With U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) releasing new data last night, we now know what migration at the U.S.-Mexico border looked like through August.
The most notable thing about these charts is the rapid increase in migrant arrivals from June to August, in the areas between ports of entry (official border crossings) where Border Patrol operates. We know that the increase is continuing in September.
June was the first full month after May 11, 2023, when the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy ended. At that moment, many migrants and smugglers refrained from crossing between ports of entry because it wasn’t clear what would happen next, and migration plummeted to levels not seen since February 2021.
As they grew frustrated with clogged “legal pathways” like the CBP One smartphone app, and as they got better information about the likelihood of being able to pursue asylum claims within the United States despite the Biden administration’s harsh new asylum rule, more have been crossing between the official ports of entry and turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents.
This chart shows, by country, who has been ending up in Border Patrol custody after crossing between ports of entry.
This chart shows, by country, who was able to present themselves at a U.S.-Mexico border port of entry. Of the 51,913 people shown here in August, 87 percent (45,400) had made appointments using CBP One, according to CBP.
The following charts combine people at and between ports of entry (CBP plus Border Patrol). Here are migrants arriving as members of family units (parents plus children). Border Patrol encountered more migrants arriving as families in August 2023 (93,108) than in any month in history. The second-place month (84,486) was May 2019, when Donald Trump was president.
This chart, combining people at and between ports of entry, shows the countries of origin of migrants arriving as unaccompanied minors. August was the number-12 month ever for Border Patrol apprehensions of unaccompanied migrant children: 13,549 last month.
And here are single adult migrants. It was an unremarkable month for single adults (28th place for Border Patrol apprehensions, 74,402, since October 2011, which is the first month for which I have Border Patrol breakdowns by demographic group.)
Late on September 22, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released data about migration at the U.S.-Mexico border during August 2023.
August was the number-one month ever for Border Patrol apprehensions of migrants traveling as members of families. “Family Unit” apprehensions totaled 93,108 last month.
August was the number-12 month ever for Border Patrol apprehensions of unaccompanied migrant children: 13,549 last month.
Add those numbers, and Border Patrol apprehended 106,657 child and family migrants in August 2023, a record.
August was the number-28 month since October 2011 for Border Patrol apprehensions of migrants traveling as single adults: 74,402 last month. Single adult numbers have been dropping since the end of the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy, which ironically made repeat crossings easier because of less time in custody.
The mayor of Eagle Pass said 2,500 migrants arrived in one day, part of a recent surge in crossings along the border that has taxed local, state and federal resources.
The border city of Eagle Pass, Texas is where Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has deployed a world-famous “wall of buoys” in the Rio Grande, about 90 miles of rolls of razor-sharp concertina wire that injured 133 people statewide in July and August, and a huge contingent of state police and National Guard.
Who could possibly have foreseen that so much security theater wouldn’t deter people who are desperate enough to leave their homes, uproot their lives, travel across a continent, and turn themselves in to uniformed U.S. border agents?
The answer, of course is “everyone who’s paying attention.” We all could have guessed that this would happen, and will keep happening. Deterrence at the border is cruel—but it also doesn’t work.
Arrivals of migrants, mostly asylum seekers, at the U.S.-Mexico border rose to about 8,000 per day this week, a level last seen in April 2023 before the termination of the Title 42 policy. As shelters fill and Border Patrol begins releasing processed migrants on border cities’ streets, it is apparent that migrants’ post-Title 42 “wait and see” period is over. Asylum seekers are again opting to turn themselves in to Border Patrol despite the Biden administration’s “carrot and stick” approach of legal pathways and harsh limits on asylum access. Shelters and migrant routes are similarly full throughout Mexico.
Nearly 82,000 people migrated in August through the treacherous Darién Gap jungle region straddling Colombia and Panama. During the first eight months of 2023, over 330,000 people have taken this once-impenetrable route. So far this year, 60 percent have been citizens of Venezuela and 21 percent have been children, despite the dangers of the journey. In this region of dense forest and difficult terrain, governments have limited short-term options to control territory or channel the flow of people.
As the U.S. government heads for a September 30 budget deadline and an increasingly likely shutdown, the U.S. House of Representatives’ narrow, fractious Republican majority may be proposing a bill that would keep the government open through October 31 in exchange for some radical changes to border and migration policy that the Democratic-majority Senate and the Biden White House would be certain to oppose.
During his marathon morning press conference today, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador shared Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) preliminary U.S.-Mexico Border migration statistics for the first 17 days of September. He showed this slide about 2 hours and 11 minutes into a video embedded on the Presidency’s page.
The graphic shows a total of 142,000 migrant encounters over those 17 days. It combines migrants who have entered Border Patrol custody plus those who came to official land-border ports of entry, but doesn’t distinguish between them.
In all of July, the last full month that CBP has reported, this number was 183,503.
If September’s pace continues for all 30 days, by the end of the month CBP would report 250,654 migrant encounters. Only December 2022 (252,325) has exceeded that number.
The most Venezuelan migrants in a single month was 33,804 in September 2022. September 2023, with 25,577 people in 17 days, may exceed that.
Before it collapsed into authoritarianism, poverty, and criminality, Venezuela had 30 million people.
7.71 million have left since the mid-2010s: more than a quarter of the original population.
And now, as of yesterday, more than 2% of them (714,700 people) qualify for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in the United States, as they absolutely should. From DHS:
There are currently approximately 242,700 TPS beneficiaries under Venezuela’s existing TPS designation. There are an additional approximately 472,000 nationals of Venezuela who may be eligible under the redesignation of Venezuela.
Under U.S. asylum law, as amended in 1996, applicants for asylum in the United States cannot obtain a work authorization until their application is six months old. Asylum seekers want to work, and TPS is a way to get around this unhelpful 27-year-old law to enable that.
60 percent of this year’s migrants through the Darién Gap have been citizens of Venezuela: 201,288 people. In August, the migrant population was 77 percent Venezuelan: 62,700 people.
Jaw-dropping numbers from a region that was viewed as all but impenetrable until perhaps 2021. And there’s little reason why they won’t continue to increase. Any plan to “block” migrants on this route would require a staggeringly large and complex operation that would create additional challenges, like what to do with tens of thousands of stranded migrants.
The Migration Policy Institute just published a mini-report on migration through the Darién Gap, the dangerous jungle region straddling Colombia and Panama through which almost 82,000 people migrated in August. It’s written by MPI’s Caitlyn Yates, who has spent months doing research there, and Juan Pappier of Human Rights Watch, who has visited at least a couple of times.
The report concludes that trying to block migrants is a fool’s game in this region of primary forest and difficult topography.
the odds seem stacked against efforts to entirely halt trans-Darien movement. Even if it were not, research shows that blocking established pathways does not end migration, but rather pushes people towards new, more dangerous routes. If the more established land passages became inaccessible, it is likely that the maritime routes would be used more frequently, as would other scarcely traveled interior routes deeper in the jungle. The journey through the Darien would also likely become more expensive, as more migrants would be pushed to pay for guides to navigate the jungle’s geography and around authorities.
Migration in and through the Darien Gap is unlikely to end, at least in the near future. The pathway is already one of last resort. Attempting to dissuade asylum seekers and other migrants from crossing or closing off the most established routes is unlikely to deter the thousands already in line for the journey and unknown numbers of future crossers.
If a drug-funded armed group on the U.S. government’s terrorist list forces thousands of family farmers off their land, can companies who bought that land just a few years later really claim to have done so “in good faith?”
Marta Ruiz, a journalist who served as a commissioner of Colombia’s Truth Commission, asked that question in a September 10 column at the Colombian news site La Silla Vacía. She was writing about the Montes de María, a region near the country’s Caribbean coast where small farmers struggled to win titles to their lands, only to be massively displaced by an early 2000s scorched-earth campaign, including a string of notoriously bloody massacres, by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The AUC were a paramilitary network—on the State Department’s terrorist list between 2001 and 2013—that colluded with large landowners, narcotraffickers, and elements of Colombia’s armed forces.
In late August, Colombian President Gustavo Petro visited El Salado, a village in the Montes de María known for a grisly 2000 massacre. There, he called out Argos, a cement company that is one of Colombia’s largest corporations. (Argos USA’s website calls it “the most sustainable company in the industry.”) Marta Ruiz reported that Petro said:
“Argos took the land of the displaced, I am not going to accuse them of the massacre, but they benefited from the fruit of the massacre and the blood.” The company immediately responded by arguing its good faith in the purchase of 6,600 hectares in the municipalities of Carmen and Ovejas.
Ruiz’s column then recounts the recent history of this troubled region, which is less than two hours’ drive from Cartagena. First, the land-tenure struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, the subject of many histories and academic studies in Colombia.
Populated by mestizos, indigenous people and Afros, it was the scene of strong agrarian struggles against unproductive large estates throughout the 20th century. In fact, it was the site chosen by [1966-1970 president] Carlos Lleras Restrepo to launch the ANUC [government-sanctioned small-farmers’ organization] and his agrarian reform, with much more radical speeches than Petro’s against the rentier landowners and landlords. In those years, many peasant families obtained plots of land of a maximum of 12 hectares, and others after 1994 when, with Law 160, land adjudication resumed.
Then, the paramilitary onslaught of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which reversed so many farmers’ hard-won gains.
By the mid-1990s, the FARC-EP—which were already in the region—became very strong in the mountains, and from there they tried to dominate the entire region. The ranchers, tired of kidnapping and extortion, demanded that [top AUC leader] Carlos Castaño send his army of thugs to that part of the Caribbean. But since a war is expensive and they were not going to finance it, it was obvious that drug traffickers, who eventually became owners of immense lands in the region’s lowlands and coastal areas, would have to enter the war, thus consolidating their illicit trade routes.
…Then came the “expediting” of massacres. First was Pichilín, a small village high in the mountains between Colosó and Morroa. Everyone left there, except one old man who ended up talking to the trees. Then followed Macayepo, Chengue, El Salado, Las Brisas, Capaca, Los Guaimaros… I can go on until I fill the page with more than 50 names of villages that were razed to the ground. Between 2000 and 2005 at least one million peasants in the Caribbean region were displaced and lost their land. In Carmen de Bolivar alone, once a prosperous town, 80 percent of the rural inhabitants were exiled.
The AUC went through a sort of demobilization process in the mid-2000s. By then, for a time, the armed forces became the major human rights violators in the Montes de María.
After the demobilization of the AUC…there was a time of extrajudicial executions, disappearances, dispossessions and mass arrests. The latter were a nefarious practice of the public forces because they were based on biased intelligence, based on the stigmatization of entire towns such as Ovejas, where 130 people were arrested in a single day. Between paramilitaries, guerrillas and security forces, a century’s worth of campesino organization was almost wiped out.
In 2007 the final “battle” took place with a bombing where [top regional FARC leader] Martín Caballero died. Thus the guerrillas were annihilated in that region.
President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) oversaw military operations that weakened the FARC, and also oversaw a negotiation process that demobilized the paramilitaries in exchange for light jail sentences. Uribe had the full support of large landowners and business elites, who moved rapidly into the lands abandoned by the small farmers of the Montes de María.
Meanwhile, President Uribe and his closest circle encouraged his countrymen in Medellín and Envigado to buy land and invest in Montes de María.
…The consolidation of Democratic Security [Uribe’s signature security policy] would be done hand in hand with businessmen, and the military committed themselves to the construction of a road that would join the Magdalena River with the Caribbean Sea: the Montes de María transverse road. And they did it. Thus, the counterinsurgency strategy contained an anti-peasant bias which, aligned with a certain vision of development, assured that Colombia’s progress depended on businessmen’s money rather than on the regions’ human capital.
What happened next was a “reverse land reform” throughout the mid-2000s to the early 2010s.
The massive purchase of land was done at a surprising speed and with all kinds of trickery… The businessmen had access to these databases [of forcibly displaced farmers’ delinquent mortgages] and set themselves the task of looking for the displaced in the poverty belts of Sincelejo, Cartagena, and Barranquilla to ask them, through trickery, half-truths and deceit, for the transfer of their titles… The intermediaries took the land and in exchange left the campesinos with despair, fear, lack of protection and defeat. It was an express agrarian counter-reform.
It is a legend, but absolutely true, that in order to consummate this operation, notary offices worked 24 hours a day for several weeks. It was necessary to accelerate because another part of the state’s institutional framework, the one that was trying to return displaced people, announced the protection of the lands and the prohibition of their sale until the circumstances in which these transactions took place were verified.
Of the business organizations that bought up all of the land vacated after the paramilitary onslaught, Argos is the best known.
In the midst of such a panorama, Argos bought its first land in San Onofre, Sucre, a municipality where the feared [regional paramilitary leader] Rodrigo Cadena had his headquarters. The company was obliged to compensate for the environmental damage caused by its cement activity by planting forests. Thanks to a forestry incentive law, this compensation became a business: planting teak, a fine and very expensive wood, which has an assured international market… The land was cheap because in their exodus, people left the land. Argos decided not only to stay but to expand to other municipalities and that is when it set its eyes on El Carmen, Ovejas, etc.
Courts, Ruiz noted, have cast doubt on Argos’s claims to have been unaware of the violent dispossession that took place in the lands they purchased, just a few years earlier.
The courts have said that Argos did not comply with the due diligence expected of a multinational company that is listed on the world’s major stock exchanges; that is among the five most powerful groups in the country; and that to top it off is part of global pacts for good human rights practices. According to the judges, it is unlikely that a company of its size and capacity would be unaware of the context in which the land purchases and sales took place, let alone their implications.
Ruiz credits Argos for steps that it has since taken: “once the Victims Law was approved  and the massive purchases scandal became a reputational risk, the business group cancelled its project in those municipalities. It created the Fundación Crecer en Paz, which remains under its tutelage for the management of the 6,600 hectares already acquired.” Farmers have recovered some of the land.
That is more than can be said of other opportunistic investors who benefited, indirectly or directly, from paramilitary violence in the Montes de María. Still, “it is a pity that Argos maintains its anachronistic discourse about the ‘good faith’ that led it to these purchases, instead of gallantly recognizing that its actions were opportunistic and encouraged dispossession. It should ask for forgiveness.”
After all, “Montes de María was not a wasteland in need of corporate colonization as was said in certain circles in Medellín. It was home to many people who had fought fervently to be there.”
These are just a few highlights of a great column about a chapter of Colombia’s conflict that shows what a lot of the fighting was actually about: the strong taking advantage of a crisis to seize land and wealth from the weak.
The U.S. officials who adhered Washington so closely to the project of Álvaro Uribe and his allies—giving him effusive praise, billions in aid, and even the Medal of Freedom—can claim, too, that they were acting in good faith. But they enabled a good deal of harm.
In March 2022, Colombia’s Army staged an early-morning attack on a large, hung-over gathering of participants in a “community bazaar”—including a few armed-group members, who fired back—in a rural zone of Putumayo, in the country’s south. The soldiers killed several civilians, including a pregnant woman and an Indigenous community leader.
Top defense officials in the government of President Iván Duque insisted that the troops did nothing wrong and that no human rights or international humanitarian law violations took place. Colombian journalistic investigations found otherwise.
Colombia’s civilian Chief Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía) looked into the case, and agreed with the journalists. The Colombian magazine Cambioreported on August 20:
the Prosecutor’s Office deployed an interdisciplinary team that included ballistics experts, forensic doctors, topographers and prosecutors from its Human Rights Unit. The material collected, as CAMBIO was able to verify, reveals that the indigenous governor Pablo Paduro died as a result of a rifle shot by one of the uniformed officers and that the weapon found near his body was never fired or manipulated by him, but was planted on him with the intention of diverting the investigation. In addition, there is incontestable evidence: the dead were 11 and the weapons found were 5, so at least 6 of them did not have the means to shoot at the Army.
The prosecutors, though, are being held up by delaying tactics. Defense attorneys for the accused military personnel made a last-minute appeal to have the case heard in Colombia’s military justice system. The military system is meant for disciplinary infractions (“acts of service”), not human rights abuses; when it does get jurisdiction over a crime against civilians, it almost never convicts. For such cases, it is an impunity factory.
Cambio explained the legal machinations:
The indictment hearing was scheduled for the first days of August, but in an unexpected decision, the 106th judge of Military Criminal Instruction of Puerto Leguízamo [Putumayo] accepted the request of the soldiers’ lawyers and sent the process to the Constitutional Court to resolve a jurisdictional conflict. The judge’s decision has been criticized because a month after the operation, in May 2022, the same Military Criminal Court sent the process to the Prosecutor’s Office, arguing that the possible human rights violations could not be considered acts of service.
The Constitutional Court has yet to decide whether the Alto Remanso massacre case will go to the military justice system, where justice is unlikely, or the civilian system, where prosecutors and investigators have done thorough work and are ready to go. Colleagues at Human Rights Watch just sent an amicus brief to the Constitutional Court asking it to slap down the military attorneys’ gambit, and move the case back to the civilian justice system.
The military attorneys may be happy just to run out the clock. Cambio warns, “For now, the legal process is suspended and waiting for the Constitutional Court to define the conflict of competences. The clock is ticking, and the ghost of the statute of limitations’ expiration is haunting the investigators’ work.”
At the Financial Times, Martin Sandbu punches a hole in the myth that Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s long dictatorship (1973-1990) guided Chile’s economy to prosperity with a series of market-fundamentalist economic reforms.
“In terms of economic prosperity, the most generous description of the dictatorship’s achievement is ‘erratic,'” Sandbu writes, pointing out that the economy took nosedives in 1974-5 and 1982-3. By 1990, real GDP per capita was only slightly more than what it was in 1973.
The real prosperity came later, during Chile’s democratic period, averaging 4 percent per year from 1990 to 2010, as this masterfully named chart makes clear.
One of many reasons—but a big one—why U.S.-bound migration has hit record levels, and may break records again this fall, is that the Darién Gap jungle region straddling Colombia and Panama is no longer an impenetrable barrier.
In fact, the Darién Gap has been crossed over 330,000 times so far this year, including 82,000 crossings in August, according to the latest in a very good series of reports from New York Times correspondent Julie Turkewitz and photographer Federico Ríos.
It’s not really clear what Colombia and Panama can do about it. The options are really lousy:
Try to block migrants? Good luck with that. The Darién Gap is dense, roadless jungle (at least for now). If security forces focus on one pathway, another will open up. And what if Colombia and Panama somehow succeed in blocking migrants? What do they then do with hundreds of thousands of stranded people from all over the world? Fly them back to China, India, Afghanistan, Cameroon, and dozens of other destinations, at huge expense and at huge risk to the returnees? Bus them back to threats and penury in Venezuela and Ecuador?
Create a safe movement corridor? Channeling migrants through a route that is government-controlled territory—or, better yet, avoids the environmentally fragile forest entirely—would cut organized crime out of the picture. It would reduce many of the alarming security risks that migrants now face. Governments would have biometric records and other data about everyone attempting to pass through. By registering most migrants and permitting them to transit their territory on buses, Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras are already doing this. But the political obstacles to “safe passage” approaches are beyond daunting: the U.S. government (or at least, key officials and members of Congress) would condemn and seek to punish Colombia and Panama for waving everyone northward. U.S. officials would fear that the promise of safe passage would attract still more migrants.
”Soft blocking” of migrants? That more or less describes the situation today in the Darién region (and Mexico, Guatemala, and some South American countries). The official position is that migration is an administrative offense, and migrant smuggling is illegal. A handful get detained or deported, and some (usually very low-level) smugglers get arrested. But either security forces view their checkpoints and patrols as opportunities to shake migrants down for bribes, or organized crime takes over routes. Usually both. Migrants get assaulted, robbed, or worse. Some may spend time in state detention. But if they can run that gauntlet and remain alive—and most do, obviously—very few end up discouraged from proceeding northward.
None of these options is promising: some violate the most basic human rights, some assist organized crime, some are simply impossible, and the least-bad choice would hit a political brick wall.
Faced with these very poor choices, it’s not surprising that leaders like Colombia’s Gustavo Petro are reluctant to make in-transit migration a priority. According to the Times:
Colombia’s president, Gustavo Petro, acknowledged in an interview that the national government had little control over the region, but added that it was not his goal to stop migration through the Darién anyway — despite the agreement his government signed with the United States.
After all, he argued, the roots of this migration were “the product of poorly taken measures against Latin American peoples,” particularly by the United States, pointing to Washington’s sanctions against Venezuela.
He said he had no intention of sending “horses and whips” to the border to solve a problem that wasn’t of his country’s making.
That last bit is a veiled reference to a September 2021 incident in Del Rio, Texas, where Border Patrol agents on horseback were caught on camera charging at Haitian migrants on the bank of the Rio Grande. The Times continues:
just like the people running the migration business, he [President Petro] presented his hands-off approach to migration as a humanitarian one.
The answer to this crisis, he said, was not to go “chasing migrants” at the border or to force them into “concentration camps” that blocked them from trying to reach the United States.
“I would say yes, I’ll help, but not like you think,” Mr. Petro said of the agreement with the Biden administration, which was big on ambition but thin on details. He said any solution to the issue had to focus on “solving migrants’ social problems, which do not come from Colombia.”
He expects half a million people to cross the Darién this year, he said, and then a million next year.