University of British Columbia

Sarah Marsden is a Ph.D. candidate in the Faculty of Law at the University of British Columbia. Her research focuses on temporary and undocumented labour migration in urban Canada, with a focus on the role of the state and law in governing the lives of migrants. She is also currently the civil section supervising lawyer of UBC’s student legal clinic.

Uncertain mobilities: the function and effect of precarious migration status

Migration status is a legal construct, present in the text of laws and regulations by which the Canadian government seeks to maintain territorial control, drawing lines around people’s ability to enter, work and be physically present in Canada; however, within the perspectives of those governed by status distinctions, migration status shapes interactions far beyond those described in the bare text of the law.

Drawing on recent fieldwork, this presentation will trace the nature and function of migration status with a focus on working life, the social state, and enforcement. While migrants with uncertain status are often included in workers’ Rights protections, status emerges as a mediating force, often resulting in differential access to work site protections and amplifying the power disparity in employment relationships. In terms of the social state, migration status is deployed directly or indirectly within state institutions to restrict access to health care, education, and income security. Underlying much of this is a discourse in which migrants are subject to surveillance and moral scrutiny on the basis of status and the ever present potential for ‘illegality.’ This paper will also offer a textured approach to the concept of enforcement. While typically understood in the context of border enforcement and workplace raids, enforcement occurs through a much broader variety of sites, both public and private, and, reinforced by the notion of status, has a disciplining effect even in the absence of physical state intervention. The construct of migration status thus emerges as a shaping force in social ordering and a dynamic component in the entrenchment of socio-economic hierarchies.