Introduction – Immigrant “illegality”: Constructions and critiques

Cecilia Menjívar, Daniel Kanstroom

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


The topic of “illegal” immigration has been a major aspect of public discourse in the United States and many other immigrant-receiving countries. From the beginning of its modern invocation in the early twentieth century (Ngai 2004), the often ill-defined epithet of human illegality has figured prominently in the media; vigorous public debates at the national, state and local levels; and in presidential campaigns. For more than a quarter century now, the term illegal alien has served as euphemism, placeholder, rallying cry, and Rorschach test despite (and, perhaps, because of) its multiplicity of meanings. Policy discussions that purport to focus on the impact that unauthorized migrant laborers may have on domestic workers, unemployment rates, the availability of finite social and economic resources for all who need them within a territory, and the impact of migration on the social and cultural fabric of the nation often invoke or critique the concept with an astonishing lack of focus or precision. Though rather technical legal constructs usually undergird such debates, public discourse routinely takes on a tenor of rough morality, differentiating behaviors and practices that should be rewarded, such as staying in the queue and entering the country legally, from those that presumably deserve penalty, such as “jumping the queue” and “sneaking” into the country “illegally.”. Illegality is a peculiarly powerful but amorphous legal concept. It marks a specific allegation by government enforcement agents, investigators, and prosecutors of a particular type of conduct. Allegations alone, however, cannot create illegality. As a technically precise legal conclusion, forensic illegality always requires legitimate processes and proof. A person arrested for an alleged crime will achieve a certain preliminary connection to illegality if there is some reasonable (or, as the legal system sometimes calls it “probable”) cause shown to justify the arrest. The results may surely be serious and wide-ranging (e.g., detention, loss of employment, loss of public housing, and ostracism) but they are deemed tentative.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-34
Number of pages34
JournalUnknown Journal
StatePublished - Jan 1 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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