Reconsidering Immigrant Illegality: How Immigrants Perceive the Risk of Immigration Law and Enforcement

Thesis Type:

PhD thesis


Over the past two decades, researchers have developed a shared understanding of how to study immigrants’ everyday lives in an era of restrictive American immigration law and enforcement. This literature on immigrant “illegality” emphasizes the accounts of immigrants punished for violating sometimes-arcane immigration laws in order to foreground all noncitizens’ vulnerability to the immigration enforcement system. Yet, this literature seldom considers how the majority of immigrants who lack punitive contact with this system perceive its risk to their lives. This dissertation draws on insights from the sociology of risk, which suggests how past experience shapes one’s perceptions of potentially-perilous situations, to explore how a diverse sample of immigrants understands and responds to immigration law and enforcement. I draw primarily on ethnographic and interview data collected over three years with 59 respondents in 28 Latin American households in Dallas County, Texas, as well as supplementary ethnographic data collected at the County’s immigration court and Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office. The findings underscore the importance of one’s prior contact with immigration law and enforcement for structuring immigrants’ risk perceptions of this system. Those with punitive contact generalize the fear stemming from this prior experience to all other domains of social life, regardless of legal status, and seek to evade institutions that may bring about future punishment. But, among those lacking punitive contact, I reveal how system embeddedness—whereby individuals included in the U.S. immigration bureaucracy’s formal records exhibit a heightened sense of risk—emerges as one under-theorized dimension of social control: The undocumented in this sample tend to downplay the risk that immigration law and enforcement pose to their lives because they are unknown to the U.S. immigration bureaucracy, whereas those with relatively-secure legal protections—e.g., discretionary or temporary visa holders, legal permanent residents, and even naturalized citizens under certain conditions—tend to report great risk for being embedded inside it. Finally, I examine the spillover consequences of immigration law and enforcement on U.S.-born Hispanics more broadly who, regardless of their legal status, nevertheless must confront this system by virtue of their social or spatial proximity to immigrant populations. I discuss the implications of my findings for broader sociological theories of surveillance, punishment, and inequality. In particular, I conclude by outlining the contemporary immigration system as a “total institution,” an all-encompassing social arrangement that not only sanctions immigrants who have violated immigration law through its enforcement arm but also instills a sense of risk among those known to its bureaucratic arm.

Last updated on 06/01/2018