Legal Passing: Navigating Undocumented Life and Local Immigration Law

By Armenta, Amada | Law & Society Review, January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

Legal Passing: Navigating Undocumented Life and Local Immigration Law


Armenta, Amada, Law & Society Review


Legal Passing: Navigating Undocumented Life and Local Immigration Law. By Angela S. García. Oakland: University of California Press, 2019

Angela S. Garcia's excellent new book, Legal Passing: Navigating Undocumented Life and Local Immigration Law examines how federal, state, and local immigration laws shape the daily lives of undocumented Mexican immigrants. With clear prose and penetrating detail, the book upends popular narratives that depict undocumented immigrants as passively living "in the shadows." Instead, the book argues that immigrants adapt to their local environments strategically. Theoretically and empirically rich, socio-legal scholars will find Garcia's place-based account of undocumented immigrants' shifting legal attitudes, behaviors, and identities both persuasive and provocative.

This comparative case study primarily draws from in-depth interviews with undocumented Mexican immigrants in two Southern California cities, chosen because of their dramatically different policies toward undocumented immigrant residents. Santa Ana, the more welcoming of the two jurisdictions, is a "sanctuary" city where local police do not cooperate with immigration enforcement authorities and local officials have passed policies to support immigrant residents. In contrast, local law enforcement agencies in Escondido have a long history of cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and local officials passed a city ordinance that, if implemented, would have outlawed renting apartments to undocumented residents. Escondido and Santa Ana, which are fewer than 75 miles apart, embody "the theoretical concepts of local sociolegal exclusion and inclusion" (40) that form the backdrop for the book's examination of immigrant incorporation. In each subsequent chapter, Garcia traces how these cities' divergent policy environments impact undocumented residents' lives-affecting everything from their sense of deportability, to their daily routines, embodied practices, and childrearing decisions.

While nativists may hope exclusionary immigration policies will encourage undocumented residents to move elsewhere, Garcia's survey and interview data reveal that local policies in fact do not impact undocumented immigrants' settlement choices. Immigrant residents in Escondido choose to stay put, often with the support of employers, friends, and local churches, because of the tremendous costs that moving would impose on their jobs and their familial routines. Respondents also navigated daily life with a keen awareness that local groups were challenging Escondido's anti-immigrant housing ordinance through litigation, and that the measure might never be implemented.

Chapter 4 argues that local contexts shape undocumented immigrants' sense of their deportability, in turn influencing their daily routines, their choices about navigating physical space, and their willingness to engage with local law enforcement. In the more accommodating locale of Santa Ana, respondents traversed throughout the city with relative ease, more concerned about bike lanes and traffic safety than encounters with authorities. In contrast, undocumented residents in Escondido carefully altered daily routines of going to work, running errands, or driving children to school, all in an effort to avoid interactions with police and the subsequent threat of deportation. The point here is not that undocumented residents in Escondido retreat from public life, but that they navigate public spaces with more caution and anxiety than similarly situated residents in Santa Ana.

In Chapter 5, the book introduces its defining contribution: legal passing, "a strategic presentation of self to the outside world" in which immigrants adopt "characteristics associated with mainstream, US-born groups to mask unauthorized immigration status" (134). …

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