vulnerable groups. Furthermore, immigration policies that ignore the intersection of gender, sexuality, violence, and migration may return defenseless individuals to fatal harm in their home countries.
The SFRP’s call, at the time, stated the need to support research that filled existing gaps in our understanding of political, social, and cultural dimensions of sexuality. As researchers elsewhere on this site have documented, the program’s support has yielded crucial knowledge, opening up new empirical insight and theoretical perspectives. These gains are vital for our continued efforts to expand our understanding of sexuality as well as political insight into advocating for social change for vulnerable groups who face persecution or exclusion because of their sexuality.