Students work with Professor Yasmine Ergas and counterparts in Milan to consider how migration law affects polygamous families

Nearly a dozen SIPA students have been working this semester with Professor Yasmine Ergas, director of the specialization on Gender and Public Policy, to look into the gendered nature of migration experience and migration law. The students have been analyzing legal cases to understand what happens when polygamous families attempt to seek asylum in the United States or United Kingdom.

Cases in which polygamous families attempt to resettle in the European Union or United States are relatively rare today, but—in light of the massive shift in migration movements due to current conflict in the Middle East—Ergas sees this issue coming to the forefront in the near future.

Ergas is quick to point out that polygamous marriages are not a new concern in the United States, noting the significant case law around this issue.

Says Nilay Tuncok MIA ’17, a student participating in the project, “Polygamy has been part of the U.S. legal system for centuries, through multiple Supreme Court decisions and exclusionary immigration laws of the 19th century.”

Tuncok and other SIPA and Columbia students participating in the project are also collaborating with a cohort of students at the University of Milan who are conducting research in tandem. The collaboration allows students to share their research and understand the similarities of and differences between the United States and EU and to recognize the different frameworks and contexts that the different cohorts of students are coming from.

Rose Elizabeth Cutts, a student in Columbia’s M.A. program in Human Rights student who is also participating in the project, said “The Milan group has been really interesting to talk with partly due to the differing experiences of polygamy in the U.S. and Italy.”

The research is also appropriate because of the recent shift in cultural understandings of what makes a family unit.

“This is a time where we are rethinking what we mean by family and marriage,” Ergas said.

Tuncok said the project has helped her to understand how this changing understanding of family is reflected in the law: “I’ve learned to better analyze legal documents, such as looking at how the change in definition of ‘family’ in both U.S. and international law has affected the immigration status of women in polygamous marriages over the years.”

The issue furthermore calls into question concerns about the disproportionate impact these immigration policies have on women. As Ergas pointed out, “Women are the ones that will experience the exclusion.”

For example, if spouses are forced to choose one partner to be their legal wife in a new country that does not recognize polygamy, what happens to the other wives and their children? What happens to their rights to inheritance, social security, health care, child protection, and other resources?  While the premise of family reunification for asylum seeker and refugees is often to prioritize keeping families together, how does that priority shift when it comes to polygamous relations?

“Laws have a gendered impact on women in polygamous marriages,” said Tuncok. “For instance, the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 in the U.S. required a person to have good moral character to self-petition for permanent resident status, but the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 considered those practicing polygamy as persons of immoral character, leaving these women at a disadvantage and unable to claim rights.”

Tiff van Huysen, a participating student from Columbia’s M.A. program in Climate and Society, said “The migration process is much more complex than I imagined and that case law and statutory laws do not necessarily provide a clear means by which to reduce that complexity. For example, in the United States, our laws and court systems are really not designed to address issues that may arise in polygamous marriages and that legalizing polygamy would present significant challenges to our current legal system.”

Ergas also noted that the abolition of the practice of polygamy itself is an important cornerstone in gender equality in the West; to simply legalize polygamy would not appear to be in line with Western normative standards around gender equality. She stressed that this issue has to be considered in the context of changing norms regarding family and private life more generally.

“How do we address this in a way that is fair?,” she asked. “We have to understand the problem, understand how countries are trying to cope, and what is happening to the people involved.”

— Kristen Grennan MPA ’16

[Pictured: Yasmine Ergas (standing) and students teleconference with collaborators in Milan.]