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Immigration's Effect On Families

Family ties are maintained across national boundaries. Some family members may not want to immigrate, others may not be allowed to immigrate, and the immigrant may have insufficient finances to sponsor relatives. Immigrants show considerable ingenuity in providing food, clothing, medical items, and money to relatives with less access to such resources in the home country. Items are shipped directly, or more complex exchanges are done to ensure that items reach the intended relatives. For example, an immigrant family might give money to another family in the country of immigration; in turn, that family instructs their relatives in the home country to give an equivalent amount of money to the other immigrant's relatives in the home country (Gold 1992).

Immigrants who reside in the new country begin to create a new family life, one that is influenced by both past cultural customs and the ways of the new country, but is also different from both (Foner 1997; Kibria 1997). Such families exemplify integration or bicultural adjustment rather than assimilation. Assimilation (a melting pot approach) means giving up one's home culture to adopt the ways of the dominant culture. Integrated or bicultural families are possible if there are sufficient numbers in the ethnic community, if immigration continues from the country of origin, and if the ethnic community has links with the country of origin (Kibria 1997).

Nancy Foner (1997) summarizes research on how the immigrant family's cultural background, social and economic circumstances in the new country, and the legal system, help create an integrated or bicultural family. Although traditions change over time in the country of origin, the immigrant may continue to think that such customs are timeless, and interpret the present based upon the remembered past. Such cultural understandings are critical in reinforcing traditional family values and behaviors. Social influences, such as the availability of close kin and a balanced sex ratio, also help maintain traditional family life. For example, the absence of appropriate close kin such as older relatives to care for the children and to do housework results in nontraditional patterns of husbands assisting wives in such activities. An imbalance of men to women affects who gets married and whether spouses are from another ethnic group or are sought from the home country (Foner 1997). Even when there are sufficient numbers of women, a man may seek a marital partner from the home country because he wants a traditional wife, not one who exemplifies Western values (DeLaet 1999).

Young immigrants compared to their parents, and women more than men, may incorporate Western values (less patriarchy and more egalitarian views) because they represent independence or freedom from some traditional roles (Foner 1997). Women are expected to raise their children to understand cultural traditions as well as to fit into the new setting. Although there are pressures to retain specific gender roles, women have multiple opportunities for changing roles, especially when they are separated from extended families and receive limited reinforcement of cultural roles from the ethnic community. Olivia Espin (1999) suggests that "the degree of integration of the women of a given immigrant group in the host society—rather than the integration and/or success of men—indicates the significance of the transformation occurring in the immigrant community. It signals their adaptation to the new life" (p. 4).

The legal system identifies certain cultural practices as illegal (e.g., polygamy) and makes it possible for other practices to be challenged or prosecuted (e. g., physical abuse of wife or child). Legitimate children and legal but not common-law spouses can be sponsored under family reunification. Government agencies interact with women, not only the men in the household, thus increasing the woman's potential influence in the family (Foner 1997).

Economic circumstances shape family life: men's earnings may be insufficient, and women's earnings become essential for the family. Women's employment brings some economic independence, potentially altering traditional patterns of authority in the family (Foner 1997). When women work outside the home, men are expected to share household responsibilities (Suarez-Orozco and Suarez-Orozco 2001). Postmigration, Vietnamese immigrants have shown additional sharing in household tasks even though considerable sharing had been done traditionally. The pattern of sharing shifted from performance of tasks by several members of the household to husband and wife sharing the tasks ( Johnson 1998). If the elderly do not have financial resources, their authority may be weakened. On the other hand, access to public support such as welfare may provide the elderly with independence from their grown children (Foner 1997). Because it is easier for children than their parents to learn the country's language, children become the interpreters and serve as the family's contact with the outside world, undermining parental authority and status (Suarez-Orozco and Suarez-Orozco 2001).

Assistance of family members is often important for ensuring economic viability of new immigrants, especially for those who have limited financial resources. When extended family members are not available, substitute family networks are created. Newcomers form households of all unrelated individuals, or of related and unrelated individuals, who view each other as family. They also marry to create kinship ties that are helpful if difficult financial times occur; sponsor relatives, even distant and less known ones, to ensure that kin are available to help out in the future; and form kin networks in which in-laws are treated as substitutes for siblings or parents. Reciprocal help, inherent in the kin-based households, is expected in these variant households (Kibria 1993). Sharing resources, such as pooling income earned by all household members, reduces the chance of the household being in poverty (Caplan, Whitmore, and Choy 1989) and provides the opportunity to own a home or other possessions more quickly (Gold 1993).

Family or ethnic businesses may be viewed as an optimal solution for new immigrants who have difficulty obtaining employment in nonethnic labor markets that require language fluency and other skills (Gold 1992). Ethnic businesses serve several functions: economic support for the family, employment of others in one's ethnic group or family, and autonomy that is not readily available with low- or minimum-wage employment. Other advantages of ethnic businesses are provision of in-kind wages such as food, clothing, or a chance to bring children to the work setting instead of hiring a caretaker (Gold 1992). In her study of Chinese restaurants in Britain, Miri Song (1999) noted that older children play an integral role in the business when parents need translation assistance and unpaid labor for the survival of the business. The children consider helping out in the family business as expected and done out of good will rather than for wages. In return, parents provide material and emotional support, exemplifying the importance of intergenerational exchanges.

Reading first-hand accounts enhances understanding the daily lives of immigrants as they adapt to life in the new country. Thomas Dublin (1993) provided a sampling of such stories and an extensive bibliography covering U.S. immigration from 1773–1986. He noted the similarities across the ethnically diverse waves of immigrants: similar motivations (economic and war dislocations) for immigrating and similar processes of becoming part of the new country. Common experiences included cultural differences that separate them from the existing population, resulting in discrimination, exclusion, and the formation of ethnic communities for mutual economic and social support. Cultural conflicts between generations and within one's beliefs were evident when immigrants were caught between the values of two cultures. The successes of immigrants—working hard and succeeding financially and academically, and contributing to their new country—were portrayed.

In Immigration and the Family, edited by Alan Booth, Ann Crouter, and Nancy Landale, a strong case was made for expanding the role of families in future immigration research and policy. As stated by Rubén Rumbaut, "the family is perhaps the strategic research site . . . for understanding the dynamics of immigration flows (legal and illegal) and of immigrant adaptation processes." (1997, p. 4; emphasis in original).


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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesImmigration - Reasons For Immigration, Policy, Pathways To Immigration, Immigration's Effect On Families