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The Political Economies of Immigration Law

UC Irvine Law Review, Vol. 2, No. 1, p. 101, 2012

Stanford Public Law Working Paper No. 2027278

90 Pages Posted: 22 Mar 2012 Last revised: 30 Apr 2016

Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar

Stanford Law School; Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies

Date Written: April 17, 2012


A largely dysfunctional American immigration system is only poorly explained by deliberate economic policy choices, longstanding public attitudes, explicit presidential decisions, or general gridlock. Instead of being accurately described by simple depictions of the political economy of the issue, immigration law's structure can be better appreciated by analyzing the intersecting effects of three separate dynamics — statutory compromises rooted in the political economy of lawmaking, organizational practices reflecting the political economy of implementation, and public reactions implicating the responses of policy elites and the larger public to each other. Together, these factors help constitute an immigration status quo characterized by intense public concern, continuing legal controversies, and powerful obstacles to change. For example, American immigration statutes –– particularly since 1986 –– have created a legal arrangement essentially built to fail, giving authorities regulatory responsibilities that were all but impossible to achieve under existing law. Meanwhile, implementation has been characterized by organizational fragmentation, with policy changes involving one agency often producing externalities not affecting that agency, and limited presidential power to make fundamental changes in the substance of immigration law.

The resulting interplay of unrealistic statutory goals, enforcement, and growing public concern routinely threatens to engender a polarizing implementation dynamic, where agencies’ incapacity to enforce existing law tends to spur polarized political responses producing legislation that further exacerbates agency difficulties in meeting public expectations. Beyond what these developments tell us about immigration, they also reveal much about how statutory entrenchment in the United States is affected by political cycles capable of eroding the legitimacy of public agencies, and how powerful nation-states control, in limited but nonetheless significant ways, the transnational flows affecting their well-being and security.

Keywords: Immigration and citizenship law, Immigration and Nationality Act, statutory entrenchment, policy feedback, organizations, executive power, transnational flows, political economy of discretion

JEL Classification: H11, D20, J61

Suggested Citation

Cuéllar, Mariano-Florentino, The Political Economies of Immigration Law (April 17, 2012). UC Irvine Law Review, Vol. 2, No. 1, p. 101, 2012; Stanford Public Law Working Paper No. 2027278. Available at SSRN: or

Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar (Contact Author)

Stanford Law School ( email )

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Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States
650-723-9216 (Phone)
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Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies ( email )

United States

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