The president, a former army captain, has responded by attacking other branches of government, sowing doubts over election security, and flaunting his increasingly cozy relationship with the armed forces
Mexico’s National Guard seems intent on blocking asylum seekers from leaving Mexico’s poor south, even if it threatens the stability of the region or, worse, might produce a xenophobic and racist eruption
Elementos de la policía estatal y de la Guardia Nacional escoltaban la caravana de migrantes a prudente distancia para evitar un roce o choque con ellos, más atrás los agentes del Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) que con sus “perreras” o vehículos jaulas, esperaban para capturar a los rezagados y cansados
Former president Álvaro Uribe, the country’s most vocal opponent of the 2016 peace accord with the FARC guerrilla group, met at one of his ranches on August 15 with the president of the Truth Commission created by that accord, Fr. Francisco de Roux, along with two other commissioners. Uribe, who faces questions about human rights abuses committed during his time as governor of Antioquia (1995-1997) and president (2002-2008), spoke at great length during the meeting, with little pushback from the commissioners.
The ex-president surprised many by calling for an amnesty for human rights and other crimes committed during the armed conflict. “Perhaps this country will need a general amnesty, almost a clean slate,” he told Fr. de Roux. This would appear to contradict one of Uribe’s many criticisms of the peace accord: that, in his view, it confers “impunity” on ex-guerrillas who (along with military personnel) will receive light sentences if they make full confessions and reparations.
On August 26 Uribe presented a draft amnesty law to legislators of his Centro Democrático party, a bill “to overcome judicial asymmetries and asymmetries in access to government employment.” Under the proposal, those accused of conflict-related crimes would receive a full amnesty if they ask forgiveness, recognize what they did “or, failing that, contribute to the truth, without this implying self-incrimination.”
Members of the military would be released from prison and allowed to hold office. A new chamber of the post-conflict transitional justice tribunal (Special Jurisdiction for Peace, or JEP) would be set up to judge military personnel separately. Anyone who in the past has investigated, denounced, or made public statements about these military human rights crimes would be disqualified from serving as a judge in that chamber.
Uribe’s proposal makes no distinction between commanders and subordinates involved in past crimes. He would not amnesty people accused of “war crimes, crimes against humanity, or public corruption.” The current list of non-amnistiable crimes that must go before the JEP, however, is longer and more specific: “War crimes, crimes against humanity, extrajudicial executions, child recruitment, rape and other forms of sexual violence, genocide, hostage taking or other serious deprivation of liberty, torture, enforced disappearance, child abduction, and forced displacement.”
“Let’s not talk about general amnesty, let’s talk about amnesty as a strong word to generate a national debate and look for a solution,” Uribe said last week. A national debate is very much underway, as the ex-president’s proposal has generated strong reactions.
“People can’t be ‘washing their faces’ with total amnesties, this will not happen as long as I am prosecutor, I will not allow this to go forward,” said the prosecutor-general (fiscal general), Francisco Barbosa, who is close to President Iván Duque, who in turn is a member of Uribe’s party.
The lead government negotiators in the 2012-16 talks that led to the FARC peace accord issued a 12-point document rejecting Uribe’s proposal. Humberto de la Calle and Sergio Jaramillo argue that it “would undermine the investigation and prosecution of those most responsible for serious violations, and victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparation.” They recalled having to explain to the FARC negotiators in Havana, “in January 2015, one of the most difficult moments in almost five years of negotiations,” that Colombia’s international commitments (the 2002 Rome Statute, the Inter-American human rights system) prohibited amnesties.
Were Uribe’s proposal to go into effect, the former negotiators add, “the first victims, in addition to the conflict victims of course, would be the members of the armed forces and other agents of the state who are currently participating in the transitional process and who will see their legal security disappear.” Notes Gustavo Gallón of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, “His [Uribe’s] argument is that they [the military] must not be equated with guerrillas. But it is the crimes they have committed that make them equal. In addition, in his effort to favor them, he would do them harm: the [peace] agreement and the JEP are more lenient than the ordinary justice system, in theory.”
Álvaro Uribe faces human rights questions ranging from many political associates’ sponsorship of paramilitary groups, to those groups’ rapid growth during his tenure as governor, to the military’s killings of several thousand civilians during his presidency (discussed in the next section). Jaramillo, the former negotiator—who served as vice-minister of defense under Uribe—told Colombia’s Blu Radio that Uribe “has long been seeking a general amnesty and a clean slate. This is something that has been on his mind for a long time and he will continue to insist on it.”
Attorney-General seeks to charge ex-army chief for “false positive” killings
Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) is seeking to indict retired Gen. Mario Montoya, commander of the Army between 2006 and 2008, for his role in the military’s so-called “false positive” killings during the armed conflict. A hearing took place on August 25 before a Bogotá judge who will decide on August 30 whether Montoya may be indicted.
If Judge Fabio Bernal gives a green light, Montoya will be the highest-ranking military figure to face justice for these killings in the civilian criminal justice system. He could also become the first person with a case before both the post-conflict transitional justice system (JEP) and the regular criminal justice system. What that means is not entirely clear.
The term “false positives” refers to soldiers, apparently under heavy pressure to produce results measured in body counts, killing several thousand civilians and falsely presenting the murders as combat deaths. The JEP has estimated that as many as 6,402 false positive killings took place just between 2002 and 2008, Álvaro Uribe’s first seven years in office. If accurate, that number would be equivalent to about half of the 12,908 armed-group members whom Colombia’s Defense Ministry claimed to have killed during those years.
Gen. Mario Montoya was a key figure during this period. A U.S.-trained officer, he commanded the “Joint Task Force South” that carried out U.S.-backed counter-drug operations during the first years of “Plan Colombia” in the early 2000s. He went on to command the Army during the height of the Uribe government’s anti-guerrilla offensive, including the triumphant July 2008 rescue of 15 FARC hostages known as “Operation Jaque.” (“As their bonds were cut free, the former hostages were quietly told that the Colombian Army had just freed them,” reads an account of the rescue. “Then, the recovery team began to chant, ‘Uribe! Uribe! Uribe!’ followed quickly by ‘Montoya! Montoya! Montoya!’”)
Just a few months later, in November 2008, Gen. Montoya was forced to resign. The triggering event was the revelation that 22 men who disappeared from the poor Bogotá suburb of Soacha had turned up dead hundreds of miles away, in Ocaña, Norte de Santander. The men had been lured with offers of employment, taken away and killed, only to be presented as armed-group members killed in combat. The Soacha case capped years of human rights groups’ denunciations—long denied by the Uribe government—that the military had been falsifying combat kill totals by murdering civilians.
Gen. Montoya has been under a cloud ever since, and in 2018 he agreed to have his case heard in the JEP. The transitional justice court is approaching “false positives” in a bottom-up fashion, starting with some of the most serious cases and working toward top commanders. That means it could be some time before the transitional justice court indicts Montoya, if it finds enough evidence to do so.
While Montoya has appeared before the tribunal, so far he has denied any responsibility for the killings. In an early 2020 appearance, the general sparked outrage by blaming soldiers from poor backgrounds: “those kids didn’t even know how to use forks and knives or how to go to the bathroom.”
The JEP is looking into whether commanders like Montoya created a climate, and set of incentives, that encouraged officers to rack up large body counts even if it meant killing non-combatants—and whether the commanders knew that so many combat kills were falsified. The Fiscalía is more specifically seekingto charge Montoya with responsibility for 104 killings, including 5 children, that took place in 2007 and 2008. That is the period after the issuance of a military directive to prioritize guerrilla demobilizations and captures over killings, which the Fiscalía contends that Montoya ignored.
He “allegedly pressured all division, brigade and battalion chiefs to follow a different strategy that reportedly rewarded and awarded decorations to commanders and groups that reported deaths,” according to the prosecutor’s office. “Commanders of his subordinate units knew that Montoya did not ask for (but) demanded combat kills.” A soldier who says he was kicked out of the force for disobeying these orders claimed that Montoya demanded “rivers of blood,” a phrase the General denies using.
Colombia’s civilian criminal justice system could have acted on the allegations against him at any time since 2008. In fact, as El Espectadorexplains, “a process against Montoya for false positives committed under his command was announced in 2016. The proceedings were suspended and then, with the arrival of Néstor Humberto Martínez at the Fiscalía [a chief prosecutor with little interest in military prosecutions] and the signing of the Peace Accord, it was left in limbo.”
Martínez’s successor, Francisco Barbosa, announced his intent to revive Gen. Montoya’s indictment on August 12. In the regular criminal justice system, the General could face up to 50 to 60 years in prison if found guilty. Montoya’s case is principally before the JEP, though, where he would face 5 to 8 years of “restricted liberty” if he admits to crimes and provides reparations, or up to 20 years in regular prison if he refuses to admit responsibility but is found guilty.
Colombia is still working out what it means to have two parallel justice systems considering war crimes. In 2018, the Constitutional Court ruled that prosecutors in the regular justice system could continue investigating crimes in parallel. In 2019, the prosecutor in Montoya’s case decided that this meant the general could be investigated, but not indicted, while his case remained before the JEP. Barbosa, the current chief prosecutor, later altered that interpretation, claiming that he had the power to indict Montoya—though the case could not go to trial in the regular justice system.
Gen. Montoya’s lawyers dispute that. So does the government’s internal affairs branch, the Procuraduría, which argues that the JEP has primacy because Montoya has agreed to have his case heard there and has attended all his hearings.
In any case, an indictment without a trial is largely symbolic. Still, the Fiscalía cites declarations from JEP officials who have supported its ability to continue investigating. Lawyers representing victims of false positives have also been supportive: Sebastián Escobar of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective told El Espectador, “it has been the JEP itself that has insistently asked the Fiscalía not to abandon the investigations, but to continue them until they are completed.” Germán Romero, an attorney who represents 12 false positive victims, added, “This is a real and concrete investigation… it is impossible and it could be understood as a substantial affectation to the rights of the victims if this indictment doesn’t happen.”
Some Colombian legal experts, though, are concerned and wonder why the Fiscalía is acting now. While the regular justice system’s prosecutors may continue investigating military and police officials’ alleged crimes, they “cannot rule on their responsibility since that decision corresponds to the JEP,” writesRodrigo Uprimny, co-founder of the DeJusticia think tank. “The Fiscalía cannot charge them, which is an attribution of responsibility, but must refer those investigations to the JEP.”
Uprimny, writing in El Espectador, wonders what Fiscal Barbosa may actually have in mind with an indictment in the Gen. Montoya case.
Its basis is bizarre and could have very serious implications. According to Barbosa, Montoya is being charged because he continued to demand combat kills after November 2007, disobeying Directive 300-28 of that date, which prioritized demobilizations and captures over casualties. That is why the Fiscalía will charge him with “only” 104 executions that occurred after that directive, when there were thousands of false positives in previous years and Montoya was already commander of the Army and demanded casualties.
Does this mean, then, that for Barbosa the thousands of false positives perpetrated when the previous directive was in force, which favored casualties, do not involve any responsibility of senior officers, even though they demanded casualties at all costs as an operational result? If that is so, who should answer for those false positives perpetrated in previous years? Only the soldiers who perpetrated them, but not those who incited those deaths because they were following a directive? And what responsibility, then, according to Barbosa, is incumbent on those who drafted and promoted the previous directive?
We will know more after the judge rules on May 30. Meanwhile, human rights organizations are calling on the JEP to eject another retired senior military officer, former Col. Publio Hernán Mejía. One of the Colombian Army’s most highly decorated officers, Col. Mejía was sentenced to 14 years in prison for conspiring with paramilitaries and involvement in false positive killings. He was released when he moved his case to the JEP, but has been uncooperative and has been making very aggressive statements on Twitter and considering a far-right run for the presidency next year.
Police reform and accountability debates, 4 months after Paro Nacional
On August 26, four months after the April 28 launch of protests that went on for several weeks, several thousand protesters took to the streets of Bogotá, Cali, and a few other cities. The day was mostly peaceful, according to the National Police.
Fallout continues, however, from the Paro Nacional protests of April through June, when some protesters caused property damage and an often vicious police response killed 43 people, according to the NGO Temblores, while dozens more remain disappeared. While victims continue to seek justice, the authorities have been quietly cracking down on people whom they believe to have played leading roles in protest-related disorder, often charging them with “terrorism.”
An El Espectadoranalysis detailed several cases of very likely killings of civilians at the hands of police in Cali, none of which has been investigated.
Police have now captured 165 people they allege to have been leaders of the “Primera Línea”—young people who occupied the “front line” of protests—in several cities. Many face terrorism charges.
Among them is Juan Fernando Torres, a 25-year-old Medellín primary school teacher who became known as “El Narrador” because he documented protests, and confrontations with police, on video, posting them to his social media accounts. While the videos record him shouting rude epithets at the police, they do not appear to show Torres taking part in violence. Nonetheless, at 5:00 in the morning of July 29, police broke down his door and took him away while his family looked on.
A well-known student protest leader in Popayán, Estéban Mosquera, who had lost an eye to a tear-gas canister shot by a riot policeman during a 2018 protest, was shot to death on August 23 by two men on a motorcycle.
Thirty social leaders, human rights defenders, and former combatants in Tolima department say they have received death threats during the past seven weeks. Some say the threats began to escalate after the Paro Nacional began.
Relatives of people killed by police during earlier protests—after a September 9, 2020 episode of police brutality in Bogotá—say that they are receiving death threats and experiencing aggressive behavior from police in their neighborhoods. “In an intimidating message, in which several relatives of September 9 victims were mentioned, a person implied that he has already identified the people involved in the commemorative acts and, in addition, left a sentence via text message: ‘let’s see if you want the game to start, we will gladly start.’ The message dates to August 3.”
In a bit of encouraging news, the Constitutional Court ruled that the military justice system does not have jurisdiction over the May 1, 2021 police killing of protester Santiago Murillo in Ibagué, Tolima. The Court found no evidence that the accused policeman, Maj. Jorge Mario Molano, fired his weapon in self-defense or to protect anyone else. His case will be tried in the regular civilian criminal justice system.
As Colombia’s national debate over police reform continues, the Ideas for Peace Foundation and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Colombia released a report, based on inputs from 11 experts, about what obstacles stand in the way of meaningful reform to Colombia’s National Police force. The report highlights the need for civilian leadership of reform and of citizen security policymaking, which in turn requires a larger number of civilians educated and trained in the field.
The Truth Commission is three months away from a November 28 deadline to finish its work and publish a report, but Colombia’s Constitutional Court is considering its request for an extension, as the COVID-19 pandemic severely affected the Commission’s work, especially field research. Juanita León at La Silla Vacíabelieves that enough judges on the Court are in favor of permitting a deadline extension for seven or eight months, into the period between the election (May 2022) and inauguration (August 2022) of Colombia’s next president. The Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría), in its opinion sought by the Court, requested that the Truth Commission be granted seven more months to work. The Duque government, arguing that only the Congress has the power to grant it, has opposed an extension.
The Duque government promulgated, after much delay, a law foreseen by the peace accord that will create 16 special congressional districts for victims’ representatives, increasing Colombia’s House of Representatives from 171 to 187 members between 2022 and 2030. This law, bitterly resisted by peace accord opponents, only passed after years of legal wrangling over whether a sufficient quorum existed during the Senate’s 2017 approval. This week, some retired officers demanded that a few victims’ seats be reserved for military personnel who suffered abuses, like kidnapping, at the hands of guerrillas.
Citing a paramilitary plan to assassinate him and insufficient protection from the national government, the governor of the Caribbean department of Magdalena, Carlos Caicedo, left the country. Caicedo leads a local center-left political movement that has won the past three mayoral elections in Magdalena’s capital, Santa Marta. Caicedo is asking the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission to issue precautionary measures for his protection.
The mayor of Segovia, Antioquia denounced that police in his municipality are cooperating with the Gulf Clan paramilitaries, for instance by leaking information about imminent counter-drug operations.
“The Colombian military is the best partner force that I’ve worked with in 18 years,” U.S. Army Lt. Col. David Webb said at the conclusion of a joint exercise in Tolemaida, Tolima. “I pray for peace, but I’m always ready for war. If I do have to fight a war, I would be proud to serve with each and every one of you.”
A key reason the UN/Colombian government estimate of coca cultivation is currently so much lower than the U.S. estimate is that it “subtracts the [eradicated] hectares reported by the field teams, but does not verify the effectiveness of the intervention,” writes Sergio Uribe at Razón Pública.
According to a Human Rights Ombudsman (Defensoría) report, Antioquia may have displaced Cauca as the department where the largest number of social leaders were killed during the first six months of 2021. A report from the Electoral Observation Mission (MOE), blaming the proximity of campaigning for 2022 elections, found a 15.7 percent increase in aggressions against political leaders during the first six months of 2021, compared to the same period in 2020.
The week saw many reports of violence in Pacific coast zones where armed groups are disputing control over drug trafficking routes.
In Tumaco, Nariño, fighting between counternarcotics police and members of the local “Oliver Sinisterra” ex-FARC dissident group left 13 dissidents and one police agent wounded. On the other side of the international border from Tumaco, the fighting placed Ecuador’s security forces on alert.
Just north of Tumaco, in Nariño’s Telembí Triangle region, Doctors Without Borders estimatesthat fighting displaced over 21,000 people and confined 6,000 others—combined, nearly 30 percent of the region’s population—during the first six months of the year.
Further north, in northern Cauca, Indigenous organizations denounced several alarming events from the past week, pointing a situation of “generalized violence.”
Further north, 4,679 people in 14 Indigenous communities are confined by fighting between the ELN and the Gulf Clan in southern Chocó’s Bajo Baudó river region. Fighting between the same groups displaced over 1,500 people in Chocó’s lower San Juan River region.
Further north in Chocó, where the Bojayá river flows into the Atrato—site of a historic FARC massacre in 2002—the population lives in fear of three armed groups plus the security forces, El Espectadorreports. Organized crime activity is causing extensive deforestation in Chocó, reportedCuestión Pública and La Liga Contra el Silencio.
A devastating analysis by Camilo Alzate at El Espectador details the government’s failure to implement collective protection measures for threatened social leaders and ethnic communities along the Pacific coast.
Tensions continue to increase along the Colombia-Venezuela border.
In Arauca, fighting between the 10th Front ex-FARC dissident group and the Tren de Aragua, a Venezuelan organized crime group, appeared to have killed at least 13 people in a single week.
In the department of Norte de Santander, which includes the convulsed Catatumbo region, 50 non-governmental organizations denounced the killing of 22 social leaders and the death of 36 people in 8 massacres in the department since January 2020. Analyst Luis Eduardo Celis described deteriorating security in the departmental capital, Cúcuta, which borders Venezuela.
The Colombian government meanwhile claims that captured computers included evidence of contacts between Venezuelan government officials and “Gentil Duarte,” the maximum leader of the largest current network of ex-FARC dissident groups.
“We are facing an increasingly parochialized insurgency that, for the most part, concentrates its strength and armed action on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, but which operates under different logics on both sides,” reads an analysis of the ELN by Andres Aponte, Charles Larratt-Smith, and Luis Fernando Trejos at La Silla Vacía.
Central America’s maras contradict nearly all these stereotypes, however. A more accurate assessment would reveal them to be far smaller, less organized, and less active than much government and popular rhetoric suggests
Las Fuerzas Armadas mexicanas han completado “una serie de actividades operativas” en la frontera sur que tienen como “principal objetivo detener toda la migración“, afirmó este viernes el General Luis Cresencio Sandoval, Secretario de la Defensa Nacional
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.
Supreme Court fails to block judge’s demand to reinstate “Remain in Mexico”
A Supreme Court decision issued the evening of August 24 leaves in effect a district court order for the Biden administration to reinstate the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), or “Remain in Mexico,” program. Between its December 2018 inception and January 2021, whenever asylum seekers from several Spanish or Portuguese-speaking countries arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, this program forced them to spend months or years in Mexican border towns—with no guarantees of housing, sustenance, or security—to await their hearings in U.S. immigration courts. (Read WOLA’s statement warning of this potential “return to an inhumane and unlawful policy.”)
Remain in Mexico forced 71,038 asylum seekers back across the border. Mexico’s government, under intense pressure from the Trump administration, went along with the program, including a sharp mid-2019 expansion.
Remain in Mexico spurred the creation of unsanitary and unsafe encampments in Mexican border cities. Human Rights First documentedat least 1,544 cases of rape, kidnapping, torture, and other crimes against those subject to the program inside Mexico. If their cases even reached U.S. immigration court, difficult access to counsel and rushed, often virtual procedures made asylum all but impossible to obtain. Of the more than 15,000 closed cases for which asylum seekers attended all their hearings while remaining in Mexico, only 720—4.7 percent—were granted any form of relief from deportation.
“Donald Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy is dangerous, inhumane, and goes against everything we stand for as a nation of immigrants,” then-candidate Joe Biden tweeted in March 2020. “My administration will end it.” The Biden administration suspended Remain in Mexico with an order on January 20, 2021, and then formally terminated it on June 1. Now, though, federal courts are ordering “a good-faith effort” to restart the controversial program, at least while appeals proceed.
The action stems from a lawsuit filed by the Republican attorneys-general of Texas and Missouri, who alleged that the Biden administration failed to “consider all relevant factors” in terminating Remain in Mexico. They link the program’s end to an increase in migration this year, which they claim has increased financial costs for both states.
On August 13, Amarillo, Texas District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk agreed with the attorneys-general and ordered the Biden administration to restart Remain in Mexico, giving it a week to do so. Kacsmaryk is a Trump appointee. (Ian Milhiser reports at Vox that “Before Trump made Kacsmaryk a judge, Kacsmaryk worked at a religious-right law firm. He’s previously written that being transgender is a ‘mental disorder’ and that gay people are ‘disordered.’”)
His opinion claimed that a 1996 immigration law only gives “the government two options vis-à-vis aliens seeking asylum: (1) mandatory detention; or (2) return to a contiguous territory.” This is flatly incorrect: immigration law offers federal officials other options including parole, release on bond, and alternatives to detention.
Kacsmaryk, Milhiser observes, also effectively claimed that the 1996 law “required the federal government to implement the Remain in Mexico policy permanently. That policy didn’t even exist until 2019, so the upshot of Kacsmaryk’s opinion is that the government violated the law for nearly a quarter-century and no one noticed.”
The Department of Justice (DOJ) asked for a stay of Kacsmaryk’s decision while appeals proceed. A panel of three Trump-appointed judges from the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit denied that request on August 19. DOJ then went to the Supreme Court, which suspended the Remain in Mexico reinstatement until August 24.
That evening, with its three liberal-leaning judges dissenting, the Supreme Court refused to suspend Kacsmaryk’s decision while litigation continues. (While it didn’t offer a reason for its refusal, the Court cited a 5-4 decision in 2020 that blocked then-president Donald Trump’s repeal of the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) program.) Remain in Mexico—or, at least, good-faith efforts to reinstate it—have thus officially gone back into effect as of 12:01 a.m. August 25.
After suspending it, the Biden administration had endeavored to admit many of those subject to the program into the United States to await their immigration court proceedings. About 13,000 of the 71,000 Remain in Mexico victims entered through a process managed with cooperation from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). That process has now been suspended—those awaiting their turn to enter the United States must now stay in Mexico—and the website for new registrations has been shut down.
What happens now isn’t entirely clear. The district court’s ruling requires the Biden administration to make a “good faith effort” to restart Remain in Mexico, but neither it nor the Supreme Court define what that means. While expressing “respectful disagreement” with the courts’ decisions and pressing its appeals, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stated that it “will comply with the order in good faith,” adding that it “has begun to engage with the Government of Mexico in diplomatic discussions.” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki reiterated that on August 25.
While the administration “vigorously” pursues its appeals, one possible next step would be for DHS to “re-terminate” the program with a fuller explanation of the reasoning behind its decision to do so. That is a step that the ACLU recommends. “In theory, that’s a solvable problem,” Milhiser writes. “Except that the Supreme Court does not even offer a hint as to why it deemed the Biden administration’s original explanation insufficient.”
There is also concern that the administration might seek to create a “lite” version of Remain in Mexico. The administration “could reimplement it on a very small scale for families who meet certain criteria from very specific nationalities,” Jessica Bolter of the Migration Policy Institute suggested to the Associated Press. “Shockingly,” reads a statement from Human Rights First, “the administration is reportedly considering launching a ‘gentler’ version of the inherently unfixable policy—an exercise doomed to fail given the policy’s illegality and pervasive violence against asylum seekers in Mexico.”
Even that, though, depends on concurrence from the government of Mexico, which must consent to the possible introduction of tens of thousands more non-Mexican asylum-seekers on its soil. Remain in Mexico would not begin again if Mexico were to say “no.” An August 23 letter to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador from more than 74 international NGOs, including WOLA, calls on him to do just that. “As a sovereign nation, Mexico has the right to reject the reinstatement of MPP or any future iteration of this policy that aims to externalize the U.S. border into Mexican territory. It is impossible to re-implement MPP in a way that upholds human rights and due process, and Mexico has the responsibility to block this detrimental policy.”
So far, Mexico hasn’t clearly indicated how it will respond. Roberto Velasco, the director for North American affairs in Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department, made clear that the U.S. courts’ rulings don’t compel Mexico to do anything. He added, though, that “the Mexican government will start technical discussions with the U.S. government to evaluate how to handle safe, orderly and regulated immigration on the border.” At his morning press conference on August 26, President López Obrador said Mexico wants to “help,” but sought to shift the conversation to efforts to address the economic causes of Central American migration. The president rejected as “conservative” those who argue that such “root-causes” strategies are long-term in nature, and don’t address the present suffering of migrants stranded in Mexico’s border cities.
Title 42 expulsions continue, including flights to southern Mexico
Regardless of next steps for Remain in Mexico, we should recall that the Trump administration did not employ the program heavily after March 2020, when pandemic border restrictions went into effect. Of the 71,000 people enrolled in the program, only 6,153 were added between April 2020 and January 2021.
That is mainly because after March 2020, the Trump and Biden administrations had a new way to expel non-Mexican migrants into Mexico. Since COVID-19 pandemic border restrictions began, authorities have employed a public health provision called “Title 42” to expel migrants rapidly, usually without an opportunity to ask for asylum or protection in the United States. Mexico takes back its own citizens and citizens of other countries with some migratory status inside Mexico, and agreed in March 2020 to accept expelled citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Between March 2020 and July 2021, U.S. authorities have used Title 42 to expel migrants at the southern border 1,069,777 times. 431,662 of those times, the expelled migrants were not Mexican. (Several thousand of this number were expelled by air to their home countries, not by land into Mexico.) These numbers dwarf the 71,000 who were subjected to Remain in Mexico.
With Title 42 allowing it to expel them into Mexico, the Trump administration almost completely stopped applying “Remain in Mexico” to Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans. The 6,153 people enrolled in the program during the Trump administration’s last 10 months were almost entirely citizens of 6 Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries to which expulsions are difficult: Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.
Even as it ended Remain in Mexico, the Biden administration has energetically continued to expel people under Title 42: 610,208 expulsions, including 76,384 parents and children, between February and July. Because it is hard to expel them, though, the Biden administration has processed into the United States many citizens of the six countries that were subject to Remain in Mexico during the Trump administration’s pandemic tenure.
A two-tier system has resulted. Between February and July:
Citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were expelled, under Title 42, 54 percent of the time. If traveling as families, they were expelled 34 percent of the time.
Citizens of Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela were expelled 22 percent of the time. If traveling as families, they were expelled 4 percent of the time.
Citizens of most of these six countries have been arriving in greater numbers since February. By July, increases in citizens of Ecuador and Nicaragua had pushed El Salvador into sixth place among arriving migrants. This was quite possibly the first time El Salvador has ranked so low, even though arrivals of its citizens did increase from June to July.
If Remain in Mexico is reinstated, citizens of the six countries might find themselves pushed back into Mexican border towns again. However, they would at least have hearing dates in U.S. immigration courts, while Title 42 persists they would still be better off than the Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans being expelled without even a chance to ask for asylum.
On August 25 Human Rights First published a major update of its running series of reports documenting abuses committed against migrants after their expulsion into Mexican border towns. By gathering information from interviews and local organizations’ surveys and databases, the group has now “tracked at least 6,356 kidnappings, sexual assaults, and other violent attacks against people blocked at ports of entry or expelled to Mexico”—just in the months since President Biden took office. Of migrants participating in the surveys who identified as LGBTQ, a stunning 89 percent reported suffering recent attacks or threats while in northern Mexico.
Two encampments made up of expelled or blocked migrants continue to grow. One is in a public square near the border crossing in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, a city plagued by violence. Recent press estimates of the population subsisting there range from “more than 2,000” to “at least 2,500” to “over 5,000.” A similarly sized encampment sits outside the Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana.
The New York Times describes the Reynosa camp as “filthy and foul-smelling, lacking the health and sanitation infrastructure that nonprofit groups had spent months installing” in an earlier, now-demolished camp for Remain in Mexico victims in the nearby border city of Matamoros. “Assaults and kidnappings for ransom are commonplace.” Several people interviewed there “said that they had tried to make a case for asylum to U.S. Border Patrol agents, but that the agents would not listen. They were told, they said, to just answer questions and follow directions,” and were bused back to Mexico.
Several non-governmental groups are seeking to raise money for a facility to shelter roughly 400 COVID-positive migrants so that they might at least be able to leave the camp while they recover. Meanwhile, Reynosa’s municipal government—which recently sought to close down the city’s largest church-run migrant shelter—ordered the confiscation of gas cylinders that migrants in the camp were using to cook food, citing safety concerns. The migrants now depend more heavily on charitable food donations.
The U.S. government is offering no support. To the contrary: unnamed sources told Reuters that U.S. officials are urging Mexico to clear the encampments, “in part because the sheer volume of people in them could jeopardize security if they made a sudden rush for the border.”
In some cases, the U.S. government is seeking to move migrants even further from the border: since sometime in early August, DHS began expelling some Central American migrants via aircraft to two cities in southern Mexico—Tapachula, Chiapas, and Villahermosa, Tabasco—a relatively short drive from the Guatemalan border. From those cities’ airports, Mexican authorities have been busing migrants to border crossings and escorting them into Guatemala. The migrants are given no opportunity to ask for asylum in either country.
Guatemala has voiced particular concern about expulsions into the tiny border town of El Ceibo, in the country’s remote, sparsely populated, and organized crime-influenced northern department of Petén, which borders Tabasco, Mexico. Guatemala only authorizes, and has facilities to handle, deportees at one border crossing site hundreds of miles away, in the Pacific-zone border town of Tecún Umán. Very few services exist in El Ceibo, where Guatemala’s Migration Institute (IGM) on August 24 estimated that Mexico had dropped off 500 Central American migrants in the previous 3 days.
August migration may be declining somewhat
In July 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported taking 154,288 migrants into custody at the U.S.-Mexico border through 212,672 separate “encounters,” a term that includes many repeat crossings. This was the largest number all year, and one of the largest monthly totals in this century.
Some indicators, however, point to at least a modestly lighter flow of migrant arrivals in August. Daily reports (available here as a 12MB zipfile) show a decline over the month of August in arrivals of unaccompanied migrant children at the border, after a sharp increase in July. During the last two weeks of July, an average of more than 500 children per day were entering CBP custody at the border, and more than 600 per day the first week of August. This has dropped to 424 per day during the week of August 15 and 469 per day so far this week.
In Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, the sector that receives by far the largest number of migrants, especially children and families from Central America, numbers also appear to be dropping. myRGV.com reports:
Assistant City Manager Jeff Johnston reported that the numbers were down significantly last week.
“Back on Aug. 9, we reported an all-time high of 11,026 immigrants dropped off by Customs and Border Protection that week here in McAllen. That was an average of about 1,575 per day,” Johnston told city commissioners during Monday’s meeting. “This last week, our numbers were down quite a bit from that, in fact down by over 40%. We had 6,320 drop-offs this last week for an average of about 900 per day.”
COVID-19 positivity rates among asylum seekers in the Rio Grande Valley were also down “from about 15 percent two weeks ago to approximately 12 percent this week.”
During Fiscal Year 2021 so far (October through July), Border Patrol has found the remains of 383 migrants on U.S. soil near the U.S.-Mexico border, the New York Times reports. Most died of dehydration, exposure, or drowning. That is more remains than Border Patrol has found in any full year since 2013 (451); with two months to go, 2021 is already the sixth-worst year since 1998, when Border Patrol’s records begin. CBP reports finding more than 100 remains of migrants just in the Rio Grande Valley sector, “on rugged ranch lands in south Texas,” adding, “Last week alone, 10 decedents were discovered on the ranch lands. This month, more than 20 people have lost their lives during smuggling attempts.”
Mexican officials assert that seven out of every ten Ecuadorians traveling to Mexico in recent months have ended up apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol near the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexico is tightening visa requirements for Ecuador’s citizens, after easing them in 2018.
Because it wants cooperation on limiting migration, the Biden administration has not been following up officials’ tough anti-corruption talk with action against Central American government officials, a New York Times analysis asserts. The piece leads with the scoop that shortly before being fired and forced into exile, Guatemala’s top anti-corruption prosecutor had a witness tell him of going to President Alejandro Giammattei’s home and delivering “a rolled-up carpet stuffed with cash.”
As environmental advocates had warned would happen, monsoon rains in Arizona’s desert caused flash flooding that blew recently built border wall segments’ gates right off of their hinges.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) has now sent about 1,000 National Guardsmen to the border with Mexico, with more than 60 of them tasked with building “temporary barriers in key areas.” These state-funded troops are in addition to about 3,800 soldiers and guardsmen whom the Trump administration sent to the border to support CBP, a deployment that the Biden administration has continued. Abbott’s move has pulled National Guard personnel away from the role they were playing in manning El Paso’s only food bank during the pandemic, forcing it to close most of its locations, at least temporarily. The governor has charged police and guardsmen with arresting undocumented migrants near the border on state charges, nearly always trespassing. As of August 25 Texas was holding 486 migrants in a prison in the town of Dilley, and is considering using a second facility in Edinburg, in the Rio Grande Valley. By a 14-8 vote, the Texas House’s Appropriations Committee approved $2 billion on August 24 to pay for Abbott’s crackdown.
“Most public-health experts say it isn’t likely that migrants are contributing significantly to [COVID-19] transmissions within the U.S., since nearly all are tested and quarantined before release, and because the Delta variant is already widespread,” reads a Wall Street Journal analysis. “Think about an entire city on fire and I was to walk in and drop a match,” said one epidemiologist.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and other voices on the U.S. right are alleging that the rapid Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, which included a mass prison release, may lead to terrorists seeking to enter the United States via the border with Mexico.
Large numbers of Haitian migrants are stuck in Mexico’s border zone near Guatemala, where they must await decisions from Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, on their asylum cases. They are urging COMAR to adjudicate more quickly. Activists tellChiapas Paralelo that their numbers in the border zone could be as high as 30,000, with another 15,000 en route, currently in Colombia and Panama. (The actual number may be smaller.)
Intense fighting between the Jalisco cartel and local organized-crime groups, with almost no government intervention, has displaced thousands from the town of Aguililla, in Mexico’s Pacific state of Michoacán. Many families are trying to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, Vice reports.
August 24 markedthe 11th anniversary of an infamous massacre of 72 migrants from at least 6 countries in San Fernando, near the Texas border in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Nobody has ever been sentenced for the crime.
En el caso de que la Guardia cumpla con sus metas de reclutamiento para 2021, solo el 42% de sus activos serán efectivos nuevos, mientras que 36% serán veteranos del ejército y la marina, y 21% de la Policía Federal
The charges, filed by an attorney general closely aligned with President Iván Duque, could signal that the government is now willing to come to terms with one of the darkest aspects of its military’s history
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
Whether the Supreme Court will abandon the judiciary’s longtime posture of deference to the elected branches on matters of foreign relations — or whether it will give an increasingly right-wing judiciary a permission slip to interfere with America’s negotiations with foreign partners and rivals
“Through July,” Simon Romero reports at the New York Times,” Border Patrol officials found 383 dead migrants, the highest toll in nearly a decade, and one already far surpassing 253 recovered in the previous fiscal year.”
Here’s that number in the context of the past 24 years:
Migrants trying to avoid apprehension die in shockingly high numbers, usually of dehydration or exposure, on U.S. soil. Local NGOs usually find much higher numbers of remains than Border Patrol does in the areas where they operate.
This is an especially bad year. It’s been a summer of record-high heat. The pandemic “Title 42” policy, which instantly expels most apprehended migrants—even many asylum-seekers—gives some migrants an extra incentive to avoid apprehension, but also eases repeat attempts to cross.
It’s so bizarre how little attention this gets. Somebody dies a painful death on U.S. soil every day—yet stories like Romero’s Times piece today are remarkably rare.
The parade was only one recent indication that Bolsonaro hopes to use the military to bolster his attempts to either win the presidential contest in October 2022 or to claim fraud and remain in power if he doesn’t
You may recall that in March, in its early months, the Biden administration was hit by a large increase in unaccompanied migrant children, mostly from Central America, being apprehended at the border. Numbers of children began dropping in April and May, only to rise again in June and July. Now, they’re dropping again.
As a result, the number of kids stuck in Border Patrol’s child-inappropriate holding facilities, which had been rising alarmingly a couple of weeks ago, has dropped again.
By law Border Patrol must, as fast as possible, release unaccompanied children to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which manages a network of shelters around the country. Currently, a few thousand children are in short-term emergency shelters where conditions are austere and grim. Health and Human Services must discharge children to relatives or other sponsors in the United States, with whom they stay while their asylum or protection cases are adjudicated.
Health and Human Services increased the pace of its discharges to U.S. sponsors in the weeks after the initial “wave” of children. Since then, though, the pace of discharges flattened out.
As a result, the full population of kids in U.S. government custody—17,174 on August 18—has barely budged: it hasn’t been below 15,000 in a long time. The last two weeks, at least, appear to have seen net decreases.
I made these charts using a collection of (as of today) 103 daily reports on unaccompanied children, issued by Customs and Border Protection and Health and Human Services. You can download those as a big (11MB) zipfile at bit.ly/uac_daily.
I’m just finishing my second week of vacation time. My daughter just turned 17, college is looming in a year, so we drove all over the eastern seaboard looking at schools. Seventeen of them, as you can see here from these photo albums.
We’re at the beach for a few days, and coming back to Washington over the weekend. I’ll resume normal posting soon.
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.
We will not publish updates on August 13 and 20, but look forward to resuming on August 27.
Preliminary data point to 210,000 migrant encounters in July
David Shahoulian, the Department for Homeland Security’s (DHS) assistant secretary for border and immigration policy, submitted an August 2 declaration as part of ongoing litigation (discussed below) regarding expulsions of asylum-seeking migrants. Shahoulian’s document offers a preview of official data about migration at the border in the month of July, which Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has not yet released.
CBP is likely to have encountered about 210,000 undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in July.
This would be the largest number of times that U.S. border authorities have encountered migrants since March 2000, when Border Patrol reported 220,063 apprehensions, and the third-largest on Border Patrol’s reporting of all monthly totals since 2000. This chart shows approximately how July would compare to all months since October 2011:
There is much double-counting, though: repeat crossings are far more common now than in 2000, since pandemic expulsions ease repeated attempts. As a result, the number of individual people whom CBP is encountering is probably in the low-to-mid 100,000s. That is still high, but probably not even in the top ten monthly totals of the past 22 years.
Still, it is extraordinarily unusual for a hot month of July to exceed migration levels measured in spring. Long-standing seasonal patterns no longer apply. As a new WOLA analysis points out, the number may keep increasing, as family and child migration patterns in place since 2014 have been heightened by the pandemic’s impact on governance and economies throughout the hemisphere. “Based on current trends,” Shahoulian’s document reads, “the Department expects that total encounters this fiscal year are likely to be the highest ever recorded.”
“July also likely included a record number of unaccompanied child encounters, exceeding 19,000.”
Numbers of unaccompanied children arriving at the border had been inching upward since May, but jumped approximately after the July 4 holiday, for unclear reasons. On August 4, Border Patrol reported taking into custody a remarkable 834 non-Mexican children who arrived at the border unaccompanied. That is the largest single-day number in all daily reports on unaccompanied children that CBP and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have produced since March 24, and may be the largest daily number ever.
Along with the increase in child arrivals has come an increase, once again, in the number of unaccompanied children in Border Patrol custody, in the agency’s jail-like holding cells and processing facilities. A smoother process of handoffs to HHS, which runs a network of shelters as it works to place children with U.S.-based relatives or sponsors, had reduced numbers in Border Patrol custody from more than 5,000 in March to fewer than 1,000 in May and most of June. The volume of new arrivals, though, has caused the number to climb again.
As of August 4, 2,784 children were in Border Patrol facilities. Reuters reported on August 3 that, according to an unnamed “source familiar with the matter,” unaccompanied children were spending about 60 hours in Border Patrol custody, just under the legal limit of 72 hours for handoff to HHS. However, Reuters added that as of August 3, 877 kids had exceeded the 72-hour threshold.
July encounters with family unit members are cited either as “over 75,000” or “around 80,000.”
This number of family members—which, like children, includes few repeat crossers—would be second only to May 2019, when Border Patrol apprehended 84,486.
Two of the nine sectors into which Border Patrol divides the border “experienced a disproportionate amount of these encounters.”
They are both in Texas: the Rio Grande Valley, the easternmost part of the border; and Del Rio, in the central part of Texas’s border with Mexico, across from Coahuila, Mexico. “These two sectors have also experienced a disproportionate amount—about 71 percent—of family encounters.”
As of August 1, Border Patrol facilities were at 389 percent of their “COVID-19 adjusted capacity,” with 17,778 non-citizens, including 2,233 unaccompanied children, in the agency’s custody.
10,002 of them were in the Rio Grande Valley sector, 3,623 of them in a temporary processing facility in Donna, Texas, which has a normal (non-COVID) operating capacity of 1,625. “Border Patrol was over capacity in seven of its nine southwest border sectors.”
Images posted on social media by Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and a Border Patrol union leader showed large numbers of migrants, including families with children, being held under bridges, outdoors, for days. These are Border Patrol’s Temporary Outdoor Processing Site (TOPS) under the Anzalduas International Bridge in Mission, Texas, and the Del Rio International International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas.
In the Rio Grande Valley, about 800 migrants, mostly asylum-seeking family members, are being brought each day to the Catholic Charities humanitarian respite center in downtown McAllen. “The center struggles every day to have enough supplies and donations to meet the growing demand,” reportsBorder Report, adding that the facility’s air conditioning broke down over the July 31-August 1 weekend “and temperatures were in the triple digits.”
Northbound migration becomes more visible in Colombia
Colombia sits along a route long used by migrants moving northbound from South America, often via countries like Ecuador or Brazil that are relatively more open to travelers from outside the continent. In its northwest corner, though, there is a major bottleneck: the Pan-American highway does not cross the Darién Gap, an area of dense jungle between the Colombian border and central Panama.
“Before the pandemic,” notes the Bogotá daily El Espectador, “Colombia issued a safe-conduct so that migrants could transit through national territory and leave within 30 days, but with the [pandemic border] closure, it stopped issuing them.” Although Colombia reopened its borders in May 2021, the safe-conduct system “has not resumed.”
Most international migrants transit Colombia with the aim of reaching the Atlantic coast town of Capurganá, which borders Panama. From there, they walk through the Darién Gap—a part of the journey to the United States that many migrants recall as the most miserable and dangerous—until they end up at facilities run by the Panamanian government and humanitarian groups on the other side. From there, they travel through Central America and either seek asylum in Mexico or seek to reach the U.S. border.
Capurganá is poorly served by roads, though, so migrants usually take a 40-mile ferry across the Gulf of Urabá, an inlet of the Caribbean Sea, from Necoclí. This municipality of 45,000 is part of Antioquia department, of which Medellín is the capital. A stronghold of pro-government paramilitary groups during the worst years of Colombia’s armed conflict 20 years ago, Necoclí remains under the influence of the Gulf Clan, an organized crime syndicate descended from the paramilitaries.
As migration surges throughout the Americas, the bottleneck in Necoclí has become dramatically backed up. About 10,000 migrants from Haiti and several other countries are in the beachfront town waiting for a chance to board one of the 12 daily ferries to Capurganá. The town’s only ferry company “simply cannot match demand,” Agence France Presse (AFP) reports; a translator for the company told CNN they “try to move eight or nine hundred migrants per day, but it’s hard.” This backup is forcing migrants to spend many days in Necoclí.
Colombian Defense Minister, visiting the town on July 31, said that the country’s navy would build an emergency pier that would allow more boats to operate. President Iván Duque pledged to work more closely with Panamanian authorities.
Most of the Haitian migrants stranded in Necoclí left Haiti years ago and settled in South America, often in Brazil or Chile. The pandemic dried up employment opportunities in these countries, though, and “they say their visas were not renewed,” reports AFP. Colombian migration authorities told CNN that Haitians are more likely to attempt the Darién route in family units with children.
The stay is expensive: a Haitian man told AFP that he “paid US$105 to enter Colombia illegally from Ecuador, another US$200 for a four-day bus ride to Necocli, and more still to pay police bribes,” and that a room in Necoclí costs US$10 per person. “Some migrants denounced mafias that sell them ‘tourist packages’ to make the journey from Ipiales, in Nariño [where the Pan-American Highway crosses from Ecuador to Colombia], charging up to 300 dollars to cross the border,” said Colombia’s human rights ombudsman, who visited Necoclí.
During the week, Colombia reported two apprehensions of migrant groups along the Pan-American Highway in the country’s southwest, several hundred miles south of Necoclí. Police stopped two buses carrying 99 Haitians in the Andean highlands of rural Nariño, and a vehicle carrying seven Haitians and a Brazilian in Valle del Cauca, not far from Cali.
12 developments last week affecting asylum seekers
As their numbers increase, the situation of asylum seekers in the United States and Mexico grew more complicated in several ways last week, though there was progress on some fronts. There is so much to report that this section avoids going into detail; follow links to learn more.
U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone granted a temporary restraining order blocking a July 28 executive order from Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R). Abbot would have required Texas state police, in the name of preventing COVID spread, to stop, divert, and even impound vehicles transporting migrants—mainly asylum-seekers—released from CBP custody. The order would have crippled humanitarian groups’ efforts, and the Justice Department, which sued to challenge Abbott’s order on July 30, included statements from Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials contending that the order would block contractors hired to transport migrants. (In the Rio Grande Valley alone, Border Patrol has used contractors to transport most of 100,700 released migrants in Fiscal 2021, according to Sector Chief Brian Hastings’ filing.) Judge Cardone said Abbott’s order would end up “exacerbating the spread of COVID-19.” Her restraining order expires on August 13, when a new hearing is scheduled.
In addition to the Justice Department action, the ACLU and several other Texas organizations filed suit against Abbott’s order on August 5. While the Justice Department is focused on the government’s ability to transport migrants, the organizations’ suit focuses on the racial profiling and other harms that might result from the order.
Governor Abbott meanwhile continues to oversee a state effort to arrest, charge, and jail undocumented migrants on charges of trespassing near the border. According to Texas Tribune reporter Jolie McCullough, who has done the closest monitoring of this operation, more than 150 migrants are now jailed at a Texas prison in the town of Dilley, with the first arraignments scheduled for August 11. On July 30, McCullough witnessed Texas police separating a Venezuelan husband and wife, taking the husband off to jail as a “visibly confused” Border Patrol agent looked on.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a new order on August 2 renewing the controversial “Title 42” authority to quickly expel migrants, including asylum seekers, in the name of preventing COVID-19 spread. The order does not apply to unaccompanied children, but families will still be subject to expulsion, despite expectations a month ago that the Biden administration would no longer apply Title 42 to families.
“Processing a family under Title 42 typically takes 10 to 15 minutes and is largely conducted outdoors, while processing a family for Title 8 can take 1.5 to 3 hours and is generally conducted indoors,” according to the above-cited filing by DHS’s Shahoulian. The document was part of the Biden administration’s defense to ACLU-led litigation against Title 42’s application to families. Negotiations between the ACLU and the government collapsed upon notice that the CDC would issue its renewal order, and both parties made a joint filing in Washington, DC district court on August 2.
The renewal of Title 42, and of litigation, spells an end to two arrangements that were allowing a few hundred expelled asylum seekers per day judged “most vulnerable” to re-enter from Mexican border towns and be processed within the United States. The so-called Huisha-Huisha and Consortium processes were temporary arrangements that placed non-governmental organizations in the role of determining who was most vulnerable. They allowed over 16,000 individuals to be processed in the United States since May. Now, they are taking no new entrants.
Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR revealed that, as of July 31, it had accepted 64,378 asylum applications so far in 2021. In August, less than two-thirds of the way into the year, the Mexican agency is likely to break its annual record for asylum applications of 70,405, set in 2019. While applicants come from 97 countries, 41 percent are Honduran, 21 percent are Haitian, and 10 percent are Cuban. For a week, COMAR closed its busiest office, in Mexico’s southern border zone town of Tapachula, Chiapas, for pandemic-related deep cleaning. When it reopened on August 5, hundreds of migrants gathered outside and local authorities deployed the National Guard when the crowd became unruly.
The Rio Grande Valley Monitor reported, and the Washington Examiner added more detail, about Mexico (or at least, many Mexican states) possibly refusing expulsions of non-Mexican families whom CBP encounters at other parts of the U.S.-Mexico border. This step may already have been reversed by subsequent dialogues between U.S. and Mexican officials. But if it were to take place—which seems unlikely at the moment—it would put a halt to “lateral” expulsions, for instance where CBP takes a family into custody in a busy sector and transports them to a quieter sector for expulsion into Mexico. Neither the U.S. nor the Mexican federal government has confirmed the change.
DHS announced on July 30 that it carried out its first “expedited removal” flight, returning family members to Central America who had either failed a credible fear screening or did not express fear of return to CBP personnel. The flight had a capacity of 147, but only 73 were family members because many had tested positive for COVID or been exposed to an infected person, the Washington Post found. As noted in last week’s update, the Biden administration announced that it would resume expedited removals on July 26.
This process is flawed, a Houston Chronicle editorial contends: “Many migrants are unlikely to have lawyers to walk them through this process, subjecting them to Border Patrol agents who are often poorly trained for these encounters.” The Chronicle cites a 2016 finding from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that “in 86.5 percent of the cases where a fear question was not asked, the record inaccurately indicated that it had been asked, and answered.”
Reuters reported that DHS has begun expelling some Mexican and Central American adults and families by air, sending them deep within southern Mexico. It appears the first expulsion flight took place on August 5. “The United States will work with non-governmental organizations and shelters in southern Mexico to ensure that migrants can safely return to their home countries,” a source told Reuters—though there is no indication that such organizations or shelters are willing to cooperate with this arrangement. This process is for Title 42 expulsions into Mexico, not the expedited removals mentioned in the above point.
NBC News reports that, in order to ease crowding of Border Patrol facilities, many unprocessed families will be transferred to ICE. That agency will either place families in alternatives-to-detention programs within the United States, or put them on deportation flights if they do not express credible fear of return. “In an unprecedented move,” NBC reports, “an agency usually tasked with detention, enforcement and removal of undocumented immigrants… will be performing health screenings, offering COVID vaccines, telling immigrants their legal rights and connecting them with non-governmental organizations that can help them.”
The Washington Post reports that the Biden administration is preparing to offer the Johnson and Johnson single-dose COVID vaccine to migrants along the border. The vaccine would be administered to those being processed in the United States—including those facing deportation—but not to those expelled under Title 42. The same article notes that ICE continues to lag badly in its administration of vaccines within its network of U.S. detention centers, though an oversight official’s July 31 report claims that “46 percent of ICE detainees who were offered vaccine had refused it during the past month.”
The average daily population of ICE’s detention facilities rose to 27,041 in July, up from 15,100 in January, the Biden administration’s first month. Of the 25,526 in ICE custody as of July 31, 3,318 (13 percent) were detained asylum seekers.
As the Biden administration seeks to reunify the last few hundred of 3,913 asylum-seeking families separated during the Trump administration, a BuzzFeed investigation looked at what happened to some families after reunification. Documents indicate that “families from the first group of reunifications have reported homelessness shortly after entering the country.”
A new report from the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) and FWD.us offers important perspective on asylum. It documents how the United States and other recipient governments have been steadily chipping away at the right to seek refuge for years. Policies weakening the ability to seek asylum “have caused unimaginable human suffering and loss, particularly for Black, Brown, and Indigenous asylum seekers,” the report points out.
A new WOLA commentary explains the current rise in migration at the border and throughout the hemisphere as part of a trend going back as far as 2014, heightened by the pandemic. It argues that the increase presents the Biden administration with an opportunity to show the world a different approach: how to handle a migration event without another cruel and ineffective crackdown.
Local government in Mexico’s troubled border state of Tamaulipas announced on August 4 that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) unit gave recognition awards—plaques citing “exceptional contributions” and “outstanding service”—to Arturo Rodríguez, head of a 150-person state police unit. Prosecutors accuse eight or twelve members of this unit, the GOPES (Special Operations Group), of carrying out a grisly massacre of 14 Guatemalan migrants and five other people near the border, in the municipality of Camargo, in January. VICE detailed the Camargo massacre and its investigation in a report also published August 4. Associated Press coverage of the DEA/HSI award describes other serious recent allegations that GOPES personnel have killed, stolen from, and otherwise abused civilians.
CBP announced it will begin to outfit its officers and Border Patrol agents with body-worn cameras, in order “to better enhance its policing practices and reinforce trust and transparency,” especially regarding migrant encounters and use-of-force incidents. The agency plans to deploy about 6,000 body cameras by the end of 2021. Reuters notes that in 2015, CBP under the Obama administration had piloted the use of body cameras but ultimately rejected them, citing “a number of reasons not to adopt the devices, including cost and agent morale.”
Mexico is building three permanent National Guard barracks in Ciudad Juárez, across from El Paso, including one in the western colonia of Anapra, a frequently used migration corridor.
The government of Mexico, where legal firearms are rare, filed suit in a Boston federal court against several U.S. gun manufacturers and distributors. The suit alleges that these companies seek to profit from Mexican criminal groups, who pay for weapons smuggled south over the border from the United States, where they are easy to obtain legally.
A report from the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) recommends that the U.S. Department of Justice issue an “opinion that clarifies that climate change serves as grounds for refugee status under U.S. law.”
A passenger van carrying 30 people, most of them probably undocumented migrants, crashed after taking a high-speed turn off a highway in Brooks County, Texas, about 80 miles north of McAllen and the border. The driver and nine passengers were pronounced dead. Brooks County is where large numbers of migrants die walking through arid scrubland trying to evade a Border Patrol highway checkpoint; its sheriff reported finding 50 human remains during the first 6 months of 2021.
Mexican Army troops and national guardsmen in the border city of Mexicali rescued six men from the southern state of Guerrero, whom a criminal group was holding captive. It turned out they were being used as forced labor to build and operate an 80-meter-long, 16-meter-deep tunnel under the border into Calexico, California.