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“Open Borders” Disinformation Increases Migration to the Border New Poll of Central Americans Reveals

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The ubiquitous but false right wing talking point is being heard – and believed – by some potential migrants

Washington, DC – New polling and research released today by America’s Voice makes clear that pervasive disinformation about “open borders” – including from U.S. right wing politicians and media – contributes to Central American migration to the U.S. The poll is a first-of-its-kind survey of 600 Central Americans in the prime migration age cohort living in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Among the findings, more than a quarter recalled hearing a U.S. politician say the border is open in the past six months.

As reporter and longtime border chronicler Alfredo Corchado writes in an exclusive about the new research in the Dallas Morning News:

“The poll, obtained by The Dallas Morning News, indicates many Central American residents are encouraged to travel up to the U.S.-Mexico border based on false narratives … 1 in 4 Central American respondents said they have heard the “border is open,” and nearly 1 in 5 respondents said they believed the term “open borders” — and believed most migrants can apply for asylum if they make the trip.

…Media Matters for America … found Fox News mentioned “open borders” 3,842 times from Nov. 1, 2020, through Aug. 22, 2023. Newsmax mentioned “open borders” 3,257 times during the same period … Human smugglers amplify the “open border” message to lure vulnerable people already facing corrupt governments, political instability and economies ravaged by a pandemic and climate change, said Vanessa Cárdenas, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based America’s Voice.”

 Among the key findings in the new poll:

  • Central American residents in target countries are highly attuned to information about the situation in the U.S.-Mexico border as well as U.S. immigration and asylum policies. While they are highly attuned to information, the veracity of that information varies. 79% of respondents report having heard, read, or seen what is happening at the U.S.-Mexico border and 66% say they have heard or read about U.S. asylum policies. However, 18% believe inaccurate information: “The U.S. has policies that allow the border to be open and most migrants can apply for asylum if they make the trip to the border.”
  • Both traditional media such as television and radio and also social media remain highly used and trusted sources of information about the U.S. border. 87% of respondents said they are more likely to believe what they see on television or radio and 51% believe what they see on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and other social media sources as trusted sources of information.
  • Social media is by far the most used source of information about the border among the youngest age cohort (16-24), as 71% report having heard U.S. officials or politicians say the border is open through social media.
  • Disinformation about the U.S.-Mexico border is widespread with over 1 in 4 Central American respondents hearing and approximately 1 in 5 believing rhetoric that the “border is open.” 27% of respondents report having heard a U.S. politician or official say the border is open in the past six months. Meanwhile, 18% of respondents believe that the border is open, including 25% of respondents in the 16-24 age group. In the context of a representative poll sample, the minority of respondents who have heard or believe the U.S. has “open borders” policies amounts to a massive number of real-life individuals.
  • U.S. politicians’ rhetoric about “open borders” is encouraging some Central Americans to make the journey to the U.S.-Mexico border. Those who have heard messages from U.S. politicians that the border is open are significantly more likely to believe that the border is open. Additionally, respondents who listened to a statement from an unnamed U.S. official that referenced an “open border” reported themselves as open to considering making the trip to the U.S. southern border or advising someone to make the trip. When presented with the actual false statement of an unnamed U.S. politician that the border is “wide open” after the lifting of Title 42, 35% of respondents indicated they were likely to consider migrating to the U.S., and 36% indicated they were likely to advise friends or family to do so. This compares to 25% and 24% of respondents who listened to a split-sample alternate statement that declared the border was not open.

Read the full poll memo HERE and topline questionnaire HERE

According to Vanessa Cárdenas, Executive Director of America’s Voice:

“Words matter. And even more so when you are an elected official and on an issue that is as volatile as immigration and border policy. When we saw migrants citing Breitbart as their source for rumors that the border was open, we knew we had to look into this. Our survey of potential migrants in Central America confirmed our suspicion. Disinformation about ‘open borders’ is one of the many factors driving Central American migration to the United States, with younger poll respondents in the prime migration cohort particularly vulnerable to believing this falsehood.

We also know that some of the leading drivers of ‘open borders’ disinformation are right wing politicians and right-wing media outlets, who are likely spreading this fabrication for political purposes. Yet this relentless political disinformation about the state of the U.S. border filters into Central America, falls on the ears of desperate people looking for a way out and empowers smugglers and other bad actors.”

Additional Background

Additional research compiled and conducted on behalf of America’s Voice highlights how right-wing media and right-wing politicians are consistent messengers of the open borders falsehood:

  • New research conducted via Media Matters’ tracking (via a review of transcripts in the Kinetiq video database), finds that Fox News has mentioned open borders 3,842 times from November 1, 2020, through August 22, 2023. Newsmax has mentioned open borders 3,257 times during the same period (One America News (OAN) is not in the Kinetiq database). According to their review of “media value” provided by Kinetiq, Fox News and Newsmax mentioned open borders during time slots valued at approximately $30.3 million for advertisers. Most of that was on Fox, which had a value of approximately $26.8 million.

The Dallas Morning News reported on a specific example from mid-April that exemplifies how right wing false information about “open borders” can spread: “near the Paso del Norte International Bridge, hundreds of migrants gathered, looking at their cell phones, confused about a story from a U.S. digital site … They said the [false] information from Breitbart, a right-wing publication, was spreading on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and WhatsApp.”

  • The America’s Voice ad tracking project has identified 832 unique tweets from Republicans that use “open borders” misinformation from the end of February 23, 2023 to August 18, 2023. We have also found at least 97 pieces of paid communication from GOP candidates/party entities that advance “open borders” misinformation in 2023.
  • Reminder on current border and asylum policy: Following the lifting of Title 42 in May 2023, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas stated, “Starting tonight, people who arrive at the border without using a lawful pathway will be presumed ineligible for asylum. We are ready to humanely process and remove people without a legal basis to remain in the US.” That same week, Secretary Mayorkas also noted regarding migrants arriving at the southern border: “We are taking them into our custody, we are screening and vetting them and if they do not have a basis to remain, we will remove them very swiftly.”
  • As America’s Voice has written, “The border is, in fact, not open and the Biden administration and leading Democrats have forcefully maintained this fact and consistently communicated a ‘don’t come’ message. The Biden administration also has kept in place restrictive border policies – and even expanded some measures implemented during the Trump administration. While we at America’s Voice don’t support or celebrate some of the Biden administration’s restrictive border policies or their simplistic ‘don’t come’ message, they are facts at odds with the GOP and right-wing media portrayals.”

About the poll

The poll was conducted by leading Latino and Spanish language pollster BSP Research of 600 Central Americans currently residing in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua to better understand the permeability of disinformation about the U.S. southern border and factors behind migration to the U.S. BSP Research interviewed a total of 600 randomly selected Central Americans, between the ages of 16-39, using live telephone and online self-completed interviews. Respondents were randomly selected based on telephone number country codes and contacted via live telephone call, text-message for online complete via smartphone, or through online panels that specialize in large-sample Latin America subject pools. Interviews were conducted using a blended mode, via live telephone and online exclusively in Spanish language. The sample was confined to age 16-39 as the primary age of migration for Central Americans, and the final sample is reflective of the larger 16-39 age population in the four Central American countries selected (Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala).