Tears and More Tears: The Humanitarian Path to Citizenship
This dissertation analyzes the legalization process as experienced by immigrant crime victims and their attorneys in Los Angeles, California. Drawing on over three years of ethnographic and qualitative research, I chart the process from the time undocumented immigrants decide they want to regularize their status through a humanitarian remedy and contact attorneys at legal non-profit organizations; through the case development phase, when immigrants collaborate with attorneys to produce compelling petitions for legal standing; to the period of application results and beyond, documenting the consequences of approvals and rejections for immigrants and their families. I also consider immigration lawyers' paths into their profession and examine how their career motivations shape their legal practice. Empirically, I focus on the experiences of female Latin American immigrants as they pursue U Visa status and the attorneys they collaborate with. Created in 2000 through the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, the U Visa is a temporary legal status for immigrant victims of violent crime that offers a path to permanent residency and U.S. citizenship.
This project makes three interrelated contributions to research on immigration, legal mobilization, and legal decision-making. First, I advance scholarship on international migration and immigration policy by building on conceptualizations of immigration control that center on policy interpretation and implementation by mid-level actors and institutions (Armenta, 2011; Gilboy, 1991; Marrow, 2009). By analyzing how lawyers broker between immigrants and the state and between immigrants and other mid-level intermediaries such as police officers, employers, and social services providers, I configure immigration attorneys as both agents and critics of law who simultaneously reinforce and challenge official and unofficial legal notions (Coutin, 2000). In drawing attention to attorneys' complex roles in the application of immigration policies, I show how exclusionary aspects of control characteristic of the contemporary immigration legal regime can filter into efforts intended to benefit immigrants. Second, this dissertation demonstrates critical ways in which law shapes immigrants' lives. Research has examined undocumented immigrants' attempts to acquire socioeconomic resources from a position outside the law (Abrego, 2008; Gleeson, 2009), but I further this agenda by exploring immigrants' endeavors to access benefits associated with legal standing. By analyzing the signaling mechanism involved in converting a legal identity to concrete resources, I illustrate how a political and social climate of migration control combined with a legal context characterized by the multiplication of anomalous statuses between citizen and foreigner produces stratification. Lastly, this dissertation extends the law in action paradigm (Pound, 1910). While most studies of law in action have analyzed how legal actors tailor idiosyncratic details of discrete cases to existing precedents, I consider how law emerges within a confining legal framework that is at the same time not completely institutionalized.