Elective Enforcement: The Politics of Local Immigration Policing

(Job Market Paper)

[latest version] [appendix]

All U.S. counties that have participated in the 287(g) program, with the most recent signings under the Trump Administration shown in orange.

Abstract: The last two decades have seen a pronounced shift in the focus of American immigration law from patrolling the nation’s border to policing its interior. This development has involved local law enforcement agents gaining powers previously held centrally and exclusively by the federal executive. Yet neither the payoffs to the president from this regime nor localities’ incentives to participate in it are explained by the current scholarship on immigration or federalism. This paper develops a theoretical framework for analyzing intergovernmental policymaking in a federated system. An empirical test using the 287(g) program highlights the model’s central trade-off. By deputizing local officers with the powers of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, 287(g) induced a dramatic increase in immigration enforcement at almost no federal expense. But the localities that selected into the program wielded their newfound agency differently from their federal counterparts, shifting the focus of policing efforts from felonies to traffic offenses and misdemeanor drug possession. I further present evidence that these decisions were driven by electoral politics, in particular accountability to nativist constituencies.   

This work is made possible by data and support from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. 


The proliferation of Race to the Top policies after the competition is announced in 2009.

Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 2017 [paper] [replication file]

Abstract: With increasing frequency, U.S. presidents have orchestrated relations between federal and state governments. A defining feature of this “executive federalism” is a pragmatic willingness to both borrow from and reconstitute very different types of past federalisms. A case in point is President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top (RttT) initiative, which sought to stimulate the adoption of specific education reforms in state governments around the country through a series of highly prescriptive but entirely voluntary policy competitions. This paper evaluates the results of such efforts. To do so, it draws on four original data sets: a nationally representative survey of state legislators, an analysis of State of the State speeches, another of state applications to the competitions themselves, and finally, an inventory of state policymaking trends in a range of education policies that were awarded under the competition. This paper then relies upon a variety of identification strategies to gauge the influence of RttT on the nation’s education policy landscape. Taken as a whole the evidence suggests that RttT, through both direct and indirect means, augmented the production of state policies that were central components of the president’s education agenda.

At-Large Elections Revisited: The Contingent Effects of Reform on Local Minority Representation

with Carolyn Abott

[latest version

Abstract: Despite a long history of legal challenges alleging that elections conducted at-large suppress minority representation, this remains the dominant electoral system in local governments throughout the United States. Moreover, a large empirical literature remains divided over the present-day impact of at-large elections on the political success of underrepresented groups. We reconcile the competing findings in this literature by providing contingent, causal estimates of the effect of conversion from at-large to by-trustee area elections on minority officeholding, using a novel identification strategy afforded by the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. We find a dramatic positive effect of conversion in districts where the Latino minority is sufficiently large and geographically concentrated; where there is a large income disparity between the minority and the majority; and where the minority reaches a relatively high level on selected socioeconomic indicators. When these conditions are not satisfied, we consistently see null estimated effects.


Redistricting map for the city of Watsonville, CA, one of the first in the state to legally strike down at-large elections.

Financial Incentives in Vertical Diffusion: The Variable Effects of Obama's Race to the Top Initiative on State Policy Making 

with William Howell 


We exploit the exogenous shock to states’ education budgets caused by the Great Recession to identify the effect of resources on vertical diffusion. Shown here is the Recession’s effect on unemployment and the associated change in states’ education budgets over the same period.

[latest version

Abstract: A substantial body of empirical work documents the influence of federal monies on state policymaking. Less attention, however, has been paid to the conditioning effects of states’ prior financial health. Nearly always, apportioned monies cover only a fraction of the costs of federal policy reforms. The capacity of states to deploy supplementary resources, therefore, may inform the willingness of states to comply with the federal government’s policy objectives. Focusing on Barack Obama’s Race to the Top Initiative (RttT), we present new evidence that state responses to federal initiatives that carry financial rewards systematically vary with the amount of resources already on hand. States that survived the Great Recession with their education budgets largely intact, we find, tended to implement more RttT reforms overall, and especially more reforms that required substantial up-front financial commitments. These patterns of policy adoptions can be meaningfully attributed to RttT, are not the result of either prior or ancillary policy trends, and speak to the general importance of accounting for what states already have, above and beyond what the federal government is willing to offer, when studying the financial incentives of vertical diffusion.

Robust Theories of Political Polarization 

with Dan Alexander

The temptation to infer a causal relationship between correlated variables has been a long-standing affliction of social science, the study of political polarization being no exception. Indeed, recent work has suggested a connection between political polarization and one of a rotating bevy of other variables, most prominently income inequality, based on observed national-level co-trends. Yet are such correlations even consistent with a potentially causal relationship? We begin by noting that polarization, as far as rational choice models go, will always be a phenomenon explained by across-constituency variation, which contributes to but is not identical to national variation – the measure most commonly used in the literature. This prompts us to ask, given a model of elections, 1) what changes in the exogenous variables of the model would need to obtain for it to predict an increase in polarization, and 2) what additional assumptions would an analyst need to make in order to draw conclusions about polarization? To address these questions, we propose a general approach based on the potential outcomes framework that puts observed polarization in direct conversation with existing models of elections. We demonstrate this approach using robust comparative statics and data-driven simulations, employing as an example throughout the hypothesis that rising income inequality has led to increases in political polarization.

We simulate political polarization (y-axis) as a function of changes in economic inequality, as measured by shifts in the standard deviation of household income (x-axis), according to different theoretical models of the relationship between the two. Whether one necessarily implies the other, we find, is contingent on the choice of the underlying model.

We simulate political polarization (y-axis) as a function of changes in economic inequality, as measured by shifts in the standard deviation of household income (x-axis), according to different theoretical models of the relationship between the two. Whether one necessarily implies the other, we find, is contingent on the choice of the underlying model.

Strategic Abstention, Missing Data, and Ideal Point Estimation

with Sepehr Shahshahani

Ideal point estimation is a landmark contribution in political science, allowing scholars to use roll call votes to measure legislators’ ideological positions. Most statistical procedures for estimating ideal points assume that abstentions are missing at random, which can be unwarranted and misleading. A case in point are legislatures with absolute voting rules, where bills must receive support from a majority of the seats in the chamber, not those present and voting, in order to pass. Using roll call data from the California State Assembly, we show that under absolute voting, abstentions generally behave more like no votes than yes votes. We then propose an alternative utility framework that conceives of abstention as a strategic choice in the action space of legislators. Finally, we are developing a new method that proceeds in two stages: first, using covariates to separate systematic from random abstention, and second, performing Markov Chain Monte Carlo estimation of ideal points with three rather than two choice categories. 

Poster presented at the 2016 Society for Political Methodology available here

Our estimator samples legislators’ utilities from the center of the distribution for strategic abstentions, and from the entire distribution for those that are truly random.

Applications of a New Automated Redistricting Simulator

with Ben Fifield, Kosuke Imai, and James Lo

In this project, we explore the extent, institutional determinants, and democratic implications of partisan gerrymandering across the U.S. states. To do so, we apply a new algorithm proposed by Fifield, Higgins, Imai, and Tarr (2016), which is the first simulation-based approach that can generate feasible districting maps with statistical properties, subject to substantive constraints required by redistricting processes in the real world. 

Our method allows us to compare the Democratic vote share under the current districting plan to what we would observe across the distribution of all possible plans that satisfy legal constraints.