Marriage Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

From the earliest years of the United States, marriage has been a central part of American immigration policy and practice. Marrying American citizens or residents has become the easiest and most common way to enter the United States legally–a fact that has attracted additional government scrutiny to so-called marriages of convenience. The rise of same-sex marriage as a social issue has also posed difficult new legal questions about marriage and immigration.

The first major piece of federal legislation on immigration, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, barred most immigration from China to the United States. Chinese born in the United States were still regarded as American citizens. However, Chinese-born workers then already residing in the United States could reenter the United States after leaving the country only with reentry certificates issued by American customs collectors. This early legislation involved marriage because the wives of Chinese-born laborers were prohibited from entering the country, even if the men had valid reentry certificates, and because women were defined by the status of their husbands. This meant that a U.S.-born Citizenship;loss ofwoman could lose her citizenship by being married to a Chinese man without citizenship.MarriageMarriage[cat]FAMILY ISSUES;Marriage[03400]

Preferences for Spouses Before 1965

Although the Chinese Exclusion Act treated marriage as a basis for exclusion, American immigration policies have historically used marriage as a basis for inclusion. The [a]Emergency Immigration Act of 1921Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 established a national origins quota by temporarily limiting the annual number of immigrants from any country to 3 percent of the number of persons from that country who had been living in the United States in 1910. The [a]Immigration Act of 1924Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, made quotas permanent and pushed them back to 2 percent of the number of people from a given country living in the United States in 1890. However, the new immigration law also recognized preference quota status for spouses of U.S. citizens aged twenty-one and older and for immigrants skilled in agriculture, together with their wives and their dependent children under the age of sixteen, as well as for parents of citizens. Citizens, wives and unmarried children under age eighteen could enter outside the quotas, as could people in several other categories.

The [a]Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, also known as the McCarran-Walter Act, retained the national origin criterion, but it also strengthened the preference system. The first basis was economic, as immigrants with special skills were given first preference. Other preferences, however, rested on the social norm that family relationships enjoy a special status. Parents of U.S. citizens constituted the second preference, spouses and children of resident aliens the third, and other relatives the fourth.

Spouses, usually wives, were also able to enter the United States through special provisions for the marital partners of members of the U.S. armed forces. An estimated War brides;European150,000 to 200,000 European women married U.S. soldiers between 1944 and 1950. During the same period of time, War brides;Asian50,000 to 100,000 Asian women married U.S. servicemen. American immigration laws were very restrictive, and made it especially difficult for Asians to enter the United States, so on December 28, 1945, the U.S. Congress passed the [a]War Brides Act of 1945War Brides Act, which waived most of the immigration requirements for women who had married members of the American armed forces serving overseas. Later, marriages with U.S. soldiers brought significant numbers of spouses into the country from Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Preferences for Spouses After 1965

Thirteen years after the McCarran-Walter Act, a new amendment to American immigration law pushed preference categories to the forefront and largely removed the national origins restrictions. Under the new system of categories, family reunification became the central principle of American immigration law. Moreover, the unification of spouses became the most important form of family reunification. In addition, spouses of U.S. citizens could be admitted to the United States outside the preference system altogether.

By 1986, the first year for which categories of admission are available in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, spouses of residents admitted under the preferences and spouses of citizens together accounted for more than 41 percent of all legal immigrants. Even as overall numbers of immigrants grew in the succeeding years, spouses continued to make up more than one-third of all those admitted. Moreover, spouses of U.S. residents made up the largest category of people permitted to enter the country under any preference, and in most years they constituted the majority of family-sponsored immigrants.

American immigration law also has enabled people from other countries to form marriages leading to permanent residence. U.S. citizens may petition U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (known as Immigration and Naturalization Services before 2002) for Visas;K-1[k 01]K-1, fiancé visas, so that foreign fiancés can enter the country and apply for a marriage license in one of the states.

Because American immigration law so strongly favors marriage as a reason for inclusion, "Marriages of convenience"[Marriages of convenience]marriages of convenience–those conducted only in order to obtain permanent legal residence–have become a matter of serious concern. The 1986 [a]Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendments of 1986Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendments amended the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 to impose residency requirements and heightened scrutiny and to provide penalties for marriage fraud.

Same-Sex Marriage<index-term><primary>Marriage;same-sex[same sex]</primary></index-term><index-term><primary>Homosexuality;and immigrants[immigrants]</primary></index-term>

The rise of same-sex marriage as a social issue at the end of the twentieth century raised questions about whether gay and lesbian U.S. citizens and permanent residents should be eligible for marital immigration benefits for their partners of the same sex. In the case of [c]Adams v. HowertonAdams v. Howerton in 1982, an American citizen named Richard Adams argued, in his home state of Colorado, that his partner, Andrew Sullivan, should be classified as his spouse for immigration purposes. However, U.S. law excluded homosexual immigrants until 1990. In denying Adams his bid for marital immigration rights, a federal circuit court cited as evidence that the U.S. Congress did not intend spousal benefits to extend to same-sex couples. With the 1990 end of exclusion on the basis of same-sex involvement, some observers felt that the legal grounds for denying marital immigration benefits to same-sex partners had been removed. Accordingly, advocates maintained that denying same-sex couples the same immigration opportunities as opposite-sex couples constituted unfair discrimination. Against this, other commentators responded that the opposite-sex couple was the foundation of American social order and that it should receive special recognition and support in nationalimmigration policy.

The recognition of same-sex marriage in some states raised the possibility that debates over marriage and immigration policy could intensify. Historically, what constitutes “marriage” has been defined by individual states, not by the federal government, and states have usually recognized marriages conducted in other states. However, while same-sex marriage has been recognized in a few states, a majority of states passed statutes or constitutional amendments during the 1990’s and the early twenty-first century defining marriage as limited to unions between two opposite-sex individuals. Moreover, a federal law known as the [a]Defense of Marriage Act of 1996Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 specified that no state needed to recognize another state marriage between members of the same sex and that the federal government itself now defined marriage as a union of one man and one woman. This legislation made it unlikely that marital immigration benefits would be extended to same-sex partners, even though U.S. immigration policy no longer blocked entry on the basis of Marriage;same-sex[same sex]Homosexuality;andimmigrants[immigrants]homosexuality.Marriage

Further Reading
  • Badgett, M. V. Lee. When Gay People Get Married: What Happens When Societies Legalize Same-Sex Marriage. New York: New York University Press, 2009. Examination of how same-sex marriage influences societies that includes some consideration of implications for immigration.
  • Bray, Ilona. Fiancé and Marriage Visas: A Couple’s Guide to U.S. Immigration. 5th ed. Berkeley, Calif.: Nolo, 2008. Intended as a how-to book, this volume provides a good, easy-to-follow guide to immigration policies on fiancé and marriage visas.
  • Constable, Nicole. Romance on a Global Stage: Pen Pals, Virtual Ethnography, and “Mail Order” Marriages. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Anthropological study of the ways in which American men have searched for wives from other countries, with special attention to the business of mail-order brides.
  • Cott, Nancy F. Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. Comprehensive history of marriage in American law and society.
  • Shanks, Cheryl. Immigration and the Politics of American Sovereignty, 1880-1990. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Excellent overview of American immigration policy that includes some discussion of marriage issues.

Cable Act of 1922


Gay and lesbian immigrants

Green Card

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965


Mail-order brides

“Marriages of convenience”

Page Law of 1875

Picture brides

War brides

War Brides Act of 1945

Women immigrants

Categories: History