The Humanitarian Path to U.S. Citizenship


A review of Tears and More Tears: The Humanitarian Path to Citizenship, by Sarah Morando Lakhani.
The complexity of American immigration law and regulations poses unique challenges for those who would attempt to navigate it.  Immigrants and advocates for immigrants face an often bewildering array of rules, regulations, procedures, and a multiplicity of statuses and documentation levels.  Sarah Morando Lakhani’s study of immigrants and attorneys navigating the U-visa process in her dissertation Tears and More Tears: The Humanitarian Path to Citizenship illuminates how this complex system plays out in one humanitarian remedy. Importantly, she shows through employing rich ethnographic and interview data how the humanitarian remedy of the U-Visa is law in action” (Pound. “Law in books and law in action.” American Law Review, 44, 12-36, 1910) or an example of policy making through implementation by street-level bureaucrats (Michael Lipsky Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York: Russell Sage, 1980).  Because of the limited official guidance for attorneys attempting to assist immigrants in their U-visa applications and the overwhelming number of applicants, attorneys ration their services in ways that create de facto eligibility rules and lead to a coherent (if unwritten) U-Visa policy.

Tears and More Tears also shows how the legalization process of the U-Visa shapes immigrant lives and subjectivities in perhaps unexpected ways: that immigrants talk about themselves and their experiences differently as they move through the process.  As a study of the implementation of immigration policy and the dilemmas and challenges it creates for immigrants and the attorneys who assist them, this dissertation is an important critical case study of policy implementation, the dilemmas faced by street level bureaucrats in rationing and delivering services, the effects of the immigration policy regime on immigrant subjectivities, the study of actors in the legal system, and the study of immigrant incorporation through legal remedies.

Methodologically, Morando Lakhani collected data through a participant observation study of a non-profit organization in Los Angeles, California that provides free legal and social services to low-income residents, including legal services for immigrants that focus on humanitarian-based forms of legalization relief. The discussion and conclusions of the dissertation are based on three years of participant observation data and interviews with attorneys and immigrant clients.

The first chapter of the dissertation lays out the reasons for why the U-visa process provides a unique case study for the purposes of the study.  Morando Lakhani notes that undocumented immigrants can regularize or legalize their status through “blood, sweat or tears” (p.4) and that the U-visa status, by virtue of its conferring legalization on those who have been victims of a violent crime, is a tears avenue.  Importantly, this means that unlike blood (family relationships) or sweat (through employment) avenues, those seeking a U-Visa remedy do not have a citizen-ally or sponsor to navigate the process of legalization. They are therefore cast into what the author and others have noted is the particularly byzantine and ambiguous immigration legal regime in the US.  In this chaotic system, the discretion of attorneys and government adjudicators becomes determinative for outcomes.  “Immigrants pursuing U-Visa status must demonstrate not only that they qualify for the relief from a rules standpoint but also that they deserve the status from a social and moral standpoint” (p. 9).

The dissertation then proceeds to walk the reader through the legalization process of the U-Visa, moving from case selection by attorneys (Chapter 2), to a discussion of how attorneys translated and document qualified abuse and victimhood in Chapter 3 and then to a discussion of the process in which attorneys navigate the legal and bureaucratic uncertainties of the U-Visa system by creating coherent narratives that position their immigrant clients as civically and socially engaged victims worthy of the benefits of the U-Visa remedy.

Chapter 5 is an important chapter that lays out the professional and personal dilemmas encountered by the immigration attorneys and the professional and intellectual trajectory that led them to the work of assisting undocumented immigrants seeking legalization. Understanding the dilemmas and professional backgrounds of the attorneys attempting to implement U-Visa remedies is an important contribution to understanding the full scope and effects of the U-Visa policy “on the ground.”

The final two chapters of Tears and More Tears begin with a discussion of the “twilight” status that U-Visa legalization provides.  Morando Lakhani demonstrates how the clients who receive legalization through the U-Visa still exist in a sort of legal and bureaucratic halfway house between undocumented and unauthorized foreigner and citizen.  She describes how U-Visa holders still face barriers to employment and accessing public and social services because of unfamiliarity with the program.  The hodgepodge of quasi-citizenship statuses represented here by the U-Visa creates whole new sets of formal and informal inequalities.  Morando Lakhani notes that new forms of inequality have important implications for immigration incorporation, an insight made  by others studying other temporary or limited legalization remedies.

The final chapter attempts to situate the particular data and case study of the U-Visa process studied by Morando Lakhani in larger theoretical and policy debates. Perhaps the most significant insight to be gleaned from this chapter from the arc of this study is that the implementation of the U-Visa legalization remedy by attorneys and immigrations not only shapes the policy environment, but also shapes functional definitions of what citizenship is, who is worthy and unworthy of achieving the limited citizenship benefits and privileges conferred by the U-Visa.  The processes of case selection, translation, narrative formation, and the ways in which attorneys and immigrant petitioners interact with the processes creates new definitions of citizenship, new formal and informal inequalities and adds more complexity and ambiguity to an already chaotic system.

Jacob Lesniewski
Graduate School of Social Work
Dominican University

Primary Sources
Participant Observation
Attorney Interviews
Immigrant Client Interviews

Dissertation Information
University of California, Los Angeles. 2013. 250pp. Primary Advisors: Stefan Timmermans and Roger Waldinger

Image: U.S. Immigration stamp, Wikimedia Commons.

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