Immigration Federalism in the Weeds


This Article takes immigration federalism “all-the-way-down” by focusing on two counties in Southern California—Los Angeles County and Orange County—to consider the role that subfederal governmental entities play in immigration enforcement. Part I synthesizes the existing literature on immigration federalism with particular attention to the role of sublocal, local, county and regional actors. Part II maps out local immigration enforcement policies in Los Angeles and Orange Counties from 2015 through 2018 to illustrate the complex and sometimes contradictory policy choices made at the substate level. Part III explores the effects of these regional policy choices, both in terms of their impact on federal immigration enforcement patterns in these counties and—drawing on 150 in-depth interviews with Southern California residents in the period from 2014–2017—how people living in those counties experienced these policies. Part IV explores how this bottom-up view of immigration enforcement policies may inform existing theories of federalism and localism, particularly within the immigration context.

Sustained analysis of immigration enforcement policy choices within a particular local context illustrates the tremendous importance not just of state but also of substate immigration enforcement choices. It also highlights the complexities of local governmental control, demonstrating the ways that specific county and local actors can undercut or enhance state and federal enforcement choices. Finally, this analysis illustrates that noncooperation “sanctuary” policies may serve an important, trust-building signaling function to residents, but also that such policies are not sufficient in and of themselves to generate trust. This is because local officials can and do exploit the vulnerabilities of immigrant populations to target them in ways that increase their costs, decrease their feelings of security and diminish their trust in law enforcement even when those individuals are not actually arrested or sent to jail, let alone referred to immigration agents. Residents, and particularly Latinx residents are policed in the shadow of deportation. Exploring immigration federalism all the way down reveals that building secure communities for these residents will require an end to criminal enforcement practices that rely on markers of race, class and geography to target and leverage the vulnerability of community members.

About the Author

Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law.