As the nation considers immigration reform, it is helpful to reflect on how people are impacted by U.S. immigration policies in their everyday lives. Conducting research with transnational Mexicans, I have seen firsthand the struggles that migrant families face, challenges that often do not make the headlines but can contribute an important perspective to immigration debates. In my book, Intimate Migrations: Gender, Family, and Illegality among Transnational Mexicans, I trace the experiences of families as they move between the United States and Mexico. Transnational migration has a profound effect on gender relations and family life, and the policies and actions of the U.S. state are felt intimately within families that straddle the U.S.-Mexico border.
Repeatedly, I have heard transnational Mexicans describe themselves as belonging to, divided between, and/or outside of two nation-states: “from both sides,” “half there, half here,” “from the other side,” and, tellingly, “from neither here nor there.” This is significant because it extends to individuals with a range of immigration statuses, including unauthorized migrants, U.S. permanent residents, and U.S. citizens—all of whom make up transnational and mixed status families that live divided by, but also connected across, the international border.
The migrations of women, men, girls, and boys are impacted in gendered ways. Gender shapes who migrates; if, when, and how often they do so; the ways they cross the border; and their lengths of stay in the United States. While many people assume that Mexican migrants are men crossing without documents, border crossers represent diverse genders, immigration statuses, and ages, including elderly migrants and very young children. Children are certainly on the move, and as immigration reform is debated, it is important to consider how young people—those migrating without authorization, as well as the U.S. citizen children of undocumented migrants—are uniquely affected by U.S. immigration laws.
As people are deported from the United States in record numbers, a process that painfully divides couples and families, U.S. immigration laws continue to penetrate intimate lives, situating transnational Mexicans as “from neither here nor there.” Immigration laws are, of course, made: laws change over time and, as history demonstrates, will shift in the future. As a nation, we are embarking on a moment of opportunity, a chance to reform U.S. immigration policies to reflect the lived realities and intimate relationships of millions of transnational immigrants who are, in fact, “from both sides.”
Deborah A. Boehm is associate professor with a joint appointment in Anthropology and Women’s Studies/Gender, Race, and Identity at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her book, which just came out in paperback, was reviewed in the August 2013 issue of Gender & Society. Dr. Boehm is currently working on a book manuscript about deportation and return migration with the support of an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship.