President Biden's Misunderstanding of Migration Matters

By Nayla Rush on April 6, 2021

In his first press conference, President Biden addressed the ongoing flows of Central American migrants entering the United States illegally. His remarks generated numerous commentaries to which I'm adding a couple of my own.

Biden denied any responsibility for the new surge of migrants across the border, linking Central American migrant flows to in-country "push factors" (hurricanes, poverty, gang violence, etc. — which, as an aside, are not grounds for refugee status) while dismissing "pull factors" such as welcoming immigration policies. But the president of the United States does have a major role in converting "migration aspirations" into "actual migration". Biden is also, perhaps unknowingly, setting the stage for more migration in the future as "migration typically fosters more migration". Finally, his bet to partly halt migration from Central America through development aid ($4 billion in four years) is a wrong one: Development in the short and medium term actually leads to more migration.

A number of questions relating to the border crisis remained unanswered following the press conference: Knowing that unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico need legal documents such as passports, birth certificates, parental authorizations, etc. to be able to travel, what type of documentation (if any) do these migrants carry with them as they cross the U.S. border? Is Biden releasing children to U.S.-based parents or to potential traffickers? How are "sponsors" being vetted and documents verified? Finally, is Biden reuniting families by releasing children into the care of family members already here, or dividing families by encouraging parents to send their children to the United States?

All of Biden's quotes below are from the White House transcript of the press conference, all emphases are mine.

On the Reason They’re Coming:

The president:

The reason they're coming [now] is that it's the time they can travel with the least likelihood of dying on the way because of the heat in the desert, number one. Number two, they're coming because of the circumstances in-country — in-country.

When this hurricane occurred — two hurricanes — instead of us going down and helping in a major way, so that people would not have reason to want to leave in the first place because they didn't have housing or water or sustenance, we did nothing. We're going to do a lot in our administration.

That's why I've asked the Vice President of the United States, yesterday, to be the lead person on dealing with focusing on the fundamental reasons why people leave Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador in the first place. It's because of earthquakes, floods. It's because of lack of food. It's because of gang violence. It's because of a whole range of things.

According to Biden, these migrant flows are driven by in-country conditions such as natural disasters (earthquakes, hurricanes or floods), poverty, or gang violence.

First, none of these conditions are grounds for refugee status (read the UN Refugee Agency and the Migration Policy Institute assessment of this issue), so why are these migrants claiming asylum at our border? More importantly, why is the U.S. government allowing for asylum claims to be used as an entry and/or a family-reunification card?

Second, Biden chooses to focus on push factors, while dismissing pull ones. Beyond refuting his personal responsibility in the matter, he is ignoring migration basics. A "Systematic review of determinants of migration aspirations" shows that "migration aspirations" remain just that, aspirations, unless other determinants come into play to allow the conversion of aspirations into actual migration. I'd say an open door and adjacent integration policies render this conversion possible.

Moreover, allowing so many migrants in will only encourage others to come, according to migration experts:

Migration has a strong self-sustaining element: migration typically fosters more migration. Established migration histories and pathways, ties with current or former migrants, and flows of remittances may encourage migration aspirations. [Emphasis added.]

Biden is not only encouraging migration aspirations; he is making sure these aspirations are turned into "actual migration". Furthermore, by welcoming migrants today, he is fostering more migration in the future.

On Discouraging Migration Through Development Aid:

The president:

The way to deal with this problem — and I started to deal with it back when I was a United States senator — I mean, Vice President — putting together a bipartisan plan of over $700 million to deal with the root causes of why people are leaving.

We're going to be spending that 700-plus million dollars a year to change the life and circumstances of why people leave in the first place.

Biden is setting up a four-year strategy that consists of allocating $4 billion "to address the underlying causes of migration in the region, including by increasing assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, conditioned on their ability to reduce the endemic corruption, violence, and poverty that causes people to flee their home countries."

But development will not stop migration; actually, it's the opposite. Here's Professor of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam Hein de Haas' take on the relationship between development and migration:

Among the many myths perpetuated about migration, one of the most common is that “South–North” migration is essentially driven by poverty and underdevelopment. Consequently, it is often argued that stimulating economic development would reduce migration from developing countries to North America and Europe. However, this ignores evidence that most migration neither occurs from the poorest countries nor from the poorest segments of the population. In fact, the paradox is that development and modernization initially leads to more migration. [Emphasis added.]

By enhancing development in the Northern triangle, Biden might be, at least in the short and medium term, triggering more migration, not less.

On Releasing Children to Sponsors in United States (Real Relatives or Traffickers?):

The president:

The vast majority of people under the age of 18 coming to the United States come with a telephone number on a wristband or come with a telephone number in their pocket in the United States — a mother, a father, a close relative, a grandmom or a grandpop.

What was happening before is it was taking literally weeks and weeks, and maybe even months, before anybody would pick up the phone and call to see if there really was someone there. Well, we've set up a system now where, within 24 hours, there's a phone call made as that person or that child crosses the border. And then a verification system is being put in place as of today [March 25, 2021] to determine quickly whether or not that is a trafficker being called or that is actually a mom, a dad, and/or a close relative. They're establishing that right off the bat.

If it, in fact, is Mom or Dad, Dad says — to take the extreme case — "I got a birth certificate." Then guess what? We're getting that kid directly to that parent immediately.

The next thing that has to happen though — as you well know has to happen — there have to be some certitude that this is the — actually mom, dad, or whomever. And there's ways to do that. There's ways to do that — a little bit like determining whether or not you got the right code for your credit card, you know? "What was your dog's name?" kind of a thing. I'm being a bit facetious, but not really. And also seeking harder data, from DNA to — to birth certificates, which takes longer.

Does this mean all the children released prior to March 25 were released without verification? And what does this "verification system" really encompass, what type of documents are being checked? How are sponsors being vetted to make sure they are indeed trustworthy family members and not potential traffickers or gang members? DNA checks take a long time; and, one would assume, not all family members are blood relatives to begin with. Furthermore, are any follow-ups taking place to make sure children the U.S. government released to sponsors are indeed in the care of responsible and caring adults?

Since Biden spoke of birth certificates, how do we make sure the birth certificate (or any other identification document) presented by the U.S.-based "parents" relates in fact to the migrant in question before he/she is "released immediately" into their care?

As for the migrant children, what type of documentation (if any) do they carry with them when they get to our borders? Unless they left their country and entered/exited every transit country on their way to the United States illegally, unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico need legal documents such as a passport and/or parental authorizations to be able travel.

A review of the domestic laws and procedures regulating the travel of children abroad in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico (the countries of origin of most unaccompanied minors crossing the United States border) shows the following:

[T]he migration legislation of all of the countries surveyed [El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico] requires parental authorization for all minors traveling outside of the country. The laws of Mexico and Guatemala make possession of a passport a mandatory requirement for travel, and Honduran law prohibits the travel of unaccompanied minors. [Emphasis added.]

What happened to these documents? I don't think smugglers have any interest in destroying identification papers. Did migrants throw them away along the way or just before entering the United States? If so, why? Could they be hiding their real identity and/or their age from U.S. authorities?

On Kids Reuniting with Their Families (Here or There?)


I met nine-year-old, Yossell, who walked here from Honduras by himself, along with another little boy. He had that phone number on him.


His mother says that she sent her son to this country because she believes that you are not deporting unaccompanied minors like her son. That's why she sent him alone from Honduras.

Do you want to see these unaccompanied minors staying in this country, or should they be deported eventually?

The president:

Well, the judgment has to be made whether or not — and in this young man's case, he has a mom at home; there's an overwhelming reason why he'd be put in a plane and flown back to his mom.

That's where it gets complicated. Are kids being encouraged to leave their homes, their mothers, because of Biden's new policies?

Biden, in that same press conference, said "I make no apologies for ... rolling back the policies [of my predecessor] of separating children from — from their mothers." Is Biden reuniting kids with their families here or, on the contrary, allowing for the further breakup of Central American families?

One last question: was nine-year-old Yossell since sent back home to be with his mom? My bet is no. I wouldn't be surprised if his mom was flown to the United States to be with her son through one of the in-country processing programs the Biden administration is setting up in the region. Another plausible (and faster) option, the mom could follow her son's footsteps and make the journey to the U.S. border.