Photo for Interview with Emily Ryo

Interview with Emily Ryo

Emily Ryo discusses her research and immigrant detention in the U.S.

“What does detention teach noncitizens who are confined about the nature of our legal system and the legitimacy of our laws and legal authority?”

By Molly Fee, Graduate Assistant, Center for the Study of International Migration

Emily Ryo, Associate Professor of Law and Sociology at the Gould School of Law, University of Southern California, visited UCLA on December 1, 2017 for a talk on “Inequalities in Immigrant Detention.” We spoke with Professor Ryo to discuss her research and the pressing issue of immigrant detention in the U.S.

Ryo’s interest in immigration began with her family’s own migration story. Ryo explains, “I’ve always been interested in migration issues partly because I come from an immigrant family. Growing up my parents struggled to provide for us. That whole experience of uprooting and transplanting and facing what really seemed like such insurmountable economic and social barriers has been such a formative experience for me personally.” Motivated to support disadvantaged communities, Ryo went to law school to pursue a career in public interest work where she felt she could “use law as a tool for social change.”

After a brief period as a practicing lawyer, Ryo began research with economist and legal scholar John Donohue at Stanford University. During this time, Ryo says, “I became enamored with this idea that I could empirically analyze the law and legal institutions to understand how they were operating in the real world, and to look at what kind of an impact they were having on society and on communities.” With her legal background, Ryo concluded that gaining more empirical training would put her “in a position to make some unique contributions as an empirical legal scholar working on migration.” She decided to pursue her PhD in Sociology in order to get the mixed methods training that would give her the platform to share her work more broadly.

Her research on migration began with questions of legal compliance, or “why people obey or disobey the law.” While this question has been posed in many areas of law, Ryo found that “immigration scholars weren’t applying theories of legal compliance to understand why people were obeying or disobeying immigration laws.” Her dissertation examined the case of Mexican migration “to test this idea that both instrumental factors and normative factors matter in terms of understanding contemporary undocumented migration from Mexico.”

The Complexities of Immigrant Detention

Ryo’s recent work on immigrant detention has been a “fusing together of previous work and a growing interest in various aspects of legal enforcement.” As a Carnegie Fellow this year, Ryo has been able to bring her previous work on legal compliance and normative values and apply it to detention to better understand how detainees are experiencing the process and what the consequences are of detention. In shifting her focus to detention, Ryo says, “I was interested in thinking about the process and experience of detention for people who are being confined and how they might be navigating the legal system from within detention facilities.” Beyond those migrants who are detained, Ryo also seeks to understand how detention practices are affecting families and communities.

One of the issues that Ryo examines is the frequency with which detainees get transferred to a different facility. A better understanding of transfer rates is important “because anytime somebody is transferred from one facility to another that can really disrupt the detainees’ ability to retain legal counsel, if they had counsel, or even maintain contacts with their family members.” Through research with UCLA PhD student Ian Peacock, Ryo has found not only high rates of inter-facility transfers but also high rates of interstate transfers, which may move migrant detainees across different federal and judicial circuits. Ryo explains: “if you get transferred from one federal circuit to another, now you’re facing a different set of laws that might apply in your immigration proceedings that could have really significant consequences.” Additionally, it matters if a detention facility is privately operated. Ryo finds that “confinement in privately operated facilities is associated with much longer detention duration.”

Ryo contends that we must first build a foundation of basic knowledge about detention in order to develop “a more complicated and nuanced understanding of how detention operates and its impact on society.” Through her work she asks, “what does detention teach noncitizens who are confined about the nature of our legal system and the legitimacy of our laws and legal authority?” She has found that for migrants the experience of detention cultivates “a deep sense of legal cynicism, this enormous level of distrust that they have about our legal system based on what they’ve experienced in confinement and after they get released from confinement.”

Ryo’s work on detention is taking place in an ever-changing legal and policy context. Under the Trump Administration, detention is on the rise. According to Ryo, “this administration had made it very clear that detention was going to be its default enforcement policy and that they were going to build more facilities in order to detain more people. They also made it clear that one of the goals was to use detention as deterrence, to make it painful for migrants who are apprehended to have to go through this experience. That somehow it will prevent them from engaging in immigration law violations in the future.” As more migrants are detained, the backlogs in immigration courts are only going to increase. These backlogs may lengthen the time that migrants spend in detention. Ryo acknowledges that “the picture is relatively bleak.”

Regardless of the challenges of working on a rapidly evolving topic, the timeliness of her research brings a new level of urgency. Ultimately Ryo remains motivated by the same goals that initially drove her to law school. Ryo says, “I hope that I can shine a light on issues that have important social and legal significance for disadvantaged populations and do that in a way that informs policymaking to bring about positive social change.”

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Published: Thursday, June 14, 2018

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