As Title 42 ends, the strong U.S. economy is a major draw for migrants

Elizabeth Trovall May 11, 2023
Heard on:
Immigrants seeking asylum line up in Yuma, Arizona, on May 11. An increasing number of migrants are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border as Title 42 expires. Mario Tama/Getty Images

As Title 42 ends, the strong U.S. economy is a major draw for migrants

Elizabeth Trovall May 11, 2023
Heard on:
Immigrants seeking asylum line up in Yuma, Arizona, on May 11. An increasing number of migrants are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border as Title 42 expires. Mario Tama/Getty Images

An increasing number of migrants are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border as the United States ends Title 42, the pandemic-era rule that allowed the U.S. to quickly expel migrants from the country. 

In its place, the Biden administration is implementing a patchwork of old and new border policies aimed at deterring and managing border crossings while creating limited legal avenues for asylum seekers.

But whatever mitigation measures President Joe Biden introduces, one major factor will continue to drive people to the United States: the strength of the economy. 

“Migrants come here because employers in this country want them,” said Dilip Ratha, leading migration expert with the World Bank Group. 

Wil Cardozo, a 21-year-old asylum seeker from Venezuela, found a job days after crossing the border and arriving in Houston in early 2021. She said her family fled their country after a series of politically motivated violent attacks and have asked for asylum and temporary protected status.

Her story is one of millions of migrants who have come to the southwest border over the last few years and know that a job and better life awaits them on the other side in the largest economy in the world.

Though it was easy to find work, Cardozo’s entry into the U.S. workforce was less than ideal. During Cardozo’s first week on the job at the Houston restaurant, she arrived late to work. As “punishment,” she said her boss asked her to take off her top. She refused and quit. 

“I was really scared. I cried,” Cardozo said in Spanish, “I thought many times about reporting him, but I didn’t want to go through that process having arrived so recently.”

Then a grocery store hired her; the job treated her well, but pay was just $9 an hour. Later, when a better-paid position came along — testing people for COVID-19 — she accepted. 

That job was overwhelming, she said, but she had studied medicine back home. They paid her per COVID-19 test, and she brought home about $3,000 a month. 

“We would see a lot of people doing tests. Sometimes we wouldn’t get through all of them by the end of the day,” she said. 

She got COVID several times while testing the large numbers of people, but still she thought it was a good job since she hadn’t yet received her work permit. 

Then, she said her job let her go all of a sudden and refused to pay her for her last two months of work — around $6,000.

“I was worried because I’m the only provider in my family, and there isn’t food, and they don’t want to pay me,” she said.

Even so, Cardozo’s work challenges are a small sacrifice to be safe in the United States.

“It wasn’t anything compared to what we suffered in Venezuela,” Cardozo’s mother, Cora, said in Spanish. Cardozo and her mom, Cora, are referred to by abbreviated names because they fear punishment for working without authorization. 

A line of people at standing near a fence. The sky is massive and clear. It is just before dawn and the moon is seen in the distance.
Immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. wait to be processed by Border Patrol agents after crossing into Arizona from Mexico on May 11. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

They’re from Maracaibo, once a wealthy oil boomtown now rampant with poverty and violence after years of severe economic mismanagement and political oppression. 

Cardozo said back home, she was kidnapped by police as a teenager and that her family and friends were murdered because of their political beliefs in opposition to Venezuela’s authoritarian government led by President Nicolás Maduro. 

And then there was the day men opened fire on her grandma’s house.

“We were all able to get out through the back,” Cora said. “They lit the house on fire. It burned down and there’s nothing left.” 

They escaped through the back door and hiked for hours through the forest to flee the country, she said. 

Cardozo, her mom and two younger sisters flew to Mexico and crossed the Texas border near Laredo to seek asylum in the U.S. in January 2021. They are one of roughly 300,000 or so Venezuelans to arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border since then, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. 

While safety was the family’s primary reason for leaving, the economic benefits of the move to the U.S. — instead of countries like Costa Rica or Chile — are significant. 

“Between Venezuela and the United States, the increase in wages after migration could be as high as 20, or sometimes 100 times,” said Ratha of the World Bank.  

Between two brown metal slats in  a border fence, white and yellow flowers bloom. Between the crack sits a migrant waiting to be processed by U.S. authorities. Behind him, further in the distance, are larger crowds of migrants.
Migrants wait to be processed by U.S. authorities near Tijuana, Mexico, on May 10. Prospects of safety and a brighter economic future have drawn many to the U.S. border. (Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images)

And migrants often take hard-to-fill low-wage jobs that employers are happy to fill, he said — which is why any successful migration solution at the border must take into account the implicit labor dynamics.

“Putting barriers at the border or in the airports or other checkpoints, that can delay things a bit, but it will create more distortions, and it will definitely reduce welfare on both sides — for the origin countries as well as the welfare of the people and the employers in the United States,” said Ratha, who suggests a flexible migration model that can adapt to shifting labor needs.  

Migrants who come to the U.S. grow the economy through the labor supply, innovation and entrepreneurship, Ratha added. Just like the Cardozo family. They started a new business: selling arepas, a traditional Venezuelan snack, out of a cooler.

At $5 a pop, it’s not the most lucrative job, but it covers the bills and is relatively safe, Cardozo said.

“To not have a dangerous or risky job where they mistreat or abuse us,” she said, “it’s good for now.”

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