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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5 links: October 20, 2021

(Even more here)

Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay

De acuerdo con fuentes federales, tras varias horas las autoridades mexicanas determinaron no activar la ficha roja contra Granda Escobar por la inmunidad que le otorgan los acuerdos de paz

Haiti

Kidnappings of 16 Americans and a Canadian in Port-au-Prince come as hundreds of local residents face similar targeting, with at least 628 abductions so far this year

Mexico, U.S.-Mexico Border

Top national security aides to former President Trump also talked him out of launching military raids against drug cartels inside Mexico

U.S.-Mexico Border

A self-described progressive, Chris Magnus committed himself to Title 42 in a confirmation hearing Tuesday

U.S. authorities detained more than 1.7 million migrants along the Mexico border during the 2021 fiscal year that ended in September, and arrests by the Border Patrol soared to the highest levels since 1986

Five links: October 19, 2021

(Even more here)

Colombia

In 2000, Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya was kidnapped, beaten and gang-raped while reporting on paramilitaries during the country’s armed conflict

Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela

US calls for clashing factions in Venezuela to resume talks ahead of US secretary of state’s first visit to South America

U.S.-Mexico Border

The hearing comes as the border agency, already strained from months of increasing arrests, faces scrutiny over its handling of the sudden arrival of thousands migrants in Del Rio, Texas

Honduras, U.S.-Mexico Border

Cinthia and other Hondurans expelled by the U.S. with whom Truthout spoke as they walked over the border from Mexico into Guatemala said they were not told where they going until they landed in Villahermosa, Mexico

Venezuela

Saab’s extradition to the U.S. from Cape Verde, where he was arrested 16 months ago, has already ricocheted far and wide

Latin America-related events this week

Monday, October 18

  • 12:15-6:30 at migrationpolicy.org: Symposium on the Migration Dynamics of North America Before, During, and After Covid-19 (RSVP required).

Tuesday, October 19

Wednesday, October 20

  • 12:00-5:00 at thedialogue.org: 25th Annual CAF Conference (RSVP required).
  • 5:30-7:30 at George Washington University and online: LAHSP 50th Anniversary Celebration with President Laura Chinchilla (RSVP required).

Thursday, October 21

5 links: October 18, 2021

(Even more here)

Guatemala

The Guatemalan palm oil industry, world’s six largest, faces resistance from Indigenous people demanding land rights

Mexico

Different chemically than it was a decade ago, the drug is creating a wave of severe mental illness and worsening America’s homelessness problem

Peru

The Peruvian president’s first months in office have been characterized by chaos, extremism, and—critics say—sheer incompetence

U.S.-Mexico Border

The meeting ended after about eight minutes

Venezuela

Venezuela’s government said Saturday it would halt negotiations with its opponents in retaliation for the extradition to the U.S. of a close ally of President Nicolás Maduro who prosecutors believe could be the most significant witness ever about corruption

5 links: October 15, 2021

(Even more here)

Brazil

The representatives requested that the Biden administration undertake an urgent review of U.S.-Brazil relations

Chile

The Indigenous Mapuche say they are only fighting for their ancestral lands which have been taken over by wealthy landowners and logging companies

Colombia

Ataques a la población civil, a la Fuerza Pública e incluso al presidente Duque evidencian el recrudecimiento de la violencia en Norte de Santander

Colombia, Panama, U.S.-Mexico Border

For migrants traveling north to the U.S-Mexico border from countries like Chile and Brazil, the trip has become virtually impossible without two things — a smuggler and social media

Mexico, U.S.-Mexico Border

Federal courts have ordered the administration to restart the Trump-era policy that sent at least 60,000 back to Mexico

Weekly border update: October 15, 2021

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.

Biden administration, complying with court order, will soon restart “Remain in Mexico”

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D), who represents Laredo, Texas, said October 13 that the Biden administration would roll out a revived “Remain in Mexico” program, as ordered by a Texas judge, “within the next month or so.” According to CQ/RollCall’s Suzanne Monyak, Cuellar said “That means that you’ll see the tents in the Laredo area be expanded.” By “tents,” the congressman was referring to temporary facilities by the port of entry where, during the Trump administration, asylum seekers forced to remain in Mexico attended their immigration hearings via videoconference.

The term “Remain in Mexico” refers to the so-called “Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP),” a program begun by the Trump administration in late 2018 and early 2019. It sought to deter and discourage would-be asylum seekers by forcing more than 71,000 of them to await their U.S. hearing dates on Mexican soil, where many were subjected to kidnapping, assault, and other crimes. Candidate Joe Biden criticized this program, and his administration quickly terminated it. On August 13, though, Amarillo, Texas District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk (a Trump appointee), responding to a suit brought by the Republican attorneys-general of Texas and Missouri, ordered the Biden administration to restart Remain in Mexico. The Supreme Court upheld this order while lower-court appeals continue.

At midnight on October 15, the Biden administration submitted its latest monthly filing, required by Judge Kacsmaryk, on the steps it has taken to restart the controversial program. The document reports that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been “recreating the administrative, personnel, physical, and policy framework necessary to operate MPP and are prepared to re-implement MPP in mid-November, subject to Mexico’s decision to accept those that the U.S. seeks to return.” It adds that “multiple discussions” have taken place with Mexican authorities, who would have to receive the asylum-seekers, about a re-start. Further, the filing notes that construction of Remain in Mexico hearing facilities has begun in Laredo and Brownsville, Texas, as Rep. Cuellar had partially indicated, at a cost of $14.1 million.

Mexico has not yet agreed to take back migrants subject to the Remain in Mexico program. It has not refused, either. A brief October 15 statement from Mexico’s Foreign Ministry expresses “concerns” about the program and about how the United States has implemented Title 42 pandemic-related migrant expulsions (discussed below), but notes that “Mexico will continue the dialogue.”

If the Biden administration finds itself implementing both Remain in Mexico and Title 42 at the same time, a possible result might be a two-tier system in which Mexico’s border towns receive two classes of non-Mexican migrants. The first class would be citizens of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, who might be expelled under the public health authority without even a chance to seek asylum. The second would be Spanish or Portuguese-speaking residents of the “other” countries, many of whom have been arriving in greater numbers lately, as discussed in a section below: Brazilians, Colombians, Cubans, Ecuadorians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans. Right now, Mexico does not accept citizens of these countries as Title 42 expulsions—but under a revived “Remain in Mexico” program, Mexico might receive them as people with pending asylum cases. Those from Mexico and the northern triangle would not have pending asylum cases due to Title 42.

U.S. asylum advocates have issued scathing responses, arguing that the Biden administration has had other options to keep from complying with the court order to re-start Remain in Mexico, such as more swiftly issuing a new memo to “re-terminate” the program with clearer wording about its decisionmaking process.

  • “Trump 2.0 policies at the border are a recipe for continued cruelty, disorder, and violations of refugee law,” Eleanor Acer of Human Rights First told The Hill. “The Biden administration must honor its promise to terminate this horrific program.”
  • “The Biden administration has had nearly two months to issue a new memo that addresses the district court’s concerns and formally terminate the MPP program for good,” said Jorge Loweree of the American Immigration Council. “The fact that it has not done so and is instead moving forward with plans to restart the program in November is a betrayal of the president’s campaign promises.”
  • “There is no humane way to implement a program that was intended by [Trump advisor] Stephen Miller as a way to torture asylum seekers as deterrence model after the national outcry to family separation,” tweeted advocate Alida García, who spent a short stint this year as a White House senior advisor for migration.

Official border crossings to reopen to vaccinated travelers, but “Title 42” persists

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced on October 12 that next month, after 19 months of pandemic-related closures, the United States’ land borders will once again open to documented foreign travelers coming for “non-essential” reasons—as long as they have proof of COVID-19 vaccination. Starting in early November, tourists or people visiting family members will once again be able to enter the United States from Mexico and Canada.

Those who enter will need to present paper or digital proof of having received a full dose of a vaccine approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization. Unlike those who arrive by air, those entering by land will not have to provide proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test.

The pandemic travel restrictions had reduced documented border crossings significantly. 92 million people or cargo vehicles crossed into the United States from Mexico during the first 6 months of 2021, a one-third reduction from 136 million in the first 6 months of 2019.

As it ends pandemic restrictions on documented border crossers, DHS is keeping in place the so-called “Title 42” policy of swiftly expelling undocumented border crossers, including people seeking asylum. A Biden administration official told CBS News that “the policy considerations are different because migrants are generally held in Border Patrol facilities where social distancing can’t be enforced.”

Between February and August 2021, the Biden administration’s DHS expelled undocumented migrants 704,019 times at the U.S.-Mexico border. 92,676 of them were traveling as families (parents and children). Mexicans and many citizens of Central America’s “northern triangle” countries were pushed back across the border into Mexico. Others, like nearly 8,000 Haitians since September 19, have been flown back to their countries, often in shackles or occasionally worse.

New data obtained by CBS News show that while DHS has carried out more than 1,163,582 expulsions since the Trump administration imposed Title 42 in March 2020, the agency has permitted only 3,217 asylum seekers to petition for protection in the United States, using the higher evidentiary standards of the UN Convention Against Torture. Of these, only 8 percent (272) passed their interviews.

“It’s a heartbreaking thing to see” the expulsions of “individuals who are seeking a better life,” Mayorkas told a conference in Qatar this week. But he insisted that “the Title 42 authority is a public health authority. And it is not an immigration policy. It is not an immigration policy that we in this administration would embrace. But we view it as a public health imperative as the Centers for Disease Control has so ordered.”

Public health experts dispute that. “It’s clearly something that is politically expedient and I think that’s dangerous,” Michele Heisler, the medical director at Physicians for Human Rights, told the American Prospect. Added Paul Spiegel of the Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health, “This is not a public-health issue, it’s a lack of immigration policy and I think we know that, and we can’t let them keep on.”

Harold Hongju Koh, a senior adviser on the State Department’s legal team, shared this assessment. A former dean of Yale University’s Law School and former assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Koh resigned his post on October 4, two days after issuing a memo calling the Title 42 policy “illegal and inhumane,” concluding, “It simply is not worthy of this Administration that I so strongly support.”

Yale Law School’s Lowenstein Project, together with 13 non-governmental organizations, submitted an emergency petition to the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) seeking precautionary protection measures for 31 asylum seekers subject to Title 42. “These expulsions,” it reads, “mark persons returned to Mexico as migrants trapped in Mexico, rendering them particularly vulnerable to this rampant violence, including kidnapping, sexual assault, extortion, and other forms of abuse at the hands of organized criminal groups and corrupt authorities.” Lee Gelernt, the ACLU attorney leading one of the main legal challenges to Title 42 in U.S. federal court, noted in the American Prospect that “evidence the organization submitted in trial court indicated that 20 percent to 40 percent of families [expelled under Title 42] are kidnapped by cartels.”

Aftermath of the Biden administration’s mass expulsion of Haitians

As covered at length in our September 27 update, for several days in mid-September a remote sector of the U.S.-Mexico border in Del Rio, Texas saw the sudden arrival of nearly 15,000 mostly Haitian migrants, nearly all of them seeking to turn themselves in to U.S. authorities and request asylum. The Biden administration dealt with the influx by applying Title 42, expelling most of those who did not return to Mexico.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) paid GEO Group, a controversial private prison and immigrant detention center operator, over $15 million to operate a swift tempo of flights expelling migrants back to Port-au-Prince and Cap Haïtien, Haiti. Most of those expelled via air had not lived in Haiti in a long time: they had fled to South America in the years after a devastating 2010 earthquake, living and working in Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere until the pandemic caused employment to dry up. They then braved the dangers of the multi-country journey northward—including Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap jungles—only to be shackled, placed on aircraft, and returned without any chance to ask for protection in the United States.

The expulsion flights began on September 19. Since then—according to Tom Cartwright, who monitors flights for Witness at the Border—there have been 74 flights expelling about 7,900 people to Haiti. The pace appears to be slowing as the number of Haitians in custody has no doubt declined. By comparison, Cartwright points out, the United States repatriated just 5,659 Haitians over the 40 months between January 2018 and April 2021. Counting people sent to Haiti from Mexico, Cuba, the Bahamas, and intercepted at sea, the International Organization for Migration counts 10,218 expulsions and returns since September 19.

It remains unclear how such a large number of Haitians made it all the way across Mexico virtually undetected in mid-September, just weeks after Mexican security and immigration forces harshly blocked four mass attempts to leave the southern state of Chiapas. Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News looked into it and found “a well-organized effort by human smuggling organizations facilitated through social media, and by Mexican authorities who either looked the other way or were simply overwhelmed.” Ruben Figueroa of the Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano told Corchado of Haitians suddenly being allowed to board vehicles in the southern border-zone city of Tapachula, Chiapas, where Mexican forces had earlier been confining them. “This just doesn’t happen without the complicity of government authorities,” Figueroa said.

Tens of thousands of migrants from Haiti and other countries remain in Tapachula. There since late September, Mexico’s overwhelmed refugee agency (COMAR) has been attempting to process roughly 2,000 asylum seekers per day at the city’s soccer stadium.

Further south, the number of mostly Haitian refugees waiting in Colombia’s Caribbean coast town of Necoclí to board ferries to Panama’s dangerous Darién Gap region has risen to 22,000, up from the 17,000 to 19,000 noted in our October 4 update. Colombian migration authorities report at least 82,000 arrivals in Necoclí since January. Panama’s National Migration Service counted 88,514 emerging through the Darién as of late September, according to Reuters. Of those, 19,000 were minors, perhaps half of them under the age of 5, according to UNICEF.

Journalists continue to document the extreme dangers of the 60-mile pedestrian journey through the Darién, which was once regarded as nearly impenetrable. NPR’s John Otis accompanied a lone Cuban migrant for the start of the trip, before he crossed into Panama, in an audio report posted October 11.

In Colombia, where Secretary of State Antony Blinken is to visit next week for a “high level dialogue,” President Iván Duque said he plans to ask the Biden administration to send messages to Haitian migrants that would “minimize expectations” of being granted protection in the United States.

More scrutiny of migrants from beyond Mexico and the Northern Triangle

In August 2021, 29 percent of migrants U.S. authorities encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border were from countries other than Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. That, to the best of our knowledge, is the first time this has happened before.

The Haitians discussed above are part of this population, but so are migrants from South America who have been flying into Mexico—which since 2018 has not required visas for several South American countries—then traveling to the U.S. border, crossing, and requesting asylum. During the first 11 months of fiscal 2021 (October-August), CBP reports encountering 46,410 migrants from Brazil, 88,786 from Ecuador, and 37,859 from Venezuela. In most cases, U.S. authorities do not expel citizens of these countries under Title 42: Mexico has not agreed to take them, and long flights would be expensive. A Wall Street Journal article portrayed these new arrivals as “middle-class migrants.” Reporter Alicia Caldwell spoke to a dozen Venezuelans who arrived together near Yuma, who said that their entire journey took about two days.

Reuters reported on Brazilian authorities’ June arrest of a businessman accused of charging would-be migrants nearly $20,000 each to be smuggled into the United States via Mexico. “To pull it off, [Chelbe] Moraes has constructed an international network that includes corrupt cops and officials as well as U.S-based family members,” allegedly coaching clients to pose as tourists in Mexico,” the report reads.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) raised eyebrows by telling Fox News that, on a recent trip to Yuma, he had seen Brazilian migrants “headed for Connecticut wearing designer clothes and Gucci bags.” Attempting to clarify his comments to the Washington Post, Graham said, “Usually when you go to the border, you see people who are dressed really haggardly and who look like they’ve been through hell. This time at Yuma, there were dozens that looked like they were checking into a hotel — and smartly dressed.”

At the United States’s behest, Mexico is now tightening visa requirements for citizens of Brazil and Ecuador. Guatemala, too, has begun requiring visas of Ecuadorians.

Links

  • At ProPublica, Dara Lind reports on a new DHS Inspector-General report about a CBP intelligence unit that targeted U.S. citizen activists and journalists it suspected of association with migrant “caravans” in 2018 and 2019. “[A]t least 51 U.S. citizens were flagged for interrogation—often based on evidence as flimsy as once having ridden in a car across the border with someone suspected of aiding the caravan.” As its name indicates, CBP’s “Tactical Terrorism Response Team” was created to respond to terrorist threats, not migration events.
  • The Senate Finance Committee will meet October 19 for the nomination hearing of Tucson, Arizona police chief Chris Magnus, the Biden administration’s choice to be CBP commissioner. Magnus’s nomination has been delayed by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), who was demanding that CBP first provide more information about role the agency played in combating protesters in Portland in 2020, during the Trump administration.
  • Mexico captured 652 migrants at a military checkpoint in southern Tamaulipas state on October 7. 101 of them were unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, whom Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM, the government’s immigration authority) expelled days later.
  • Border Report cites rumors of a “mother of all caravans” being organized by unnamed “activists” for October 23 in Chiapas, southern Mexico. We have seen no other source corroborating this rumor, and colleagues in southern Mexico say they haven’t heard anything.
  • “There is a growing gulf between the progressive immigration values President Joe Biden professes and the enforcement policies he’s implementing at the border,” reads an analysis by Vox immigration reporter Nicole Narea, “and it’s led to confusion among immigration officials, uncertainty for migrants, and questions about whether the president has a coherent strategy on immigration at all.”
  • “To be a Haitian asylum-seeker knocking at the door of the U.S. is to stand at perhaps the most visible convergence of race and empire imaginable in this hemisphere,” writes Miriam Pensack at The New Republic.
  • A retired rear admiral is replacing a retired army general as the head of Mexico’s INM in the northern border state of Chihuahua.

5 links: October 14, 2021

(Even more here)

Colombia

This will allow the Commission to avoid becoming a punching bag during next year’s presidential election, and defer questions on its impact and legacy

Mosquera’s 2018 arrest and subsequent extradition to the U.S. was another overseas embarrassment for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which has grappled for years with corrupt cops and deadly leaks by foreign law enforcement

Mexico

La Guardia Nacional reservó por un período de cinco años el inventario de armamento no letal y el material para la contención de manifestaciones

Panama

U.S.-Mexico Border

As of the end of September, only 3,217 migrants processed under the public health law have been referred for interviews with U.S. asylum officers

5 links: October 13, 2021

(Even more here)

Colombia

The murder of two boys for allegedly shoplifting in Colombia has evoked memories of some of the country’s darkest days of armed conflict

Ecuador

El incremento de las aprehensiones de droga en territorio ecuatoriano se registra desde 2018

Mexico

La toma del control operativo de la Guardia Nacional (GN) por parte de la Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional (Sedena) continuará, porque una jueza federal rechazó otorgar una suspensión provisional al Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez

U.S.-Mexico Border

President Biden proposed humane immigration reforms but continued harsh, Trump-era enforcement policies at the border

Venezuela

Con el fallecimiento del general retirado Raúl Isaías Baduel aumenta la cifra de presos políticos que han muerto bajo la custodia de los cuerpos de seguridad del Estado

Notes from Colombia

I spent October 3-9 in Colombia, flying back on the 10th. Most of the time, I was with a member of Congress, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), and his staff. We went to Cali, a city still reeling from intense protests and the security forces’ vicious response. We went an hour and a half south of Cali to Santander de Quilichao, in the north of the department of Cauca, which leads all of Colombia’s 32 departments in killings of social leaders and of demobilized ex-combatants. We went to Bogotá, of course, and to the formerly guerrilla-controlled Sumapaz region about 2 1/2 hours’ drive south of Bogotá.

Traveling with Rep. McGovern meant having access to a wide variety of officials, activists, and experts. This was my first chance to visit Colombia for nearly two years, as I didn’t travel during the pandemic.

Here are eight reactions that are really fresh in my mind upon returning. These aren’t final, comprehensive, or necessarily backed up by hard data. These are my reactions, not necessarily those of the organization I work for or the people I traveled with. Some of them are just feelings or impressions. But they are strong impressions, and I am disturbed by them.

  1. Even putting human rights concerns aside, Colombia’s security forces are in retreat. There is a notable territorial pullback in many parts of the country. Once you pass the last Army checkpoint, you’re on your own: everything after that is effectively ceded to illegal armed groups. These days, that last checkpoint is often quite close to population centers or the main road. After that, people plant coca while armed groups put up their banners and enforce their own sets of rules with a remarkable degree of freedom. I can’t remember feeling such a sharp security pullback since the Samper presidency in the mid-1990s.
  1. Some of this is because of COVID: the government has very few resources right now (or is unwilling to seek enough revenue from its wealthiest citizens). In February 2020, just before the pandemic hit, only 15 of the Colombian army’s 42 Black Hawk helicopters were reportedly functioning. Even if that particular situation improved (I don’t know if it did), the pandemic depression has likely hollowed things out further—and civilian ministries are probably in even rougher shape.
  2. In government-abandoned territories, community leaders don’t know what to do or whom they should be dialoguing with to protect themselves. When the FARC existed, and ungoverned spaces tended to be under a single illegal group’s uncontested control, at least the rules were clear. There were local commanders to whom communities could appeal when a group’s fighters became too abusive or its norms became too onerous. Now, though, there are often a few small, overlapping groups—the ELN, ex-FARC dissidents, “Gulf Clan” paramilitaries, single-region armed groups, mafias—with constantly shifting territorial control, alliances, and divisions. Caught in the middle, civilian communities don’t know whom they should even be talking to.
  1. Community leaders can’t publicly ask for the government to be present in their territories. That would be suicidal: retaliation from armed groups would be swift. The most they can call for is a “humanitarian accord” in which all armed actors agree to some degree of restraint in their actions against civilians. Though it’s hard to envision how to compel armed actors to honor them, humanitarian accords offer the best hope for protection in a situation of statelessness and abandonment, and communities’ proposals deserve support.
  2. Armed groups’ aggression against civilians seems more common than their combat with the security forces. Though of course there are ambushes and attacks, today’s small, fragmented armed groups prefer not to initiate combat with the military and police. In fact, we heard that local-level cooperation from security forces is ever more common, especially along trafficking routes. This is due to corruption, but also to incentives: who wants to give their life fighting a small local band that poses no existential threat to the state, and that most Colombians haven’t even heard of?
  1. People are afraid of their own security forces. Between the April-June paro nacional protests and violent forced coca eradication operations in rural areas, the military and police have been very hard on civilians this year, killing dozens and wounding or torturing many more. Body counts aren’t a measure of anything, but the number of armed and criminal group members that the Defense Ministry reports as killed or “neutralized” this year is greater—but not wildly greater—than reported killings or wounding of civilians. “Today, the war is the government against the peasant,” a coca farmer told the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, and I heard similar last week. I’d add, though, that the armed groups have also declared war on the civilian population, and the security forces are usually nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile, in places like Cali, people who participated in protests are terrified. We spoke to people who were wounded, or who suffered torture in police custody, but are afraid to come forward and publicly denounce what happened to them.
  2. Human rights defenders are in bad shape. Longtime colleagues—lawyers, national ethnic organization leaders, campesino activists—are exhausted. They looked and sounded terrible, like asylum lawyers I interviewed at the U.S.-Mexico border at the worst moments of the Trump administration. Some broke down in tears. It was painful for them to recall the hope they felt in 2016-17 when the peace accord held a promise of tranquility and progress. For them, Colombia has taken a giant step backward from that hope—way farther back than I’d been led to believe before visiting.
  1. We’re doing old-fashioned human rights work again. For several years—from the latter moments of the FARC peace negotiations until quite recently—we had the luxury of advocating “state presence,” “crop substitution,” “rural reform,” “land restitution,” “restorative justice” and similar proposals typical of a country leaving a bitter history behind. Not anymore. There are too many new victims: victims of violence at the hands of state actors, displaced and confined communities. Too many people left unprotected. Sure, even during the more hopeful late-2010s period we were documenting unpunished murders of social leaders and ex-combatants. Now, though, the crisis feels more generalized, happening in both rural and urban areas.

Many thanks to Rep. McGovern and his staff for taking this initiative to visit Colombia, to accompany its human rights defenders and victims, and to encourage the U.S. and Colombian governments to change course. I’m really glad they came, because this is a desperate time.

Colombia already had a plan for avoiding the outcome I’m describing here. It’s laid out in the 2016 peace accord. Despite the present desperation, and even though the U.S.-backed government rarely invokes it, the accord’s development, protection, reintegration, victims, and justice provisions continue to point to the best way forward. The hour is getting late, but it’s still possible to implement that accord.

5 links: October 12, 2021

(Even more here)

Colombia

De las 130.000 hectáreas fijadas, hasta el 4 de octubre solo fueron arrancadas 58.000

La ONU condena el crimen ocurrido en Tibú, en la convulsa región fronteriza del Catatumbo, y pide investigaciones de las autoridades colombianas

At least five American families have come down with ailments, said people familiar with the matter in Bogotá

Guatemala

Guatemala’s attorney general has transferred the prosecutor leading the office that took former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt and other former military officers to trial for crimes against humanity

Haiti, Mexico, U.S.-Mexico Border

Some say their arrival seemed more like a coordinated effort to ease the overwhelming number of migrants stuck at Mexico’s southern border

Weekly Border Update: October 1, 2021

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here. Due to staff travel, there will be no update next week; we will return on October 15.

Haitian migrants: Biden administration carries out an aerial expulsion campaign of historic proportions

By September 24, U.S. authorities had cleared the large encampment of mostly Haitian migrants near the Rio Grande in Del Rio, south-central Texas. Between September 9 and then, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) told Border Report, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Border Patrol had encountered 30,000 migrants in CBP’s once-quiet Del Rio Sector, most of them from Haiti.

According to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, 8,000 of these 30,000 crossed back into Mexico. About 13,000 were processed into the United States: about 3,000 sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers, and about 10,000—presumably mostly families with children—released into the U.S. interior to pursue asylum claims in the U.S. immigration system. As of the middle of this week, about 4,000 were still in DHS custody being processed, at which point officials would determine whether migrants get released, detained, or expelled, under the “Title 42” pandemic authority, back to Haiti without a chance to seek asylum.

It is not clear how DHS is determining which migrants get released, detained, or expelled. “Officials have said families with vulnerabilities could be exempted from Title 42 (pregnancy, medical issues),” tweeted Camilo Montoya-Galvez of CBS News. Another factor in favor of release, the New York Times indicated, is the ability to “produce evidence of a friend or relative who could help provide a foothold.”

The Biden administration’s effort to expel as many Haitians as possible has been massive. By the end of September 30, the U.S. government had expelled 6,131 Haitians on 57 flights to Port-au-Prince or the northern city of Cap-Haïtien, Haiti over 12 days. Seven flights landed on September 30 alone, discharging 773 expelled Haitians. Of the first 50 flights, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported, 32 had gone to the capital and 18 to Cap-Haïtien. About 44 percent of those expelled were women and children.

In the 12 months before September, ICE ran 57 removal flights to Haiti, according to the count kept by Witness at the Border. We have now seen 57 flights in 12 days.

More than 210 of the children expelled with their Haitian parents were born in Chile, Brazil, Venezuela, or Panama. Nearly all of the Haitians who arrived in Del Rio had not lived in Haiti in a long time: they had migrated to South America in the years after a 2010 earthquake devastated their home country. Many found Brazil and Chile, in particular, to be inhospitable, with legal status difficult to obtain or maintain. (Anti-migrant sentiment, in this case against Venezuelans, erupted in Chile’s northern city of Iquique on September 25. A march against migrants grew violent as protesters built a bonfire of homeless Venezuelans’ belongings.)

The journey from South America leads up through Panama’s Darién Gap jungles, Central America, and Mexico. Analysts and local officials voiced surprise that such a large number of migrants could cross Mexico, and arrive in the small city of Ciudad Acuña across from Del Rio, in such a short time. What we know is that the migrants crossed Mexico in small groups, often taking public transportation and paying a premium in artificially high fares, and in bribes at Mexican authorities’ road checkpoints. Writing for Politico, Jack Herrera reports that a rumor spread among Haitians that U.S. authorities were allowing crossings in Calexico, California, and Del Rio, and that September 16—Mexico’s bicentennial independence day, when authorities might be distracted—would be a good time to travel.

Giuseppe Loprete, the head of the IOM mission in Haiti, noted Haitians’ extreme anguish upon return to a country that most had fled years earlier. “They’re very distressed,” he told CBS. “They start crying the moment they arrive. I’ve seen young, strong guys—some freak out. Women cry. Kids cry because they see the women crying.” IOM is distributing meals, toiletries and a roughly $100 per person stipend to returned Haitians, and is testing them for COVID-19, which the U.S. government does not do. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) “said it is providing $5.5 million to IOM so it can serve deported Haitians,” according to CBS.

Ultimately, though, Haitians arriving in Port-au-Prince are being ushered out of the airport into what the Associated Press calls “an archipelago of gang-controlled islands in a sea of despair.” A strong statement from IOM and three UN agencies paints a very grim picture of an already-struggling country, the hemisphere’s poorest, that since July has seen its president assassinated, a devastating earthquake, and a tropical storm:

Haiti continues to face an escalation in violence and insecurity, with at least 19,000 people internally displaced in the capital Port-au-Prince in the summer of 2021 alone. Well over 20 per cent of girls and boys have been victims of sexual violence. In addition, nearly 24 per cent of the population, including 12.9 percent who are children, live below the extreme poverty line of US$1.23 per day. Some 4.4 million people, or nearly 46 per cent of the population, face acute food insecurity.

IOM, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) called “on states to refrain from expelling Haitians without proper assessment of their individual protection needs,” recalling that “International law prohibits collective expulsions and requires that each case be examined individually to identify protection needs under international human rights and refugee law.” That is the opposite of how Title 42, which affords no opportunity to ask for asylum, is operating.

Reuters reports that IOM asked Brazil to receive some Haitians who have Brazilian-citizen children, or who passed through Brazil on their way north through South America. Two sources “said the first request was more likely to be approved.” A DHS statement notes that the agency is engaging with Brazil and Chile “to ensure they too are doing their part to offer protection for vulnerable populations and receive individuals who had legal status there.”

That statement adds that DHS Secretary Mayorkas met on September 28 with Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond. Mayorkas thanked Haiti’s government “for supporting the safe return and re-integration of Haitian nationals.” He added that investigations of mistreatment of Haitian migrants “is ongoing”; Edmond had raised the shocking and widely shared photos and videos of mounted Border Patrol agents running down migrants on the banks of the Rio Grande in Del Rio.

No State Department official of similar rank was present at the Haitian ambassadorial meeting, but the newly confirmed Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Brian Nichols, traveled to Port-au-Prince September 30 with the National Security Council’s director for the hemisphere, Juan González. The visit appeared mostly focused on Haiti’s political impasse; the Miami Herald reported that “the duo said they had no agenda other than to listen to Haitians.”

Haitians in Mexico

Mexico’s government carried out its first removal flight to Haiti in some time, flying 70 Haitian migrants, including 13 minors, to Port-au-Prince on September 29. Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) called this an “assisted voluntary return” of Haitians who desired to go back to their country, or who at least had not voiced a desire to seek asylum in Mexico. It referred to those aboard as “the first group,” but it is not clear how frequently the INM plans to run these flights. Mexico reported deporting 223 Haitians in the first 8 months of 2021, 138 of them in August.

This flight occurred after a September 23-24 visit of Haitian authorities to Mexico’s southern border zone, where they toured INM installations and agreed to re-activate aerial removals. Those aboard the September 29 flight had been living in the southern border state of Tabasco, or in central Mexico. They had not been to the U.S. border, and had not been living in the southern border-zone city of Tapachula, where most Haitians in Mexico are currently stranded as they await decisions from the country’s backlogged asylum system.

Mexico’s foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, told a committee of the country’s senate that his government plans to provide refuge to about 13,255 Haitian citizens. “What will Mexico’s position be? That those who want refugee status will be granted it. Mexico is one of the countries that least rejects refugee status,” Ebrard said. The chief diplomat condemned excessive use of force by INM agents and National Guard personnel in the southern state of Chiapas in early September.

As noted in our September 3 and 10 updates, photo and video evidence showed Mexican personnel kicking, beating, and aggressively chasing Haitian migrants who had sought to walk northward from Tapachula, a city of 350,000 that offers them few income opportunities while they await asylum decisions from COMAR, Mexico’s refugee agency. The OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights added its condemnation, and urged Mexico to hold responsible personnel accountable, in a September 27 statement.

COMAR is taking steps to speed asylum processing in Tapachula, where 55,000 people had requested asylum between January and August. For the next four weeks, COMAR is managing a reception center outside Tapachula’s soccer stadium, where it plans to process 2,000 people per day, using about 200 staff, many seconded over from other agencies.

In August, Chiapas Paralelo estimated that as many as 30,000 Haitians were stranded near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, especially in the city of Tapachula. After so many fled to Del Rio, it’s not clear how many remain in Tapachula awaiting COMAR’s response; the agency is requiring all to check in at the stadium in order to remove inactive cases from its giant backlog.

On October 1 Andrés Ramírez, COMAR’s coordinator, tweeted that 90,314 people had requested asylum in Mexico between January and September, shattering the country’s previous full-year record of 70,423 set in 2019. At this pace, Ramírez pointed out, Mexico will receive 120,000 asylum requests by the end of 2021. More than one-third of Mexico’s asylum seekers so far this year are Honduran (31,884), followed by Haiti (26,007), Cuba (7,683), El Salvador (5,170), and Venezuela (4,670). COMAR also shows 3,591 Chileans and 1,691 Brazilians: many of these are probably children born in those countries to Haitian parents.

Haitians who remain in and around Ciudad Acuña, across from Del Rio, are under strong pressure from Mexican authorities to relocate or return to Tapachula, to await COMAR’s decisions on their status. INM has arranged transport for many to return to the southern city. Reuters notes that a growing number of Haitians are arriving elsewhere at Mexico’s northern border: in Tijuana, where a few thousand of their fellow citizens settled after a 2016 migration event. This population is generally doing well economically, but “most are wary of going public about their achievements lest it cause them problems with migration authorities or attract the attention of organized crime.”

Elsewhere in northern Mexico, in Tampico, Tamaulipas, some Haitian migrants protested outside the local INM office demanding that they be granted some legal status, without which the city’s hotels are prohibited from even renting them rooms.

The Darién Gap

Further south along the migration route, perhaps 17,000 to 19,000 people, mostly Haitians, remain crowded into the small Caribbean coast city of Necoclí, Colombia. For migrants who wish to pass through Panama and northward, Necoclí is where the road ends. Migrants must take a ferry across northwestern Colombia’s Gulf of Urabá, then cross into eastern Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap jungles.

Our September 10 update noted that 11,400 migrants were in Necoclí, with the town’s mayor predicting that “by the end of September we’re going to have more than 25,000 migrants.” That prediction wasn’t far off.

An agreement between Colombia and Panama is allowing ferries to take 500 people per day to Panama—but estimates of the number of people newly arriving in Necoclí range from 1,000 to 1,200 to 1,500, so the population in Necoclí keeps growing as the wait time for a ferry passage stretches through the end of October. That means a month camped on the town’s beach or paying $10 a night for a shared room, as townspeople charge migrants high prices for food, water, restroom access, and supplies for the journey through Panama. Some migrants are paying smugglers to take them across the Gulf clandestinely.

A handful of Haitians—perhaps 250, according to Colombia’s human rights ombudsman’s office—have decided to abandon their journey after seeing the Biden administration’s big expulsion flight push.

“So far this year,” Reuters reports, “88,514 migrants have entered Panama through the Darien jungle, according to figures from the National Migration Service, and Panama went from receiving an average of 800 migrants in January to 30,000 in August.” About 70 percent of them have been Haitian.

The idea of this many people passing through the Darién Gap is unheard of. This Connecticut-sized jungle zone, where the Pan-American highway ends and government presence is nearly zero, is notorious for the dangers it poses—both natural and criminal—to those who attempt the 60-mile, several-day walk. For a harrowing account of this region’s dangers, see “When Can We Really Rest,” an April 2020 report in California Sunday that won Canadian journalist Nadja Drost the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for feature-writing.

The Darién provincial prosecutor’s office has recorded the bodies of 41 migrants found along the region’s rivers so far this year. The Wall Street Journal, citing Doctors Without Borders and other sources, documented an epidemic of rapes of migrant women at the hands of criminals who operate freely in the zone. Still, as nearly a third of migrants U.S. authorities now encounter at the U.S.-Mexico border are coming from places other than Mexico or Central America’s northern triangle, we can expect even greater numbers of migrants from Haiti and elsewhere to attempt the journey through the Darién.

“Remain in Mexico” and Title 42 in the courts

On September 29 DHS announced its intention to issue a new memo terminating the Migrant Protection Protocols, or “Remain in Mexico” (RMX) program. RMX was a Trump administration initiative that forced over 71,000 non-Mexican asylum-seeking migrants to await their immigration hearings while living in Mexican border towns for months or years. The Biden administration terminated RMX on inauguration day, and formally terminated it in a June 1 memo. However, a lawsuit from the Republican attorneys-general of Texas and Missouri convinced a Texas district judge to force the Biden administration to restart the program, and the Supreme Court left that order in place pending appeals. (See our August 27 update for the full story.)

The ruling left the Biden administration compelled to implement a policy it bitterly opposes. Opponents of RMX, who cite at least 1,500 attacks and kidnappings suffered by migrants forced to remain in Mexican border cities, have contended that the administration might satisfy the courts’ conditions by issuing a new memo terminating the program, one that does more to explain its legal reasoning. That is the step that DHS announced this week.

The “re-termination” memo won’t necessarily stop the reimplementation of RMX for the time being, however. “A new memorandum terminating MPP will not take effect until the current injunction is lifted by court order,” the September 29 DHS statement explains. In the meantime, the Department must continue to show the Texas court that it is working “in good faith” to restart the program. That means ongoing diplomatic talks with Mexico about accepting other countries’ asylum seekers again, and building up staffing and “tent court” infrastructure near border crossings to handle cases.

Speculation continues that these “good faith” efforts could lead to some sort of “Remain in Mexico lite” that forces a smaller number of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico, but with “better living conditions and access to attorneys,” as Politico put it.

Even with RMX on hold, the “Title 42” pandemic expulsions policy continues to send large numbers of would-be asylum seekers either to their home countries (like expelled Mexicans, or the massive Haiti flights) or to Mexico in the case of citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. As noted in our September 17 update, on the 16th, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled that Title 42 could not be used to expel asylum-seeking families.

This victory for migrant rights groups has been followed by disappointment. Judge Sullivan delayed his ruling’s implementation for two weeks, to give the Biden administration—which used Title 42 to expel more than 92,676 family unit members between January and August—a chance to respond. On September 30, just as Sullivan’s ruling was to go into effect, a panel of three Washington, DC Circuit Court judges (appointees of Clinton, Obama, and Trump) stayed its implementation pending the outcome of the Biden administration’s appeal. As oral arguments on the appeal are scheduled for January, the Biden administration is free to expel asylum-seeking families well into 2022.

The Trump administration developed the Title 42 expulsions policy at the pandemic’s outset in March 2020, and the Biden administration has maintained it, although it no longer applies it to unaccompanied children. The policy has been roundly condemned by human rights and migrant rights groups, medical experts, and the UNHCR. Human Rights First has tracked “at least 6,356 kidnappings, sexual assaults, and other violent attacks against people blocked at ports of entry or expelled to Mexico by DHS since President Biden took office.” The ACLU led the litigation to stop its application to families, leading to Judge Sullivan’s September 16 ruling.

Officials like DHS Secretary Mayorkas insist that Title 42—which allows quick expulsions and thus less contact with possibly infected migrants—remains necessary due to COVID-19’s continued prevalence. “The pandemic is not behind us. Title 42 is a public health policy, not an immigration policy,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press on September 26. Mayorkas told a September 27 Migration Policy Institute conference that the migrant population has had “a rate of illness of approximately 20 percent.”

Mayorkas has publicly insisted that Title 42 is a public health measure and not an “immigration policy.” CBS News notes, though, that “in a court filing Monday [September 27] defending the continued enforcement of Title 42, Justice Department lawyers called the expulsion policy ‘a significant deterrent to the entry of family units.’” On a call this week with senior DHS officials, NBC News reports, Mayorkas also speculated that a termination of Title 42 for families could lead to “a worst-case scenario in which 350,000 to 400,000 migrants cross the border in October,” roughly double the high migration totals of July and August.

In a filing, several children’s and migrants’ rights groups urged the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to lift the court order forcing the Biden administration to reinstate RMX, citing the number of children that the program had subjected to “gang violence, attempted kidnappings and unsanitary conditions.” A September 28 Noticias Telemundo report published horrific accounts of torture, rape, and kidnapping suffered by more than 30 migrants expelled into Mexico between 2019 and 2021. Expulsions have also led to the death of asylum seekers who see no choice but to re-enter the United States. “Maria Eugenia Chavez, a Mexican national who twice crossed the border and asked the Border Patrol to file an asylum claim only to be returned to Mexico under Title 42, drowned off the coast of San Diego when the boat she was on fell apart on her third attempt to cross the border,” reads a September 28 tweet from the Immigrant Defenders Law Center.

The ACLU vows to continue pushing the Title 42 case. “I think litigation is as important in holding the feet to the fire of our quote ‘allies’ [in the Biden administration] as it is about fighting the foes of civil liberties and civil rights, because that is what creates the political will,” Executive Director Anthony Romero told the Associated Press. “The policies that they [Biden administration officials] are actively pursuing are very different than the ones they promised,” added Todd Schulte of FWD.us. “The policies they are actively pursuing are failing. Yet the continued direction is in the wrong direction.”

Texas’s crackdown overwhelms its courts

In Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has loudly criticized the Biden administration’s border and migration policy from the right, the state government continues its own crackdown on migration. Abbott will double the Texas National Guard presence along the border, using state funds, to about 2,500 guardsmen by the end of October. Even after the Del Rio migrant camp was cleared, the Texas National Guard left 70 Humvees “prepositioned in the area in case a similar situation arises,” Stars and Stripes reported.

The guardsmen are in addition to a federal force of 3,500 National Guardsmen deployed along the entire border since 2018 to support CBP. The Texas Military Department posted a request for volunteers on social media, offering guardsmen who join the effort lodging and a $55 daily per diem. The Texas force will be building border barriers—a 10-foot chain link fence—mainly on private land with border landowners’ permission. About three miles of fence have been built so far. This is all part of a $2 billion program of enhanced border security measures that Abbott, who is up for re-election in 2022, calls “Operation Lone Star.”

As part of that operation, National Guard troops—who are rarely given arrest authority on U.S. soil—arrested more than 2,000 undocumented border crossers, and reported seeing another 200 turn back into Mexico, in just the past week, a Texas official said on September 30. While Texas cannot charge its detainees with violating federal immigration law, it has jailed at least 1,000 single men since June for state crimes, nearly always trespassing. Detained migrants are being held in two prisons in central and south Texas (Dilley and Edinburg). As of September 27, the state prisons were holding more than 900.

This has not been an orderly process. On September 28 the state was forced to release 243 jailed migrants because they had not been formally charged with any crime within the 15-day deadline state law requires. The delay usually owes to the Texas state police force’s (Department of Public Safety) inability to produce arrest reports without long delays.

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid came to an agreement with counties’ prosecutors to release the migrants, 168 of whom had been held without charges for more than 30 days. Most don’t speak English and have “spent weeks or months with little to no legal help, few opportunities to talk to their families and often fewer chances to find out what is happening to them or how long they will be imprisoned,” the Texas Tribune reported.

Once Texas releases migrants—whether because they were uncharged, or because they have finished serving their jail time—they don’t necessarily end up in ICE custody; some may be released into the U.S. interior. “It is not clear how many people Immigration and Customs Enforcement might choose to take into custody, and the agency did not immediately clarify,” the Washington Post reported.

On another legal front, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody filed a lawsuit September 28 seeking for the Biden administration to stop the practice of releasing migrants with pending cases, including asylum seekers, into the U.S. interior. This suit would seem to contradict laws giving DHS discretion about whom to detain, and legal precedents (like the 1997 Flores settlement agreement) limiting child and family detention. But the U.S. legal system has issued some surprising rulings on immigration lately, so it’s impossible to say with certainty that this legal challenge won’t move forward.

Links

  • For the second time, the Senate’s Parliamentarian has dealt a blow to Democrats’ efforts to use budget legislation to allow about 8 million undocumented immigrants in the United States to apply for legal status. This proposal, Elizabeth MacDonough ruled, was not sufficiently budget-related. As a result, under Senate rules, the immigration legislation would need 60 votes to stop debate and move to a vote—that is, to block a Republican “filibuster.” Democrats hold 50 seats in the 100-seat Senate. Senate Democratic leaders are weighing next steps.
  • Citing Freedom of Information Act documents that he had to fight to obtain, Bob Moore of El Paso Matters found that CBP often turned away asylum seekers at the El Paso port of entry in 2018, claiming they were “at capacity” even when the port had plenty of available space to hold them. “We knew, we knew, we knew (that the capacity explanation was untrue), and there was nothing that we could do about it,” said Ruben Garcia of El Paso’s Annunciation House shelter.
  • “Migrant deaths from border wall falls have increased from four in 2020 to 12 this year as replacement border wall barriers increased in size under former President Donald Trump, according to the Southern Border Communities Coalition statistics,” writes Pedro Rios of the American Friends Services Committee. “There have also been hundreds of injuries, according to the Mexican Consulate. In a meeting between local San Diego advocates and then-Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott in June 2018, which I attended, Scott shared that the Border Patrol purposely chose the height of new replacement border wall after it conducted psychological tests to establish at what height an average person becomes so disoriented that he or she would stop climbing a wall—30 feet.”
  • A letter to Justice Department leadership and the DHS Inspector-General from Alliance San Diego alleges that former Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott, who left his post in August, is violating the Ethics in Government Act. Scott established a consulting firm in July, while still working for Border Patrol, and issued a Facebook request for CBP and ICE personnel to provide information, possibly including restricted information, “to counter the lies and misinformation that the DHS Secretary and Biden officials spew.”
  • “Today, while asking me about who I was visiting on my trip, a Border Patrol agent said I was being ‘coy’ with my answers and suggested that it would be possible that I am friends with—I kid you not—Osama Bin Laden,” tweeted Abdallah Fayyad, a member of the Boston Globe’s editorial board.
  • “For the past decade,” writes Border Patrol critic Garrett Graff at the Washington Post, the agency’s “heavily armed and kitted-out agents have primarily faced a much different challenge that it’s proved itself repeatedly poorly equipped to handle,” that of processing protection-seeking migrants.
  • Mexico’s chief prosecutor, Alejandro Gertz Manero, met with U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland in Washington. “The two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to work closely on criminal investigations and prosecutions of cross-border crime,” reads a Justice Department statement, “including with regard to narcotics and firearms trafficking, human smuggling and trafficking, and illicit finance and money laundering.”
  • Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) has lifted his hold on the nomination of Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus to be the next commissioner of CBP. The nomination will begin advancing through the Senate Finance Committee (“Finance” because of CBP’s “Customs” role). Wyden had been demanding that CBP first provide information about the Trump administration’s violent deployment of border personnel to Portland, Oregon to confront protesters in 2020.
  • “Relentless in its border crisis coverage, Fox News has influenced how other cable networks, such as CNN and MSNBC, talk about the border,” Sergio Muñoz of Media Matters for America said in an excellent narrative analysis by Melissa del Bosque at the Border Chronicle. “Major news outlets characterize the border as in crisis, playing into the right-wing narrative that it is a dangerous place and under constant assault, and that Trump’s policies, which effectively ended asylum, should remain in place.”
  • A new Biden Administration initiative is providing government-funded attorneys to unaccompanied children facing deportation proceedings in eight U.S. cities.
  • Once released from Office of Refugee Resettlement custody to family members or sponsors in the United States, many unaccompanied children face years in “a purgatory of insecurity and, on occasion, exploitation” as they wait years for their cases to be decided, writes immigration scholar Diana Gordon at the New York Review of Books.
  • Expelled migrants, among them would-be asylum seekers, held a protest south of the borderline in Nogales, Mexico, on September 25. When a few participants in the protest tried to approach the U.S. port of entry to petition for asylum, CBP shut the automatic gates, sealing off the port.
  • Two Mexican military vehicles carrying 14 soldiers crossed an international bridge into El Paso after midnight on September 25. CBP detained the soldiers, processed them, and sent them back to Mexico within hours. One was found to be possessing a small amount of marijuana. “The CBP (agents) yelled at the soldiers to put their hands up and drop their weapons immediately,” a witness told Reuters.
  • “Just 35% of Americans approve of [Joe] Biden’s handling of immigration, down from 43% in April, when it was already one of Biden’s worst issues,” according to a new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.

Weekly Border Update: September 24, 2021

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.

A large group of Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas faces horses, hunger, expulsion flights, and—for some—“notices to report” in the United States

This week, one of the remotest and most rural segments of the U.S.-Mexico border witnessed an event of major humanitarian, human rights, and political impact. Over the course of about a week a large group of migrants, mostly Haitian in origin, arrived en masse at the border crossing between Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila, Mexico, and Del Rio, Texas, a site where the Rio Grande is shallow enough to wade across.

By September 18, Del Rio’s mayor, citing information from Border Patrol, said that 14,534 migrants were encamped on the riverbank, under and around the border crossing bridge. There, while awaiting their turn to be processed by Border Patrol, they washed in the river and slept in tents, under shelters built out of vegetation, or in the open air. While access to the site has been restricted, the scene appeared to be chaotic but peaceful.

Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, which sits east of Big Bend National Park and west of Laredo, usually ranks low among the agency’s nine land border sectors in number of migrant arrivals. By August of this year, though, Del Rio had broken its annual record for migrant encounters.

Between October 2020 and August 2021, Del Rio border agents encountered citizens of Mexico, Honduras, Venezuela, Haiti, Ecuador, and Cuba at least 10,000 times each. Fear of organized crime in Mexico’s borderlands influences where migrants cross, and word had gotten out among citizens of these countries that Ciudad Acuña was a relatively safe place. “It’s unclear how these rumors started,” Nicole Phillips of the Haitian Bridge Alliance told the Intercept.

How they’ve arrived

Though Haiti this year has suffered COVID-19, the assassination of its president, an earthquake, and a tropical storm, very few of the Haitians in Del Rio have been there recently. Most left the country years ago, in the years after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, to pursue work opportunities in South America, especially Brazil and Chile. (Haitian labor was important, for instance, in Brazil’s effort to build infrastructure for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.)

The pandemic hit South American economies hard, and several Haitian migrants in Del Rio told the New York Times that “they made the journey because they had lost their visas or their jobs and had no choice but to find a way to survive in the United States.”

At the moment, large numbers of Haitian migrants are backed up at key points along the migrant trail between South America and the U.S.-Mexico border. A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) document seen by NBC News claims that 3,000 Haitians are currently in Peru. Colombia’s human rights ombudsman, Carlos Camargo, said on September 22 that 19,000 mostly Haitian migrants were waiting in the Caribbean coast town of Necoclí for their turn to take ferries to Panama.

Once there, they walk through eastern Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap region, an ungoverned jungle area where unknown but significant numbers die of dehydration or illness, or are attacked and robbed—or worse—by criminals. This is the heaviest year ever for migrant flows through this route; estimates range from “more than 50,000” people to “more than 70,000 people, among them 13,000 children” passing through the Darién so far this year.

The DHS document cited by NBC estimates that about 1,500 Haitians are in Panama. In August, Panama’s migration authorities reported encountering 15,279 Haitian citizens exiting the Darién Gap.

In August, Chiapas Paralelo estimated that as many as 30,000 Haitians were stranded near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, especially in the city of Tapachula. There, most are confined to the area as they await decisions on asylum requests before Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR. Our weekly updates from late August and early September covered Mexican authorities’ repeated attempts to keep Haitian and other migrants from leaving Tapachula on foot. These included four operations to stop “caravans” in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas. Some of these operations generated outrage, as photos and videos circulated of agents from Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) chasing and beating migrants.

Following a September 21 conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Mexico’s Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said that most of the Haitians in Mexico had refugee status in Chile or Brazil and were not seeking it in Mexico. (In fact, Haiti is the number-two country among COMAR’s asylum applicants.) “What they are asking for is to be allowed to pass freely through Mexico to the United States,” Ebrard concluded.

It remains a mystery how nearly 15,000 Haitian migrants could so quickly make their way to remote Ciudad Acuña so soon after INM’s repeated crackdowns in Tapachula. “Many of the recently arrived Haitians took buses through Mexico, expediting their arrival and increasing their numbers,” NBC reported. They were able to do so despite the INM, National Guard, and other Mexican agencies maintaining numerous highway checkpoints.

“The Haitian community did not arrive at the northern border without the complicity of the federal authorities,” alleges veteran migration reporter Alberto Pradilla of Animal Político. “Either they looked the other way or they benefited (there are policemen who asked for bribes and companies that charged tickets at a very high price).” Pradilla also speculates that the INM may have responded to criticism of its human rights performance in Chiapas by catching a case of the “blue flu.” He notes, “a week of looking the other way shows the consequences [of their inaction], and then they can tell the U.S., ‘don’t question our methods.’”

Many Mexican officials blame organized crime. “They are domestic gangs, they come from the south and everything derives from there, but whoever receives them here also has to do with the polleros [smugglers] who work between Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Coahuila,” said Coahuila governor Miguel Riquelme. The smugglers “have tricked them…telling them, let’s go to the United States because they’re going to give us residency or even citizenship,” said Ebrard.

According to the Associated Press, though, the Haitian migrants are “a population that relies little on smugglers and instead moves based on shared experience and information exchanged between the tight-knit community, often via WhatsApp or Facebook, about where it is safest, where jobs are most plentiful and where it is easiest to enter a country.” Earlier this year, the AP notes, Haitians were coming more frequently to the El Paso sector hundreds of miles west of Del Rio. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that the shift to Del Rio “was unusually sudden.”

Following this word of mouth, Haitians are even leaving other Mexico border cities to travel—eastward or westward, often through territory under heavy organized crime influence—to Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio. In the Gulf Coast state of Tamaulipas, Mexican authorities forced a group of a few hundred Haitians to dismount the buses on which they had been riding. They walked or hitched rides northward, and by the middle of this week, many were sleeping near the border in San Fernando—a town notorious for a 2010 massacre of 72 migrants by the Zetas organized crime group.

Some arrived in the Tamaulipas border city of Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas—a town known both for very high violent crime and for a very large population of mostly Central American migrants recently expelled by the United States. Few Haitians plan to stay or to cross there. (Milenio reported, though, that some intend to settle in the prosperous industrial city of Monterrey, just south of Tamaulipas.)

A Haitian woman in Reynosa told the Rio Grande Valley Monitor that her goal was to arrive in Ciudad Acuña, more than 300 miles away—and that she wasn’t even aware that Reynosa was on the border. On the other end of the border, other Haitian migrants are planning to leave Tijuana for Ciudad Acuña, according to Milenio.

Catching U.S. authorities unprepared

The rapid arrival of such a large population of migrants in Del Rio came as a surprise to U.S. authorities. CNN reported that Border Patrol agents in Del Rio had been asking management since June for more resources to process migrants, but—at least according to the local union—had not received an adequate reply.

In response to the Haitians’ rapid arrival, CBP surged 600 Border Patrol agents, CBP officers, and DHS volunteers to Del Rio, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said during a September 20 visit to the sector. CBP also shut down Del Rio’s official land port of entry (the border bridge), and closed Border Patrol checkpoints north of Laredo, Texas, allowing traffic to flow freely without inspection while personnel moved to Del Rio.

By September 21, CBP had constructed a field hospital and was more systematically providing food for migrants encamped around the border crossing. Chef José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen also provided numerous free meals. But for the first several days, food and clean water were scarce at the Del Rio site. This forced migrants to wade into Ciudad Acuña, Mexico to buy food at local stores and restaurants, then wade back into the United States with their provisions.

Some disturbing images

On their return to U.S. soil, some of the migrants, often laden with bags of food, encountered hostile Border Patrol agents on horseback. Photos and videos showed agents appearing to charge at migrants, including some children, at the water’s edge, apparently trying to force them to return to Mexico. One can be heard using a profane slur against Haiti. Some are shown waving or making slapping motions with lariats or long reins, which bore a resemblance to whips.

“Video footage of Border Patrol’s actions in this incident clearly demonstrate that the migrants being encountered by mounted agents did not present an imminent threat,” an ACLU letter describes the scene. “In one video an agent stops a family with small children, makes derogatory and xenophobic comments to the family, and then maneuvers his horse in a way that comes dangerously close to trampling a child.”

Border Patrol Chief Raúl Ortiz, a former Del Rio sector chief, claimed the agents were attempting to control the horses with the reins. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote that “this was an apparently isolated encounter, one that soon resolved with those seeking to enter the country and return to or arrive at the camp able to do so.”

Nonetheless, images of uniformed White men on horseback menacing Black people with what looked like whips blanketed U.S. social media on September 19 and 20, inspiring horrified reactions.

Immigrant rights and civil rights groups joined in condemnation. In Miami, 200 Haitian-Americans protesting outside the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) field office forced road closures. The NAACP tweeted side-by-side “then” and “now” images: a drawing of a slaveholder whipping a Black man next to one of the Del Rio photos. A letter from civil rights groups said Biden’s promises for a more humane immigration policy “are being shredded before our eyes.” Human Rights Watch called it “the latest example of racially discriminatory, abusive, and illegal U.S. border policies that are returning people to harm and humanitarian disaster.”

Reactions in Congress were strong. The images were “horrific and disturbing,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “We had not seen the horses and the whips with any other population of people, so that to us goes to racism,” said Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. House Oversight Committee Democrats sent a letter demanding a briefing from Biden administration officials by September 24.

Strong words also came from the Biden administration itself. “As it relates to those photos and that horrific video, we’re not going to stand for that kind of inhumane treatment and obviously we want this investigation to be completed rapidly,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. “What I saw depicted, those individuals on horseback treating human beings the way they were, was horrible,” said Vice President Kamala Harris. “Human beings should never be treated that way, and I’m deeply troubled about it.”

On September 24, President Joe Biden addressed the images for the first time. “It’s horrible what you saw. To see people like they did, with horses, running them over, people being strapped, it’s outrageous,” he said. “I promise you, those people will pay. There is an investigation underway right now and there will be consequences.”

DHS promised an investigation and disciplinary actions, and suspended the use of horse patrols in Del Rio. However, “There is little reason to have confidence in the department’s willingness to hold its agents accountable,” Chris Rickerd and Sarah Turberville contend at the Los Angeles Times, noting that “CBP’s own records found that it took no action in 96% of 1,255 cases of alleged Border Patrol misconduct between January 2012 and October 2015.”

The state government’s “steel wall”

Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R), an immigration hardliner who has made border security a signature issue as he heads toward a 2022 re-election campaign, sent hundreds of Texas state police to Del Rio, where they parked their vehicles in a tight line along the bank of the river. It’s not clear whether Haitian migrants were deterred by Abbott’s so-called “steel wall” of cars, since they were already on U.S. soil and waiting for Border Patrol to take them into custody and process them.

On the right, where some conservative media has been openly portraying this non-white migration as part of a Democratic party-orchestrated “great replacement,” politicians called for a Trump-style crackdown on asylum seekers and defended the actions of the Border Patrol agents depicted in the controversial horseback photos. “As tens of thousands of illegal immigrants come across the border, Joe Biden promises them citizenship,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) falsely stated on Twitter.

Meanwhile, life in the small town of Del Rio has been largely unaffected by the situation along the riverbank. “Residents collectively agreed the situation at the bridge and the release of migrants into their region and town are not directly affecting their daily lives,” read a Washington Examiner article whose headline nonetheless describes the town as a “dusty war zone.”

Expulsion flights

While voicing outrage about the horse patrol photos, Biden administration officials doubled down on the use of Title 42, the pandemic provision that the Trump administration implemented in March 2020 and the Biden administration has continued. Title 42 allows U.S. authorities to expel undocumented citizens rapidly in the name of public health, even without affording them a chance to ask for asylum in the United States.

“I want to make sure that it is known that this is not the way to come to the United States,” DHS Secretary Mayorkas said. On September 19, DHS began filling planes with Del Rio Haitians and expelling them back to Haiti, regardless of asylum concerns. The tempo of flights from Texas to Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien increased from three on September 19 to six on September 24.

By the evening of September 23, the number of Haitians taken from Del Rio and flown back to Haiti had climbed to 1,949. Those sent back to Haiti reported being shackled by their hands and feet for the duration of their flights. Some said they were not told where the planes were going, and only found out they were back in Haiti—a country most had left many years ago—when they landed. 

DHS is not testing the expelled Haitians for COVID-19. The Haitian government claimed it would provide food, a COVID test, and US$100 cash to the new arrivals, but “deportees said they got only half or a quarter of that amount,” according to the New York Times.

Expelled migrants vented their despair at the Port-au-Prince airport. They pelted a plane with stones and shoes on September 21. Authorities dumped their belongings on the tarmac; “video footage taken at the airport shows people scrambling for their personal belongings,” the BBC reported.

Jean Negot Bonheur Delva, the head of Haiti’s government migration office, pleaded for a suspension of the flights. “It is unconscionable to return migrants against their will to this situation of uncertainty and mortal danger,” read a statement from Doctors Without Borders, which adds, “The insecurity that we see today in Port-au-Prince is the worst we have seen in decades.”

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi put out a statement voicing his “shock” at the images from Del Rio and calling for the United States to “fully” lift the Title 42 expulsions policy. After a meeting between Congressional Black Caucus members and White House officials, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California, who WOLA presented with its 2021 Human Rights Award on September 22) called for a halt to deportations of Haitian migrants. Speaking from the Senate floor, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said, “I urge President Biden to put a stop to these expulsions and to end this Title 42 policy at our southern border. We cannot continue these hateful and xenophobic Trump policies that disregard our refugee laws.”

As we noted last week, on September 16 U.S. District Judge Emmett Sullivan ruled that Title 42 must no longer be applied to families—but he paused his ruling, which the Biden administration immediately appealed, for two weeks. If the appeals court doesn’t overturn Sullivan’s decision by October 1, it’s possible that DHS will no longer be able to expel Haitian or any other families.

Some are released

Only a fraction of the Haitians in Del Rio are being put on planes. Some, especially those with small children or unspecified “vulnerabilities,” are being given a chance to apply for asylum in the U.S. interior. These releases are happening on a “very, very large scale,” in the thousands, a U.S. official told the AP. Who goes where appears to be determined by a color-coded system of “tickets” that Border Patrol agents have been handing out to yet-to-be-processed migrants.

As often happens with asylum-seeking families, most are being released with a notice to appear at ICE offices, in or near their destination cities, within 60 days. These “notices to report” take less time to issue, but they are not appointments for a hearing to start immigration proceedings.

DHS, with support from the Defense Department, has been busing Haitian migrants from Del Rio to other, more populated, Texas border sectors, and flying a few to Tucson, Arizona, where Border Patrol then processes them. Those who are processed in Del Rio itself and then released are mostly dropped off at the town’s bus stop, which is really just a gas station.

Mexico starts cracking down

At least several hundred (or possibly several thousand) of the migrants, fearing expulsion to Haiti, fled back across the river from Del Rio to Ciudad Acuña. The Mexican town has since been encircled by migration agents and other authorities, who have been sweeping through parks and hotels where migrants have been staying.

While Mexico isn’t sending captured migrants back to Haiti—at least not yet—it has begun busing and flying many back to southern Mexico: the cities of Villahermosa, Tabasco, and Tapachula, Chiapas, where thousands of migrants are already living while they await decisions on their asylum applications. Detained migrants, an official told AP, may be “flown directly to Haiti once Mexico begins those flights” if they fail to ask for asylum.

Those who ask for asylum inside Mexico will wait many months for a decision from the country’s overburdened refugee agency, COMAR. As a steady flow of Haitians continues to manage to exit Tapachula, the COMAR office in Mexico City this week saw a big jump in Haitian asylum seekers applying there.

Guantánamo?

On September 22 NBC News, noticing an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contract announcement, reported that the agency was seeking a private contractor to run a Migrant Operations Center at the U.S. naval facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The facility, which was used in the 1990s to detain thousands of Haitians intercepted at sea, has not been used for that purpose since 2017.

“The facility has a capacity of 120 people and will have an estimated daily population of 20 people,” the request reads. “However the service provider shall be responsible to maintain on site the necessary equipment to erect temporary housing facilities for populations that exceed 120 and up to 400 migrants in a surge event.”

A DHS spokesperson was quick to clarify that the agency did not intend to use the facility to hold Haitians detained at Del Rio or elsewhere along the land border. It is apparently being stood up to respond to a possible increase in Haitians attempting to migrate by sea.

Dissent within the Biden administration

The persistence of Title 42 expulsions, and a general sense that the administration’s immigration and border policies lack direction, appear to have increased frustration among officials within the Biden administration. There are also splits between those who want a new approach to asylum-seeking migrants at the border, and those who urge tougher policies to “deter” large-scale migration.

“Several officials who have been involved in discussions about the border said that Susan E. Rice, Mr. Biden’s domestic policy adviser, has been a leading proponent of more aggressive enforcement,” the New York Times notes, “arguing that it is more compassionate to pursue an immigration system that is orderly in order to pass broader reforms.” However, “Esther Olavarria, a Cuban-born immigration lawyer who serves as Ms. Rice’s deputy, has often pushed to allow more migrants into the United States so they can pursue asylum claims.” DHS Secretary Mayorkas “is sympathetic to Ms. Olavarria’s view, several people said, but as the head of the department he has been the public voice of the harsher approach.”

Speaking anonymously, some of 20 government officials who communicated with BuzzFeed’s Hamed Aleaziz had some strong things to say:

  • There is a complete lack of direction. Everything is deferred to the White House National Security Council, which can’t see past low polls on immigration and are terrified their own shadow may be a pull factor. Career and political staff are equally concerned.”
  • “I don’t know what our immigration strategy is at all. I don’t know if we are building an infrastructure for the future, or what direction we will be going in as we head into a midterm election year.”
  • “They are almost exclusively focused on detention, deterrence, and generally treating asylum-seekers with as much violence and inhumanity as the prior administration. Honestly, I don’t know how much longer I can stay at DHS if this continues. I stayed because I believed Joe Biden and Kamala Harris when they promised to build it back better. The despair I am feeling about what they are doing now is indescribable. I can’t go on like this.”
  • “​​This administration’s immigration policy is schizophrenic. Their words are not backed up by policy choices or deeds. The border would be challenging under any circumstances, but this administration is stuck in a deterrence-only posture, expecting different results from similar approaches. Flows are going to continue. It would be better for the administration to focus on how to process them in a faster and more humane manner instead of focusing on how to convince desperate people not to make the journey.”

On September 22, the State Department’s special envoy for Haiti, Dan Foote, resigned with a very strongly worded letter. “I will not be associated with the United States inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees,” he wrote.

Numbers are going down in Del Rio

Meanwhile, at the Del Rio site, the number of migrants awaiting processing continues to fall. As of the morning of September 23, there were just over 4,050, down from the September 18 peak of 14,534. The chief executive of Val Verde County, of which Del Rio is the seat, said that the expectation is for the camp to be empty by September 25, as migrants are expelled, flee to Mexico, are moved elsewhere for processing, or are released into the U.S. interior. 

Update: as we write this on September 24, Secretary Mayorkas is reporting that the Del Rio site is now empty of migrants. 

Links

  • “Suddenly Ecuadoreans, Brazilians, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, Haitians and Cubans are turning up by the hundreds of thousands, a trend that accelerated sharply in the past six months,” reads a Wall Street Journal analysis. “After the pandemic, what we are now seeing is like a pressure cooker in which the valve has exploded,” said Enrique Vidal, of the Tapachula, Mexico-based Fray Matías de Córdoba Human Rights Center.
  • As of September 20, Texas state authorities operating under Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) orders had arrested 925 migrants, mainly on trespassing charges. They’ve been sent to jails in Dilley and Edinburg.
  • Guatemalan authorities report that between August 22 and September 20, 238 buses had dropped off 8,594 Guatemalans and Honduras at the very remote Mexico-Guatemala border crossing of El Ceibo. Mexican authorities have expelled these migrants—many of them expelled by the United States on flights into southern Mexico—in most cases without offering any opportunity to request asylum or protection in Mexico.
  • A still-unreleased DHS Inspector General report finds that CBP improperly targeted U.S. advocates whom the agency believed had some involvement with 2018-19 migrant caravans through Mexico. These individuals were subjected to more intrusive inspections when crossing the border into the United States, and “sensitive information” about them was shared with the Mexican government.
  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s much-heralded effort to assist Central American nations with job-creation efforts—and thus reduce migration—has fallen far short of its objectives, reports Animal Político.
  • Just-retired former Border Patrol chief Rodney Scott authored a letter claiming—among numerous concerns—that Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas “and other political appointees within DHS have provided factually incorrect information to Congressional Representatives” and are directing Border Patrol to admit people who, in Scott’s view, should be expelled under Title 42.
  • A dozen organizations (including WOLA) published “a summary of migrant and refugee rights violations in Mexico documented by civil society organizations and journalists from August 2021 through the present.” It recommends an immediate rescission of the Title 42 expulsions order.
  • BuzzFeed reports that CBP officers insisted on expelling back into Mexico a Honduran LGBT woman whose spine was fractured in an anti-gay attack in Mexico, and who had also been raped by Mexican police.
  • In operations involving more than 28,000 personnel, Mexico’s armed forces claim to have had a hand in 63,614 migrant apprehensions between August 21 and September 20. That, if reported accurately, would shatter Mexico’s monthly migrant apprehensions record of 31,396 set in June 2019. Mexico’s INM reported apprehending 117,052 migrants over the first 7 months of 2021.
  • At National Geographic, Anna-Cat Brigida explores the “collective despair”—depression and suicide—plaguing Honduran youth, many of whom choose to migrate.
  • Border Patrol is expanding its hiring of “Processing Coordinators,” a new non-law-enforcement position, The Hill reports. They will be charged with handling asylum seekers’ paperwork and release or handoff to other agencies—tasks that have been up to armed, uniformed Border Patrol agents up until now.
  • The Texas Civil Rights Project reports that on September 21, “a federal judge ordered that Pamela Rivas be given back her land, which was seized for the border wall in Los Ebanos, Texas. This is the end of a condemnation fight that began under President Bush in 2008.”
  • A CBP officer was among those arrested at the small “Justice for January 6” far-right protest in Washington on September 18.

Order at the border

I’m rushing these words out because we need to have this conversation now. Just like it says at the top of this site, these are my views, not necessarily the consensus view of WOLA. I base them on 10 years of border policy work. Still, I have blind spots—we all do, this is a very complicated issue—so I’m happy to be corrected.

Many Democrats, including those who support immigration reform, see images like this one and worry. They see themselves losing ground to the Greg Abbotts and Ted Cruzes. Even among Latino constituents who, until recently, voted reliably Democratic.

Why are they losing ground? Because these images look chaotic. They look disorderly.

You may feel empathy for the migrants, but you’re worried about your community too. Since COVID began—even since the 2008 financial crisis began—you’ve seen high-paying jobs disappear, crime rates climb, services cut back. It feels like the wheels are coming off.

You want government to stop the chaos. (Whether the chaos is perceived or real, you want it to stop.) As it spreads through communities, that desire for order is catnip to the Abbotts, Cruzes, and Stephen Millers out there calling for crackdowns on migrants.

But do you know who else wants order? Desperately?

These people.

The Haitians in Del Rio right now have circumnavigated the Western Hemisphere for a decade, trying to outrun chaos and severe uncertainty. They want an orderly, predictable, safe place to raise their kids and earn a living.

But when they finally get to the US border, do they find “order?”

No. They see this.

Agents charging at them on horseback. But also, a migration and asylum system so underfunded and rickety—so unable to adjust to what’s now a 7-year trend of asylum-seeking migration—that it’s easily overwhelmed, leaving them under a bridge for days.

Chaos.

So voters, including those who view themselves as welcoming, want order and predictability. Migrants want order and predictability too.

Also, residents of border counties and states—many of them hit hard by COVID and economic blight—don’t want to feel overwhelmed. That’s fine: most migrants have support networks elsewhere in the US, far from border counties and states.

So if everybody except the “deterrence through cruelty” crowd wants an orderly, non-chaotic process, what would that look like?

Obviously, nothing at all like Del Rio.

But what? Here are some ideas. Let’s go south to north.

In the region

First, ours should be a region of countries nobody feels forced to leave. That’s the “root causes” strategy we’re always hearing about. A key “root cause,” though, is so-called “partner” governments or elites that are corrupt and despotic. Help the reformers, not them.

If large numbers of people in a country are fleeing for their lives, don’t make them run the gauntlet of Mexico so they can touch US soil and ask for asylum. Make refugee status more available, in their own countries, to people in grave danger.

On migration routes

If people do have to flee through Central America and Mexico, the trip shouldn’t be terrifying. Some transit visas are OK. Help prosecutors, investigators, and others working to dismantle criminal networks that prey on migrants. And the corrupt government officials who enable them.

Many asylum seekers may be happy to settle in countries along the way, particularly Mexico, if those countries have credible, quick asylum processes and ways to make a living. Help those countries’ refugee agencies, like Mexico’s underfunded COMAR, to be more welcoming.

At ports of entry

Many, though, aim to seek asylum in the United States. That should mean going to a port of entry and asking for protection. What should happen then?

First, there should be no wait. After 7 years of large-scale family and asylum-seeking migration, our land border ports of entry need to adjust. There should be personnel at the port on hand to respond to asylum seekers, who can then be taken to nearby processing facilities.

What are these “nearby processing facilities?” We’re talking about a place where people spend a day or two while personnel take biometric data, look up criminal backgrounds, test for disease, start asylum paperwork, etc.

Those personnel need not be uniformed, gun-toting Border Patrol agents, who don’t want to do this paperwork anyway. CBP’s Processing Coordinator program is a start.

So to recap: asylum seekers come to a port of entry and are taken to (probably austere, warehouse-sized) facilities where they spend a day or two being processed. They get meals, a chance to take a shower, somewhere to sleep.

They get credible fear interviews, or dates for such interviews, or immigration court hearing dates in the cities where they intend to live with relatives or other support networks. And then, in nearly all cases, they’re released into the US interior.

Alternatives to detention

“The US interior” rarely means border towns, other than a moment at charity-run respite centers. Most migrants have relatives or support networks all over the country. Efficient processing and alternatives to detention means migrants spend very little time in border communities. Locals need not worry about absorbing them.

When released, asylum seekers go into “alternatives to detention” programs that supervise their stay in the United States. Case officers who link them with social services and ensure they attend all their hearings.

Past pilot “alternatives to detention” programs that involve case workers’ regular check-ins, and clear explanations of the process, have managed to get nearly all migrants to show up for their court dates. And they’ve cost a small fraction of what ICE detention costs.

Adjudication

The adjudication of asylum claims, though, shouldn’t take the 3 or 4 years or more that it currently takes in our backlogged immigration court system. If large-scale migration is our new reality, then we’re going to need more asylum officers and judges to reduce wait times.

How long should it take to adjudicate asylum claims? As long as due process allows. This is not my area of expertise, but I imagine it would probably be well under year inside the United States, normally, if our system weren’t so badly backlogged.

Once a migrant gets due process and a decision is handed down, what if they don’t qualify for asylum or other protected status in the United States? This is painful, but even under a pretty generous interpretation of our asylum laws, many would have to leave.

Some who don’t have strong asylum claims may still get to stay, for instance, if our temporary guest worker visa program expanded its country carve-outs to align with reality. (And clearly aligned with fair labor standards to avoid abuse.)

Make the border boring

The goal here is no more chaos, even in our 2014-to-present environment of very high family and asylum-seeking migration. Ideally, this entire process—work with other countries, processing, alternatives to detention, adjudication—would be efficient, data-driven, and… even boring.

There’s really no other choice but to bring order from this chaos. 10 different Latin American countries have seen large-scale out-migration this year. From COVID to climate change, there are many reasons this isn’t going to change soon.

An orderly, “boringprocess would mean no more Fox News B-roll, no more squalid camps, and no more anxiety in border communities. It would devastate smugglers. It would cost money, but probably less than hundreds of miles of border wall construction.

WOLA Podcast: A Conversation with WOLA’s New President, Carolina Jiménez Sandoval

At the beginning of the month, I recorded a reflective podcast with WOLA’s outgoing president, Geoff Thale. As a counterpart to that, here’s a conversation with our incoming president, Carolina Jiménez. We talk about her past work as a human rights advocate in Venezuela and Mexico, how civil society has evolved throughout Latin America, the threat of authoritarianism, opportunities in US policy, and her next (or first) steps at WOLA.

Enjoy this one. Here’s the text at WOLA’s podcast landing page.

This week, Adam introduces WOLA’s new president, Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, to listeners.

The conversation addresses Carolina’s Venezuelan roots and the international experience that led her to pursuing a career in human rights, concerning trends across the Latin America, and the United States’ complicated legacy and present role in supporting positive initiatives in the region.

They also discuss WOLA’s upcoming Human Rights Awards ceremony and the Colombian groups that will be honored. The discussion paints a picture of what organizations working for human rights are doing to collaborate in a new era, and what the future of advocacy for human rights in Latin America may hold.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Photo

Saturday evening’s sunset at Washington DC’s MacMillan Reservoir.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.