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
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
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
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
Because American immigration law so strongly favors marriage as a reason for inclusion,
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
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
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
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965
“Marriages of convenience”
Page Law of 1875
War Brides Act of 1945