Instilling Fear and Regulating Behavior: Immigration Law as Social Control

35 Pages Posted: 22 May 2018

See all articles by Lori A. Nessel

Lori A. Nessel

Seton Hall University - School of Law

Date Written: March 21, 2017


Immigration law has been aptly described as offering a window into our national psyche. As evidenced in the recent presidential campaign, our national psyche is in a state of heightened anxiety, particularly with regards to immigrants. President Trump tapped into and stoked this fear with vows to build a wall at our southern border, bar Muslims from entering the country, and deport Mexicans dubbed “rapists and murders.” From the initial days of the new Administration, it became clear that this fear of foreigners would play a central role in re-shaping immigration policy and in regulating the behavior of immigrants, and citizens, within the nation. For example, shortly after assuming office, the President issued an Executive Order barring all refugees from entering the United States for three months, indefinitely barring Syrian refugees, and prohibiting visas for nationals of seven Muslim- majority nations. The President also signed Executive Orders to build a wall at our Southern border, enhance interior enforcement efforts and dramatically increase detention and deportation directed at all unauthorized immigrants within the nation. Even if the new administration cannot effectively build a wall to seal off our southern border or detain and deport upwards of nine million undocumented immigrants, the new climate of fear is already serving to control the immigrant population. While much scholarly attention has been paid to critiquing the plenary power doctrine and to analyzing the criminalization of immigration law, this article explores the interaction between the plenary power doctrine and the domestic use of immigration law to create a heightened state of fear for immigrants within the United States.

This article offers a historical perspective, exploring the connection between the Supreme Court’s deference to the legislative and executive branches when regulating immigration and the myriad laws, policies, and enforcement strategies that are implemented and carried out in such a way as to (not unintentionally) instill fear in the immigrant community. This combination of constitutional immunity and fear of detection have given rise to a largely compliant workforce and population that demands little in return for the labor provided. Rather than examining this result as an unwanted or unintended consequence of enforcement measures, or even an effort to encourage self-deportation, I argue that one goal of immigration regulation within the U.S. has always been to instill fear and control immigrant behavior as a means of creating an obedient workforce and community. By shedding greater light on the domestic aspect of immigration regulation, this article complements existing scholarship advocating for greater judicial scrutiny and constitutional protections for immigrants.

Keywords: Immigration, plenary power, social control, fear, law, public safety, health

Suggested Citation

Nessel, Lori A., Instilling Fear and Regulating Behavior: Immigration Law as Social Control (March 21, 2017). Georgetown Immigration Law Review, Vol. 31, 2017, Seton Hall Public Law Research Paper, Available at SSRN:

Lori A. Nessel (Contact Author)

Seton Hall University - School of Law ( email )

One Newark Center
Newark, NJ 07102-5210
United States
973 642 8708 (Phone)

Here is the Coronavirus
related research on SSRN

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics