Irregular migration and identity: More than just documents

The dangers of irregular migration are most often described as migrants being exposed to things like perilous routes, violence from criminals and potential traffickers.  And yes, data from the Missing Migrants Project indicate that the border between the United States and Mexico has become increasingly dangerous for people trying to avoid inspection. MMP has recorded a total of 1,907 deaths over the past five years, of which 444 occurred in 2018. 

Still, many do survive the crossing, only to meet dangers beyond the clandestine journey itself.  The reality is that large numbers of people make the trip successfully, but they arrive without a vital piece of their previous life: access to their identity.

A fundamental part of individual well-being is the proper connection between the individual and the nation state. This connection is established by law for nationals and migrants via the civil registry (or social security system in the case of United States citizens) and immigration law. Both systems issue forms of ID for various benefits for the people.  Thus, the individual is recognized under a country’s constitution, and can clearly access government protection as well as rights and services like political participation, education, employment or health care. At the same time, the individual can be held accountable to the state for various legal and administrative violations.

When people cross borders irregularly, they skip these processes entirely, breaking the connection between individual and state. In turn, this creates a subcategory of people who are unknown to the state.

This has several implications, but most importantly, it translates to vulnerability for people and states. Without recognition under the government, migrants live without the protection it entails, and without identity documents they fall into the informal economy, where they may be subject to exploitative practices.  At the same time, the informal economy grows with each new contributor and further erodes the relevance of the legitimate state.

The tendency in emerging economies is for governments to focus more on controlling peoples’ access to a migration status, but not necessarily their territory.  This is coupled with large informal economies. As a result, irregular migrants are mostly seeking access to a country’s territory and the informality, not access to migratory status.  In turn, this works towards the growth of inequality.

For some people, simply entering a country may be perceived as a “successful” migration, but without the identity management responsibilities of state and individual, how many obstacles will a migrant have to face the rest of their lives in that country? More vulnerable populations, such as children, may be trafficked or lost without anyone being able to verify their identity. They may end up as vulnerable in their destination country as they were during their journey.

Identity management should be improved collectively to avoid these issues.  A key action is to improve on policies that attract irregular populations to identify themselves to the state and for the state to have working methodologies to register people who may not be able to provide documentation.  Migration systems should not exacerbate vulnerabilities, but rather guarantee protection for migrants’ human rights.


In a distant country, Erick daydreams - #MigrantsDay

In a distant country, Erick daydreams - #MigrantsDay
Categoria: Return and Reintegration
Autor: Laura Manzi

Story based on the testimony of Erick Galeas, a returnee.

The outbound journey

The heat was suffocating, as if the breaths of fresh air had forgotten that point in the world, where an immense dryness permeated every corner. The ground burned, the sun gave no truce. And this was no small matter: Erick hated the heat, which only made him feel tired and weak.

On those long days with his skin so exposed to the sun, he would try to find some place in the shade to relax for a little while, alone with his thoughts. It may seem absurd, but at that moment, instead of worrying and being overcome by fear and agitation due to the long-awaited trip, the only thing he could think of was that sweater that he intended to buy once arrived in the United States. He wanted to live in a cold place, this was clear to him, to buy a lot of coats and scarves, and to have frozen hands. Wasn't that part of the American dream too? To be able to escape that dryness and have a closet full of sweaters?

The city of Tijuana, in Mexico, served as the setting for Erick's mental wanderings. It had been also his temporary residence for almost a month. Residence, not home. Erick had been living far away from home for nine months, since he left Honduras and began his journey: one day in Guatemala, one month in Chiapas, six months in Veracruz, then Ciudad Juárez and now there, Tijuana. Nine long months treasuring the desire to be able to find better economic opportunities and support his family that he left behind, which was enthusiastic about the idea of being able to receive some remittances.

To fight for his wish, Erick had to pay for his trip by working, doing whatever job he could find, often up to sixteen hours a day for a paltry salary. But that was not a time to be discouraged, because the next day Erick was going to cross the Mexican border into the United States, after having paid 7 thousand dollars  to a smuggler who promised to finally take him to his destination. This is how Erick's last trip to the north began: early in the morning, on any given Tuesday.

You may have noticed that Erick's imagination led him to daydreaming very often, and at the beginning of his journey, after months of malnutrition, he was wondering what his first meal in the US would have tasted like. Surely it would have been the most delicious meal of the last nine months, a meal that tastes of success ... And then wham!, his reverie was suddenly interrupted. An immigration police officer instantly nullified all of Erick's efforts, who was arrested shortly after. But that was not the end of his journey; little did he know that he still had six months to spend in detention: first in California, then in Arizona, Ohio, Louisiana, and Michigan. In his fantasy there were no police officers or detainees; however, this was the only image that Erick could capture from the United States.

How angry he felt when the comments of people who said "it is easy to get to the United States" and "it is a matter of one, maximum two weeks" came to mind. The lack of truthful and adequate information had been an accomplice to his misadventure. Erick was tired, disappointed, and alone. He was also afraid, because in the detention centers there were not only migrants seeking a better life, but also some common criminals who intimidated others, exacerbating their feelings of discomfort. For Erick, the only chance for peace was those few minutes of calls that he could share with his family. He told them that he was afraid that the US authorities would deport him to Honduras, and on the 175th day of his arrest, that was precisely what happened.

The return journey 

A bittersweet taste marked Erick's return. Not being able to fulfill his long-awaited American dream made him feel frustrated, almost ashamed and humiliated. His overwhelming sense of failure disappeared for a moment when, after almost a year and a half, he could finally hug his son. "Children grow up so fast," Erick thought. But the little boy was not the only one who had grown up in all that time; Erick had also gone through an enormous process of personal growth, and he had acquired an incredible strength.

Oh, and there was also the Honduran food. That really made his return happy!

It was not easy, it was not quick, but after a long path, on a day like today we can imagine Erick dealing with his daily tasks at his handicraft company in Honduras. His small family-run atelier became a company that sells its products nationwide: souvenir-type crafts that include a large sample of boats, helicopters and airplanes, all made of wood. It is a business that allows him and his family to live with better economic conditions than when Erick decided to venture to the United States.

His work activity was also able to flourish thanks to the help of the IOM (International Organization for Migration), which provided him with the necessary machinery for his work, and also to the CASM (Mennonite Social Action Commission), whose course on entrepreneurship strengthened Erick's management skills. The feeling of frustration that he experienced when he returned to Honduras has been transformed step by step into a feeling of satisfaction and happiness a he saw his business growing and gained greater confidence in himself, in his talent and ability. The training courses and the support provided helped him through a difficult process of return and reintegration, and empowered the young migrant on his return home.

Erick was able to build his economic subsistence and his professional fulfillment in Honduras, and among so many complex and unfortunate stories, this is a story with a happy ending. Even so, from time to time, he cannot help but daydream, thinking about what it would be like to travel to the United States again, this time legally, and stay there, even just for one day: to eat at a different restaurant and buy a thick winter sweater.