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Legal Attitudes of Immigrant Detainees

Emily Ryo, Associate Professor of Law & Sociology
University of Southern California Gould School of Law

In my recent article, Legal Attitudes of Immigrant Detainees, I explore a topic that is difficult yet important to investigate: the legal attitudes of immigrant detainees.  By legal attitudes, I mean people’s views and beliefs about the law and legal authorities.  Why study immigrants’ legal attitudes?  One practical reason is that studies show that people’s legal attitudes often have wide ranging behavioral consequences—from their willingness to report crimes to their decisions regarding whether to obey the law.  In addition, detainees’ legal attitudes may have significant implications for both domestic and international governance and the rule of law.  All detainees must either be deported to their countries of origin or released back into their communities in the United States after an intensive period of confinement that requires them to navigate the U.S. legal system and to interact with legal authorities on a sustained basis.  Immigrant detainees thus have the potential to widely disseminate expressions of deference and trust, or cynicism and delegitimating beliefs, about the U.S. legal system and authorities—not only within the United States, but also around the world.

My study addresses two key questions using original survey data on 434 long-term immigrant detainees in the Central District of California (Rodriguez Survey).  How do immigrant detainees perceive obligations to obey the law generally, and U.S. immigration authorities in particular?  What is the relationship between detainees’ procedural justice judgments and their perceived obligations to obey?  Procedural justice refers to people’s judgments about fairness in interpersonal treatment (for example, whether they felt they were treated with dignity, care, and concern).  My study analyzes detainees’ perceptions of procedural justice in detention, both in relation to their own personal treatment and the treatment of other detainees.

My findings offer a unique window into the world of immigrant detainees.  First, the majority of detainees in the study (83 percent) reported a felt obligation to obey the law, and they did so at a significantly higher rate than other U.S. sample populations (see Figure 1).  I also find that the detainees’ perceived obligation to obey U.S. immigration authorities is significantly related to their perceptions of fair treatment in detention, controlling for a variety of instrumental and detainee background factors.  That is, detainees who reported being treated with respect and as human beings in detention were more likely to express a felt sense of obligation to obey U.S. immigration authorities.  Conversely, detainees who reported having personally experienced or witnessed others experience insults, humiliation, or threats from the guards or facility staff, were less likely to express a felt sense of obligation to obey U.S. immigration authorities.    

My study provides a foundation for testing the potential causal relationship between detainees’ procedural justice judgments and their perceived obligations to obey U.S. immigration authorities.  More broadly, this study highlights the importance of developing a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the potentially far-reaching effects of enforcement policies against noncitizens.  These are critical and pressing tasks for future research—now more than ever—in light of the Trump Administration’s mass deportation plan, which is expected to greatly expand the use of immigration detention as an enforcement tool in the United States.  

Figure 1. Percentage of Respondents Who Agree/Disagree with the Statement, “People Should Obey the Law Even If It Goes Against What They Think Is Right”
 
Notes: Figure adapted from Papachristos, Meares, & Fagan (2012:427). *Data collected in collaboration with Caitlin Patler. 




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