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Emily Ryo honored for migration study

Expert on immigration law excels at explaining why people obey the law

The American Sociological Association has honored USC Gould School of Law Professor Emily Ryo for her study on unauthorized migration.

Ryo, an expert on immigration law and policy, won the association’s Louis Wirth Best Article Award Honorable Mention in the international migration section.

It’s very unusual for a scholar to make a contribution of this importance so early in her career.

Greg Keating

“Ryo’s work is an important contribution to, and extension of, literature on why people obey the law,” said Greg Keating, vice dean for faculty and academic affairs. “It’s very unusual for a scholar to make a contribution of this importance so early in her career. It’s a tribute to Emily’s accomplishment and talent that she’s done so. We are lucky to have her as our colleague at USC Gould.”

The 2013 study, which was covered by numerous media, examined economic and noneconomic factors that may influence decisions to migrate illegally from Mexico to the United States. Ryo found that people’s perceptions of the certainty of arrest and the severity of punishment are not significant determinants of their intentions to migrate illegally, once other relevant factors are taken into account.

“There is very little that immigration enforcement alone might be able to do to affect changes in people’s intentions to migrate illegally,” Ryo said.

Data on key projects

Law professor Emily Ryo

Emily Ryo (Photo/courtesy of USC Gould)

The study relies on data from the 2007 and 2008 Mexican Migration Project (MMP) and Becoming Illegal Survey (BIS). MMP enables researchers to track patterns and processes of contemporary Mexican migration to the United States. Each year, MMP draws a random sample of 150 to 200 households to survey from a selected number of communities in Mexico. Working in close collaboration with MMP, Ryo developed BIS, an individual survey focused on the migration decision-making process of prospective migrants. More than 1,600 men between the ages 15 and 65 from the households surveyed by MMP participated in the BIS.

“If you ask an average person, why are there so many unauthorized migrants in the U.S., the typical story that you might get is something like this: People are looking for better jobs, better economic opportunities — for themselves and their families — and our immigration enforcement just isn’t tough enough to stop them; so, here they are,” Ryo said. “But this conventional story misses a critical point because economic incentives alone typically do not induce otherwise law-abiding people to violate the law. And my study shows that unauthorized migrants are no different.”

Ryo found that while cost-benefit calculations, such as perceptions of job availability in Mexico and dangers of crossing the border, play a significant role in people’s decisions about whether to enter the United States illegally, noneconomic factors matter as well.

“For example, perceptions about the legitimacy of U.S. legal authority, the morality of violating U.S. immigration laws and social norms on illegal border crossings are significantly related to people’s intentions to migrate illegally,” she said.

Migration motivations

According to the study, one of the strongest noneconomic determinants of intentions to migrate illegally is whether people have friends or family members who have tried to cross illegally into the United States.

“Communities with a long history and high prevalence of out-migration might have a culture of migration and, for many young men, migration can be seen as a rite of passage,” Ryo explained.

As part of the same study, Ryo also carried out semi-structured interviews with current and prospective unauthorized migrants (forthcoming in UCLA Law Review).

In these interviews, Ryo found that migrants viewed themselves as moral, law-abiding individuals who respected national borders despite their violation of U.S. immigration laws.

“This is because they see their decision to cross illegally as an affirmation of their moral obligation to their families to get through situations that were brought on through no fault of their own, such as a crop failure or an economic downturn in their community,” Ryo said.

Ryo was nominated for the award by Michele Landis Dauber, Professor of Law and Bernard D. Bergreen Faculty Scholar at Stanford Law School.

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Emily Ryo honored for migration study

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