Migrants have their say

A survey reconstructs, between voluntary support and research, the different stages that, facing the French Administration, families of undocumented migrants must go through in their request for regularization.

In a context in which, rather than dealing “with immigration” (Hran 2017), public debates tend to separate “legitimate” migrants from those considered “illegitimate”, little work has yet focused on migrant families, within whose titles and residence rights may vary. It is on this question that the work of Frdrique Fogel focuses, Undocumented parent, which is the result of a survey carried out between 2006 and 2016 in the Paris region among undocumented families. The subject of research imposed itself on the author following situations observed in front of the reception center for foreigners next to her daughters' school, an approach which echoes the investigation of Isabelle Coutant in the XIXe district of Paris (Coutant 2018). Gradually, F. Fogel became involved in the permanence of the “Education Without Borders Network” (RESF) of her neighborhood, in which, with other volunteers, she followed (and continues to follow) undocumented families in their regularization application process. The volunteers provide advice to families, but also accompany them during their various administrative meetings: in the reception center for foreigners, the prefecture, at the administrative court. The regularization process often takes very long periods, which means Volunteer support is provided over several years, sometimes up to ten years.

The book reproduces the different stages of the regularization request processes based on observations and discussions collected from affected families. The author shows how undocumented families manage to “become a family” despite the many obstacles they encounter; it studies the effects of the regularization process on the parent and vice versa. The law is at the heart of this monograph, which constantly goes back and forth between the French legislative framework and the multiple experiences of families during its application.

A laborious journey

In eight chapters, the book follows the progress of the investigation, but also the key stages of people in their request for regularization. It opens with portraits of families as well as the places in which the investigation takes place, mainly public institutions. It then analyzes in depth the two circulars which underpinned the applications for residence permits during the period of the investigation: the Sarkozy circular (introduced in 2006) and the Valls circular (in force since 2012). The author looks at the way in which migrants themselves perceive their migration, and the links they maintain with other members of their family in France, but also in their country of origin. Often, it is only after their regularization that they talk about their real experiences in France to their loved ones who remained in the country. The book describes the constant fear of being checked by the police and being deported that grips people in an irregular situation, and the strategies they put in place to try to avoid these checks. In particular, details are given of the large number of papers that people must provide and that they keep, sort, and re-resort according to their appointments and changes in administrative situation.

Chapter 5 presents in detail the different articles of the Foreigners' Code and the existing residence permits as well as the way in which migrants choose, in dialogue with the professionals and volunteers who accompany them, the legal statuses most appropriate to their situation: accompanying sick person, student, parent of a school child “Administrative careers” are not linear: people can move from one status to another over time, temporarily access a regular administrative situation, then find themselves in an irregular situation again, before obtaining another temporary residence permit… As F. Fogel shows with great finesse, many people in an irregular situation develop real expertise in foreigners' law, which they share with other newly arrived migrants. It shows the way in which, once the appropriate legal category has been determined to constitute a file, the administrative situation of family members is concretely examined at the counter: in the case of young minors arriving in France to join their close family and excluded from the law to their majority stay, for example, the Valls circular asks to verify that “the majority of (their) private or family ties are in France and not in (their) country of origin” (Minister of the Interior 2012, p. 5). The final chapters detail the different possibilities for regularization through filiation while articulating them with concrete situations, and explore the way in which life as a couple allows or does not allow regularization.

Other studies in France have already been carried out on people in an irregular situation (for example Ttu-Delage 2009). The particularity of F. Fogel's investigation, however, lies in the fact that it concerns families, whose members do not necessarily have the same administrative status, do not always fall into the same institutional categories, and are not necessarily “regularized” at the same time. time. It shows how administrative injunctions centered on the nuclear family are out of step with the real life of families, in which some of the children sometimes remain in the country of origin, or for whom the extended family includes uncles, aunts, grandparents, neighbors , relatives who remained in the country retain a central role in their perception of the parent. through the analysis of people's comments, family interactions, but also observations of daily practices, the work studies how these injunctions format people's words, but also how people adapt, circumvent the injunctions, and sometimes refuse them completely, insisting on their desire to lead “a normal family life” (p. 163).

Visible and invisible

The book highlights the extent to which the legal framework of foreigners' rights imposes on migrants a normative vision of the family, even though “the” French family has significantly freed itself from these norms since the 1970s. Paradoxically, although undocumented families express the feeling that their conception of the family goes beyond the normative framework required by the French administration, their approach to regularization forces them to act as “guardians of the family norm” (p. 22), as also developed in other works published in the meantime (Fillod-Chabaud and Odasso, 2020).

While the status of “irregular situation” is often associated with the invisibility of undocumented people in the public sphere, F. Fogel shows on the contrary to what extent families who begin a regularization process must provide proof that they have been living for several years as if they were lived legally: they work, their children are in school, they have state medical aid… At the same time, it highlights how the different phases of the journey play on this visibility and on people's ability to act: “as long as a person is active in their daily life, that this normal life contributes to the accumulation of evidence which leads them to the regularization process, they can live as if they had papers and the threat of arrest does not limit their self-confidence. But under “ OQTF “(obligation to leave French territory), the person feels threatened, undermined in their possibilities and forced to adopt a low profile while restricting the scope of their mobility” (p. 114).


The preface by François Hran provides elements of comparison with other European countries. It would be interesting to develop this dimension in other qualitative and ethnographic work: what is the situation of undocumented families in other countries in Europe or around the world? What are the possibilities of access to school, healthcare, accommodation, etc.? exist for family members, who often do not have all the same rights? What policies are developed around migrant families in an irregular situation? The municipality of Strasbourg has, for example, since the beginning of the 2010s, developed a policy in favor of “households with incomplete rights”. Based on the observation that the undocumented migrant families that social workers encountered were often not completely deprived of rights, the city of Strasbourg, in partnership with the department of Bas-Rhin, developed an innovative policy in which it starts from family members having the most rights, for example minor children, who have the right, even the obligation, to go to school, to gradually supplement those of their relatives. Since 2018, the city and the department have set up a mobile team of social workers who follow these families (who numbered around 300 in the Strasbourg territory in 2018) in their different places of life: makeshift camps, reception centers day, squats, schools, hospitals (Delcroix, Pape and Bartel 2021). Several factors played a key role in the establishment of this policy: a policy of unconditional reception of migrants implemented under the mandate of former mayor Roland Ries (P.S.), a sharing of skills between the department and the city differs from other regions of France due to legacies dating from the German annexation, but also the intervention of social workers. In Germany, where social work studies are more anchored in the university than in France, and where numerous Master's research projects are carried out on the practices of professionals in the social sector, different studies have shown the way in which social workers, who are at the closer to different social situations, are often the first to perceive new trends or social issues that arise. In addition, several studies have attested to the importance of the qualitative sociological approach to improve professional practices in social work (Riemann 2005).

Frédrique Fogel's work, at the crossroads between action (volunteer support) and research, allows precisely this dialogue: to give more voice to migrants and professionals regarding the profound contradictory injunctions that they face (in particular, in the social, ensuring unconditional support for people in distress, and, at the same time, coming up against often inextricable administrative limits), and providing professionals with tools for analysis of both institutions and migratory pathways over time. F. Fogel's work invites reflection on the cooperation and actions put in place between researchers, professionals in the social sector, volunteers and political actors in order to identify the possibilities for action towards families who, despite their administrative situation, daily gather evidence of multiple ways in which they contribute to French society.