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.
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.