Questioning Compliance with Immigration Law

Lives and loves and wars have been lost because of assumptions about what other people thought or did. Our immigration laws and policies often rely on popular misconceptions about why people come to the United States without authorization and what will deter them or compel them to leave. Popular ideas about unlawfully present noncitizens have shifted over time toward a view that unauthorized border crossers are criminal aliens who constitute the kind of crisis that require the combined forces of the immigration and criminal enforcement systems to regulate.

Yet without knowing what unlawfully present noncitizens actually think or believe, it’s hard to say whether those laws and policies have it right. In Less Enforcement, More Compliance, Emily Ryo has confronted this question of what unlawfully-present people think about their own presence in the U.S. by doing what seems both obvious and fraught with obstacles: she asked them.

More precisely, she asked sixty-four current and prospective unauthorized immigrants from Latin America at migrant and day-labor centers and sites about why they decided to come, what that was like, and why they continue to work and reside in the United States in violation of U.S. immigration laws. The interviews explored their knowledge of U.S. immigration law, their border crossing experiences, and their attitudes toward the U.S. government, Americans, and U.S. immigration law.

I like this article (lots) because it exemplifies a trend that other intrepid legal scholars began of going into the field to explore interesting questions about crimmigration, like whether prosecutors really care about the immigration consequences of a conviction (they do), whether political partisanship is more significant than changing demographics in driving states and cities to pass anti-immigrant laws (it is), or whether race correlates with how immigration enforcement is rolled out (it sure looks that way).

Here is the question that intrigued Ryo: how does the unlawfulness of unauthorized border-crossing impact noncitizens’ view of themselves as law-abiding? She discovered that the people interviewed viewed themselves as “moral, law-abiding individuals who respect law and order” and not as “delinquents” and “criminals.” Moreover, many spoke of their respect for the sanctity of national borders and their belief that it is appropriate for sovereign nations to control their borders, invoking the analogy of the homeowner’s prerogative to decide to host a guest. How, then, do immigrants reconcile these views with their current or planned noncompliance with U.S. immigration law?

Ryo analyzes the “neutralization techniques”—culturally acceptable legitimations—that permit noncitizens to disobey U.S. immigration law and see themselves as law-abiding. She identifies a number of them; this post will highlight just a few.

First, the noncitizens raised narratives of personal blamelessness for their situation, combined with a higher loyalty they felt they owed their families, especially their children. While that higher responsibility “called for drastic action—even illegal action,” disobeying immigration law was of a different moral caliber than committing unrelated crimes or otherwise causing injury to others. Even dire poverty or familial need did not justify harm-causing criminal or civil disobedience. As one interviewee put it, “Immigration law is different from other laws. Immigrants who come to work should not be compared to those who kill or those who steal.”

This “neutralization” comes with a cost. When asked about whether unauthorized immigrants caused potential harm to native workers, racial stereotypes emerged, such as the trope of the black welfare recipient, that reinforced interviewees’ beliefs that they were not displacing native workers. Ryo explained that the “internalization of racial stereotypes and imagined racial hierarchy by newcomers who have yet to be assimilated into U.S. society is a testament to the continuing salience of race in American life and to an understanding of the American racial hierarchy that is international in its reach.”

Class and race played a much more nuanced role in the noncitizens’ perceptions of the legitimacy of the U.S. immigration system, in which only the rich obtain U.S. visas, and skin color plays a crucial role in evading enforcement. A broadly shared view was that immigrants from Latin America were at a significant disadvantage within the system as a whole, and “mixing” with Americans or passing as white was critical to the success of the project of unlawful entry and remaining. Seeing the system as fair was further endangered by the “prevailing sense that the U.S. immigration system granted greater opportunities for certain national-origin groups based on capricious and ever-changing international politics” rather than a clear set of rules.

Ryo concludes that these noncitizens’ belief that the U.S. immigration law system is immoral lends support to their view that violations of the system may be “the only viable moral choice under the circumstances.” Her prescriptions—that the U.S. craft a development strategy that promotes job opportunities, and set up an expanded temporary worker program that would permit circular migration of workers—lines up, perhaps for the first time, with empirical data about why those programs might increase compliance with immigration law.

Thanks to Ryo we now know that “legal” and “honorable” work and commitments to economic stability for family are moral values that influence decisions to engage in violations of immigration law. Establishing a viable, legal way to fulfill these moral values may encourage timely circular migration among those present in the U.S. and “motivate prospective immigrants to wait to enter legally rather than attempt to cross illegally.”

We’ve all had the experience of thinking we knew what someone else was thinking. Sometimes it pays just to ask.

Cite as: Juliet Stumpf, Questioning Compliance with Immigration Law, JOTWELL (June 26, 2015) (reviewing Emily Ryo, Less Enforcement, More Compliance: Rethinking Unauthorized Migration, 62 UCLA L. Rev. 622 (2015)),