Gendered Legal Attitude Formation: Reasonable and Unreasonable Punishments

I met Marcela at her four-year college. Two years prior, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had entered her home, arrested her father, and drove away with him without much of an explanation. Later that day, her father called to tell her ICE had deported him.

She recalled thinking at that time, “Obviously, it’s not fair. I did think that day that [the deportation] happened, like how could it be the case that my dad is deported? I know that he had a DUI, or he had two DUIs, but that does not make him deportable…. There has to be some sort of trial or some sort of way that he can go to court and fight his case.”

In actuality, under U.S. immigration law, ICE can remove undocumented migrants for simply being undocumented. ICE can deport some immigrants without giving them a chance to present their case in front of a judge. ICE can even deport Legal Permanent Residents on the grounds of previously committed crimes, even if they have served their time in the criminal legal system.

While deportations target individuals, every deportation ripples through a broader group of people. Generally, immigrants tend to have long-standing ties to families and communities. Between 2013 and 2018, ICE’s deportations resulted in 231,000 parents being separated from their U.S. citizen children.

But how do family members, those not being put through the system but experiencing immigration enforcement detaining and deporting a relative, understand these experiences? Previous studies assumed that these second-hand experiences would create feelings of mistrust toward the law.

As a sociologist, I set out to understand how Latinx individuals understand immigration enforcement after experiencing a relative’s detention and/or deportation. Between 2017 and 2018, I interviewed 26 such individuals who had a family member detained or deported.

While almost all felt confused and isolated, I noticed that feelings on this process differed based on their relative’s gender. In a recently published study, I introduced the concept of “gendered legal attitude formation” to explain these differences.

Unreasonable Punishment, Defying Motherhood

Gendered legal attitude formation emphasizes how motherhood norms and ideals encase women’s detentions and deportations. Family members invoked motherhood to challenge their female relatives’ detention and deportation and the system in general.

Armando and I talked at his small kitchen table inside his apartment. A couple of months before, Armando saw ICE enter this same home and detain his wife. Eventually, after his grueling persistence, he secured an attorney to release her.

“It’s like as if they come to conduct a kidnapping in your own home. Because they come and they say, ‘If you do not come with me, your children are going to pay.’”

Armando highlighted how ICE’s threats challenged his wife’s motherhood. In his view, ICE noted that the children paid the consequences of her apprehension and detention. Focusing on her as a mother fueled these powerful critiques, where Armando equated the actions of ICE to violent kidnappers. Relatives of mothers saw the detention and deportation of women, and more specifically, mothers, as an unreasonable punishment, a punishment that transgressed against motherhood.

Criminalization as a Double ‘Unreasonable’ Punishment or Reasonable Punishment

On the other hand, gendered legal attitude formation emphasizes that criminalization characterizes men’s detention and deportation. The men at the center of these cases tended to have criminal records. Even for those without such records, relatives spoke of detention and deportation in relation to their criminal past.  

Some family members blamed their relative’s criminal behavior for leading to their detention and deportation. Rosemary’s former partner became entangled with the criminal legal system. Belonging to a county where local police maintained a partnership with ICE, after serving his time in the criminal legal system, local police transferred him to an immigration detention center. Rosemary explained it as such:

“He did not have a chance to stay here because he had a felony. As opposed to him not committing a felony, as opposed to him having a clean record with the years he had been in this country he could have qualified to stay.… The law is the law, and if you break it, there are consequences. There is no going back.”

Rosemary viewed his deportation as a logical next step after his crime. She normalizes the deportation as a logical result of his criminal behavior.

Yet, other relatives in similar situations of detention and deportation viewed this as an unreasonable second punishment. Family members’ highlighted that relatives had already served a punishment in the criminal legal system.

Xochitl admitted that before experiencing her father’s deportation, she accepted the deportations of individuals who had committed crimes. Witnessing her father’s transfer from federal prison to an ICE detention center to his eventual deportation led her to rethink that position. She shared with me,

“I started thinking deportation after being in jail is actually a double punishment. It’s unconstitutional because our constitution says we cannot have double jeopardy. But if people are getting punished twice, what is that?”

These respondents held the structural conditions of the immigration enforcement system to account, noting that the system opted to punish their relatives twice. They pointed to the unfairness of their relatives paying twice for one criminal action.

Overall, these relatives contended with their male relative’s characterization of committing a crime. Unlike the relatives of women whose expressions centered on their motherhood, these relatives invoked criminality, whether to contest or legitimatize, when expressing their judgments.

Free Our Future. Families Belong Together. Abolish ICE. March and Day of Action” by Fibonacci Blue is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


Often, the focus on deportation is how ICE physically separates families. Deportation, however, also means separation of a different kind: disillusionment, feelings of alienation, and confusion as to why immigration enforcement has treated their relatives so harshly. Importantly, gender seeps into how relatives interpret both their relatives’ experiences and the system more broadly. Relatives of men invoking criminality and relatives of women invoking motherhood.

Families’ perspectives raise important questions about the price of having such harsh and draconian immigration laws. Together, their experiences bring to light the underlying contradictions of the U.S. immigration system. While the law is justified as deporting “criminals,” it deports immigrants without a criminal record, immigrants who are mothers, and immigrants who already served sentences for their crimes.

By Blanca A Ramirez

Blanca A Ramirez is a PhD Candidate in the Sociology Department at the University of Southern California. Her research focuses on the intersections of gender, immigration, and the law. Her dissertation investigates key questions regarding “access to justice” from the perspectives and experiences of immigration attorneys.

Blanca A Ramirez, Excluding Criminals or Mothers? How Vicarious Experiences Shape Legal Attitudes on Immigration Enforcement, Social Problems, 2021;, spab071,

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