Adam Isacson

Defense, security, borders, migration, and human rights in Latin America and the United States. May not reflect my employer’s consensus view.

June 2018

The day ahead: June 29, 2018

I’m unreachable mid-afternoon, writing otherwise, so replies may be delayed. (How to contact me)

I’m in the thick of drafting our reporting on last week’s border field research, and have an internal planning meeting in the mid-afternoon. I’ll only be looking at e-mail and other communications intermittently.

The day ahead: June 28, 2018

I’m writing at home, but semi-reachable, in the morning. In the office, and reachable, in the early afternoon. Unreachable after mid-afternoon. (How to contact me)

After last week’s border trip and a lot of side research, I’ve got a 115-page matrix of findings, conclusions, and recommendations, using a methodology I learned doing that USAID Colombia evaluation earlier this year. At this point, it will be a matter of 10-15 hours to draft a detailed, graphical (and much shorter) report that we can publish after the July 4 break.

So I’m working on that all morning, at home, through lunchtime. Then I’ll head to the office and do some housekeeping and news updating. At 4:00 I’m on a panel at the Inter-American Dialogue about Colombia’s incoming government and the peace process. Come by and say hi if you’re in DC.

Most new cocaine production is not U.S.-bound (unless the law of supply and demand is broken)

Dig up all the U.S. government’s estimates of how many tons of cocaine are produced in the Andes, from the State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Reports.

Then look at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s purity-and-inflation-adjusted estimates of how much the average gram of cocaine costs on U.S. streets. (Table 7.5 here.)

That data, graphed out, looks like these:

In basic economics classes, you quickly learn the law of supply and demand: when something is more plentiful or demand for it decreases, the price goes down. When it becomes scarcer or demand increases, the price goes up.

That’s barely happening here. Between 2012 and 2016, the U.S. government’s estimate of South American cocaine production shot up 113 percent. In Colombia, the source of about 92 percent of cocaine consumed in the United States, cocaine production increased 268 percent.

With that much more illegal product headed our way, you’d expect U.S. street prices to fall sharply between 2012 and 2016. And they did fall—but not sharply. The estimated price of a gram of cocaine dropped only 15 percent over those four years.

What’s going on here? It’s possible that both supply and price estimates are wildly inaccurate. It’s also possible that most of the new cocaine supplies are headed to other countries, like Europe, Brazil, even China.

The White House contended in a press release Monday that increased cocaine supply “directly relates” to increased demand. “The number of new cocaine users in the United States has increased by 81% since 2013,” it reads, “and overdose deaths involving cocaine have more than doubled during that same timeframe.” Most of that increase in overdose deaths (66 percent of cases in 2015) involves combining cocaine with opioids.

These worrying indicators are still lower than the 268 percent supply increase from Colombia. Prices would have to drop more than 15 percent to entice that kind of an increase in users.

The most likely explanation, then, is that most of the new worldwide cocaine supply is not coming to the United States. The new UNODC World Drug Report, released this week, estimates that North America accounts for 34 percent of the world’s cocaine market—that’s down from “about half” in the agency’s 2000 report.

“Facebook live” coming up in <45 minutes

(Update 5:00PM: That was fun. I think we hit all our points concisely and it turned out really well.)

From WOLA’s website:

Update from the border: Facebook live

WOLA’s Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights Maureen Meyer and Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson just returned from a research trip to the U.S.-Mexico Border in Arizona where they investigated what is happening to migrant families and asylum seekers on both sides of the border.Maureen and Adam were in Arizona and in Nogales, Mexico, when the Trump administration announced its shifting policies on family separation. They had an opportunity to speak with migrants, volunteers, and lawyers on both sides of the border to hear first hand why so many families continue to flee their home countries. They also witnessed how dozens of families and children are waiting for days on the Mexican side of the border for the chance to apply for asylum at the understaffed ports of entry, while many others are forced by organized crime networks to cross the border outside of the ports leaving them to face criminal prosecution and detention in the U.S.

Tune in on Facebook Wednesday to hear more about what they saw, what WOLA and advocates are doing about it, and how you can help.

An early incident casts doubt on the incoming Colombian president’s independence—and the peace accord’s future

An incident late last week in Bogotá, getting reported as hearsay in Colombia’s media, raises serious concerns about the independence of President-Elect Iván Duque from his patron, the hardline former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe. It also raises concerns that the peace accord with the FARC, which Duque and Uribe both criticize but Duque has promised not to “tear up,” is in grave trouble.

Here, writing in Spain’s El País, is analyst Ariel Avila of the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, a critic of Duque and Uribe:

The transition between the outgoing and incoming government has begun and, as expected, the peace issue has been the most decisive. Currently, the Congress is considering a bill that would become the procedural law for the JEP, or Special Peace Jurisdiction [the peace accords’ transitional justice mechanism for trying the most serious war crimes]. Though it is an ordinary law that only impacts timeframes and procedures, the Democratic Center Party [that of Iván Duque and ex-president Álvaro Uribe] opposed it and has blocked its advance through the Congress.

In their meeting last week, both President Juan Manuel Santos and the president-elect, Iván Duque, decided to call the president of the Constitutional Court, Colombia’s maximum judicial tribunal, in order to clear up some of the new government’s doubts about this law. Several sources said that Congresswoman Paloma Valencia, one of the most active in ex-president Álvaro Uribe’s party, upon hearing that Duque green-lighted a meeting of congressional blocs to move the bill forward, immediately took out her telephone and apparently called Uribe, not Iván Duque. And as would be expected, Uribe added conditions to President-Elect Duque’s decision.

El Espectador offers a bit more detail about this bizarre incident.

There is a final detail that El Espectador learned. Sources with seats in the Capitol confirmed that, while the Santos-Duque meeting was happening, another meeting was taking place in the Interior Ministry with a subcommittee of legislators who were delegated to review the JEP’s situation. …What drew attention was the phone call that the uribista congresswoman [Senator Paloma Valencia] made while the meeting was going on.

What happened? The first agreement that Santos and Duque arrived at, as the President himself said on Friday, was to call the president of the Constitutional Court, Alejandro Linares, to get him to clear up the president-elect’s doubts about whether or not procedure allowed the JEP’s law to be approved [before the Court has ruled on the constitutionality of the JEP’s larger statutory law, passed last November. The Constitutional Court ruling on that is due any day now].

Linares said that the Santos administration was right, and there was a green light to pass the law. With these doubts cleared up, the incoming chief of state asked for a meeting between his party’s congressional bloc and representatives of other parties to hear proposals about the bill that would become the procedural law.

The message—and this is what those present in the Interior Ministry say—arrived immediately. The government conveyed the message to Paloma Valencia who, surprised, apparently said, “Iván said that?”

She immediately grabbed her mobile phone: “Hola, pre [as in ‘presidente’].”

But she wasn’t talking to Duque, but to ex-president Álvaro Uribe, whom she consulted about the new president’s decision, asking him for instructions.

Uribe gave his approval to what was agreed between the outgoing and incoming presidents, but he asked the Senator [Valencia] to add three conditions: that FARC members responsible for the most serious crimes would be prohibited from participating in politics, to create a new separate chamber to judge military personnel within the JEP, and to establish a special procedure for third-party civilians involved in the conflict [for instance, landowners or politicians who aided paramilitaries. These three conditions radically alter what is in the peace accord and could be dealbreakers].

Without alluding directly to this episode, President Santos said, “Those issues would require a constitutional reform, but any modification on which there is consensus, that improves the accords, would be welcome.” …However, he alerted that “it’s not the right moment to block efforts to do our duty to the victims. I hope that you vote on the JEP procedural law. I’m leaving government and I leave peace in your hands.”

What happened behind the backdrop is a first bit of evidence about the independence of the president-elect, Iván Duque, and the leadership that he will exercise over his party’s bloc in the Congress, of which ex-president Uribe is also a part.

Ávila concludes:

For context, two considerations. On one hand, Iván Duque’s independence is going to be rather complicated, and the fear that he may look more like a puppet than a president is starting to circulate in the corridors of politics. It would be something like the relation between Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev in Russia. And on the other hand, everything seems to indicate that the idea of destroying all of President Santos’s legacy, and obviously the peace deal, is their first and most important objective.

WOLA Podcast: What We Saw at the Border

Here’s a new podcast with Maureen Meyer and Adeline Hite, whom I accompanied last week at the Arizona-Mexico border. We cover a lot of ground in this 25-minute conversation about the things that most stood out to us on last week’s trip, which I documented in a few posts from the road: what “zero tolerance” looks like in Arizona, who is coming and seeking asylum, what’s happening at ports of entry, and the tragedy of family separations..

24 years of coca and eradication in Colombia

Over the years I’ve been inadvertently building a big collection of “graphs that need periodic updating, which makes them more complicated.”

This one depicts coca cultivation in Colombia, and efforts to eradicate it, since 1994. There are two measures of coca cultivation, from the United States and the UN. Eradication has mostly occurred through aerial spraying of herbicides (which stopped in 2015) and through manual uprooting or spraying of plants.

New U.S. data came out yesterday, with a stern scolding from the White House. The UN hasn’t issued its 2017 estimate yet, but local media have reported 180,000 hectares last year.

This chart tells quite a story if you stare at it long enough. But my main takeaways are:

  • Aerial herbicide fumigation—the cruelest of the strategies because it anonymously dumps herbicides over small farmers’ legal crops and homes while leaving behind no government presence—is able to reduce coca cultivation from “insanely high” to “moderately high” levels, after which growers adjust and bring cultivation back up to “high” levels.
  • Manual eradication seems to correlate more strongly with reductions in coca growing, and it requires at least some on-the-ground government presence. But it’s dangerous for the eradicators, generates conflict with communities, and growers replant if the government disappears once the eradicators vacate the area.
  • What hasn’t been tried is actually having a functioning government presence on the ground providing public goods (security, roads, land titles) necessary for a legal economy to exist. The FARC peace accord offers one version of a blueprint for how to make that work, and has improved security conditions, for now. But with the accord’s critics waiting to take power on Colombia’s August 7 inauguration day, that blueprint’s future is in doubt.

The day ahead: June 26, 2018

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

After travel and a lot of writing, I have a day without meetings to hopefully catch my breath. I’m catching up on correspondence and overdue administrative tasks at the office, and also making progress on writing up what we learned during last week’s border trip. Between fieldwork and research on written sources, I’ve got an insane 114-page matrix of findings, conclusions, and recommendations that now needs to be turned into readable, usable products. That will be my main focus for the rest of the week.

More findings from the Arizona-Mexico border

Border fence follows a hill east of the Nogales port of entry.

Hello from a plane returning from Tucson, where we spent all day yesterday and all morning today. It’s been busy:

  • We went to Nogales, on the border, and spent time with the Kino Border Initiative (KBI), a Jesuit-run service and advocacy group that runs a shelter and dining facility on the Mexican side of the border. (WOLA gave KBI its 2017 human rights award.)
  • We visited the Nogales port of entry and talked with Mexican officials there.
  • In Tucson, we visited Casa Alitas, a small, volunteer-run, short-term shelter for asylum-seeking families released from Border Patrol and ICE custody, similar to the Yuma Refugee Ministry I wrote about on Wednesday morning.
  • We visited the Florence Project (named for the nearby Florence immigration detention center), where lawyers are representing asylum applicants and trying to reunite families with separated children.
  • We visited a monthly legal clinic taking place in a high school cafeteria, where volunteers were offering support and advice for citizenship, DACA, asylum, stays of removal, and other needs within the migrant community.
  • We visited a longtime public defender.
  • We had dinner with a local journalist.
  • We had repeatedly sought a meeting with Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector headquarters, where we have met with management twice during the past five years. After some back-and-forth, our request was routed to CBP in Washington, where a public outreach official said he’d try to help arrange a Tucson meeting, then stopped responding.

Messages from kids who’ve stayed at Casa Alitas.

Here’s some of what we learned:

“Zero tolerance”—Jeff Sessions’s effort to prosecute all improper border crossers—is causing misery, but has made only a modest difference in a sector where courts were already near capacity. In 2006 and 2008, Arizona’s border sectors were the first to pioneer “Operation Streamline,” a program that submits some apprehended border-crossers to federal prosecution, with daily trials of dozens of people at a time. Now operating everywhere along the border except California—where it will soon be rolled out—Streamline has operated continuously in Tucson for 10 years. In addition to being deported, migrants get a criminal sentence: usually, if it’s their first offense, “time served” in detention with no additional federal prison time. Proponents say this criminal penalty discourages recidivism (repeat border crossing), although the data don’t seem to support that.

Since Tucson was already Streamlining dozens of people per day, Sessions’s “zero tolerance” edict has only modestly sped the pace of prosecutions. The increase, though, has been enough to bring the federal court up to its capacity, which appears to be about 75 improper-entry cases per day. (By comparison, zero tolerance has raised federal court caseloads in McAllen, Texas, where far more migrants are apprehended, from 20-30 immigrants per day to 150 per day.) Full “zero tolerance is impossible,” one local advocate told me, because “they’d have to build new detention space in the courthouse.” The new policy is stretching prosecutors and judges, who have been given no additional resources to deal with the increased workload—just an order from the Department of Justice for “no dark courtrooms,” meaning they should use all available space all the time.

At the law clinic.

Because of these capacity issues, Tucson is not near zero tolerance. The main difference now, though, is that some of the defendants are asylum-seeking parents who have just had their children taken away from them. That wasn’t happening before. Nobody had a count of how many times this has happened in Tucson since the new policy went into effect. Many families, though, continue to be released without prosecution: every day, ICE hands over to Casa Alitas as many parents and kids as the volunteers can accommodate.

People can’t choose where they cross. They have no choice but to break the law. We really need to hammer away on this point. We heard it in both Yuma and Tucson:

  • Organized crime has had a lock on cross-border migration for at least the past 10 years. (Building border fencing made it easier for organized crime, because far fewer border miles are easy to cross, creating bottlenecks where cross-border activity is easier to control.) It’s difficult and dangerous to attempt to cross the border on your own, without a paid, cartel-approved smuggler.
  • This means that virtually all asylum-seeking families have to pay a smuggler.
  • The “correct,” legal way to cross the border and ask for asylum is to do so at an official port of entry. Under zero tolerance, this is the only method by which asylum-seekers can cross to avoid arrest and possible family separation.
  • Smugglers don’t care about the “legal” way to cross the border. Families have to cross where the smuggler tells them to. That would be in the territory where organized crime allows the smuggler to operate. That territory probably doesn’t include a port of entry.
  • So asylum-seeking families are forced to cross the border illegally, in Arizona often by climbing the fence and presenting themselves to Border Patrol.

Asylum seekers would much prefer to cross legally, but they cannot because of organized-crime conditions on the Mexican side. But zero tolerance means U.S. authorities will arrest and possibly separate them anyway, even as they claim a fear of return.

As in Yuma, most Central American families appearing in Tucson are Guatemalan. Casa Alitas also sees “lots of Brazilians, a sprinkling of Mexicans, fewer Hondurans, and even less Salvadorans.” As in Yuma, the Guatemalans, many of them indigenous people speaking Spanish as a second language, tell of increased gang violence, extortion, and threats even in the rural highlands.

Newly deployed National Guard troops working construction on the U.S. side of the border fence in Nogales.

The asylum-seekers’ line at the port of entry is long and slow. On the Mexican side of the Nogales port of entry, on a covered patch of sidewalk right up against the borderline and the gate leading into the U.S. facility, a dozen mats are laid out together and covered with blankets. Yesterday, 19 parents and kids, including some unaccompanied kids, were sitting on these mats, waiting for the CBP officers guarding the gate to grant them permission to enter and petition for protection. (This is also new: CBP officers are now ensuring that nobody crosses the line onto U.S. soil, and approaches the counters where inspection actually happens, without first showing proper documents. In Nogales, they ensure that nobody passes by standing behind the gated turnstile, which they keep from rotating by blocking it with an orange construction cone.)

It is hot. Some of the parents waiting have books and phones; there are donated toys for the kids. Volunteers, from KBI and from Nogales shelters, bring water and snacks. They’re very much out in the open, alongside the port of entry’s pedestrian lane, so reporters come and snap photos of them, which they do not like (and which is why we have no photos of them). (Added 3am: looks like the Washington Post ran a photo of them this afternoon.)

The 19 awaiting their turn at the entrance are those who have been waiting in Nogales the longest: 10 days for those at the front of the line. KBI and local shelters have set up a system of access to the port of entry so that everyone need not spend 10 days out in the open. Yesterday, a total of 113 people were waiting their turn to talk to CBP, about 48 families. More than half of the families are awaiting their turn at the KBI shelter.

At the head of the line were two mothers and their kids from the highlands of Guerrero, Mexico. They told of an untenable situation in their home town, which lies near violently contested poppy fields and heroin trafficking routes. Since March, armed groups had killed one mother’s sister-in-law. They had cut off the town’s electricity and were prohibiting anyone from repairing it. The community is confined, and food and basic goods were running short. Schools are closed. On the day they fled, a shoot-out was happening in the middle of town. In the past three months, the local armed groups had begun targeting women and children more specifically.

CBP officers at the Nogales port are only processing about six people a day, a humanitarian worker accompanying the families told me. Her “strong sense” is that it was processing more in the past, before zero tolerance increased traffic at the ports of entry by making them the only way to seek asylum without getting prosecuted. In Nogales, she said, a deliberate slowdown at the behest of an anti-immigrant president can’t be ruled out—the port of entry has holding capacity for 47 people, and while other “inadmissible” arrivals may take up some room, space alone probably doesn’t explain why they can only accommodate six people per day.

On the other hand, she said, the Nogales port suffers from severe personnel shortages, which slow paperwork and transportation. CBP’s port-of-entry force, the Office of Field Operations, is about 4,000 officers short of its “workforce model” nationwide, and Nogales is one of the most short-staffed ports along the U.S.-Mexico border. It has been operating with CBP officers transferred temporarily from airports, who may be less familiar with the context and dynamic of the asylum seekers showing up there.

I have a very big backpack.

The number of deportees from Mexico remains high. As they travel with smugglers, Central American kids and families are not very visible in Nogales or Yuma. They tend not to stop by the KBI dining facility, for instance, where only 8 percent of the migrants who pass through are Central American. Most of those at the comedor—1,000 people in May—are Mexicans who have just been deported. Of those, about 35 percent are ICE deportees who were detained in the interior of the United States, and may have been living there for years. The rest are recent border-crossers. Of these, many were imprisoned for improper entry, but not all of them. While San Luis, across from Yuma, saw a decrease in deportees since May, Nogales has not.

A young Honduran man said he broke both of his phones’ screens when he fell off of the “La Bestia” train.

As elsewhere, the effort to reunite separated asylum-seeking families is a horrific mess. “It’s really hard to find them,” a lawyer at the Florence Project told us. Attorney’s only get access to separated parents—that is, knowledge that they exist—once they’re about to appear before a judge, and ensuring that they have a chance to express fear to return to their country is not easy in the criminal system, which is not set up for that. It’s easier to find out that a separated parent and child are seeking asylum from the children, if the child is able to communicate that. In their Office of Refugee Resettlement facilities, the kids have more access to legal service providers, and can express fear of returning to their countries. ORR can then make the necessary contacts to find the parent and ensure that the asylum petition happens.

There are some amazing people in Tucson. In addition to the dedicated staff and volunteers at the organizations listed at the beginning of this post, we met some incredible volunteer attorneys and advisors offering up their services to some of the most vulnerable members of their community. There was only one actual immigration attorney at the legal clinic we visited because, in a lawyer’s words, “it’s an incredible business moment” for those who charge for their services. Instead, people are being helped by “a ragtag army” of tax lawyers, personal-injury lawyers, and specialists in other types of law, some of them retired.

We met a group of women who have guided 2,000 local people successfully through the citizenship and naturalization process in the past five years. Most remarkably, nearly all the volunteers are parents of DACA recipients, not citizens. “We want the others to become citizens so that then they will vote,” one DACA mom said.

Breakfast at the Kino Border Initiative comedor.

We were inspired and amazed by the people we met at the clinic, at the legal aid offices, at the shelters and dining facility. We salute them. And we especially salute the parents who, in order to save their kids from harm and to give them a chance to grow up free of fear, have uprooted themselves, traveled hundreds or thousands of miles, and are now facing uncertainty in shelters, in detention centers, and on the pavement outside the ports of entry.

Notes from yesterday in Yuma

Good morning from Tucson, Arizona, where we arrived yesterday evening after a 220-mile drive through the desert from Yuma. We spent yesterday in Yuma and across the border in San Luis Río Colorado, Sonora. We met with Mexican migration authorities (INM and Grupo Beta), with the Casa de Migrante migrant shelter in San Luis, with a U.S. federal law enforcement agency to whom we promised an off-the-record discussion, and here in Tucson with the Colibrí Center, which seeks to match relatives with the remains of unidentified migrants who die of dehydration or exposure on U.S. soil.

Playground at the fence.

Very quickly—we’re getting an early start at the border in Nogales this morning, and I’ve got to go—here are a few things we learned yesterday.

  • About 90 percent of migrants whom U.S. authorities apprehend in the Border Patrol’s Yuma sector are non-Mexican. of these, 88 percent are from Guatemala. Most are children and members of family-unit members. (Nationwide, only about half of children and families are Guatemalan.) Why so many Guatemalans here? The answer seems to lie in the preferences of migrant smuggling networks.
  • As Yuma suddenly became the border’s number-two destination for children and families about a year ago, U.S. authorities’ holding facilities were at double their capacity, mostly with Guatemalan kids and families, for most of 2018. Over the first two weeks of June, though, the numbers plummeted by about half. They appear to be recovering in the past week, though; a possible reason is out-migration following the eruption of Guatemala’s Fuego volcano earlier this month.

The Mexican child-welfare agency has a facility to receive deported unaccompanied children. Including toddlers who’d go in these cribs.

  • U.S. authorities usually deport about 11,000 Mexican citizens to San Luis each year (12,000 in 2017), or about 1,000 per month. That pace picked up to more than 1,500 per month in the first four months of 2018. In early May, though, things slowed down a lot, and the monthly total dropped to only about 500. During the first 3 weeks of June, CBP, ICE, and U.S. Marshals have dropped off only 263 Mexican citizens at the San Luis port of entry. Mexican officials don’t know why; the new “zero tolerance” policy of 100% criminal incarceration of improper border crossers could be a factor.

The Colorado River is on the other side of this fence.

  • Smugglers have not adjusted their routes in response to the new “zero tolerance” policy. They still encourage migrants to climb the fence and seek out Border Patrol, which today leads to arrest, prison, and family separation (and now perhaps family incarceration)—even for asylum seekers. This is largely because smugglers only control certain territories. If the official port of entry, where asylum-seekers can cross legally, is not in that smuggler’s territory, he cannot drop the migrants off there. This is important: it is now impossible to cross from San Luis without a smuggler, because of the territorial control that organized crime has consolidated since about 10 years ago. So migrants must hire a smuggler, and have no choice but to cross the border where that smuggler tells them to. In many cases, then, asylum-seekers are forced to commit the crime of “improper entry,” which gets them arrested, because they are not free to seek asylum the legal way at the port of entry.
  • The Yuma sector is heavily fenced off, so even families who intend to ask Border Patrol for protection have to climb the fence to do so. They mostly climb over at a stretch of fence that is 1990s-era “landing mat” style (built from sheets of metal that the U.S. military used in Vietnam to create makeshift helicopter landing sites). Though easy to climb on the Mexican side, the ground is lower on the U.S. side, leading to a very long drop. Injuries, especially broken bones, are frequent.

  • We saw no asylum-seekers waiting at the San Luis port of entry or at the shelter (which mostly receives deported Mexicans, not northbound Central Americans). The U.S. facility at the port of entry was quite empty at mid-day yesterday. Mexican authorities say there has been no increase in asylum-seekers coming to the port of entry.
  • But three Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers were standing outside the facility, right on the borderline, demanding that we show documents in order to enter the facility. This is a new practice that has received much media attention: asylum-seekers have a right to ask U.S. officials for protection at a port of entry, but they must first step on U.S. soil. The CBP officers are keeping them from doing that. U.S. authorities say they are metering the flow of asylum-seekers so the port of entry does not get overwhelmed. Lawyers and advocates representing asylum-seekers say that in many cases they are illegally turning people away, saying for instance, “we’re full, come back tomorrow.”
  • When deportees who have spent time in federal prison are returned to Mexico, “they come back skinny,” apparently underfed, according to two sources.

At the Casa del Migrante.

  • When spouses are caught together and criminally charged, they are separated (going to male and female prisons). Upon their release, they have a hard time learning the other’s whereabouts. On the Mexican side of the port of entry, we spoke to two tearful women who had been deported moments earlier. Both had been in prison for “improper entry” for a month. Neither had any idea where her husband was.
  • The women also had not had their belongings returned to them: identity cards, money, cellphones. U.S. migration authorities destroy belongings that go unclaimed after 30 days, and don’t necessarily transfer them to the Bureau of Prisons or U.S. Marshals. It is up to the migrants to ask the Mexican consulate to hold on to their things while they are incarcerated; these women didn’t know that.
  • As is the case elsewhere along the border, newly deployed U.S. National Guard personnel are not on the borderline or in any situation that might involve contact with migrants or U.S. citizens. They are in rooms monitoring camera feeds, or helping to maintain and move vehicles and equipment.
  • The remains of 44 migrants have been found in the deserts of Arizona’s Tucson sector between January and June 4th. That’s similar to the 57 remains found in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector between October 1 and May 30. The hot summer months, when the rate of deaths increases, still lie ahead. Most of those being found in Arizona appear to be recent Mexican deportees who lived in the United States for a long time and were seeking to be reunited with spouses and children in the United States.

Good morning from Yuma

Good morning from Yuma, Arizona, where we landed at about 4:00PM yesterday. We’re about half an hour’s drive from the Mexico border right now, and about the same distance from Arizona’s border with California. With this visit, since 2011 we on WOLA’s Border and Migration Program have now worked in seven of the nine sectors into which U.S. authorities divide the U.S.-Mexico border.

We’d never been to the Yuma sector before because its 126 border miles, 107 of them fenced off, had been quiet over the past 10 years. Yuma had scored near the bottom in the rankings of migrants apprehended, drugs seized, and Border Patrol agents stationed. Rather suddenly, though, starting last summer the Yuma sector moved to the number-two position among the nine border sectors in the number of asylum-seeking children and families turning themselves in to Border Patrol. It’s a distant second place: for every child or family member apprehended in Yuma last month, five were apprehended in Texas’s busy Rio Grande Valley sector. But the growth in this quiet, remote region is puzzling.

We went straight from the airport to a local church that hosts the Yuma Refugee Ministry, a group of volunteers who, since 2013, have given a brief respite to asylum-seeking families that ICE releases from custody. The mostly Central American families get let go, after approximately four days of detention and processing, because ICE lacks space to detain them and because U.S. jurisprudence prohibits long-term detention of children.

The Ministry gives the families a place to sleep, eat, and get cleaned up while they await the bus or plane that will take them wherever in the United States that they plan to settle while undergoing their asylum process.

The mothers we saw at the Ministry came mostly from Guatemala; one was from Honduras and one from Chiapas, Mexico. All were wearing ankle bracelets: under an effort called “alternatives to detention,” parents who get released pending asylum applications must always wear tracking devices. Measures like this avoid the $319 per day cost of family detention while still guaranteeing that nearly all show up in immigration court.

Yuma-area volunteers started the Refugee Ministry after ICE started dropping off growing numbers of bewildered asylum-seeking families at a local Wal-Mart parking lot. The Ministry operates on a shoestring budget, sharing space with the church, and can only accommodate just over a dozen people at a time. Those whom ICE doesn’t take to the Ministry end up being dropped off hours away in Phoenix or Tucson, or most commonly at the Yuma bus stop (the city doesn’t have a bus terminal).

President Trump and other critics deride this practice as “catch and release,” and Attorney-General Jeff Sessions has pledged to end it. His “zero tolerance” policy seeks to arrest all adults who cross the border between official ports of entry, which is a misdemeanor, even if they are seeking asylum. Under this policy, U.S. authorities are criminally charging parents and, since they can’t have their kids with them in prison, tearing their children from them and handing them off to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

“Zero tolerance” isn’t yet happening 100 percent of the time. In Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, the Border Patrol sector chief told the Washington Post, “We are trying to build to 100 percent prosecution of everybody that is eligible,” but they were only arresting about half.

That’s still the case in Yuma, too. Alma and Conor, the volunteers we spoke to at the Refugee Ministry, said that arrests and family separations are definitely happening, though they didn’t know how frequently—but ICE is still dropping off families as quickly as the Ministry can accept them.

The Yuma Refugee Ministry needs support. They need more volunteers: a problem has been indifference or even hostility toward migrants, even in this majority Mexican-American city. The Ministry needs food, refrigerators, laundry equipment, and mattresses.

Volunteers said the best way to help is to make a donation to Trinity United Methodist Church, specifying that it should support the Refugee Ministry. (The way to do that appears to be to go here, click “give online,” and type your amount into the “Yuma Refugee Ministry” field.)

Volunteers preparing dinner.

Here are a few things that the volunteers, and the families staying there yesterday, told us.

  • The Yuma sector has lots of border wall already. (According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, hard-to-climb “pedestrian fence” covers 47 percent of the sector. It is in those areas that Border Patrol apprehended 67 percent of border crossers in 2013-15, so most migrants don’t seem to be trying to get around the fence.) In most cases, volunteers said, asylum-seeking parents climb over the fence—carrying their small children or babies—and then turn themselves in to Border Patrol. The top of the fence is sharp, they say, and some parents show up with cuts.
  • Despite the “zero tolerance” dictate that the only way to avoid arrest is to seek asylum at a port of entry (an official land border crossing), “only a few” families are showing up at the ports of entry. As elsewhere along the border, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers are standing on the line stopping would-be asylum-seekers and telling them to come back another day because they are at capacity. They are not doing this every day, however.
  • Volunteers did not know why Yuma has seen this sharp increase in Central American children and families since last summer. One speculated that it could be that until recently, ICE was mostly not requiring parents to wear ankle bracelets.
  • Families showing up at the ministry are mostly from Guatemala. (About half of Central American children and family unit members being apprehended nationwide are Guatemalan.) Of the 14 or 15 migrants there yesterday, all were Guatemalan except a family from Honduras and one from Chiapas, Mexico. Most of the Guatemalans are “very poor,” from very rural areas, often more comfortable speaking indigenous languages than Spanish, and unused even to being in cars. The Guatemalans are leaving for security reasons: “anyone who starts doing well economically, like a baker whose store is making money, starts getting extorted and threatened.”
  • Arrivals of suspected gang members are unheard of. The Ministry, volunteers said, have had thousands of people come through over the past five years and only experienced two instances of petty theft. The families tend to be scrupulously honest.

With Conor, Alma, and WOLA’s Mexico director, Maureen Meyer.

En route to Arizona

This graphic shows Border Patrol’s apprehensions of unaccompanied children and families in all nine U.S.-Mexico border sectors since October 2016. The charts explain why three of us from WOLA are on a plane to Arizona right now. (Arizona’s two sectors are highlighted in yellow.)

The part of the border that has seen the most child and family arrivals continues to be south Texas (“Rio Grande Valley”), where we have visited more frequently, last time in December. That sector is getting heavy media attention, as it should.

But the city of Yuma (pop. 95,000) and its surrounding southwest Arizona desert is in second place, in a virtual tie with El Paso, even though it has been one of the border’s quietest regions during the past 10 years. The Tucson sector, which includes the border city of Nogales, comes next, ahead of California and most of Texas.

“Why are violence-fleeing Central Americans suddenly coming to Yuma?” is one of the questions we’ll be asking there, and across the border in San Luis Rio Colorado, tonight and tomorrow. Along with

  • “how is Jeff Sessions’ ‘zero tolerance’ policy affecting you”;
  • “what is happening to parents and children here”;
  • “how are asylum applicants faring at the ports of entry”;
  • “what is happening with the new National Guard deployment”;
  • “how are the policy changes being felt on Mexico’s side of the border,”

and others. Then we’ll go to Tucson and Nogales (Arizona and Sonora) to ask the same questions. In that more populated area, there is a larger community of migrant shelters, pro bono lawyers and public defenders, journalists, and activists doing important work. We’ll also talk to Border Patrol and any other authorities who will give us a meeting.

The plan is to report from the field as much as possible. Most of that will get posted to WOLA’s website or to social media, but I’ll link from here too.

The “cages”

That’s me in the white shirt, in this 2014 Border Patrol photo reproduced in a June 6 Washington Post fact-check piece. The article’s author found fault with Sen. Jeff Merkley’s (D-Oregon) portrayal of the site we’re walking through, Border Patrol’s “Ursula Street” Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, as “hundreds of children locked up in cages.”

The photo, which shows kids behind chain-link fencing (call it “cages”), comes from an August 2014 visit to McAllen and Reynosa, Mexico with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts, yellow shirt). (Rep. McGovern published some photos from that trip, and we at WOLA made an elaborate podcast episode about it.)

We were some of the first to be let into the Ursula facility, which had just opened to deal with the wave of unaccompanied Central American children that made national headlines in May-June 2014. It was meant to be a place where unaccompanied kids would stay for a maximum of 72 hours while the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, located relatives or other shelters for each child to stay with.

Migrants who’ve been through there call the “Ursula” facility “la Perrera” because it looks like a dog kennel. And Sen. Merkley is right: kids were, and are, being kept in chain-link enclosures in what was once a warehouse. This was true even in 2014, when Barack Obama was president.

The facility was rather empty when we showed up in early August, as the 2014 unaccompanied children “surge” receded quickly after June.

We were jarred by the fencing, the concrete floors, the mylar blankets, and the always-on lighting reminiscent of a Costco. It was dehumanizing. But though I mentioned my shock in the podcast, I didn’t dwell on it.

Conditions at Ursula were—still are—illustrative of the American people’s stinginess with these unwanted arrivals: there was no budget for anything nicer than this, and Congress wasn’t about to put up more. And in fact, Border Patrol agents were happy to show it off because, after a mad scramble to attend to the previous months’ sudden wave of kids, they were relieved to have managed to scratch together the resources and to throw this space together. It brought some sanity to a chaotic resettlement process.

Harsh as the “dog kennel” was, it was far better than what came before it. As the Office of Refugee Resettlement struggled for many weeks to meet the sudden demand for its services, Border Patrol’s McAllen station found itself having to keep hundreds of kids and families in small holding cells designed to keep adults for no more than a day. Those filled up, and leaked videos showed kids crowding the floors of the Border Patrol station, even out behind on the loading dock, in medieval conditions. The Ursula facility was dramatically better.

Also, those boxes along the wall in the photo were filled with snacks, coloring books, crayons, and diapers. Border Patrol agents, many visibly exhausted from the past few months’ tens of thousands of arrivals, were trying to keep the kids comfortable while they watched the TVs showing kids’ shows in each enclosure. Nurses and EMTs were present in the facility. Kids were able to take showers for the first time in days.

Most of all, this was a temporary purgatory. The kids we saw were just a few days away from being reunited with relatives all around the United States, in many cases parents whom they hadn’t seen in years. The gears of refugee resettlement were grinding, and many if not most of their journeys were about to end happily.

That was then. Today, though, the situation is different. And the pictures you’re seeing now look similar but are more sinister.

At least since mid-April, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared “zero tolerance” on all illegal border-crossers, the Ursula facility went from being a temporary warehouse to a scene of intense pain.

Most people still stay here for less than 72 hours. But today, a section is dedicated to families—and it’s here where U.S. authorities are most frequently taking kids away from their parents: 1,174 of them so far in Ursula alone, of more than 2,000 nationwide since mid-April. Parents are being criminally charged for the offense of crossing the border improperly, sent to federal court and federal prison. And because people in the criminal justice system can’t be jailed with their kids, Border Patrol and CBP are taking their children away from them and treating them like unaccompanied minors.

“In the Rio Grande Valley, Border Patrol agents who catch immigrant families have been advised not to separate them in the field,” the Los Angeles Times explains. “They wait until after they drive families to the central processing center in McAllen.”

Anne Chandler of the Houston-based Tahirih Justice Center explained to Texas Monthly what is happening right now at Ursula.

There is no one process. Judging from the mothers and fathers I’ve spoken to and those my staff has spoken to, there are several different processes. Sometimes they will tell the parent, “We’re taking your child away.” And when the parent asks, “When will we get them back?” they say, “We can’t tell you that.” Sometimes the officers will say, “because you’re going to be prosecuted” or “because you’re not welcome in this country,” or “because we’re separating them,” without giving them a clear justification. In other cases, we see no communication that the parent knows that their child is to be taken away. Instead, the officers say, “I’m going to take your child to get bathed.” That’s one we see again and again. “Your child needs to come with me for a bath.” The child goes off, and in a half an hour, twenty minutes, the parent inquires, “Where is my five-year-old?” “Where’s my seven-year-old?” “This is a long bath.” And they say, “You won’t be seeing your child again.” Sometimes mothers—I was talking to one mother, and she said, “Don’t take my child away,” and the child started screaming and vomiting and crying hysterically, and she asked the officers, “Can I at least have five minutes to console her?” They said no. In another case, the father said, “Can I comfort my child? Can I hold him for a few minutes?” The officer said, “You must let them go, and if you don’t let them go, I will write you up for an altercation, which will mean that you are the one that had the additional charges charged against you.” So, threats.

Media outlets and social-media users have come under fire for using 2014 photos of the Ursula facility to attack the new Trump policies. And the critics have a point—the conditions in the “kennel” are an artifact of the Obama years, nothing new.

But the critics are also wrong. Under the Trump administration, this facility has become a far darker place. Until this April, Ursula was where kids would spend a couple of days while awaiting family reunification and the beginning of an asylum process. Now, it’s the last place where they see their parents.

The day ahead: June 18, 2018

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

I’ve got a quick dentist appointment and a staff meeting, then I’ll be in the office the rest of the afternoon. I’ll be keeping up with post-election Colombia, and carrying out final tasks, both logistical and research-related, ahead of a trip to the Arizona-Mexico border tomorrow morning.

The week ahead

Three of us from WOLA are headed to Arizona tomorrow, where we’ll spend the rest of the week in Yuma, Nogales, Tucson, and across the border in Mexico. We’ll be interviewing pretty much everyone who’ll talk to us about “zero tolerance,” family separation, what is happening at ports of entry, the National Guard deployments, changes to asylum policy, and claims of gang activity.

I plan to post a lot from the road, and crank out a report as quickly as possible upon our return.

One reason I’ve been posting less frequently to this site has been the average 3-4 hours per day I’ve been spending preparing for this trip. Helping set up interviews and putting together what is now a 50-page research matrix has left a lot less time for other tasks, other than covering Colombia’s elections. The plan this week is to keep muddling through.

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