Legal violence: Immigration law and the lives of central American immigrants

Cecilia Menjívar, L. J. Abrego

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

666 Scopus citations


This article analyzes how Central American immigrants in tenuous legal statuses experience current immigration laws. Based on ethnographic observations and over 200 interviews conducted between 1998 and 2010 with immigrants in Los Angeles and Phoenix and individuals in sending communities, this study reveals how the convergence and implementation of immigration and criminal law constitute forms of violence. Drawing on theories of structural and symbolic violence, the authors use the analytic category "legal violence" to capture the normalized but cumulatively injurious effects of the law. The analysis focuses on three central and interrelated areas of immigrants' lives-work, family, and school-to expose how the criminalization of immigrants at the federal, state, and local levels is not only exclusionary but also generates violent effects for individual immigrants and their families, affecting everyday lives and long-term incorporation processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1380-1421
Number of pages42
JournalAmerican Journal of Sociology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Mar 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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