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Here’s why we should end pandemic migration restrictions

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The coronavirus pandemic has led the United States and other nations to enact unprecedentedly severe migration restrictions. As a result of measures adopted under the Trump administration last year, the U.S. became more closed to immigration than at any other time in its history. While the Biden administration has lifted some of the restrictions, others remain in place. 

The ostensible rationale for these policies was the need to stop the spread of the virus. In reality, however, migration bans did little to protect public health — and caused enormous suffering. They also undermine the scientific innovation that makes us better able to deal with pandemics and other health risks in the long run. The Biden administration should immediately lift remaining pandemic-related migration restrictions, and Congress would do well to bar such policies for the future. 

Last year’s sweeping migration restrictions barred entry to nearly all immigrants seeking permanent residency, suspended the issuance of most work visas, slashed refugee admissions to their lowest level ever, and used Title 42 public health powers to expel nearly all asylum seekers at the southern border, including many who otherwise would be entitled to hearings for their claims. 

A combination of adverse court decisions and Biden administration actions have lifted many of these migration restrictions, including the work visa suspensions, the ban on most immigrants seeking permanent residency and the travel bans targeting Muslims that were enacted before the pandemic. Beginning in November, the administration will open the door to entry by vaccinated foreign travelers. But President Biden has perpetuated several of former President Trump’s more egregious policies, most notably the Title 42 expulsions

Some 1.2 million migrants have been expelled under this policy, including hundreds of thousands since Biden took office. Though Biden raised Trump’s refugee cap from 15,000 to 62,500 for fiscal year 2021, actual refugee admissions in Biden’s first year are on track for a record low of 11,445. The administration’s failure to process green card applications in a timely fashion is likely to exclude some 80,000 potential immigrants — one of the largest cuts in legal immigration in modern American history.

These restrictions failed dismally in the goal of containing the spread of the COVID-19 virus to the United States, where more than 750,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. The continuation of many restrictions did not prevent the more contagious Alpha and Delta variants from swiftly establishing themselves here, either. At best, restrictions only briefly delayed the entry of the virus.  

Numerous public health experts have condemned the Title 42 expulsions, noting that they do little to stop the spread of disease and may even facilitate its spread. Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top adviser on COVID policy under both Trump and Biden, has acknowledged that “expelling [immigrants] … is not the solution to an outbreak.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which issued the order for the policy, likely did so under political pressure from the Trump White House, against the advice of its own experts. Restrictions on other types of immigration also failed to significantly limit the spread of the virus.

Indeed, migration restrictions may do more to spread the disease than contain it. By making it nearly impossible for most migrants to enter the United States legally, we have created a large population of undocumented migrants who have strong incentives to avoid vaccination and testing, lest they come to the attention of authorities seeking to deport them. Additionally, migration detention facilities used to facilitate deportation can foster the spread of disease because of poor sanitation. 

The idea that migration restrictions can stop the spread of  disease isn’t completely wrong. If a nation could be hermetically sealed against nearly all outside entry, that might arrest the spread of a virus. Arguably, Australia managed to constrain the entry of COVID by adopting such a draconian policy and then combining it with harsh restrictions on internal freedom of movement and civil liberties. Measures short of that, however, are unlikely to prevent highly contagious diseases from reaching our shores. And hermetic sealing is rarely feasible or defensible. Governments will almost unavoidably make exceptions for trade, foreign travel by citizens, and other contingencies. Even Australia failed to prevent the entry and spread of the Delta variant.

With vaccines readily available, any good that might be achieved by migration restrictions can more easily be attained by requiring vaccination in exchange for the right to live and work in the United States. Recent CDC data indicate that the vaccinated are six to 10 times less likely (depending on age group) to become infected with COVID than unvaccinated people. The vaccinated are also much less likely to spread the disease even if they do catch it. Unlike exclusion, vaccination in exchange for entry does not create incentives for illegal migration and the spread of the disease through detention centers. Many immigrants are already getting vaccinated upon entry — a practice that could be generalized as a replacement for pandemic migration restrictions.

Pandemic-related migration restrictions have inflicted immense suffering on people fleeing poverty and oppression, including refugees escaping violence, poverty and repressive regimes in Cuba, Venezuela and Haiti. Many of those expelled under Title 42 and other policies may be condemned to a lifetime of privation or even death

Immigrants to the U.S. and Europe make disproportionate contributions to medical, scientific and technological innovations, and immigration restrictions could block many such advances. The Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines were both developed by firms led by immigrants or children of immigrants from poor nations, who could not have made their vital contributions to these breakthroughs had they or their parents been barred from leaving their countries of origin. Immigration restrictions may forestall additional scientific advances by trapping talented people in societies where they lack the necessary opportunities to contribute to them. Some of the migrants the U.S. government barred during the past 18 months might have gone on to make great technological and medical breakthroughs of their own.

COVID-19 migration restrictions still in force should be terminated. We should also learn from our mistakes and, at the very least, establish tighter safeguards against the enactment of similar policies by future presidents.

Ilya Somin is a professor of law at George Mason University, and author of “Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration and Political Freedom” (revised edition forthcoming in December). Follow him on Twitter @IlyaSomin.

Tags Anthony Fauci COVID-19 pandemic COVID-19 response Donald Trump Joe Biden Opposition to immigration Title 42 expulsion

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