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Emily Ryo

Prolific scholar of immigration and criminal law

Emily Ryo, a highly regarded legal scholar and social scientist who studies issues at the intersection of immigration law and criminal law, joined the Duke Law School faculty on July 1 as a professor of law and sociology.

Ryo, who comes to Duke from the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, employs both quantitative and qualitative methods in her research and publishes scholarship in both law reviews and peer-reviewed social science journals. In June, she won the 2023 Article Prize from the Law and Society Association for “A Study of Pandemic and Stigma Effects in Removal Proceedings,” 19 Journal of Empirical Legal Studies 560 (with Ian Peacock).

Ryo was awarded an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship in 2017 and an American Bar Foundation/JPB Foundation Access to Justice Fellowship in 2020. Her research is currently supported by a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation Law & Science Program.

“We are thrilled that Emily Ryo will be joining us at Duke Law,” said Michael D. Frakes, the A. Kenneth Pye Distinguished Professor of Law and Professor of Economics. “She is a prolific and careful scholar who has made a number of significant contributions on key issues in immigration law and policy. Emily will be a valuable addition to our law and social science and empirical legal studies presence at the Law School, in addition to bringing important subject matter expertise in the immigration space.”

Ryo, who won USC Gould’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 2021, will teach Criminal Law and Immigration Law at Duke.

“Emily is the leading voice on the impact of immigration enforcement policy on migrants inside and outside the United States,” said Clinical Professor Kate Evans, director of the Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic. “Her research is often the first stop for advocates, policymakers, and scholars engaged in immigration reform and already informs our advocacy in the clinic.”

Ryo holds a PhD in sociology from Stanford University, a JD from Harvard Law School, and a BA in history from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Before entering graduate school, she worked at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton in Washington, and she took a year off from her PhD program to clerk for Judge M. Margaret McKeown of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. She has also been a research fellow at Stanford Law School and a visiting scholar at Stanford’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity.

“I’m thrilled to join Duke Law School,” Ryo said. “This is an incredible opportunity for me to grow as a teacher and scholar. The faculty is extraordinary, and the intellectual community is so vibrant and welcoming. I can’t think of another school that would offer that experience and environment for me.”

Ryo wrote her dissertation on unauthorized migration, and her research is currently focused in three areas: legal compliance and legal enforcement, including the negligible deterrent effects of U.S. detention policies; access to justice, especially the role of lawyers in immigration proceedings; and judicial and administrative decision-making, particularly in immigration adjudication. 

With Ian Peacock, she undertook the first comprehensive empirical analysis of noncitizens detained by U.S. authorities, “A National Study of Immigration Detention in the United States,” 92 Southern California Law Review 1 (2018). The study drew on administrative records from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other data to examine the duration, location, and conditions of detainees’ confinement and found that “detention outcomes vary significantly across facility operator types (private versus non private) and facility locations (within or outside of major urban areas).” The article was cited by U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her concurring opinion in Garland v. Aleman Gonzalez last year. 

Ryo and Peacock also conducted the first comprehensive analysis of the use of county jails to hold immigrants, “Jailing Immigrant Detainees: A National Study of County Participation in Immigration Detention, 1983-2013,” 54 Law & Society Review 66 (2020). And with Reed Humphrey, Ryo conducted the first systematic examination of government data on juveniles in immigration detention, “Children in Custody: A Study of Detained Migrant Children in the United States,” 68 UCLA Law Review 136 (2021). They carried out a longitudinal analysis of records of all children detained by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services charged with their care, finding high numbers of children who were at heightened risk of trauma or needed specialized care, a system that was overburdened and under-resourced, and troubling inequities in detainees’ treatment and length of detention. 

Ryo has also focused attention on access to justice, examining court records to understand the impact of legal representation in removal proceedings and bond hearings. In “Represented But Unequal: The Contingent Effect of Legal Representation in Removal Proceedings,” 55 Law & Society Review 634 (2021), she and Peacock looked at 1.9 million immigration court records between 1998 and 2020 and found that the impact of counsel can depend on factors including a judge’s gender, a court’s location and caseload, or even the political party occupying the White House. 

“These findings suggest that the representation effect depends on who the judge is and their decisional environment, and that increasing noncitizens’ access to counsel — even of high quality — might be insufficient under current circumstances to ensure fair and consistent outcomes in immigration courts,” they write.  

Ryo’s recent scholarship on immigration adjudication includes the first large-scale empirical studies of applications for naturalization. She sued the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain administrative records that make up a new and original dataset (the agency would later invite her to brief officials on the findings of her research).

In one study, “The Importance of Race, Gender, and Religion in Naturalizing Adjudication in the United States,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2022), Ryo and Reed Humphrey found that approval rates were lower for non-white applicants than for white applicants, while males fared worse than females, and immigrants from Muslim-majority countries fared worse than those from other countries. They also found a significant interactional effect, with certain subgroups performing worse than others. 

In another study, “Citizenship Disparities,” 107 Minnesota Law Review 1 (2022), Ryo and Humphrey examined 2.6 million decisions made by USCIS field offices, which process citizenship applications. The study found wide variations among the 87 offices in the approval rate of applications and the time it took to obtain a decision. They also found that these outcomes could be predicted by the racial or political makeup of the community in which the field office was located, the local unemployment rate, and whether local law enforcement had an agreement with federal authorities to detain undocumented immigrants.

“We should expect relatively similar adjudication outcomes across field offices, all else being equal, given that the U.S. Constitution requires uniform national standards and federal law on the books delineates a seemingly routinized process for naturalization adjudication. Yet this is not what we find,” they write.

Ryo traces her interest in immigration law to the experience of immigrating to the United States at age 11 with her South Korean family. She began to consider an academic career studying the law and legal actors and institutions while working with Stanford Law professor John Donohue during a break from private practice. She chose sociology because of the “broad and inclusive” training it offered. 

“The type of questions that I’m asking as a scholar are very much reflective of the complexity of the world in which we live in, both in terms of human interactions and institutional developments and challenges,” she said. “And so to try to understand those kinds of complexities and to reach as broad a set of audiences as possible, I really wanted to have at hand different kinds of methods and theoretical approaches that I could deploy.”

At Duke, Ryo anticipates exciting collaborations with faculty in the Law School, including in the Wilson Center for Science and Justice, and in other departments, such as Sociology, Political Science, and Economics as well as the Sanford School of Public Policy. She is the 19th Duke Law faculty member with a doctorate (PhD or SJD). 

“Emily’s unique combination of merging sophisticated data analysis skills with the theoretical tools of sociology has led to profound insights on questions of immigration law and policy,” said Professor Sara Sternberg Greene. “Duke Law is very lucky to have her join our faculty.”

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Fall 2023
Volume 42 No. 2