Poor and invisible: in Argentina, thousands of people lack ID

Lack of official papers means they cannot study, go to the doctor, apply for welfare or rent a home

Nora Rodríguez at the Bella Flor solid waste recycling cooperative.
Nora Rodríguez at the Bella Flor solid waste recycling cooperative.Ricardo Ceppi
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La pobreza más invisible

There are tens of thousands of people in Argentina who do not formally exist as far as the state is concerned. That is because they lack an ID card.

Their parents failed to record their birth, and this fact is now preventing them from studying, accessing regular medical care, benefiting from social welfare, renting a home or holding a job – unless it’s in the underground economy.

This invisibility creates a tremendous vulnerability that is very difficult to escape from.

You feel discriminated against. They don’t believe you when you tell them you don’t have ID

Alejandra Montiel, 21

Now, a group of non-profits is hoping to change national legislation to guarantee that all these individuals have the right to a state-recognized identity. Their initiative, Indocumentadxs Cero, is being introduced in Congress on Monday.

A 2011 survey by Universidad Católica Argentina (UCA) and the Open Institute for the Development and Study of Public Policy (Iadepp) found that around 168,000 births in the country were never recorded.

Iadepp, which is leading the Indocumentadxs Cero initiative, believes that this figure has not changed substantially since then, and that there is a similar amount of people who are now of legal age but not on any official records.

Added to the number of undocumented migrants living in Argentina, the numbers are staggering. But the lack of reliable statistics is leaving them all in the dark.

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Anahí Fernández is 20 years old and her three children cannot legally bear her surname because she has no ID. Her parents did not record her birth at the Civil Registry of San Isidro within the first 40 days of life, as stipulated by law. Her sister’s birth went undocumented, too.

Years later, when her parents split up, her father took what few family papers existed with him, and her mother was unable to even prove that she was such.

Lacking ID, she was not given a primary school diploma and could not enroll in high school. She also had trouble accessing pediatric care first, and later gynecological care when she became pregnant at age 15.

And because she cannot apply for welfare benefits, the entire family depends on the occasional jobs that the father finds in the informal economy.

“I’ve been trying to get ID for the last 10 years,” says Anahí. She and her mother have been to all the relevant agencies in Buenos Aires province, from civil registries to the children’s ombudsman, police precincts, courthouses and a forensic doctor’s office.

Last month, a judge finally recognized her identity, although the actual document will not arrive before June or July.

The recycling plant employs several undocumented people.
The recycling plant employs several undocumented people.Ricardo Ceppi

When a child is born in Argentina, the birth must be recorded within the first 40 days at the local civil registry. After that, parents will be out of deadline but can still record the birth up to the 12th year, as long as they bring two witnesses who will accredit the family connection. Any attempt made after that time must be authorized by a judge.

“Is there anyone poorer than those without a document?” asks Jorge Álvarez, president of Iadepp. “In 2009, the government of Argentina simplified the procedure, allowing parents to start the paperwork free of charge at the hospital. But a lot of people are not aware of these changes.”

Álvarez says the problem affects people “who live completely outside the system, whose lives are not guided by the formal economy in any way.”

Five of the seven children of Nora Rodríguez’s deceased husband are in this situation. Rodríguez coordinates the Bella Flor solid waste recycling cooperative. For the last 11 years, she has been trying to get IDs for the children that she adopted “with her heart.”

On Monday Iadepp, the Microjustice Foundation and the El Trapito Association will ask Congress to change the laws regulating the registration of undocumented individuals

“Being a NN [No Name] is a calamity,” she says. “I don’t understand why they can’t give them an identity.”

Peppering her statements with insults, she explains that undocumented people cannot apply for welfare or receive a complete education that would expand their job opportunities. Her adopted children, who lost their mother in 2002 and their father in 2012, have suffered an uneven fate.

“Many of the older ones are doing drugs, but fortunately not the younger ones,” she notes. “I sent them to school and at least they can read and write.”

This energetic woman left her own family home at age eight, and has been foraging in trash piles for much of her life. Now she also takes care of the 70 employees at the cooperative, which includes more than a dozen undocumented people.

On Monday Iadepp, the Microjustice Foundation and the El Trapito Association will ask Congress to change the laws regulating the registration of undocumented individuals. They are also working with authorities in several parts of the Buenos Aires region where there are large pockets of poverty, in a bid to help resolve specific cases.

“You feel discriminated against. They don’t believe you when you tell them you don’t have ID, or when they ask you,you’re not from here?,” says Alejandra Montiel, who was born 21 years ago in Ciudadela, on the outskirts of the Argentinean capital.

As a child, going to school and to the doctor was an odyssey that required the assistance of several people who looked the other way. Thanks to them, she was able to complete her high school studies, but Montiel dreams of going to college to become a primary school teacher. Without an ID, that dream is not possible.

Even simple teenage activities like going to a nightclub or on a trip were off limits to her, because they require ID. The only exception was the high school trip to Mar del Plata, 400 kilometers south of Buenos Aires, which she was able to join thanks to a teacher who took responsibility for her.

Montiel has worked as a house cleaner and a babysitter, and now she is working at a factory where she gets paid under the table. She has spent the last four years trying to obtain an ID card – “I’ve been to over 10 different places” – and was about to give up, but her boyfriend convinced her to keep trying. When she gets it, she says with a smile, “I will throw a huge party.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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