Marriage Is Alive And Well Among Foreign-Born Americans

At a time when more couples across the nation are rejecting marriage, immigrants are importing it.

For the first time, married households in the nation have become a minority, representing 49.7 percent, or 55.2 million of the nation's 111.1 million homes, based on numbers from the Census' recently released American Community Survey.

Among the reasons cited by the New York Times for the decline of matrimony are a greater acceptance of couples living together out of wedlock, an increase in broken marriages and the high cost of maintaining a family.

The same data show, however, that a greater percentage of foreign born continue to outpace their native-born counterparts in tying the knot. Some 61.9 percent of foreign born are married, compared with 51.9 percent of native born.

Comparing household figures from a 2004 survey, 58.4 percent of foreign-born households consisted of a married couple, or 8.3 million, a figure that dipped slightly in 2001 but has inched up annually between 2002 and 2004.

With growing immigration, the prototypical American family with husband, wife and child will increasingly gain a new face. Observers say the high marriage rate may be attributed to immigrants bringing old-world, traditional values to the new world, and the frequency with which the foreign born emigrate with spouses. But observers think that once here, foreign-born couples and successive generations are susceptible to the same forces that pull apart native-born couples.

Asians lead all other immigrant groups in matrimony, followed by Latinos. This largely has to do with cultural values, says Reverend Norman Fong, advocacy chair of San Francisco's Presbyterian churches. He says among the foreign-born majority who live in the city's Chinatown, marriage is still a major institution. "They depend on these family networks in their homeland. It is like education, very important."

Teresa Liu, 33, born in China's Shandong province, says it was never a question whether or not she would get married. "I was born in the 1970s at the end of the Cultural Revolution. Back then there were rigid rules, like boys and girls were not to have relationships until after college. I knew my parents eventually wanted me to get married and have a child." Liu, who immigrated to the United States, is now married to a high school friend she got reacquainted with on a later trip to China.

When her parents immigrated to the United States they struggled at first like many immigrants but had each other to depend on. "They had a tough time, my father was making barely enough and my mother did not speak much English, but she found work as a nanny."

"The family and marriage are the one thing people are hanging onto," Fong says. "They can't depend on justice or services, but they can always depend on family."

The greater number of married foreign born may also have to do with the ease of bringing a spouse over to the United States, says Jeffrey Passel, senior research associate with the Pew Hispanic Center.

"Our immigration laws are designed to give preference to immediate family, mostly nuclear families. If you are a citizen, your spouse goes to the front of the line. If you are a legal immigrant your spouse and children have high preference. This encouragement of immigration is built into the law."

While many immigrant couples may arrive here married, some say that it can be a different story once they get here.

David Hayes-Bautista, a demographer and director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at UCLA, says there has been a steady decline of marriage among all groups in America since the 1950s. One reason is urbanization.

"Foreign-born Latinos historically have had one of the highest marriage rates in the country," Hayes-Bautista says. "Many who immigrate to the United States come from rural areas in Mexico and Central America where there are still socially conservative; but then they settle in a place like L.A."

He says urbanization often leads to higher wages, education and more choices. The results are especially visible in later generations. "Over the generations children and grandchildren become more urbanized and not as culturally assimilated. For example, Latino fertility rates have dropped in the past 15 years."

Anh Do, editor of editor of Nguoi Viet 2, the youth English section of the Nguoi Viet Daily News in Orange County, Calif., says a lot of Vietnamese families have been split by immigration. "One spouse comes here before the other and may have started a new life or relationship. When the other spouse comes here and sees what it's like they may decide to break up."

Do says there has been a greater acceptance of divorce and second marriages in the Vietnamese-American community as times and pressures change.

She believes the growing status of women in the community is another reason for the break in traditions. "I think women are more independent now. They earn more money and have exposure to other worlds, other people and other values. They may no longer subscribe to something they feel is a remnant of tradition or morality."

Hayes-Bautista says urbanization, increased education and employment for women around the world are the primary reasons for declining fertility. "If you look at highly Catholic societies like Italy and Spain, fertility has plummeted in the past 30 years and these two countries also have one of the highest rates of economic and industrial growth since the '70s."

He adds that France offers rewards for people to get married and have children, but hasn't been very successful.

Hayes-Bautista also points to the high cost of having a family and says that, in general, America isn't a family-friendly society. But with traditional family values stronger among immigrants, the country may have a chance to rescue the importance of marriage as an institution.

Hayes-Bautista says, "In essence we have a renewal purchase on the institution of a married couple with children among immigrants. Will we build on it or let it slip out of our grasp again? These are policy and political questions."

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