This paper aims to analyse how State policies, on the book and in practice, shape family reunification. It focuses on child migration under constraint in France, by analysing the timing and factors of (non-)reunification among foreign immigrants, whose legal conditions for family reunification are much more restrictive than for those who obtained the French citizenship. Using a quantitative approach with a nationally representative survey, the article analyses to what extent and in what circumstances migrants took one or the other of three paths during the 1973–2009 period: bringing their children in France through the administrative channel of family reunification (de jure reunification), turning to an alternative channel of child migration (de facto reunification), or leaving their child behind in their birth country.
Results show that de jure reunification is not the predominant option and strongly suggest that this pathway is impaired both by an official state selection based on socioeconomic criteria enshrined in law, and by an unofficial state selection in policy implementation due to discriminatory treatments and regional inequalities in administration resources. In response to these restrictions, families adapt either by turning to de facto reunification or by maintaining transnational ways of life.