Centre For Disinformation Studies Jack Burnham

Selling Stories by the Side of the Rio Grande: Immigration, Disinformation, and US Border Policy

Immigration from Latin America and the Caribbean has long been a contentious issue within US domestic politics, from the rise of the nativist Know Nothing Party in the mid-nineteenth century to the deportation-focused “Operation Wetback” a century later to President Trump’s signature border wall policy. However, the character of migration into the US has continued to evolve in response to political, economic, and technological innovations such as shifting enforcement priorities, the fluctuating demand for migrant labor, and the emergence of social media. These changes have also allowed for disinformation to become a larger part of migrants’ journeys despite the US government’s efforts to combat it through debunking and counter messaging. These failures have contributed to a historic surge in attempted border crossings in 2021 and serve as a case study in the difficulty of combatting the influence of falsehoods. 

Misinformation and disinformation have shaped the migration crisis on the southern US border by creating incentives for migrants to leave their home countries for the relative security and prosperity of the US. Motivated by the pro-immigrant rhetoric of President Joe Biden, particularly in contrast to President Trump, migrants from across the region have continued to travel to the border, drawn in part by the false belief that it would be open to receive them. This conviction, repeated throughout social media channels such as Facebook and WhatsApp, was partly responsible for encouraging thousands of Haitians to seek entry in late 2021 as conditions on the island nation deteriorated. 

In addition to the spread of misinformation surrounding the status of the border, disinformation campaigns have also been increasingly utilized by human smugglers to bolster their business prospects. These campaigns, often launched using Facebook, usually include specific appeals to vulnerable groups to migrate illegally to the US while similarly claiming that the border is actively welcoming immigrants. The combination of these trends, along with other traditional factors such as adverse weather events within the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, a growing American economy, and political upheaval across the region, have prompted the US government  to respond to the crisis by relying on traditional and digital forms of media.

The US government’s approach to this issue has often primarily relied on parallel strategies of counter-messaging and the elimination of the factors that encourage migrants to leave their home countries. In 2014, the Obama administration released a series of social media posts targeted at the Northern Triangle countries, highlighting the dangers of traveling northwards. Encapsulating this strategy, one prominent advertisement depicted a dead child laying in the southwest desert while featuring a voice-over of a letter describing the challenges of the journey, including criminal gangs, the physical terrain, and the prevalence of criminal cartels. 

The Biden administration has followed a similar strategy in combating disinformation aimed at migrants, releasing radio advertisements dubbed into multiple languages across Latin America to debunk the “false hope” that migrants would receive a better quality of life after entering the US and highlighting the elevated risk of contracting COVID-19 within migrant caravans. This effort has followed the US Border Patrol’s release of footage depicting smugglers dumping young children over the boundary before fleeing to deter migrants and smugglers’ disinformation campaigns. Along with its counter-messaging, the White House has also offered financial and political support to Northern Triangle governments aimed at alleviating the conditions that lead to migration. However, as the number of migrants encountered at the border increases, the effectiveness of these strategies appears uncertain.

While migration is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, the US government’s strategy of countering disinformation to deter irregular immigration appears to be ineffective. The US Border Patrol’s encounters with migrants rose to more than 1.6 million in 2021, setting a new record, while the diversity of migrants’ nationalities has also increased, demonstrating the widespread appeal of attempting to enter the US. While disinformation may be a factor in bolstering these rates, the economic draw of a growing US economy in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with political instability across the region, has also significantly contributed to migrants’ decisions to travel north. 

Furthermore, the US’ efforts at combatting disinformation about the status of the border has also been limited due to the realities built into these narratives. Disinformation, as originally practiced by the Soviet Union, typically adapted from true or plausible narratives to more effectively capitalize on its audiences’ pre-existing beliefs and biases, bolstering its effectiveness in influencing individuals’ opinions. During his campaign and early into his tenure as president, Joe Biden repeatedly promised to reform the US’ immigration system, including allowing for more migration and ending the harsh policies enacted under the previous administration. As such, the US’ efforts have remained ineffective as political reality and intentional falsehoods continue to intertwine across the region.
While its radio messages and social media advertisements may be well targeted, migrants from across Latin America and the Caribbean and beyond continue to be drawn to the US due to its economic dynamism and its relative safety. Further, the previous promises made by then-candidate Biden and the Democratic Party regarding immigration, which have been widely incorporated into smugglers’ pitches to their potential customers, have proven difficult to counter. Rather than attempting to clarify its intentions after the fact, the United States may be better served by settling on the facts first.

Image copyright: “US Mexico Border” by Shaan Hurley via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

Jack Burnham
Jack Burnham is a student at McGill University and is pursuing a MPP at the Max Bell School of Public Policy. His research interests include Canadian foreign policy, US politics, and Middle Eastern security. Jack is currently based in Vermont and enjoys riding his bike over the Green Mountains in his spare time.