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Question Description

I’m working on a law question and need an explanation and answer to help me learn.

Research Question- How do you think current drug laws contribute to re-incarceration of Latino youths involved in drug trade within the Los Angeles area?

Your task in this section is to explain your research methodology to the reader clearly and in detail. Methods sections are often relatively short; I think you can do this in one long paragraph. Note that you will write about who you expect your participants to be (future tense). But when it comes time for the final paper, you’ll write about who your participants were (past tense).

Make sure this section includes all of the following:

– What were your parameters (or, what particular population did you recruit)?

– How will you / did you recruit your research participants?

– What were the specific characteristics of your interviewees – demographics, etc. (not needed until



– Why did you choose this particular population? What do they have to offer that’ll help answer your

research question and fill in the ‘gap’ you’ve identified? Why them and not some other group?

– What specific research method did you use (in our case, it’s in-depth, semi-structured interviews)

– What sort of things will you ask about in your interviews? What was the reason you asked these

questions – or, what was the goal of this particular set of questions; how do you expect them to answer your research question?

Legal Consciousness of Undocumented Latinos:
Fear and Stigma as Barriers to Claims-Making
for First- and 1.5-Generation Immigrants
Leisy J. Abrego
This article examines the legal consciousness and incorporation experiences
of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Although this population
may be disaggregated along several axes, one central distinction among them
is their age at migration. Those who migrated as adults live out their daily lives
in different social contexts than those who migrated as children. Therefore,
although all undocumented immigrants are legally banned, their identities,
sense of belonging, and interpretation of their status vary. Based on ethnographic observations and in-depth interviews of Latino undocumented
immigrants from 2001 to 2010, I examine how illegality is experienced
differently by social position. The findings suggest that the role of life-stage at
migration and work-versus-school contexts importantly inform immigrants’
legal consciousness. Fear predominates in the legal consciousness of first-generation undocumented immigrants, while the legal consciousness of the 1.5
generation is more heavily infused with stigma. Fear and stigma are both
barriers to claims-making, but they may affect undocumented immigrants’
potential for collective mobilization in different ways.
t a recent press conference in support of the DREAM Act,1
undocumented college students openly shared details about their
lives as they eagerly waited for the event to begin. Off to the side,
an older woman carried a stack of banners and smiled shyly every
I am grateful to Hiroshi Motomura, Sylvanna Falcón, Leo Chavez, and Lilia Soto for
their feedback on previous drafts of this article. I am indebted to Carroll Seron and the
three anonymous reviewers for their incredibly helpful suggestions. I also benefited from
presenting the paper at the 2009 Law & Society Association Conference. Special thanks to
Carlos Colorado for his support. This research was generously supported by the University
of California Office of the President, the Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the
Haynes Foundation, the UCLA Latin American Center, and the Latin American Studies
Association Section on Central America. Please address correspondence to Leisy Abrego,
Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, 7357
Bunche Hall, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1559; e-mail: abrego@ucla.edu.
The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act (S. 2075,
H.R. 5131) is a bipartisan piece of legislation that would provide undocumented students
who have grown up in the United States with a pathway to legal permanent residency. At
the time of this writing, the DREAM Act was pending in the U.S. Congress.
Law & Society Review, Volume 45, Number 2 (2011)
r 2011 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
Legal Consciousness of Undocumented Latinos
time our eyes met. I walked over to introduce myself, and after some
chitchat she cautiously shared her story. Adela2 is the mother of one
of the students who helped organize the press conference. This was
the first time she had participated in such a public act, and she was
nervous about being so visible. She and her family arrived in the
United States from Mexico more than 14 years ago, but she has only
recently started to participate in a local immigrant rights organization. After much prodding from her children, she joined them in
their volunteer efforts. She hopes that under President Barack
Obama’s administration she and her family may finally have a pathway to lawful permanent residence. Adela was the only parent in the
group of about 30 people. She had invited several other women to
the press conference who attended meetings at the organization, but
all had declined because they were too afraid of becoming targets for
deportation. Meanwhile, the students proudly held up banners that
made claims and tied their struggle to mainstream ideals: ‘‘Our
Dreams Can’t Wait’’ and ‘‘My Dream, The American Dream.’’
The visible contrast between Adela’s behavior and that of the
students was striking. Adela, whose demographics more closely
match those of the imagined undocumented immigrant, is clearly
afraid to step out of the shadows. Her children and their peers, on
the other hand, seem unafraid to speak out in favor of policies that
will help them and their families move out of the margins. This
event, like so many other collective mobilization activities in support
of undocumented immigrants, illustrates the difference in perspective, legal consciousness, and claims-making behaviors between undocumented immigrant youth and adults. Undocumented youth,
many of whom are growing up and coming of age in the United
States, are actively demanding full inclusion into U.S. society (Abrego 2008:560; Bloemraad & Trost 2008; Seif 2004). Undocumented
adults, on the other hand, have mostly remained in the shadows. In
fact, journalistic coverage (Bazar 2009) and a prominent Internet
presence of various undocumented youth groups around the country suggest the greater visibility and political claims-making of youth
compared to their adult counterparts. Politically, their participation
in collective claims-making is important because it may lead to
greater inclusion through legalization.3 However, their stratified
participation suggests a diversity of experiences in what is often
presumed to be a monolithic undocumented immigrant community.
Drawing on the narratives of undocumented Latino immigrants who arrived in the United States as adults (first generation)
The names of individual respondents, locations, and organizations have been disguised to preserve anonymity.
Protests and social movements have the potential to influence policy changes (Meyer
& Reyes 2010).
and those who came as children (1.5 generation) (Rumbaut 2004),
this article argues that the process of integration into U.S. society
for different subgroups of undocumented immigrants is anything
but monolithic. It examines how age at migration and socialization
via different social institutions in the United StatesFparticularly
work and school (Gleeson & Gonzales n.d.)Fvariably affect immigrants’ understanding of their legal statuses. Even though they are
all legally banned from residing in the country, asymmetrical
claims-making behaviors reveal an interplay between legal status,
labor, and education laws, as well as experiences with migration
and social institutions that differentially affect their sense of belonging and incorporation experiences.
Immigrant Incorporation Theories and the Role of Legal
Legal status, and undocumented status more specifically, have
yet to be fully examined as central determinants of immigrants’ life
chances in the United States. Contemporary theories of immigrant
incorporation, more explicitly than past theories, do try to account
for the role of context of reception in contextualizing and shaping
immigrants’ lives in the host country (Portes & Rumbaut 2001;
Portes & Zhou 1993; Reitz 1998). In particular, segmented assimilationFone of the most influential frameworks for the study of
immigrant incorporationFidentifies context of reception as one of
a few key factors determining the various pathways through which
immigrants and their children can incorporate into U.S. society
(Portes & Rumbaut 2001; Portes & Zhou 1993). In this conceptualization, governmental policies are secondary to coethnic communities (considered the most important mode of incorporation) and
societal reception (through the presence or absence of prejudice) in
influencing immigrants’ educational and occupational attainment
(Portes & Zhou 1993:84, 86). Arguably, the framework underemphasizes the significance of legal status (Abrego 2006) in favor of
examinations of the role of human, economic, and social capital,
and it therefore misses the diversity of experiences among different subgroups of undocumented immigrants.4
Diverse experiences of illegality are similarly underemphasized
in other contemporary studies of immigrant integration that rely
on data sets with only few undocumented immigrant participants
(see, for example, Alba & Nee 2003; Kasinitz et al. 2008). Unable to
To be fair, the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study (CILS)Fthe survey used
to support and develop much of the work on segmented assimilationFdid not measure
immigration status (see Portes & Rumbaut 2001 for information on the first findings of the
Legal Consciousness of Undocumented Latinos
compare across statuses, these studies overlook the complex rewards and penalties for immigrants in the United States based,
precisely, on legal status (Massey & Bartley 2005). When legal status is analyzed more centrally, its role in determining access to
health care (Holmes 2007; Menjı́var 2002), housing (McConnell &
Marcelli 2007; Painter et al. 2001), higher education (Abrego &
Gonzales 2010; Abrego 2006; 2008), and employment (Fortuny
et al. 2007; Uriarte et al. 2003; Valenzuela Jr. 2002; Walter et al.
2004) becomes evident. In general, undocumented immigrants are
more vulnerable; they earn less, work in more dangerous jobs, and
have little access to financial and housing aid. Presumably, like all
immigrants, undocumented immigrants’ wages and living conditions should improve when they have resided in the United States
for 10 or more years (Myers 2007).
Existing studies tend to consider the situation of undocumented immigrants or the role of legal status in general and therefore implicitly contribute to a notion that there is a monolithic
undocumented immigrant experience. For example, although factors such as gender, national origin, race, order of migration, age at
arrival, educational attainment, and daily social contexts have been
shown to be important in shaping integration experiences of most
immigrants (Chiswick & DebBurman 2004; Feliciano 2006; Hondagneu-Sotelo 2003; Rumbaut 2004; Schaafsma & Sweetman
2001), this kind of diversity has been underexplored among undocumented immigrants. This article begins to tease out some of
this diversity by examining how illegality intersects with and is experienced differently across social positions. To this end, I extend
the analysis of immigrant incorporation beyond educational and
occupational outcomes to include immigrants’ claims-making behavior. The extent to which groups make claims for inclusion in
various sectors of society reveals not only their sense of belonging,
but also what spaces and information are accessible to them (Polletta 2000). In the case of immigrants, aside from how much
schooling and what kinds of jobs they are able to attain, their ability
or inability to voice their concerns and demand rights speaks directly to their political incorporation, even when their activities are
outside of the realm of traditional electoral politics (Bloemraad
2006; Jones-Correa 1998a). Arguably, such claims-making is a central aspect of immigrant incorporation.
Claims-Making, Legal Consciousness, and Undocumented
Claims-making requires an awareness of existing or possible
rights (Minow 1987; Polletta 2000). Informed by their legal
consciousnessFcommonsense understandings of the law (Merry
1990)Fpeople develop stratified levels of rights awareness, pursue
various conflict-resolution strategies (Emerson 2008; Hoffmann
2003), and generally interpret their lives in different ways. In their
important study on the ways people understand and apply the law
in everyday life, Ewick and Silbey (1998) identify predominant
types of legal consciousness, each associated with a set of actions.
Among these, the authors find that individuals who are ‘‘with the
law’’ find it to be accessible, utilize it as a resource, and perceive it
as a game (1998:48). These individuals are aware of their rights
and are likely to make claims for redress or inclusion. On the other
hand, those who are ‘‘against the law’’ are trapped by its pervasive
authority and are not likely to make claims (1998:48–9). Based on
this framework, the authors predict that members of disenfranchised groups will generally be against the lawFdistrusting and
suspicious of the law and its capricious implementation. Although
these categories are loosely correlated with social status, orientations toward law are shifting and contingent (1998:235). Because
legal consciousness is socially constructed and leaves room for
shifting interpretations and applications of law, Ewick and Silbey’s
prediction accurately explains the experiences of some marginalized groups (Bumiller 1988; Nielsen 2000) but captures less of the
complexity of others (Abrego 2008; Hernandez 2010).
Undocumented immigrants are all banned from residing in the
United States. As such, they constitute a vulnerable group, and
their legal consciousness should presumably place them unvaryingly ‘‘against the law’’ within national boundaries. This is in line
with Calavita’s insightful assertion (1998:560) that ‘‘despite the
rhetoric of control and integration, immigration laws and policies
have one conspicuous effect: Instead of controlling immigration,
they control the immigrant.’’ She argues that the exclusivist nature
of many immigration policies often leads to intense fear of deportation and a life of permanent anxiety for undocumented immigrants. Her findings suggest that undocumented immigrants’ legal
consciousness is uniformly ‘‘against the law.’’ Along these lines, in a
recent national survey (Pew Hispanic Center 2007), just over half
of Latino adults in the United States expressed worry that one of
their close friends or relatives could be deported. Indeed, this
sizeable undocumented Latino population is vulnerable and increasingly targeted for detention and deportation (Human Rights
Watch 2007; Lovato 2008).
Given their precarious legal situation, undocumented and otherwise liminally legal (Menjı́var 2006b) Latino immigrants must
look toward the law to understand their place in U.S. societyF
what rights and services are available to them and what is off limits.
However, there is reason to believe that not all immigrants with ten-
Legal Consciousness of Undocumented Latinos
uous legal status fare equally. For example, while many undocumented adult immigrants are silenced about their work and living
conditions (Camayd-Freixas 2008; Holmes 2007; Walter et al. 2004),
some undocumented college students organize around and access
educational opportunities (Abrego 2008; Seif 2004). These types of
highly visible collective actions to demand full and legal inclusion in
the United States suggest that members of the 1.5 undocumented
immigrant generation are informed by a legal consciousness that is
driven by less fear than that of their adult counterparts in the first
generation. In the next section, I review some of the policies and
public discourses that contextualize the incorporation experiences of
these subgroups of undocumented immigrants.
The Social Construction of First and 1.5 Generation
Undocumented Immigrants
Federal, state, and local laws along with media representations
powerfully produce the category of undocumented immigrants.
Like all laws, immigration laws are socially constructed, and the
people deemed ‘‘illegal’’ are only produced as such through immigration laws (De Genova 2005; Ngai 2007). Immigration laws
restrict the movement of some individuals but allow the admission
of others, thereby making and unmaking documented, undocumented (Calavita 1998; Ngai 2004), and quasi-documented immigrants (Menjı́var 2006b). These practices establish a social
hierarchy based on legal status (Menjı́var & Abrego n.d.) and legal categories that grant immigrants access to goods, benefits, and
rights in society (Massey & Bartley 2005). In the current historical
moment, the estimated 11.9 million undocumented immigrants
who reside in the United States (Passel & Cohn 2008) are heavily
criminalized (Stumpf 2006). Mostly punitive immigration policies
at the federal, state, and local levels fundamentally and commandingly shape immigrants’ lived experiences, creating systematic patterns of disadvantage (Menjı́var & Abrego n.d.). However, not all
undocumented immigrants are equally criminalized.
Although historically undocumented immigrants consisted
mainly of adult males, changes in immigration laws and an increase
in neoliberal policies drive larger numbers of Latino immigrants and
their families to settle in the United States (Hondagneu-Sotelo 1994;
Massey et al. 2002). The steep militarization of the southern border
and a lack of available pathways to lawful permanent residency force
immigrants to leave loved ones behind for extended periods of time
(Abrego 2009; Menjı́var & Abrego 2009) or settle in the United
States to raise their families (Hondagneu-Sotelo 1994). Therefore,
although media representations continue to focus largely on adult
workers (Chavez 2001, 2008), undocumented immigrants include
members of families with various social locations. In fact, undocumented youth under the age of 18 make up 16 percent of undocumented immigrants in the United States (Fortuny et al. 2007:10),
and it is likely that their experiences of incorporation vary greatly
from those of their first-generation counterparts.
Presumably, all undocumented immigrants’ lives are contextualized by immigration laws and ordinances, but deportation
rates and media coverage suggest stratified application of the law.
For example, the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant
Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), one of the harshest federal immigration laws in U.S. history (Stumpf 2006), set the stage for the
deportation of more than 650,000 immigrantsFmost of whom
were adults.5 Among other things, it expanded the range of crimes
that make noncitizens deportable, increased border control efforts,
and made it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to obtain
legal permanent residence. One of the most damaging mechanisms
created through IIRIRA is the 287(g) program, which allows local
police to enter into an agreement with Immigration and Customs
Enforcement (ICE) to target and detain ‘‘criminal illegal aliens.’’
Prominently broadcast in the media, ICE raids have become more
frequent and visible, garnering much public attention. Although
the public emphasis has been on the deportation of ‘‘criminal
aliens,’’ 287(g) has had its largest impact on law-abiding immigrants, such as day laborers, street vendors, and drivers with broken tail-lights (Armenta 2009; Shahani & Greene 2009). In this
process, ICE agents have targeted first-generation undocumented
immigrant workers while undocumented youth have been largely
spared from detention or deportation (Preston 2009).
Despite sharing the legal context created by immigration laws
with undocumented adults, undocumented youth have important
legal protections not available to their first-generation counterparts
(Abrego & Gonzales 2010). Specifically, undocumented youth’s
lives are also broadly contextualized by education laws. Since 1982,
a Supreme Court ruling, Plyler v. Doe, has barred public schools
from excluding undocumented children, thereby granting them
legal access to public education through high school. Their status
as students protects members of the undocumented 1.5 generation
in various ways. Importantly, it provides them with safe spaces in
educational institutions that are not likely to be targets for ICE
raids. Moreover, because they occupy a socially acceptable status as
students, when they have been apprehended (usually away from
educational settings) they have received an outpouring of support
See Department of Homeland Security 2009: Table 38, ‘‘Aliens Removed by
Criminal Status and Region and Country of Nationality: Fiscal Years 2000 to 2009.’’
Legal Consciousness of Undocumented Latinos
from allies nationwide (Preston 2009). Prompted by online organizations, supporters have signed petitions, e-mailed letters, and
made phone calls en masse to urge lawmakers to stop the deportation of these youth (Preston 2009). Often, deportations have been
at least temporarily halted. Most recently, State Senators Dick
Durbin and Richard Lugar, supporters of the DREAM Act, have
written to the Obama administration requesting a general halt on
the deportation of potential beneficiaries of the DREAM Act.6 Such
public support is rare for undocumented workers.
Media portrayals also vary considerably between 1.5- and firstgeneration undocumented immigrants. In stark contrast to coverage of undocumented immigrant workers, media coverage of these
students’ experiences has been relatively positive, highlighting
their achievements and contributions (see, for example, Jordan
2008; Preston 2009; Sacchetti 2001; Sanchez 2001). On the other
hand, mainstream mass media has mostly reproduced and maintained unambiguously negative portrayals of undocumented adults
(Chavez 2008). News media outlets and public officials’ discourse
on immigration gratuitously highlight the legal status of immigrant
workers with negative connotations (see Chavez 2001, 2008; Kil
2006; Menjı́var & Kil 2002). Rarely revealing the human side of
these stories, the media repeatedly covers immigration raids at
work sites in a manner that portrays immigrants as criminals.
Right-wing talk show hosts and anti-immigrant groups pejoratively
refer to undocumented immigrants as ‘‘illegal aliens.’’ Cumulatively, the images and discourse create a social imaginary of undocumented immigrants as a homogeneous group of workers
without families or established ties to U.S. communities, arguably
making it easier to criminalize and dehumanize them.
It is notably more difficult for the mainstream media to negatively portray undocumented students. Because many arrived in
the United States as young children, they are not easy to discern
from their documented peers. Undocumented youth are legitimated in educational settings and are able to learn the language,
absorb the customs, and make the culture their own in ways that
are not available to those who migrate as adults (Abrego 2006;
Fernández-Kelly & Curran 2001). For example, whereas workingclass adults may signal to others through their clothing and language practices that they are outsiders, undocumented students
dress and speak English in ways that typically make them indistinguishable from their U.S.-born peers (Chavez 1998; Olivas
For a copy of the senators’ April 21, 2010, letter to then-Attorney General Janet
Napolitano, see http://amvoice.3cdn.net/73f55f1afefcefadf6_1zm6bx6rb.pdf (accessed 25
April 2010).
1995).7 Thus, unlike undocumented first-generation immigrants, undocumented youth can manipulate social assumptions to avoid questions about their legal status (Abrego 2006; Gonzales 2008). When
they do share information about their unauthorized status, reporters
are often willing to also share information that humanizes these youth.
Ultimately, most undocumented immigrants targeted for detention and deportation are adults. ICE raids take place most visibly at
work sites, and anti-immigrant rhetoric is infused with references to
unwanted workers. Being so visible and vulnerable, undocumented
adults are likely to stand against the law and in fear of legal repercussions. But their experiences are categorically different from those
of undocumented youth, for whom protective education policies
and safe institutional spaces protect them in various ways. Furthermore, the educational system is central to the development of identity and understanding of social norms (Lopez 2003)Fforces that,
along with the law, powerfully determine legal consciousness (Abrego 2008). Under current law, however, many immigrants who are
undocumented have no pathway to regularize their status, regardless of their age.8 These different contexts and life experiences are
likely to inform the legal consciousness of subgroups of undocumented immigrants in very different ways, thereby shaping how
they make claims and incorporate into U.S. society.
The data on which this article is based come from two studies.
From 2001 to 2006, I carried out a longitudinal study that focused
on access to higher education for Guatemalan, Mexican, and Salvadoran undocumented high school and college students in Los
Angeles.9 I located 27 respondents for this study through participant-observation at community-based organizations and various
schools and colleges. I initially interviewed 12 undocumented
youth. I went on to interview eight of them two more times over
the five-year period. The first round of interviews took place in
Because undocumented youth share the same neighborhoods and schools, their
socialization processes are almost identical to those of other children of immigrants. The
most significant difference between the two groups is that legal protections for undocumented youth end when they leave school (Abrego 2006; Abrego & Gonzales 2010).
Family reunification and employment-based categories are the only pathways to
legalization. Undocumented immigrants must have an employer or a close relative who is
documented, and preferably a U.S. citizen, to petition for them. Moreover, immigrants can
file for legalization through these avenues and still have to wait for many years, sometimes
more than a decade, before the bureaucratic system grants them legal permanent residence.
Together, immigrants from these three national-origin groups account for roughly
80 percent of the undocumented population (Passel 2005).
Legal Consciousness of Undocumented Latinos
2001, the second round in 2002–2003, and the third round in
2005–2006. For the purposes of corroborating some of my observations with the smaller original sample, in the third round I also
conducted interviews with 15 more undocumented students who
were enrolled at various colleges and universities throughout California. Although many of the students were high-achieving, some
of them were performing poorly in school and were unlikely to
graduate from high school. With the exception of one student who
came to the United States when she was 14, most of the youth
migrated between their infancy and age eight. Their ages at the
time of the interviews ranged from 17 to 24. All interviews with
members of the 1.5 generation were conducted in English. I taperecorded and transcribed the interviews.
Between June 2004 and September 2006, as part of a larger
study, I also conducted 28 in-depth interviews with Salvadoran
immigrants who were undocumented or recently formerly undocumented. At the time of the interview, five had only recently been
granted legal permanent residency, 14 were undocumented, and 9
had only Temporary Protected Status (TPS).10 Their average age at
migration was 29. They were between ages 25–55 at the time of the
interview. I located these respondents by approaching them individually at businesses, day labor sites, and public parks, or by
making presentations in churches, union halls, and communitybased organizations. I conducted all interviews with members of
the first generation in Spanish.11 I tape-recorded most interviews
and had them professionally transcribed.12
The interview data are heavily supplemented with participantobservation conducted on a weekly or biweekly basis over the course
of several years at community organizations, meetings, and events.
From 2006 to 2010, I continued to participate in and observe mobilization efforts of undocumented immigrants. In this process, I
have gained access to strikingly similar stories of many more students
and adult immigrants in various locations throughout Los Angeles.
The data collection and analytical process for this article were
different for each set of interviews. The study of 1.5-generation
students was designed to explore the effects of immigration and
education laws on their educational trajectories. I asked participants direct questions about their legal status and the role it played
in their daily activities. In turn, the analytical process presumed the
TPS grants beneficiaries the legal right to remain in the United States and to work
during a designated period (typically 18 months), but it does not lead to permanent resident status.
Excerpts included in the article are my translations from the originals in Spanish.
For information about my own positionality relative to the first-generation immigrant participants in the study, see Abrego (2009).
significance of legal status and sought out the specific ways in which
it mattered. On the other hand, my interviews with first-generation
immigrants were part of a larger project on transnational families’
well-being. In this set of interviews, I did not ask participants to
reveal their legal status. It turned out, however, that legal status
was so central in determining transnational families’ well-being that
even without my prodding, they divulged their status and its implications in their lives. For example, my question about how they
made the decision to migrate and leave children behind usually
prompted responses that included details about the dangers of unauthorized travel across borders. And when I asked about their work
experiences in the United States, first generation immigrants also
often shared the challenges associated with undocumented legal
status for obtaining stable jobs and avoiding exploitation. The larger
project from which I drew these interviews also included interviews
with documented migrants. Comparisons across immigrants’ legal
status served to further highlight the uniqueness and prevalence of
legal status in shaping undocumented immigrants’ lives. In this
sense, the analysis for this set of interviews was much more inductive, as the narratives led me to the relevance of legal status.
Although the data are based on two different studies, they are
comparable. Perhaps this is most clear in the cases in which I asked
the same questions of both sets of participants. For example, I
asked both youth and adults why they or their family migrated. In
other cases, the data are comparable because I asked parallel
questions of respondents. For example, I asked adult immigrants
to tell me about their work experiences in the United States and
asked youth to tell me about their school experiences in the United
States. Finally, even in cases where I did not ask the same or parallel questions of participants in the two studies, the prevalence of
common narratives among both sets of interviewees speaks powerfully to the role of legal status in their lives. For example, although I only asked the 1.5-generation participants directly about
their legal status, the fact that the topic was so prevalent in the
narratives of the first-generation participants serves to accentuate
the centrality of legal status in their lives.
Differences Between First- and 1.5-Generation
Undocumented Immigrants
The findings shed light on the diversity of experiences among
undocumented immigrants by underscoring that although both
subgroups are undocumented, they develop different types of legal
consciousness as a result of migrating at different life-stages and
interacting with different social institutions in the United States.
Legal Consciousness of Undocumented Latinos
Therefore, members of the undocumented first generation internalize the law most prominently as fear while members of the undocumented 1.5 generation internalize the law most notably as a source
of stigma. Although both forms of legal consciousness are likely to
limit their claims-making, the fact that they participate in collective
political action in different ways suggests a heightened significance of
legal consciousness in immigrants’ integration processes.
Life-Stage at Arrival: Decision to Migrate
Not surprisingly, individuals’ life-stage at arrival centrally informed the legal consciousness of undocumented immigrants.
Memories of the migration decision making process were prominent in the narratives of undocumented first-generation immigrants
but mostly absent in the narratives of 1.5-generation undocumented
immigrants. In response to questions about why they had migrated
to the United States, most first-generation undocumented immigrants provided concrete responses. Several went on to describe the
economic situation they lived in, how much they earned, how many
other people shared their household, how many responsibilities
they could not fulfill, how they tried to get other jobs, and who
helped them. Members of the 1.5 generation, on the other hand,
only had vague notions about why they and their families migrated.
Most cited ‘‘economic’’ reasons but rarely recalled specific details
about their own and their family’s situation prior to migration.
In turn, people who migrated as adults took greater ownership
over their decision to migrate. Although many expressed that they
felt they had no other optionFsuggesting that they were not entirely in controlFthey could vividly recall what led them to migrate
and the moments when they actively opted (often hesitantly) to
leave their homes. Members of the 1.5 generation, on the
other hand, shared very different narratives about migration
decision making. Except for one young Mexican woman who migrated in search of her mother (and without her mother’s consent)
at age 14, none of the other youth took responsibility for their
migration. They cited their young ages as evidence that they could
not have been in a position to decide to migrate.
It matters whether immigrants feel that they actively participated in making the decision to migrate because this informs their
sense of responsibility and willingness to deal with the effects of
immigration law in their lives. For example, Marta, who was 32
years old at the time of the interview, recalled her migration from
El Salvador at age 21. In response to a question about whether she
was afraid of the journey by land, she responded:
Well, yes, because they tell you, you hear how difficult it is to cross
[borders and territories] and how dangerous the trip is. But
you’re filled with desperation when there is nothing more to do,
and you don’t know where the next meal is going to come from,
so then you’re forced to hit the road. You know what awaits you,
but there’s no other way.
As an undocumented immigrant, Marta’s work and living experiences in the United States have been difficult. Not only have various employers exploited her, but she also continues to earn
minimal wages despite working six days per week. When I asked
her how this made her feel, her response was simply:
Well, one knows, right? You know why you come, which is to
work. Everything else, you know that maybe they will look at you
as being inferior because you don’t have papers, but you just have
to keep working. The problem is if they catch [detain/deport]
you. But everything else doesn’t matter.
In effect, those who arrived as adults considered that they did so
mostly according to their own will, so they were more likely to take
some responsibility for the legal consequences of exclusion and humiliation based on their undocumented status. Marta, however, also
minimized the effect of social exclusion when she suggested that it is
not as important or consequential as detention or deportation.
Several youth, on the other hand, expressed that because they
had not participated in the decision making process, they should
not be considered responsible for their unauthorized status. Evelyn, a Mexican immigrant whose narrative was similar to those of
other 1.5-generation undocumented youth in the study, described
her frustration with being undocumented and socially excluded:
I hate it because on a daily basis I’m reminded that I’m sort of
cheating the system and I don’t want it to be that way. I don’t
think I am. I was little, I’ve lived all my life here, I didn’t choose
to come here . . . Every time I go to [community college] I think
about it. . . . Because I didn’t have the chance to go [to college]
where I wanted to go and have financial aid. . . . And that’s when I
realize that because I’m not welcomed here I don’t have those
privileges. I think about it almost all the time.
Like many other undocumented 1.5-generation immigrants, Evelyn felt that she does not deserve the exclusion and humiliation
associated with her legal status. Not having made the decision
to migrate, she considered her current situation unfair. In her
case, consequences included not having access to financial aid for
college and instead having to attend the more affordable but less
academically challenging community college. Unlike first-generation undocumented immigrants whose narratives focused on deportation, her frustration was most evident when she described the
sense of feeling unwelcome in the society where she has lived most
Legal Consciousness of Undocumented Latinos
of her life. Legal consciousness for undocumented youth, then,
seems to be shaped less by a concrete fear of deportation and more
by a sense of stigma from recognizing that there are rights and
privileges that are unavailable to them due to their status.
Life-Stage at Arrival: Memories of the Migration Journey
Deportation is a concrete fear for all first-generation undocumented immigrants in this study. Those who traveled by land to cross
the border into the United States vividly recall the journey and do not
wish to relive it in another attempt to get back into the United States.
The dangers associated with this journey are arguably a form of legal
violence (Menjı́var & Abrego n.d.). That is, these dangers are created
largely as a result of U.S. immigration policies that have militarized
the border and increased the risks from getting into the United States
without authorization. Immigrants begin to understand their social
marginalization in the United States through the experience of crossing territories and borders without authorization. In this process,
immigration law powerfully begins to form their legal consciousness.
Although not all undocumented immigrants in the study
crossed the border by land, those who did vividly recall their horrendous experiences, even years after crossing. Unprompted to
describe their journey, they usually took advantage of the interview
setting to share some of what they had survived. Mauricio, a Salvadoran man who was deported from Mexico twice before making
it to the United States on his third attempt, still gets emotional
when recalling his journeys. Three years after entering the United
States, he was still visibly upset and his voice faltered as he recounted some of the torturous experiences he endured and
There were 87 of us and they packed us up into a trailer truck for
16 hours. And for all of us to fit, we had to be so close to each
other, and I couldn’t take it anymore, I needed to move. . . . And
then we started to walk across the desert. All you desire is water
and food. We used our shirts to drain some muddy rain water
that remained in a plastic bag that was stuck to a tree. That’s how
thirsty we were! . . . And at one point, we all had to run in different directions, and once the [border patrolmen] were gone, we
went back to look for the Guatemalan man who was with us. He
was already really tired and we didn’t find him. The smuggler
wanted to keep going, and who knows what happened to that
poor man because we still had to walk many hours and it was so
cold that night. I don’t know if he survived. He probably didn’t.
Similarly, Lydia, a Salvadoran woman, walked so much that
she bled between her legs. When six masked men robbed her at
gunpoint and forced her onto the floor, it was only the sight of
blood that disturbed the men enough to stop them from raping
her. Tales like these are not uncommon among migrants crossing
international borders to arrive in the United States (see, for example, Behrens 2009; Coutin 2007; Menjı́var 2000). These types of
experiences forcefully communicate to these migrants that they are
unwelcome in the United States. Understandably, their legal consciousness is strongly shaped by their memories of the journey and
a concrete fear of ever having to live through that dreadful experience again should they be deported.
Immigrants who arrived as children, on the other hand, remembered little to nothing about their migration journeys. Miguel,
who migrated from Guatemala at age 7, recalled:
I do remember that we had to hide in like the grass, this area that
was like a big field and they would tell me to stay quiet. And I
kind of like remember a house that a lot of us stayed in. But that’s
all I remember from that. Oh, and I remember falling asleep, and
then I woke up at a McDonald’s where my dad was waiting for us.
Similarly, 19-year-old Evelyn recalled:
I was 3 years old, and about to be 4. Then I remember, well, I
hardly remember, we were passing through the frontera [border].
. . . And then we made it through. I didn’t know what I was doing.
Yeah, when you’re small, you don’t know what you’re doing. You
know, I guess, I’ve been here all my life.
Unable to recall much of the experience, undocumented 1.5-generation immigrants not only claim no responsibility in choosing to
come to the United States without authorization, but they also do
not comprehend the dangers of unauthorized travel as concretely
as their adult counterparts. Consequently, it is less common for
undocumented 1.5-generation immigrants to develop a legal consciousness that is rooted in fear.
Central Social Institutions: Work Versus School
Once they arrive and begin to settle in the United States, undocumented immigrants at different life-stages interact with different social institutions on a daily basis. Adults, most of whom
migrated in search of better wages, join the labor force, and their
main contact in the United States is therefore with the social institution of work (Gleeson & Gonzales n.d.). To access work, most
have to use false documents or other measures to hide their unauthorized status. This means that their legal status contextualizes
their daily experiences in very concrete ways. Members of the undocumented 1.5 generation, on the other hand, are often young
enough to enter public schools in grades K–12. Because Plyler v.
Doe (1982) grants them legal access to public schools during those
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years, effectively protecting them legally and legitimating their
presence in the most important social institution during this lifestage, their legal status does not explicitly contextualize their daily
experiences during their tenure as students.
First-generation undocumented immigrants in the study expressed that they are constantly aware of their unlawful and
unwelcome presence at work. Indeed, laws powerfully shape immigrants’ work experiences. It is widely known that immigrants
earn low wages in back-breaking jobs with no benefits (Milkman
et al. 2010). To make matters worse, the current surge in ICE raids
increases scrutiny and suspicion of undocumented workers by
criminalizing them and facilitating additional forms of exploitation
and dehumanization in the work place. Reminders of their status
are frequent. For example, Mauricio explained:
You see that without papers it is very difficult to be hired just
anywhere. My brother-in-law found me a job . . . where the trailer
trucks come and you pack them and unpack them. That is hard
work because they don’t care if one is tired, if one needs to rest, or
if [the weather is] too hot or too cold. And so, since they didn’t
even let us rest, I messed up my back and when I told them, they
pretended not to hear me, they didn’t do anything. I kept complaining and in the end they told me that if I couldn’t do the work
anymore, I should look for another job because they needed
someone who could stay on schedule. And after that I still had to
fight with them to get my last paycheck because they were saying
that I worked too slowly. Up until now I still can’t carry anything
too heavy, so I haven’t been able to find a steady job.
Because of his undocumented status, Mauricio was afraid to apply
for worker’s compensation or to denounce the employer who fired
him when he complained of back pain. Stories like these are not
uncommon among my study participants and among undocumented workers more generally (Holmes 2007; Milkman et al.
2010; Walter et al. 2004). Undocumented immigrants are limited
with respect to the kinds of jobs and working conditions they can
access. Their unauthorized status makes them vulnerable to unscrupulous employers who pay them low wages and withhold
health benefits and other basic legally mandated provisions, such as
bathroom breaks, safety training, and protective gear, when necessary for the job (Milkman et al. 2010). Workers in this study
mentioned injuries, wage theft, and humiliation as part of their
daily work environment, but, fearful of interacting with officials
who may inquire about their legal status and possibly report them
to ICE agents, few reported the abuse they suffered. Lacking legal
recourse, many undocumented immigrants fall prey to similarly
dishonest employers and are therefore targeted for rampant labor
exploitations (Walter et al. 2004).
Media coverage of highly visible ICE raids at work sites
throughout the United States make members of the undocumented first generation even more wary at work. As Maricela, a
Salvadoran immigrant in Los Angeles, summed it up:
You watch the news and you learn. Nobody is safe. They take
people from work. . . . For these people [officials], it doesn’t matter that we’ve lived here for 15 years, that we’ve been raising
children who are good people, that we are buying houses. All
they see is that we are ‘‘illegal.’’ That’s the only thing they see.
Since we’re ‘‘illegal,’’ they don’t care if our children are well. They
will deport you and then what happens to the children?
In the current legal context, the legal consciousness of undocumented first-generation immigrants is heavily infused with fear.
Not only are they aware of the horrendous journey they would
have to make in order to re-enter the country after a deportation,
but they also live in a historical moment in which mass media and
vocal anti-immigrant groups make it resoundingly clear that they
are unwelcome by reducing them to a label that conjures up images
of dangerous criminals. Their tenuous legal status, rather than
being recognized as a policy-created category, brands them as outlaws and nullifies their contributions to society. In effect, their wellbeing and stability are perennially threatened because, as they are
constantly reminded, there may be an ICE raid at their place of
employment at any time. Given the centrality of the social institution of work in their lives and their willingness to take responsibility
for their undocumented status, the legal consciousness of these
first-generation immigrants is largely rooted in the fear of detention and deportation.
Members of the undocumented 1.5 generation, on the other
hand, do not face the daily threat of raids at schoolFthe central
social institution in their lives. On the contrary, several students I
interviewed only learned of their unauthorized status in high school
when they had to fill out applications for internships, summer jobs,
or college admission. Unable to provide a Social Security number for
the applications, their parents were forced to explain the situation to
them for the first time. Prior to that, most undocumented youth in
this study had not had to think about the role of legal status in their
lives. As Alex, a Salvadoran junior in high school, described it, ‘‘I
used to leave my house to go to school every day and I didn’t know
anything. I didn’t know I was undocumented . . . I just went to class,
hung out with my friends, you know, whatever normal things.’’ In
his worldview, as in the worldview of many other undocumented
youth, undocumented status is not part of what is considered ‘‘normal’’ at this stage in their lives. As a result, stigma and embarrassment predominate in their legal consciousness.
Legal Consciousness of Undocumented Latinos
Schools are mostly, but not entirely, safe spaces for undocumented youth. Once they learn that they are undocumented, many
develop an acute awareness of the negative connotations associated
with their illegality. Astrid, an undocumented Salvadoran high
school student, recalled feeling uncomfortable at school when the
classroom topic turned to immigration: ‘‘I hate how they call us
‘illegal aliens.’ I feel like telling them that I don’t have antennae,
I’m not a weirdo like they think.’’ Concerned with the potential
repercussions, however, she never shared these feelings with her
peers. Similarly, Brenda, an undocumented Guatemalan high
school student, said, ‘‘They call us ‘illegals’ and they think we’re
committing crimes all the time and we’re not.’’ The undocumented
label weighs heavily on these youth who, like any other U.S. teenager, often want nothing more than to fit in.
By the time they learned that they were undocumented, many
members of the 1.5 generation whom I interviewed had been mostly
socialized in the United States, where, having had legal access to
schools, they were able to develop a much stronger sense of belonging than their first-generation counterparts. Isabel, whose family
migrated from Mexico when she was only one month old, described
her sense of belonging: ‘‘I guess I always felt confident that I belonged here, but they always just have that advantage where they can
use that ‘undocumented’ word to address me and that would be my
scar.’’ Like other 1.5-generation undocumented youth, Isabel had a
strong sense of belonging in the United States that came from being a
legitimized member of such an important social institution as school.
Like her, 1.5-generation undocumented immigrants do not take responsibility for migrating to the United States, remember little about
the migration journey, and have not had to take responsibility for
their status. Unlike their first-generation counterparts, they do not
feel constantly threatened. Rather, having been socialized in U.S.
schools, their legal consciousness is often rooted in stigma associated
with the ‘‘abnormality’’ of their legal status, one that Isabel likened to
a shameful ‘‘scar.’’
Internalizing the Law through Legal Consciousness: Fear and
Stigma as Barriers to Claims-Making
When fear and stigma centrally inform the legal consciousness of
undocumented immigrants, both sentiments can stand as barriers to
claims-making. However, it is likely that each force differently informs how undocumented immigrants participate in society and
practice or avoid making claims. For undocumented first-generation
immigrants whose daily lives are filled with stories about workplace
raids and family separations, their fear of deportation can powerfully
restrict them from making claims at work or anywhere they feel
threatened. Undocumented 1.5-generation youth, however, develop
a legal consciousness based in stigma that is certainly a setback but
can be overcome to make way for greater claims-making.
First-Generation Undocumented Immigrants Limited by Fear
With constant reminders of their criminalized presence, it is
understandable that undocumented immigrants begin to internalize the effects of their immigration status. The internalization of the
law is particularly evident in the words of a Guatemalan detainee in
a 2008 Postville, Iowa raid (Preston 2008). Even though the employers had recruited workers and provided them with false documents, it was the workers who were punished through abrupt
separations from their families and community, even after residing
in the United States for a decade or longer in some cases. Although
a U.S. citizen observing the raid later said that the workers were
treated inhumanely, the undocumented first-generation immigrants did little to defend themselves against the charges. Instead,
according to the interpreter, they believed that they had no rights.
The interpreter described, ‘‘No matter how many times his attorney explained it, he kept saying, ‘I’m illegal, I have no rights. I’m
nobody in this country. Just do whatever you want with me’’’
(Preston 2008: n.p.). In this man’s legal consciousness, he had internalized the most egregious effects of the law by accepting and
confirming his own dehumanization (Menjı́var & Abrego n.d.).
Identifying himself entirely by his ‘‘illegal’’ status, he willingly and
uncritically conformed to the false notion that legally he had ‘‘no
First-generation undocumented immigrants in this study similarly expressed their legal consciousness. At community meetings,
for example, individuals shared stories of common crime and violence that went untold in their neighborhoods because people
were worried about the police questioning their legal status. Several people at these meetings made comments to the effect of, ‘‘Oh
well, there’s nothing we can do,’’ while those around them merely
shrugged their shoulders, nodding in defeat and agreement. And
although parents typically consider schools to be safe spaces (Rogers et al. 2008), after ICE raids in the community, fearful parents
may not take their children, including U.S.-born children, to
school.13 Afraid of being apprehended and separated, entire families avoid interacting with officials in various agencies, even when
this means denying children the social, medical, and educational
services they need (Menjı́var 2006a). As Norma, a Mexican
See, for example, the story ‘‘Immigration Raids Shake California Schools’’ covered
on National Public Radio; http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90379927
(accessed on 10 June 2010).
Legal Consciousness of Undocumented Latinos
undocumented immigrant, summed it up, ‘‘We are here and we
know this is not our country. They don’t want us here, so you have
to be careful. Always be careful.’’ As these excerpts suggest, many
undocumented first-generation immigrants feel helpless in the face
of the law. Society has made it clear that they are unwelcome and
targeted for expulsion. Understanding the many signs, undocumented immigrants who arrived as adults have developed a legal
consciousness based mostly in fear, and this shapes and limits their
participation and incorporation into U.S. society.
Legal status powerfully informs how people see themselves
and their rights in the United States. Many begin to internalize
the notion that they have no rights. In the following excerpt,
Mauricio eloquently described what being undocumented meant
to him:
One comes here thinking that life will be better . . . but without
papers, one’s life is not worth much. Look at me; I have always been
a hard worker . . . but I messed up my back working, carrying heavy
things without any protection . . . and I can’t do anything about it.
What doctor is going to help me if I can’t pay? And the worst part is,
who’s going to hire me now? How will I support my family?
Mauricio, who later shared that he is too afraid to apply for
worker’s compensation, suffered the consequences of not being
able to make claims in the United States. Unable to fulfill his role as
a father and provider for his family, Mauricio’s undocumented
status translated into a personal devaluation when he proclaimed
that his life was ‘‘not worth much.’’ Trying to remind himself that
he only came to the United States in search of economic opportunities, he eloquently described the sense of being less-than-aperson that accompanied his legal status and now pervaded him.
Despite his positive qualitiesFthat he was a hard worker who only
sought to improve his lifeFbeing ‘‘without papers’’ meant being
‘‘without any protection,’’ feeling helpless, and being perceived as
Rooted in fear, the legal consciousness of undocumented firstgeneration immigrants is notably and understandably a barrier to
claims-making. Out of fear, immigrants like Adela, whose experience I highlighted in the opening vignette, never or only rarely
participate in collective claims-making. This is problematic because
protests, marches, and other nontraditional electoral politics are
some of the only outlets undocumented immigrants have to make
claims and possibly improve their lives in the United States
(Bloemraad & Trost 2008; Meyer & Reyes 2010). Although it is
possible to mobilize these immigrantsFas evident in the massive
May Day marches of 2006 (Cordero-Guzmán et al. 2008)Fit is
necessary first to target and minimize their fear. Given the ongoing
ICE raids at workplaces and homes throughout the country, minimizing immigrants’ fears is likely to entail much work over an
extended period of time (Cordero-Guzmán et al. 2008). And as
long as these immigrants are driven by fear of deportation, they
are unlikely to mobilize collectively, make claims, or participate
fully in U.S. society.
Undocumented 1.5-Generation Immigrants and the Complexity of Stigma
Although stigma is different than fear, it can also stand in the
way of immigrants’ incorporation and claims-making practices in
the host society. Undocumented youth must interact and share
their status with gatekeepers and school officials to transition to
higher education. Among other things, they have to request letters
of recommendation and proof of school attendance to apply to
college. Many students expressed difficulty in overcoming the
shame involved in revealing their status to school officials. As Isabel
Well, I feel ashamed. I debated so many times whether to tell my
counselor. Because you’re just scared to tell somebody because
you don’t know what they’re going to think. And you’re just so
scared of that reaction. Because you do feel inferior to somebody
because you don’t have the same rights as they do. . . . You feel
inferior because you know they have more rights than you. And
even though I know I’ve worked as hard as my friends, they’re
the ones who are going to get to go to [four-year colleges].
In this case, Isabel noted that her shame, rooted in her undocumented status, was enough to create great stress and hesitation
when she had to seek the assistance of her college counselor.
Moreover, she was frustrated about her limited rights and especially about the unfairness of not being able to enjoy the fruits of
her labor. Unlike first-generation undocumented immigrants who
more often take responsibility for their status and limited rights,
1.5-generation undocumented immigrants understand their legal
limitations as unfair and, rather than focus on a fear of deportation,
experience it as a source of social stigma.
Social stigma can be a considerable barrier for undocumented
youth, especially given their life stage. It can be consequential in
various daily interactions and in the long term, both in and out of
school. In the following excerpt, 18-year-old Mexican immigrant
Arturo described the stressful process he went through every time
someone asked him where he was from:
Psychologically, you get damaged, because you know, any time
they ask you where you’re from, it’s such a pain. I mean, your
mind goes like, ‘‘Whoa, whoa, what do I say? What do I say? What
Legal Consciousness of Undocumented Latinos
do I say?’’ I mean, so it’s a lot, I mean a lot. You torture yourself,
you get depressed. Anything starts going down.
Not wanting to disclose his status, he had to think quickly about
ways to represent himself to others. The stigma clearly weighs
heavily on youth and may limit them from making claims.
Relative to members of the undocumented first generation,
however, undocumented youth have the advantage that they have
been raised and socialized in the United States. Along with the
sense of stigma, they have internalized many U.S. social norms and
can use their socialization to fit in. This is most evident in the stories
that several 1.5-generation participants in the study shared about
times when they participated in activities that their parents considered too risky. Evelyn (from El Salvador) and Gabriela (from
Mexico), for example, had traveled internationally as children because, back when the border patrol was perceived as being relatively lenient, they felt confident that their unaccented English
would not expose them during border crossings back into the
United States. Indeed, when border officials did stop to chat with
them, they were easily able to answer questions about where they
lived and what school they attended. Similarly, Mario, a Guatemalan immigrant, drove on the streets of Los Angeles much more
confidently than his parents, both of whom were undocumented.
After 9/11, when ICE agents started to apprehend people at bus
stations and airports, Mario willingly volunteered to pick up his
relatives arriving at the airport from Guatemala because his parents were too afraid. In these examples, and many others, undocumented members of the 1.5 generation demonstrate that, unlike
their first-generation counterparts, their legal consciousness is less
centrally informed by fear of deportation.
Because their legal consciousness is more powerfully infused by
stigma, undocumented youth have more possibilities than undocumented workers of overcoming barriers to make claims in the
United States. For example, undocumented youth try to justify
their presence in the country by distancing themselves from negative connotations of illegality. In doing so, they underscore that
their liminal status differs from the marginalized and criminalized
status of their first-generation counterparts. Most notably, they
defend themselves by emphasizing that they did not actively choose
to come to the United States. Jovani, a Guatemalan student who
was in danger of failing most of his classes in his second attempt at
junior year in high school when I interviewed him, expressed great
disappointment and resentment at the fact that he could not obtain
a driver’s license or work legally:
When I want to get a job, I can’t. I want to drive, but I can’t. . . .
So, most of the time, I just don’t think about it, but I mean,
there’s sometimes when it crosses your mind, you know, you gotta
get a job, you want to work, you want to have money. . . . So yeah,
it’s kind of hard for me . . . I get mad because my parents brought
me. I didn’t tell them to bring me, but I get punished for it, for
not having the papers.
Like Jovani, high-achieving students also distance themselves
from undocumented first-generation immigrants, but they also use
their student status to further distinguish themselves. Isabel’s
statement summed this strategy up neatly: ‘‘The fact that we’re
students gives us credibility and, in their [anti-immigrant activists’]
eyes, that’s better.’’ Similarly, Rosaura, a Mexican undocumented
college student, pleaded that undocumented students’ cases are
different from those of first-generation undocumented immigrants:
I can understand the point of view of natives who are against
immigration. But when it comes to education, that’s different. All
students want is an opportunity to have a career, to have a better
life. . . . The fact that we are in high school and college, that says a
lot about a person, that we are going to contribute to this country
when we get a degree. We are going to contribute to the economy,
to the society. And there is nothing wrong about that. We have
worked three times as hard as any other student.
Drawing on a meritocratic worldview that is central to U.S. social
values (Abrego 2008), members of the undocumented 1.5 generation minimize their stigma, elevate their social standing, and
achieve a greater sense of belonging by distancing themselves from
undocumented first-generation immigrants. Indeed, in a society
that values education and individual effort, an emphasis on the
student status will give subjects legitimacy and more opportunities
to make claims for greater inclusion (Olivas 2009). This strategy is
unavailable to the more marginalized and publicly targeted undocumented workers.
On a more collective levelFbecause their legal consciousness is
infused most fundamentally with stigma rather than with fearFit is
possible to mobilize undocumented youth by targeting and minimizing their stigma. This is likely why they have been able to make
claims as students in school settings and beyond. In effect, undocumented high school and college students who stood to benefit
from the DREAM Act were particularly active in 2010. Starting
January 1, four students began the widely publicized Trail of
DreamsFa 1,500-mile walk from Miami, FL, to Washington, DC.
to draw attention to their plight for legalization. Motivated by their
courage, and now in a context that glorifies these students’
achievements and struggles for justice, 1.5-generation undocumented youth nationwide organized campaigns of collective claims-
Legal Consciousness of Undocumented Latinos
making actions that were equally public. In cities like Chicago,
Seattle, and Los Angeles, students participated in the Coming out
of the Shadows Week campaign by sharing their stories and their
undocumented status in front of supportive crowds and media
representatives (Associated Press 2010; Preston 2011). By allowing
them to publicly highlight their achievements and contributions to
society, such acts of collective claims-making help minimize undocumented youth’s stigma.
Having created some momentum and a less stigmatizing context, undocumented members of the 1.5 generation throughout
the country have put themselves on the line by carrying out various
acts of civil disobedience. For example, five undocumented students risked deportation when they sat, refused to be moved from,
and were eventually arrested in Senator John McCain’s office in
Arizona. Similarly, nine U.S. citizen allies of these students were
arrested in Los Angeles when they marched on and closed down
Wilshire BoulevardFone of the larger thoroughfares in the cityF
during rush hour. Throughout the country, in cities like Chicago,
San Francisco, New York, and Seattle, students are demanding the
passage of the DREAM Act as their path to legalization and full
inclusion in this society.14 In each of these cases, undocumented
members of the 1.5 generation have managed to collectively make
claims for full inclusion in U.S. society through legalization. They
shift their legal consciousness to being with the law when they
reframe their social location vis-à-vis the law by drawing on different sources to minimize their stigma. By overcoming the barrier of
stigma, they can participate in greater claims-making activities.
The Shifting Nature of Legal Consciousness
Legal consciousness is fluid and contextual (Ewick & Silbey
1998; Hernandez 2010), as is legal status. Members of disadvantaged communities may move from being against the law to being
with the law and vice versa. It is imperative, therefore, not to be too
celebratory about the claims-making behavior of 1.5-generation
undocumented immigrants. Undocumented youth eventually have
to transition out of educational institutions where their protections
as students end (Abrego & Gonzales 2010). The exponential increase in ICE raids and deportations, along with the passage of
draconian immigration laws like Arizona’s SB 1070, increases fear
and insecurity among all undocumented immigrants nationwide.
Although the 1982 Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe bars
public schools from excluding undocumented children in grades
For more information, see the following useful Web sites: http://www.dreamactivist.
org/; http://www.thedreamiscoming.com/; http://www.change.org/ideas/view/the_dream_
act_for_america_in_2010 (all accessed on 10 June 2010).
K–12, these students are not protected from deportation outside of
school grounds. Like their adult counterparts, undocumented
youth may be targeted, detained, and deported for minor infractions, such as driving without a license ( Jordan 2008). As more
police departments nationwide work in conjunction with ICE
through the 287(g) program, members of the undocumented 1.5
generation increasingly fear the possibility of being deported for
minor offenses. And although they are protected in school, the fear
of deportation is likely to become more prominent in their lives as
they transition out of high school into less protected spaces (see, for
example, Abrego & Gonzales 2010).
Undocumented immigrants, whether they arrived as children
or as adults, are also interacting with one another as members of
families and communities. Inevitably, they hear each other’s stories
and experiences, rely on similar media sources, and share the same
goals of legalization. In these interactions, they inform each other’s
legal consciousness. Marta, a Salvadoran college student, shared a
telling example of this:
I was in the waiting room at the clinic last week, sitting next to this
girl who was like my age. We were talking about where our parents are from and how we haven’t been back, when she gets a call
on her cell phone. Somebody was calling to tell her that her
mother had just been [detained and was going to be] deported! . . .
Now, every day I leave the house and I don’t know if me or my
parents will be back. It could be any of us, any of these days, and
it’s so scary.
Like Marta, undocumented youth who learn of a recent raid or
deportation in the community come to fear that they or their relatives may also be deported.
The older that undocumented 1.5-generation immigrants get
and the more frequent these experiences become, it is likely that
their legal consciousness will include greater fear along with
stigma. Similarly, first-generation undocumented immigrants
whose legal consciousness is most heavily informed by fear can
also feel pain and frustration for the stigma that their children are
made to feel in this society. As Adela, a mother of teenagers, expressed, ‘‘I came here and I brought them for a better life. . . . But
then I would see them, they were ashamed and they couldn’t do
what they wanted for their future and it pains me to see that, to see
them like that.’’ Therefore, although the legal consciousness of
first-generation undocumented immigrants is often based mostly
in fear and that of undocumented 1.5-generation youth is mostly
informed by stigma, it is possible and likely that fear and stigma
intertwine, along with other sentiments, to inform undocumented
immigrants’ legal consciousness. The mixed legal consciousness
Legal Consciousness of Undocumented Latinos
can, in many cases, keep them from participating more fully in
social and political life in the United States. Other times, however,
they become so indignant and fired up that they are moved to work
collectively and make claims for greater inclusion in this society that
is already their home.
Implications and Conclusion
Contemporary immigrant incorporation theories suggest that
governmental context of reception is significant but secondary to
coethnic and societal contexts of reception in shaping integration
experiences (Portes & Rumbaut 2001; Portes & Zhou 1993). For
undocumented immigrants, however, governmental context of receptionFthrough immigration laws and the statuses they confer
upon individualsFis central to their paths of incorporation. Most
notably, their unlawful presence in the country precludes them
from full membership. But not all undocumented immigrants
share the same experiences, and legal status intersects with other
factors to shape their opportunities, interpretations, and behaviors.
Just like immigrants at large whose incorporation paths differ
based on several factors and characteristics ( Jones-Correa 1998b;
Kasinitz et al. 2008; Portes & Rumbaut 2001; Portes & Zhou 1993),
particularly across generations (Rumbaut 2004), the undocumented immigrant population is also diverse. The diversity among
undocumented immigrants merits greater examination to understand how various other factors, including gender, national origin,
race, order of migration, and educational attainment differentially
affect their integration experiences. In this article, I begin to tease
out some of that diversity by examining the generational differences in the integration experiences of first- and 1.5-generation
undocumented immigrants.
I draw on the legal consciousness framework to begin to examine how illegality intersects with and is experienced differently
across social positions and how this plays out in their integration
experiences. Although all undocumented immigrants are equally
banned by law from residing in the United States, labor and educational laws, migration experiences, and social institutions play
influential roles in developing their legal consciousness. This, in
turn, informs how different subgroups participate in and integrate
into U.S. society. I find that although immigration laws often ‘‘control the immigrant’’ (Calavita 1998:560), undocumented immigrants’ legal consciousness is infused with at least two separate
forces that create distinct barriers to mobilization and claims-making. Undocumented first-generation immigrants experience their
legal status as a source of fear, while their 1.5-generation counter-
parts experience it as a source of stigma. Fear and stigma are both
barriers to claims-making, but they may require different strategies
for mobilization.
Because they made the decision to migrate and often forged
documents to enter the labor force, many undocumented immigrants who arrived as adults feel responsible for their situation and
are willing to accept their marginalized status in this country.
Moreover, as exploited workers who see themselves being caricatured and demonized through mass media, they view the possibility of being apprehended and deported as a concrete reality
that contextualizes their day-to-day life and powerfully prevents
their claims-making. Mobilizing them into collective claims-making
activities such as protests, marches, and other public and visible
actions is likely to require massive organizing campaigns that guarantee anonymity and safety from deportation.15
Undocumented members of the 1.5 generation, on the other
hand, were often too young to participate in the decision to
migrate, do not recall details of the migration journey, and occupy
legitimized spaces in the United States as students in educational
settings where they are safe from ICE raids and deportation. Many
undocumented youth, therefore, are unwilling to see themselves as
marginal members of this society. For them, being undocumented
is a source of stigma, more so than of fear. While stigma can
certainly be a barrier to claims-making, the threshold to overcome
it is relatively lower. Educational policies and meritocratic
worldviews contextualize undocumented youths’ daily lives and
give them legitimacy as students to counterbalance their stigma
(Abrego 2008). Having overcome the stigma, many undocumented
youth, particularly when they are academic high-achievers, will be
moved to make collective claims and demand full inclusion in U.S.
It is worth reiterating that legal context of reception is shifting
as different laws, legal interpretations, and enforcement practices
vary across administrations and geographical locations. In turn,
legal consciousness is also shifting and contingent. Moreover,
because legal consciousness also intersects with and is mutually
constitutive of several other social forcesFincluding norms and
Using Arizona’s SB 1070 (2010) as an example, in the months leading up to and
directly following Governor Jan Brewer’s signing of this bill into law, it seems that firstgeneration undocumented immigrants are leaving the state or relying on allies and supporters to protest. Fear of deportation is intensely heightened, making it less likely that
they will make collective claims.
This seems to be happening in the aftermath of the signing of SB 1070 into law in
Arizona. Despite the severe anti-immigrant context during this historical moment, undocumented youth have publicly protested, organized, and participated in civil disobedience acts, even risking arrest and deportation in some cases.
Legal Consciousness of Undocumented Latinos
institutional settingsFit is historically contingent. In the current
historical moment, the vast changes and increasing instability in
immigration policies at the federal, state, and local levels matter a
great deal in determining the spaces and practices of immigrant
incorporation. For example, although undocumented youth have
been spared the brunt of nativist anti-immigrant hostility to date,
their increasingly visible advocacy efforts will likely make them
greater targets.17 Legal context of reception, therefore, merits a
closer, more detailed examination as a factor that powerfully determines immigrants’ incorporation experiences. Legal consciousness is a useful framework for measuring the claims-making
practices of immigrants that speak to their ability to participate and
integrate fully into U.S. society.
This empirical study has implications beyond the claims-making practices of undocumented immigrants. It is also useful for
understanding the importance of legal consciousness in mobilizing
marginalized groups in general. Although current frameworks
predict that marginalized groups typically stand against the law
(Ewick & Silbey 1998), the collective mobilization of some undocumented immigrants (Abrego 2008; Cordero-Guzmán et al. 2008;
Coutin 2000; Seif 2004) suggests that legal consciousness, as informed by several other sources, can be targeted and influenced to
shift to be with the law, even among members of deeply marginalized and vulnerable groups. Indeed, asserting the right to inclusion through legalization is a powerful claim to rights when
expressed by persons who are legally banned by the state. This
study makes evident that legal consciousness may be rooted in and
create different kinds of barriers to mobilization. Efforts to mobilize
disenfranchised groups, therefore, may benefit from nuanced organizing tactics that first identify important subgroups, learn what
sources centrally inform subjects’ legal consciousness, and strategize to mitigate and minimize specific barriers, such as fear or
stigma. Such targeted approaches are likely to be more efficient
and effective than more general calls to action in the mobilization
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Case Cited
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Statutes Cited
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Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, Arizona Senate Bill 1070,
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Leisy J. Abrego is an Assistant Professor in the Ce´sar E. Chávez
Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of
California, Los Angeles. Her research examines how immigrants and
their families experience immigration laws and legal status in their daily
lives and in their efforts toward upward mobility. She is currently writing a
book manuscript about the role of gender and legal status in shaping the
well-being of transnational Salvadoran families.
Legal Consciousness of Undocumented Latinos
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