You are now in the main content area

Less Status

Migration experiences of families where at least one member lives with precarious legal status

A relatively invisible type of migrant experience is that of the thousands of families where at least one member lives without full legal status or what is termed precarious status. In this paper I outline the reasons why researchers, professionals and the general public need to give attention to the many families that live in constant fear of being deported. Following a review of the most common reasons for precarious status, examples are given of the most common barriers to settlement for this group. These include accessing social and health services, education and other entitlements that traditional immigrant groups can take for granted. Some suggestions for moving the field forward are given in the last section.

In addition to those who are given immigration papers every year, there are many people who arrive with less than permanent legal status as well. Apart from those who enter illegally through the Mexican border, there are many who come to work legally as seasonal agricultural workers, live-in caregivers or sex workers (San Martin, 2004). Despite the ‘temporary’ label that was ascribed to them through the immigration process, many of these individuals remain in the country long-term or return year after year.

Many people also cross the border on student visas, tourist visas, or as refugee claimants -- and then end up overstaying their visas, going underground after failed refugee claims, failing to show up at their deportation hearings, and so on. All these migrants are known to authorities who turn a blind eye to people who can provide cheap labor.

Although there are no accurate figures available to indicate how many people are living with such precarious status, estimates for Canada range from 40,000 to 600,000 individuals (Jimenez, 2003; Khandor, McDonald, Nyers, & Wright, 2004; Robertson, 2005; Wright, 2003). In the United States, it is estimated that 3.4 million children live in households headed by an undocumented adult (Passel, 2005).

Apart from sensationalist reports of school and workplace deportation raids, there is very little scholarly documentation of the everyday lived experiences of families and children who are living precariously. One primary factor discouraging research is the fact that few people realize the issue of legal status cannot be boiled down to a simple ‘us-and-them’ paradigm where some residents are legally documented and others hide from the authorities in a shady, little-known underworld. Recent work in migration studies has elaborated upon the concept of legal status, showing it to be a complicated, multi-layered, and multi-actor process that does not exist in a straightforward legal-illegal or documented-undocumented binary (de Genova, 2002; Goldring, Berinstein, & Bernhard, 2009; Menjivar, 2006).

In reality, legal status tends to move along a continuum with individuals shifting from one legal status to another over a period of years or decades. In many cases, migrants arrive through formal channels and for various reasons may lose or fall out of status.

There are many other examples of legal trapdoors leading adults into situations of precarious legal status as well, but worse still are examples involving children. For instance, for children who have status protections while they are Crown Wards of Children’s Aid Societies, that status and those protections are abruptly revoked when they reach the age of maturity (Hare, 2007). To convey the complex ways in which status works, in this paper we use the terms less-than-full-status or precarious status (Goldring, Berinstein, & Bernhard, 2009).

How the migration experience is affected by precarious legal status
The role of fear in limiting their lives and choices has begun to be documented in the academic and grey literature (Berinstein, McDonald, Nyers, Wright, & Zerehi, 2006; Berk & Schur, 2001; Lessard & Ku, 2003; Schwenken 2003; Yau 1995). Limited legal status prevents families from obtaining a social security number needed to work legally, gaining access to healthcare, or affordably accessing the childcare to post-secondary education systems. Access to the social safety net that other residents take for granted is denied them, including such basic services as being able respond to child protection agencies that try to apprehend their child, or even to call the police or the fire department if a life is in danger. Women fleeing situations of family violence are not entitled to stay at a shelter.

A recent study by Young (2007) documented that often parents did not tell children about their limited status until they began considering higher education. The knowledge that they were illegal and did not qualify for further education was shocking and difficult to digest. These children absorb the messages of public opinion informed by ignorance and their sense of identity is forever affected.

Several studies have found that people living with precarious legal status are hesitant to seek out medical attention unless in emergency or acute situations. As a result, these residents do not benefit from preventative healthcare (Access Alliance Multicultural Community Health Clinic, 2005; Bannerman, Hoa, & Male, 2003; Committee for Accessible AIDS Treatment, 2001).

Wanting to stay “under the radar,” families tend not to respond to school-based parental involvement initiatives. Further, although schools are not supposed to inquire about immigration status, this information is regularly asked for, if not demanded. It is suspected that many immigrant children are not attending school at present because of deportation fears (Sidhu, 2008).

Immigrant parents are often nervous when they arrive at school to register their children, and there are many occasions when school procedures can quickly turn parents off, making them (and their children) feel negative toward educational institutions. For example, many school secretaries ask parents for legal papers or require them to show documentation regarding their legal status (Sidhu 2008; Young, 2007). Students may also be asked questions about their parents that may be considered private family business. Although educators do need information about home languages, family goals, lines of family authority and emergency contacts, it is very important to consider how the enrollment process can be carried out in a manner that is respectful rather than probing and that gives a message of welcome rather than one of apathy or interrogation.
Moving Forward
As Western countries narrow their borders for secure permanent residence and increasingly rely on temporary labour arrangements to meet the needs of particular industries, the number of families with precarious legal status continues to grow. It is important for researchers and those in professional programs to revise traditional conceptions of immigrant acculturation to account for the way legal status influences their day to day lives.

Yet a series of factors currently come together to bar academic researchers from engaging in this important area. Though academics may be interested in researching the lives of residents living with precarious legal status, university ethics review boards curtail research method extensively (Bernhard & Young, in press; Bledsoe et al, 2008). Further, funders may be reluctant to provide support in an area that is seen as too controversial (Sikes & Piper, 2008).

Studies are needed to shed light on how families with less than full status organize themselves. For example, how do families remain connected to their communities of origin without being able to physically travel across the border? How do they explain to their children that they should not try out for school sports teams because this may result in school request for a health insurance card? How do they support their children’s educational aspirations without telling them that once they complete high school, all doors for further study will be closed to them?

Further, although there are anecdotal reports about children who stay at home from school year after year because of their parents’ legal status, the phenomenon has not yet been adequately established. In situations of spousal abuse, it is essential to gather information about what women in these situations do when they fear accessing a shelter. When people live with anger and fear for extended periods, these emotions can eventually explode in negative ways. The children who stay home year after year may turn to gangs as a way to find community.

The consequences of exclusion from basic political and social rights are particularly evident when immigrants seeking safety from domestic violence encounter barriers to social service, fear calling the police, and potentially increase their risk of detention and deportation when seeking professional support. The woman who has nowhere to go and nothing to lose may resort to desperate measures to protect herself and her loved ones. Many questions also remain about how the process of negotiating legal status affects personal relationships between partners and within families.

Finally, studies are needed to establish the ways in which service providers contribute to the enforcement of immigration policy in their day-to-day decisions and practices. interpret the situation of the families. In particular, how are social rights produced through social service delivery to immigrants with precarious legal status.

The current world situation is causing increased protectionist policies in Northern countries. For those in the devastated economies of the global South, the decrease in options for permanent migration often results in migration with precarious legal status. Empirical studies are needed to inform professionals who provide support to families.


Access Alliance Multicultural Community Health Centre (AAMCHC). (2005). Racialised groups and health status: A literature review exploring poverty, housing, race-based discrimination and access to health care as determinants of health for racialised groups. Toronto: Access Alliance Multicultural Community Health Centre.

Bannerman, M., Hoa, P., & Male, R. (2003). South Riverdale Community Health Centre’s exploration of services for non-insured people in East Toronto. Toronto: South Riverdale Community Health Centre.

Berinstein, C., McDonald, J., Nyers, P., Wright, C, & Zerehi, S. (2006). “Access Not Fear”: Non-Status Immigrants and City Services. Retrieved April 19, 2006, from:

Berk, M.L., & Schur, C.L. 2001. The effect of fear on access to care among undocumented Latino immigrants. Journal of Immigrant Health, 3(3), 151-156.

Bernhard, J.K., Goldring, L., Young, J., Wilson, B., & Berinstein, C. (2007). Living with precarious legal status in Canada: Implications for the wellbeing of children and families. Refuge, 24(2), 101-114.

Bledsoe, C.H., Sherin B., Galinsky, A.G., Headley, N.M., Heimer, C.A., Kjeldgaard, E., Lindgren, J., Miller, J.D., Roloff, M.E., & Uttal, D.H. (2007). Regulating creativity: Research and survival in the ERB iron cage. Northwestern University Law Review, 101(2), 593-642.

Bernhard, J. K. & Young, J. E. (in press). Gaining Institutional Permission: Researching Precarious Legal Status in Canada.

Committee for Accessible AIDS Treatment (CAAT). (2001). Improving access to legal services and health care for people living with HIV/AIDS who are immigrants, refugees or without status. Action Research Report. Toronto: Regent Park Community Health Centre.

de Genova, N.P. (2002). Migrant ‘illegality’ and deportability in everyday life. Annual Review of Anthropology (31), 419-447.

Dyer, S. & Demeritt, D. (2009). Un-ethical review? Why it is wrong to apply the medical model of research governance to human geography. Progress in Human Geography 33(1), 46–64.

Goldring, L., Berinstein, C., & Bernhard, J. (2009). Institutionalizing precarious migratory status in Canada. Citizenship Studies, 13(3), 239-265.

Hare, F. G. (2007). Transition without status. The experience of youth leaving care without Canadian citizenship. New Directions for Youth Development, (113), 77-88.

Jimenez, M. (2003). 200,000 illegal immigrants toiling in Canada's underground economy. The Globe and Mail. November 15.

Khandor, E., McDonald, J., Nyers, P., & Wright, C. (2004). The regularization of non-status immigrants in Canada 1960-2004: Past policies, current perspectives, active campaigns. Retrieved August 28, 2005, from

Lessard, G., & L. Ku. (2003). Gaps in coverage for children in immigrant families. The Future of Children, 13(1), 100-115.

Menjivar, C. (2006). Liminal legality: Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants’ lives in the United States. American Journal of Sociology, 111(4), 999-1037.

Passel, J. (2005). Estimates of the size and characteristics of the undocumented population. Washington DC: Pew Hispanic Centre.

Robertson, G. (2005). Canada has no handle on illegal immigrant workers. Edmonton Journal, May 30, A5.

San Martin, R. M. (2004). Unwanted in paradise: Undocumented migrant women sex-workers in Toronto. In R. B. Folson (Ed.), Calculated kindness: Global restructuring, immigration and settlement in Canada (pp.71-83). Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing.

Schwenken, H. (2003). RESPECT for all: The political self-organization of female migrant domestic workers in the European Union. Refuge, 21(3), 45-52.

Sidhu, N. (2008). The right to learn: Access to public education for non-status immigrants. Toronto, ON: Community Social Planning Council.

Sikes, P., & Piper, H. (2008). Risky research or researching risk: the role of ethics review, in J. Satterthwaite, M. Watts and H. Piper, (Eds.), Talking truth, confronting power. Stoke on Trent: Trentham.

Wright, C. (2003). Moments of emergence: Organizing by and with undocumented and non-citizen people in Canada after September 11. Refuge, 21(3), 5-15.

Yau, M. (1995). Refugee students in Toronto schools: An exploratory study. Toronto: Research Department of Toronto Board of Education.

Young, J.E.E. (2005). 'This is my life': Questions of agency and belonging among youth living with less than full status. Unpublished master's major research paper, Ryerson University, Toronto.

Young, J.E.E. (2007). "I've been illegal my whole life": Spatial performances of uncertain legal status. Paper presented at Con/founding Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, York University, November.