Global 'undocumentedness'.

Author:Rajagopalan, Kavitha

There are more international migrants today than at any other time in history, and at the same time, the globalization of supply chains and financial systems has spawned vast and once-unimagined networks of transit, communication, and distribution. This means people are moving in ways that are not always captured in accepted international migration statistics and to countries that are ill-equipped to develop or implement a national immigration policy. The confluence of these factors has contributed to a globalization of 'undocumentedness,' and yet, the global conversation about undocumentedness still orients itself to the United States and Europe. A quick survey of extant literature on undocumentedness, international migration, and informal labor points to a significant gap in scholarship on the causes and consequences of permanent and growing cross-border undocumented migration between developing countries, and as a global phenomenon. Research on undocumented immigrant communities in the West frequently focuses on social justice or national security concerns in a single place with a large undocumented population, rather than placing the emergence of those communities within the broader context of how international migration has changed. For example, undocumented migrants in the West are likely to have been undocumented migrants in developing or middle-income countries as well. Migrant networks often span many countries at once. This article will position undocumentedness as a global phenomenon, examining how economic globalization has contributed to a globalization of low- to middle-income migration to regional powers with limited-to-no migration management strategy or infrastructure. It will also consider some of the challenges undocumented migration poses in countries dealing with endemic poverty, massive internal migration, and structural race/caste/tribal fissures. Finally, it will consider what citizenship and belonging mean in this new global era.


There are more people in the world than at any other time in human history, and demographers tell us that more people than ever before are migrating internationally. Much has been written about global migration, illuminating why and even how people cross borders in new and evolving ways, but we continue to overlook one of the most powerful and transformative aspects of migration

today: the globalization of undocumentedness. (1) Nearly every country on earth has illegal and unauthorized immigrants. While countries in poor and volatile regions have always received immigrants fleeing conflict or disaster, the presence and steady growth of illegal migrant populations can no longer be viewed as discrete phenomena in individual countries. Instead, it is time for us to acknowledge permanent and growing illegal and unauthorized migration as a global phenomenon, affecting people and countries all over the world.

As discussed in greater detail below, data on undocumented, unauthorized, illegal, and irregular migration are unreliable and fail to give an accurate picture of exactly how many (and how many more) undocumented migrants are in the world today, but it is surmised that there are more undocumented migrants worldwide than ever before--and this is no coincidence. International migration appears to both follow from and contribute to the growing interconnectedness of the global economy, and as more people cross international borders--stopping in, crossing through, or settling in countries with no consistent immigration policy--it is highly likely that more migrants than ever before are illegal, unauthorized, or undocumented. The globalization of supply chains and financial services has not only transformed many cities across the world into global hubs of commerce, but has also spawned vast and previously unimagined networks of transport and communications. As a result, people are moving in ways that are not always captured in accepted international migration statistics, and to countries that are ill-equipped to develop or implement an appropriate national immigration policy. (2) Still, the global conversation on undocumentedness tends to focus on the United States and European countries--countries with advanced migration policy regimes and resources for extensive, if ill-conceived, detention and deportation systems. This conversation leaves out the question of what countries such as India or Nigeria--emerging immigrant destinations that are also contending with issues like rising inequality and endemic poverty--should do to respond to growing undocumentedness. Before this question can be answered, one must first understand the scope of this phenomenon. The following pages discuss the causes, consequences, and challenges posed by undocumented migration beyond the so-called "Golden Door" or "Fortress Europe."

This article seeks to shed light on what promises to be a tremendously significant challenge for social, economic, and political stability in an increasingly interconnected world: permanent and growing global undocumentedness. It will first examine what we know--and what we think we know--about undocumentedness in the world today, beginning with an analysis of how shortfalls in migration and related data (e.g., the value of migrant earnings or remittances) prevent us from fully knowing how many people cross borders to work in other countries, and how much wealth they generate and distribute around the world, then moving on to a discussion of what this limited knowledge means for understanding and responding to migration realities. Second, the article will review how the globalization of industry and finance has contributed both to networks of mobility, commerce, and communications (increasing the ways in which people now cross borders, the number of immigration destinations around the world, and the categories of migrants moving between developing countries), as well as to chain-linkages between global diasporic and return-migrant communities. Finally, a brief snapshot of undocumentedness in the developing world will be offered, with examples of how some countries are responding to irregular and illegal immigration. As part of this snapshot, there will also be a discussion of how global political narratives about illegal and undocumented migration have been shaped by the internal political concerns of a handful of Western nations, and how these narratives are not only inappropriate lenses through which to view immigration in those nations, but are largely irrelevant to immigration issues within emerging and middle-income economies. I further argue that such narratives only serve to create migration policy templates that are destined to flounder, if not fail outright, on a global scale. In closing, the article will delve into deeper questions about citizenship and belonging in a globalized world, asking what growing illegal immigration means for citizenship, social cohesion, and social stability in a diverse, volatile, and mobile global community.

Certainly, countries with rapidly expanding economies and increasing rates of immigration must grapple with how to develop and implement a migration policy regime, and this article will briefly review what some of these countries are doing. But the question of global undocumentedness touches on deeper questions that lie beneath the administrative talk of visas and customs in a globalizing world. Many of the so-called middle-income countries--the powerhouse economies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that are becoming immigration hubs--are surrounded by countries embroiled in conflict or economic collapse, struggling with poverty, staggering inequality, endemic violence, and massive internal migration. Many of these countries have high rates of slavery or trafficking, and some have recently experienced civil war or genocide. If even citizens by birth or naturalization can be considered outsiders, found fundamentally "undeserving" by some kind of unspoken consensus, what does it mean to have a right to be somewhere, to deserve to work somewhere, or to belong somewhere? How is growing undocumentedness likely to compromise the long-term stability that is already volatile--and will it in turn unleash even more undocumented migration across borders? And if it does, is undocumentedness a destabilizing force in the world as a whole? Would increasing legal channels of migration or legalizing unauthorized immigrants contribute to greater stability in individual societies and greater wealth in the world as a whole? Ultimately, if we ignore the true numbers of migrants and are blind to the true heft of their economic power, and if the first response is to alienate, criminalize, or deport undocumented immigrants, who is ultimately losing out?


In spite of the wide body of literature on human movement in nearly every social science discipline, migration remains a great and ever unfolding mystery. Large gaps and inconsistencies in the most widely referenced international migration data make it nearly impossible to answer the most essential questions that policymakers ask: How many people are crossing international borders at any given time? How many are entering countries without legal permission? How many people migrate permanently, and what compels them to stay, leave, or return home to their country of birth? What is the economic power of migration? Or, how accurate is our assessment of how much money is sent across national borders, and what kinds of tangible benefits result from this money? Finally, how do we ease and manage channels of migration so that immigrant populations may be incorporated into a society, and in ways that enable both the immigrants and the society as a whole to thrive?

According to the latest UN data, there are some 232 million international migrants. The Population Division of the UN's Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) reports...

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