AUSTIN, Texas – Almost immediately after President Donald Trump’s surprise 2016 election, illegal immigration fell so precipitously that, for the first time in memory, government detention centers along the Texas border remained nearly empty for months afterward. The phenomenon, characterized by a 70 percent decline in apprehensions, was called “the Trump Effect” because aspiring migrants who’d attentively heard Trump’s tough campaign rhetoric about coming border walls and immigration law enforcement figured the better choice was to just stay home.
But an equal and opposite “Biden Effect” is in the offing, one where aspiring migrants south of the border have heard Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign promises on illegal immigration and would feel profoundly incentivized to come in large numbers after a Trump loss.
There is good reason to predict that Biden’s election likely would instantly trigger a migrant caravan crisis such as when nearly a million Central Americans successfully crossed the southern border in 2018-2019 before Trump managed to end it with various temporary policies. If the Trump Effect proved anything, it was that economically distressed foreign populations closely monitor a social media communications grapevine about when and how American policy makes illegal immigration easier or harder, the chances of remaining in the country higher or lower.
Messages Heard Around the World
During a January 2020 reporting trip I took to the Mexico-Guatemala border, many U.S.-bound Central American migrants told me they planned to stay in Mexico, rather than to go home, on the gambit that a Democrat would win the White House in less than a year and reopen the pathways over the border, which they would promptly travel. At the time, Mexican military roadblocks had severely curtailed easy northward travel while the government was deporting any migrant that didn’t apply for Mexican asylum.
Many like an El Salvadoran woman with a young child trapped in Tapachula, Mexico, said they’d apply for Mexican asylum but will only use it until “Trump is defeated and the Democrats take over” because then, “things are going to get better.”
Migrants from El Salvador and Honduras indicate they plan to stay in Mexico until the outcome of the American election because, as one said, "I'll wait for that because it would make things easier to get in."
Alma Delia Cruz, head of Mexico’s asylum office in the southern state of Chiapas, told me she knew the majority of 70,000 Mexican asylum applicants her office was then processing (up from 76 the year before) had no intention of staying in Mexico for long.
“This is just their first chance to get into the United States, of course,” she told me. “I don’t know what’s on the minds of these people exactly, but the threats from Trump can’t deter them from eventually getting into the U.S..”
In more recent months, the tide of Central Americans applying for Mexico asylum has continued to build as the American election draws near. Thousands of Haitians, Africans, Cubans, and Middle Eastern migrants also are applying for Mexican asylum, building pressure awaiting release northward on the chance that a Biden presidency will make that possible.
Hope Springs Eternal from American Political Promises
The Biden campaign’s messaging all through the Democratic primary season and after nomination is that a President Biden would all but guarantee migrants who cross the U.S. Southwest border will be able to enter without significant obstruction and then remain indefinitely with a possibility of permanent citizenship later, powerful incentive for mass migration.
Consider campaign promises heard throughout the Americas for many months now:
- A 100-day moratorium on deportations upon Biden entering office – to exempt even most criminal aliens, to be followed by a permanent extension for all but the most hardened criminal alien felons. “I don’t count drunk driving as a felony,” he said.
- Use of executive powers to immediately reverse all Trump immigration policies to include an end to border wall construction and the Remain in Mexico push-back policy that requires asylum seekers be sent to Mexico while their U.S. asylum claims are slowly adjudicated. The Biden plan also promises an end to federal prosecutions for illegal entry and to requirements that migrants apply for asylum in the first country they transit on their way to the U.S. border.
- Access to American medical care. Biden was among the candidates who raised his hand during one primary debate when a moderator asked which of the candidates would favor providing illegal immigrants with free access to the nation’s medical care system.
- A “roadmap to citizenship” for millions of illegal immigrants in the United States.
The most pivotal of the Trump-era policies
In June 2019, Trump threatened Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador with ruinous economic trade tariffs on all U.S.-bound exports if he did not halt the mass caravans pouring in through his country’s southern border with Guatemala. Obrador complied by deploying some 6,000 Mexican National Guard troops on more than 50 roadblocks throughout Mexico’s border states, severely thinning northbound migrant traffic.
Caravans have regularly battered themselves apart against the bulwark of Mexican troops, who rounded them up by their thousands and bused them back to Central American countries. But the caravans keep forming. They probe and test this one most effective perimeter, feeling for the slightest opportunity and weakness.
It is highly unlikely that President Biden would maintain Trump’s tariff threat against Mexico.
As a result, Mexico will almost certainly feel free of the obligation to keep the troops there and would redeploy them as soon as possible after the November election. Overnight, Mexico would return to its traditional role as a migrant-transit superhighway to the U.S. border. Caravans will just as certainly form to test the route and find it open.
The first caravan waves – importantly – would reach the U.S. border and find their way over it newly unimpeded too. Successive population waves, seeing the vanguards succeed unhindered would pour through the breach for as long as those too are unopposed.
Predicting migration flows isn’t the kind of bet on which to place real money, since trends can be notoriously unpredictable and susceptible to unforeseeable factors. The Trump Effect eventually wore off once migrant communities noticed that campaign promises were taking quite a long time to actually implement and then, when some of them were, caused a rush on the border in 2018 that Trump had to counter in ways no one could have envisioned at the time (such as threatening Mexico trade tariffs).
Likewise, a Biden administration, seeing an initial rush on the border in the wake of Democratic victory, might not follow through for quite some time with his policy ideas and, ultimately, if he decides mass migration must be stopped, be forced to leave some of Trump’s in place.