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My question is similar to a closed one from five years ago, but I think it's worth revisiting and expanding on as a lot has changed since then. I'd also like to focus more narrowly on the actions of President Biden's' administration. Republicans are currently making this a top election issue, putting most if not all of the blame on Democrats in general and Biden in particular. Do any experts cite direct evidence that Biden's policies are to blame in any significant degree?

The correlation in terms of timing does seem strong. After 20 years of steady decline, data on the number of undocumented migrants apprehended by year in the United States shows a seemingly unprecedented upswing from about 600,000 in 2020 to over 1.8 million in 2021. The latest numbers show interceptions at the border surged again to almost 2.4 million in 2022 and slightly more then that in 2023.

An important dimension of the question is whether policy even matters and how much. An IMF Working Paper from last year looking at the increasing flow of migrants from Central America (specifically Northern Triangle or NT) since 1990 concluded:

Migration factors are expected to persist, given rising challenges from climate change, but mostly depending on the relative economic developments in the U.S. economy versus the NT countries... Against this backdrop, the immigration wave events are expected to be frequent, especially when there is a change in border enforcement or immigration policy.

From this I take it that US policies could be a contributing factor, but likely aren't the primary one. It's also worth noting that a major share of recent arrivals are from elsewhere in Latin America and the wider world.

A more recent article from the Migration Policy Institute discusses just a few of the Biden administration's 535 migration-related executive orders. Presumably the end of pandemic-based Title 42 restrictions in May 2023 may be contributing to an increase in people entering, but most of the surge happened before this, and otherwise I'm not seeing any obvious ways that Biden-era policies could be contributing. To the contrary, I have to wonder if part of the surge in interceptions is actually due to increased border enforcement as much as an increase in the number of people trying to enter due to a strong US economy and push factors in sending countries.

Does anyone have any other good sources that might bring further clarity to this question?

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  • If you're interested in refugee flows in particular, I recommend UNHCR. They gather good stats (when they can), and take a holistic multi-country approach. Takes a little while to flip through their many informational products tho.
    – Pete W
    Commented Mar 10 at 4:31
  • With regard to slightly more than that in 2024, I believe you meant "slightly more than that in 2023". 2024 is a just bit over two months old. FY2024 is a bit over five months old, but still not enough to justify that claim. Commented Mar 10 at 12:09
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    Frame challenge: The question could easily be flipped to Is there evidence that Republicans are encouraging undocumented immigration? The answer to that question is yes. A very conservative Republican Senator, James Lankford R-OK, had negotiated what many Democrats saw as overly draconian immigration modifications to a foreign aid bill. That bill most likely would have passed had Donald Trump not intervened, claiming that passing the bill would have precluded his making immigration a key campaign topic. The bill failed due to his intervention. Commented Mar 10 at 12:16
  • Another obvious way Republicans contributed to this problem over the yeas is Reagan's amnesty. But they try not to talk about this now.
    – littleadv
    Commented Mar 10 at 17:38
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    Something of a frame shift, but calling current immigration policies "Biden's policies" is problematic. Biden has not managed to get any legislation on immigration passed, and the status quo immigration legislation pre-dates both Biden and Trump. Moreover, ICE and the courts have frequently and for much of his administration just outright refused to enforce Biden's Presidential direction on immigration policy. Biden should not be assigned blame for policies he didn't put in place and strongly favors changing. And, the immigration budget has been bipartisan.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Mar 10 at 23:56

1 Answer 1

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This is a hot-button issue in US politics.

To start, below are figures from the perspective of the US Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection (CBP). (2023 is shown partial-year; the referenced report was issued in May 2023). The linked report notes the migration pattern is atypical, but does not speculate on cause.

a Source: Congressional Research Service

To dig deeper, we would need to go South, to the countries of origin. Venezuela and Honduras are the top two feeding the flow into Mexico, but it's a varied mix.

The onset of the population displacement predated the Biden administration, as evidenced by the brouhaha [2019 article in WOLA] during the Trump administration, in which the US essentially ordered Mexico to limit refugees at Mexico's southern border. Since then, it has intensified.

One could also ask about US policy at the end of the migration path. A capsule history of US policy and outcomes, comparing the last three US presidential administrations, is here: [2023 Immigration Backgrounder, Council on Foreign Relations]. The comparison of the presidential admins starts about halfway into the article.

At the end of the day, the current CBP, which has complained about not enough funding for several years, can't cope with the increased numbers, as far as their essential task is concerned. How this fits economic policy is another question. Until just recently, the US labor market was hot and inflation (which lags) has been looming. Typically, when this happens, immigration is a safety-valve. Not clear if this is deliberate, though.

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  • This came out recently: demographyunplugged.com/p/… ... Note: not an endorsement of the source. The article proposes a specific component of the causal path. Namely, the immigration courts' backlog of now 3 million cases. During the waiting period, asylum applicants are allowed to stay and have a work permit if their case is pending more than 150 days, while the actual court date is years out. The unusual length of this gap in time creates an economic opportunity, which he claims incentivizes migrants to use the asylum process.
    – Pete W
    Commented Mar 11 at 17:55

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