Without Papers: Human but Not a Person

Several days ago in Paris, the city welcomed me with a bit of adventure. Within an hour of arriving, my wallet was lifted in the Metro.  Aside from feeling like a chump for having been scammed so easily, I was a bit puzzled by the immediate response of the concerned Parisians around me, who asked, “Vos papiers? Avez-vous vos papiers?” Do you have your papers (a.k.a. your passport or other identifying documents)? Even as a visitor, it was not the first thought that ran through my mind—I was more concerned about being without money. It is absolutely true that replacing my passport as an American citizen without any other documents would be hectic, to say the least. But as a visitor for France, I should have been even more worried about my passport than any other loss. According to French law, it is illegal to be without one’s identifying papers, whether citizen, visitor, or migrant.  Of course, even in a nation that to the present day does not account for race in its official government statistics, the police tend to apply the law selectively: much more frequently the papers of dark, male French denizens are checked than any other group.

As those who follow migration politics will undoubtedly be aware, the U.S. is somewhat dissimilar to France.  Technically, citizens do not have to carry proof of citizenship with them, even though all non-citizens do.  A number of states in the U.S. South and Southwest have enacted a series of profiling laws, such as Arizona’s SB 1070, which make it legal to ask for proof of legal entry into the Unites States for those “suspected” of being undocumented—again, even as citizens are not required to carry those papers.  The law’s contradiction appears nonsensical only if we bracket the racial profiling that this double-standard implies: That is to say, unless the American populace already has a common stereotype of who constitutes a bona fide citizen, how can a law enforcement official feel confident in distinguishing a citizen from a non-citizen?  Moreover, while citizens don’t have to carry proof of citizenship, if they are darker they still stand an increased chance of being deported, as has happened to several thousands of citizens under the Obama Administration. Recent numbers are difficult to ascertain, but approximately 4000 US citizens were detained and deported in 2010, and as many as 20,000 have been detained, with some portion deported in 2011, including teenagers.

In various countries, including the UK and Spain, non-citizen residents must register their presence at the nearest police station. It is a long-standing tradition in many nations, dating back to medieval times and fortressed cities, when a visitor had to have a host or sponsor within the gates in order to be allowed to stay overnight in that burgh. This requirement has been historically found in the United States as well: there are records dating back to the 1700’s Massachusetts in which visitors had to register their presence in order to be permitted to stay in a town.

In the late 19th century, along with the introduction of a centralized immigration system, the practice of requiring visitors to carry their papers emerged. This practice notably thwarted Chinese merchant migrants, who were required to show and leave their papers with INS offices upon entry at local ports, despite the fact that they were also required to carry their papers with them at all times. This contradiction induced the arrest and deportation of many Chinese in the wake of the 1882 Exclusion law. Lucy Salyer, in her book, Laws Harsh as Tigers, has a remarkable description of this contradictory law.

Today, if one is considered a non-threatening citizen (depending upon where in the United States one lives, that might include African Americans, Latinos, and South Asians of certain middle- and upper-class backgrounds, and most whites)—the issue of showing one’s papers to indicate that one belongs is a rare demand. Obviously, the opposite is true for black and brown residents in various parts of the United States: Georgia, Arizona, Texas, Florida, among other places.

The notion of having to carry one’s papers to demonstrate one’s “belongingness” is a fundamental feature of the world of nation-states. Bizarrely enough, many of us accept this requirement of proof without comment—we assume as a given that we must prove our political status regardless of our humanity.  In fact, as Hannah Arendt points out, that we are human is a trivial fact, meaningless without proof of our political status as citizens of a particular nation.  Yet, the ultimate existential irony–in the age of centralized databases–is that each of us must have (implicit or express) recorded permission to reside in any land on this earth—despite the fact that one’s birth is irreversible (I do not mean to imply that illnesses, death, or violence does not occur; only that a birth cannot be spontaneously, magically, undone). The need for permission is contrary to the basic obligation that every nation should have: that one belongs to the world, to the land, simply by virtue of having been born.

Even more bizarre is the fact that, for many, it is not enough to claim to belong somewhere by virtue of being born—one must also show one’s worthiness in order to claim one’s right to a place that doesn’t exactly reciprocate that desire. So, it still takes several generations and various somersaults for Turkish migrants to claim citizenship in Germany, despite changes in laws that should have made it easier. And as Turks and other migrants claim about Germany, even then, one does not feel as if one has the entitlement to claim it as one’s home. This despite the bizarre irony that if one can prove one’s German ancestry—regardless of whether that ancestry is several generations removed, one is always welcome back to the Motherland.

In the U.S., there still exists a notion of “birthright” citizenship, jus soli, which enables those who are born on U.S. soil to claim that they belong. But even jus soli has seen some pushback from conservatives who have begun to challenge the citizenship rights of children born in the U.S. to undocumented parents. H.R. 140, introduced in January 2011 by Steve King of Iowa and 90 others, but but not passed, is one example of this.

Of course, even outside the birthright challenge, the U.S has long engaged in its innumerable obstacles to belonging: the myriad bureaucratic measures that are laid out like a serpentine cobblestone road, to be followed minutely and precisely at the risk of having one’s application to belong thrown out at the first misstep; the threat of youthful indiscretions which may, in the current era of harsher sentencing, lead to a criminal record—making one’s ability to reside in the country with one’s family increasingly endangered; and other sanguine pacts—as entrenched in the as yet unpassed DREAM Act. For example, in the 2011 House and Senate versions, one must agree to give all biometric data to the state as a condition of having one’s application considered for citizenship.

In this supposedly cosmopolitan world, certain classes of people can and do travel freely and without fear: wealthy celebrity and business elites, and various “democracy-embracing” political classes. Others with neither money nor power–cannot take for granted the simple ability to live anywhere in this world  without question, without challenge, simply by virtue of one’s birth.  Even within the confines of the country of one’s birth—those without a home can linger nowhere– neither on sidewalks, subway grates, or benches in parks without being shoved off, told to move along, that it is not meant for loitering.  That something so primordial, so pre-political—the ability to claim belonging without question–can be subjected to such surreal administrative measures, speaks to how removed the contemporary world has become from the basic condition of humanity. Sans papiers, without papers, one is but human, often holding a lesser status than a corporation—at least in the United States.


Author: Falguni A. Sheth

I'm a philosopher and political analyst who writes about all kinds of things, from national security, US politics, race, terrorism, miscegenation, feminism, philosophy, and whatever else captivates my attention. My views are idiosyncratic. I'd like to believe they're carefully considered, and I'm not particularly interested in following crowds.

6 thoughts on “Without Papers: Human but Not a Person”

  1. Did you have any other documentation related snafus in Paris? I’m glad you wrote about this as it is really an important issue to me. Professionally, I work a great deal with undocumented/mixed status families and I can’t tell you how disheartening it is to witness the treatment they receive at social service agencies in supposedly-progressive Austin, TX. You would think that those who are attracted to such careers — particularly minorities — would be capable of demonstrating at least a tiny amount of empathy towards one of the most vulnerable populations in the US — but no! Of course, most of the discrimination is structural as opposed to overt in nature, but the lack of concern that virtually all of my coworkers show towards this population is shocking and conversation is generally limited to the various inconveniences inherent to working with such a vulnerable population (i.e., “I know they speak English, but they just don’t want to and/or they think it will help them”). Again, such comments are particularly shocking when it comes from other minority populations who, living in Texas, are likely painfully aware of how their lives have been affected by racism.

    Personally, I find this obsession with identification and nationality to be highly troubling as well. Not only do I find the treatment of this population in the US to be appalling, but I am currently planning (or at least hoping) to relocate to Colombia and the biggest obstacle I am finding is that of obtaining a work visa. Fortunately, moving to Colombia as a gringo without a work visa is not in any way analogous to a Colombian moving to the US without a visa, but it still is incredibly frustrating.

    1. Not sure what you mean by “document-related” snafus, but a couple of other interesting details: 1. All French citizens must carry a French national identity card that proves their nationality. I haven’t been able to confirm the following, but a colleague told me today that 2. if you don’t carry your papers, say, for fear of losing them, then if stopped, you must be able to show your apartment- or house-key in order to prove that you have a place to live, and 3. if you don’t have a place to live, i.e. you are homeless, you must apply for a special “homeless” permit in order to show that you are legally homeless. Like in Nevada: http://tinyurl.com/a6gkmc7

      1. By documentation-related snafus, I was asking if you encountered any problems due to being essentially an undocumented tourist — it would have been very unfortunate if a police officer decided to mess with you for whatever reason. I used to live in Peru and I was always terrified that I was going to lose the my foreign residency card because police would often stop me and ask to see ID. Relatively speaking, it never really resulted in anything more than a minor inconvenience as they were only trying to find a way to extract a small bribe, but it was still a constant worry as I was terrified of their police.

  2. Concept of carrying papers may seem strange to first world citizens. For third world, it’s normal. Plus, we have to get visa in order to go to any country. The process of getting visa is long & unpredictable. Tried to go to US once, was denied visa. For me, to be able to travel without visa formalities is like a dream that will never come true. Also, it’s the reason I stopped reading first world travel blogs because they make travel sound so easy. 🙂

    1. Thanks for posting your comment, Raj. It is strange for certain first world citizens who expect and are recognized as belonging. Less strange for darker, more marginal citizens in urban areas with many migrants. Your point remains though: the ease with which US citizens and other Europeans can waltz through large parts of the world facilitates problematic treatises on the beauty of cosmopolitanism. And of course cosmopolitanism is always couched as being about openness, sophistication, multilingual, engaging in dialogue. This definition can apply to the upper-class as well as to migrant labor. Until we factor in the unspoken premises that for the former, waltzing around the world is about 1. entitlement, 2. having the state aligned with one’s interests. 3. (closely aligned with the first 2) wealth, 4. no fear or obstacles from police/state.

Comments are closed.