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The Childhood, Law & Policy Network (CLPN)

Interview with Francesca Meloni about her book, Ways of Belonging: Undocumented Youth in the Shadow of Illegality

Our member, Dr. Francesca Meloni (Kings College London, UK), talks about her new book, Ways of Belonging: Undocumented Youth in the Shadow of Illegality (Rutgers University Press, 2023).


Q: What is this book about?

Ways of Belonging examines the experiences of undocumented young people in Canada, and how they are rendered invisible to the education system. Canadian law doesn’t mention the existence of undocumented children, and thus their access to education rests on discretionary practices and is often denied altogether.

Drawing on four years of ethnographic fieldwork, I investigate the experiences of undocumented young people from two angles. First, I scrutinize the gaze that erases these young people: the laws, practices, and attitudes that make them “illegal”, deportable with their families and restricted from accessing social services. Second, I examine how undocumented status impacts the social belonging young people create, both with the subjects who misrecognize them and with their beloved ones, for whom they were never invisible at all. In exploring these issues, I bring into conversation different and discordant voices: young people’s narratives and the perspectives of institutional subjects (teachers, social workers, and school administrators).

The core argument of the book is that we must understand the experiences of undocumented young people as well as the state attitudes toward them as forms of ambivalence. I suggest that not only the law but also the lack of response to the law on undocumented migration creates ambivalence—both in institutional subjects who ambiguously recognize undocumented young people and in young people who experience ambivalent senses of belonging. 

Q: What made you write this book?

This book was a labour of love: it emerged from a life entangled with others, from the generosity of people, places, and life itself. It originated from the experiences of working as part of a wider study on access to health care for undocumented families in Canada, and of co-establishing a working group on access to education with researchers, community organisations and school boards in Montreal. Having the chance to collaborate with community organisations and school boards through a participatory process allowed me to confront some ethical dilemmas and tensions in my research. It also meant that I took a clearer ethical stand, and certainly a messier research role, in relation to the injustices that undocumented families suffered.

Writing this book allowed me to think more deeply about questions of exclusion, access to services and social justice for undocumented young people. I hope I honoured some of young people’s struggles and dreams; I hope they resonate in this book.

An excerpt from the book:

As the fieldwork unfolded and I became increasingly involved in the working group on access to education, a hidden mosaic of exclusion slowly emerged. Its core pieces were the fears and silences of families, as well as the ambiguity and confusion of school administrators. For undocumented children, there was no normative system around access to education: sometimes they were excluded from school altogether; at other times, they were unofficially accepted.

Take, for instance, the Rodriguez family. Rosa and Emiliano had migrated from Mexico to Montreal three years earlier with their two children, Maria and Elizabeth, ages six and ten. One evening, Rosa and Emiliano invited me and two community organizers to their house, saying that they wanted to discuss the situation of the two girls at school. Gathered around the table, the family had prepared tacos, enchiladas, and guacamole. The girls were quietly playing in their room, and they sometimes peered into the kitchen, overhearing our conversation.

A few weeks earlier, the family had been refused asylum and received a deportation order. They decided to remain in Canada, as returning to Mexico was not safe. But they were worried about Maria and Elizabeth’s education. Now that the girls did not hold any legal

status, the school sent a letter to the parents, urging them to pay $640 in monthly fees as non-residents. Emiliano and Rosa, who both worked in a poultry factory, could not afford to pay. More importantly, they were terrified by the letter. It embodied a tangible risk of deportation: the possibility that the school could report the family to the immigration authorities. The family had heard rumors about cases of young people deported from schools in Toronto and Montreal; they worried that the same could happen to their kids.

“What should I do? Should I remove the kids from school?” Rosa asked. “If they stay at home, what will become of their future?” Emiliano suggested, “Perhaps we could register them at another school?” Both seemed resolved to change address and move the girls to another school to reduce the chance of being deported. They asked me and the other community organizers if we thought it was a good idea. We said that the possibility of deportation was real but that there was so much uncertainty about what could happen.

The possibility that school administration would report the family to immigration authorities was not such a remote prospect. In past years, children have been deported from schools in Montreal and Toronto, making families fearful for their own security. A case in point is that of Daniel, a fourteen-year- old boy from Mexico. In January 2014, he was suddenly summoned by the school administration. He was told that his mother needed to pay his tuition fees as a non-resident, or he would be reported to the federal authorities and returned to Mexico. His mother could not afford to pay. Later that spring, Daniel was caught, along with other boys, conducting a small robbery in a liquor store. He had a hearing problem and could not run fast. While his friends managed to escape, he was arrested. Even though he was a minor, he was detained in a removal center and issued a deportation order. He was later released so that he could complete the school year. On the deportation date, however, Daniel and his mother did not show up. They had changed address, school, neighborhood; they started a new life underground. But in October 2014, Daniel decided to go back to his old school to visit former schoolmates and friends. He was chatting with them in the schoolyard when it started to rain heavily. Everyone sought refuge inside. As he entered, Daniel was asked for his documents. As he didn’t have any ID, the school administration called the police. Daniel was detained at the removal center and deported to Mexico, alone.

As I ate and talked with the Rodriguez family, the fear of deportability—not deportation per se, but the possibility of being deported—was the reality that filled the room. There was a sense of lingering uncertainty in the air: worries about forced return, anxieties about the future, and questions still unanswered. As I was about to leave the house, Maria and Elizabeth ran toward me in the kitchen. They showed me the drawings they had just made, portraying themselves and their parents. Maria, who was younger, proudly pointed to their other pictures hanging on the fridge. Elizabeth came close to me and said, in a whisper, that she was afraid that she could no longer go to school and see her friends. I wanted to reassure her but found myself lacking words.



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