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Legitimacy, Social Identity, and the Mobilization of Law: The Effects of Assembly Bill 540 on Undocumented Students in California

  • Leisy Abrego


This article examines the instrumental and constitutive effects of California Assembly Bill 540. The law grants undocumented immigrant students an exemption from out-of-state tuition, thereby making some forms of higher education more accessible. Despite the narrow actionable aspects of the law, it unintentionally legitimizes this disenfranchised group. This longitudinal study of undocumented immigrant youth consists of in-depth interviews before, shortly after, and four years after the passage of the law. The findings demonstrate that AB 540 immediately relieved stigma and later provided a socially acceptable identity that, within a legal consciousness informed by meritocracy, empowered these students to mobilize the law in a number of unforeseen ways. The case strongly suggests that it is possible for unintended constitutive functions to have more transformative effects on the daily lives of targeted beneficiaries than the intended instrumental objectives of law.



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Law & Social Inquiry
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