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Hispanic-American Families

Immigration And The Family

The overarching impact of migration upon the structure and relations within individual families cannot be overemphasized. In raw numbers, the fact that 16 million Hispanics are counted as "foreign born" minimizes the scale of Latino immigration: Persons from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico are not counted as foreign born, for example. They are all U. S. citizens, and Puerto Rico is not counted as a foreign country. Yet in most respects—outside citizenship status—Puerto Ricans have been treated as though they were "foreign" to U. S. society, and the have suffered most of the social dislocations common among immigrants. Furthermore, for all groups the profound effects of migration clearly extend to each family member, not only those born abroad but also those born in the United States.

Latinos have migrated to the U.S. for many reasons: millions have been refugees, fleeing war-time conditions and political, religious, and racial/social oppression. Some of them were eventually granted refugee status while others were not. And of course, many millions have emigrated to the United States for (sometimes quite desperate) economic reasons and to provide their families with opportunities unavailable in their homelands. These migrations have also taken many forms. Sometimes entire family groups emigrated; sometimes adult workers have migrated first and then reunited with their families later. Almost invariably, emigration disrupted extended family networks and supports.

The conditions leading to emigration and the emigration experience may offer important insights into the dynamics of particular families. For example, consider political refugees: the Cuban migration—particularly during the first twenty years of the Castro regime—is a refugee migration. However, the driving impulse of migration from El Salvador and Nicaragua during the 1980s was the need to escape ongoing wars. Likewise tens of thousands of Guatemalans (particularly Mayan speakers from the highlands), Chileans, and Argentinian immigrants in the 1970s and 1980s were fleeing violence and political repression in those countries. The initial phase of the immigration from the Dominican Republic in the mid-1960s was driven by refugees from political dictatorships and a civil war eventually ended by the occupation of the country by U.S. Marines in 1965.

In addition, since the 1970s, difficult economic conditions and a high population growth rate in parts of Latin America have encouraged emigration to the United States. This has been most dramatically true of immigration from Mexico, with its 2,000 mile-long common border with the United States, long-term historical ties, and recent history of economic mismanagement and recurrent economic crises. The classification of the cause of an emigration from the homeland can sometimes be arbitrary; the disruption caused by war and violent political dictatorships has often wrecked local economies leading desperate inhabitants to leave to obtain the most basic subsistence. The need for workers in the United States offers opportunities that have drawn immigrants north. Immigrant narratives. Virtually every immigrant family has its narrative of the journey, a narrative that affects the relations among family members and between the family and the external social world. Did the family leave as a unit, or did one or two persons leave first, as pioneers of a sort, and bring others later? What role did/does immigration status play in the narrative and in the continuing structure of opportunities available to family members? Often the narrative of migration is in part a narrative of trauma. The movie El Norte offers an extreme example, but millions of Latinos have been, cheated, had to pay bribes, or have been physically threatened or abused during the journey to the United States. Moreover, even if one had not been traumatized, the narrative of immigration trauma is common among most Latinos' acquaintances. If one had to choose a single factor that most directly affects the lives of immigrants, it would be the residence status (legal right to live and work in the United States) of family members. Furthermore, legal status frequently varies among family members, especially if children have been born in the U.S.

There are myriad answers to such questions. For some, immigration brings immediate economic loss—a physician from Chile works as an orderly, for example, or an engineer scrapes by as an automotive mechanic. If these people are middle aged when they arrive, it may be nearly impossible to professionally recertify or to find positions offering equivalent social class status in the United States. For many others, economic benefits may be almost immediate; the United States is a land of opportunity that rewards their labor. For most, the struggle is demanding and the rewards are mixed.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsHispanic-American Families - The Hispanics/latinos And Group Definition, Hispanic/latino Families: Demographic And Social Indices