The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (INA) created an immigration system favoring the immigration of spouses, children, and parents of US citizens, thereby establishing family unity as the cornerstone of US immigration policy. Despite this historical emphasis on family unity, backlogs and limited visas for non-immediate relatives of US citizens and legal permanent residents, the militarization of the US-Mexico border, punitive measures for those who enter without inspection, such as the forced separation of children from their parents at the US border, and an aggressive policy of deportation have made it more difficult for members of Mexican binational families to unify.
How do members of Mexican binational families manage the hardships that result from US immigration policies that prolong and force family separation? Immigrants and return migrants alike may not be aware of their rights and the legal remedies that exist to enforce them. Structural barriers such as poverty, legal status, fear of deportation, lack of proficiency in English, and lack of familiarity with government bureaucracies no doubt prevent many migrants in the United States and return migrants in Mexico from coming forward to request legal assistance and relief in the courts.
Despite these barriers, when it comes to family matters, members of some Mexican binational families can and do assert their rights. In this article, we analyze an administrative database of the Department of Legal Protection of the Mexican consular network that documents migrant legal claims resulting from family separation, along with findings from 21 interviews with consular staff and community organizations in three consular jurisdictions — El Paso, Raleigh, and San Francisco — to investigate the sociolegal processes of claims. Our investigation centers on the mediating role the Mexican state — via its consular network — has developed to assist binational families as they attempt to assert their rights and resolve child support and child custody problems resulting from prolonged and forced family separation. We find that the resolution of binational family claims in part depends on the institutional infrastructure that has developed at local, state, and federal levels, along with the commitment and capacity of the receiving and sending states and the binational structures they establish. These binational structures transcend the limitations of national legal systems to achieve and implement family rights and obligations across borders.