Confronting "Crimmigration": Caitlin Patler

By Phyllis Jeffrey - Caitlin Patler’s passion for immigration research was sparked by a very particular time and place. Bringing together approaches from sociology of law, race and ethnicity, as well as literature on immigration, she channels her experiences of 1990s California into work with wide-reaching resonances.


As an undergraduate at UCLA in the late 1990s, Patler—who joined UC Davis as an assistant professor of sociology this spring—entered college in the wake of a string of harsh immigration laws at the state and federal level. These included California’s Proposition 187, which (before being struck down by a federal court) barred undocumented immigrants from nearly all public services, including K-12 education. 

“In the mid-nineties we began to see what is now the current federal policy,” Patler observes, describing that policy as “an unprecedented overlap in criminal and immigration law not seen for several decades.” Some legal scholars refer to this overlap “crimmigration.”

Among Patler and her peers at UCLA—including many children and grandchildren of immigrants—reaction to the policy shift was palpable. From the intellectual and activist ferment that developed, many went on to pursue careers in law, politics, advocacy, and other fields that would “allow much more meaningful dialogue about immigration that wasn’t just led by anti-immigration players at the state and national level.”

Filling gaps in understanding

For Patler, who as an undergraduate was involved with immigration research projects at UCLA and worked with a literacy program in downtown Los Angeles, a growing desire to speak to and influence policy led her into research. In 2004, while working with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), Patler became involved with the California DREAM Network—a movement to forge a statewide network of campus organizations in support of undocumented students. 

While working on a grant proposal, Patler was confronted with a stark absence of social science data on these individuals. Who were they? How did their undocumented status affect their lives? Ever since, Patler has sought to fill this and related gaps in scholarly understandings of the undocumented and non-citizen experience.



Tracing impacts of deferred action

The Deferred Action for Childhood program (DACA) provides work permits and protection against deportation to undocumented individuals who arrived as children. In a recent paper, Patler addresses its impact through analyses based on a telephone survey of 500 undocumented young adults in the Southern California area between November 2014 and February 2015.

President Obama’s announcement of DACA in 2012 provided a unique opportunity to examine previously hidden aspects of the undocumented experience. As Patler explains, “I had been working with DREAM Team Los Angeles for many years, and we had been interested in starting a project around mental health and psychological well-being. When DACA was introduced, we saw an incredible opportunity to reach a large number of young people who were thinking of applying.” Working closely with the organization, Patler recruited subjects from among the thousands of young people who attended application workshops across Los Angeles County. 

The survey that Patler developed questioned respondents in a variety of areas including educational outcomes, employment, and health. Her focus: to find out what kind of effects DACA had on respondents’ lives two to three years in, and to compare these outcomes with outcomes for respondents who had not received DACA.

Challenging "incomplete inclusion"

In the paper, Patler examines effects of DACA on respondents’ self-reported mental and emotional wellbeing. Those with DACA reported significant reductions in levels of distress, negative emotions, and fear of deportation. “I expected some reduction,” she says, “but it’s really a powerful one”.

DACA reduces some of the limitations of what Patler calls the “incomplete inclusion” of undocumented youth in California: a policy patchwork comprised of formal and informal measures that allow a degree of participation in institutional and social life—for instance, K-12 education—yet leave in place substantial barriers to access (to higher education, the labor market, etc.). Yet Patler cautions that DACA, as a temporary program, fails to render inclusion complete.


A 2015 research report by Patler, co-authored with Jorge Cabrera (Labor Studies, CSU Dominguez Hills) based on the project’s findings has been cited in two amicus curiae briefs submitted to the Supreme Court in the case U.S. v. Texas, in support of extended DACA. 

Mapping the consequences of detention

Patler’s other current project turns a critical lens upon a prevalent but less-known component of immigration policy—detention—examining effects on detainees as well as families and communities.

Expansion of mandatory detention for a variety of legal infractions by non-citizens is one aspect of the “crimmigration” policy trend of the past three decades, Patler explains. Mandatory detention means that an individual facing possible deportation is held in a detention facility for the entire period while the case is being considered. Patler’s 2015 research report, published through the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, cites data placing the number of immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement for six months at over 10,000 in 2013.

A successful class-action lawsuit in 2012 granted detainees the right to bond hearings at the six-month mark. For Patler, this presented a unique opportunity to survey and interview individuals and families about their experiences. From 2012 to 2014, Patler and her co-PI conducted surveys and interviews with 600 immigrant detainees held long-term in four California facilities.


“Detention is not legally considered a punishment; it’s supposed to be non-punitive,” Patler explains, adding that immigration policy falls under civil rather than criminal law. “But people are being held in jails alongside criminal offenders.” Even the private facilities dedicated solely to immigration are, she adds, “jail-like.”

By adapting a survey of prison exit used in a recent Harvard study, Patler and her research team documented conditions in the facilities, as well as impacts on long-term detainees and families. To learn more about the full impacts of detention, Patler has followed a subset of these detainees post-release and is currently completing interviews with their families.

Experiencing multiple marginalities

Patler’s findings concerning impacts of detention on children are some of the most interesting—and heartbreaking. Children of detainees exhibit signs of emotional distress similar to children of incarcerated parents—(crying for “no reason”; acting up in school)—but experiences are colored by unique challenges derived from families’ precarious legal status.

Patler describes the experience of an eleven-year-old whose father had been detained for eight months. During the detention, which began when the boy was nine, he was too scared to explain to teachers what was going on. He expressed himself through rowdiness in class—and came to be seen as a “problem kid.” Complications from the low socioeconomic status of immigrant families may lead to additional complications: if a breadwinner is detained, the other parent may be forced to seek extra work, which can leave older siblings to take care of younger ones. A nine-year-old may need to learn to make dinner for his seven-year-old brother.

“I think these kids are experiencing multiple marginalities at once—multiple disadvantages,” says Patler. “There are multiple levels of oppression happening at once, and they build on each other, and I argue that they are cumulative.” At the same time, Patler has also uncovered extraordinary examples of agency and resilience, including children who report feeling motivated by their experience to seek careers in law in order to “fight for other kids”.

Looking ahead

After receiving her PhD from UCLA in 2014, Patler spent two years as a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at UC Irvine, where she worked on the detention project with a team of graduate and undergraduate research assistants.

As she arrives at UC Davis this summer, Patler expresses excitement for opportunities to work with interested graduate students on both the DACA and detention projects. These include an examination of the nexus between respondents’ legal knowledge and educational outcomes, and a study focusing on respondents’ political views.

To find out more about Caitlin Patler, visit her website or her UC Davis faculty webpage.