Originally Published in The Washington Post
Analysis by Margaret E. Peters - January 21, 2021
The plan has led some observers, including former George W. Bush official David Frum, to warn that it could invite a new wave of immigrants. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) echoed these concerns in explaining why he is holding up confirmation of Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security; Hawley said that Mayorkas “has not adequately explained how he will … secure the southern border.”
Despite few signs of a new immigration wave, Biden officials also seem concerned. Even before he took office, Biden’s transition team withdrew his campaign pledge that he would undo all of Trump’s immigration executive actions on Jan. 20 — announcing instead that they would leave some “guardrails” in place. For the same reason, the new immigration plan provides a path to citizenship only for undocumented immigrants who entered the country before Jan. 1, 2021.
Conditions for mass migration were already ripe before Biden shifted policy
To understand whether Biden’s policy changes could lead to a new wave, first consider why people migrate. Scholars have long thought of migration as being motivated both by a push and a pull. Conditions at home push people to flee — and conditions abroad pull people to pursue what they believe will be a better life.
First, the “push” has gotten stronger. Conditions in Central American countries — some of the major sources of unauthorized immigrants to the United States — have deteriorated in the past year. The coronaviruspandemic has stalled or reversed some of the recent progress these countries had made in decreasing economic inequality and violence.
The latest blow came from two hurricanes, Eta and Iota, which devastated Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala this past fall, affecting over 5 million people and displacing around 350,000. Given deteriorating conditions, more people may well want to leave. Any increase in migrants coming to the United States might have occurred no matter who was president.
Migrants closely follow the politics and policies of destination countries
But migrants also consider not just whether they want to leave, but where they might go — and whether it’s worth it. A changed presidential administration, especially if immigration policy could change radically, may indeed attract more migration.
Our research bears this out. In 2016, political scientist Alisha Holland and I surveyed Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Turkey and Jordan and internally displaced persons in Syria and Iraq to understand the 2015 European migration wave, when about 1.3 million people crossed into Europe, most within the span of a few months.
We found that potential migrants — individuals considering migration — were extremely knowledgeable about what they might be undertaking. They understood what asylum entails; they knew which countries accepted refugees and which didn’t; and they knew which groups of refugees were eligible for the European Union resettlement program. They even knew the politics in Europe; 87 percent could correctly name Angela Merkel as Germany’s chancellor.
This might be surprising. Many policymakers assume that potential immigrants are ill-informed. But potential migrants have an incentive to learn. Making the journey across the Mediterranean — or across Mexico to the U.S. border — is dangerous and costly. Thousands die each year trying to cross the Mediterranean. Hundreds die trying to reach the United States. And the trips cost thousands of dollars.
Migrants therefore are very attuned to policy changes in potential destination countries. Using Google Search data, we found that searches about “asylum” and “Germany” greatly spiked after August 2015, when Germany changed its policies to allow anyone who made it there to apply for asylum, rather than requiring them to apply in the first E.U. country they had entered.
Signs of positive political change matter when migrants make plans, but negative signs do not. Using a survey experiment, we found that when our less-informed respondents were told that European governments supported asylum seekers, they believed they would be in Europe sooner. Information that governments were hostile to asylum seekers had no effect on their beliefs. This finding may explain why a large number of asylum seekers still traveled to the United States when Trump was president.
How Biden’s plan is trying to prevent mass unauthorized migration
A changed presidential administration may signal to migrants that the United States may be more welcoming, or at least less hostile. But that does not have to lead to a wave. Information can play a big role.
Consider, for instance, that a majority of our respondents did not want to cross with a smuggler; instead, they hoped to either be resettled by a European government or return home. Given the costs and dangers of unauthorized migration to the United States, many Central American potential migrants likely would also prefer this path.
The Biden team appears to be expecting that many Central Americans are investigating migrating to the United States — and has announced plans that should reduce migrants’ likelihood of traveling with smugglers. For instance, they’re offering the possibility of reunification for those who have family already in the United States, and proposing processing centers within Central American countries where potential migrants can be screened to learn whether they qualify for refugee status and resettlement. Finally, the Biden plan would offer aid to Central American countries to help reduce the “push” factors that make people want to leave.
The administration has also been reaching out to potential migrants’ communities to explain these plans. Senior advisers have given interviews to the Spanish-language news service EFE. Vice President Harris discussed the plans on the Spanish-language television network Univision. Our research suggests that all of these measures should decrease Central Americans’ incentive to pay a smuggler to get them to the United States — and also to reduce the likelihood of a wave.
We will find out if this works in the coming months.
Margaret E. Peters (@MigrationNerd) is an associate professor of political science at UCLA and is the author of the award-winning book “Trading Barriers: Immigration and the Remaking of Globalization” (Princeton University Press, 2017).