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


  • Leisy Abrego is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. The research for this article was approved by the UCLA IRB, #G01-09-069-01. Please direct all correspondence to abrego@ucla.edu.

    I am grateful to Rebecca Emigh, Susan Coutin, Roger Waldinger, and Sandy Levitsky for their thoughtful comments on previous drafts of this article. Special thanks to Carlos Colorado for his support. I also wish to thank Law & Social Inquiry's anonymous referees for their tremendously helpful recommendations. An earlier draft of this article won the 2007 Best Graduate Student Paper Award from the American Sociological Association's Section on Sociology of Law. The research was supported in part by a grant from the Institute of American Cultures through the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA.


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.