Source: Andrew Harnik/AP
We have arrived at a place in the United States where we view the issue of Latin American immigration almost backward. To move forward in any constructive way, we need to see the entire forest; instead, we remain microscopically focused on one singular tree—namely, the rhetoric of the current U.S. president and his administration.
At the moment, conventional political wisdom holds that the words of the U.S. president can move millions or make them stay at home. This is yet another manifestation of the mistaken belief in an all-powerful presidential executive. The public has unrealistically high expectations of what a president can accomplish and ignores the impossibility of quickly solving intractable problems.
Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) recently claimed that President Joe Biden is solely responsible for the increase of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border because he promised “humane treatment of migrants, regardless of their legal status.” That was intended as an insult. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) wrote a letter to President Biden, asserting that he had sent “reckless” signals to immigrants instead of telling them not to migrate northward. Even Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador piled on, blaming President Biden for telling migrants they would be treated fairly at the border.
The media joined numerous Republican politicians in putting statements made by President Biden and his administration under the microscope. The prevailing assumption seems to be that if only President Biden would sternly tell people—that is, desperate and impoverished Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Nicaraguans—not to come to the U.S., the number of migrants arriving and being apprehended at the southern border would decline significantly. The White House scrambled to put Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on all of the Sunday morning political talk shows to refute the idea that the administration was prioritizing humaneness in its border policy. “We are expelling families. We are expelling single adults,” he said, apparently hoping to appear sufficiently callous to American television audiences.
The problem is that social science research on Central American immigration demonstrates that such firm statements do not affect an individual’s decision to migrate. When faced with high levels of crime and violence, for example, migrants will continue to attempt to reach the U.S. regardless of what American officials tell them (assuming they hear the message at all). What we know for certain is that there were periodic (and sometimes seasonal) surges of migration under the administration of former President Donald Trump, which sent the most vicious signals to prospective migrants that it possibly could, such as openly threatening family separation. His supporters loved to boast about the deterrent “Trump effect,” but it was illusory.
Beyond the previous presidential administration, there is also ample historical precedent demonstrating the ineffectiveness of harsh presidential rhetoric with respect to stemming Latin American migration to the United States. For example, Mexican migrants did not stop arriving in the U.S. despite the government’s deployment of virulently racist language intended to force them out of the country and prevent future crossings. After implementing “Operation Wetback” in 1954, the Director of Immigration and Naturalization Service declared that “the era of the wetback” was over. Neither harsh language nor mass deportation served as an effective deterrent.
It stands to reason, therefore, that a president simply saying that his administration will treat migrants as people, and eliminate the terms “alien” and “illegal” from its vocabulary, will only marginally influence the decisions of potential migrants. There are much bigger forces at work.
The intense scrutiny of presidential language, magnified by a media eager to highlight ideological divides, lulls us into ignorance of the structural factors that actually push migrants northward. Currently, scarcity driven by inequality and rampant elite greed and corruption—magnified by the economic consequences of climate change and often laced with the violent legacy of civil war—perpetuates poverty and violence. The U.S. government has contributed to these factors, in some cases deeply. What President Biden says to or about migrants does not lessen the push, or determine the pull factors, for would-be migrants.
This emphasis also coarsens the broader public discourse by normalizing and even praising harsh, dehumanizing language. Proceeding from such rhetoric, the logical next step is to treat migrants poorly in order to make them leave the country. Former President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, for instance, encouraged violent acts against migrants. Former President Trump’s remarks alone took a measurable toll on the health of the Latinx population in the United States.
Immigrants are not coming to the U.S. because they are attracted by President Joe Biden’s inclusive language, and they were not repelled by former President Donald Trump’s use of racist imagery. Such a narrow focus may provide clickbait for media outlets but facilitates no concrete policy progress. Real understanding and positive change in the migration debate can only come by keeping structural factors at the forefront of any discussion.
Dr. Greg Weeks is a professor of Political Science and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is editor of the academic journal The Latin Americanist, and he is the author of numerous books and articles, including The Military and Politics in Postauthoritarian Chile (2003), Irresistible Forces: Latin American Migration to the United States and its Effects on the South (2010), The Bachelet Government: Conflict and Consensus in Post-Pinochet Chile (2010), Understanding Latin American Politics (2014) and U.S. and Latin American Relations, 2nd Edition (2015).
Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregWeeksCLT.