Less Enforcement, More Compliance: Rethinking Unauthorized Migration


A common assumption underlying the current public discourse and legal treatment of unauthorized immigrants is that unauthorized immigrants are lawless individuals who will break the law—any law—in search of economic gain. This notion persists despite substantial empirical evidence to the contrary. Drawing on original empirical data, this Article examines unauthorized immigrants and their relationship to the law from a novel perspective to make two major contributions. First, I demonstrate that unauthorized immigrants view themselves and their noncompliance with U.S. immigration law in a manner that is strikingly different from the prevalent view of criminality and lawlessness found in popular and legal accounts. Unauthorized immigrants’ decisions to cross the border—and to remain in the United States despite their lack of legal status—are likely shaped in large measure by their distinct normative views of themselves and their economic situations, as well as their perceptions about the lack of legitimacy of U.S. immigration law. Second, I show why understanding these views and values of unauthorized immigrants may have significant implications for promoting voluntary compliance with U.S. immigration law.

About the Author

Emily Ryo is an Assistant Professor of Law & Sociology at USC Gould School of Law.

By uclalaw