The focus on undocumented immigrants in contemporary U.S. immigration debates, often at the expense of other immigration issues, has led to an illegality trap. This situation has serious negative consequences for both U.S. immigration policy and immigrants, including an overwhelming emphasis on enforcement; legislative gridlock and the failure of comprehensive immigration reform; constitutional conflict resulting from tensions between national, state, and local approaches to dealing with undocumented immigration; and the puzzling absence of federal policies addressing immigrant integration. This essay argues for a reframing of “illegality” as a contingent rather than categorical status, building on the insights of Plyler v. Doe and notions of implied contract and attachment to U.S. society. Doing so, we contend, will shift the terms of the immigration debate, enabling more fruitful policy discussions about both immigration and immigrant integration.

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