Contesting Criminality: Illegal Immigration and the Boundaries of Legitimacy

Susan Coutin, California State University - Los Angeles

Since the 1980s, U.S. immigration law has used a logic of social control to enforce distinctions between legal and illegal residents. By making identity documents prerequisites for an increasing number of rights and services, immigration law enforcement has become diffused throughout society. Much like detention centers, requests for identity documents separate undocumented immigrants from the general population, locating them in an imagined yet material domain of illegality. Ethnographic research among Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles suggests that to leave and/or legitimize this domain, undocumented immigrants have assumed some authority to define their own legal identities. Undocumented immigrants have applied for legal status, purchased or forged documents, and hired unlicensed legal practitioners. Whether obtained fraudulently or legitimately, such identity documents have helped undocumented immigrants live and work in the United States, which, over time, has bolstered their claims to societal membership. The legalization of undocumented immigrants at least partially legitimizes formerly illicit activities, such as working without authorization. Thus, by taking up the logic of immigration law enforcement, the objects of social control can both contest their own criminalization and expose the illegal underpinnings of law.

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Updated 05/20/2006