On the Radar: System Embeddedness and Latin American Immigrants’ Perceived Risk of Deportation
Drawing on in-depth interviews with 50 Latin American immigrants in Dallas, Texas, this article uncovers systematic distinctions in how immigrants holding different legal statuses perceive the threat of deportation. Undocumented immigrants recognize the precarity of their legal status, but they sometimes feel that their existence off the radar of the US immigration regime promotes their long-term presence in the country. Meanwhile, documented immigrants perceive stability in their legal status, but they sometimes view their existence on the radar of the US immigration regime as disadvantageous to their long-term presence in the country. The article offers the concept of system embeddedness—individuals' perceived legibility to institutions that maintain formal records—as a mechanism through which perceived visibility to the US immigration regime entails feelings of risk, and perceived invisibility feelings of safety. In this way, the punitive character of the US immigration regime can overwhelm its integrative functions, chilling immigrants out of opportunities for material and social well-being through legalization and legal status. More broadly, system embeddedness illuminates how perceived visibility to a record-keeping body that combines punitive and integrative goals represents a mechanism of legal stratification for subordinated populations—even absent prior punitive experiences with other social control institutions that might otherwise be thought to trigger their system avoidance.