Debt without relief: An empirical study of undocumented immigrants

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Can undocumented debtors benefit from bankruptcy relief? If so, would they consider pursuing bankruptcy relief? This Article seeks to answer these questions through an empirical study designed to explain why so few undocumented debtors appear in the bankruptcy system, as well as to tell the broader story of undocumented debtors' experiences with debt in our economy. Specifically, the empirical study covers a broad array of questions, including what types of debts undocumented immigrants incur, experiences of undocumented immigrants with debts over the past three years, and undocumented immigrants' experiences with the bankruptcy system. As this Article will show, these questions are all tightly interknit: Income shortfalls can make borrowing a necessity for this group, but borrowing is often accompanied by feelings of shame and trepidation. And although the ambivalence around borrowing is overcome by necessity-such that the vast majority of study participants had borrowed-shame and fear prevented study participants from seeking bankruptcy relief. Overall, the study demonstrated that undocumented immigrants face internal as well as external barriers to bankruptcy relief Although many participants in the study experienced over-indebtedness and expressed needing relief that bankruptcy could offer, they did not view bankruptcy as an option. Bankruptcy can be an important tool for restoring financial security and dignity to the economically disenfranchised. Making this a meaningful option for undocumented immigrants will require the combined efforts of bankruptcy practitioners and administrators, advocates, policymakers, and community organizations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1801-1840
Number of pages40
JournalRutgers Law Review
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jun 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Law


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