Adam Isacson

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

May 2023

WOLA Podcast: “Fentanyl: ‘What sounds tough isn’t necessarily a serious policy'”

One of the benefits of hosting WOLA’s podcast is learning something new from the people I interview. I learned a lot in this one about the seemingly intractable problem of fentanyl trafficking. I spoke here with my colleagues John Walsh, who runs WOLA’s Drug Policy Program, and Stephanie Brewer, who runs our Mexico Program. Both were clear, informed, and on their game. Highly recommended.

Here’s the language from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

Record overdose deaths in the United States have fixed attention on fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, synthesized mainly in Mexico, that is highly addictive and very small in volume. WOLA’s director for drug policy, John Walsh, and director for Mexico, Stephanie Brewer, argue that the challenge fentanyl poses demands a fundamental rethinking of the U.S. approach to illicit drugs.

Today, however, the sense of crisis has escalated so much that, even with an administration that is open to “harm-reduction” approaches to drug policy, policymakers and lawmakers are turning to the get tough recipes of the drug war’s past 50 years.

A push to use military force and demand crackdowns is harming relations with Mexico, where top leadership inaccurately denies that fentanyl is produced. A push to increase incarceration at home threatens to repeat some of the tragic mistakes of the recent past, in which strong-sounding policies did great damage to both Latin America (measured by crime and instability) and the United States (measured by overdose deaths and other harms).

All pure fentanyl consumed in the United States in an entire year can fit inside the beds of two pickup trucks. The drug is “un-interdictable.” Walsh and Brewer argue here that fentanyl’s rise makes evident the need for a harm reduction approach that saves lives and helps people recover from addiction, while working with Mexico to address the conditions that allow organized crime to thrive.

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: May 26, 2023

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.

This Week in Brief:

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released two notices this week about fatal incidents involving Border Patrol. Anadith Tanay Reyes Álvarez died on May 17, her 9th day in Border Patrol custody in Texas. Her mother said her appeals for medical assistance did not get a timely response. On the evening of the 18th, agents shot a 58-year-old member of the Tohono O’odham nation multiple times in southern Arizona. The shooting was captured on agents’ body-worn cameras.

Even as post-Title 42 migrant arrivals slow at the U.S.-Mexico border, the picture inside Mexico is confusing. Mexican authorities have temporarily closed some migrant detention centers while moving migrants from its northern and southern border zones to the nation’s interior. In Mexico City, the closure of a municipal shelter has left hundreds of migrants occupying a park near the offices of the government’s refugee agency.

April 2023 was the third-heaviest month ever for migrants transiting the Darién Gap, a treacherous jungle region straddling Colombia and Panama. 63 percent were from Venezuela. As the U.S., Colombian, and Panamanian governments carry out a “60-day surge campaign” launched April 20, senior Biden administration officials are considering sending U.S. military personnel.

Documents obtained by CBS News show more than 1.5 million people in the United States have signed up to sponsor migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, for a new  humanitarian parole program that accepts 30,000 people per month. The largest number of applications are for Haitians.

 

The Full Update

CBP reports two fatal incidents involving Border Patrol

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released two notices this week about fatal incidents involving Border Patrol: one in the agency’s custody, and one in a use of force incident.

On May 21, CBP offered some information about the May 17 death of an eight-year-old Honduran girl in a Border Patrol facility in Harlingen, Texas. Anadith Tanay Reyes Álvarez died—possibly of influenza, though medical examiners have not yet issued a finding—on her family’s ninth day in custody. Her parents had provided documents to Border Patrol showing she suffered from a heart condition and sickle cell anemia.

The family had turned themselves in to Border Patrol in Texas on May 9, two days before the Title 42 pandemic expulsion policy came to an end, a time when Border Patrol was apprehending more than 10,000 people per day. This may have prolonged the family’s time in custody, although the Associated Press reported that by May 14, the average time in custody border-wide had fallen to 77 hours while the rate of new apprehensions dropped rapidly. Under normal circumstances, migrants are meant to spend no more than 72 hours in Border Patrol’s austere holding facilities.

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: May 19, 2023

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.

This week:

The days after May 11, when the Title 42 policy came to an end, saw migration at the border reduce by more than half from a week earlier. Migrants and smugglers, unclear about the implications of new Biden administration limits on asylum, appear to be in “wait and see” mode, while Mexico and other countries have increased their security-force presence along the migration route. Some indicators point to the lull being temporary.

CBP reported a 10 percent increase in the number of migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border from March to April. Much of the increase was due to citizens of Venezuela, who appeared to face a lower probability of Title 42 expulsion into Mexico than in prior months. CBP gave asylum seekers an average of 743 “CBP One” appointments per day at ports of entry.

Despite a lack of government reporting, a reading of CBP port-of-entry arrival data seems to indicate that Haiti is the nationality that has most frequently gained humanitarian parole into the United States, under a recently launched Biden administration program for four countries, in March and April. Haitian parolees are followed by citizens of Cuba, Venezuela (whose numbers are declining), and Nicaragua.

San Diego-area advocates filed a strongly worded, vividly illustrated complaint with DHS about Border Patrol’s recent practice of leaving asylum seekers to wait for days—with minimal food, water, shelter, or medical attention—between the border wall’s two layers.

Migration declines in the days after Title 42’s end

In the four days leading up to May 11, the final day of the Title 42 pandemic expulsion authority, the number of migrants whom U.S. authorities encountered at the border averaged 10,100 per day. After May 11, amid uncertainty about how the Biden administration would carry out its new restrictions on access to asylum, unauthorized entries at the border dropped 56 percent, to 4,400 per day.

The numbers come from Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Border and Immigration Policy Blas Nuñez Neto, who told reporters on May 17 that they include a 98% drop in the number of Venezuelan migrants ending up in Border Patrol custody. (As noted below, Venezuelan migrant encounters between ports of entry had leapt upward in April.)

“At Gate 42 of the border wall with El Paso, the number of migrants arriving has dwindled since Friday,” the New York Times reported. The Washington Post reported that 21,000 migrants were in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody on May 15, “down about 30 percent from last week’s peak.” This is despite a Florida federal judge’s temporary restraining order prohibiting CBP from releasing migrants without notices to appear, a faster process used during times of overcrowding.

Nuñez Neto attributed the drop to “the consequences that we have strengthened and put in place for unlawful entry.” These include the Biden administration’s new rule mostly banning asylum for non-Mexicans who fail to make an appointment or be rejected for asylum in at least one other country, as well as expanded use of “expedited removal” procedures forcing asylum seekers to defend their cases within days. Among reasons for the decline in migration, Nuñez Neto also cited new legal pathways for some migrants, like humanitarian parole and the CBP One smartphone app, as well as “the actions of our foreign partners”—especially increased deployments of security forces in Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, and Colombia.

Nuñez Neto said on May 15 that the U.S. government had already deported 2,400 people under the new “transit ban” rule, most of them Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans—but also some Mexicans—back across the border into Mexico. Mexico, in turn, has begun transporting these deportees to its southernmost states, away from the U.S. border. A tweet from CBP praised a Mexican government flight that transported Venezuelan migrants from Reynosa, across from Texas, to “interior parts of Mexico.”

Mexico also deployed 690 more members of its armed forces and National Guard—for a total of 26,535—to its northern and southern borders. State police forces in border states like Chihuahua also increased their presence.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official warned that “it is still too early to draw any definitive conclusions” about migration patterns. A key cause of the post-May 11 drop is a temporary condition: migrants’ confusion about the administration’s new policies.

As WOLA explained in a column published by MSNBC, the drop owes in large part to migrants, and smugglers, adopting a “wait and see” stance as the administration rolls out its new measures. “It’s not surprising that migrants who’ve reached Mexico are pausing before taking a leap into the unknown,” we wrote, noting that past “wait and see” moments brought sharp reductions in migration in 2014, 2017, and 2020, only to be followed soon after by increases. Something similar is likely to happen in the coming months.

Social media—which often includes a heavy dose of misinformation—plays a greater role than ever in migrants’ “wait and see” calculations. They “have increasingly turned to TikTok, Facebook, YouTube and other social media sites not just for the comfort of family contact but also for updates on the policy change and how it might affect them,” Marisa Gerber reported at the Los Angeles Times. “The hashtag #titulo42 was viewed more than 109 million times on TikTok by Friday afternoon,” the Washington Post reported.

In Mexico’s border cities, shelters appear to be emptier: at about 40 percent capacity, perhaps, in Ciudad Juárez. Evidence that the drop in migration may be fleeting, however, comes from areas further south in Mexico and elsewhere along the northbound route, where numbers remain high. UNHCR Mexico tweeted its concern on May 17 about migrant shelters in the country’s south, which are reaching capacity. “In addition to the people arriving from the south, some shelters have already received Venezuelans deported from the United States, who have no information about their process, and face a lack of reception capacity in Mexico and uncertainty about their legal (or migratory) status.”

A consular official cited in Mexico’s La Jornada reported “a lot of people entering through the border between Guatemala and Honduras” on May 12. “There we saw the International Red Cross, UNHCR and IOM, with camps. There is a lot of movement of people. The city of Esquipulas [Guatemala]… was full of people going north.”

 

Migration increased slightly in April, Title 42’s last full month

CBP reported on May 17 that the agency encountered 211,401 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in April, the last full month of the Title 42 policy. That is the 9th-largest monthly total of the Biden administration’s 27 months, and a 10 percent increase over March (191,956).

Some of that increase is seasonal. The milder spring months are often the busiest of the year for migration at the border. Two thirds of April’s encounters were with single adults, whose numbers increased 5 percent over March. People arriving as family units increased 28 percent, while unaccompanied children decreased 7 percent.

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At MSNBC: Here’s why the end of Title 42 wasn’t the nightmare Republicans said it would be

Migration numbers plummeted at the U.S.-Mexico border after May 11, when Title 42 ended. Don’t expect them to stay low, I wrote in a piece published at MSNBC’s website.

Essentially, migrants — and the network of smugglers along the route between countries of origin and the United States — are in “wait and see” mode. They are uncertain about what President Joe Biden’s administration’s tough-sounding new policies will mean for them. A new rule, called the “transit ban,” is making it much harder for people to apply for asylum simply by turning themselves in to U.S. agents. (This new rule is already being challenged in court on the grounds that it is illegal.)

The new border rules are strict and complicated. How much harder it will be to apply for asylum and what happens to people after they’re rejected remain very unclear. It’s not surprising that migrants who’ve reached Mexico are pausing before taking a leap into the unknown.

Read the whole thing here.

From WOLA: 10 Things to Know About the End of Title 42

What a week last week was. I was just back from Honduras, I had an all-day staff planning retreat Wednesday, and I drove from Washington to Massachusetts and back on Thursday and Friday, as my daughter finished her first year of college.

And, oh yes, Title 42 ended on May 11th.

Things were so busy that, while I managed to write this commentary for WOLA’s site as fast as I could type it, I never actually posted a link to it here, at my personal site.

A week later, this piece has almost exactly 40,000 “unique pageviews” and about twice that many “pageviews,” according to WOLA’s Google Analytics account. That definitely breaks my career record, at least for writings where I’ve seen the stats.

Here’s the summary. The entire analysis, with lots of graphics, is here.

10 Things to Know About the End of Title 42

by Adam Isacson

Summary

May 11 is the final day for the Trump and Biden administrations’ “Title 42” policy, which undid the basic right to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border for 38 months.

Now, 2.8 million migrant expulsions later, the U.S. government is reverting to immigration law as it existed before the world went into lockdown. But as it does so, the Biden administration is adding a new limitation on asylum that, with Mexico’s cooperation, promises to continue the pandemic-era practice of sending asylum seekers away from the United States, placing many in danger.

Media coverage is anticipating a wave of migration at the border, with headlines proclaiming that officials are “bracing for an influx.” Legislators are seeking new ways to block asylum seekers, citing “chaos.” Such concerns are misplaced.

Migration will increase, just as it did before each of Title 42’s earlier, abortive expiration dates. But the post-May 11 increase is likely to be neither giant nor long-lasting. After all, Title 42 hardly deterred migration in the first place: it’s at or near record levels already, right now. And the Biden administration is working, with the Mexican government’s collaboration, to keep asylum out of reach to an extent that may resemble what we’ve already seen over the past 38 months.

Instead of a “migrant wave,” we should be concerned about:

  • A questionably legal “asylum transit ban” rule, about to go into effect, that could endanger many thousands of people who, though on U.S. soil, will be denied the legal right to seek protection. It’s not yet clear which nationalities, and which demographics, of migrants would be sent back into Mexico without that right. But if fully implemented, this rule would put asylum out of reach to an extent recalling what we saw during Title 42.
  • A worsening crisis of stranded migrants in Mexico’s border cities, resulting from the López Obrador government’s agreement to take back asylum seekers whom the U.S. government rejects, often without giving them a hearing.
  • A humanitarian crisis along the migration route, as new nationalities try to traverse treacherous regions like the Darién Gap.
  • The continued dysfunction of the U.S. asylum system, and the fragility of the tattered patchwork of alternative pathways to legal entry into the United States.

The situation at the border after May 11 may, for a time, appear disorderly. But it already has been, and it was before the pandemic began. If anything, Title 42’s lifting will make plain the need to reform our immigration system and align it with reality. And it will highlight the U.S. political system’s frustrating paralysis in the face of that challenge.

The facts on the ground bear this out. Here they are, in ten points.

Less migration? Or stranded migrants?

This talking point about a “95% drop in border migrant encounters from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela” is problematic.

Why? Let’s examine encounters along the migration route, from north to south.

Here’s where the 95% comes from.

Chart: Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela Migrants Encountered Between U.S. Ports of Entry

	Jan-22	Feb-22	Mar-22	Apr-22	May-22	Jun-22	Jul-22	Aug-22	Sep-22	Oct-22	Nov-22	Dec-22	Jan-23	Feb-23	Mar-23
Between Ports of Entry (Border Patrol)	47270	34596	54042	55910	57280	40470	50069	56209	78256	71656	75658	84192	11909	2052	3811

US Border Patrol’s apprehensions of these 4 countries’ migrants really did drop steeply from December—after Mexico agreed to accept Title 42 expulsions of these nationalities, and once a “humanitarian parole” option opened up for some of them.

But there’s no 95% drop anywhere else along the migration route, where people fleeing those countries have become stranded.

Since December, Mexico’s encounters with these 4 countries’ migrants are only down 42%.

Chart: Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela Migrants Encountered in Mexico

	Jan-22	Feb-22	Mar-22	Apr-22	May-22	Jun-22	Jul-22	Aug-22	Sep-22	Oct-22	Nov-22	Dec-22	Jan-23	Feb-23	Mar-23
Total	7549	6601	10448	11221	8551	8071	11308	21545	22910	31047	23450	21124	12480	9859	12327

Since December, Honduras’s encounters with Cuban, Haitian, and Venezuelan migrants are up 10%.

(Nicaraguan citizens don’t need passports to be in Honduras, and thus don’t end up in Honduras’s count of “irregular” or “undocumented” migrants.)

Chart: Cuba, Haiti, and Venezuela Migrants Encountered in Honduras

	Jan-22	Feb-22	Mar-22	Apr-22	May-22	Jun-22	Jul-22	Aug-22	Sep-22	Oct-22	Nov-22	Dec-22	Jan-23	Feb-23	Mar-23
Total	1589	2253	7571	10703	10757	12726	10297	18504	17332	21173	15833	11666	9310	9183	12879

Since December, in Panama’s Darién Gap, migration from Cuba, Haiti, and Venezuela is up 250% (though down 57% from a high in October, before Mexico started accepting expulsions of Venezuelan migrants).

Chart: Cuba, Haiti, and Venezuela Migrants Encountered in Panama’s Darién Gap

	Jan-22	Feb-22	Mar-22	Apr-22	May-22	Jun-22	Jul-22	Aug-22	Sep-22	Oct-22	Nov-22	Dec-22	Jan-23	Feb-23	Mar-23
Total	2595	2534	2723	4113	11408	12800	18885	26142	41531	45781	6723	8340	14542	14946	29186

The upshot: migration from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Venezuela may be down sharply at the US-Mexico border, due to aggressive Title 42 expulsions.

But the expulsions have absolutely not deterred these nations’ citizens from migrating. They’re still fleeing—but they’re stranded.

WOLA Podcast: “’We can’t deter our way out of this’: a view from the Honduras-Nicaragua border”

From here in Honduras, we recorded a new episode of WOLA’s podcast: “‘We can’t deter our way out of this‘: a view from the Honduras-Nicaragua border,” where more than 1,000 migrants per day are arriving from the south.

This is a quick reaction—and discussion of solutions—with my colleagues Maureen Meyer, Joy Olson, and Ana Lucía Verduzco, who were with me over the past few days to witness a mounting humanitarian crisis.

Here’s the text from the podcast landing page at wola.org.

This podcast was recorded in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where WOLA staff are on a field visit to research migration. Four current and former WOLA staff members—Adam Isacson, Maureen Meyer, Ana Lucia Verduzco, and Joy Olson—visited the Honduras-Nicaragua border region over the April 29-30 weekend.

While there, we saw—and spoke with—migrants who had just entered the country from the south, after a harrowing journey through Panama’s Darién Gap and a hostile reception in Nicaragua. We found:

  • Hundreds of people, from numerous countries, out in sweltering heat. Many were traveling as families, often with small children.
  • People waiting to obtain documents that would allow them to take an expensive day-long bus ride onward to Guatemala.
  • Aid workers—from the Honduran government, humanitarian organizations, and local civil society—doing their best to manage the situation and minimize harm. But struggling to do so with very limited resources.
  • A Honduran policy that refuses to detain or deport migrants in nearly all cases: a recognition of reality that has reduced the reach of organized crime.
  • Migrants regarding Honduras as one of the less arduous stretches of the U.S.-bound migrant route. Honduras is in a “sandwich” between harsher policies in Nicaragua and Guatemala.
  • A wide variety in migrants’ knowledge of what lies ahead, from the dangers of the journey, to the requirements for asylum, to the U.S. government’s confusing and ever-changing policies, pathways, and obstacles, like the “Title 42” expulsion policy that is expected to end on May 11, 2023.

Overall, we can’t help but conclude:

  • Nobody should have to go through this. What we saw is as severe as one would expect to see from people fleeing an armed conflict. People aren’t fleeing what would be defined as a “conflict”—they are fleeing a 21st century phenomenon of their countries becoming unlivable for a combination of reasons. What we witnessed is the result of governance failures in the region, antiquated migration policies in the United States, and a failure to cooperate and communicate all along the migration route.
  • Because of this, we’re not going to be able to deter our way out of this. Threatening ever harsher obstacles has failed in the past, it will fail now, and it will carry a terrible human toll.
  • But until we see fundamental change to U.S. migration policy, and to the conditions forcing people to leave, our communities and the migrants alike will be stuck with a patchwork of partial pathways to legal migration: from asylum to humanitarian parole to partial, inconsistent temporary worker and refugee programs.

Considering the magnitude of the crisis we witnessed at the Honduras-Nicaragua border, today’s measures are all woefully partial, and no substitute for real reform.

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Last Week Tonight: “Biden and the Border”

Don’t miss the latest “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” episode, about Title 42 and what’s coming next.

It’s a super informative report, with some delightfully vicious humor. And as you can see, they’ve got the best footnotes.

Screenshot from report, with John Oliver and a graphic of text from a recent WOLA Border Update.

At the Honduras-Nicaragua border

Hello from Tegucigalpa. We’re just back from a couple of days in the Honduras-Nicaragua border zone, in the department of El Paraíso. An extraordinary number of migrants are passing through this zone right now, most of them after passing through the Darién Gap and Nicaragua.

Here are a few photos.

Waiting for documents

The Honduran government’s “Center for Attention to Irregular Migrants” earlier today in Danlí. Large numbers of people from all over the world wait here for a document that allows them to remain in the country for five days. Honduras doesn’t deport or (except in rare cases) detain migrants, but it is impossible to board a bus to Guatemala without this document. The Danlí center has been processing a few hundred people per day, but the number was over 1,000 per day this weekend. This was the most people migrating that I’ve ever seen in one place at the same time.

Honduras was charging a steep fee (over US$200) for this travel document, but the current government has declared an amnesty, so the process is free. That keeps most from turning to organized crime to smuggle them through the country. To get the document, everyone must fill out a form and register biometric data. This is shared with databases of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which wants awareness of who is coming and whether they pose any potential threats.

In Trojes, right on the border, the Honduran migration office is closed over the weekend. People are lining up to get their travel documents, sleeping in a row of tents alongside the building, trying to avoid the broiling heat, waiting for it to reopen.

Transportation

For those with travel documents, the most frequent route through Honduras right now leads to the border with Guatemala in Agua Caliente, Ocotepeque, near Esquipulas, Guatemala. It’s a 12-16 hour trip. A bus company employee told me that about 20-25 buses per day are leaving Danlí right now for Agua Caliente, with about 50 migrants aboard each, with each migrant paying US$50.

The bus company employee outside the terminal said $50 to go to Agua Caliente, but the sign inside the terminal says $37. 🤷🏼‍♂️

Police check migrants’ documents at a checkpoint between Trojes and Danlí.

Border crossings

Peering into Nicaragua from the Las Manos border crossing. (Note the red and black Sandinista Front flags, and the absence of blue and white Nicaraguan flags.)

When migrants arrive in Trojes from Nicaragua, they usually do so at this gap in a fence along the border, near the customs post. Four Venezuelan men arrived during the few minutes that we stopped by here.

A multilingual “know your rights” sign a couple of hundred yards from that gap in the fence.

Facilities

A Center for Attention to Irregular Migrants in Trojes, run by LIFE Honduras, a consortium of humanitarian organizations with Unicef support.

Signage at a new shelter in El Paraíso run by the Fundación Alivio del Sufrimiento, a church-based organization that is a member of the Consortium.

And finally

Left to right: WOLA Program Assistant Ana Lucía Verduzco, WOLA VP for Programs Maureen Meyer, me, and Stívenson Amador, projects coordinator at the Fundación Alivio del Sufrimiento.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.