National Science Foundation grant will support immigration and criminal justice research

Leslie Ridgeway • August 30, 2022
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Gould Professor Emily Ryo’s project will also create a unique dataset of immigration courts and judges

Professor Emily Ryo will spend the next three years reseraching inequality in deportation proceedings, specifically as related to immigrants.

USC Gould School of Law Professor Emily Ryo is the recipient of a $337,000 National Science Foundation grant supporting her work in creating a unique, comprehensive dataset of immigration courts and judges that she hopes will advance the next generation of research on intersections between criminal and immigration law.

Ryo, professor of law and sociology, whose research is focused on immigration and criminal justice, will spend the next three years combing through government and other data sources on the “Compounded Disadvantage” study, which endeavors to answer three questions about immigrants in deportation proceedings: whether and to what extent racial/ethnic disparities exist in legal outcomes for immigrants with a criminal history; the role of judicial bias in creating these disparities; and how legal representation lessens or worsens inequalities in the system.

“For immigrants, even minor and relatively routine interactions with law enforcement, such as a traffic stop, can dramatically increase the chances of detention and deportation. Immigrants with a criminal history are some of the least legally protected groups in our justice system,” Ryo says. “Many are long-term residents with families and deep social ties to the U.S. Immigration and criminal justice systems are very much intertwined, and the human and socioeconomic consequences of that convergence are important to understand.”

Ryo plans to spend the first year of the three-year study collecting and cleaning data and documenting how it can be used; the second year analyzing the data; and the third year on scholarly examination and writing papers on the findings. She will be assisted by students, including law students, in the project: “It’s exciting to get to mentor and train students in the field,” she says.

Also gratifying is the potential for the project to help other scholars understand the immigrant experience with the American criminal justice system and immigration court process. Ryo believes her dataset will benefit multiple disciplines including law, criminology, public policy, sociology and related fields, and she looks forward to helping future researchers in their own investigations.

“We will be building the immigration judge dataset from scratch and plan to merge it with data from immigration courts to make it useful and available for other researchers,” Ryo says. “After years of trying to analyze a variety of administrative data from the government, I realized how difficult it is to make sense of it.”

Sharing Expertise at the Federal Level

Ryo’s past research on immigration adjudication has been of interest to government agencies wanting to improve their processes. At the end of April, Ryo was asked by the United States Citizenship and Immigration System to participate in a virtual briefing to discuss “The Importance of Race, Gender and Religion in Naturalization Adjudication in the United States,” research by Ryo and a graduate student co-author published in early 2022 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It was the first time an agency from the Department of Homeland Security invited Ryo for such a briefing, she says.  The study revealed that naturalization adjudication outcomes are different based on race, gender, and religion.

Ryo says the USCIS was interested in her findings, the study’s goals and how the analysis was conducted.

“They were very engaged and wanted to know my next steps in that area of research and what steps they should be taking,” she says. “As a researcher, one of the most gratifying aspects of my work is to help the government become more transparent and addressing problems that might be related to disparities in our adjudication system.”

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