The Promise of a Subject-Centered Approach to Understanding Immigration Noncompliance

Emily Ryo
University of Southern California

Credit: Sherry V. Smith/Shutterstock

The Promise of a Subject-Centered Approach to Understanding Immigration Noncompliance


Unauthorized immigrants and immigration enforcement are once again at the center of heated public debates and reform agendas. This paper examines the importance of applying a subject-centered approach to understanding immigration noncompliance and to developing effective, ethical, and equitable immigration policies. In general, a subject-centered approach focuses on the beliefs, values, and perceptions of individuals whose behavior the law seeks to regulate. This approach has been widely used in non-immigration law contexts to produce a richer and more nuanced understanding of legal noncompliance. By contrast, the subject-centered approach has been an overlooked and underappreciated tool in the study of immigration noncompliance. This paper argues that a subject-centered understanding of why people obey or disobey the law has the potential to generate new insights that can advance public knowledge and inform public policy on immigration in a number of important ways. Specifically, the paper considers how the use of this approach might help us: (1) recognize the basic humanity and moral agency of unauthorized immigrants, (2) appreciate not only direct and immediate costs of immigration enforcement policies, but also their indirect and long-term costs, and (3) develop new and innovative strategies to achieving desired policy goals.


Author Names

Emily Ryo

Journal Journal on Migration and Human Security
Date of Publication 2017
Pages 285-296
DOI 10.1177/233150241700500204
Volume 5
Issue Number 2