Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





David Brotherton

Committee Members

Monica Varsanyi

Leslie Paik

Philip Kretsedemas

Subject Categories

Criminology | Migration Studies | Race and Ethnicity | Social Control, Law, Crime, and Deviance | Sociology


immigration, deportation, law and society, critical criminology


This dissertation explores the development and effects of the “aggravated felony”—an expansive legal category that has spurred the detention and deportation of hundreds of thousands of immigrants, including many green-card-holding lawful permanent residents, over the past thirty years. Offenses in this category need not be “aggravated” nor “felonies,” but rather, include a broad range of criminal convictions, including misdemeanors, ranging from check fraud and simple drug possession to drug trafficking and murder. Non-citizens in removal proceedings based on aggravated felony convictions are mandatorily detained and almost certainly deported—usually without legal representation. Still, despite growing academic interest in deportation and the widespread acknowledgement of criminal justice system inequities, there is very little sociological research on criminal deportation, and none focused directly on the aggravated felony. With an aim toward filling this gap, this dissertation employs critical perspectives and qualitative methods to examine the social forces that contributed to the development of the aggravated felony—from its creation in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 to its extreme expansion in the punitive immigration laws of 1996—as well as its contemporary effects on immigration court processes and outcomes in New York City—the only city in the country to guarantee lawyers for detained immigrants facing removal and an increasing focus of the Trump deportation regime. Drawing on 39 interviews with lawyers and outer court actors, a year of ethnographic immigration court observation in NYC, and the analysis of governmental and organizational archival data, findings confirm and expand upon existing critiques of the aggravated felony, while also revealing innovative and understudied strategies of resistance to the category’s extreme effects. By demonstrating how immigration enforcement and deportation work to doubly punish groups already disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system, this study provides an illustrative example of how criminal justice disparities—especially those related to race and ethnicity—are reproduced through immigration law. Furthermore, by describing creative forms of legal resistance that have emerged in the unique policy conditions of NYC, this dissertation has key implications for advocates and legislators concerned with creating equal systems of justice and protecting the rights of immigrants nationwide.