Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.



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The asylum process can be manageable—and Mexico is giving it a try

Left: last October in Chiapas. Right: this week in Chiapas.

Incredibly, about 60 percent of migrants being apprehended, or showing up without documents, at the U.S.-Mexico border are now children and families. Most are asking for asylum in the United States. (Mexico, too, has seen a fourteen-fold increase in asylum-seekers since 2014.) That has never happened before.

Take away that population, and the number of undocumented migrants to the United States is as small as it has ever been in my lifetime. (I’m 48.)

So how can we alleviate and manage our hemispheric asylum crisis? Here’s a non-comprehensive list of things that the U.S., Mexican, and Central American governments could do.

☐ Reduce the number of Central Americans who want to flee by investing in public security, judicial reform, anti-corruption measures, education, and job creation in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Meanwhile, lean hard on governments and security forces that are tolerating corruption, colluding with criminals, and generally moving away from these goals.

✔︎ Give a legal migratory status in Mexico to people who are threatened in their home countries, and who don’t feel safe in Mexico, so that they may transit to the U.S. border without having to pay smugglers, ride atop cargo trains, or be preyed upon by criminals and corrupt security-force agents.

☐ Once at the border, ensure that ports of entry have enough holding space and trained CBP officers to handle an elevated number of asylum claims, USCIS has the resources to carry out credible fear interviews rapidly, and ICE can process asylum-seekers efficiently.

☐ While they await decisions on their asylum claims, monitor those who pass credible-fear interviews through “alternatives to detention” programs with very high compliance rates, at a tiny fraction of the cost of detention.

☐ Make it possible for most asylum-seekers to get a final decision from a judge in a matter of months—not years—because the U.S. government has hired enough judges to keep up with demand and reduce backlogs. Ensure that asylum-seekers have clear due-process guarantees, including time to prepare their cases and expanded access to counsel, whom more will be able to retain because they don’t have to spend money on smugglers. With this in place, those who do not qualify for asylum would not remain in the United States for years, and because of the quick turnaround, others with weak claims wouldn’t even attempt the journey. Integrate those who do qualify into U.S. communities.

That’s a nice vision, isn’t it? No walls, greatly reduced human suffering, a perceived “threat” reduced to an administrative issue. Realizing this vision would require some big new investments, but they’d almost definitely be smaller than the cost of the Trump administration’s proposals for wall construction, Border Patrol and ICE hiring, expanded detention, military deployments, and long-term stays in Mexico.

I only check the “box” for Mexico above because of the new Mexican government’s handling of the migrant caravan now arriving in the country. The National Migration Institute is channeling arriving Central Americans into a legal process: though it takes a few days, all will be registered and issued humanitarian visas upon entry, allowing them to live and work in Mexico for a year.

That one-year visa doesn’t prevent anyone from buying a bus ticket from Chiapas to the border and seeking asylum in the United States. It is then up to the U.S. government to get better at channeling them to the ports of entry and checking all of the above boxes so that the asylum system can handle the flow quickly and efficiently. (Needless to say, the Trump administration is not aiming to get better at this.)

The new Mexican government has taken an interesting and promising step here. If migrants have a legal document to remain temporarily in Mexico, they can travel safely and move through checkpoints in an orderly way, instead of paying more than US$6,000 to a smuggler.

This isn’t without risk for Mexico. It could end up incentivizing larger numbers of migrants to arrive, obtain a humanitarian status, and use it as a “transit visa” to the United States. (Again, this means the U.S. government will need more resources in place to process these applicants more quickly, which would dissuade people with weak asylum claims from coming.) Mexico is indicating that the new system is just for caravan participants—not, for instance, people from Asia or Africa who might otherwise converge on Mexican soil. But even that standard might create an incentive to organize more caravans.

Dealing with these outcomes, should they materialize, is the next step. But for now, by giving migrants a short-term legal status, the new system that Mexico is rolling out deals a severe blow to the coyotes and criminals who prey on people fleeing Central America.

The day ahead: January 18, 2019

I should be reachable much of the day. (How to contact me)

My hands barely touched a keyboard the past few days, due to an average of over eight hours per day of meetings and phone calls. I haven’t even posted news links here since Tuesday. My calendar is much clearer today, though, and I hope to do a lot of catching up.

Congress Page Revived

I’ve just updated a resource that I created two years ago and—I hate to admit—failed to update much over the past year. But it works again now, so give it a spin sometime, it’s pretty cool.

It’s a database-driven little web app called “Narrow Down Congress” ( It does one thing: classify members of the U.S. Congress according to groups that you create, and then show you which legislators belong to more than one group.

Why is that useful? Say you’re interested in human rights in Mexico. You have a list of House Foreign Affairs Committee members, a list of legislators who signed a recent letter on worldwide human rights, and a list of legislators who’ve said something about Mexico in the Congressional Record. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know which legislators are on all three lists? Or even just on two of the three? And then export their contact information?

Well, I think it would be interesting. That’s why I made this page, using my advanced beginner-level PHP, MYSQL, and Javascript skills.

And now the site has the entire 116th Congress’s current contact information in it. However, as of now a lot of the existing categories are out of date: committee memberships, for instance, have changed a lot since the last Congress, and many new changes are coming every day right now. But we’ll be updating them constantly, and you’re welcome to make your own.

Check it out. It makes you create a username and password, but that’s just so that the lists you create will still be there the next time you visit. And if it’s still confusing, just click “tutorial” in the upper right-hand corner.

The day ahead: January 17, 2019

I’ll be reachable in the latter part of the afternoon. (How to contact me)

This morning I’m meeting a Canadian diplomat, having an informational interview with a colleague’s contact, and talking to 2 reporters. I’ve got a dental checkup in the afternoon. Otherwise I’m around and processing my notes from last week’s border trip. With 20 hours of meetings over these past three days, I haven’t been able to make much progress on that yet—but I will later today and during the day tomorrow. I then expect to post an update with a few highlights.

The day ahead: January 16, 2019

I’ll be hard to contact today. (How to contact me)

I’ve got eight hours of solid back-to-back meetings on the calendar today. Most of it is WOLA’s internal planning process, plus coffee with a colleague working on Colombia and a call with a journalist. I will hardly be able to answer calls, texts, or emails today, unfortunately. Tomorrow’s not much different—5 hours. Things clear up a bit after that.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images photo at The Guardian (UK). Caption: “US aerial view of the US-Mexico border fence seen from Tijuana.”

(Even more here)

January 15, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

It’s not clear exactly how many troops are currently at the border or how the number is expected to change — a Pentagon official said in November that the number was expected to dip below the 5,900 initially deployed

An ever larger number of families are being released with nowhere to stay, no money, no food and no means of getting to friends and relatives who may be hundreds or thousands of miles away


Brazil’s right-wing government under President Jair Bolsonaro will seek to classify invasions of farmland by landless workers movements as akin to terrorism, with harsher penalties for perpetrators

It is seen not just as a direct challenge to the new president, Jair Bolsonaro, but also as stark evidence that Brazil urgently needs penal reform and alternatives to the tough-on-crime policies he is promising


¿Cuándo un hecho de estos está relacionado con el conflicto? ¿Cuándo, entonces, podrán los implicados recibir beneficios penales?

Ayer en la tarde el Alto Consejero para el Posconflicto, Emilio Archila, dijo que “están dadas las condiciones” para que la Jurisdicción Especial de Paz, JEP, le abra un incidente de incumplimiento a Iván Márquez

La situación de Ever Payares la viven otros 111 personeros del país, lo que significa que cerca del 10% del total de los representantes del ministerio público se encuentran amenazados

Colombia, Venezuela

Cristina Vélez habló con SEMANA un día antes de que el Distrito cierre el campamento humanitario transitorio que se creó hace dos meses para dar fin a la invasión del espacio público que generaron más de 500 venezolanos


Hubo un incremento de 3,25 por ciento en ese delito. En el 2018 se registraron 12.458 homicidios, mientras que en el 2017 fueron 12.066

Ecuador, South America Regional

The headquarters of the Union of South American Nations outside Ecuador’s capital seems as moribund as the group itself


Morales ignored a ruling by the nation’s highest court that reversed that decision, and appears to support an effort underway by his allies in Congress to impeach the Constitutional Court judges who have opposed his efforts

Por primera vez —y ante la ONU— Iván Velásquez responde a las acusaciones hechas por Jimmy Morales sobre la CICIG. Estos son los detalles de la carta

Mientras Arzú Escobar y Morales hablaban, cientos de personas secundaban, tanto en la capital como en los departamentos, protestas contra la corrupción y la expulsión de la Cicig


Some residents and local rights groups say the killers were gang members working with corrupt police to seize territory in the La Saline gang war. But others accuse Haitian government officials of orchestrating the massacre to head off anti-corruption protests


The Guardian travelled to five border locations to discover how Trump’s rhetoric jars with the reality on the ground


“Now it’s a new dynamic. We are no longer going to be tinkering along the edges. Nowadays, everything will be put on the table”

In a context in which those responsible for these human rights abuses are more likely to be rewarded than brought to justice in Venezuela, it is critical to explore avenues to hold them accountable abroad

Guaidó inherited the top post at the Popular Will party, partly because most of its leadership has been jailed or fled the country. On Jan. 5, he was named the head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly

The day ahead: January 15, 2019

I should be reachable for much of the morning. (How to contact me)

I’m looking at a few hours of internal planning meetings today, and a coffee with a European diplomat who covers Latin America. The government and WOLA are on a delayed opening this morning because of Sunday’s snow; I’ll be spending that time in the office processing my notes from last week’s border trip.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

January 14, 2019

Western Hemisphere Regional

“Practically every other member” of El Paso’s National Guard “was in the Klan,” one military officer recalled, and many had joined the Border Patrol upon its establishment

The tribe’s reservation, about the size of Connecticut, spans both countries, and a border wall would run through their land

Administration officials — and supporters of President Trump — are doing a disservice when they use these numbers to suggest that thousands of terrorists or potential terrorists are entering the United States via the southern border

The current trends all point to a strengthening of organized crime throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, as the criminals adapt far more quickly than authorities to changing conditions and take advantage of new opportunities

Ultimately, he came to believe that HHS would continue sending migrant teenagers to Tornillo as long as it could. So on Dec. 17, Dinnin sent HHS a letter informing them that his nonprofit wouldn’t accept more children


Four areas in particular lie at the nexus of Bolsonaro’s priorities and critics’ concerns: land rights, education, the economy, and public security


El alto consejero para el posconflicto le respondió a Iván Márquez, quien en un video aseguró que el Gobierno le ha incumplido en darle vocación de realidad a los acuerdos que se pactaron hace más de dos años en La Habana, Cuba

En aquellos aspectos de lo pactado en la Habana que podían tocar intereses económicos se ha quedado quieto, como pasa en varios puntos de la reforma rural

La sede de la organización, que apoya a víctimas de desaparición forzada, fue atacada en la madrugada de este sábado en barrio La Soledad por un hombre que quedó registrado en las cámaras de seguridad

Es posible detener el insostenible crecimiento de asesinatos, atentados y amenazas contra defensores y defensoras de derechos humanos —incluidos los liderazgos sociales— pero se requiere voluntad política

Colombia, Venezuela

Donors and humanitarians should reinvigorate support for Colombians affected by the civil war. At the same time, a major injection of donor support for Colombia’s overstretched social services and the UN’s regional funding appeal are essential

Colombia’s borders and the arms of the Colombian people have remained comparatively open—partly because that mass migration once flowed in the opposite direction

Costa Rica, Nicaragua

“We consider our stay here to be temporary,” she said. “We are tired already. We want to go home”


El colombiano Iván Velásquez Gómez ha sido el más comisionado que mayor cantidad de investigaciones y procesos judiciales ha impulsado desde que inició su mandato, en contra de cuerpos ilegales de seguridad y redes político económicas ilícitas

The U.S. offered a four-sentence statement from the State Department that expressed vague support for Guatemala’s anti-corruption efforts but didn’t mention the commission at all


The last group is widely seen as a success, even though thousands of its members are still stuck in Tijuana

Espinal’s murder is a sharp reminder that for many people in the region, the decision to migrate is one of life or death


We know how Trump carries himself when making tough deals. But more importantly, how will López Obrador’s reaction shape the future of the border?

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman moved tons of cocaine and heroin from Mexico to the United States, almost none of it—if any at all—across an unsecured stretch of border

Los diputados de la coalición mayoritaria esperan mantener algunas medidas ya establecidas en el dictamen, entre ellas la capacidad de investigación que tendrá la Guardia Nacional, así como su formación y administración en el ámbito de la Defensa Nacional

El titular de la Secretaría de Seguridad y Protección Ciudadana (SSPC), Alfonso Durazo, informó que la Guardia Nacional estará bajo un mando civil, tal como lo demandaron gobernadores, alcaldes, académicos y organizaciones civiles

Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela

Enamored of men in fatigues, hungry for the automatic discipline of military hierarchy, they reliably break down the democratic norms needed to keep the military apolitical and under civilian control

Mexico, Venezuela

El líder venezolano, cada vez con menos apoyos en América Latina, saca provecho de la ambigüedad mexicana

Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico

  • Elisabeth Malkin, Jeff Ernst, Paulina Villegas, A New Migrant Caravan Forms, and Old Battle Lines Harden (The New York Times, January 14, 2019). The deeply unpopular presidents of Honduras and Guatemala, both tarnished by scandal, are eager to maintain the support of the Trump administration. Halting the caravan could help them do that


Las fuerzas armadas se han mantenido al margen de lo que consideran un problema de orden público, pese al reclamo de la sociedad civil de que desarmaran a los grupos paramilitares

Mr. Solis said he now regretted one of his own most consequential rulings, a 2009 Supreme Court decision that ended term limits and allowed Mr. Ortega to remain in power


The architect of Guaido’s meteoric rise is Leopoldo Lopez, Venezuela’s most popular opposition leader, who is muzzled under house arrest

Juan Guaidó fue retenido unos minutos por el servicio de inteligencia. El Gobierno desautoriza la operación

It is time to begin the orderly transition to a new government

I was right about Venezuela in 1999—but I didn’t do enough about it.

Francisco Toro and James Bosworth, founders of two of the longest-running Latin America blogs (Caracas Chronicles and Bloggings by Boz, respectively), have a good column on the Washington Post website today, warning about how authoritarian populist leaders—right or left—screw up their countries’ delicate civil-military relations.

There seems to be something about men in uniform that populists just can’t resist. It’s impossible to miss that Mexican generals find themselves in the middle of this mess, just as U.S. generals face a similar fate: their troops deployed to the border and facing the possibility of Trump declaring a fake national emergency to divert funds and Defense Department personnel for a useless wall.… Enamored of men in fatigues, hungry for the automatic discipline of military hierarchy, they reliably break down the democratic norms needed to keep the military apolitical and under civilian control.

Every so often, I look back at a commentary I wrote for the Center for International Policy about Venezuela in September 1999, just before my 29th birthday. Today, it only exists on the Internet Archive. I made the same argument that Toro and Bosworth are making. Months into Hugo Chávez’s first year in office, I was worried about how the new populist leader was distorting the military’s role in Venezuela’s democracy.

Much has been made of Chávez’s populist politics and fiery rhetoric, with many observers speculating that the former paratrooper is leading a slow-motion coup, doing away with forty-one years of flawed democracy and ushering in a military dictatorship by popular acclaim. Actually, Chávez’s strong-armed – yet so far legal – effort to write the country’s twenty-seventh constitution poses little threat to Venezuela’s democracy, which desperately needs reform anyway.

The real threat lies in the president’s vision for the Venezuelan military. In just seven months in power, Chávez has enormously increased the armed forces’ role in government and society.

… President Chávez’s changes in the military are popular, but among all of his reform efforts they are the most likely route to dictatorship. They are the aspect of Chávez’s program that needs to be watched most closely by Venezuelans, by the media and by the international community.

I look back on that piece not only because I still agree with every word. Now that Venezuela is a full-blown dictatorship with military officers occupying many top positions, that article is also a source of anxiety for me. I wonder what would be different today if I’d stuck with this issue and made Venezuelan militarization a top priority for my work, instead of a back-burner trend on which I checked in every so often.

I didn’t throw myself into this issue because at that exact moment—September 1999—the Clinton and Pastrana administrations were drawing up “Plan Colombia,” the largest U.S. military aid program in the history of Latin America. Monitoring and trying to change that strategy would take up the majority of my time over the next 10 years. In September 1999, Colombia was also in the first months of a peace process with the FARC. And the funding climate for Venezuela civil-military relations work was bleak: it would have been hard to afford plane tickets to Caracas, much less devote hours per week to the issue.

But still. While I worked to limit the Bush administration’s damage in Colombia, right next door Venezuela’s regime was dismantling democracy and civil-military relations through a gradual but inexorable string of baby steps, many of them too small even to get attention in the United States. While I was consistently critical, I didn’t host events and delegations, write reports, or lobby Congress.

Now that we’ve got several authoritarians around the region pursuing similar models (including Donald Trump), I wonder what I could’ve done differently, what difference it would’ve made, and how to apply those lessons today.

The day ahead: January 14, 2019

I should be reachable much of the day. (How to contact me)

After returning from the border on Saturday, I’d expected to have four hours of planning meetings and a dentist checkup on today’s schedule. So I spent too much of Sunday clearing out work inboxes in anticipation of that, while snow kept falling outside.

It turns out that snowstorm has closed down everything in Washington: the schools, the government (much of which was shut down anyway), WOLA, and my dentist’s office.

So I’m home and reachable. I plan to spend some of the day playing in the snow with my kid when she wakes up. And also to type up all of my notes from last week’s San Diego-Tijuana trip.

Last day at the border, for now

Go to the New York Times right now, and there’s a video on the front page from Tijuana, where I spent the last 2 days. Look really closely and you can see me very briefly, lurking by the San Diego-Tijuana port of entry very early Wednesday morning:

Here’s a video from yesterday, in which WOLA’s president, Matt Clausen, and I do more than lurk. An 18-minute discussion of border security and our trip, filmed as a “Facebook Live” right next to where the border wall hits the Pacific Ocean.

I’ll post more when I have a chance to write, hopefully in the airport this evening, I’m flying back to Washington overnight.

The day ahead: January 9, 2019

I’m traveling and will be hard to contact today. (How to contact me)

I’m in a hotel room in San Diego, it’s just after 5:30AM, and I’m about to get into my rental car and drive to the main border crossing into Tijuana. I plan to do the exact same thing tomorrow morning too.

The city is dealing with a large influx of migrants, and I’ve made very few appointments there—I don’t want to make busy service providers (shelter personnel, lawyers, government) take time out to sit across a table while I ask them questions. The plan is to wander, starting with the scene at the port of entry right around the time I get there, when people will be gathering to find out how many asylum seekers CBP is willing to take today. A day of seeing the situation and talking to whoever has time for a conversation. Taking pictures and notes.

If I’m not too exhausted, I’ll post some reactions this evening. But getting a good night’s sleep will take precedence, so I may not.

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