Immigration and Family Reunification Conference Examines ‘One of the Most Pressing Issues of Our Time’


Few topics can ignite tempers like immigration. However, in the fog of political rhetoric and emotion, it is easy to lose sight of one simple fact: immigrants are human beings first. They have families that can be torn apart by laws and by policies that make it harder for them to be reunited with loved ones in their host countries.

Because of the important individual interests at stake, Stephen H. Legomsky, the John S. Lehmann University Professor, calls family reunification policy “one of the most pressing issues of our time.” Currently on leave to serve as chief counsel for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the Department of Homeland Security, Legomsky returned to the law school for the recent conference on “Immigration and Family Reunification: A Comparative Perspective.

The conference was co-sponsored by the law school’s Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Work & Social Capital, Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute, and Immigration Law Society. Legomsky spoke at the first session on family immigration policies in Europe. Also presenting was Liav Orgad, assistant professor, Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya who addressed policies in Israel. Associate Dean Laura Rosenbury welcomed conference participants, and Leila N. Sadat, the Henry H. Oberschelp Professor of Law and Harris Institute director, gave the introduction and moderated the first panel.

The afternoon session addressed polices in the United States, family law analogies, and family separation and integration issues. Presenters were Susan Appleton, the Lemma Barkeloo & Phoebe Couzins Professor of Law; Muneer Ahmad, clinical professor, Yale Law School; and Anna Crosslin, president and CEO, International Institute of St. Louis. Marion Crain, the Wiley B. Rutledge Professor of Law and Interdisciplinary Center director, moderated.

During his remarks, Legomsky observed that many European nations have begun enacting new restrictions on family-based immigration. For example, under immigration policy in the Netherlands, would-be immigrants must learn Dutch and take a citizenship test before they are admitted.

Orgad added that these would-be immigrants must also purchase and view a video, “Coming to the Netherlands.” The video, which costs the equivalent of about $75, includes images of men kissing and topless women—raising questions about whether it is targeted at discouraging Muslim immigration.

Meanwhile, Israel struggles to maintain its national security and identity. Family immigration accounts for more than 80 percent of non-Jewish immigration into Israel, Orgad says. “As a small country that is the only meeting point between Asia and Africa, there is great tension in Israel between being both a Jewish state and a democracy,” Orgad adds.

As a result, about two years ago, the Israeli government decided to draft an immigration law for non-Jewish immigrants. The new law will seek to make immigration to Israel more difficult, so that the country can maintain its Jewish majority. As Israel will be looking to other European countries for guidance, immigration policies will likely be more restrictive than less.

In the subsequent session, Ahmad observed that family reunification is a central part of broader immigration policies in the United States. The question is: What constitutes a “family”? Parents and children only? Grandparents? A cousin who grew up with a relative and is “like a brother”? Same-sex couples? “Immigration law perpetuates a heterosexual interpretation of ‘family,’” he says, but even for heterosexual couples, “family” can stretch beyond the boundaries of parents and children.

Appleton also focused on the definition of “family.” In the United States, she observes, a high value is placed on the parent/child relationship. For example, a court may allow a parent to be incarcerated in a particular facility based on its proximity to his or her children. Even after divorce, courts strive not to limit connection between children and families, even for a parent who is not paying court-ordered child support.

“The meaning of family becomes a trigger for a host of benefits and protections,” Appleton says. “Family integrity is a guiding principle, but one that immigration law perpetuates does not always respect.”

Crosslin brought the discussion closer to home as she explained some peculiarities of St. Louis’ foreign-born population. Of the 100 largest metropolitan areas nationally, St. Louis is approximately 20th in terms of metropolitan population, 21st in percentage of refugees, but 60th in percentage of immigrants. Currently, about 70,000 Bosnians including their American-born children call St. Louis home—but Crosslin called refugees “reluctant immigrants.”

“They came to St. Louis between 1993 and 2001 because it was either leave or die in Bosnia,” she says. “Family reunification is a driving force for many immigrants, and they tend to have a very elastic definition of ‘family.’”

Once in the St. Louis area, the newly arrived refugees face daunting economic challenges. It is not uncommon for them to work two jobs, one to support their family stateside and the other to support the family members left behind.

“The immigration system is set up with a core kind of inhumanity toward the individuals caught up in it,” Crosslin says, “and it is important to realize that these challenges don’t just affect the immigrant—they are happening to people who may live, work and go to school with us, and they have an impact on us all.”

For more information, visit the conference website.

By Timothy J. Fox