With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list.
Bodies of 19 missing migrants found in Tamaulipas, Mexico
Police responding to a call on January 22 made a grisly discovery in a rural zone of Camargo municipality, in Mexico’s violence-torn border state of Tamaulipas, about 45 miles from Texas. A burned-out pickup truck by a dirt road contained the incinerated bodies of 19 people, whom it seems were shot to death elsewhere and incinerated there.
The victims appear to be migrants from Central America who had hoped to reach the United States. Most or all may be from San Marcos, a department of western Guatemala that borders southern Mexico.
Nothing is confirmed until comparisons with relatives’ DNA are complete, a process that might take about two weeks. But just as they were passing through Tamaulipas late last week, a group of migrants from the towns of Comitancillo, Tuilelen, and Sipacapa—where most residents’ first language is Mam, an indigenous dialect—abruptly stopped contacting relatives back home via WhatsApp.
Most of the missing and presumed dead were in their late teens or early 20s. They had paid a smuggler to take them—“$2,100 upfront,” a mother of one of the victims told Vice—but that did not guarantee safety from Mexican organized crime.
“Camargo is near the edge of territory historically controlled by factions of the Gulf cartel and in recent years a remnant of the Zetas known as the Northeast cartel has tried to take over,” the Guardian reported. Camargo residents cited in the Mexican magazine Proceso pointed to the Northeast cartel as the likely killers.
The tragedy illustrates the outrageous degree of liberty with which criminal groups operate in Tamaulipas and other poorly governed, corruption-riven zones of Mexico, and the danger this poses to migrants. Tamaulipas is where the notorious San Fernando massacre of 72 migrants took place in 2010, and alarming crimes have been frequent since then.
“The toleration of these aberrant crimes demonstrates the lack of protection for the migrant population in Mexico,” read a statement from many non-governmental organizations. Rubén Figueroa of the Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano told Vice, “These massacres are continuous. It’s an ongoing massacre. Sometimes they are big like this one. Sometimes it’s just two of three people that are assassinated, disappeared.”
Border wall construction pause goes into effect
One of President Biden’s January 20 proclamations ordered all construction of the Trump administration’s border wall to pause within seven days. Then, for the next sixty days, agencies are to review procedures for “redirecting funding and repurposing contracts.”
For days after January 20, activists at several points along the border denounced that construction crews weren’t stopping. “It’s a lie, I saw huge bulldozers digging up dirt on mountainsides, the crews were carving out new sections in some places and moving steel bollards closer to installation sites in others,” John Kurc, a filmmaker and photographer, told the Guardian. The Sky Island Alliance, an Arizona environmental defense group, set up a crowdsourced page to document continuing activity.
By the 27th, though, it appeared that wall construction had largely stopped. Now, the new administration must set about finding out what is left of:
- $9.9 billion in Defense Department funds, which were to pay for 466 miles of wall, about 343 of which were completed; and
- $5.8 billion in congressionally appropriated funds and $0.6 billion in Treasury seized asset forfeiture funds, which were to pay for well over 300 miles (the mileage to be built with 2021 funds is unknown), about 110 miles of which were completed.
By April 22, the Departments of Defense, Treasury, Homeland Security, and Justice, along with the White House Office of Management and Budget and National Security Council, are to come up with a plan for redirecting remaining funds, cancelling contracts, and (presumably) withdrawing eminent domain claims.
Some are suggesting using the money for border security technologies instead of fencing, an option that raises civil liberties and environment concerns. An unnamed “frontline CBP officer” told the Nation “that they had concerns about the growth of this technology, especially with the agency ‘expanding its capabilities and training its armed personnel to act as a federal police.’”
Border advocates are instead calling for investment to mitigate damage that wall-building did to fragile ecosystems and culturally sacred sites. “The right thing to do would be to tear them all down,” Laiken Jordahl of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity told Fronteras Desk. But “of course we have to be realistic with our demands. We certainly want to focus our energy on removing sections of barriers in wildlife corridors, in sacred areas to indigenous nations. In waterways where they’re stopping the flow of water.” Scientific American notes that this remediation is so necessary that “far more sites need restoration than funding would allow.”
Justice Department rescinds the “zero tolerance” rule
Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson has done away with the Justice Department’s notorious April 6, 2018 “zero tolerance” memo. Issued by Jeff Sessions, the attorney general at the time, this order called on the Justice Department to prosecute, in the federal criminal courts, the largest possible number of undocumented migrants who crossed the border between ports of entry, a misdemeanor.
This policy applied equally to asylum seekers, and it led to an outrageous expansion of family separations at the border. In about 3,000 cases, parents went into criminal custody while children got treated as unaccompanied minors. A scathing mid-January Justice Department Inspector General report found that Sessions and other officials knew that mass family separations would result from zero tolerance, and didn’t bother to prepare the responsible agencies ahead of time.
The revocation of “zero tolerance” is largely symbolic: the horrified national outcry forced Donald Trump to order a stop to most family separations in June 2018. And now, under the “Title 42” COVID-19 border policy, nearly all Central American or Mexican parents with children are being swiftly expelled back into Mexico without a proper chance to ask for asylum.
The Biden administration, meanwhile, keeps rolling back Trump-era policies. Next week the White House may release three or more executive orders seeking to:
- Set up a task force to reunify families separated by zero tolerance;
- Address “root causes” of migration in Central America;
- Improve and increase border-zone processing of asylum seekers;
- End “safe third country” agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras;
- End a Trump administration rule barring asylum to people who passed through a third country and didn’t seek asylum there first;
- Reinstate the Central American Minors Program that allows children to apply for protection in their home countries;
- Help strengthen Mexico’s asylum system; and
- Increase refugee admissions.
The White House had originally slated these EOs’ publication for January 29, though there was no formal public announcement confirming that. They are being delayed by a few days as “details are still being worked out.”
- WOLA released statements this week calling on Mexico to do more to protect migrants and punish those who abuse them, following the Tamaulipas massacre; and about the need for Mexico’s government to collaborate with the dismantling of “Remain in Mexico.”
- A new U.S. Government Accountability Office report finds that, between October 2019 and March 2020, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) put about 5,290 recently apprehended asylum seekers through two ultra-rapid border-zone adjudication programs, HARP and PACR. Of these, only 23 percent passed initial credible fear screenings and were allowed to pursue their claims; before HARP and PACR, “74 percent of people passed their credible fear interview and were allowed to continue to seek asylum,” according to the ACLU. (We understand that the DHS Inspector-General will be releasing its own report on HARP and PACR on January 29.)
- On January 26 Texas Southern District Judge Drew Tipton, a Trump appointee, slapped a 14-day temporary restraining order on the 100-day deportation moratorium that President Biden had mandated on January 20. The order comes from a lawsuit brought by Texas’s archconservative attorney-general, Ken Paxton, who has made recent headlines by leading lawsuits against Biden’s Electoral College victory and against Obamacare. At Slate, Mark Joseph Stern contends that this order from a judge who “does not appear to have a rudimentary understanding of…immigration law” doesn’t actually compel the Biden administration to deport anyone.
- “It is more difficult to transit through Mexico to the Mexico-U.S. border. This new phenomenon has been changing Mexico from a transit country to, in some cases, a country in which African migrants are settling temporarily or permanently,” finds a thorough new report from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and the Institute for Women in Migration (IMUMI).
- At CNN, veteran political analyst Ron Brownstein offers a detailed look at what lies ahead for the Biden administration’s immigration reform push, particularly the prospects for getting enough votes in the Senate.
- James McHenry, who headed the Justice Department’s immigration court system (EOIR) during the Trump years, is stepping down. McHenry had established decision quotas and other measures that “made judges feel as if they were cogs in a deportation machine,” according to BuzzFeed.
- The ICE detention facility in El Paso, which is much criticized for miserable conditions, is run by a subsidiary of a company run by members of a native Alaskan nation, who mostly live on an island a few miles from Russia. El Paso Matters tells the story of Bering Straits Native Corporation, which barely responded to its many inquiries.