Picture by Nancy Kitch
My class visited the Castillo de San Marcos in Saint Augustine, FL, on a first-grade field trip. Tucked within The Castillo are two rooms connected by a narrow crevice—just the size for a first-grader to fit through. The tour guide led us through The Castillo, relaying its storied history, culminating in our visit to the first of these rooms. We children were each invited to crawl into the passage and witness what lay on the other side. Wriggling through, I couldn’t believe what I beheld on the other side: nothing. Until a chill swept over me. The energy of the tiny room behind the wall felt animate. It felt like another person was there with me. My first-grade mind was made up: I was sharing this space with a ghost.
Now older and wiser, I feel silly applying any supernatural label to the experiences of a first-grader. We, adults, aren’t supposed to believe in ghosts, right? But what if I told you they surround us?
Put away your proton pack though, the ghosts around here aren’t the Ghostbusters kind. The souls I’m referring to, multitudinous yet often overlooked, are identity ghosts. Not ghosts in any metaphysical sense, but people—human beings—who have no access to valid identification documents through some misfortune and thus are invisible to society.
To live without identification, for many, feels like not living at all. Being unable to prove who you are leaves a person feeling more like a ghost than a human.
The label of “ghost” is often self-applied by people enduring the loss of their identification documents. A former IDignity client, Joe described living without identification: “without those credentials in our society…we’re non-entities.”
Societal exclusion renders many who are living without identification feeling more spectral than human. Because the truth is: living without identification documents can be a waking nightmare.
People without identification can’t pick up their prescriptions, rent a hotel room for the night, get hired for a new job, receive government benefits, the list goes on. After receiving his identification documents, Joe stated simply, “today, I am viable.”
I find his use of the word viable more than a mere term of art. “Viable” originates in the Latin word vita, meaning life. To become viable is to become capable of living. Identification is such a significant possession that to be without it renders you inviable—incapable of living.
To be an identity ghost feels like a permanent state for many. It’s not, though. When discussing people who have no valid identification documents, we’re discussing only their present state. It’s important to remember these people, though without identification, are not without identities. To take a myopic view of the present would leave the past and the future out entirely. Take, for example, our former IDignity client, Chris. He served in the U.S. Army before his identification situation. And in the years after resolving his identification struggle, Chris has found new employment and gotten himself a place. Life doesn’t begin and end at identification, but access to identification empowers people to live.
So, dear reader, ghosts walk among us. Not the haunting kind I encountered as a child, nor the slimy Ghostbusters kind, but real human beings on whom ghostliness has been unceremoniously forced. These identity ghosts can no longer inhabit the same plane of opportunity as we all do because so much of society is closed off to those without identification.
But, there is a light in the darkness for the people trapped between the worlds of opportunity and exclusion. IDignity is dedicated to helping these individuals regain their identities and their lives.
Written By: Liam King