New York City Mayor Eric Adams is back in town this week after a whirlwind swing through Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador that was billed as an attempt to see firsthand the dynamics of international migration to the United States and, most importantly, spread the message that NYC can’t handle any more migrant arrivals. The city has of course been dealing with the arrival of tens of thousands of asylum seekers since last year, and Adams seems eager to be seen finding a solution.
He’s certainly not the first U.S. politician to travel to Latin America with the hope of dissuading people from coming; who can forget Vice President Kamala Harris’ immortal “do not come” speech, delivered in Guatemala in 2021. And he won’t be the last. Like Republican lawmakers who routinely travel to the southern border for reasons that seem to boil down to getting photographed at the site of a supposed crisis, everyone wants to be seen to be taking action to address what voters deem an obstinate issue.
The problem is, there isn’t nor has there ever been much evidence that dissuasive efforts really make much of a dent in migration flows. For decades, the federal government has adopted a policy known as prevention through deterrence, which has attempted to dissuade migrants by making the border more heavily secured and more dangerous. All those efforts seem to have just made the border more chaotic and more deadly, without keeping people away. Even family separation, the 2018 policy so horrific and so universally repudiated that the Trump administration was forced to quickly back down, did not stop people from coming.
Ultimately, it’s a simple calculation. Migrants have already made the determination that, for whatever reason, they cannot remain where they are. It’s not a simple decision to make; they have to uproot their lives entirely, often drain savings, commit to a long and dangerous trek towards an uncertain future in an unfamiliar place. If someone’s already gone through this analysis and made this incredibly difficult choice — out of fear of violence or repression or simply the belief that there’s no good life to be had in their country of birth — then any individual additional deterrent is not going to fundamentally change that calculus.
Anything short of shooting people on sight (which, unfortunately, a number of prominent GOP figures are inching closer to calling for) wouldn’t make migrants 180 their plans. Having the NYC mayor come and tepidly insist that the city is full — a clearly silly pronouncement that’s easily contradicted by the available evidence — is definitely not going to move the needle, and Adams’ people had to have known that before he set off. Indeed, reporting at the time of his trip from multiple outlets established that migrants were not going to stay away just because Adams said so.
That, along with tidbits like the fact that convicted fraudster and longtime Adams pal Zhan Petrosyants was “coincidentally” also in Mexico City at the time and that Adams went to the hazardous Darién Gap in defiance of Colombian authorities’ advice, had people naturally asking what the point of the trip was. Adams mentioned that he’d gleaned important information by traveling to Latin America but asked recently about what information this was, Adams only had generalities he could have easily intuited from NYC, including Colombia’s own willingness to receive more asylum seekers (with U.S. financial and logistical support, of course).
So what was really the point? In truth, the trip’s purpose was probably the trip itself — evidence of Adams as a sort of international statesman, drawing crowds of onlookers, being seen to meet with foreign officials and discuss weighty geopolitical matters. Adams has never been shy about his broader political objectives — he once joked that, had he been screened for dyslexia earlier in his life, he might have been president by now, and was reportedly mulling a White House run in the event that Biden decided not to seek reelection. Photos of him receiving an honorary degree in Puebla or looking serious in a drab olive military-style shirt and aviators in northern Colombia are going to be great for the ad. Is that cynical? Perhaps, but it’s also the simplest and most believable explanation.
Not that he’s got a lot of good options here. There’s very little that Adams can do about the long-term, complicated dynamics that drive migration to the United States. Maybe one upshot here is that he’ll realize the futility of trying, particularly as climate change starts driving more and more people north, and focus more on the tools at his disposal to help integrate and acclimatize new arrivals, moving from the current paradigm of migrants as a financial burden to migrants as a potential economic boon. Of course, that’d be much easier with some additional support from the federal government and, in an ideal world, Congress actually revamping the outdated immigration system (not that there’s almost any chance of that happening anytime soon).
Stateside, the situation remains uncertain. The Biden administration re-designated Venezuela for temporary protected status, which functionally means that any Venezuelan who arrived in the United States on or before July 31 can apply for work authorization and protections from deportation. That’s not something that happens automatically or instantly, though. People have to actively apply for it, which means they have to know about it and know how to apply, which largely means they need the sort of legal assistance that is already stretched very thin right now, and the applications take months to be processed, and no one who arrived after July 31 qualifies, and so on and so forth.
Despite the persistent demands — among executives like Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul, as well as the public writ large — for a silver-bullet solution, one simply doesn’t exist. To bring things away from this perception of chaos, Biden would really have to commit to a whole-government approach that would use, for example, the federal government’s existing refugee resettlement capacity and actually provide bridge funding for migrants to get English classes and temporary housing and all sorts of other support. That, too, seems unlikely, especially as the Democrats themselves increasingly united under an anti-asylum banner. For now, we’re just spinning our wheels, to everyone’s detriment.