How do states count migrants? This article engages evidence from Russia to demonstrate how official labor migration data depend on human interactions between state actors and migrants in a Russian migration center as a cautionary tale for those that take official data at face value. Drawing on participant observation and analysis of conversations between migration center workers and migrants, I argue that the agency of migrants and local state actors is crucial for creating official migration data, even when such agency is constrained by federally defined rules and priorities. Though Russia has highly centralized bureaucratic structures and procedures, I demonstrate how local state actors exercise agency by toggling between gatekeeping practices that uphold federal priorities and customer-service-oriented practices that attract migrants to voluntarily engage in the process of being documented and counted. Migrant participation in the bureaucratic process is crucial to the migration center's success, and migrants utilize strategies that can maximize their success in obtaining work documents and becoming counted in official statistics, such as using the migration center's commercial services or bringing a friend to help navigate any uncertainties. Evidence from Russia suggests that social environments can both limit and constitute the production of state data. Scholars, policymakers, and the public miss these contingencies and the potential impact that social environments have on final official numbers when they take state-produced migration data at face value.
- bureaucratic procedures
- state statistics
- the state
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)