Legal Attitudes of Immigrant Detainees

Date01 March 2017
Published date01 March 2017
Legal Attitudes of Immigrant Detainees
Emily Ryo
A substantial body of research shows that people’s legal attitudes can have
wide-ranging behavioral consequences. In this article, I use original survey
data to examine long-term immigrant detainees’ legal attitudes. I find that the
majority of detainees express a felt obligation to obey the law, and do so at a
significantly higher rate than other U.S. sample populations. I also find that
the detainees’ perceived obligation to obey U.S. immigration authoritiesis sig-
nificantly related to their evaluations of procedural justice, as measured by
their assessments of fair treatment while in detention. This finding remains
robust controlling for a variety of instrumental and detainee background fac-
tors, including the detainees’ experiences with the legal system and legal
authorities in their countries of origin. Finally,I find that vicarious procedural
justice evaluations based on detainees’ assessments of how others are treated
are as important to detainees’ perceived obligation to obey U.S. immigration
authorities as their personal experiences of fair or unfair treatment. I discuss
the broader implications of these findings and their contributions to research
on procedural justice and legal compliance, and research on legal attitudes of
Immigration detention is the fastest-growing, yet the least-
examined, type of incarceration in the United States (Bernstein
2008). In 2013, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
(ICE) detained a total of over 440,500 immigrants pending com-
pletion of their immigration cases (Simanski 2014: 6). Because the
primary purpose of such detention is to effect the removal of a
noncitizen who allegedly has violated U.S. immigration laws, immi-
gration detention is deemed to be strictly civil or administrative,
Caitlin Patler collaborated on data collection. I am grateful to Thomas Baker, Gillian
Hadfield, Anil Kalhan, Greg Keating, Dan Klerman, Tom Lyon, Cecilia Menj
ıvar, Dan
Simon, Jayashri Srikantiah, and the reviewers and editors at the Law & Society Review for
their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article. I am grateful to David Grusky,
as Jim
enez, and Bruce Western for their generous support. This research was sup-
ported by grants from the American Sociological Association/National Science Foundation
Advancement of the Discipline Fund, Russell Sage Foundation (award #93-16-06), Stan-
ford Center on Poverty and Inequality, Stanford Center for Comparative Studies in Race
and Ethnicity, USC Population Research Center, and the USC Gould School of Law.
Please direct all correspondence to Emily Ryo, USC Gould School of Law, 699 Exposi-
tion Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90089; e-mail:
Law & Society Review, Volume 51, Number 1 (2017)
C2017 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
not penal. Yet, most immigrant detention facilities were originally
built and currently operate as jails and prisons that confine pre-
trial and sentenced felons (Schriro 2009: 4). This study examines
the legal attitudes of immigrant detainees using original data on
long-term immigrant detainees (defined in this study as noncitizens
detained by ICE for a continuous period of six months or more)
held in facilities across the Central District of California. More spe-
cifically, this study addresses the following two key questions. How
do immigrant detainees perceive obligations to obey the law gener-
ally and U.S. immigration authorities in particular? What is the
relationship between detainees’ procedural justice judgments and
their perceived obligations to obey?
Addressing these questions is important for a number of rea-
sons. Immigrant detainees constitute a rapidly growing segment of
the noncitizen population in the United States due to the develop-
ments in U.S. immigration enforcement policy in the past few deca-
des (Hern
andez 2014; Ryo 2016). Many, if not most, detainees are
racial/ethnic minorities of disadvantaged socio-economic back-
ground who, by virtue of their precarious legal status and confine-
ment in the quasi-criminal system, constitute one of the most
stigmatized and excluded social groups in the United States. Their
marginalized status and institutional confinement make it difficult,
if not impossible, for the public to gain knowledge of their legal
attitudes. Yet, this basic knowledge has the potential to critically
inform immigration-related public discourse and policy debates,
which are often based on widespread assumptions of immigrant
criminality and disrespect for the rule of law and legal authorities
(Ewing, Mart
ınez, and Rumbaut 2015; Ryo 2015).
In addition, understanding immigrant detainees’ legal atti-
tudes may have long-term implications for domestic and interna-
tional governance more generally. Past studies have shown that
people’s legal attitudes, once acquired and absent significant
intervening conditions, are relatively stable (see, e.g., Brandl
et al. 1994; Gau 2010; Piquero 2005; Rosenbaum et al. 2005).
Moreover, as Levitt and Jaworsky (2007: 130) have noted,
“migrants, to varying degrees, are simultaneously embedded in
the multiple sites and layers of the transnational social fields in
which they live.” The transnational nature of immigrants’ social
networks suggests that their legal attitudes may have broad diffu-
sive effects. This is particularly true for immigrant detainees, all
of whom must either be deported to their countries of origin or
released back into their communities in the United States, follow-
ing an intensive period of confinement that requires them to nav-
igate 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
100 Legal Attitudes of Immigrant Detainees
cynicism and delegitimating beliefs about the U.S. legal system
and authorities—not only within the United States, but also
around the world.
This study contributes to two major bodies of research. First,
this study advances the longstanding research on procedural jus-
tice and legal compliance. A key model that has been the focus of
much empirical investigation in this research tradition is the
process-based model of regulation (Sunshine and Tyler 2003; Tyler
2006a; Tyler and Huo 2002). This model posits that judgments
about procedural justice, independent of outcome favorability, are
a significant determinant of the perceived legitimacy of legal
authority, which in turn promotes voluntary compliance with the
law and/or cooperation with legal authority. Voluminous
research—predominantly focused on citizen-police interactions
and citizen-court interactions to a lesser degree—offers evidence in
support of this model (for reviews, see Mazerolle et al. 2013; Tyler
2006b). One of the most well-established and commonly used mea-
sures of legitimacy is people’s perceived obligation to obey the law
and/or decisions of legal authority (Tyler 2006a; see also Johnson,
Maguire, and Kuhns 2014).
I follow Baker et al. (2015) in constru-
ing perceived obligations to obey as a crucial concept on its own
terms and assess the relationship between the detainees’ procedur-
al justice judgments and their felt obligations to obey the law and
legal authorities.
My analysis extends prior research on procedural justice and
legal compliance in two key respects. Consistent with the work of
Murphy, Tyler, and Curtis (2009), which distinguishes between
“legitimacy of law” and “legitimacy of authority” (see also Mur-
phy and Cherney 2011), I examine perceived obligation to obey
the law separately from perceived obligation to obey a particular
legal authority. My analysis indicates that these perceptions do
not converge among immigrant detainees, suggesting that these
perceptions have analytically distinct components. Moreover, this
study extends an emerging body of research on procedural jus-
tice perceptions of prison inmates (see, e.g., Reisig and Me
2009; Sparks and Bottoms 1995). Empirical studies on the
process-based model of regulation in the incarceration context
remain relatively scarce despite such studies’ critical importance
given the rise of mass incarceration in the United States (Western
2006). I contribute to this line of research by demonstrating that,
in a closed system requiring “batch living” (Goffman 1961) such
as immigration detention, vicarious experiences of unfair
Some scholars have questioned whether obligation to obey is an appropriate mea-
sure of legitimacy (see Bottoms and Tankebe 2012; Tankebe 2013). Although this issue is
important and warrants further investigation, that task is beyond this study’s scope.
Ryo 101

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