Redefining American Families: The Disparate Effects of IIRIRA's Automatic Bars to Reentry and Sponsorship Requirements on Mixed-Citizenship Couples


migration, human security, mixed-citizenship couples


With passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA), the goal of discouraging illegal immigration and the legal immigration of the poor triumphed over the longstanding goal of family unity in US immigration policy. This shift resulted in policy changes that prevent some mixed-citizenship families from accessing family reunification benefits for the immigrant relatives of US citizens. Two specific elements of IIRIRA - (1) the three- and 10-year bars to reentry, and (2) the minimum income thresholds for citizen sponsors of immigrants - have created a hierarchy of mixed-citizenship families, enabling some to access all the citizenship benefits of family preservation and reunification, while excluding other, similar families from those same benefits. This article details these two key policy changes imposed by IIRIRA and describes their impact on mixed-citizenship couples seeking family reunification benefits in the United States. Mixed-citizenship couples seeking family reunification benefits do not bear the negative impacts of these two policies evenly. Rather, these policies disproportionately limit specific subgroups of immigrants and citizens from accessing family reunification. Low-income, non-White (particularly Latino), and lesseducated American families bear the overwhelming brunt of IIRIRA's narrowing of family reunification benefits. As a result, these policy changes have altered the composition of American society and modified broader notions of American national identity and who truly "belongs." Most of the disparate impact between mixed-citizenship couples created by the IIRIRA would be corrected by enacting minor policy changes to (1) allow the undocumented spouses of US citizens to adjust their legal status from within the United States, and (2) include the noncitizen spouse's income earning potential toward satisfying minimum income requirements.

Original Publication Citation

López, Jane Lilly. 2017. “Redefining American Families: The Disparate Effects of IIRIRA’s Automatic Bars to Reentry and Sponsorship Requirements on Mixed-Citizenship Couples.” Journal on Migration and Human Security 5(2): 236-251.

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date


Permanent URL


Journal of Migration and Human Security




Family, Home, and Social Sciences



University Standing at Time of Publication

Assistant Professor