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The US is telling migrants “don’t come.” They might not be listening.

How much does Kamala Harris’s messaging about the border matter?

US Vice President Kamala Harris answers a question about her trip to Guatemala in Washington, DC on June 2, 2021.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Kamala Harris had a clear message for migrants during her first foreign visit as vice president to Guatemala: “Do not come.”

Tasked with addressing the root causes of migration from Central America, she said during a speech on Monday that her goal is to “help Guatemalans find hope at home” while also discouraging them from attempting to make the journey north.

“I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come,” she said. “And I believe if you come to our border, you will be turned back.”

Her statement is consistent with the Biden administration’s stance from the outset that the border is “not open” and that migrants should not come in an “irregular fashion,” despite the fact that many migrants from the region have legitimate, legal claims to asylum or other forms of humanitarian protection. The US continues to turn away the vast majority of arriving migrants under Title 42 of the Public Health Safety Act, with exceptions for unaccompanied children, some families with young children, and people who were sent back to Mexico to wait for their court hearings in the US.

The White House amplified that messaging with more than 17,000 radio ads in Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras between January and late March. The ads played in Spanish, Portuguese, and six Indigenous languages, reaching an estimated 15 million people. There have also been ad campaigns on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, including one that features a Salvadoran who made the dangerous journey north in 2010 at age 19 and was eventually deported after arriving in Texas.

The question is how much that messaging really matters. It was an early sticking point in the political debate over the border, with both Republicans and Democrats arguing that the Biden administration hadn’t been firm enough in telling migrants not to come, but it’s far from the only reason migrants are coming to the US. Some research has suggested that messages like these can affect how migrants think about making the journey, but no research has proved that it actually stops them from coming.

“It’s not that messaging has no effect,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, an immigrant advocacy and legal aid group, said. “It’s just that the role of messaging as something that could potentially stop people from choosing to come in the first place — there’s no evidence of that actually occurring.”

Sounding the alarm over a border crisis, however, could contribute to the perception that the border is porous when it is not.

Messaging is one of many factors driving people to migrate

Official US messaging may play some role in determining whether people migrate, but it’s only one factor among many sources of information.

Migrants typically get information about the conditions on the border from people in their network who have successfully made the journey, rather than from top-down declarations from US officials. Smugglers have also sought to spread misinformation about the Biden administration’s plans to process asylum seekers. Immigrant advocates on the border have reported hearing rumors spreading that migrants staying in certain camps will be processed or that the border would open at midnight.

These rumors have survived on the hopes of people who have long aspired to migrate. Many of the people arriving on the southern border are fleeing dangerous or unlivable conditions and felt they had no choice but to leave their home countries.

They are primarily coming from Central America’s “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, which for years have been suffering from gang-related violence, government corruption, frequent extortion, and some of the highest rates of poverty and violent crime in the world.

The pandemic-related economic downturn and a pair of hurricanes late last year that devastated Honduras and Guatemala in particular have only exacerbated those more longstanding problems.

The majority of unaccompanied children arriving on the border also have family in the US, so they’re aiming to reunite with their relatives. And thousands of asylum seekers who made the journey months or years ago have been waiting in Mexico due to Trump-era policies that kept them out.

The Biden administration has processed about 11,200 people with active cases since February 19, but many people whose cases were closed are also still waiting in Mexico in the hope that they will eventually be processed. (Biden administration officials have signaled that they eventually intend to identify those people and admit them to the US for a chance to seek protection.)

Trump’s policies have consequently created pent-up demand. Migrants correctly perceive that Biden is seeking to take a more humane approach than his predecessor and see an opportunity to seek refuge in the US where they did not before.

“There’s only so much you’re ever going to be able to do [to deter migrants] in the face of the desperation that people are feeling, which is ultimately what is motivating him to take big risks,” Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, associate director of the Migration Policy Institute’s international program, said.

There isn’t much research about the effectiveness of information campaigns

There is no research to support that the kinds of information campaigns the Biden administration has launched in Central America are actually effective in deterring migrants from making the journey north.

“It’s something that is an automatic part of the toolkit whenever we’re talking about trying to deter migration,” Banulescu-Bogdan said. “But no one goes back to evaluate whether they had an effect on migrant behavior.”

Jasper Tjaden, a professor at the University of Potsdam, estimated in a recent International Organization for Migration report that a series of information campaigns in Dakar, Senegal, and Guinea changed perceptions of the risks of irregular migration and intentions to migrate for roughly 10 to 30 percent of potential migrants who participated.

But as he notes, researchers have so far been “unable to measure changes in actual migration behavior.” Those kinds of outcomes are exceedingly difficult to measure.

“There is evidence suggesting that intentions are a useful predictor of behavior. Nevertheless, whether campaigns actually have an influence on who migrates, and how, remains uncertain,” he writes.

Tjaden also points out that researchers don’t know how long the impact of information campaigns might last, especially when migrants are presented with conflicting messages, such as those from smugglers seeking to encourage them to migrate. Multiple interventions might be needed to deter people from migrating in the long term.

There’s even more uncertainty surrounding information campaigns conducted over social media. Another IOM study looked at the efficacy of Facebook posts in reaching prospective migrants in Guinea, Nigeria, and Senegal during September 2019 and February 2020. The ads generally sought to inform migrants about the risks of irregular migration, the difficulties they might face in host countries, and ways to migrate legally, as well as address rumors and misconceptions about migration.

“Please, fathers, mothers, do not send your children to Libya,” one Nigerian returnee pleads in a Facebook video, warning them that they could die in the desert.

We saw a lot of people die in the desert

Umar and Habib decided to travel to Libya via desert. But during their journey they witnessed so many deaths. Listen to their story. #MigrantsasMessengers

Posted by Migrants as Messengers on Thursday, January 31, 2019

The study found that only about one in 10 targeted Facebook users even engaged with the campaign content at all, let alone were actually influenced by it. It also identified complications: Many potential migrants also aren’t on Facebook or have limited internet connectivity and don’t consult ad content when making decisions about whether to migrate. The challenges in reaching prospective Central American migrants are likely similar.

There are reasons to be skeptical that saying “don’t come” is a deterrent

There are reasons to doubt whether messaging intended to deter migration, particularly when it’s coming from a host country’s government, is effective.

Governments tend to assume that potential migrants are acting in the absence of information, and if they are supplied with more information, they will change their behavior, Banulescu-Bogdan said.

But that’s a big assumption. People might not engage with the message or see the source as trustworthy. They might not ultimately deem it credible. And even if they do, they might not be open to changing their mind.

The identity of the messenger is an important factor. The US government has a clear incentive to say the border is closed, even when there are exceptions.

“There’s going to be built-in skepticism to any message that the government is pulling out because people know that they have an outcome that they’re trying to work toward and they have a specific set of incentives,” Banulescu-Bogdan said. “If people on the move are coming into contact with that message, I would guess that they would be quite likely to dismiss it.”

To be more effective, the message should be delivered from someone inside their circle of trust, preferably someone who has nothing to gain or even something to lose from delivering that message. Research from IOM has borne that out: Another study in West Africa showed peer-to-peer campaigns, in which migrants who have already made the journey report back on their experiences to prospective migrants in their home countries, have proved more effective than other kinds of campaigns in deterring people from migrating.

While many of the Biden ads do feature testimonials from Central American migrants who made the journey north, they are still clearly sponsored by the US government, featuring the USAID logo, and might be seen as inauthentic.

But even if migrants find a message credible, it’s still unlikely to change their behavior given the way that social psychologists understand how people interpret information and seek affirmation of their preexisting beliefs over accuracy, Banulescu-Bogdan said.

“If you have somebody who’s already poised to make this journey and take the risks, they’re going to be tuning out information that is inconvenient,” she said. “You can hear a thousand stories about people not making it, but if you have one cousin, one friend of a friend who did make it, I think it’s very human to assume that you have a chance. You could be that exception.”

Beyond the individual psychology of deciding to migrate, the US has tried information campaigns to deter migrants in the past, but migration levels have continued to spike periodically.

As record numbers of migrant children and families arrived on the border in 2014, the Obama administration pursued billboard, radio, and online ad campaigns similar to those that the Biden administration is currently investing in, telling migrants, “We’ll send you back.” But by 2016, migration levels rose sharply again, driven by more families arriving.

The same scenario played out under Trump, who presided over the largest spike in migration at the southern border since the mid-2000s.

“The Trump administration could not have messaged more clearly that you should not come to the US border,” Reichlin-Melnick said. “And yet people still came.”

Instead, what might have had a bigger impact on people’s decisions on whether or not to migrate was news coverage of a crisis at the border and Republican lawmakers, such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, disingenuously warning about how Biden’s policies have allowed migrants to “flood over here.” In reality, Title 42, the pandemic-related border restriction, has kept most of them out.

“You have people essentially taking an enormous amount of liberty with the facts on the ground and declaring the borders are open,” Reichlin-Melnick said. “That probably drives a lot more people to believe the borders are open than some vague policy statements from the president of the United States.”