Is it legal to immigrate to the U.S. with more than 1 wife?

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What happens when a family wants to immigrate to the U.S. and their country of origin allows polygamy? U.S. federal law clearly prohibits polygamy among both citizens and immigrants.

Does U.S. law bend or make exceptions for immigrants?

History of U.S. polygamy laws and immigration

U.S. immigration policies were fairly liberal until the late 1800s. State courts were responsible for the naturalization of U.S. citizens until 1875. It was at this point that the Supreme Court ruled immigration a federal responsibility. And, by 1891, the federal government began processing its first immigrants. That same year new limitations on immigration were clarified. In particular, polygamists were officially barred.

Now let's fast forward to the late twentieth-century. Polygamy crept back into the popular consciousness in the 1970s with the Thai Hmong refugee population. They began to receive public attention when Thai leaders met with a U.S. delegation to discuss that many prospective refugees practiced polygamy.

But it was not until a spokesman for the International Organization of Migration publicly stated that "in practice [polygamy] was negotiable...On paper; they can have one wife only," that controversy grew over polygamy.

Why now?

With greater numbers of immigrants from openly polygamous backgrounds immigrating to the U.S., it seems only natural that polygamy would again be raised as an issue.

What about refugees?

Although refugees have a certain protected status, refugees who resettle to the U.S. must still meet the government conditions for entry. Having refugee status does not guarantee admission. In fact, refugees may be denied entry into the US for a host of reasons; because of criminal records, serious health problems, or drug addiction.

What can a refugee do?

The Bantus of Somalia for example practice polygamy. Many families even have up to four wives. But a number of their other cultural practices may also bring them into direct conflict with the conditions of immigration. For example, the Bantu's practice burning or scarring as a form of healing, discipline their children physically, and perform female circumcision at puberty. All of these customs violate U.S. laws.

To prevent problems, refugee groups are educated about U.S. customs and laws well before immigration. U.S. sponsors also accept the responsibility to help immigrants acclimate to U.S. life and laws. Numerous agencies also exist to support immigrants.

Yet, issues like homeland security, quota control, and refugee policies all complicate immigration. One good starting point for immigration information is the worldwide web. The U.S. government has a portal to information, services, and transactions, including immigration. Immigration lawyers can also help interpret current laws and policies as one navigates to naturalization.

For now, there's no marriage between multiple spouses and U.S. law. But debates over marriage law are in the air thanks to gay marriage.