University of Southern California

Developing Legal Cynicism Through Immigration Detention

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Article by Emily Ryo
From Volume 90, Number 5 (July, 2017)

Every year, tens of thousands of noncitizens in removal proceedings are held and processed through an expanding web of immigration detention facilities across the United States. The use of immigration detention is expected to dramatically increase under the Trump administration’s mass deportation policy. I argue that this civil confinement system may serve a critical socio-legal function that has escaped the attention of policymakers, scholars, and the public alike. Using extensive original data on long-term immigrant detainees, I explore how immigration detention might function as a site of legal socialization that helps to promote or reinforce widespread legal cynicism among immigrant detainees. This legal cynicism is characterized by the belief that the legal system is punitive despite its purported administrative function, legal rules are inscrutable by design, and legal outcomes are arbitrary.

These findings advance the study of democracy, legitimacy, and the rule of law in a number of ways. First, this Article offers a new way of conceptualizing the relationship between the state and individuals subject to immigration enforcement. This reconceptualization recognizes noncitizens not as passive objects of state control, but as moral agents who are capable of normative judgments about the law and legal authorities. Second, this Article provides a fuller and more nuanced perspective on immigration detention’s societal impacts, which are likely to be far more wide-reaching and long-lasting than commonly assumed. For example, immigrant detainees, as individuals embedded in domestic and transnational networks, have the potential to widely disseminate deference and trust, or alternatively cynicism and delegitimating beliefs, about the U.S. legal system and authorities. Together, these contributions underscore the urgency and importance of understanding the socialization function of law and legal systems for noncitizens in an era of increasing cross-border movement and migration control.

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