Adam Isacson

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


February 2022

Weekly Border Update: February 25, 2022

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.

Led by sharp “Northern Triangle” reductions, migration declined at the border in January

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released data on February 18 (moments after we posted last week’s update) about its January 2022 encounters with undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. The agency reported a 14 percent decline in migration from December to January, the first month-to-month drop since October.

The 153,941 migrants encountered was the lowest monthly amount CBP has reported since February 2021. CBP had encountered 26 percent of those migrants at least once in the past 12 months, which means the agency actually took in 111,437 “unique individuals” in January, 18 percent fewer than in December.

The January decline raised some expectations that the jump in migration that greeted the Biden administration in 2021 may be leveling off. The seasonal norm, though, is for migration to jump in spring. Washington Post reporter Nick Miroff, who has seen CBP’s preliminary weekly data, tweeted that migration numbers “have rebounded since mid-Jan. Have remained high in Feb.”

73 percent of January’s migrant encounters were with single adults, a greater proportion than in 2021 (64 percent) and than the average since October (68 percent). This owes to a 26 percent one-month drop in arrivals of unaccompanied children—CBP averaged 295 kids in custody per day, compared to 704 per day in December—and to a 39 percent drop in migrants arriving as families. “Family unit” members totaled just 31,795 in January, down from 86,631 five months earlier, in August.

Arrivals of migrants from Central America’s “Northern Triangle” countries, who had accounted for a large portion of families at the border several months ago, have dropped sharply. 31,414 migrants came from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in January, down from over 87,000 in August. Only 6,819 family members from those countries came to the border last month, down a remarkable 86 percent from August (50,107 family members).

Of those 6,819 Salvadoran, Guatemalan, or Honduran family members, all but 2,130 (69 percent) were expelled under the “Title 42” pandemic authority. Overall, CBP used Title 42 to expel, without an opportunity to request asylum, 51 percent of all encountered migrants in January.

The share of migrants being expelled has been gradually dropping—not because of a renewed Biden administration commitment to asylum, but because migrants are increasingly coming from countries to which expulsion is difficult for reasons of distance or poor diplomatic relations. For the third straight month, Venezuela was the second-largest country of origin of migrants apprehended at the border, a reality that was unprecedented before November 2021. In fact, of all non-expelled migrants in January, a remarkable 58 percent came from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, three countries governed by authoritarian regimes with which the U.S. government has very poor relations.

Similar to past months, 97 percent of all migrants expelled under Title 42 came from 5 countries: Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, and Honduras. Those 5 countries made up 61 percent of all migrants apprehended in January; the other 39 percent came from countries whose citizens rarely have Title 42 applied to them, though last month did see more flights expelling citizens to Brazil.

As in the recent past, this historically high population of non-Mexican, non-“Northern Triangle” migrants is arriving in two rural sectors of the U.S.-Mexico border that were quiet in the 2000s and 2010s: Del Rio, Texas, and Yuma, Arizona/California. Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico border into nine sectors; in January, Del Rio became the number-one sector for CBP migrant encounters. South Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector, which had held the number one spot since March 2013, fell to number two. Yuma was third.

CBP reported month-on-month declines in seizures of most drugs in January (cocaine -69 percent, methamphetamine -45 percent, heroin -85 percent). However, seizures of fentanyl increased 57 percent over an unusually low December. Fentanyl seizures at the border, which almost never reached 300 pounds per month before the pandemic, have, since June 2020, nearly always exceeded 500 pounds, and in some months exceeded 1,000 pounds. During that period, 89 percent of fentanyl seizures have taken place at ports of entry, where CBP’s Office of Field Operations operates—not in the areas in between where Border Patrol operates. In January, 92 percent of fentanyl was seized at ports of entry.

A Mexican citizen dies in an Arizona use of force incident

News reporting datelined February 20 and 21 pointed to Border Patrol personnel shooting a migrant in an incident on the night of February 19, on a desert trail about 30 miles northeast of Douglas, Arizona. In a February 23 statement, CBP confirmed that as two Border Patrol agents were intercepting a group of migrants, one of the agents followed one who attempted to escape and, “while taking him into custody discharged his firearm fatally wounding the migrant, tentatively identified as a citizen of Mexico.”

On the evening of February 24, the Cochise County, Arizona Sheriff’s Department posted a statement conveying the agent’s claims that 32-year-old Carmelo Cruz-Marcos, of Puebla, Mexico, had resisted capture, “then ran approximately six feet away before picking up a large rock and turning back towards the agent making a throwing motion with the hand that held the rock.” The agent then “fired his weapon an unknown number of times as he was in fear for his life and safety.”

The agents requested medical assistance and Cruz-Marcos’s body was airlifted out the next day. The Cochise County Sheriff is investigating the shooting, as is the Pima County (Tucson area) Medical Examiner’s Office. The Medical Examiner determined that Cruz-Marcos died of multiple gunshot wounds. CBP notified the Mexican consulate, which confirmed that the decedent was a Mexican citizen.

CBP reports that its Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) is also reviewing the incident, as will CBP’s National Use of Force Review Board.

Investigators must determine whether the shooting was truly an act of self-defense or otherwise fell within CBP’s use of force guidelines, which prohibit using firearms “in response to thrown or launched projectiles unless the officer/agent has a reasonable belief, based on the totality of circumstances, that the subject of such force poses an imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death.” If investigators find that the actions violated those guidelines, then the next steps would involve holding personnel administratively and judicially accountable.

“There are multiple red flags in this investigation” so far, a February 23 statement from the Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC) contended. It notes that the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) disclosed on February 19 that Border Patrol had killed a migrant, then “removed that statement in subsequent press releases.” SBCC adds:

Instead of the CCSO processing the scene immediately, they waited a day. Even though the other migrants in the area were taken by agents to a Border Patrol station right away, CCSO did not recover the body of the deceased migrant until the following day. The CCSO does not appear to have collected any forensic evidence at all until the next day, including from the agent involved (clothing, fingerprints, ballistics or any other relevant evidence). Instead, they ceded the incident area to border agents who could have tampered with the scene.

SBCC has spearheaded an effort to shed light on Border Patrol’s Critical Incident Teams (BPCITs), secretive units that often arrive quickly at scenes of possible use-of-force violations like this one. The teams allegedly have a record of interfering with investigations and seeking to build narratives that might exonerate the Border Patrol agents involved. While it’s not clear whether a Critical Incident Team is involved in the Arizona incident, SBCC argues, “There can be no independent investigation of border agents with the involvement of the agency that employs them, especially if BPCITs are involved, as they usually are.”

Group documents troubling CBP abuses in El Paso region

The Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR), a 22-year-old grassroots advocacy group based in El Paso, released the latest of a series of “abuse documentation” reports with troubling findings about the behavior of some U.S. border law enforcement personnel, especially CBP officers working at ports of entry.

The BNHR periodically activates its members for “Abuse Documentation Campaigns,” in which trained volunteers posted in “high traffic areas like churches, shopping centers, and international bridges” hold in-person interviews with people who claim to have suffered abuse in their interactions with local and federal law enforcement. The group takes this information as the basis for filing complaints and for what it calls its “El Paso model” of sustained dialogue with local CBP and Border Patrol leadership.

The BNHR’s most recent campaign took place from October 9 to November 9, 2021. Volunteers documented 25 cases that, the organization believes, “reflect the systemic pattern of impunity under which law enforcement agencies interact with border residents.” Sixteen of the twenty-five cases involved abuse by federal border or immigration agencies. Of these, the majority took place at ports of entry: the border bridges between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, or land crossings between New Mexico and Mexico.

Some of the complaints about Border Patrol allege racial profiling. The most serious allegations, though, involve CBP officers at the ports. BNHR found “a very troubling pattern of body and cavity searches on women,” recounting some painful testimonies. The group notes an “evident pattern” of frequent secondary inspection of border crossers, including many “false positive[s], meaning that there is a practice and potential out-of-policy daily quota to send border residents and citizens of the United States to secondary detention [inspection].” It found examples of verbal and psychological abuse by CBP officers, including insults, intimidation, and threats.

A 71-year-old dual citizen said that a CBP officer pushed him to the floor after he accidentally showed a Mexican identity document instead of his U.S. passport. A woman with DACA status says she was threatened with deportation for being “married to an illegal.” A few women recount having their genitals groped during searches.

The BNHR recommends that CBP’s Office of Field Operations set clear, written limits and standards for secondary inspection at its ports of entry, including limiting the time spent in secondary and its application to vulnerable populations. The report calls for CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility and the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General to investigate the cases it details. And it calls on the Biden administration to end Title 42 and to “unwind and discontinue” the court-ordered Remain in Mexico policy.

In an email to Border Report about the BNHR findings, a CBP spokesperson responded, “It is important to understand that the agency cannot act upon any perceived issues or allegations unless they are brought to our attention through formal channels.”

  • The latest Metering Update from the University of Texas Strauss Center—a resource produced every quarter since June 2018—found its highest-ever number of asylum seekers waiting for an opportunity to present to U.S. border personnel. The report “documents approximately 28,995 asylum seekers on waitlists in eight Mexican border cities. This is an approximately 9 percent increase from November 2021.” Waitlists, a way to determine who gets to approach U.S. ports of entry first, are currently open to new entrants only in Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, as the Trump and Biden administrations’ Title 42 pandemic restrictions have closed ports of entry to virtually all asylum seekers.
  • As of February 22, U.S. authorities had returned 758 asylum-seeking migrants to Mexico under the Remain in Mexico program since the program’s early December court-ordered revival, CBS News’ Camilo Montoya-Galvez tweeted, citing UN migration agency data. Of that total, 386 had been sent from El Paso into Ciudad Juárez, 195 from San Diego to Tijuana, and 177 from Brownsville to Matamoros and Monterrey. The Biden administration, which sought to end the Trump-era Remain in Mexico program, is appealing an August Texas district court ruling mandating the program’s restart. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments in April, Montoya-Galvez reported.
  • In Tapachula, Chiapas, near Mexico’s border with Guatemala, members of Mexico’s militarized National Guard clashed with about 100 mostly Cuban, Haitian, and African migrants who allegedly tried to “jump the queue for permits to allow them to continue their journey north.” About 20 people were reported injured. Like many migrant protesters in Tapachula over the past year, they are demanding faster processing of their asylum claims, or at least the ability to leave Tapachula—a city in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state—and await their case decisions elsewhere in Mexico. A statement from Mexico’s migration authority (INM) criticized “a contradiction and senselessness in the recent vandalism, because there is no inattention nor can it be a pretext for closing or blocking roads or for threatening with caravans, marches or physical self-harm.”
  • Mexico deployed dozens of National Guard troops along the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juárez to prevent migrants from crossing, after about 500 crossed and turned themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol on February 18. Throughout Mexico, the INM reported apprehending 5,020 migrants, including 793 minors, during the week of February 13.
  • Chris Magnus, who was sworn in as CBP commissioner in December, faces challenges ranging from “discontent among the ranks” to “persistent allegations that his agency is mistreating migrants, failing to recruit more women and is at the mercy of a broken asylum system,” according to an Associated Press analysis and interview.
  • Arizona’s Republican-majority state Senate voted to allocate $700 million to construct “a physical border fence” on state-owned land, or on land agreed with private owners. The state House of Representatives voted for $150 million. As mentioned in our February 11 update’s links, Arizona’s attorney-general and Republican Senate candidate Mark Brnovich issued a legal opinion calling undocumented migration at the border an “invasion” potentially requiring a National Guard response. At the Intercept, Ryan Deveraux looks at the story behind this maneuver.
  • President Biden “promised while he campaigned that there would ‘not be another foot,’ but his government has been adding new barriers as it shores up 13 miles of flood levees along the Rio Grande and fixes other segments left in a precarious state by the contractors rushing to build right up to Biden’s inauguration,” writes Nick Miroff at the Washington Post.
  • About 250 National Guard soldiers participating in Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) large “Operation Lone Star” deployment responded to a survey obtained by the Texas Tribune and Military Times. The poll found severe morale problems among the guardsmen who, though considered soldiers, are civilians with regular careers and families when they are not called on to serve. “I’m wasting time watching the grass grow at my [observation] point [along the border], while my civilian job is dying on the vine,” one guardsman said.
  • The commander of U.S. Northern Command meanwhile paid a visit to troops deployed to a federal border mission in support of CBP, which Donald Trump launched in 2018 and Joe Biden has continued.
  • “Many analysts both on and off the island have interpreted Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s unexpected announcement on November 22, 2021 to authorize free visas to Cuban citizens wishing to travel to Nicaragua as a political favor to Cuba,” an anonymous Cuban author writes at Global Voices. “It is seen as a ploy to lessen the internal pressure Cuba has faced since the protests of July 11, 2021, and to encourage those likely to be involved in new social protests to leave the country.” The writer cites a second objective: “to use Nicaragua as a springboard and generate a new migration crisis for the U.S. on its border with Mexico.” (Just to the south, Costa Rica recently instituted a visa requirement for Cuban citizens, making access to Nicaragua by land more difficult.)
  • The New York Times reports that Latino voters in a rural Texas border town are switching party affiliation from Democrat to Republican, due to social conservatism and to “the sharp increase in the number of people crossing the border from Mexico.”

Weekly Border Update: February 18, 2022

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.

The Biden administration removes its 20,000th Haitian by air, and legislators call for a halt

Early on February 17, a plane operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) departed Laredo, Texas for Port-au-Prince, Haiti, dropping its passengers at the city’s airport. It was ICE’s 198th deportation or expulsion flight since Joe Biden’s January 2021 inauguration. According to Tom Cartwright of Witness at the Border, who monitors removal flights, aboard this flight was the 20,000th Haitian to be removed by air during the Biden administration.

Of those 198 flights, 161 have departed in the 5 months since over 10,000 mostly Haitian migrants arrived en masse in Del Rio, a small border city in rural south-central Texas. Of the 20,000, just over two thirds (13,783 as of the end of December) were rapidly expelled without getting a chance to ask for asylum or other protection. The rest were most likely undocumented Haitians arrested by ICE in the U.S. interior, or otherwise processed under regular immigration law. (Read a brief analysis WOLA published on February 17.)

The expulsions are enabled by the “Title 42” pandemic authority that the Trump administration invoked in March 2020, and that the Biden administration has since maintained. Title 42 has been used more than 1.5 million times to expel migrants. Most of those 1.5 million expulsions have sent migrants across the land border into Mexico, which agreed during the pandemic to take back citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in addition to Mexicans.

Citizens of Haiti have been the fifth most frequently expelled, after those four countries. Unlike those countries, nearly all expulsions take place by air. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has expelled 23 percent of all Haitians whom U.S. authorities have encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border. This is a vastly higher percentage than that of any other country whose citizens are primarily expelled using aircraft, which is a costly practice. Just over half of expelled Haitians have been families with children.

According to Witness at the Border’s monthly breakdown, 36 removal flights went to either Port-au-Prince (32) or Cap-Haïtien (4), Haiti in January, more than any other foreign ICE destination last month. Other January removal flights went to Honduras (27); Guatemala City, Guatemala (23); San Salvador, El Salvador (12); Brazil (6); Ecuador (5); Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (2); Managua, Nicaragua (2); Bogotá, Colombia (2); and Kingston, Jamaica (1).

The 20,000 Haitian citizens—about 1 in every 575 people living in the country today—had mostly been living outside Haiti for many years, having emigrated first to South America following a historic 2010 earthquake. As WOLA’s commentary notes, ICE is sending them to a country barely able to absorb them.

“Gang-related kidnappings and shootings have prevented aid groups from visiting parts of the capital, Port-au-Prince,” the Associated Press reported in December. “A severe shortage of fuel also has kept agencies from operating at full capacity.” A State Department “level 4” warning reads, “Do not travel to Haiti due to kidnapping, crime, civil unrest, and COVID-19.”… Haiti’s president was assassinated last July, and it now lacks a government that can be considered truly legitimate. The country was then hit by an earthquake and a tropical storm. COVID-19 vaccination rates (about 1 percent in January) are among the world’s lowest.

“Haiti simply cannot safely accept the repatriation of its nationals, which is why we are so deeply concerned with the large-scale removals and expulsions of individuals back to Haiti,” reads a February 16 letter to President Biden from over 100 Democratic Party senators and representatives. The document, drafted by Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Rep. Cori Bush (D-Missouri), has Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) among its signers. It calls for an end to the use of Title 42, which “is depriving legitimate asylum seekers the opportunity to pursue their claims, contrary to our obligations under international and domestic law.”

The letter cites data pointing to disproportionate harm done to Black migrants in the U.S. immigration system. The signers demand a thorough review of migration enforcement and immigration court records to assess discriminatory treatment of Black migrants.

Two days earlier, on February 14, 33 Democratic Party representatives sent a letter to Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky calling for an end to the Title 42 expulsions policy, which will hit its second anniversary in just over a month. Led by Reps. Judy Chu (D-California), Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts), and Nydia Velázquez (D-New York), the letter demands to know CDC’s justification “for treating asylum seekers as a unique public health threat” at a late stage in the pandemic when new case numbers are dropping.

Report points to a “lite” version of Remain in Mexico 2.0, for now

Between December 8 and February 15, DHS had returned 572 migrants to Mexico under the Biden administration’s court-ordered revival of the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy, which makes some asylum seekers await their U.S. hearings outside the United States. The second edition of a monthly report from DHS, presenting an unaccustomed level of statistical data, points to a program that, at least so far, has avoided—to a greater extent than the Trump-era program—sending back to Mexico migrants who are especially vulnerable or who have faced credible threats there.

That report covers December and January. As of January 31, DHS had chosen 673 asylum seekers to participate in Remain in Mexico, 400 of them in January. Of those 673 people, all of them adults:

  • Their countries of citizenship were Nicaragua (400, 59%); Venezuela (153, 23%); Cuba (66, 10%); Colombia (27, 4%); Ecuador (17, 3%); Peru (8, 1%); Costa Rica (1, 0%); and the Dominican Republic (1, 0%). 92 percent, then, came from Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba, widely considered to be the three most authoritarian states in Latin America today. Expulsions to those countries are complicated by flight costs and poor consular relations.
  • 404 were enrolled in El Paso, Texas (60%), 142 in San Diego, California (21%), and 127 in Brownsville, Texas (19%).
  • DHS administered 519 COVID vaccines for those enrolled.
  • 81 were taken out of the program after they expressed fear of returning to Mexico and passed fear screenings. That is 14 percent of all migrants who voiced fear of return to Mexico. (595 of 673 migrants—88 percent—had expressed fear of being made to wait in Mexico.)
  • 68 were taken out of the program for “case closure” reasons, which largely means they fit one of the categories of especially vulnerable migrants. (These categories, agreed with Mexico’s government, include mental or physical disabilities; advanced age; or sexual orientation or gender identity.)
  • After returning to the United States for their initial immigration court hearings, asylum seekers are asked whether they fear returning to Mexico to await their subsequent court dates. Of 185 people who had hearings by the end of January, 152 (82 percent) said they feared return to Mexico. Of those, 31 (20 percent) passed their fear screenings and were removed from “Remain in Mexico.” Another 25 had their cases closed during their U.S. hearings, and were removed from “Remain in Mexico,” for other reasons.

In all, that adds up to 205 out of 673 migrants (30 percent) being removed from “Remain in Mexico” during the program’s first two months due to threats, vulnerabilities, or other reasons. That, as the American Immigration Council’s Aaron Reichlin-Melnick noted, is greater than the 13 percent exemption rate granted during the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico 1.0” between January 2019 and January 2021. Still, in WOLA’s view, the process does not sufficiently address the risks that anyone under the program might face in Mexico.

A figure of 673 people in two months, with a greater exemption rate, points to a smaller program than the Trump-era version of Remain in Mexico, which sent back more than 71,000 asylum seekers over two years. This may not be surprising, since the Biden administration claims to oppose this program. Its restart is the result of a lawsuit brought by two Republican state attorneys general before a Republican-appointed federal judge in Texas.

There is no certainty, though, that Remain in Mexico won’t grow from its current size. The Trump administration also rolled the program out slowly in early 2019. For now, the renewed program is operating at just three of seven planned ports of entry. It has not yet been applied to families. And its use may become more vigorous as migrant arrivals climb in the spring.

Yael Schacher, the deputy director for the Americas and Europe at Refugees International, published a report this week about her observations of Remain in Mexico proceedings at El Paso’s immigration court in early January. (Listen to an April 2021 WOLA podcast interview with Schacher.) “Essentially, the Biden administration’s position is that ‘we know this is going to go badly and would rather not do it, but we are not doing anything legally wrong,'” Schacher wrote. “This matters little to the small number of asylum seekers placed in a program with a Kafkaesque quality. Many of the asylum seekers I saw seemed bewildered and without any sense of how to deal with the socio-bureaucratic absurdity.” About 140 adult men were slated to attend their initial hearings during Schacher’s four days in El Paso. Court dockets showed that only eight had attorneys.

Migration dropped in January; Mexico’s visa demands for Venezuelans could be a reason

While Customs and Border Protection (CBP) hasn’t yet released data about migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border in January, a monthly filing to the judge in the “Remain in Mexico” case, first shared by CBS News, includes some preliminary numbers. They show a 14 percent drop in migrant encounters at the border from December and January.

The 153,941 migrants CBP recorded last month, down from 178,840 in December, is the smallest monthly total CBP has measured since February 2021 (101,099). It is the largest total recorded in a month of January since 2000, however.

Some notable points in this preliminary data:

  • January 2022 was the first month since February 2013 during which south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector was not number one, among Border Patrol’s nine border sectors, in migrant encounters. The agency detained more migrants in south-central Texas’s rural Del Rio sector (30,773) than it did in the Rio Grande Valley (30,180).
  • Another rural, previously quiet sector was in third place last month: Yuma, which straddles southwest Arizona and southeast California, recorded 23,489 migrant encounters.
  • Del Rio and Yuma have been receiving large numbers of migrants from countries beyond Mexico and Central America’s “northern triangle.” In December, these two sectors combined for 71 percent of all border-wide encounters with migrants from Brazil, 79 percent of Colombians, 84 percent of Cubans, 59 percent of Haitians, 73 percent of Indians, and 84 percent of Venezuelans.
  • Because (with the exception of Haitians) the U.S. government rarely goes through the expense of using Title 42 to expel these countries’ citizens by air, these sectors see relatively infrequent use of Title 42 on encountered migrants. In Yuma, 11 percent of encountered migrants were expelled. In Del Rio, it was 36 percent. (By contrast, just east of Yuma, in the Tucson sector, CBP expelled 87 percent.)
  • Border-wide, DHS expelled 51 percent of all encountered migrants.
  • Of those not expelled border-wide, CBP released 46,186 migrants into the United States, in most cases to pursue asylum claims.

While CBP hasn’t yet released country-by-country data about what happened in January, an important reason for last month’s drop in migrant arrivals could be a sharp decline in citizens of Venezuela.

In December, for the first time ever, Venezuelans were the number-two category of citizens (after Mexicans) encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border; CBP took in nearly 25,000. Many had arrived by air to Mexico, which had not been requiring visas of visiting Venezuelans. Under pressure from the U.S. government, as of January 21 Mexico began requiring that Venezuelan visitors first obtain visas, as it did for Brazilians and Ecuadorians in 2021 after arrivals of those countries’ citizens increased at the U.S. border.

This has almost certainly slowed arrivals of Venezuelans. The American Immigration Council’s Reichlin-Melnick tweeted that, at a conference, he asked Border Patrol official Tony Barker for “a preview of the effect of Mexico’s visa requirements for Venezuelans and he said it’s been an 86% drop so far.”

Closure of the air route to Mexico, and Costa Rica’s announcement that it will start demanding visas on February 21, likely mean that more Venezuelans will attempt to migrate via dangerous land routes. Panama’s government reported a fivefold increase from December to January in Venezuelan migrants passing through the highly treacherous jungles of the Darién Gap, leading from the Colombian border. January was the first month ever in which Venezuelans were the number-one country of citizenship of migrants whom Panama registered. A turn to land routes may also owe to the expense of air travel and the extreme difficulty of obtaining a passport within Venezuela.

The U.S. government does not run expulsion or removal flights to Caracas, nor does it recognize as legitimate the ruling regime of Nicolás Maduro. Still, as a Noticias Telemundo investigation revealed, ICE deported 176 Venezuelans back to Venezuela via third countries, like the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago, in 2021. In February 11 follow-up coverage, reporters Damià Bonmatí and Belisa Morillo profiled Venezuelan asylum seekers who, after being returned on these in-transit flights, suffered violent abuse at the hands of Venezuelan officials from the moment they arrived in Caracas’s Maiquetía airport.

  • Taking advantage of a Justice Department filing that offers National Guard troops on state missions the right to form and join unions, troops assigned to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) controversial “Operation Lone Star” deployment are beginning to organize, reports Davis Winkie at Army Times. Winkie has filed several reports since December about miserable conditions and low morale for the nearly 10,000 guardsmen assigned to long tours of duty at the border with Mexico.
  • In south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, local TV station KENS looks at whether ongoing barrier construction along the Rio Grande is “levees” or “walls.” The Texas Tribune finds that Gov. Abbott is building a state border fence using surplus materials left over after Joe Biden halted construction of Donald Trump’s border wall. The federal government gave Texas 1,700 unused “surplus” border-barrier panels for free.
  • Over a dozen U.S. Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton, California have been court-martialed for smuggling undocumented migrants beginning in 2019, Emily Green reported at Vice. “At their peak, according to court records, they were going on multiple runs a week, coordinating among themselves to see who was free to go, and making excuses to get out of training exercises in order to make a few hundred dollars.” According to Green’s findings, fees that migrants pay to smugglers have continued rising: “Today, adults coming from Central America pay smugglers between $11,000 and $14,000, roughly twice as much as just five years ago, and a fortune compared to the $2,000 fee in the early 2000s.”
  • The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, visited the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border. In Tijuana, he toured the area outside of the main pedestrian crossing to San Diego, which until a February 6 eviction operation (discussed in last week’s update) had hosted an encampment of stranded migrants for more than a year. Further east, Amb. Salazar met with the governors of Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas, reaching agreements to build new border bridges or widen existing ones.
  • The Washington Post reports that CBP plans to roll out non-intrusive scanners—“multi-energy portals”—at ports of entry to help detect shipments of fentanyl, a very small-dose, low volume synthetic opioid, inside vehicles.
  • Last year more than 94,000 asylum-seeking migrants encountered at the border were released into the United States with instructions “to register with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement [ICE] within 60 days to complete the process the border officials started. But in some parts of the country, local ICE offices were overwhelmed and unable to give them appointments,” the New York Times found. As of the end of January, nearly 33,000 had not checked in with ICE.
  • Reuters reports that a subsidiary of Geo Group, a for-profit detention center and prison operator that has been embroiled in past controversies, will manage a “house arrest” alternative-to-detention program for asylum-seeking migrants. As discussed in last week’s update, the Biden Administration will launch this program shortly, on a pilot basis, in Houston and Baltimore.
  • A government Integrity Committee is investigating DHS’s Inspector General, Joseph Cuffari, who heads one of two main bodies that oversee the activities of CBP, including allegations of abuse or corruption. Cuffari is accused of ordering a “retaliatory” investigation of subordinates who have criticized his management of the DHS Inspector-General Office. Cuffari, a Trump appointee, had worked for the last two Republican governors of Arizona. The Project on Government Oversight reported about the crisis in this vital oversight agency.
  • Though it would invest very heavily in border security, a bill introduced by first-term Florida Republican Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar has generated strong pushback from her fellow Republican House members, Rafael Bernal and Mike Lillis write at The Hill, because it countenances a possible pathway to citizenship for some undocumented migrants.
  • “The government created illegal immigration among Cubans and Haitians by blocking their legal paths to enter,” reads a report from the Cato Institute’s David Bier. “It has a duty to correct this mistake. It should immediately reopen parole and begin the orderly immigration process that was available to them prior to 2017.”

5 links: February 14, 2022

(Even more here)


I get it, “neo-nationalist international solidarity” or whatever. But still, with an invasion of Ukraine looking likely, what a strange time to go and have your picture taken with Putin.

Colombia, Venezuela

Colombian guerrillas using armed, foreign-made drones to fight each other on the Venezuelan side of the border? I haven’t heard of this before, but the reporter has a credible record and he gets some testimonies.


The commander of the Colombian Army’s sixth division, in the country’s far south, is caught on tape talking about allying with a narco-gang to fight ex-FARC dissidents.


Very happy for the Guapinol environmental activists in Mocoa, Honduras, and for all those who worked to get them freed.

U.S.-Mexico Border

Fentanyl is very small in volume, it’s remarkable that they detect the little that they manage to find as it passes in vehicles through border ports of entry. “Congress has directed CBP to come up with a plan to scan 100 percent of arriving vehicles.”

Latin America-related online events this week

Wednesday, February 16

Thursday, February 17

Weekly Border Update: February 11, 2022

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.

Tijuana clears migrant encampment

At about 4:00 AM on February 6, authorities in Tijuana, Mexico cleared out a year-old migrant encampment outside the city’s main pedestrian border crossing to San Diego. “While children and families were sleeping in their tents, authorities accompanied by riot police and the National Guard arrived unannounced at the ‘El Chaparral’ encampment in Tijuana to carry out a total eviction,” read a statement from the “Chaparral Humanitarian Alliance,” a group of San Diego and Tijuana-based advocates and service providers.

Authorities took 382 migrants, with what personal items they could carry, on buses to three local shelters: the Migrant Integration Center shelter, the Salesian project and the Migrant Sanctuary. The Tijuana mayor’s office called it “a relocation protocol for 382 occupants… to spaces that allow greater security,” adding that the operation occurred “without any complication.” Of the 382 people, 86 were members of family units (parents with children), 33 were single men, 4 were single women, 2 were disabled, and 2 were LGBTI.

By mid-morning, a small square by the El Chaparral (PedWest) border crossing had been cleared of people who had been living there for months in tents, fenced off and depending on makeshift sanitary facilities. Excavators were bulldozing tents and belongings as workers hosed down the square.

The El Chaparral camp formed shortly after Joe Biden’s January 2021 inauguration, when misinformed migrants gathered with the expectation that the U.S. government would soon reopen the adjacent San Ysidro port of entry to asylum seekers. They were mistaken: a year later, the “Title 42” pandemic authority remains in place, and the port of entry is closed to all without documentation. Title 42 authorizes expelling Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Hondurans to Mexico, and others to their home countries, regardless of asylum needs.

U.S. law holds that all who reach U.S. soil have the right to petition for asylum at a port of entry. Even before Title 42 made quick expulsions the norm, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had begun posting guards on the borderline to prevent undocumented migrants from accessing the U.S. side of the line. A San Diego Union Tribune investigation found that an increasing number of asylum seekers, especially citizens of Russia, have been boarding often rented vehicles and seeking to reach the U.S. side at the San Ysidro port of entry’s vehicle entrances. (Asylum-seeking citizens of distant countries like Russia stand a very small chance of being expelled under Title 42 due to logistical and diplomatic challenges. Many Russian migrants arriving in San Diego are members of the Tatar ethnic group, which suffers persecution.) On December 12, a CBP officer fired his weapon four times at a vehicle carrying Russian asylum seekers as it drove over the borderline through a San Ysidro vehicle lane. Nobody was hurt.

This port of entry, meanwhile, is one of three so far that is part of the Biden administration’s rollout of the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which it is reviving under court order. Citing the UN migration agency, Camilo Montoya-Gálvez of CBS News tweeted that between December 8 and the morning of February 9, CBP had sent 480 asylum seekers back to Mexico to await their hearing dates: 313 to Ciudad Juárez from El Paso, 129 to Tijuana from San Diego, and 38 to Matamoros from Brownsville.

“As mayor of Tijuana I must make firm decisions,” said Mayor Montserrat Caballero Ramírez of the February 6 eviction. “As a government we are not looking to put an end to the dreams of those who come to this border, on the contrary, we will seek to provide them with the necessary tools to fulfill them, placing them in a safe and dignified place.”

“The way in which this eviction was carried out caused chaos, psychological and emotional trauma, loss of belongings, and widespread unnecessary fear among the migrant population; furthermore, it fosters xenophobia in the region,” the Chaparral Humanitarian Alliance’s statement responded. While the Associated Press reported that the eviction involved “about a hundred members of the police, National Guard and army,” the Alliance mentioned “150 elements of the municipal police and 200 elements of the National Guard” in addition to municipal officers.

“Testimony of the destruction of important documents, food, water, clothing, children’s toys, tents, blankets, grills, pots, etc. was observed and documented. Several migrants said authorities initially told them to bring a few changes of clothes and a backpack,” the Alliance’s statement reads. This group voiced fear that those transported to shelters might find their stays limited to just a few days. “Several people requested clarity on the length of stay in the shelters and the authorities mentioned that it would be for an indefinite period of time, with no limit. It is essential that this be done.”

Biden administration piloting “house arrest” for asylum seekers

Axios and Reuters reported that the Biden administration will soon launch a 120-day pilot of a more restrictive “alternatives to detention” program for asylum seekers who have been released into the United States to await hearings in badly backlogged immigration courts. The rollout of what Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is calling “home curfew” will occur in Houston and Baltimore, involving 100-200 single adults in each city, according to ICE documents reviewed by both news agencies.

The program is being tried out as an alternative to holding people in ICE’s network of detention centers, which costs about $142 per day per inmate. Instead, it will cost “$6-8 per day per enrollee,” according to Reuters, which adds that each “will generally be required to remain at home from 8 p.m. until 8 a.m., with exceptions for job schedules for those with work authorization or extraordinary circumstances.”

This is more restrictive than current alternatives-to-detention programs, which usually involve GPS monitoring with ankle bracelets or cellphone apps, and/or regular check-ins with case officers, but not requirements to remain confined to home. Officials indicated to Axios that there will be case-by-case variations on each migrant’s movement restrictions.

Following the pilot, “a nationwide program is expected later this year,” Axios reported. It could encompass 350,000 (according to Axios) or 400,000 people (according to Reuters) by the end of this year or next year. That number only includes heads of households: including children and other dependents, the number of migrants covered by the new program could be significantly higher.

About 164,000 (Reuters) or “just under 179,000” (Axios) migrants are currently in ICE-managed alternatives-to-detention programs. This is “roughly double the total on Sept. 30, 2020, before Biden took office,” Reuters reported, and doesn’t include dependents.

Citing a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official, Axios notes that during the past three weeks, about half of single adults encountered at the border have been “released with ankle bracelets or other tracking mechanisms.” (The other half were presumably expelled under Title 42 or placed in regular detention.) Single adult migrants “had typically been locked up.” A possible reason for the increased releases could be the rapid spread of the COVID-19 omicron variant in ICE detention facilities.

Several migrant rights advocacy groups quickly issued a statement criticizing the proposal. “Though framed as an ‘alternative-to-detention,’ we have no reason to believe this harsh ‘e-incarceration’ program would decrease the number of detention centers or the number of people detained in them. In fact, it would newly place hundreds of thousands of people under ICE’s control,” reads the document posted to Human Rights First’s website.

Axios’s coverage noted that “the administration has already stopped keeping migrant families in detention centers.” While two large facilities in Texas are no longer in use for that purpose, some family detention is in fact restarting. During the week of January 31, ICE resumed detaining migrant families at the Berks County Residential Center, a facility in Pennsylvania. The facility may currently be holding about 65 women and girls.

National Guard at the border

The use of National Guard troops for border security missions continued to draw media scrutiny last week. In the U.S. system, National Guardsmen are fully trained soldiers who normally live as civilians, in the civilian workforce. They can be called up by state governors, who command them, or occasionally for federal government duty.

Then-president Donald Trump launched a federal National Guard mission at the border in 2018, which continues today. Starting in March 2021, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) called up a separate state National Guard border mission, “Operation Lone Star,” which involves between 6,500 and 10,000 troops at a cost of about $3 billion.

As we have noted in recent weekly updates, these missions are not going well.

  • A soldier died in Brackettville, Texas on February 7 in an accidental shooting with his personal weapon. Spc. Dajuan Lester Townes is the sixth soldier linked to Operation Lone Star to have died during the deployment. Two of the deceased were victims of accidental shootings, and four died by suicide.
  • At CNN, “Multiple members of the Guard who are deployed as part of Operation Lone Star” told of “long hours with little to do, poor planning, and a lack of mission—all of which, they say, are contributing to low morale among soldiers.”
  • At Stars and Stripes, Rose Thayer reviews constitutional challenges to Gov. Abbott’s deployment, including the Governor’s use of soldiers to detain migrants—a very unusual authority for military personnel to be given, with no imminent end date, on U.S. soil. Guardsmen and Texas state police have arrested 10,400 migrants on state trespassing charges since mid-2021.
  • At the New Republic, Felipe de la Hoz links Gov. Abbott’s “drawing on armed state power to stage muscular showdowns with the feds” with many state governments’ adoption of voter suppression legislation and challenges to election results.
  • Arizona Attorney-General Mark Brnovich (R), meanwhile, drafted a lengthy request for a legal opinion on whether the state has been “invaded” by hostile non-state actors, which in his view would justify the state defending itself with its militia (the Arizona National Guard).
  • Mexico reported apprehending 307,679 undocumented migrants in 2021, leaving far behind its 2015 record of 198,141 apprehensions. This number is similar to U.S. border authorities’ annual apprehension totals a decade ago. Mexican authorities deported one in three (114,366) last year, while 131,448 sought asylum. The main countries of origin of those apprehended were Honduras (41%), Guatemala (26%), El Salvador (8%), Haiti (6%), Brazil (5%), Nicaragua (5%), Cuba (2%), and Venezuela (1%). Monthly apprehensions jumped from 9,564 in January to a peak of 46,370 in September, before dropping to 18,291 by December. Deportations actually dropped because of new laws protecting children, the number of asylum cases, and the difficulty of deporting a growing number of migrants from more distant countries.
  • In the southern Mexican border-zone city of Tapachula, where tens of thousands of migrants have arrived and most are awaiting asylum decisions, authorities carried out raids of hotels and the immediate vicinity of shelters, capturing dozens of undocumented migrants. Asylum-seeking migrants demanding visas allowing them to live in parts of Mexico with more opportunities than Tapachula held protests by the city’s giant migrant detention center, wearing chains. Some went on a hunger strike.
  • In a report jointly published by El Paso Matters and ProPublica, Bob Moore reveals an unpublished DHS Inspector General report with new findings about the May 2019 in-custody death of Carlos Gregorio Hernández Vásquez, a 16-year-old unaccompanied Guatemalan migrant. Hernández “died of the flu after writing on the floor of his cell” in the Weslaco, Texas Border Patrol station, according to the report, even as agents falsely logged regular “welfare checks” on his condition.
  • In a new leak to conservative media, “Border Patrol agents broke protocol to claim in interviews with the Washington Examiner that their jobs have been remade since President Joe Biden took office a year ago. They say that they have been redirected from fulfilling a law enforcement and national security role to working as though they were in an Ellis Island-style welcome center.” The article makes no mention of agents’ ability to expel undocumented migrants, under Title 42, 1.05 million times during the Biden administration’s first 11 full months—56 percent of all migrant encounters in that period.
  • Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) tweeted that he will introduce legislation to back up “disappointed and demoralized” Border Patrol agents by creating a “Border Patrol Reserve,” while increasing the force’s size and salaries. Sen. Portman is retiring at the end of this year.
  • Homicides in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico dropped in January to their lowest monthly total since February 2019, El Paso Matters reported. Of 83 people killed last month, 12 were women, a higher-than-normal percentage.
  • The travails of the National Butterfly Center, a private nature reserve along the Rio Grande in Mission, Texas, were the subject of features in the Rio Grande Valley Monitor, the Guardian, Politico, and the Border Chronicle. The facility’s management has long opposed efforts to build a border wall on or near its property, which led to litigation against the Trump administration and against a private wall-building effort that is now facing fraud charges (which the Center also sued for defamation). This has made the Butterfly Center a recipient of violence threats from far-right actors, forcing it to close “for the immediate future.”
  • The DHS Inspector General issued a report on August 2021 visits to CBP and Border Patrol facilities in the San Diego Sector. The oversight agency found that CBP and Border Patrol were “in general compliance with” standards for transportation, escort, detention, and search of apprehended migrants. A key factor was southern California’s relatively modest number of migrant arrivals at the time. Shaw Drake, an attorney at ACLU Texas who had filed complaints about detention conditions in the sector in 2020, called the IG report “irresponsible.”
  • Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, a first-term Republican from Miami, introduced legislation that would create a conditional pathway to citizenship for some undocumented migrants, in exchange for a major investment in Border Patrol, border law enforcement, and wall-building. The bill is unlikely to move ahead in the face of opposition on the right and left, but it received note because of the rarity of a House Republican proposing even a limited “pathway to citizenship.”
  • “Instead of creating a humane immigration system that might begin to address the reality of migration, the Biden administration is continuing a bipartisan legacy of throwing insane amounts of money at military-style border technology,” reads a Los Angeles Times column by Jean Guerrero.
  • “If his [Donald Trump’s] $15 billion, 455-mile border wall can be defeated by any small gap anywhere in it, it just goes to show the absurdity of the whole project because gaps can and are being made on a near-daily basis,” reads an analysis of the border wall’s failure to deter migration, by David Bier at the Cato Institute.

5 links: February 9, 2022

(Even more here)


“Out of 231 disciplinary processes for police abuse in 2021, only eleven have had results; 120 were closed for not finding responsibility.”

Colombia, Venezuela

The ELN appears to be operating, and fighting a grinding battle against a Venezuelan criminal group, in a region very, very far from the Colombian border.

U.S.-Mexico Border

The first of two pieces published today about the dangers of border-state Republicans’ use of military force on U.S. soil.

The first of two pieces published today about the dangers of border-state Republicans’ use of military force on U.S. soil. Take it from a Latin Americanist: giving the military new open-ended internal security roles, including authority to arrest civilians, leads to some very bad places.

A Border Patrol agent just did “select all,” “check all,” and falsely logged hourly checks on the welfare of unaccompanied kids in custody. Meanwhile a Guatemalan teenager died on the floor of a crowded cell.

5 links: February 8, 2022

(Even more here)

Western Hemisphere Regional

Here’s a bipartisan bill that proposes to address threats of the past (cold war, drug war) using a “part of government” (security forces only) approach. Pass.

Colombia, Venezuela

Fighting between guerrillas and ex-FARC dissidents is also displacing people, mostly indigenous communities, far east of Arauca, Colombia, in until-recently pristine jungles and savannahs.


  • Jake Johnston, “They Fooled Us” (Center for Economic and Policy Research, February 8, 2022).

Really interesting investigation. It’s long and I haven’t finished it yet. “Seven months after the assassination of Haiti’s president, the true masterminds remain unknown. But a failed “coup” plot that preceded it provides new information about those involved — and what the US and Haitian governments may have known.”


Turns out Juan Orlando Hernández was corrupt all along. Surprise!

U.S.-Mexico Border

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) deployment of National Guard troops to the border is wasteful and dangerous for civil-military relations, and should make me mad. But lately it just makes me really sad for the people who’ve been forced to participate in it.

Latin America-related online events this week

Tuesday, February 8

Wednesday, February 9

  • 10:30-12:00 at Feeding the Fire: How Prohibition and the Drug War Fuel Corruption and Organized Crime in Latin America (RSVP required).

Thursday, February 10

  • 3:00-5:00 at The Crisis of Democracy in Central America (RSVP required).

5 links: February 7, 2022

(Even more here)


In Cauca, the department of Colombia with the largest Indigenous population, the leaders of nearly every indigenous community are threatened, and many are being killed.


Still trying to ascertain who knew what, and when, in a U.S.-based security company linked to the July assassination of Haiti’s president.


Marco Ernesto Islas is the fifth journalist killed in Mexico this year. Three of the killings happened in Tijuana.


Vivid portrayal of the volunteer groups of victims who join together to search for bodies, routinely uncovering mass graves that the authorities don’t bother to seek themselves.

U.S.-Mexico Border

Title 42 has closed ports of entry to all pedestrian asylum seekers for nearly two years. But what happens when they arrive in a car, and the vehicle reaches U.S. soil? “In December, an officer even shot at cars driven by asylum seekers as they rolled into San Diego.”

Weekly Border Update: February 4, 2022

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.

U.S. is expelling some Venezuelan asylum seekers to Colombia

CNN revealed on January 31 that the Biden administration has quietly begun expelling to Colombia some Venezuelan migrants whom U.S. authorities encounter at the Mexico border. If the migrants, like many who have fled Venezuela, had previously resided in Colombia, they may now be placed on planes to Bogotá.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) flew the first two Venezuelan individuals to Colombia on a commercial flight on January 27. Colombian migratory authorities say the two men would be allowed to remain in Colombia, but are electing to go back to Venezuela shortly.

They were expelled under the “Title 42” pandemic authority, which the Trump administration began using in March 2020 to reject even migrants who seek protection in the United States. The Biden administration has kept Title 42 in place, and renewed it this week for another 60 days.

Of the more than 1.5 million times that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) used Title 42 to expel migrants between March 2020 and December 2021, it applied it 94 percent of the time to citizens of five countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Haiti. In December 2021, these five countries made up 99 percent of expulsions. Mexico’s government accepts expelled citizens from the first four countries, who mostly get sent back across the land border under Title 42. Haitian citizens encountered at the border have been subject to a historically large airlift of expulsion flights back to their country: 191 flights expelling 19,400 Haitians since Joe Biden’s January 2021 inauguration, according to the count kept by Tom Cartwright of Witness at the Border.

All other countries make up the remaining 6 percent of U.S. expulsions—which fell to 1 percent in December, when they made up 40 percent of all encountered migrants. As last week’s update noted, 48 percent of migrants whom U.S. authorities did not expel in December 2020 were citizens of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. For the first time ever in a month, Venezuela was the number-two country of citizenship, after Mexico, of migrants whom CBP encountered at the border. Expulsion to these and other distant countries is difficult because of the cost of air expulsions and, at times, difficult diplomatic and consular relations.

Because they cannot expel the growing number of Venezuelans to Caracas, whose ruling regime the U.S. government does not recognize, U.S. authorities approached Colombia in December with a request to send more Venezuelans there. More than 6 million Venezuelans have left their country (original population about 30 million) since the mid-2010s, as the economy fell into a deep depression and a dictatorship consolidated. Of these 5 million, about 1.8 million are in Colombia. In April 2021, Colombian President Iván Duque granted a 10-year residency status to Venezuelan migrants who register.

“Flights to Colombia with Venezuelan nationals who previously resided in Colombia are expected to take place on a regular basis,” read a DHS statement. It is not clear whether “previously resided” means “registered for the Colombian government’s residency status program” or “passed through Colombia en route to another country,” which most Venezuelans who travel by land have to do. President Duque said that the two men expelled on January 27 did not have Colombian residency permits.

“Of course, that requires agreement with the government” of Colombia, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on February 1. Marta Lucía Ramírez, who serves both as Colombia’s vice president and foreign minister, told local media that in a December 2021 meeting, Colombia had not agreed to a blanket deal to accept expelled Venezuelans: “We will have to analyze on a case-by-case basis those who are sent for deportation.”

Condemnation of the new Biden administration policy was swift.

  • Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called these and other third-country deportations of Venezuelans “extremely disturbing. By continuing to use a page from Trump’s immigration enforcement playbook, this administration is turning its back on the immigrants who need our protection the most.”
  • Sen. Rick Scott (R-Florida), a backer of the Trump administration’s policies who also regularly calls for tough measures against President Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela, sounded a bit conflicted, telling the Voice of America, “I will get to the bottom of the issue to find out exactly what the Biden Administration is doing, because I want to do everything I can to help Venezuelans,” while also noting that he wants “a secure border.”
  • The Venezuelan “interim government” headed by Juan Guaidó, which the U.S. and many other governments recognize diplomatically, asked the Biden administration to “allow Venezuelan migrants to present their asylum requests.”
  • 106 U.S. organizations, including WOLA, signed a letter urging the Biden administration “to abandon efforts to prevent people from seeking asylum through externalized migration controls in the region and to undermine the right of people to seek protection in the United States.”
  • Tamara Taraciuk Broner of Human Rights Watch pointed out to the Associated Press the Biden administration’s “remarkable inconsistency in expelling Venezuelans, when less than a year ago it granted Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans in the United States, based precisely on the devastating conditions in the country that forced them to flee.”

The number of Venezuelan migrants encountered at the U.S. border is likely to drop from the nearly 25,000 CBP counted in December, because on January 21 Mexico began demanding visas of Venezuelans arriving in its territory. It is probably no coincidence that the number of Venezuelans traveling by land, through Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap jungles, increased nearly fivefold from December (542 Venezuelans registered in the Darién) to January, when the Associated Press reported that “more than half of the 4,702 migrants who crossed into Darién were Venezuelan,” making Venezuela for the first time the number-one nationality of migrants encountered there.

Noticias Telemundo meanwhile reported that the Biden administration has continued the Trump administration’s policy of deporting Venezuelans back to Caracas through third countries. In fiscal year 2020, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 193 Venezuelans through third countries, mainly Trinidad and Tobago; in 2021, ICE deported 176. Telemundo’s coverage profiles a Venezuelan man who was returned via the Dominican Republic as a “transit country” en route back to Venezuela.

Remain in Mexico hearings begin in San Diego

As of January 30, DHS had placed 410 asylum-seeking migrants into “Remain in Mexico” (RMX), a Trump-era program revived by order of a U.S. district court in Texas. Since the program’s reinstatement, 288 people were sent from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez to await their U.S. immigration court hearings, along with 109 from San Diego to Tijuana, and 13 from Brownsville to Matamoros.

The current iteration of RMX began on December 8, 2021 in El Paso. The Trump administration’s rollout of the program had occurred at a similar low-hundreds-per-month pace in the first months of 2019. (69 days in, on April 8, 2019, 1,105 asylum seekers had been sent back: 16 per day.) By the time the new Biden administration suspended it in January 2021, more than 71,000 asylum seekers had been sent back into Mexico.

Hearings have been underway for RMX subjects in El Paso, and on February 1 they began in a San Diego immigration court. Five of six asylum seekers who were scheduled for hearings that day managed to appear, including the two Colombian men who were the first to be returned to Tijuana in early January. (The California Welcoming Task Force noted that the two men have been living in a shelter that “has not received the support necessary to guarantee access to clean water.”) “The sixth person, because of a document mixup, was not able to cross in time for court,” reads a detailed account in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

They reported to a pickup point at 7:30, from where they received transportation to the border arranged by the International Organization for Migration. Guards—described by San Diego-based attorney Monika Langarica as “DHS contracted ‘detention officers’ who wear tactical looking green suits and vests”—took them to a courtroom in the San Diego federal building.

There, they appeared via videoconference before a judge located two courtrooms away, for COVID social-distancing reasons. Judge Guy Grande’s staff “struggled to set up a Webex videoconference between the two rooms, delaying the hearings’ start by nearly half an hour,” the Union-Tribune reported. The audio remained glitchy throughout the proceedings.

Grande asked one of the asylum-seekers, a woman, if she wanted more time to find an attorney, the Union-Tribune reported.

She told him no, that she had tried and she didn’t want to prolong her case. She didn’t have money to pay for a lawyer, she told him. She didn’t even have enough money to use her phone to make more calls to try to find one to help her for free.

He then asked the woman if she had a mailing address in Mexico.

The woman told him that she’d been staying in a shelter but that the shelter had told her that her stay expired that day.

“So you’re not going to have a place to stay?” the judge asked, a little concern audible in his voice. He then asked court staff to give the woman a blue document to write her new address and send to the court once she knew it.

All five migrants expressed fear of returning to Mexico, which gave them the right to a “non-refoulement interview” with an asylum officer. We have not heard if these fear claims led any of the five to be removed from RMX.

“The Biden administration’s attempts to increase humanitarian support and access to counsel under Remain in Mexico are not only insufficient and failing,” the California Welcoming Task Force wrote, “they are futile due to the very essence of a policy that removes people seeking asylum from the United States where they are seeking refuge.”

“Operation Lone Star” updates

The Texas state government’s security crackdown at the border, which includes fence-building, a National Guard deployment, and a wave of migrant arrests on “trespassing” charges, continued to generate media attention during the week. Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who is up for re-election this year, calls it “Operation Lone Star” and will spend over $2 billion on it this year.

The Intercept published a thorough overview of the operation, by longtime Mexico and border reporter Ryan Deveraux. He notes that of migrants arrested in rural south Texas, “the majority of the state’s cases have been dismissed” by counties’ overwhelmed courts, often after migrants spend weeks or months in jails awaiting trial. In January, a state judge in Austin ruled that the program violated a migrant’s constitutional rights, opening the door to a Texas RioGrande Legal Aid class-action suit on behalf of 400 jailed migrants.

Operation Lone Star’s 6,500 to 10,000-soldier National Guard deployment gets deep scrutiny in an analysis co-published by Military Times and the Texas Tribune. Reporter Davis Winkie of Military Times has published a series of articles since early December revealing deep problems with Gov. Abbott’s hastily thrown-together mission: soldiers going without pay, sudden call-ups, equipment shortages, miserable living conditions, little to do, morale problems, and suicides. Co-author James Barragán had added important reporting for the Tribune.

Troops assigned to Operation Lone Star are likely to be at the border for an entire year. National Guardsmen are civilians with families and jobs, but many got only a few days’ notice that their lives were about to be upended for a year. This is highly unusual, and unprecedented for a non-federal mission, Winkie and Barragán point out:

Usually, long-term Guard deployments come from the federal government, with nearly a year’s notice… But Operation Lone Star is different.

…Never before has Texas-or any other state-involuntarily activated so many troops under state active duty authority for such a long-term mission. Nor has it been done so quickly.

Some troops, speaking on conditions of anonymity, told Winkie and Barragán that they have little to do at the border. “Some say they feel underutilized and rarely see migrants while working isolated observation posts that in some cases lacked portable toilets for months.” In an angrily worded reply citing “scurrilous accusations by seemingly reputable media sources,” Texas Military Department Col. Rita Holton counted 100,000 migrants apprehended, or referred to law enforcement, by troops participating in the mission. Winkie and Barragán recall, though, that “many of the apprehensions are migrants surrendering to the first person in uniform they see in order to begin the asylum request process.”

A junior soldier assigned to a post along Falcon Lake near Zapata said he and his peers spend their days “staring” at the lake. Does he ever see migrants? “Nope, not even once,” he said. “Just people fishing.”

Operation Lone Star appears to be leading to retention problems as guardsmen decide not to re-enlist when their tours end, Winkie and Barragán report.

The law enforcement surge has not made conditions safer for the National Butterfly Center, a 100-acre private preserve along the Rio Grande in Mission, Texas. This facility took the Trump administration to court to prevent it from building a wall through its property, and has tangled legally with a private far-right wall-building organization, “We Build the Wall,” which built a stretch of wall along the riverbank near the Butterfly Center’s property. Trump associates Steve Bannon and Brian Kolfage have faced wire fraud and money laundering charges in connection with We Build the Wall, and Kolfage (whose Twitter account has been suspended) tweeted false allegations of “sex trade” and “death bodies” on the Butterfly Center’s property.

This has made the Center and its director, Marianna Treviño-Wright, targets of far-right individuals. As dozens of activists converged on nearby McAllen for a January 28-30 rally, the Butterfly Center received threats, including a visit from a Virginia congressional candidate who, Treviño-Wright says, pushed her to the ground and nearly ran over her son with her car. Faced with threats and harassment, on February 1 the National Butterfly Center announced that it would be closing its doors until further notice.

Though sharply divided along partisan lines, 52 percent of Texans in a new Dallas Morning News poll approved of Gov. Abbott’s border policies, up from 49 percent in November and 47 percent in September. Of Latino registered voters surveyed, “45% gave Abbott an approval rating on his handling of immigration issues, but only 37% gave Biden a thumbs up on immigration,” the Morning News found.

Of the 1,082 Texan registered voters polled, 54 percent approved of using state funds to deploy the National Guard and Texas state police to patrol the border. That is down from 59 percent in November. 36 percent “say it is reasonable to spend $20 million per mile in state funds to extend the border wall with Mexico, while 27% say it is wasteful” and 25 percent would prefer spending the money on technology at the border. 35 percent of Latinos polled agreed with building a wall, with 47 percent opposed. “The more the wall’s publicized, the worse he’s [Abbot is] going to get among Latino voters,” Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones told the Morning News.

  • DHS plans to release a memo tightening oversight of Border Patrol’s “Critical Incident Teams.” These secretive units’ existence has caused an outcry among human rights advocates and some members of Congress, who allege that they exist to carry out parallel investigations that shield Border Patrol agents from abuse allegations. (See coverage in last week’s update.) The proposed changes appear aimed not at disbanding the Critical Incident Teams, but giving Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Office of Professional Responsibility clearer authority over incident investigations.
  • A report from the Instituto para las Mujeres en la Migración (IMUMI) and the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) covers the impact of U.S. and Mexican migration policies on women seeking protection. Both countries’ policies, it finds, placed women and children at greater danger of harm, including sexual violence, during 2021.
  • The DHS Inspector-General reported on a July 2021 visit to holding facilities of Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector in South Texas. The oversight agency found Border Patrol struggling to keep up with large numbers of people in custody awaiting processing. “However, except for one facility, at the time of our site visit, we did not observe cells so overcrowded that detainees were not able to sit or lie down.” It noted that Border Patrol’s Temporary Outdoor Processing Site (TOPS) under the Anzalduas Bridge in Mission, Texas did not meet detention standards “but lessened overcrowding and health risks for detainees.” Though the ACLU reported about troubling conditions at TOPS in August 2021, the Inspector-General found that “water, snacks, and food for babies and children were readily available.”
  • A release from the DHS Science and Technology Directorate touts the agency’s plan to use sensor-laden Automated Ground Surveillance Vehicles, or “robot dogs”—a fleet of ground drones to augment Border Patrol.
  • A post from the American Immigration Council addresses the non-story circulating in right-wing media about “secret flights” transporting migrants into communities around the country. These much-repeated stories are merely documenting movements of a small number of asylum-seeking families to venues where they will appear in immigration court, or of unaccompanied migrant children within the shelter system run by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. This practice has been routine for decades. One of the most vocal purveyors of the “secret flights” trope has been Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a BuzzFeed story documents.
  • Guatemala quickly passed legislation increasing prison sentences for migrant smugglers to up to 30 years, following local authorities’ arrests of 10 people allegedly involved in smuggling Guatemalan migrants who ended up massacred on a roadside in Tamaulipas, Mexico in January 2021.
  • At the New Yorker, Jonathan Blitzer profiles Andrea Flores, who had worked from the White House to lead the Biden administration’s early effort to undo “Remain in Mexico.” She is one of several immigration reform advocates who have left the administration after being outmaneuvered by more political, centrist officials. Superiors, Blitzer reports, told her “that she was ‘too intense’ or ‘too close to the issues.'”
  • Linda Rivas, the executive director of El Paso’s Las Américas Immigrant Advocacy Center and a prominent advocate of the right to seek asylum in the United States, is stepping down after seven years.

5 links: February 3, 2022

(Even more here)


The Colombian high court decision setting back any possible use of aerial herbicide fumigation in coca zones “is, above all, the result of the struggle of social and peasant organizations to avoid repeating the horrors experienced with fumigations.”

17 social leaders killed in the first 33 days of the year in Colombia. I don’t hear the Duque administration talking about it, do you?


Eight years ago, Juan Orlando Hernandez was lauded in the U.S. as a president who was bringing homicide rates down. Eight days ago, he was still president of Honduras. Now, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman wants him on the U.S. narcotics kingpins list.


The AMLO government is moving ahead with its plan to move the nation’s new national super-police force fully under the command of its Defense Department.


One-third of all people killed in Venezuela are killed by the security forces.

5 links: February 2, 2022

(Even more here)

Western Hemisphere Regional

Murder rates had gone down in most of Latin America from 2019 to 2020, but they rose in 2021 almost everywhere.


One suspects that Bolsonaro calculates he can make the Biden administration put up with more of his nonsense if he occasionally flirts with Moscow or Beijing.


Good overview of the running inter-guerrilla confrontation that has made longtime social leaders extremely vulnerable in Arauca, Colombia, while the government does little more than stigmatize them.

Panama, Venezuela

Now that Mexico (at US urging) is demanding visas of Venezuelan migrants, making it very hard to arrive by air, more are opting for a very dangerous land route: Panama’s Darién Gap.

U.S.-Mexico Border

Another update on the dumpster fire that is Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) thrown-together National Guard deployment at the Texas-Mexico border, by two reporters who’ve covered it most closely.

5 links: February 1, 2022

(Even more here)


An optimistic take on whether Brazil’s military will go along with Lula replacing Bolsonaro after this year’s elections.


The protests in northern Chile against mostly Venezuelan migrants are really ugly.

Colombia, Venezuela

Like the title says: there appears to be a “Remain in Colombia” program in the works, except without any U.S. asylum paperwork. Venezuelans with any migratory status in Colombia just get sent back to Colombia.


“Honduras’s defense minister quietly requested asylum from the U.S. government after the country elected a new leader in November, The Intercept has learned.”


An AI-assisted analysis of satellite images finds 3,718 “points of mining activity” devastating the until-recently pristine environment of southern Venezuela.

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