The anti-illegal immigration ads federal agencies air in Central American countries are useless, former senior Trump officials say, undercutting one of the Biden administration's defenses of its border policies.
Some liberal immigrant groups also said the ads do not stop migrants from coming to the United States and added that there is no research to support their efficacy.
Political pressure from the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border pushed President Joe Biden to launch the ad campaign in January, with tens of thousands of radio ads in Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in Spanish, Portuguese, and six indigenous languages. The ads played on 33 radio stations, reaching an estimated 15 million individuals, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a press briefing last week.
Psaki presented the ads as a meaningful example of actions taken by the Biden administration to help stem the tide of illegal migrants. Republicans have accused the Biden administration of an "open borders agenda" and a "public health crisis."
Trump administration officials and some immigrant advocacy groups say the ads are not effective at actually reducing the flow of migrants, who are facing extreme crowding in government facilities and are straining resources at border towns at the same time.
The State Department, which is placing most of these ads in conjunction with embassies, said that "data shows mobile is the dominant source of media consumption in the region," and digital ads placed on Facebook and Instagram have reached more than 26 million people since Inauguration Day.
Former Trump administration officials who dealt with border and migration issues say the technique, which has been used in varying forms since the Obama administration and was used by the Trump administration, has very limited effectiveness and should be ended.
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“We analyzed the ads internally, and the results always showed the limited effectiveness of them,” said Chad Wolf, former acting secretary of Homeland Security, in an interview with the Washington Examiner.
He added that although tracking the effectiveness of a large number of ads was “hard to do,” internal Homeland Security data showed the number of illegal immigrants didn’t decrease thanks to the ads. Furthermore, qualitative data collected in the form of migrant interviews also showed the ads were not effective, he said.
“None of the illegal migrants who were interviewed by [Customs and Border Protection] or [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] said the ads we ran were a critical factor in them making the trip or not,” said Wolf.
Wolf added that although he sympathized with the Biden administration’s attempt to consider “every possible way to address the border problem,” he added, “I don’t know why the ads would work this time, but [they] didn’t work in the past like during my time at DHS.”
There is currently no research to support the kinds of informational ad campaigns the Biden administration has launched in South and Central America are actually effective at dissuading migrants from traveling to the U.S. border, according to a recent analysis of migrant awareness-raising campaigns done by the United Nations.
Some liberal immigrant organizations like the American Immigration Council, an advocacy group opposed to former President Donald Trump's immigration policies, have said that there is no evidence that the Biden administration's ads will actually stop illegal migrants from choosing to come to the U.S.
One study by the International Organization for Migration, which looked at the effectiveness of Facebook posts trying to dissuade migrants in Guinea, Nigeria, and Senegal from illegally crossing borders within Africa in 2019 and 2020, were only found to have engaged 1 in 10 targeted Facebook users, with fewer people than that actually being influenced by the ad.
The State Department was asked by the Washington Examiner to provide evidence that the ads worked, but it did not provide such details.
"The Department takes a data-informed approach to deploying digital and traditional modes of advertising. We use message testing and audience research to make content more engaging and persuasive to target audiences, including potential irregular migrants," a State Department spokesperson said.
Some senior Trump administration officials said the ads could have some positive effect if they were backed up by effective deterrence policies at the border.
“The bottom line is it’s useless to do migrant advertising that is contrary to the reality on the ground. Full stop. Period,” said Stephen Miller, who engineered most of Trump’s border and immigration policies from the White House. “People aren't stupid. If they know that they're getting in, then no one cares what your advertising says."
He added that if the Biden administration had a “100% repatriation policy,” or a policy of sending all illegal immigrants back to their home country or across the border, like the Trump administration did, then advertising that hard-line policy would make sense.
Top Trump officials said that most migrants trusted the word of family, friends, and smugglers over that of the U.S. government in deciding whether or not to make the daunting journey to the U.S. border.
“The ads are not super-effective because what they hear from open border advocates, smugglers, and their friends in America carries more weight than anything else,” said Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection from 2019 to 2021.
Former Trump officials said the challenging state of affairs for migrants living in violent, poor parts of South and Central America pushed them to do whatever it took to come to the U.S.
“The terrible conditions in a migrant's home country that exist and their ability to enter the U.S. under Biden’s border rules, that’s how they make their decision," a senior State Department official from the Trump administration said.
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“The ads don’t reflect the reality. You can’t sell ads that aren’t truthful,” the official said.