Welcome to the inaugural edition of the monthly Leir Migration Monitor newsletter, where we bring a local angle to global issues relating to migration and its root causes. It presents clear, policy-relevant research and analysis from Leir’s people and programs. Let us know topics you would like future editions to explore.
In this month’s edition:
- Local immigration control as political theater: how Prop 187 foreshadowed migrant busing in the U.S.
- South Africa’s Zimbabwe Exemption Permit cancellations: the human costs
- Franchising Underground Finance: Venezuelans’ creative remittance systems in Ecuador
- Spotlight: Senior Fellow Dr. Kimberly Howe calls for trauma-informed methodologies
Local immigration control as political theater: how Prop 187 foreshadowed migrant busing in the U.S.
Dr. Katrina Burgess, Director, Leir Institute
In the last three months, Governors Greg Abbott (R-Texas), Doug Ducey (R-Arizona), and Ron De Santis (R-Florida) have sent more than 10,000 migrants and asylum seekers from the U.S.-Mexico border to Washington, DC, New York, Chicago, and Martha’s Vineyard. Each week, hundreds more are dropped off at bus stations or airports with no advance notice and no coordination with local government officials or civil society organizations, who must scramble to provide the migrants with food, shelter, and medical care.
The three governors are quite explicit about their intentions: to protest the Biden Administration’s immigration policies and pro-immigrant states and cities. Specifically, they blame lax border controls and sanctuary cities for the escalating levels of unauthorized entry into the U.S. which, they insist, are placing undue burdens on border communities. There is some truth to their claims about local impacts. Encounters by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the southwest border just exceeded two million in one year for the first time (although with many repeat attempts), and border communities must somehow accommodate the roughly 500,000 migrants released into the United States this fiscal year, at least until they gather enough resources to reach their intended destination while awaiting their next immigration court hearing.
But there are gaping holes in the governors’ claims about what is causing these impacts.
The U.S.-Mexico border is more heavily guarded and difficult to cross than it has ever been, and migrants are arriving for a complex set of reasons that may or may not include how they expect to be treated at the border (and most likely have nothing to do with sanctuary cities). Many of these migrants are exercising their legal right to request asylum, which they initiate by turning themselves over to CBP voluntarily. Moreover, Mexicans and Central Americans no longer monopolize the CBP’s border encounters; this fiscal year over 40 percent of these encounters have been with migrants from other countries. Venezuelans are by far the largest group, but they are joined by migrants from over 100 other countries reaching as far as Africa and Asia. Venezuelans, who also account for most of the migrants bused north, tend to have weaker support networks in the United States, leaving them more reliant on services provided by governments or NGOs until they can get on their feet.
Unfortunately, these nuances get lost in the demonizing rhetoric and false narratives being stoked by the three governors.
Rather than working collaboratively to alleviate bottlenecks at the border, they are weaponizing the legitimate grievances of border communities for political gain. This is not a new tactic.
In 1994, California Governor Pete Wilson backed a public referendum (Proposition 187) to deny all public benefits to undocumented immigrants as a way to send a message to Washington while drumming up votes for his reelection. Prop 187 proved to be bad policy but good politics. While most of the referendum’s provisions were struck down by the courts, Wilson won reelection in the midst of a recession, and Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) two years later, marking a decisive turn in the direction of restrictionist immigration policies and the criminalization of migrants.
The language in Wilson’s campaign ads is uncannily similar to the rhetoric we are hearing today. But the delivery mechanism has reached new levels of cynicism and cruelty. Abbott, Ducey, and De Santis are using migrants as political pawns and choosing targets that are blatantly partisan (including Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence) and, in most cases, without any real authority to change conditions at the border. In the process, they are invoking an even more disturbing episode from the past: the so-called “Reverse Freedom Rides” in the 1960s when white supremacist groups in the South bused Black southerners to the North to “test” their commitment to civil rights.
Instead of responding with further crackdowns, as in the 1990s, the Biden administration has an opportunity to alleviate the pressures on border communities while staying true to its purported support for immigrant rights.
In the short term, it should consider a proposal being floated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to facilitate interior processing for migrants awaiting their court hearings, which would ease the bottlenecks at the border and allow for coordination across a wider network of destinations. In the medium to long term, it should invest in a more robust infrastructure that can respond quickly to shifting flows, reduce the enormous backlog in immigration courts, and support migrants at their most vulnerable so that the burden does not fall disproportionately on a few communities. For all these efforts, the federal government should listen carefully to local concerns and work closely with local actors to address the real needs of migrants and local residents. Much deeper reforms are needed, but these measures would go a long way to lowering the political temperature at the border and beyond.
CORRECTION: Dr. Kimberly Howe’s article, “Trauma to self and other: Reflections on field research and conflict,” was published in Security Dialogue, not the Journal of Peace Research. We apologize for the error.