The centerpiece of Joe Biden’s immigration reform will be a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The fastest growing segment of this population comes from three tiny countries in Central America — Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The debate over amnesty will undoubtedly focus on the perennial question of whether it will beget further waves of illegal immigration, but viewing it only as an incentive to future migration misses another, more surprising, outcome: Many immigrants will go home.
While permanent residents and citizens can freely move back and forth, undocumented migrants cannot. Legalization will enable beneficiaries to return to the communities from which they have been separated for many years. Decades of border crackdowns meant that undocumented immigrants could not travel back and forth without huge personal and financial risks. This is especially true for Hondurans and Guatemalans, who have large proportions of undocumented migrants compared to immigrant groups from other Latin American countries. For unauthorized immigrants, a trip home means risking everything — once they leave the U.S., they can’t come back without taking on huge amounts of debt or putting their lives at stake. A green card won’t just enable these people to remain in the U.S. It will mean they can go home.
Many immigrants desire to return home
I have studied migration from Honduras for more than a decade. Even as Honduran migrants hang on in the U.S. for their crucial dollar wages, their hearts often remain back home. They communicate with their hometowns constantly and they dream of returning. I saw firsthand how migrants would save up for an eventual triumphant return, sending money home in dribs and drabs to build new homes that would be ready for them on arrival. They monitor construction through photos and videos sent via text. This has happened all over the region: In Guatemala, studies have documented real estate spikes created by migrants who build new homes in remote Mayan villages. In rural El Salvador, entire towns have been supported by migrant remittances since the early 1980s.
When the last major amnesty bill was passed in 1986, one of the most appealing features for immigrants was the ability to travel freely. While people from places like the Dominican Republic or Mexico have created viable long-term communities based on frequent back-and-forth travel, it is harder for Central Americans to lead transnational lives.
The last amnesty:How to finally get immigration reform done (and do it the right way)
The inability to travel freely creates a disastrous cycle of debt and smuggling, as multiple generations remain separated by the border. For these people, amnesty would mean family reunification. Far from creating a universal free pass to migrants to enter the United States, it might do the opposite: It could facilitate the right not to migrate for people who simply want to visit their loved ones and pay their bills in Honduras or Guatemala.
Don’t ignore the immigration uptick that the proposed reforms could cause
The big unanswerable question is whether this return migration would be short or long term. Would Central Americans return home for good, or would the new ease of movement just create another massive wave of migration, as it did after the last major amnesty was passed in 1986? The answer largely depends on the social conditions in immigrants’ countries of origin, the state of the U.S. economy, and the nitty-gritty details about visa quotas in Biden’s proposed legislation. Such factors are hard to predict, but there is no doubt high flows from Central America are here to stay. From a policy perspective, the question is how it will be managed. Creating the policy framework for safe and legal back-and-forth travel is a laudable and realistic goal that would not necessarily lead to more unauthorized immigration.
Biden’s immigration plans:Biden’s pro-immigration agenda is more expansive than Obama’s, but it has drawbacks
The last two surges at the border, as well as the recent caravans, have shown just how large the demand for migration from Central America is. While I am entirely in favor of a path to citizenship, it would be irresponsible to ignore the possibility of a huge uptick in migration as a consequence of the proposed reforms. No matter how much one might support a path to citizenship on moral grounds, we need to understand and anticipate the likely outcomes of legalization, lest we end up with another crisis at the southern border, like the ones that we faced in 2014 and 2018. That said, it is a mistake to view a path to citizenship only as an invitation to future migrations. For Central Americans who have been kept apart from their families for far too long, amnesty might mean going home.
Daniel Reichman is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Rochester in Rochester, NY. He studies trade and globalization in Central America.