With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. Since what’s happening at the border is one of the principal events in this week’s U.S. news, this update is a “double issue,” longer than normal. See past weekly updates here.
Aid is forthcoming for Central America
Vice President Kamala Harris met virtually on April 26 with the president of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei, to discuss cooperation to address the causes of large-scale migration from his country. It was their second such meeting, following a conversation on March 30. “We want to work with you to address both the acute causes as well as the root causes in a way that will bring hope to the people of Guatemala that there will be an opportunity for them if they stay at home,” the vice president said in joint remarks before the meeting.
This distinction between “acute causes” and “root causes” is at the center of the Biden administration’s current thinking about how to assist Central America. The first category includes the effects of recent hurricanes, droughts, and the pandemic. The second includes poverty, climate change, corruption and poor governance, and “violence against women, Indigenous people, LGBTQ people, and Afro-descendants.”
Harris said she plans to visit Guatemala in June. “But from here to June,” Giammattei replied, “I believe that we should build a roadmap between government and government so that we can reach agreements so that we can then work on.”
The vice president held a meeting April 27 with Guatemalan non-governmental leaders, and plans to have a call next week with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Harris has not spoken with, or announced plans to speak with, the presidents of El Salvador and Honduras.
The first, Nayib Bukele, has raised concerns about recent authoritarian behavior, and refused to meet with U.S. Special Envoy Ricardo Zúñiga during his April 7 visit to San Salvador. (Bukele had failed to get meetings with the brand-new Biden administration when he flew, with little advance notice, to pandemic-shuttered Washington at the beginning of February.) The second, Juan Orlando Hernández, was re-elected in a 2017 vote that was likely fraudulent, and is named as a co-conspirator in U.S. judicial actions against Honduran drug traffickers, including his brother who was sentenced to life in U.S. prison in March.
There are strong concerns about official corruption in Guatemala, too. A years-long backlash against anti-corruption reformers swept out a UN-backed international prosecutorial body (the CICIG) in 2019, and is now undermining the highest courts’ ability to hold accountable those who engage in graft or collude with organized crime. This month, the legislature’s leadership refused to swear in Gloria Porras, an anti-corruption judge, to Guatemala’s Constitutional Court. She fled to the United States, while Giammattei’s chief of staff was swiftly sworn in to another seat on the court. The day of the Harris-Giammattei meeting, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on two well-connected current and former Guatemalan congressional representatives.
Biden administration officials see a connection between corruption and the poverty and insecurity that drive migration. “[A]ddressing corruption is at the center of what the Biden administration has focused on in seeking to create those enabling conditions for broad-based improvement in Central America,” Zúñiga told reporters on April 22. Regional governments’ track record on corruption, then, will complicate working with them on root causes. “The governments are going to be part of that but, quite frankly, they’re probably going to be unwilling partners,” Dan Restrepo, the National Security Council’s Western Hemisphere director during Barack Obama’s first term, told Bloomberg.
This may mean carefully working around some elected leaders and executive-branch agencies. Zúñiga reiterated that an administration priority will be “supporting those within the countries—and that’s civil society as well as public servants—who are involved in efforts to promote transparency and combat corruption and impunity.” He added that the administration may coordinate this work with “an anti-corruption task force that is going to involve the Department of Justice and other U.S. agencies, with the support of the Department of State.”
An April 28 edition of WOLA’s podcast discusses the complexities of working with Central America’s leaders on migration’s underlying causes.
To confront “acute causes” of migration, the White House announced April 27 that the U.S. government is reprogramming $310 million in current-year assistance to meet immediate humanitarian needs for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
- About $104 million will come from the Department of State “to meet the immediate safety and protection needs of refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, and other vulnerable populations,” a fact sheet reads; this probably means it will come through the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
- $26 million will come from the Department of Defense “to increase its partnership activities in the region to provide essential health, education, and disaster relief services.”
- $125 million will be USAID funding, mainly emergency food and agricultural assistance: $55 million for Honduras, $54 million for Guatemala, and $16 million for El Salvador.
- The Department of Agriculture will provide an additional $55 million in food security assistance.
While details of the longer-term “root causes” aid package have yet to emerge, Zúñiga previewed that the 2022 budget request to Congress—which is likely to be submitted next week—will include $861 million for Central America. “It’s an initial payment on the $4 billion over four years that President Biden announced before coming into office,” he said. The administration envisions the money going to three areas: good governance and anti-corruption; economic development; and security and justice.
Another Guatemalan border task force
On April 26 Vice President Harris and President Giammattei agreed on another, less “root cause”-focused aid activity: U.S. support for a Guatemalan border security task force. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will send 16 trainers to Guatemala “to train local officials in strengthening border infrastructure,” Reuters reported. “The effort will be spearheaded on the Guatemalan side by the Division of Border Ports and Airports,” according to the Associated Press. This likely dovetails with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s April 12 disclosure that “Guatemala surged 1,500 police and military personnel to its southern border with Honduras and agreed to set up 12 checkpoints along the migratory route.” It’s less clear how—if at all—this “border task force” effort overlaps with the Obama administration’s past assistance to Guatemalan military-police-prosecutor border-zone “Inter-Agency Task Forces” created in 2013, a program that appears to have been abandoned.
Harris and Giammattei also reportedly agreed that the United States would help Guatemala build shelters for deported or expelled migrants, along with some assistance to assist deportees’ transition.
Finally, on April 27 DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced a stepped-up effort to target the smugglers who make possible most migrants’ journey through Mexico to the U.S. border. “We will identify the smugglers and their associates and employ a series of targeted actions and sanctions against them. We will have a broad approach and a strong one. It will include every authority in our arsenal,” Mayorkas told CNN and other reporters. Tools may include revoking visas and travel documents, and freezing assets and the ability to use U.S. financial institutions. “Operation Sentinel” will involve Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations division (ICE-HSI), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the State Department, and, within the Justice Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
No other details about Operation Sentinel are yet available, so it’s not clear how the effort will be assured of targeting the infrastructure on which smuggling networks depend. Migrant smuggling is a very decentralized activity. While smugglers have to pay Mexico cartels to pass through their territory, they are not cartels themselves; they tend to be small and regional. “A Mexico based official” with ICE-HSI explained to the Los Angeles Times that “cartels make millions merely charging tolls, whereas low-level human smugglers work in ‘very disjointed cells.’”
These localized operations depend heavily on official corruption, for instance in order to pass easily through checkpoints on Mexican highways. It remains to be seen whether Operation Sentinel will make a dent in this corruption, or whether it will simply rack up actions against small-time smugglers. The Salvadoran investigative journalism website El Faro reported this week on an outcome that Operation Sentinel would do well to avoid: Salvadoran prosecutors have locked up a single mother who ran a small pupusa restaurant, a man who works as a private guard, and a farmer, charging them with smuggling because they discussed plans to join a migrant caravan on WhatsApp.
Big drop in unaccompanied children in CBP custody
In late March, amid rapidly increasing arrivals of unaccompanied children, U.S. border and migration agencies were estimating that, by the end of May, the government would need 34,100 to 35,500 beds to accommodate them. While things could always change, that projection now appears far too pessimistic.
Against nearly everyone’s expectations, unaccompanied child numbers stopped increasing in April. The month has seen a slow, modest, but real decline in Border Patrols encounters with unaccompanied kids, from an average of 489 per day during the last week of March to an average of 431 per day during April 25-28, according to CBP’s daily reports on unaccompanied child encounters and processing.
As new arrivals have eased, the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) has opened up many emergency facilities to house children while seeking to place them with relatives or sponsors in the United States, with whom they will live while their asylum or protection cases are adjudicated.
As a result, there has been a spectacular drop in the number of children spending many days crowded in Border Patrol’s inadequate, prison-line holding facilities as they await ORR placement. On March 28, 5,767 children were in Border Patrol custody. On April 28, that number had fallen 83 percent to 954, and the average time in custody had dropped to 28 hours, from 133 hours on March 28.
As grim images of children sleeping on floors fade away, the next challenge is to reduce the population in ORR’s shelters, which is still growing but much more slowly than it was during the first half of the month. This means quickly identifying and vetting the relatives or sponsors with whom children will live. During the last week of March, ORR was only discharging 245 children per day. By April 25-28 it had increased that rate to 403 per day.
This is important progress, but even at reduced numbers, as noted above, CBP is still encountering 431 kids per day, so the overall number of children in U.S. government custody—in the low 20,000s for the past two weeks—continues to edge slightly upward.
As ORR placement capacity increases, we expect this “total in U.S. custody” number to decline—unless, for some reason, unaccompanied child arrivals at the border start increasing again in May. It is impossible to predict whether that will happen, or whether April’s gradual declines will continue.
After children are placed with families, of course, the U.S. government’s woefully inadequate asylum system presents another bottleneck: what is usually a years-long wait for hearing dates and decisions from badly backlogged, overwhelmed immigration courts.
Reactions to the “Bipartisan Border Solutions Act”
Four border-state legislators from both parties and both houses of Congress introduced a bill on April 22 seeking, in their words, “to respond to the surge in migrants coming across our southern border.” The “Bipartisan Border Solutions Act” (S. 1358) is sponsored by Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona), and by Representatives Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Tony Gonzales (R-Texas).
Among its provisions are:
- Creating at least four processing centers to receive newly apprehended, mostly asylum-seeking, migrants.
Processing capacity is urgently needed so that asylum seekers may approach ports of entry, and request protection, without having to spend weeks or months on waiting lists in Mexican border towns. However, critics of the legislation point out that the “processing” the bill proposes would include “credible fear screening interviews and potentially full asylum interviews…conducted within 72 hours—an absurd time frame for life-and-death adjudications,” as Human Rights First describes it. “While this bill includes some positive provisions,” an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) response warns, “any proposal that further increases reliance on Customs and Border Protection in the asylum and detention process is a step in the wrong direction, given the agency’s record of abuse.”
- Authorizing DHS to carry out pilot programs to speed up asylum screening (credible fear determinations) and adjudication.
- During “irregular migration influx events,” allowing immigration courts to move recently apprehended asylum seekers’ cases to the top of their dockets.
Critics of the legislation warn that past “pilot programs” and “rocket docket” efforts badly weakened due process guarantees for asylum seekers. During the Trump administration, CBP implemented two pilot programs, Prompt Asylum Claim Review (PACR) and Humanitarian Asylum Review Process (HARP), that turned around quick asylum decisions—nearly all of them rejections—in a matter of days while families remained in CBP custody with no meaningful access to counsel. Past docket-adjusting initiatives “lead to massive due process violations with few, if any, gains in efficiency,” warned the Arizona-based Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project.
- Raising vetting standards for family members or sponsors before placing unaccompanied children with them.
A concern about this provision is that it could backlog ORR’s already struggling efforts to place children with families, forcing them to spend even more time in the agency’s shelter system—including in ORR’s thrown-together emergency facilities currently in heavy use.
- Improving legal orientation and access to counsel (though not paying for counsel).
- Improving transportation of asylum-seeking migrants and coordination with NGOs and receiving communities.
- Hiring 150 more immigration judge teams (there are currently about 520), 250 Border Patrol processing coordinators (non-law enforcement personnel who specialize in processing of asylum seekers), and 300 asylum officers at USCIS, among other personnel.
- Improving congressional oversight with new reporting requirements.
The legislation’s critics are generally supportive of these points, with some caveats.
S. 1358’s endorsers are largely business groups: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Business Immigration Coalition, Texas Association of Business, New American Economy, Americans for Prosperity, and The LIBRE Initiative. The National Immigration Forum, too, calls it “a positive step that bodes well for the chances for immigration reforms this year.”
Groups that quickly lined up in opposition to the Bipartisan Border Solutions Act include the ACLU, Human Rights First, the Women’s Refugee Commission, Church World Service, the Florence Project, and the National Immigrant Justice Center.
- Mexico’s Interior Department released data showing that migration forces detained 14,254 undocumented people in March 2021, the most since August 2019. 51 percent were from Honduras, 36 percent from Guatemala, 7 percent from El Salvador, and 6 percent from other countries. Along migrant routes in southern Mexico, shelters are full, turning people away amid COVID-19 capacity restrictions. Meanwhile, a government human rights body reported that at least 2,000 migrants were reported as disappeared in Mexican territory in 2020.
- Guatemalan President Giammattei is to travel to Mexico on May 3 and meet with Mexican President López Obrador the following day. López Obrador indicated that the discussion “is related to the next call he will have with [U.S. Vice President] Harris” next week.
- An investigation by the Los Angeles Times’s Molly O’Toole documents how the “Title 42” pandemic policy, which expels Central American migrants back into Mexico, has been an enormous boon to kidnappers and other organized crime bands that prey on them in Mexican border communities. At the Dallas Morning News, Dianne Solís and Alfredo Corchado report on the previously unthinkable, but now widespread, practice of expelling Central American families with children into high-crime Mexican border towns in the middle of the night.
- The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff reports on migrants who were kidnapped after the Trump administration sent them to Mexican border towns to await their U.S. asylum hearings under the “Remain in Mexico” program. As their captivity forced them to miss their U.S. hearing dates, they are now absurdly blocked from applying for asylum. Syracuse University’s TRAC public records project meanwhile reports that people enrolled in Remain in Mexico speak 40 different languages.
- The sheriff of Harris County, Texas, Ed González, is the Biden administration’s nominee to direct Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). González, whose county includes Houston, has criticized aggressive ICE tactics that target migrants with no criminal records.
- The New York Times posted a video along with data analysis finding that “ICE detention facilities had an average infection rate five times that of prisons and 20 times that of the general population.” The Times elsewhere reported that CBP is releasing asylum-seeking migrant families into U.S. border communities without testing them for the virus, leaving that up to private charities.
- 10,000 migrants, mainly from Haiti, Cuba, and several African countries, are in northern Colombia awaiting a chance to migrate northward through Panama, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
- At Texas Monthly, Aaron Nelsen reports on migrant smugglers’ widespread use of simple ladders to defeat the border wall. Meanwhile local news in Arizona reports that construction equipment is “collecting dust” as the Biden administration’s wall-building pause continues.
- Arizona Public Media published a video short about members of the Hia C-ed O’odham nation who resisted border wall construction on their lands in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, including the ecologically fragile Quitobaquito Springs, in 2020.
- 92 academics from the United States and Mexico signed a letter proposing six practical recommendations for next steps that both countries should take to restore asylum and improve logistics.
- The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is launching an internal review to weed out white supremacy and extremism among its workforce.