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.