Chapter 1: Immigration and Immigrant Policy: Barriers and Opportunities for Families

Jaime Ballard (Family Social Science, University of Minnesota), Damir Utržan (Family Social Science, University of Minnesota), Veronica Deenanath (Family Social Science, University of Minnesota), and Dung Mao (Family Social Science, University of Minnesota)


For Jose and Ester, it was painful to try to raise their two sons in El Salvador. The money they raised in a day was not enough to buy food for one family meal, and gang violence was everywhere. Jose decided to move to the United States to provide for his family. After 7 years, he saved enough to bring his wife to the United States, and they both started working long hours to save the money to bring their sons. They paid a coyote (someone who smuggles people across borders) $10,000, which covered 3 attempts to bring their sons to the United States. The first time, they were caught an hour after crossing in to Mexico and sent home. The second time, they were caught by police in Mexico and held 3 days for ransom, and then continued north after the coyote paid. The boys were caught by immigration officials in Texas. They were held in detention for several days. With the help of an advocacy office, the boys flew to Baltimore to be reunited with their parents.

(Story published by Public Radio International in 2014. Full story available from:

Migration is most often motivated by a desire to improve life for families. The story of Jose and Ester has common elements with most stories of migration: families must make painful choices about whether moving to a new home and/or being separated from one another is necessary to provide for the family’s well-being. Families often feel “pushed” out of their home country by poor pay or job availability, political instability, or violence. They feel “pulled” to a new country by the promise of better pay to support their families, greater educational opportunities for their children, greater safety for their families, or the opportunity to be together again after a long absence.

Jose and Ester’s story has another common element with all stories of migration: their methods of migration and their opportunities to be reunited were influenced by immigration and immigrant policy. Immigration policy determines who enters the United States and in what numbers, while immigrant policy influences the integration of immigrants who are already in the United States (Fix & Passel, 1994). For Jose and Ester, their sons were not eligible to travel legally across the border due to current immigration policy restrictions and delays. Policy determines whether immigrants have access to employment, to health or educational resources, and to family reunification (Menjívar, 2012). It determines whether they or their family are within the law or outside it (Menjívar, 2012).

Immigration and immigrant policy has a rippling impact on all facets of society, and impacts both immigrants and those born in the United States. At the economic level, the job skills and education of incoming immigrants impacts our labor market and shifts where job growth occurs in our economy. On a social level, we interact with immigrants as neighbors and friends, and as coworkers, employees, and supervisors.

There are many articles, books, and book chapters that discuss the intricacies of immigration and immigrant policy. The purpose of this chapter is to explore the impact of these policies on families.
We will describe the different groups invested in immigration and immigrant policy and the various viewpoints on what is most important to incorporate into policy. We will then describe the history of policy, and the current policies affecting families. We end by describing the current barriers and opportunities for families. Chapter 2 will address special policies and issues that apply to refugees specifically.

Immigrant Definitions

Immigrants are people who leave their country of origin to permanently settle in another country. They may enter the country legally and are therefore called documented immigrants or they may enter illegally and are referred to as undocumented immigrants.

Legal or documented immigrants.   For the purposes of this chapter, legal immigrants are defined as individuals who were granted legal residence in the United States. This would include those from other countries who were granted asylum, admitted as refugees, admitted under a set of specific authorized temporary statuses for longer-term residence and work, or granted lawful permanent residence status or citizenship.

<p?Illegal or undocumented immigrants. Illegal or undocumented immigrants are foreign-born non-citizens residing in the country who have not been granted a visa, or were not given access (i.e., inspected) by the Department of State upon entrance (Passel & Cohn, 2011; US Visas, n.d.). They may have entered the country illegally (e.g., crossing the borders), or may have entered the country legally with a valid visa but have stayed beyond the visa’s expiration date (Passel & Cohn, 2011). Other terms also used in immigration research include: unauthorized immigrants, undocumented immigrants, and illegal immigrants. However, in this chapter, “undocumented immigrant” will be used to reference illegal and unauthorized immigrants.

For the most up-to-date statistics on how many immigrants are coming to the United States and where they are coming form, see: