Relational Legal Consciousness of U.S. Citizenship: Privilege, Responsibility, Guilt, and Love in Latino Mixed‐Status Families

Date01 September 2019
Published date01 September 2019
Relational Legal Consciousness of U.S. Citizenship:
Privilege, Responsibility, Guilt, and Love in Latino
Mixed-Status Families
Leisy J. Abrego
Based on interviews with 100 members of mixed-status families in Los
Angeles, California, this article analyzes how U.S. citizen children practice
and understand citizenship in the context of punitive laws targeting their
loved ones. Participants’ narratives of citizenship as privilege, responsibility, and
guilt reveal that despite normative conceptions of citizenship as a universally equal
status, citizenship intersects with key social markers to determine the contours
and inequalities of substantive citizenship. Specifically, U.S. citizens in mixed-status
families make sense of their juridical category when they navigate unrealistic aspi-
rations from relatives, maintain silence about undocumented family members’
legal status, manage their fear of family separation through deportation, and take
on financial and logistical responsibilities prematurely to help relatives. In each of
these ways, family proves to be a key site for the social and relational production
of citizenship.
Currently, over 4 million chi ldren und er age 18 are
U.S. citizens living in what are known as mixed-status
families—with at least one undocumented parent. Legally, the
U.S. Constitution procures their citizenship;
however, they are likely to suffer a series of developmental and
educational setbacks resulting from obstacles that target their
undocumented parents (Capps et al. 2016; Dreby 2015; Sua
Orozco et al. 2011; Yoshikawa 2011). A few studies examine the
legal consciousness of undocumented immigrants (Abrego
2008, 2011, 2018; Menjı
´var and Lakhani 2016), but we know
This project was funded by a UCLA Hellman Fellowship and by the UCLA Center for
American Politics and Public Policy. I wish to thank Katy Maldonado, Jackie Caraves, Eva
Morelos, and Ariana Valle for their diligent and astute research assistance on this project,
as well as Carlos Colorado for his support. I also benefitted from the anonymous
reviewers and Marjorie Faulstich Orellana’s feedback on previous drafts.
Please direct all correspondence to Leisy J. Abrego, Ce
´sar E. Cha
´vez Department of
Chicana and Chicano Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, 7357 Bunche Hall,
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1559; e-mail:
The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution grants citizenship to “[a]ll per-
sons born or naturalized in the United States,” thereby legally incorporating children
of immigrants, regardless of parents’ place of birth or legal status. In moments of
heightened xenophobia, discussions about reinterpreting the 14th Amendment to
exclude children of undocumented immigrants abound, but no attempts to date have
been successful.
Law & Society Review, Volume 53, Number 3 (2019): 641–670
©2019 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
significantly less about how their U.S. citizen relatives under-
stand and employ their juridical category. Based on findings
that arose from a study initially focused primarily on Deferred
Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients,
this article
examines the legal consciousness of citizen members of mixed-
sta tus fam ili es through a relational approach that I argue best cap-
tures how substantive citizenship is socially produced within families.
Through its laws and practices, the state misleadingly rep-
resents itself as producer and arbiter of normative citizenship,
with equal rights for all citizens (Brandzel 2016). The experi-
ences of U.S. citizen children in mixed-status families, how-
ever, reveal that much like for other members of marginalized
groups, substantive citizenship is contested and unequal. In
practice, citizenship has always intersected with race, gender,
class, sexuality, disability, and other markers of social location
to determine the contours of the lived realities of citizenship
(Erevelles 2011; Fox 2012; Glenn 2010; Luibhe
´id 2002).
Indeed, legal citizenship was initially only available to one
intersectional category: white male property owners (FitzGerald
and Cook-Martı
´n 2014; Garcia 1995; Gordon and Lenhardt 2007).
Women and people of color have since gained greater legal inclu-
sion, though citizenship arguably still means different levels of
access and privilege by identity markers. What is distinct about
mixed-status families is that the family unit must navigate resources
and barriers unevenly within its members based on stratified legal
categories (Abrego 2016). Examining their experiences brings into
relief that citizenship intersects not only with an ind ividual ’s social
locatio n, b ut also w ith the legal statuses of their family members.
The current immigration regime blocks undocumented and tempo-
rarily protected immigrants from key educational, employment, and
social service opportunities, making it difficult for immigrants and
their families to thrive, even when one or some members are
U.S. citizens (Menjı
var et al. 2016).
I am particularly interested in the legal consciousness—the
common sense understandings of the law (Merry 1990)—of
U.S. citizen young adults who grew up in mixed-status families.
Participants’ narratives of citizenship as guilt, responsibility, and
privilege reveal that legal consciousness about citizenship status is
centrally and relationally developed through key mechanisms
within the family. These include navigating unrealistic aspirations
from relatives, maintaining silence about undocumented family
members’ legal status, managing their fear of family separation
DACA is an Executive Action carried out initially by President Obama in June
2012. It grants certain undocumented 1.5-generation immigrants protections from
deportation, state-issued ID, and a work permit for a renewable period of 2 years.
642 Guilt and Love in Latino Mixed-Status Families

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