Airport Rostock Laage, Germany. Photo credit: RikoBest /

For the past decade or so, immigration advocates in the global North have seen their primary opponents as populist parties and politicians, who rose to power on assertions that immigration is economically and demographically harmful to advanced democracies. It has been a long, drawn-out battle and, since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the advantage seemed to be with the populists. But, at least in the United States, pro-immigrant forces had begun to think that they could turn things around with a Democratic victory in November.

Then came COVID-19. Draconian policies of restriction appeared overnight. With little or no opposition, states adopted policies that went further than anything right-wing governments had been previously able to impose. With the ability to move about freely sharply curtailed in nearly every country in the world, immigration scholars will need to think hard about a fundamental assumption of the field: that we are living in an “age of mobility.”

While it is too early to know whether the global regime of migration has been fundamentally altered, it is worth noting several ways in which the response to COVID-19 is altering, at the present moment, the mobility landscape.

1. Immigration around the world has largely stopped. In response to the pandemic, nearly all countries have adopted additional border closures for migrants (citizens, on the other hand, have generally been permitted, indeed implored, to return home). The fundamental commitment to free movement within the European Union has become an early victim of the virus, as member states reinstated border restrictions. The United States began to “expel” persons arriving at land borders without papers, bypassing established adjudicative procedures for migrants, asylum-seekers, and unaccompanied children by invoking a never-before-used public health statute.

2. The mobility of workers has both increased and decreased, in both cases to their disadvantage. Millions of migrant workers have been rendered immobile, unable to work or to continue to send money to families back home. Millions of others have been forced to leave cities for home villages, and countries of destination for countries of origin, as jobs have disappeared.

3. The ending of immigration has been largely uncontroversial. When put in life and death terms, restrictions on liberty can gain widespread acceptance surprisingly quickly. And once citizens, for the well-being of themselves and their loved ones, are made immobile, the curtailing of entry of immigrants can follow as a matter of course.

4. Freedom of movement may be more a matter of permission than right. Borders are sometimes attacked as abridging a “right to mobility,” deemed fundamental because of its importance to what it means to be human. Whatever the persuasiveness of the idea in political philosophy, it has yet to take hold in a world divided into states. Easier to embrace has been the guarantee in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.” What we took to be a right guaranteed by constitutional structure and international law now appears to be no more than an act of governmental forbearance. As Audrey Macklin has aptly put it: “Is human mobility synonymous with freedom of movement, or is it merely permitted movement? The ability to move because the state is not authorized to stop you is different than an ability to move because the state allows you to do so.” 

The harms of lost mobility run deep and wide. Most migrants and their families are plainly worse off as jobs and remittances evaporate. Destination countries, for which migration is a net benefit, also stand to lose when migration declines. Refugees face grave danger if flight from conflict zones is impossible. Women, both citizens and immigrants, face dramatically increased risks of domestic violence when they are forced to isolate with their victimizers. And there are pernicious knock-on effects: the loss of mobility for most of us endangers those asked or told to remain mobile — essential workers who pick crops, butcher meat, and stock supermarket shelves in places inadequately protected from the virus.

Will COVID-19 change everything? Will the Right be able to consolidate long-sought limits on immigration once the pandemic fades? Or will we find that movement resumes and flourishes once tests, vaccines, and anti-viral medicines are developed and widely distributed? Or perhaps COVID-19 will, in the end, do what 9-11 did to movement across borders: impose new kinds of restrictions (such as additional health checks), but not materially reduce overall travel. There is only one thing we can say for sure now: We have learned just how fragile the global mobility regime is.

Alex Aleinikoff is the director of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at The New School.