Unblocking access to citizenship in the global South: Should the process be decentralised?

Two Pathways to Citizenship in Mexico

Imke Harbers (University of Amsterdam)

At first glance, Bronwen Manby’s proposal to decentralise naturalisation in order to unblock access to citizenship for migrants and refugees seems radical. Provisions related to citizenship and immigration are usually the exclusive authority of central governments, even in federal or decentralised countries. Switzerland – covered here by Barbara von Ruette – stands out because it deviates from this pattern. In the US, where, as Bloemraad highlights, naturalisation was initially decentralised, the federal government acquired a monopoly over immigration and naturalisation during the process of state formation. In China – as explained by Sanzhuan Guo – differentiated rules for acquiring citizenship are the result of subnational units’ distinct paths toward incorporation into the national polity. The emergence of centralised and uniform rules for the acquisition of citizenship therefore appears to be intertwined with the process of state formation. Across Latin America, even as the authority of subnational governments to set policy and spending priorities was strengthened by newly democratic regimes during the past three decades, control over citizenship and naturalisation remained highly centralised. The need for one uniform nationwide policy on these issues appeared to be so self-evident that it was not even debated.  

This reluctance to decentralise control over access to the political community seems understandable. Equality is a fundamental principle of citizenship, as Christine Hobden emphasises in her response to Manby. The purpose of decentralisation, by contrast, is to allow differentiation among subnational units and to acknowledge locally varying circumstances and preferences. Decentralisation, as several contributions to this symposium have pointed out, is therefore likely to undermine the equality inherent in citizenship.

At second glace, however, the idea of decentralising access to citizenship in Latin America is not radical at all, but basically in line with current practice. De facto access to citizenship already varies within countries, often as a result of unequal access to civil registration. When thinking about the ways in which individuals acquire citizenship and are formally recognised as members of the political community, it becomes clear that two paths exist – one via the process of naturalisation and one via civil registration. While the first has remained nationalised and has mostly remained the focal point of debates on naturalisation, the latter is already decentralised, but has remained somewhat obscure. These paths to inclusion in the political community are not alternatives among which migrants can choose, but structure access to citizenship for distinct subgroups of migrants. I examine these paths with a focus on Mexico, which is distinct from the African cases that inform and motivate Manby’s argument because ius soli constitutes the main principle for the acquisition of citizenship in Mexico. In such contexts, problems of statelessness and exclusion from the political community are particularly pressing for the first generation of migrants.

The Centralised Route: Citizenship via Naturalisation

As Diego Acosta highlights, the number of naturalisations in Latin American countries is strikingly low. Mexico is no exception in this regard. In the decade from 2007 to 2017 the average number of naturalisations was only about 3,300 per year in a country of 120 million people. In 2018, the last full year for which data are available, just 3,872 naturalisations took place.[1] Applications for naturalisation are processed under the auspices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Secretaría de Relaciónes Exteriores), where appropriate in cooperation with the Ministry of the Interior (Secretaría de Gobernación). Naturalisation is open to foreigners with at least five years of legal residence in Mexico, provided that they pass a test demonstrating their proficiency in Spanish as well as knowledge of Mexican history and culture. Naturalisation is also possible for foreign nationals married to Mexican citizens, parents of children who have acquired Mexican citizenship at birth, those coming from other Latin American countries under a provision that offers preferential treatment for residents from similar ethno-cultural backgrounds, and to foreigners who have made distinguished contributions to the Mexican nation.[2] In all of these cases, requests for naturalisation require a long list of certified documents that attest to the applicant’s legal identity and parentage, good behaviour and absence of a criminal record, as well as the payment of fees for processing the application and requisite documents. Requests for naturalisation now also have to be accompanied by the applicant’s government-issued Personal ID Number, known as the CURP (Clave Única de Registro de Población). The CURP is supposed to be assigned to everyone living in Mexico as well as to Mexicans living abroad, but rollout has been somewhat uneven.

Who is able to make use of this path towards naturalisation? While comprehensive data on the socio-economic background of those who naturalise are hard to come by, the low overall number already suggests that the national-level route to citizenship is an option only for a very specific subgroup of foreign nationals: those with resources and documents. Foreign nationals able to take advantage of these provisions inhabit a world where legal identities and parentage are well documented, and where the distinction between citizens and non-citizens is clear. A closer look at the previous nationalities of naturalised citizens highlights this. For naturalisations between 2007 and 2019 the top five countries of origin are Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina and Spain. The United States, which ranks sixth in terms of previous nationalities, appears above Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. During the whole period only 5 out of 40,641 naturalisations were granted to foreign nationals classified as stateless.[3]

Examining these numbers in light of what we know about those who migrate to Mexico reveals how limited and exclusionary the national-level path towards naturalisation is. Recent news coverage of so-called “caravans” – groups of migrants travelling together to request asylum in the United States – suggests that families and unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America constitute the largest group. The Mexican state does not collect comprehensive data on migrants crossing into Mexico via the Southern border to reach the United States. They are not included in the census or population counts, so estimates of their numbers and background are necessarily imprecise. Yet, we know that in the first eight months of 2019, Mexican authorities apprehended almost 120,000 migrants from Central American countries at Mexico’s southern border (IOM 2019). In 2019, the US Department of Homeland Security reported 850,000 apprehensions at the border between the US and Mexico.[4] In a conservative estimate, the UN Population Division put the number of migrants present in Mexico in 2017 at more than 1.2 million, though the actual number is probably far higher.[5] Migrants who cross from Central America into Mexico have almost no possibility to regularise their legal status. They are thus forced to evade authorities to avoid deportation, and they certainly cannot obtain proof of legal residence. As the contribution by Luicy Pedroza highlights, they also often do not possess documents to prove their legal identity. Their reality is thus very different from the well-documented lives of those who can make use of the national-level route towards naturalisation.

The Decentralised Route: Citizenship via Civil Registration

In light of the limited number of naturalisations at the national level, it becomes clear that the predominant route towards citizenship is civil registration, or the acquisition of citizenship by obtaining a birth certificate. Of course, this path is formally available only to those who are legally entitled to citizenship and born on Mexican territory. Civil registration, including the issuance of birth certificates, is a function carried out by municipalities within parameters set out by state-level and federal legislation. In contrast to the procedures governing naturalisation, civil registration is therefore characterised by a substantial degree of decentralisation.

Given significant variation in the quality and coverage of civil registration across the country, the theoretically crisp line between citizens and non-citizens is often blurry, especially in rural and marginalised municipalities. Despite recent advances, late registration has long been the norm in these areas. The more time passes between birth and the application for a birth certificate, the more difficult it becomes to verify identities. Late registration is therefore associated with incomplete, incorrect, and unreliable identity information (AbouZahr et al., 2015). The map below shows the average delay by state for all births registered in Mexico between 1985-2014. It shows that in many states – especially those in the South along the border – the quality and coverage of the civil registry is such that legal identity, and thus the line between citizens and non-citizens, is often ambiguous.

Figure 1: Average Delay in Birth Registration by State in Months

Source: Dataset of all births registered between 1985 and 2014. For more information on the data see Harbers (2020).

Given uneven access to written records and legal documents, procedures for late registration, as Manby also points out, tend to allow comparatively more space for witness testimony to determine eligibility. While requirements for late registration exceed those for timely registration, and the formal procedure is cumbersome, local implementation and discretion can provide a flexibility that acknowledges circumstances where legal documents are not available. A study of birth registration in marginalised municipalities in the southernmost state of Chiapas found that guidelines for verifying identities and demanding birth records from medical officials are regularly ignored: “Here, nothing is obligatory” a local official at the civil registry explained in response to the researchers’ questions (Freyermuth Enciso et al., 2017). Of course, not all officials who issue birth certificates without the full set of requisite documents do so to accommodate the needs of marginalised citizens. Discretion and power asymmetries provide opportunities for rent-seeking, and local officials may demand “fines” in return for the exercise of “flexibility”. Discrimination can also play a role, as several contributions to the symposium have pointed out.

Are migrants able to gain access to citizenship through civil registration? The lack of legal protection makes migrants vulnerable to coercion at the hands of Mexican officials, and they consistently face the threat of deportation. While concerns about migrants from Central America obtaining birth certificates resurface periodically in public and policy debates, there is no clear evidence for large-scale efforts by migrants to obtain such certificates. Yet, for those who are unable to continue their perilous journey to the United States and who get stuck in Mexico, obtaining a birth certificate is a more realistic path to citizenship than the centralised procedure for naturalisation. Acosta indicates that corruption scandals with regard to naturalisation have been rare in Latin America. In principle, this should be good news, but the stringent application of formal criteria and the demand for an extensive list of requisite documents also means that this pathway is inaccessible for the overwhelming majority of migrants present in Mexico. To the extent that migrants and refugees are able to escape their precarious status, the acquisition of a late birth certificate constitutes a more realistic path than naturalisation through national-level procedures. As such, it seems plausible that at least some migrants from Central America enter the ranks of what Kamal Sadiq (2009) has called “paper citizens”, that is migrants who become de facto citizens because they are able to obtain relevant documents. In her contribution on India and South Africa, Sujata Ramachandran also points to migrants’ ability to obtain ration-cards and voter identity-cards, and thus to regularise their status without going through immigration or naturalisation procedures.

Returning to Manby’s proposal, would decentralisation of naturalisation procedures contribute to unblocking citizenship in Mexico? What Manby picks up on is that national-level policies for naturalisation and their implementation are set up to exclude large numbers of migrants, and that those unable to document their legal identities are particularly vulnerable. Decentralising the procedure, without rethinking who is left out and why, is unlikely to help. The spirit of Manby’s proposal is to promote the inclusion of vulnerable migrants in national communities. The problem with the centralised naturalisation procedure that currently exists in Mexico is that it imposes requirements that vulnerable migrants simply cannot meet, and that it then enforces these requirements stringently. The greater accessibility of the decentralised route via civil registration comes mostly from the lack of stringent enforcement, rather than a desire to include migrants. As such, it is suboptimal and vulnerable to rent-seeking and discrimination. Importantly, though, this decentralised system of registration has recently been subject to a series of reforms aimed at improving oversight. The Personal ID number (CURP) constitutes an example of this. Furthermore, there is a strong push to integrate and harmonise information across identification systems that have so far been separate. This integration of information is likely to further shrink the space available for migrants to escape their precarious circumstances, and therefore makes it even more important to think about ways to unblock citizenship for those excluded by the national-level path.


AbouZahr, Carla, et al. “Civil registration and vital statistics: progress in the data revolution for counting and accountability.” The Lancet 386.10001 (2015): 1373-1385.

Freyermuth Enciso, Graciela, María del Pilar Ochoa Torres, and José Alberto Muños Hernández. “El Subsistema de Información sobre Nacimientos. Estudio de caso en una región indígena de Chiapas, México.” Estudios demográficos y urbanos 32.3 (2017): 451-486.

Harbers, Imke. “Legal identity for all? Gender inequality in the timing of birth registration in Mexico.” World Development 128 (2020): 104778.

IOM/UN Migration. November 2019. Migration Trends in Central America, North America and the Caribbean. Available at: https://kmhub.iom.int/en/virtual-library, Accessed September 15th, 2020.

Sadiq, Kamal. Paper citizens: How illegal immigrants acquire citizenship in developing countries. Oxford University Press, 2008.


[1] https://sre.gob.mx/estadisticas-de-documentos-art-30-constitucional, accessed September 15th, 2020

[2] https://sre.gob.mx/ley-de-nacionalidad, accessed September 15th, 2020

[3] https://sre.gob.mx/estadisticas-de-documentos-art-30-constitucional, accessed September 15th, 2020

[4] https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/sw-border-migration/fy-2019, accessed September 15th, 2020

[5]http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/data/estimates2/data/UN_MigrantStockByOriginAndDestination_2017.xlsx, accessed September 16th, 2020