Unauthorized Love: The Inequitable Application of Immigration Law on Mixed-Citizenship Families

Dr. Jane Lilly Lopez’ Thought-Provoking Research, Lecture, and Book

“There is no constitutional right to live in the United States with one’s spouse,” ruled the Supreme Court in Kerry v. Din (2015). Family reunification law in the United States leaves many mixed-citizenship couples baffled and disappointed as they strive to build a life together in the United States. Jane Lilly Lopez, assistant professor of sociology at BYU, addressed her research on the subject in a Global Women’s Studies Colloquium lecture on Jan. 13 titled, “Unauthorized Love: Mixed-Citizenship Couples Negotiating Intimacy, Immigration, and the State.”

Lopez described how she became interested in the topic of mixed-citizenship marriage saying, “In 2009, two of my dear friends and I all fell in love with non-citizens. As our different love stories advanced and progressed it seemed like we were all walking down this path of love and family togetherness. But our partners’ legal statuses were already pushing our lives in different directions.” With this experience in mind, Lopez studied 56 mixed-citizenship American couples and their stories.

Many U.S. citizens have successfully sponsored their noncitizen spouse on the path to citizenship, but just as many live in fear of their spouse’s deportation and the inability to live with their family in their own country. The United States currently looks at citizenship and immigration status in terms of individuals, not families, which can create a rift in the most important social construct that our society is built on. Lopez argued that this framework is incompatible with the family.

Lopez compared the process of applying for family reunification to a game of poker, where your success depends largely on strategy, expertise, and timing, as well as the cards you are dealt. Depending on a couples’ income, insurance status, length of relationship, or parenthood status, the state may or may not grant the noncitizen partner citizenship, and a couples’ ability to succeed may change based on the phase of life in which they apply for family reunification. The unpredictable nature of the system leaves many couples in a disadvantaged situation.

Dr. Lopez addressing students at the Kennedy Center. (Kathleen Reyes)

Application for family reunification also shines a light on the disparities already so prominent in our country. The system favors wealth and whiteness, adding to the injustices that minorities face. Gender also plays a key role. The 1907 Expatriation Act decreed that female American citizens who married noncitizens immediately lost their citizenship. On the other hand, if male American citizen married a noncitizen female, they were immediately granted citizenship. While that policy has since been repealed, sponsorsing a spouse for citizenship remains far easier for American men than women.  

Dr. Lopez addresses recommendations for immigration law reform and action in her book, also titled “Unauthorized Love: Mixed-Citizenship Couples Negotiating Intimacy, Immigration, and the State,” published in November 2021 by Stanford University Press. When asked at the lecture how students can participate in a solution to the plight of many mixed-citizenship couples, Lopez encouraged students to remember that only citizens have the power in this country to influence the laws that affect immigration. Only citizens can run for office, write laws, vote on laws, and vote for candidates who affect immigration. Lopez urged students to understand the issues and exercise the power that most BYU students hold as United States citizens. She concluded saying, “Creating a connection to the issue is the most important first step to leading to real change.”

If this topic interests you, sociology is a great major for studying social problems and solutions.

Let the College Internship and Civic Engagement Fair Help You Break Out of the Classroom

Participating in internships during your undergraduate years provides valuable real-world experience outside of the classroom — the kind of experiential learning that sets students apart as they prepare for careers and continued education. 

To help students find a great internship, the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences is hosting an Internship and Civic Engagement fair on Thursday, Jan. 20 from 9 a.m.–2:30 p.m. in the Wilkinson Center Garden Court. You can register here.

The fair will feature over 40 organizations, ranging from Make-A-Wish and United Way to Enterprise and Podium, and let’s not forget the free popcorn bar. The event is open for all BYU students, but is especially useful for psychology, sociology, and family life majors, as well as civic engagement, gerontology, and nonprofit management minors. 

See a full list of participating organizations here.

“Students generally do a good job of working through their major requirements and checking the boxes to get to graduation, but often they are not aware of the huge benefit they would get by getting as much experience outside of the classroom as they can during their undergrad program,” says Karen Christensen, director of the Family and Social Service Internship Office.  

Ideally, students should browse the fair and plan three or four experiences they would like to have outside of the classroom during their undergraduate years. 

“Not only does this type of experience help build their resumes and give them the opportunity to gain new skills, but it also helps any student in a broad major figure out the best career path for them,” says Christensen. 

Whether you’re a freshman trying to narrow down where you want your studies to lead or a junior looking for an internship with meaningful experience and mentorship, the fair will provide opportunities for all. While mostly focused on internships and volunteer positions, there will also be opportunities for students near graduation to communicate with organizations about career options. 

Be sure to mark your calendar for the Internship and Civic Engagement Fair!

Register online for the event.

Find out more about internships in the college.

Starting January 20, 2022, BYU will require proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to enter all large gatherings. For more information visit byu.edu/coronavirus/events-activities