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.
- Facing Republican-led litigation and a mostly Republican-led legislative push, the Title 42 pandemic policy, which denies the right to seek asylum, is unlikely to be lifted by its expected May 23 date. CBP granted an increased number of exceptions to Title 42 for the most vulnerable migrants waiting in Mexico, allowing 1,006 to present themselves at U.S. ports of entry during the week of May 3-9.
- While CBP has yet to report April data, bits of information point to migration at the border increasing over already high March levels during the first half of April, then declining somewhat. Arrivals per day in early May could be fewer than they were in March.
- Six migrants died over the May 7-8 weekend in Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, while a government watchdog finds that the agency has been under-reporting migrant deaths.
- CBP is terminating Border Patrol’s secretive Critical Incident Teams, which stand accused of interfering in investigations of Border Patrol agents’ use of force or other wrongdoing. One of these teams was present after the February 19 Border Patrol shooting of a Mexican man in Arizona, which local authorities just declined to prosecute. Some details of this case are troubling.
Title 42 is likely to remain in place
It now appears certain that the Title 42 pandemic order will remain in place after May 23, the date that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had announced that it would end.
“Title 42” refers to the March 2020 restriction at U.S. borders, continued by the Biden administration, enabling the quick expulsion of all undocumented migrants, even those seeking asylum, for ostensible public health reasons. Mexico agreed to take back citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras expelled by land, and more recently some Cuban and Nicaraguan citizens as well. U.S. authorities have used Title 42 to expel migrants at the border more than 1.8 million times.
Title 42 had to be renewed every 60 days, and the CDC announced on April 1 that the COVID-19 pandemic’s reduced severity warranted its termination on May 23. That decision—essentially, to return to regular immigration law and restore the right to seek asylum—has met stiff resistance. Opposition has come from immigration hardliners who seek to limit access to asylum, and from moderate Democrats worried that lifting Title 42 could cause a jump in already-high levels of migration at the border during a difficult legislative election campaign.
Officials from 21 Republican state governments filed suit in federal court in April to block Title 42’s lifting; the venue they chose is the Lafayette, Louisiana courtroom of District Judge Robert Summerhays, a Trump appointee. Summerhays has already issued and extended a temporary restraining order pausing the Biden administration’s efforts to terminate Title 42. Justice Department lawyers are to present arguments before Summerhays on May 13, after which he is expected to delay the CDC’s April 1 decision and keep Title 42 in place. It is not clear whether his decision will apply border-wide or just to Texas and Arizona, the two border states among the lawsuit’s plaintiffs.
Moves to prevent Title 42’s termination are also afoot in the U.S. Congress. Legislation introduced by Sens. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) would keep Title 42 in place until after the government’s COVID emergency declaration is terminated—potentially suspending the right to seek asylum at the border for years.
Republicans are demanding that the Senate consider this legislation as an amendment to a $10 billion COVID aid bill, as a condition to allow that stalled legislation to move forward. The Democratic majority’s number two and three leaders, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Patty Murray (D-Washington), say they are inclined to allow a vote on the Lankford-Sinema amendment; Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) says he will await the House of Representatives’ passage of a COVID aid bill and decide then. Talking to Politico, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), who supports ending Title 42, “ predicted Democrats would likely lose an immigration vote on the Senate floor.”
“That’s right,” wrote Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent at the Washington Post on May 10. “To deal with an ongoing pandemic that has killed around 1 million Americans, Democrats must deal a blow to the asylum system, keeping the United States’ doors closed to those fleeing oppression and violence.”
While the political wrangling continues, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been gradually expanding exceptions to Title 42, allowing migrants deemed most vulnerable (with input from non-governmental organizations) to approach six ports of entry to seek protection. A May 11 U.S. government filing for the Louisiana litigation reports that CBP processed 1,006 migrants under Title 42 exceptions in the 7 days between May 3 and May 9. These included 487 at the San Ysidro, California port of entry; 220 at El Paso, Texas’s Paso del Norte bridge; 124 in Hidalgo, Texas, across from Reynosa, Mexico; 91 in Nogales, Arizona; 83 in Eagle Pass, Texas; and 1 in Laredo, Texas.
In other Title 42 news:
- In a May 11 hearing before the House Appropriations Committee, CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus told Republican backers of making Title 42 permanent that the policy has complicated border security efforts, easing repeat attempts to cross the border. “The problem with Title 42 is,” he said, “over and over again, those individuals who get walked back across the line come right back, and we see them over and over again.”
- “We have always been against Title 42. We have always encouraged the government to eliminate it,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi told TV journalist Jorge Ramos.
- “I would caution people not to assume that there will suddenly be an overwhelming rush at the border” after Title 42, Alex Mensing of Innovation Law Lab told Mother Jones. “It can be a lot more orderly,” he added, noting that CBP demonstrated the capacity to process up to 1,000 Ukrainian citizens per day in San Diego in April.
- Title 42 continues to be applied aggressively to citizens of Haiti. As of May 12, Tom Cartwright of Witness at the Border had counted 235 expulsion or deportation flights to Haiti since the Biden administration began, 198 of them since the September 2021 arrival of thousands of Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas. Nicole Phillips of the Haitian Bridge Alliance was on hand for a flight’s arrival in Port-au-Prince on May 10: “Approx 100 ppl, mostly moms & young kids,” she tweeted. “Lots of complaints of ‘abuses’ by ICE. None were screened for asylum or told they were being deported. Chained by their wrists, waist & feet. Not able to shower or brush their teeth for days.”
- The American Prospect reported that White House Domestic Policy Adviser Susan Rice remains a full-throated proponent of keeping Title 42 in place: “After learning that expulsion flights of migrants were not always full, Rice developed a daily fixation with ensuring full capacity on flights operating under Title 42.”
Migration has dropped slightly since March
While CBP has yet to share data from April, bits of information point to migrant arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border first increasing over the high levels reported in March, then, during the second half of April, declining to below those levels. Some of the indicators include:
- A May 4 Washington Post citation of “preliminary figures” from CBP indicated that in April, “the number of migrants taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection rose to about 234,000, up from 221,000 in March.” (Two days earlier, Breitbart News, which has many sources within U.S. border agencies, reported much different numbers: a decline from 221,000 in March to “more than 201,000” in April.)
- Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council, who has seen recent CBP preliminary weekly data, tweeted: “April will set new records for southwest border encounters, in part because of the 13-14,000 Ukrainians processed in at the San Ysidro port of entry, but by mid-April encounters appear to have temporarily peaked and then by last week fallen back to mid-March levels.”
- According to data accompanying a May 11 U.S. government filing for the Louisiana Title 42 litigation, there is a modest decline in single adult migration as of early May. That document reports 37,021 encounters with single adult migrants in the seven days from May 3 to May 9, 2022. That rate—5,289 single adults per day—is 3 percent fewer than the 5,454 per day CBP reported in March.
The May 3-9 data pointed to decreases in encounters per day, compared to March, with single adult migrants from Colombia (-17%), Guatemala (-12%), Mexico (-10%), Honduras (-4%), and Cuba (-3%). Countries that measured increases in single adult encounters per day, compared to March, included Haiti (+410%), Venezuela (+17%), and Nicaragua (+5%).
Peru appears in the filing as the tenth-largest nation of origin of single adult migrants encountered between May 3 and 9, with 677 encounters in those 7 days. CBP’s monthly public reporting does not even specify migration from Peru, lumping it in an “other countries” category. Like citizens of Colombia, Peruvians may enter Mexico without first obtaining a visa, as part of the Chile-Colombia-Mexico-Peru “Pacific Alliance” arrangement.
Preliminary data indicate that Mexico’s migration agency (INM) apprehended 38,677 migrants in April. That is Mexico’s largest monthly migration total this year, but fewer than levels measured in August through October of 2021; Mexico set its record of 46,370 apprehensions last September. In a single day—May 7—INM reported apprehending 1,608 migrants from 38 countries, a pace that would break the agency’s monthly record if sustained.
As noted in the court filing above, there appears to be a springtime increase in arrivals of Haitian migrants at the border. Many of them are arriving in Mexico’s violence-plagued border state of Tamaulipas, a part of the border that Haitian migrants had avoided until recently. Border Report reported that 3,500 Haitians have arrived since late April in Nuevo Laredo, a city that has seen few asylum-seeking migrants in recent years because of tight control exercised by organized crime. 1,400 of them, mostly men, may have already departed Nuevo Laredo for the city of Monterrey, a few hours to the south. The same article notes, as we have heard elsewhere, that Haitians are also arriving in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, “hoping to migrate should Title 42 be lifted.” Hundreds of miles west of Tamaulipas, in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, La Verdad reported on a church-run program that has given Spanish lessons to 70 Haitian migrants since January.
Migrant deaths continue unabated
Jason Owens, the chief of Border Patrol’s Del Rio, Texas sector, tweeted that his agents had encountered “12 rescues” and “6 deceased persons” over the May 7-8 weekend alone. Six migrant deaths in two days in a single sector is an extreme amount. In all of 2020—the last year for which the agency has publicly reported migrant deaths by sector—Border Patrol reported finding 34 migrants’ remains in Del Rio.
Some, if not all, of the dead found in Del Rio appear to be drownings in the Rio Grande. They included an adult man, and a child from Angola whose sibling is still missing. On May 2, a Nicaraguan man drowned in the swiftly flowing river between Piedras Negras, Coahuila and Eagle Pass, Texas. Texas National Guardsmen told Fox News reporter Bryan Llenas, whose film crew captured the broad-daylight drowning, that they are prohibited from attempting rescues after 22-year-old Guardsman Bishop Evans died while trying to rescue a migrant in Eagle Pass on April 25.
Border Patrol, meanwhile, stands accused of under-reporting migrant deaths border-wide. The agency has counted over 8,600 migrant remains on U.S. soil, mostly of dehydration, exposure, and drowning, since 1998. The actual number is almost certainly greater, though, since over the past 10 years or so Border Patrol has been reporting fewer deaths than do local humanitarian groups or medical examiners, leaving out of its count the remains of migrants found by other entities.
This is the subject of an April 20 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), covered by the Intercept, which found that Border Patrol has been undercounting the actual number of migrant deaths in the U.S.-Mexico border region. For example, GAO found that Border Patrol in Arizona routinely reports finding roughly half as many remains as does the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants.
Border Patrol has yet to share public reporting of migrant deaths in fiscal year 2021, though CNN reported last October that the agency had counted a record 557 remains that year, more than double the 247 found in 2020.
CBP to terminate Border Patrol’s controversial “Critical Incident Teams”
A May 3, 2022 memorandum from CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus, revealed on May 6, terminated Border Patrol’s Critical Incident Teams (CITs), secretive units that often arrive at the scene when agents may have misused force or otherwise behaved in a way that might involve local law enforcement. While Critical Incident Teams may have other roles, they stood accused of altering crime scenes, interfering with law enforcement investigations, and coming up with exculpatory evidence to protect agents. (See the “Critical Incident Teams” tag at WOLA’s new Border Oversight database of border law enforcement conduct.)
No other law enforcement agency has a similar internal exoneration capability, and the CITs’ existence is not specifically authorized by law, according to the Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC), a non-governmental organization that revealed the units’ extent in October and has led efforts to abolish them. CITs have existed in some form since 1987, and include 12 agents per Border Patrol sector, according to a CBP PowerPoint presentation obtained by the SBCC.
“By the end of FY [Fiscal Year] 22,” Magnus’s memorandum reads, “USBP [U.S. Border Patrol] will eliminate all Critical Incident Teams and personnel assigned to USBP will no longer respond to critical incidents for scene processing or evidence collection.” CBP’s internal affairs body, the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), will take “full responsibility for responding to critical incidents” by October 1, 2022. OPR will require “substantial resources” to take on this mission, the memo reads; Magnus’s May 11 testimony to the House Appropriations Committee notes that the 2022 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) budget “included $74 million for 350 new Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) Special Agents.”
The CITs’ termination comes just over six months after the SBCC alerted Congress to their existence. SBCC member Andrea Guerrero, executive director of Alliance San Diego, had learned of the teams’ interference with the investigation of migrant Anastasio Hernández’s 2010 beating death in San Diego. Guerrero and colleagues at SBCC laid out their case in an October 27, 2021 letter to congressional oversight committee chairpeople asking them to investigate the CITs.
In a statement from SBCC, María Puga, Anastasio Hernández’s widow, called the CITs’ termination “an important first step towards addressing the longstanding problem of Border Patrol impunity.” SBCC “commends CBP for taking this action and acknowledges the leadership of Commissioner Magnus,” reads the statement, which calls on Magnus to ensure that all CIT-related records be preserved so that those who “have engaged in criminal acts of obstruction of justice” in the past may be held accountable.
Also present at an SBCC press conference was Marisol García Alcántara, a 37-year-old undocumented Mexican mother of three whom a Border Patrol agent shot in the head in June 2021 while she sat in the backseat of a vehicle in Nogales, Arizona. A CIT was at the scene in the case of García, who was deported to Mexico without ever being questioned about the incident by any U.S. authorities. The BBC published a May 11 profile of Ms. García, who continues to suffer memory loss as a result of her injury, which includes bullet fragments lodged in her brain.
In southeast Arizona, a police report, shared by the Intercept, confirmed that a CIT was involved in the aftermath of the February 19, 2022 shooting death of Carmelo Cruz-Marcos, a 32-year-old migrant from Puebla, Mexico.
Agent Kendrek Bybee Staheli claimed that he shot Cruz-Marcos, who died of four bullet wounds to his head and chest, out of fear for his life when the migrant moved to throw a rock at him at close range. Cruz-Marcos was with several other migrants whom Staheli and Agent Tristan Tang were chasing late at night in the desert; none witnessed the interaction that led to Cruz-Marcos’s death.
The Cochise County Sheriff’s report cites migrant witness Carlos Torres Peralta, who had learned some English while living in Wisconsin for three years:
He said the agent told his companion [Cruz-Marcos], “Stop or I’m going to shoot you. ” He said his companion ran off and when he tried to run he stumbled on rock and the agent caught him. He said the agent told him, “This is America motherf—.” He referred to the agent as Agent Stain. I believe he was referring to Agent Staheli. He said the second agent yelled at Agent Staheli if he was ok and Agent Staheli said he was ok.
…Carlos further added information concerning Agent’s Staheli and Tang. He states to SA Chiriguayo that he believed the agents had moved the decedent’s body, repositioned the body, and he heard them discussing how they should follow up with statements and not say anything to anyone, and that Agent Tang had told Agent Staheli “it would all be ok and that he had his back.” Carlos further said he heard Agent Tang tell Agent Staheli that he should say he was attacked with a rock. Carlos statements would suggest the agents had covered up evidence and would not be truthful with any after action interviews they would have.
In a May 6 letter to the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department, County Attorney Brian McIntyre reported finding insufficient evidence to contradict Agent Staheli’s self-defense claim beyond a reasonable doubt, and declined to prosecute.
- At the Border Chronicle and the Guardian, Melissa del Bosque reports on Border Patrol’s practice of discarding migrants’ possessions after apprehending them. “Agents in Yuma, according to Customs and Border Protection, require they leave everything behind, except for what they can fit into a small plastic Department of Homeland Security-issued bag.” Discarded items include passports, birth certificates, police reports (evidence for asylum cases), and x-rays.
- A report from the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology, based on numerous documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, finds that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “now operates as a domestic surveillance agency.” The agency has built up a capacity to pull up information on even most U.S. citizens “by reaching into the digital records of state and local governments and buying databases with billions of data points from private companies.” The report calls it a “dragnet.”
- Of the 15 years (2007-2021) in which it has worked on disappeared-migrant cases in Mexico, the Jesuit Refugee Service-Mexico’s Disappeared Migrant Search Program took on 53 percent of its 1,280 cases in just three recent years: 2018, 2019, and 2021.
- With a large migrant encampment cleared on May 2 and existing shelters nearly full, expelled migrants are beginning to gather immediately outside the offices of Mexico’s Migration Institute (INM), at the port of entry in the violent crime-plagued city of Reynosa. Many are Cuban and Nicaraguan.
- “Say No to the Coyote” is the name of a new digital ad campaign that CBP has launched in Guatemala and Honduras in an attempt to dissuade migration.
- “There are now at least 22 pending lawsuits in federal courts across the U.S. on behalf of more than 80 parents and children seeking financial compensation for the trauma they endured” after being separated during the Trump administration, CBS News reports. The Biden administration had been negotiating compensation settlements, but pulled out after news of the negotiations generated Republican backlash late last year. Biden administration lawyers now argue that the families are not eligible to sue the federal government.
- Tamaulipas and Texas state police, along with Texas National Guardsmen, carried out “a binational drill for the detection and containment of migrants” on May 7 at two border bridges between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo.
- A brief May 9 statement from CBP notes the arrest of a Del Rio Sector Border Patrol agent “on a warrant stemming from an indictment on a charge of Official Oppression in connection with the alleged assault and mistreatment of a juvenile in custody.” No further details appear.