Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

The Obamas as just another mixed-status family

A mural in Winnipeg, Canada, October 2009
A mural in Winnipeg, Canada, October 2009
Photo by Stephen Zacharias/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The recent arrest of President Obama's half-uncle, who is being held by immigration officials for lack of legal status, casts light on a facet of the immigration story that is little-discussed but extremely commonplace: the prevalence of mixed-status families.

Onyango Obama, the 67-year-old half-brother of Obama's late father, was arrested last week near Boston on suspicion of drunk driving. According to reports, he failed to comply with a deportation order almost 20 years ago, and has lived under the radar since. He is the second Obama relative in recent years to make headlines for being undocumented; his sister Zeituni Onyango, whose story was leaked to the media shortly before the 2008 election, also faced deportation before she was granted asylum last year.

This particular family of Kenyan immigrants is noteworthy, of course, because it is the president's extended family. But their situation is hardly unique. It's a given in many immigrant families that someone - a parent, and aunt or uncle, a cousin - is undocumented, and having relatives in the United States is not enough to allow them to legalize, nor is marriage to a U.S. citizen.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimated in 2009 that there were 8.8 million people living in families of mixed immigration status in the United States. Pew's definition of mixed-status families was limited to families with unauthorized immigrants and their U.S. citizen children, making for a conservative estimate. From that report:

The number of people in mixed-status families has grown in concert with the increasing unauthorized immigrant population. The 8.8 million people in these families are a slight majority (53%) of the nation’s 16.6 million unauthorized immigrants and their family members. This share has hovered between 50% and 53% since 2003.

The share of children of unauthorized immigrants who are in mixed-status families has increased, though. In 2008, the 4.5 million children in mixed-status families represented 82% of the 5.5 million children of unauthorized immigrants—an increase from 76% in the 2003–05 period.

Looked at another way, 3.8 million unauthorized immigrants are parents of children who are U.S. citizens.

Mixed-status nuclear families are at the center of the debate over escalating deportations, as undocumented parents are sent away from their U.S.-born children, forced to decide between taking the children with them, leaving them with relatives here, or returning illegally.

Even more common are mixed-status extended families. More than a decade ago, researchers with The Urban Institute examined the prevalence of the mixed-status phenomenon and the legal and policy reasons at its root. From the introduction:

...mixed-status families are themselves complex: they may be made up of any combination of legal immigrants, undocumented immigrants, and naturalized citizens. Their composition also changes frequently, as undocumented family members legalize their status and legal immigrants naturalize.

The number, complexity, and fluidity of these mixed immigration status families complicate the design and implementation of the already complicated arenas of immigration and immigrant policy.

Onyango Obama arrived legally as a student in the 1960s, according to reports, but at some point fell out of status. The Boston Globe reported that he remained in the country after he was ordered deported in 1992. Zeituni Onyango's story is different in that she applied for political asylum after her arrival in 2000, was denied, but remained in the U.S. without status.

In immigrant families, these stories are commonplace. So common that they extend all the way to the White House.