Identity Cards and Migrants

This posting stems from a feeling that the context for the discourse on immigration policy has changed from a narrow view that deals with the screening of immigrants and asylum seekers to a broader view of how to manage the crossborder movement of people. With a global population that has grown from 2.5bn in the 1950s to 7bn today and a doubling in the number of countries to almost 200 over the same time period, more people are crossing more borders. They cross for various reasons but at the time of crossing it is difficult for screening authorities to know which category they belong to and which entry conditions apply. At the same time claims are made about state sovereignty which includes the right to control borders. Regarding the crossborder movement of people, countries are now less able to exercise sovereignty. There are however measures to address this problem.

Consider the case of Canada where in a recent year 30.5 million people are reported to have entered Canada – approximately 30 million as tourists, 250,000 as permanent residents and most of the remainder as temporary foreign workers. Since there is no detailed recording of who leaves and when they leave, Canada does not know how many people are here legally. Only estimates are possible and these often reflect the interests of those quoting them. Note the estimated figure for the US is 11 million persons.

Illegal persons in Canada come from a combination of those who have entered legally but not left when required to do so, and those who have managed to enter illegally by somehow crossing the Canadian border without being noticed. Tourists from some countries only need to show a passport at the Canadian border, while from others they must obtain a visa. Temporary foreign workers and permanent residents must be screened and receive official permission to enter.

This brief summary suggests that there are ways for foreigners to cross the Canadian border and remain in the country without official permission to stay. Since the demand for permanent residency status exceeds the annual available quota, an industry of immigration consultants and fixers has grown up of those who are paid to game the system. News reports indicate that foreigners pay several thousands of dollars for a passage to Canada. If the foreigner is unable to pay cash up front, a loan may be arranged to be paid back for work done in Canada or for some service performed which may well be illegal. The system fosters an underground economy. This is not to suggest that all illegal activity can be eradicated but the present set of policies makes it more likely to persist.

Another approach to managing the type of problems outlined above is to undertake checks on persons in the country. A natural reaction to such a suggestion is that it smacks of actions taken in a police state. This is true but it ignores the extent to which people already surrender their identity in exchange for some benefit. A passport, drivers licence, health card, bank card, credit card, tax return, home ownership all require providing personal information. At the same time, use of the internet in general and social networking in particular means that there exists a detailed record of what people say and do. Security and advertising agencies are among those who make a practice of finding out what individuals are doing, aided at times by closed circuit television systems. The last are used to catch criminals while at the same time recording the actions of innocent private citizens.

It seems remarkable to me that with all the information given off by persons in everyday life that some of this information cannot be gathered and reviewed to determine whether a person is legally within a country.


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