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Voices & Opinion

Will Biden’s immigration plan encourage illegal immigration?

Many Central Americans, like this man in this 2007 image, come to the United States in search of wages. Daniel Reichman, a University of Rochester expert on Central American migration, supports provisions in the US Citizenship Act of 2021 that would enable undocumented workers to travel freely between the US and their home countries. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Not necessarily. There’s another possible outcome according to Daniel Reichman, a University of Rochester expert on Central American migration.

A central feature of President Biden’s US Citizenship Act of 2021 is establishing a path toward citizenship for undocumented immigrants. According to some critics of the bill, that approach will simply encourage illegal immigration.

At issue are provisions allowing undocumented individuals to apply for temporary legal status and a green card after five years in the US.

Reichman, an associate professor of anthropology, writes in a USA Today opinion piece that critics overlook evidence for another outcome—namely that many immigrants, at least in the short term, would leave the US to return home.

“For unauthorized immigrants, a trip home means risking everything — once they leave the US, they can’t come back without taking on huge amounts of debt or putting their lives at stake,” writes Reichman. While migrants come to the US for wages, “their hearts often remain back home. They communicate with their hometowns constantly and they dream of returning.”

Reichman says that it does remain possible that illegal immigration will rise. Whether that comes to pass depends on multiple factors, including “the social conditions in immigrants’ countries of origin, the state of the US economy, and the nitty-gritty details about visa quotas in Biden’s proposed legislation,” he adds. “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.”

Reichman has conducted field research in Honduras since 2001, focusing on emigration to the United States, the coffee industry, and evangelical religion. His book, The Broken Village: Coffee, Migration, and Globalization in Honduras (Cornell University Press, 2011) is an ethnography of one Honduran town’s transformation from a coffee-growing economy to a migration-based economy.

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