Undocumented Migration - Roberto G. Gonzales - ebook

Undocumented Migration ebook

Roberto G. Gonzales

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Undocumented Migration is a global and yet elusive phenomenon. Despite contemporary efforts to patrol national borders and mass deportation programs, it remains firmly placed at the top of the political agenda in many countries where it receives hostile media coverage and generates fierce debate. However, as this much-needed book makes clear, unauthorized movement should not be confused or crudely assimilated with the social reality of growing numbers of large, settled populations lacking full citizenship and experiencing precarious lives. From the journeys migrants take to the lives they seek on arrival and beyond, Undocumented Migration provides a comparative view of how this phenomenon plays out, looking in particular at the United States and Europe. Drawing on their extensive expertise, the authors breathe life into the various issues and debates surrounding migration, including the experiences and voices of migrants themselves, to offer a critical analysis of a hidden and too often misrepresented population.

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Front Matter


A game of cat and mouse

The age of undocumented migration

About the book

Outline of the book

1 Who Are Undocumented Migrants?

Unauthorized journeys

Undocumented migration in a changing world

Who are undocumented migrants?

Estimating the number of undocumented migrants

A comprehensive approach: the illegality assemblage

The role of national contexts in defining undocumented migrants



2 Theorizing the Lived Experience of Migrant Illegality

Illegality in context

Understanding migrant illegality through a sense of belonging

The thin boundary between illegality and belonging



3 Geographies of Undocumented Migration

Globalization and its local manifestations

Everyday bordering



4 Immigration Enforcement, Detention, and Deportation

Creating a hostile environment

The deportation–detention nexus



5 Undocumented Status and Social Mobility

Pre-migration factors determining starting points

Local contexts structure opportunities



6 Families and Children

Family life within and across borders

The toll of undocumented status

Schooling and the transition to illegality

Unaccompanied migrant youth



7 Challenging Exclusion

Redefining membership

Identity and migrant politicization




End User License Agreement

List of Illustrations

Chapter 6

Figure 6.1

UASC applications in the EU, 2008–2015.



Table of Contents

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Series Title

Immigration & Society series

Carl L. Bankston III, Immigrant Networks and Social Capital

Stephanie A. Bohon & Meghan Conley, Immigration and Population

Caroline B. Brettell, Gender and Migration

Thomas Faist, Margit Fauser, & Eveline Reisenauer, Transnational Migration

Eric Fong & Brent Berry, Immigration and the City

Roberto G. Gonzales, Nando Sigona, Martha C. Franco, & Anna Papoutsi, Undocumented Migration

Christian Joppke, Citizenship and Immigration

Grace Kao, Elizabeth Vaquera, & Kimberly Goyette, Education and Immigration

Nazli Kibria, Cara Bowman, & Megan O’Leary, Race and Immigration

Peter Kivisto, Religion and Immigration

Cecilia Menjívar, Leisy J. Abrego, & Leah C. Schmalzbauer, Immigrant Families

Ronald L. Mize & Grace Peña Delgado, Latino Immigrants in the United States

Philip Q. Yang, Asian Immigration to the United States

Min Zhou & Carl L. Bankston III, The Rise of the New Second Generation

Undocumented Migration

Borders, Immigration Enforcement, and Belonging

Roberto G. Gonzales, Nando Sigona, Martha C. Franco, and Anna Papoutsi


Copyright © Roberto G. Gonzales, Nando Sigona, Martha C. Franco, & Anna Papoutsi 2019

The right of Roberto G. Gonzales, Nando Sigona, Martha C. Franco, and Anna Papoutsi to be identified as Authors of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First published in 2019 by Polity Press

Polity Press65 Bridge StreetCambridge CB2 1UR, UK

Polity Press101 Station LandingSuite 300Medford, MA 02155, USA

All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

ISBN-13: 978-1-5095-0698-9

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Gonzales, Roberto G., 1969- author. | Sigona, Nando, 1975- author. |Franco, Martha C., author. | Papoutsi, Anna, author.Title: Undocumented migration : borders, immigration enforcement, and belonging / Roberto G. Gonzales, Nando Sigona, Martha C. Franco, Anna Papoutsi.Description: Cambridge ; Medford, MA : Polity, 2019. | Includes bibliographical references and index.Identifiers: LCCN 2019006575 (print) | LCCN 2019018019 (ebook) | ISBN 9781509506989 (Epub) | ISBN 9781509506941 (hardback) | ISBN 9781509531806 (pbk.)Subjects: LCSH: Emigration and immigration--Government policy. | Immigration enforcement. | Illegal aliens--Social conditions. | Immigrants--Social conditions. | Social integration.Classification: LCC JV6271 (ebook) | LCC JV6271 .G66 2019 (print) | DDC 325.73--dc23LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019006575

The publisher has used its best endeavours to ensure that the URLs for external websites referred to in this book are correct and active at the time of going to press. However, the publisher has no responsibility for the websites and can make no guarantee that a site will remain live or that the content is or will remain appropriate.

Every effort has been made to trace all copyright holders, but if any have been overlooked the publisher will be pleased to include any necessary credits in any subsequent reprint or edition.

For further information on Polity, visit our website: politybooks.com


We would like to thank all of those who made this book possible. First and foremost, we want to express our appreciation for our editor at Polity, Jonathan Skerrett, whose patience and flexibility allowed us to finish the book during a time when undocumented migration has been front and center of the political debate.

Our efforts would not have been possible without the generous support – both financial and in kind – from our institutions and colleagues. In particular, we want to express our appreciation to Jim Ryan and Bridget Terry Long at Harvard University. We would also like to express our gratitude to Regina O’Brien, Deepa Vasudevan, and Leslie Molina for their helpful editorial assistance.

Ethnographic vignettes and citations included in the book come from research projects we have carried out individually over several years on undocumented migration. Some were published previously, in part or as a whole; others are published here for the first time.

Roberto wishes to thank Kristina Brant, Veronica Terriquez, Benjamin Roth, Felipe Vargas, Melanie Reyes, Victoria Villalba, Max Ahmed, Sayil Camacho, Edwin Elias, Ireri Rivas, Laura Emiko Soltis, Kathleen Sexsmith, Mary Jo Dudley, and Carlos Aguilar who were instrumental partners in the four waves of data collection for the National UnDACAmented Research Project (NURP).

Nando wishes to thank in particular: Alice Bloch and Roger Zetter with whom he worked on the Young UndocumentedMigrants project funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation; Vanessa Hughes for Undocumented Migrant Children and Families in Britain, funded by the Barrow Cadbury Trust; Elaine Chase, Jenny Allsopp and colleagues for the ESRC-funded Becoming Adult: Conceptions of Futures and Wellbeing among Migrant Young People in the UK; Heaven Crawley, Frank Düvell and colleagues for Unravelling the Mediterranean Migration Crisis, funded by ESRC and DFiD; and Laurence Lessard-Phillips for the ESRC-funded EU Families and Eurochildren in Brexiting Britain.

Thank you to the anonymous reviewers and to our colleagues and friends who encouraged and supported us at various stages in the preparation of the book. We are especially grateful to Sarah Horton and Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz for their careful read of an earlier draft. And thank you to our families – Sara, Joaquín, Julia, Robin, Matilda, Estefany, Ana Gloria, Tania, and Lena – for being the source of our inspiration and the support that underpins our work.

Finally, we wish to dedicate this book to those who traverse deserts, cross seas and rivers, and climb walls, facing incredible hurdles and sacrifices in search of protection and a better future for themselves and their loved ones. Their stories, words, smiles, and tears are an endless source of inspiration for us as researchers and human beings.


A game of cat and mouse

At 225 meters long and five stories high, the former cruise ship, docked in the new port of Patras, in northern Greece, is a sight to behold. The ship dominates the entire port with its imposing body. Between ten and fifteen trucks are stationed outside. The drivers eagerly wait to board the Cruise Europa. Dozens of migrants can be seen observing the scene at a distance, eager to spot an opportunity to board the ship. Ticketed passengers and their vehicles will board much later.

Patras, a seaside medium-sized city, is situated in the northwestern part of the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece. The port was relocated out of town some years ago in order to decongest the city center from the massive trucks moving in and out of the port on a daily basis. For Vangelis, a thick-waisted employee of the Patras Port Authority, there was an urgent need to put an end to the chaotic scenes caused by migrants making a run for the trucks heading to Italy: “You cannot imagine the situation before. It was chaos: tourists, cars, trucks, and migrants all together. And the coast guard chasing them with cars and dogs. It was bad for the city and bad for tourism. And it was also dangerous for them [the migrants] too. We had many accidents and injuries.”

The port of Patras is the main gateway of Greece to Europe. Due to the political upheaval and instability in the Balkans throughout the 1990s and the multiple land border crossings, Patras became the main route for both tourist and commercial transport in the region. Because the landscape around the new port is bare – the port is a vast surface of uninterrupted tarmac – there is nowhere to hide. This means that migrants making a run for the trucks are immediately in direct sight of the police.

The AVEX building, a disused wood-processing factory in the port area, is currently the makeshift home to some 380 migrants, mostly from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Maghreb. They sleep rough or in tents in the factory’s derelict warehouse spaces that provide some protection from the winter’s biting cold and the summer’s scorching sun. They learn about this place mostly through their networks and through smugglers, as it is from there that they try every day to sneak into the trucks that are heading to Italy, and from there to other European destinations.

As one enters the port, one can spot migrants trying to climb the fence that separates the rest of the port from the departure gates, which is where all the trucks park waiting to board the ship. The steel fence is some two meters high and is reinforced with barbed wire on top, quite ramshackle in places from where people have climbed it.

This is an ordinary scene in the port, one that repeats three to four times every single day. Migrants show the scars and tears of these failed attempts on their bodies and clothes (see Jusionyte 2018 for discussion of migrant injury). They carry nothing with them except small bottles of water tied with thick rope around their waists or on their backs.

Attempts by migrants to board the trucks are not made in isolation. After someone gives a signal, groups of up to fifty young people make a run for the trucks. They then scale the fence, land on the other side and sprint towards the trucks. Numbers play a critical role in this endeavor: the more people participating, the better the chances that some will make it.

Truck drivers are also involved. Once the migrants come anywhere near the trucks, the drivers alert the coast guard by honking their horns. Patrolling coast guards in cars race in from the other side of the port, sending migrants scattering in all directions. Migrants hope to avoid being run over by the speeding cars or bitten by the police dogs. Usually, when migrants are apprehended, the police keep them for several hours and then let them go again.

There is a strange familiarity between the migrants and the police. They seem to know each other. As night falls and all the trucks have boarded the Cruise Europa, the police approach the fence and announce the end of the game: “Finished for today. Tomorrow we do it again. Who’s injured? Let’s go to hospital.”

The age of undocumented migration

International migration has risen in significance on the agendas of wealthy countries. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the number of international migrants reached 258 million in 2017, an increase from 220 million in 2010 and 173 million in 2000 (IOM 2019). And, while undocumented migrants comprise only a small proportion of a country’s immigrants, unauthorized migration dominates most discussions and perceptions of immigration (Jones-Correa and de Graauw 2013).

In response to the rise in global migration and its heightened visibility, many western nations have installed and aggressively fortified immigration controls on an unprecedented scale to deter migration and to punish immigrants. These measures constrain everyday choices as well as life trajectories for migrants. They also sow fear and anxiety in communities across the globe. At the same time, migrants residing in these countries form families, establish community connections, participate in local economies and governments, and pursue love, happiness, meaning, and political participation, just like their citizen neighbors.

Scholarship on undocumented migration often accords primacy to the nation-state in producing illegality, due to its power to define its relationship to citizens and noncitizens and to mobilize an enforcement apparatus to police the boundaries of membership. In many respects, we agree with this depiction. However, in this book we expand the analytical focus to include the interplay between different national and supranational configurations of “illegality.” We argue that, while the production and experience of “illegality” are strongly shaped and determined by the state and state-based rules and regulations, they are more broadly framed by processes involving multiple states and international agencies and increasingly nested in multiple scales of governance. Furthermore, they are stratified by gender, class, and race.

This book explores state efforts to illegalize some forms of human mobility and the response of immigrants, their families, and their political and social allies to increasingly intrusive, repressive, and punitive measures of immigration control. In doing so, we draw a wide circle around undocumented migration to capture the international foundations and dimensions of “illegality.” Through an examination of empirical examples in the United States, the European Union (EU), and the United Kingdom, as well as current scholarship, we trace how immigration policies and practices inform, influence, and impact decisions to migrate, the nature and length of migration journeys, and the experiences and opportunities of migrants in diverse host-country settings. At the same time, dynamics and political developments in receiving countries further complicate experiences of migration and settlement. To that end, we illustrate how migrants’ everyday experiences are shaped by a range of laws and policies, from those explicitly targeting immigration and settlement of noncitizens to others that regulate access to public services, or regulate labor market more generally, but that nonetheless shape the possibilities and opportunities available to an individual with precarious immigration status.

From the journeys that migrants take to the lives they lead on arrival and beyond, this book aims to provide a comprehensive examination of the global, yet also local, phenomenon of undocumented migration. As such, we offer a triptych portrait of contemporary undocumented migration, which links: (1) the macro-societal processes that produce undocumented migration; (2) the shifting governance of immigration across different national borders and various locales; and (3) individuals’ everyday experiences residing in host countries as undocumented migrants. This book primarily features the experiences of immigrants in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe. As such, our examination does not, for example, capture the dynamics of migration between countries in the global South – like migrants leaving Myanmar for Thailand or Venezuelans fleeing political unrest and poverty for nearby Colombia – and of other wealthier countries like Canada or Japan. However, we draw on some of the major themes in the academic literature and in the popular discourse on immigration. Indeed, undocumented migration is now a global phenomenon. As the effects of armed conflict, environmental disasters and injustices, climate change, and economic inequality render large swaths of the planet uninhabitable, migrants seek refuge in countries of traditional settlement and those that have not been seen as long-standing immigrant destinations. This book is our effort to bring together a diverse set of issues and understandings about contemporary migration.

Our approach is driven by our interest in capturing the plurality of scales at which “illegality” is produced and experienced. In service to these goals, we have developed the concept of illegality assemblage. This is a term we use to describe the loose and dynamic system of laws and practices that transcend national borders and in which different interests and agendas find some kind of accommodation. We think of “illegality” as the product of a multi-scale and multi-actor assemblage that produces various configurations of rights, entitlements, constraints, and challenges in places in which migrants’ lives unfold – thereby affecting every aspect of their lives as individuals and in families and communities.

About the book

We began the book with an ethnographic description of a modern-day game of “cat and mouse” to emphasize the diversity of structures, processes, and actors involved in migration projects across multiple state boundaries. Furthermore, this vignette illustrates our methodological and geographic foci. As ethnographers and qualitative researchers, more generally, our work examines the everyday experiences of migrants living in liminal, precarious, and clandestine statuses in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. Much of our work has also focused on young people of various non-legal statuses. Thus the empirical and theoretical material framing this book is reflective of our particular vantage points as scholars. Through this perspective, we aim to shed light on undocumented migration as a global and transnational process. We focus on how multiple nation-states contend with this phenomenon while also examining how the everyday experiences of individual migrants are shaped by illegality. By zooming in and out of global, national, local, and individual contexts, we animate the multiple dimensions that produce, reproduce, and contest illegality.

This book has been written during a period of incredible turmoil in our respective countries. On September 5, 2017, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an administrative action by the Obama administration to protect young undocumented migrants from deportation. The move followed similar actions to end protections for immigrants holding Temporary Protected Status (TPS) from six countries. The repeals of DACA and TPS were central to Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign promises to dramatically curtail immigration to the United States. Taken together, these actions directly impact more than one million immigrants living in the United States.

Trump’s election and the ascent of populism in the United States came on the heels of an equally dramatic chain of events across the Atlantic Ocean. Following the Arab Spring uprising and civil unrest in North Africa and the Middle East between 2011 and 2018, more than two million people crossed the Mediterranean to Europe by boat without authorization. Over 17,000 deaths were recorded among people trying to cross the sea, and many more unrecorded deaths are thought to have occurred along land routes. In 2015 alone, at the height of Europe’s so-called migrant/refugee crisis, more than one million arrivals were recorded in Italy and Greece, and 3,771 people died while crossing.

Lack of preparation in response to sea arrivals contributed to widespread moral panic among Europeans and the emergence of anti-immigration political movements in several EU member states.

In the United Kingdom, fears of a migrant invasion played a major role in the referendum that saw 52 percent of British voters cast their vote to leave the European Union after more than forty years of membership. Overnight, three million non-British EU citizens were forced to grapple with a change that would dramatically reshape their futures. The European citizenship that had provided them the freedom to live and work in any of the EU member states since the early 1990s, albeit without the right to vote in national elections and referenda, was set to dissolve, casting their legal status and their lives in the United Kingdom into uncertainty. Similarly, about one million British citizens living in other EU member states saw their life and work prospects change dramatically.

A brief note on terminology: in this book, we mainly use the terms undocumented and unauthorized to refer to those migrants residing in destination countries without legal status. However, when referring to particular terms from the literature or from the media and, when trying to make a more specific point, we also employ terms such as clandestine, precarious, and irregular. We use the term migrant to denote those who are on the move or are settled outside of their country of birth, irrespective of their motivations for doing so, their goals, or their countries of origin. We nonetheless employ appropriate terms to denote people’s different immigration statuses when necessary (e.g., asylum seeker, refugee, DACA beneficiary). Without conflating or ignoring the categorical and experiential differences between various groups of migrants (undocumented migrants, migrants with resident and work permits, refugees, asylum seekers), we wish in this way to highlight the permeability of the boundaries between different statuses. We acknowledge that language use as it pertains to the study of “illegality” is dynamic and often reflects the ever-changing nature of immigration laws, policies, and practices across different nation-states.

Outline of the book

This book highlights the dilemmas of undocumented migrants who find themselves on the wrong side of geopolitically and socially drawn lines, the vast majority of whom live in fear and uncertainty, attempting to forge lives for themselves and their families despite their undocumented status. As such, most undocumented migrants exist at the margins of society, fighting for their dignity with fortitude. Our aim is to delve into the concept of undocumented migration and the experiences of undocumented migrants by drawing upon and connecting theoretical insights and ethnographic and empirical data. We start by developing our theoretical framework on undocumented migration as a global and transnational phenomenon. In chapter 1, we introduce undocumented migration as an elusive social phenomenon that crosses national borders and increasingly attracts the attention of the international community. We consider who counts as an undocumented migrant, how one becomes undocumented, and why some forms of human mobility are categorized as “illegal.” We discuss how this conceptually and empirically slippery category of mobility makes counting and measuring this group difficult. While the state’s rules and regulations determine what counts as undocumented migration and who is to be considered an undocumented migrant, we also argue in this chapter that the production of “illegality” exceeds the borders of the state and also involves processes at the local, regional, and global levels that ultimately shape the concrete experiences of undocumented migrants. In chapter 2, we offer a theoretical framework for the study of undocumented migration and understanding the experiences of undocumented migrants. The chapter considers the impact of precarious legal status on migrants’ identity and sense of belonging. Chapter 3 considers the international, national, and local dimensions and their interplay. State borders operate as a sorting and filtering mechanism for human mobility, in which “illegal travelers” and border guards perform a game of “cat and mouse.” We then shift the focus to the subnational level; in particular, we consider the urban scale and how urban space attracts undocumented migrants and enables the emergence of new political subjectivities. Cities, we argue in this chapter, can offer a space for undocumented migrants to mobilize, build solidarity, and claim rights and belonging. In chapter 4, we consider the impact of immigration enforcement on undocumented migrants, focusing in particular on how they experience detention and the looming prospect of deportation and enforced destitution.

Chapter 5 shows how various contexts at departure as well as in the country of residence structure social mobility for undocumented migrants and how these migrants forge lives for themselves, despite their precarious existence.

In chapter 6, we explore the family experience of migration and the toll that separation of family members from one another takes on all their lives, especially on the well-being and future prospects of the youngest members of the family, including their emotional well-being and the opportunities for education and employment. In chapter 7, we conclude by considering approaches to contesting the concept and perception of “illegality” and link the experiential dimension of undocumented migrants to structural factors that have come to produce “illegality.” We discuss examples of contestation and resistance by undocumented migrants, focusing in particular on the DREAMers in the United States, the Sans Papiers in France, and their counterparts elsewhere in Europe.

1Who Are Undocumented Migrants?

Mohammad was 13 years old when he left Afghanistan in 2005. The Greek authorities found him twelve months later, on a beach, hungry and dehydrated after a 23-hour boat crossing in a dinghy with only one oar.

After both their parents died, Mohammad’s eldest sister told him and his brother, Abdul, that there was no future for them in Afghanistan. Life in their home country had become too dangerous and those who had killed their father would come back for them. Soon after, Mohammad and Abdul joined two dozen young men and children on the back of a truck headed for the country’s western border, near Iran. Once they reached the border, the group split up. Border guards were shooting at any sign of movement, and the group rationalized that it would be safer if they dispersed. Abdul told Mohammad to stay close.

The brothers walked for more than four hours in the dark until they reached the other side of the border. They arrived at a village where they stayed overnight in a house with a family of strangers. In the morning, they caught a local bus that took them to Tehran. In Tehran, they stayed a few days while the smugglers in charge of the next leg of the journey procured some forged passports for the group.

Eventually, another bus took Abdul and Mohammad to Urmia and, from there, to the border with Turkey. They were worried they would be easily spotted, but they managed to enter Turkey “dressed as business men.” However, funds for the group were running low. Brought to Istanbul, the brothers and their fellow travelers – more than twenty altogether – were locked in a basement apartment, as Mohammad described, “not much bigger than a one-bedroom flat”: “We were like mentally going crazy. People wanted to go out, but there was security outside. They had knives and guns. They were like, ‘You have two choices: cross this door and you are dead or stay inside and live.’”

After three months of living in cramped quarters, the head smuggler informed them that in ten days the group would board a boat. “He took us to a coach and we traveled for five or six hours. Then we got to the sea and there was a big jungle with lots of animals like snakes and tigers. A massive jungle it was. ‘That’s the sea, the other side is Greece,’ the agent said.” But there was only space on the boat for one more person. Abdul insisted that Mohammad go without him, and that he would follow soon after. Mohammad did not want to leave his brother behind, but he had little choice. Abdul had the following words of advice for Mohammad: “Whatever country you go [to] please stay in education, don’t make any troubles. Don’t smoke, don’t drink and … make me proud. Make your family proud.” This would be the last time they spoke. The supposed second boat never came.

After the first two attempts at crossing to Greece failed, Mohammad found himself back in Istanbul standing purposeless in a park, without his brother and with no money left. There, a stranger approached him and asked if he was looking for work. After a drive of some hours, the car arrived at a farm somewhere in the middle of the countryside. For several days, Mohammad joined other migrants picking tomatoes. He endured countless hours of backbreaking work and was fed a meager portion of eggs at breakfast and a watery soup at dinner. After ten days, Mohammad demanded to be paid.

So, I worked there for ten days and I said, “Now you have to give me some money.” And the farmer said, “No, no, no, no. You work free for the rest of your life. Because there’s no way you can get away from here. You’re mine now; you work free.” I thought this is really bad, I’m a slave. The next day I escaped from the home, but they took me back, saying “This is the last time you escape […]. Everyone knows you work for me. They will bring you back. I will call the police and they will send you back.” And I said, “No, don’t call the police, I don’t want to go back to Afghanistan.”1

Eventually, Mohammed managed to escape. He headed back to Istanbul and found an acquaintance who helped him to board a boat. His third attempt succeeded. From Greece, he moved to Italy, where he was impressed by the generosity he encountered among ordinary people. He even found a person who offered to pay for his train ticket to Rome. He then made his way to France and eventually managed to arrive in Calais, the port city on the English Channel. In Calais, Mohammad joined hundreds of other migrants and refugees in the informal encampment known as “the Jungle.” There was not much to do there, other than wait for the right truck to hide in. It took multiple failed attempts and a few months to find a truck to take him to Britain. He carried out the final leg of the journey with an Afghan boy called Ahmed he had met in the Jungle. The boy was well educated and a gifted artist.

He was like “Oh, Mohammad, do we need money?” I said obviously we need money. He said, “I know how to make money, trust me. I’m an artist I can draw.” So, he went back to buy some brushes and stuff like that. He said, “Sit next to me here. Do you want me to draw you?” Many people saying yeah. And he would draw like exactly as they were, like very, very beautiful drawing. And people were giving him like 50 euros, 60 euros and they were like “Wow, that’s a talent!”

Selling a few portraits by night, the two boys were able to afford food and clothes, a luxury not available to others in the Calais camp. Eventually the opportunity came to leave, and they reached England. Unfortunately, they were picked up by the police and, because they were minors, they were brought to social services. In this instance, being well educated and smart worked against Ahmed.

I was the stupid one. Whatever they were saying to me I was answering like the way they wanted, and they thought maybe he is [a minor]. But with [my friend], they thought he was older, that he was my older brother. [While in custody] he called me: “They say I’m eighteen,” he told me. “It’s more likely they will send me back to Afghanistan.” So, I [told him to] run from here.

His friend absconded, avoiding any contact with social services. He kept in touch for a brief time but then disappeared.

Mohammad is now 23 years old and completing his master’s degree in a city in the English Midlands. He has refugee status. The perils he endured during the journey – the forged passport, slave-like working conditions, countless nights spent sleeping without a roof over his head, the clandestine crossing of multiple borders, and the loss of his brother – were the price he had to pay to claim asylum in the United Kingdom: an undocumented journey was the only way to become a documented refugee in Europe.

For Mohammad, the clandestine journey and forged passport were the only means available to him as a young Afghan to find protection and security. Increasingly restrictive visa policies make access to international protection impossible to the inhabitants of some of the world’s top refugee-sending countries. Reaching Britain, however, did not mean achieving asylum, at least not right away. The asylum process was long and convoluted, and there were several appeals before Mohammad was able achieve secure legal status and could begin to rebuild his life.

Unauthorized journeys

Mohammad’s story is far from unique. Between 2014 and 2017, almost two million people entered the European Union on dinghies and unseaworthy boats. They endured a great deal of hardship during their migration journeys, sometimes marked by death. Over roughly the same period, nearly 14,000 people died crossing the Mediterranean. Many more unaccounted for died on land, from hypothermia along mountainous border paths, from lack of water and heat crossing the Sahara, from torture and violence in Libyan illegal warehouses, and at the hands of predators specialized in targeting people on the move.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the vast majority of those who boarded boats to Europe, 84.5 percent, came from four countries: Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Eritrea. Most of these individuals are now lawful residents in Europe, with state recognition as refugees or with other forms of humanitarian protection. But the psychological and physical scars of such unauthorized journeys, of the people left behind or lost along the way, of the violence witnessed and experienced, of being treated like slaves – those will not go away, regardless of their future immigration status (Allsopp and Chase 2017).

Crossing international borders, by land or sea, can be a treacherous endeavor. Today’s immigration controls rely on several modes of enforcement that operate at state borders, within the territory, and increasingly externally in other sovereign states.2 Detention, deportation, and forced destitution have become normalized as tools of immigration management in traditional receiving countries, and they feed a booming migration enforcement industry (Andersson 2014; Gammeltoft-Hansen and Sørensen 2012; Vogt 2013).

In addition to the dangers inherent in unpredictable geographies, the journey exposes undocumented migrants to violence and danger. From official state responses such as incarceration and punishment to the abuses and violence perpetrated by border patrol agents, violence, injury, and death are oftentimes not merely side effects of border controls but are elemental to current militarized strategies (De León 2015; Jusionyte 2018; Slack et al. 2016).

Migrant women are particularly vulnerable (Schmidt and Buechler 2017). For Central American women crossing multiple borders en route to the United States, threats come in multiple forms – bandits, corrupt officials, travel companions, and smugglers (Brigden 2018). Often outnumbered by men and vulnerable to crossing guides (or smugglers), migrant women are at risk of kidnapping, assault, and rape (Simmons, Menjívar, and Tellez 2015).

But those who attempt to leave their native countries often face violence at home. Physical and economic violence often drives migratory decisions (Schmidt and Buechler 2017). As Simon McMahon and Nando Sigona (2018) argue, while most migrants and refugees are aware of the dangers associated with unauthorized crossings, many view the journey as the only thing left separating them from what they hope is a better and safer life. This point is evidenced by Clara, an Eritrean woman who migrated to Italy by boat. She was interviewed a few weeks after her arrival in Italy in 2015:3 “We were very afraid on the boat. We could die. But at that point if you have lived the terrible things I saw in Libya and other countries, you do not care anymore about dying. It is almost better to die.”

Undocumented migration in a changing world

The act of migration cannot merely be reduced to a set of choices made by individuals. Just as migrants embark on cross-border journeys, human mobility is heavily regulated through multiple interactions and different and often distinct governing contexts. In this current era, opportunities for authorized mobility have shrunk. And, for some, crossing without papers or obtaining a temporary visa only to overstay its terms is the only way to settle in destination countries. For many migrants, the act of migration is a precarious experience, marked by hardship, dehydration and hunger, exploitation, and even violence. Mohammad’s story illustrates some of the complexity of undocumented migration. Along the journey, migrants confront a complex apparatus of smugglers, facilitators, border guards, and state actors. However, as Mohammad’s story shows, undocumented journeys and irregular entries are sometimes the only way to apply for international protection and asylum.

But not all undocumented migrants enter receiving countries irregularly. Each year a sizeable number of undocumented migrants enter legally on a variety of visas with the intention of or by chance overstaying.

Undocumented migration does not exist in a vacuum. The category “undocumented migrant” is only meaningful in relation to the contexts and circumstances that define it. What counts as undocumented migration and who is considered an undocumented migrant varies over time and space and is embedded in specific conditions, histories, and structures of power. As historian Mae Ngai powerfully argues, laws both reflect and constitute society. They naturalize and structure social relations (Ngai 2004: 12).

In many countries, concerns with undocumented migrants are prominently featured in political agendas. Persistent, misleading, and at times hostile media coverage of undocumented migrants can feed moral panic across diverse communities. Yet, despite renewed state efforts to increase patrols of national borders, to build longer and taller fences with neighboring countries, and to carry out swift mass deportation programs, undocumented migration persists around the world. Building a wall across one stretch of a country’s border may have the short-term effects of satisfying immigration restrictionists and reducing migration in an area. But it may also increase crossings a few miles away while heightening risks and increasing deaths (De León 2015; Massey, Durand, and Malone 2002). And when migration to certain regions of the world begins to slow down, new flows emerge as migrants are redirected towards alternative routes.

Nations develop rules for formal membership that structure processes for citizenship and determine priorities for different types of immigrants. Based on these decisions, immigrants are assigned one of a range of different immigration statuses – e.g., citizen, lawful permanent resident, visa holder, refugee, asylum seeker, or unauthorized migrant – with varying levels of corresponding benefits to those in different legal categories and consequences for those on the wrong side of drawn lines. These acts of categorizing and labeling underpin the workings of the state and play a significant role in all governance matters, including the management of human mobility within and across borders (Gonzales and Sigona 2017). These designations also embed politics into the policy-making process, concealing political decisions behind the normalizing discourse of bureaucracy (Hastings 1998).

Rather than searching for inherent characteristics that might