Adam Isacson

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

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October 2023

90,639 People Migrated in Transit Across Honduras in September

Data table listing more than 140 nationalities that have transited Honduras since August 2022

Just over five months ago, we visited what is by far the most-used border crossing from Nicaragua (Trojes-Danlí) and were amazed by the number of people we saw on the move. Now, it’s more than three times as many people.

The source is the Honduran government’s National Migration Institute. Since August 2022, Honduras has waived fees charged to migrants entering its territory, instead requiring all to register and have their information entered in a database. That allows migrants to get a form required to board buses through the country. As a result, Honduras’s numbers do record most people coming through.

Really Disturbing Videos from El Paso, Texas

Over a period of 10 days in late September and early October, New York Times video journalists filmed the El Paso bank of the Rio Grande from across the river in Mexico. It’s important to view the footage they came up with.

Between the river’s edge and the border wall is a concrete embankment. Once on U.S. soil, migrants have the legal right to petition for asylum. They are seeking to line up along the border wall, near a gate, to be processed by the federal Border Patrol.

A Texas Guardsman (rear) waves his weapon at a man trying to get past him to the wall behind him, as another grabs his shirt.
A Texas Guardsman (rear) waves his weapon at a man trying to get past him to the wall behind him, as another grabs his shirt.

In order to get that far up the embankment, though, asylum seekers have to get past the state of Texas. As part of his “Operation Lone Star,” Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has posted National Guardsmen—soldiers with U.S. Army training and equipment, in a highly unusual role for U.S. military personnel on U.S. soil—and miles of coils of razor-sharp concertina wire.

A woman's arm bleeds after she passed through coils of concertina wire.
A woman’s arm bleeds after she passed through coils of concertina wire.

So now you’ve got a situation where soldiers operating under a state governor’s command are trying to prevent people, including families and children, from accessing law enforcement personnel under federal authority. This is happening elsewhere along the Texas border, too.

Passing a baby under the coils of wire. This is madness.
Passing a baby under the coils of wire. This is madness.

It’s bizarre, it’s dangerous, it violates U.S. law and international law, and the footage is hideous.

E-mail Update Is Out

Here’s a new “weekly” e-mail about stuff I’ve been working on, for those who’ve signed up to receive them.

This one features the border update; a podcast with experts on non-violent social change in the Americas; a commentary on the administration’s October 5 border wall announcement; more data insights about migration trends and border drug seizures; short commentaries on historical U.S. aid and judicial presence in Colombia; links to a few recommended articles; and some upcoming events.

If you visit this site a lot, you probably don’t need an e-mail, too. But if you’d like to get more-or-less regular e-mail updates, scroll to the bottom of this page or click here.

Latin America-Related Events in Washington and Online This Week

(Events that I know of, anyway. All times are U.S. Eastern.)

Monday, October 9

  • 3:15-8:30 at Inter-American Human Rights Court EventBrite: A 75 años de la Declaración Americana y 45 de la Convención Americana sobre Derechos Humanos: logros y desafíos (RSVP required).

Tuesday, October 10

  • 12:00-1:00 at Washington College of Law: Confronting Authoritarianism in Latin America: A Conversation with leading Human Rights Lawyers in El Salvador (RSVP required).
  • 12:00-1:00 at csis.org: Managing Geopolitical Risk in Mexico’s ICT Sector (RSVP required).

Wednesday, October 11

  • 1:30-2:50 at University of Chicago (hybrid): Journalism Under Threat (RSVP required).

Thursday, October 12

  • 10:00-11:00 at Council of the Americas Zoom: China in the Americas: Assessing the Impact and Implications of Authoritarian Capital (RSVP required).
  • 4:00-5:00 at Georgetown University: The Power of Public Opinion in Latin American Climate Policy (RSVP required).

17,000 Deportations of Non-Mexicans Into Mexico Since Title 42 Ended

In a conversation with reporters whose transcript has not yet been posted online, Blas Nuñez-Neto, the Department of Homeland Security’s assistant secretary for border and immigration policy, dropped an important and rarely publicized statistic.

Since the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy ended in May, Mexico has accepted the U.S. deportation into its territory of 17,000 citizens of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. These are people denied access to asylum under the Biden administration’s “transit ban” rule.

17,000 over nearly 5 months is far fewer than the rate of Title 42 expulsions during the pandemic, when Mexico agreed to accept nearly a million land-border expulsions of citizens of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Today, Mexico just accepts citizens of the latter four countries. But 17,000 is still a lot of people, some with protection needs denied because, under the “transit ban” rule, they crossed the border improperly.

The last time we saw this number reported was July 27, when Nuñez-Neto mentioned 4,000 deportations of those countries’ citizens into Mexico. So there have been another 13,000 in the succeeding 10 weeks, or nearly 200 deportations into Mexico each day.

Why isn’t this statistic shared more often, for instance in CBP’s monthly data updates? My guess is that Mexico doesn’t like to see it publicized, and the U.S. government respects those sensibilities. (DHS would probably be happy to share news about its deportations into Mexico, out of a belief that it might discourage some migrants.)

Video for This Week’s Border Update

I think I’m getting better at making these? Obtaining a cheap teleprompter helped.

In this week’s WOLA U.S.-Mexico Border Update:

  • Two breaking items: new border wall and Venezuela deportations
  • Border Patrol apprehended about 210,000 migrants in September
  • Proposals call for increasing deportations from Mexico and Panama
  • Mexico updates
  • Darién Gap updates

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: October 6, 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:

Two important policy developments occurred as WOLA was drafting and editing this update on October 5. The Biden administration announced that it will waive environmental, public health, and cultural resource protection laws to expedite the construction of the border wall in south Texas. The State Department announced that it will resume direct deportations of Venezuelan migrants to their home country, an economically collapsed dictatorship that the U.S. government does not formally recognize.

Preliminary data indicates that migration increased at the U.S.-Mexico border in September for the third consecutive month. Fiscal 2023 was Border Patrol’s number-two year ever for migrant apprehensions, exceeded only by 2022. 50,000 of September’s Border Patrol apprehensions were reportedly of citizens of Venezuela, which would be a record for a nationality other than Mexico. High migration levels have brought tensions and human rights concerns in San Diego, El Paso, and elsewhere. Deaths of migrants in Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector more than doubled from 2022 to 2023.

U.S. and Mexican diplomats are meeting at the highest levels to discuss issues including migration. Mexico has signaled a willingness to deport more citizens of Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia. The Biden administration is aiming to launch a pilot project to help Panama deport more migrants from the Darién Gap region.

About 6,000 people are crossing Mexico’s southern border every day, and the country is on track to exceed 150,000 asylum applications this year. Mexico continues to halt some trains and bus migrants into the interior, while accidents and attacks are claiming many lives along the migration route.

It appears that 75,268 migrants crossed the Darién Gap in September, the second largest-ever monthly total. A UN survey revealed that the average journey through this treacherous region lasts four days.

THE FULL UPDATE:

Read More

Planning, Unity, and Discipline: Non-Violent Social Change in the Americas

I learned a lot recording this WOLA Podcast episode with two scholar-practitioners who work with non-violent activists around the Americas. I found the advice and insights that María Belén Garrido and Jeff Pugh offered are very relevant for a time when authoritarian populists are gaining power and controlling public conversations. Here’s the overview from WOLA’s podcast landing page.

Maria Belén Garrido of the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador and FLACSO Ecuador, and Jeffrey Pugh, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and director of the Center for Mediation, Peace, and Resolution of Conflict (CEMPROC), lead the Regional Institute for the Study and Practice of Strategic Nonviolent Action in the Americas.

The Institute provides training, capacity building, and networking opportunities for nonviolent social change activists in Latin America. It teaches that the success of non-violent strategies depends on the crucial “trinity” of planning, unity, and discipline.

Garrido and Pugh provide numerous examples of nonviolent movements in Latin America at the local and national levels, from communities declaring themselves “peace zones” in Colombia to worker “slowdown” strikes in Chile under Pinochet. They emphasize being creative with tactics like strikes, boycotts, protests, using art and music, and leveraging media and communication.

An ongoing challenge is confronting the rise of authoritarian populism and leaders who try to control narratives and media. Maintaining nonviolent discipline is crucial to avoid playing into the hands of repressive regimes. Building diverse coalitions and identifying strategic pressure points instead of relying solely on mass messaging may be especially important today.

“When a great amount of people, especially a diversity of people, in ages and ethnicities, go to the streets, then probably the social distance from the members of the forces that will repress them is lower and narrower,” Garrido observes here. “And this will reduce the amount of repression.”

Resources from the Institute can be found at accionnoviolenta.org: the “Relatos de la Resistencia Noviolenta” podcast, blog posts by regional activists, and an online course, one edition of which just got underway in early October 2023.

Download the podcast episode’s .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.

What a Difference 15 Days Make

September 20, 2023

Extraordinary and temporary conditions continue to prevent Venezuelan nationals from returning in safety. …Venezuela continues to face a severe humanitarian emergency due to a political and economic crisis, as well as human rights violations and abuses and high levels of crime and violence, that impacts access to food, medicine, healthcare, water, electricity, and fuel, and has led to high levels of poverty.

October 5, 2023

The United States is announcing today that it will resume direct repatriations of Venezuelan nationals who cross our border unlawfully and do not establish a legal basis to remain. This announcement follows a decision by authorities from Venezuela to accept the return of Venezuelan nationals.

The Administration’s Border Wall Messaging Will Make Your Head Hurt

This is a single screenshot from today’s New York Times article about the Biden administration’s announcement that it is building new segments of border wall. The highlighted bits are a few paragraphs apart.

<highlight>“There is presently an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the border of the United States in order to prevent unlawful entries into the United States,”</highlight> said Mr. Mayorkas in the notice.

It added that construction would be built with funds appropriated by Congress in 2019 for wall construction in the Rio Grande Valley. That appropriation followed a disaster declaration by the Trump administration amid soaring numbers of border crossers.

Mr. Biden said on Thursday that he had no choice but to use the money for the wall.

“The money was appropriated for the border wall. I tried to get them to reappropriate, to redirect that money. They didn’t. They wouldn’t,” he told reporters, apparently referring to Congress.

<highlight>Asked whether he thought the border wall was effective, he replied, “no.”</highlight>

It’s unusual to see that much self-contradiction in such close proximity.

If you listen to President Biden today, it sounds like his administration has been forced, against its will, to waive 26 environmental and cultural laws to build abut 20 miles of border wall in Starr County, in south Texas.

But if you listen to the Department of Homeland Security language in the Federal Register, it looks like they’re doing this out of a newfound enthusiasm for border walls.

Biden is correct: the wall-building money comes from 2019 appropriations, passed for then-president Donald Trump by a Republican congressional majority, which the Biden administration and congressional Democrats were unable to rescind. The Impoundment Control Act says that presidents have to spend money as Congress appropriates it, before it expires.

The money in question is in the blue section of this chart, in the 2019 column. (The chart comes from a January 2020 commentary I wrote for WOLA.) By the time Trump left office, the 2017 money was spent, the 2018 money was all but spent, but most of the 2019 money was not, and the 2020 money hadn’t been touched yet. (See this October 2020 “Border Wall Status” report that I saved.)

A 2020 chart breaking down sources of border wall money. The "blue part," denoting congressional appropriations, is $441 million in 2017 and $1.375 billion in each of 2018, 2019, and 2020.

So President Biden is right: he had no choice but to spend the border wall money before it expired, presumably with the September 30 end of the government’s 2023 fiscal year. But his administration has done a poor job of explaining that today.

Update October 7: After a lot of conversations about this on October 5 and 6, and I feel I should soften the “Biden is right” language above, because it’s more complicated.

While it’s true that Biden had to use the 2019 appropriations money, it’s unclear whether the Impoundments Act required him to waive 26 laws to proceed with the wall construction.

This is a question that federal courts would probably have to resolve. As seen in recent cases, the decision would likely be made following a lawsuit—possibly filed in the federal judiciary’s conservative Fifth Circuit by Republican state governments. It’s probable that the case would escalate to the Supreme Court. It’s understandable that the Biden administration would prefer not to engage its Justice Department in this litigation, considering it could drag on for a couple of years and potentially result in an unfavorable precedent.

However, the question remains: why didn’t the administration devise a barrier design that met congressional requirements without needing to waive environmental and other laws? Such a design would have been more likely to withstand legal scrutiny, and would have earned less criticism from environmental advocates and the President’s supporters.

One possible explanation is internal bureaucratic politics. The wall designs for Starr County were initially conceived during the Trump administration. It’s plausible that career officials from the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection (among them, one suspects, the drafters of that “acute and immediate need” language) were resistant to revisiting the designs. It seems that the Biden administration’s political appointees were not prepared to push back strongly on this issue. So here we are.

Charts: Drug Seizures at the U.S.-Mexico Border

We now have 11 months of data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) about how much illicit drugs the agency seized at the U.S.-Mexico border during the 2023 fiscal year so far (from October 2022 to August 2023). That’s enough to compare this year’s drug seizures with previous years’.

With one exception—fentanyl—the data show a drop or stagnation in the amount of drugs being detected crossing the border.

Drugs manufactured from plants are turning up less often. A few years ago, Americans addicted to prescription opioids were turning to heroin made in Mexico (from the poppy plant), and heroin seizures were way up. That is no longer true: fentanyl competes with heroin, and it’s cheaper and easier to make. Heroin seizures have fallen sharply.

Data table

As is the case with all drugs except marijuana, 90 percent of this year’s border heroin seizures have taken place at ports of entry (official border crossings), where CBP’s Office of Field Operations operates—not the areas in between the ports where Border Patrol operates. 60 percent of all border-wide heroin seizures happened at California ports of entry (CBP’s San Diego Field Office).

Cocaine seizures are flat, despite evidence of increased production in the Andes (from the coca plant). 81 percent has been seized at ports of entry this year. 47 percent of all border-wide heroin seizures happened at California ports of entry (CBP’s San Diego Field Office), and another 23 percent at south Texas ports of entry (Laredo Field Office).

Data table

Marijuana seizures have been declining for a while. With so many U.S. states now allowing some form of legal, regulated sale of cannabis, there’s far less reason to take the risk of importing it from Mexico.

Data table

Marijuana is the only drug that mostly gets seized between the ports of entry. Only 25 percent was seized at ports of entry in fiscal 2023. Most marijuana gets seized in Texas (in 2023 so far, Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector 31 percent, Border Patrol’s Big Bend Sector 22 percent, CBP’s Laredo Field Office 19 percent, and Border Patrol’s Laredo Sector 12 percent).

I haven’t done the research to understand why, but seizures of a major synthetic (not plant-based) drug, methamphetamine, have also fallen. 88 percent of meth got seized at ports of entry this year. Of all border-wide 2023 seizures, 63 percent happened at California ports of entry (CBP’s San Diego Field Office).

Data table

The one drug that’s being seized in far greater amounts is fentanyl. CBP seized 106 percent more of the highly potent, highly compact synthetic opioid in the first 11 months of fiscal 2023 than it did in the same period of fiscal 2022. (That’s measured in the weight of pills or other form of seized doses, not the weight of pure fentanyl.)

Data table

89 percent of fentanyl seizures took place at ports of entry during the first 11 months of fiscal 2023. The ports in California (San Diego, blue) and Arizona (Tucson, green) have accounted for 87 percent of all 2023 fentanyl seizures border-wide.

Data table

Asylum Requests in Mexico by Nationality

Using data released today from the Mexican government’s Refugee Aid Commission (COMAR), here is the breakdown of asylum requests before Mexico’s system during what is certain to be a record-breaking year. Asylum requests in Mexico are on track to exceed 150,000 in 2023.

Chart: Asylum Requests in Mexico by Nationality

2023: Haiti 33%, Honduras 27%, Cuba 11%, El Salvador 4.5%, Venezuela 4.2%, Guatemala 4.1%, All others <4%
Since 2013: Honduras 32%, Haiti 22%, Cuba 10%, El Salvador 8.95%, Venezuela 8.93%, All others <5%

	Honduras	Haiti	Cuba	El Salvador	Venezuela	Guatemala	Nicaragua	Brazil**	Chile**	Other Countries
2013	530	14	98	309	1	47	20			277
2014	1035	25	96	626	56	108	28			163
2015	1560	16	37	1476	57	102	28	2		145
2016	4129	47	43	3494	361	437	70	2		213
2017	4274	436	796	3708	4038	676	62	4	1	624
2018	13679	76	214	6193	6331	1347	1271			524
2019	30082	5530	8679	9039	7621	3772	2233	554		2841
2020	15364	5909	5712	4011	3241	3002	803	368	806	1698
2021	36079	50944	8249	5945	6125	4118	2894	3795	6891	4740
2022	31005	17074	18076	7782	14886	5259	8975	2569		12596
2023	31055	37736	12777	5033	4784	4646		3531	3183	10215

Data table

Last month, Mexico received 11,984 asylum requests, the second-lowest monthly total all year. 33 percent came from citizens of Haiti, plus another 6 percent from Brazil and Chile who are almost entirely the children born in those countries to Haitian migrants there. Honduras followed with 27 percent of September’s total, then Cuba (11 percent).

Venezuelan Citizens Set Record for Non-Mexican Migration at the U.S.-Mexico border

CBS News reported new information about Venezuelan migration at the U.S.-Mexico border in September, from preliminary U.S. government data:

Approximately 50,000 migrants from crisis-stricken Venezuela crossed the U.S.-Mexico border unlawfully last month, a record and once-unthinkable number, according to preliminary Department of Homeland Security statistics obtained by CBS News.

According to my records (U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s public monthly reporting by citizenship is spotty before the mid-2010s), 50,000 Venezuelan citizens is the greatest-ever number of migrants in a single month at the U.S.-Mexico border from any country other than Mexico. For non-Mexican migrants, the closest numbers I see in the past are 45,201 citizens of Guatemala in May 2019, and 45,297 citizens of Honduras in July 2021.

Charted out, that September number would look like this. The blue part, which more than doubled from August to September, is Venezuelan migrants who crossed the border between ports of entry, ending up in Border Patrol custody. We still don’t know the additional green part for September, which shows migrants who came to ports of entry, usually with “CBP One” appointments (9,373 Venezuelan citizens in August).

Chart: Citizens of Venezuela: CBP Encounters At and Between Ports of Entry

Using numbers in the linked data table, shows monthly Venezuelan migrants since October 2019 as columns. Venezuelan migrants are a few hundred per month at most until February and March 2021, then rise above 30,000 in 3 months between September 2022 and May 2023. They rise above 30,000 in August, then reach the estimated 50,000 in September—without including those who come to ports of entry, which hasn't been reported yet.

Data table without the September estimate added

Heavy U.S.-bound movement of Venezuelan citizens continues through the Darién Gap, Central America, and Mexico. If arrivals continue at this pace, calls to “do something” about the situation causing so many Venezuelans to migrate will proliferate. Within a few months, Venezuela could be right up there—after perhaps Ukraine and the South China Sea—among the Biden administration’s top foreign policy priorities going into an election year.

From CRS: U.S. Assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean FY1946-FY2021

Chart entitled "U.S. Assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean: FY1946-FY2021."

Includes aid obligations from all U.S. government agencies, adjusted for inflation. Comprehensive data for
FY2022 and FY2023 are not yet available.

Shows peaks in the 1960s (Alliance for Progress, the largest peak), the Reagan 1980s, Plan Colombia 2000, the Mérida Initiative and Haiti earthquake 2010, and launch of the Central America engagement strategy 2015-16. The current moment is about average, perhaps below average, a bit over $3 billion adjusted for inflation. The 1960s peak is about $7.5 billion.

This chart comes from a September 27 Congressional Research Service report, by Peter Meyer, about U.S. aid to Latin America and the Caribbean, going through the 2024 appropriations request (which Congress hasn’t funded yet).

When you adjust for inflation, nothing comes close to the amount of U.S. assistance the region received in the 1960s, during the Alliance for Progress, an aid program the Kennedy Administration launched in large part to prevent other countries from turning to Communist revolution like Cuba did.

The next biggest peaks are the 2010 response to Haiti’s earthquake just as the Mérida Initiative aid package was getting underway in Mexico; the Reagan administration’s Cold-War funding of civil wars in Central America; the Plan Colombia years of the 2000s; the Central America strategy that the Obama administration started (and Trump did not continue) after a 2014 wave of child and family migration; and the onset of the Drug War in the late 1980s.

My own career started during that deep trough of assistance during the post-Cold War Clinton 1990s. (I graduated college in 1992 and grad school in 1994.) Ironically, it was right at the absolute nadir that I co-founded a project to monitor U.S. security assistance in the Americas. (The data from that project, going back to 1996, is still part of the Center for International Policy’s Security Assistance Monitor.)

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