May 9, 2008

Citizens and Immigration Policy

How does immigration policy affect citizens?

Immigration policy is generally thought of as the set of laws, rules and practices that determines how a country handles its influx of permanent setters. Immigrants are defined as foreign-born people who intend to stay, as opposed to the foreign-born who come temporarily to work.

Nevertheless, in the US, immigration policy does not just impact immigrants. It affects the lives of temporary visitors, permanent settlers, as well as the native-born. Legislation such as the Illegal Immigration Reform Act and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA), signed by President Clinton in 1996, has led to the separation of as many as two million U.S. citizens from their parents and spouses. Thus, although this legislation is often thought of as primarily impacting immigrants, these legislative measures have severe consequences for citizens.

The impact of immigration policy on citizens calls into question the very meaning of citizenship, insofar as citizenship rights include the right to be a part of your country of citizenship. When a U.S. citizen's spouse faces deportation from the United States, the U.S. citizen faces a choice between leaving the U.S. or being separated from his or her spouse.

I recently spoke with a woman I shall call Melissa. She is a native-born U.S. citizen. She met and married a Brazilian man, Sergio. Sergio had violated the terms of his visa by entering and leaving the United States. Because of this, he had been ordered deported. Melissa must now choose between abandoning her U.S. citizenship or dissolving her union with Sergio.

As this example shows, Melissa, a U.S. citizen, is severely impacted by immigration policy. When I spoke with Melissa, she was very flustered and found it hard to reconcile with the fact that her status as a U.S. citizen did not entitle her to live in the U.S. with her spouse. She had tried every legal maneuver possible, but the law does not provide for Sergio's legalization. Melissa told me that she plans to annul the marriage. She is not willing to give up everything and move to Brazil with Sergio.

Melissa's case is similar to thousands of U.S. citizens who are married to undocumented or out-of-status immigrants, some of whom are just as American as Melissa, having been brought here as small children. Thus, while many pundits imagine that getting rid of undocumented immigrants will be beneficial to all citizens, I would like to remind you that deportation of undocumented immigrants almost always has a direct impact on their citizens spouses or children.

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