Identity loan

The moral economy of migrant document exchange in California's Central Valley

by Sarah Horton

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“Identity loan” is common among U.S. farmworkers. In contrast to “identity theft,” it is a voluntary exchange in which citizens and legal permanent residents lend unauthorized migrants their identity documents so that the latter may obtain a job. Drawing on nine months of ethnographic fieldwork and interviews with 45 migrant farmworkers in California's Central Valley, I show that federal and state policies have encouraged identity loan as a mode of reciprocal gift-giving in resource- and document-poor migrant communities. Document exchange benefits “identity donors” by increasing their unemployment payments and directly depositing deductions from unauthorized migrants’ wages into their Social Security accounts. While many scholars theorize that unauthorized status serves as a hidden subsidy for the state, this study illuminates the microprocesses through which ordinary citizens and residents agentively vie to divert this “profit reserve” into their own pockets.