COVID-19 and Migration in the Americas

The recent crisis brought migration to a near halt, but it also laid bare the important role of migrants in U.S. essential jobs

COVID-19 and Migration in the Americas
Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, and professor Sarah Bermeo, Sanford School of Public Policy and Duke Center for International Development

Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, recently joined professor Sarah Bermeo, Sanford School of Public Policy and Duke Center for International Development (DCID), for a discussion on the impact COVID-19 has had on migration in the Americas. Selee shared insights on how COVID-19 has slowed international migration in the Americas to a near halt and what the future might look like for immigration and asylum in the U.S. after the crisis is over.

Migrants have played a key role helping their societies cope with the crisis, in Latin America and the U.S. alike,  including work in health care, food production and food delivery. But they also have been affected the most, whether through lost income or because they got stranded abroad without hope for quick processing of their asylum claims.

Here are some of Selee’s remarks, prompted by questions prepared by Sarah Bermeo and Piotr Plewa, a visiting scholar at the Duke University Center for International & Global Studies.

WHY HAS COVID-19 DECREASED MIGRATION IN LATIN AMERICA?

Andrew Selee, President of the Migration Policy Institute

“The main reason people aren’t leaving is no matter how bad things are where you are, you don’t move to another country where you have an uncertain future if you’re not sure you can get a job and you’re not sure you have someone to welcome you, and that’s the state for a lot of people right now.”

“It’s harder to get legal visas some places, it’s harder to get on an airplane for those that are traveling through legal routes. And for those who were planning an unauthorized journey going through informal routes, you would rather stay with your family there that can at least survive through solidarity then start a journey to the United States.”

“What may change is at some point you might see the economy in the United States or Canada beginning to ramp up before it does in Mexico or Honduras and there’s a magnet there. Or it may ramp up in Colombia before it does in Venezuela or in Europe before it does in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. That would then create a magnet again for migration to restart. For the time being, people are staying put in a way that we haven’t seen in the modern era. I’m not sure we’ve seen this since World War II.”

WHAT HAS COVID-19 REVEALED ABOUT INTEGRATION OF MIGRANTS IN THE US?

“With a health crisis, we begin to see why this matters. It means they’re not affiliated with local health programs, which makes it much harder if you’re feeling sick or you have symptoms to go get treated or go get tested. There’s a particular vulnerability around that, too, which we’re starting to notice in a lot of (Central American) countries. It’s the same thing we’re seeing in the United States with recent immigrant populations that don’t have health care, it turns out it’s a problem for them and it’s a problem for all of us as well, having people that aren’t covered.”

WHY REMITTANCE FLOWS FROM THE US TO LATIN AMERICA DROPPED AND WHAT IMPLICATIONS DOES IT HAVE FOR MIGRANTS AND POLICYMAKERS?

“Remittances are a huge part in bringing people who are in that bottom half out of poverty, so when you take that away … obviously it hits the poorest sectors hardest and it’s hard to figure out what you do with that other than that’s where governments come in.”

“If you look at where immigrants often go when they arrive, they go into restaurants, hotels, landscaping, agriculture, construction — a lot of areas that are slowing down right now all around the world as a result of COVID. These are people who are going to be out of work or partially out of work and it’s going to be very hard to send money home right now and this is going to go on for a while.

WHAT ROLE HAVE MIGRANTS PLAYED IN SO CALLED “ESSENTIAL JOBS?"

“It’s really extraordinary the number of essential workers who are immigrants, and it’s true both at professional level and in entry level jobs. It’s huge in agriculture — immigrants are a third of agriculture, but they’re also very heavily placed in medical industries, medical research — areas that are essential right now specifically on the medical front lines, as well as on the food front lines.”

COULD THE US BOLSTER ITS HEALTH CARE CAPACITIES BY MAKING IT EASIER FOR IMMIGRANTS TO WORK IN THE U.S. HEALTH CARE SYSTEM?

 

“There’s a lot of creativity going around in Republican and Democratic states about how you begin to think of immigrants who were trained abroad as a potential pool that hasn’t been tapped.”

“You can’t make a heart surgeon from South Sudan to a heart surgeon in New York overnight. You still have to have processes, but maybe that heart surgeon is able to get into tracing, into a first-responder role, into admissions or doing triage. Maybe you find ways to get people into the health care system at a time when we need that extra capacity and this is an opportunity to figure out how we do that.”

HOW HAS COVID-19 AFFECTED ASYLUM PROCESSING?

“The fear that many of us have is that this may be a means to another end. One can understand not wanting asylum officers to be exposed to COVID-19 and having to have slower or stopping processes briefly. Our fear is that for many countries this is too convenient of a thing and it’s likely to continue beyond the immediate crisis. You’ll see a return to normality in other parts of the government and asylum systems will still remain largely shut down because there are other interests served by that.”

This event was the second in a series on COVID-19 and international development sponsored by the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Duke Center for International Development (DCID). This talk was co-sponsored by the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies (DUCIGS) and the Duke Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS).

Meet The Experts

Andrew Selee has been president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute since August 2017. He also chairs MPI Europe's administrative council. Prior to joining MPI, he spent 17 years at the Woodrow Wilson Center and has also worked as staff in the U.S. Congress.

Sarah Bermeo is a political economist and associate professor of public policy and political science in the Sanford School at Duke University and associate director of the Duke Center for International Development.

Piotr Plewa is a visiting scholar at the Duke University Center for International & Global Studies. He specializes in international labor migration. Plewa taught at the University of Delaware and conducted migration policy research for the World Bank.