Documented and Afraid: System Embeddedness and Latin American Immigrants' Perceived Risk of Deportation


Drawing on in-depth interviews with Latin American immigrants in Dallas, Texas, I examine heterogeneity in how noncitizens holding a range of legal statuses perceive and respond to the risk of deportation. Although undocumented immigrants in this study recognize the precarity of lacking documentation, they sometimes believe themselves less vulnerable to deportation than documented immigrants. Meanwhile, despite the relative stability their legal status confers, documented immigrants of various designations in this study sometimes view themselves as more vulnerable to deportation than undocumented immigrants. To explain these seemingly-idiosyncratic perspectives, I develop the concept of “system embeddedness” to denote individuals’ perceived legibility to institutions that maintain formal records (i.e., a state of existing “in the system”). System embeddedness is one mechanism through which perceived visibility to the federal immigration regime entails risk, and perceived invisibility safety, for some noncitizens. In perceiving ostensibly “good” types of involvement with the U.S. immigration regime—such as documentation—as risky, “legal” and “illegal” noncitizens can be chilled out of opportunities for political, economic, and social inclusion and mobility.