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Intersectional Illegalities: Latina/o/x Undocumented Young Adults and The Marriage-Based Legalization Process


This dissertation examines Latina/o/x young adults’ interactions with law as they navigate and create meaning out of the invasive bureaucratic process of legalization through marriage. I draw on three years of participant observation between 2016 and 2020 and longitudinal interviews with 36 heterosexual and LGBTQ young adults in Southern California. I argue that for young adults the intersecting mechanism of illegalization and regularization produce a challenging entry into legality and imprint negative effects on their intimate lives and legal incorporation. In Chapter Two, I theorize constricted agency as young adults’ negotiation and enactment of restricted actions to counter the stressors of fear and powerlessness that emerged during the Trump Era and the ensuing attacks on DACA and the Immigration System. Iemphasize the structural factors that constrict young adults’ actions and the ways they negotiate fear to create strategies of protection and preservation. In Chapter Three, I examine how the compounding health, economic and political precarities present during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic shaped young adults’ passage through legalization. In the face of compounding forms of precarity, young adults drew on their prior knowledge of navigating illegality to develop an oppositional legal consciousness – as a navigation of law that allows for more liberatory and fulfillment-seeking actions. In Chapter Four, I theorize the process of becoming legal as a transition towards legality – a navigation of the shifts in changing legal statuses that involve a contention with the legal violence embedded in the laws and systems that produce (il)legalization. I examine laws’ harmful effect on young adults as they face conflicting feelings of relief and guilt and contemplate their identity and sense of belonging. They also experienced negative effects to their health; they developed chronic illnesses, anxiety and depression stemming from the coupling of prolonged illegality and regularization. In Chapter Five, I offer the implications of this work, future directions and recommendations. In a research field that rarely studies the lasting effects of legalization, particularly of young adults, my interdisciplinary work expands the scope of legal consciousness to capture the long-term consequences of law on identity, belonging, health and legal incorporation.

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