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.
- Arrivals of migrants in El Paso, the busiest part of the border near the end of 2022, have declined sharply. A key reason is the impossibility of seeking asylum for people of additional nationalities amid the Biden administration’s recent expansion of the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy.
- As Mexican border cities absorb more expelled migrants, they are receiving more new arrivals, who are apparently not deterred by the Title 42 expansion.
- CBP’s new app-based process allowing especially vulnerable asylum seekers to access Title 42 exemptions was quickly overwhelmed by demand.
- New York Mayor Eric Adams, whose city is receiving over 3,000 weekly arrivals of asylum seekers, traveled to El Paso. He called on the federal government to provide more support, and criticized governors who have been sending migrants to his city without coordination.
- CBP rolled out a new vehicle pursuit policy that intends to clarify when Border Patrol agents may engage in high-speed chases, which have led to an increasing number of fatalities on public roads in the border region.
Migration declines in El Paso
Across the U.S.-Mexico border, U.S. border agents are apprehending about 4,000 migrants per day in mid-January, an unnamed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official told CBS News. That is down from an average of 7,000 per day in November.
In mid-December, as WOLA’s Border Updates discussed at the time, El Paso, Texas was experiencing a sharp increase in migrant arrivals, reaching a daily average of 2,254 in the middle of December, according to data shared on a city “dashboard” page. Of that number, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was releasing an average of 1,478 migrants per day—virtually all of them with asylum claims—into El Paso shelters or, when those filled, onto the city’s streets.
Since then, migration has rapidly plummeted in El Paso. The daily average of migrant arrivals for the past week has fallen more than 60 percent from its mid-December peak, to 850. The daily average of migrant releases has dropped 89 percent, to 166.
El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser told Border Report that CBP has not released migrants onto the city’s streets because of exhausted shelter capacity “for weeks now.” El Paso’s convention center is no longer being used as a shelter, and the area around its bus station, where hundreds of homeless migrants were gathered in December, is now empty, the New York Times reported. The city’s government will allow a 30-day disaster declaration, issued on December 23, to lapse.
A key reason for the drop in migration to El Paso is a January 5 policy change that now makes asylum all but impossible to obtain for migrants from Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. That is the list of countries whose citizens Mexico has agreed to accept as land-border expulsions under the Title 42 public health authority, which the Supreme Court prolonged on December 27.
CBP does not afford migrants subject to these expulsions the right to ask for protection in the United States, normally guaranteed under Section 208 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. With asylum impossible to obtain (with a few exceptions for the most vulnerable, discussed below), the number of asylum seekers from those countries has plummeted, at least in El Paso, where the local government reports numbers almost in real time.
With the Mexican government’s assent, the Biden administration expanded the list of countries subject to Title 42 land-border expulsion in October to include Venezuela, and in early January to include Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua. For all four countries, the administration paired this with a new “humanitarian parole” program allowing a combined total of up to 30,000 citizens pero month to apply online for a two-year documented status in the United States. (Applicants must hold passports and have sponsors in the United States—likely barriers to many threatened migrants—and must pass background checks.)
The first 10 migrants to be granted parole under this new system arrived by air in the United States on January 10, CBS News reported, citing “unpublished government data.” More than 600 other migrants from these four countries had already been approved for parole as of January 13. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) had received “thousands” more applications.
At the Washington Examiner, analysts at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation viewed the Biden administration’s Title 42 expansion as a likely cause for El Paso’s drop in migrant arrivals, but gave more credit to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) mid-December deployment of 700 National Guardsmen to the borderline. Troops set up armored vehicles and concertina wire along the Rio Grande between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, blocking or discouraging would-be asylum seekers.
One Texas Public Policy Foundation analyst is Rodney Scott, Border Patrol’s chief during the Trump administration and the first months of the Biden administration. Scott shared with the Examiner his view that increased fighting between organized crime groups in Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, is the main factor: “My sources within [the Department of Homeland Security] believe that the primary reason that illegal cross-border traffic has slowed in El Paso is because of the cartel wars that have ramped up recently.” (Ciudad Juárez saw a violent beginning to the new year: a prison break that freed 30 inmates, including a leader of the Sinaloa Cartel-tied “Mexicles” gang, and a related shootout that killed 17 people.)
Large numbers of migrants continue arriving in Mexican border cities
Whatever the reason for the drop in migration to El Paso, the trend appears to be uneven border-wide.
“Del Rio continues to be busy. They are still getting large groups daily,” a Border Patrol official wrote to the Washington Examiner’s Anna Giaritelli, referring to the rural mid-Texas Border Patrol sector hundreds of miles east of El Paso that has been a top migrant destination since 2021. The official added that “The Rio Grande Valley along Texas’s Gulf Coast and Yuma in western Arizona have also remained top regions for arrests.”
In Yuma, Amanda Aguirre of the Regional Center for Border Health, the NGO that receives and transports migrants released from CBP custody, told the Arizona Daily Star that “the numbers of people they are helping has been enormous—up to 500 a day.” With the Center’s capacity overwhelmed, CBP began releasing migrants directly into Yuma on December 20, the city’s mayor, Douglas Nicholls, told El Paso Matters. Yuma is “just beginning to see… what we saw a year ago, and that is people walking through the community without going through Border Patrol,” he added.
In cities on Mexico’s side of the border, there is scant evidence that the Biden administration’s Title 42 expansion is deterring migrants.
In those cities, estimates of the number of asylum-seeking migrants awaiting an opportunity to cross to the United States range from 18,000 (Doctors Without Borders, cited this week), to at least 35,200 (according to “a Dec. 31 CBP internal report obtained by Yahoo News”), to 44,700 (“individuals on waitlists in ten Mexican border cities” in November, according to the University of Texas Strauss Center).
In Ciudad Juárez, across from a less-busy El Paso, shelters are 85 percent full and the Chihuahua state government Population Center (COESPO) “has been seeing between 200 and 400 migrants per day—a higher number than in the days prior to the end of Title 42 expulsions in late December,” according to Border Report.
The United States is expelling about 50 migrants per day into Ciudad Juárez, fewer than originally expected when the Biden administration expanded Title 42’s application, according to Alejandra Corona of Jesuit Refugee Services. Mexican immigration authorities are giving expelled families documents allowing them to remain in the country for 60 days; single adults may remain for just 15 days. Most of those expelled to Ciudad Juárez, Corona said, are not interested in applying for asylum in Mexico.
But migrants keep arriving in the city from the south, including thousands of Venezuelans led by “a lack of information about the new requirements, combined with the hope President Biden ‘will change his mind,’” COESPO official Enrique Valenzuela told Border Report. “Also, many Venezuelans who were waiting for the end of Title 42 in December haven’t left, and those expelled from the U.S. since then aren’t going anywhere, either.”
Further east in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, across from Eagle Pass, Texas, U.S. authorities have expelled about 3,000 Cuban migrants in just over a week, the Mexican daily Milenio reported.
In Matamoros, Tamaulipas, across from Brownsville, Texas, “more than 4,000 migrants are living on the street,” Doctors Without Borders humanitarian official Anayeli Flores told Mexico’s La Jornada. That includes at least 2,000 mostly Venezuelan migrants living in an encampment along the river, which received mention in a January 11 CBP Office of Intelligence report seen by Yahoo News. So far, Flores said, U.S. expulsions of Cubans, Haitians, or Nicaraguans “have not been detected” in Matamoros.
In Baja California and Sonora, Mexico, officials have “voiced concern about managing daily returns of approximately 200 migrants” expelled from the United States, the same CBP report notes.
In Sonora, the Arizona Daily Star reported, the Title 42 expansion “created immediate confusion among migrants who were already at the border and for many of the shelters and centers in Sonora that serve them.” A CBP document cited by Yahoo News claims that “Only 11 agents from Mexico’s immigration agency… are deployed along the entire border with Arizona.” Sonora’s state government buses the first 100 people expelled from Arizona each day to the state capital, Hermosillo. There, state official Bernardeth Ruiz Romero said that the government shelter accommodated 221 Cuban migrants in the days after the Biden administration’s Title 42 expansion.
In Baja California, where the largest border city is Tijuana, children of migrant families expelled by the United States or unable to ask for asylum there are posing a challenge to local schools. “Migrant students in Tijuana face stigma and learning challenges at public schools, where teachers receive little guidance on how to address their unique needs,” reported the San Diego Union-Tribune, citing a very high figure of at least 46,000 foreign students of 70 nationalities enrolled last year in Baja California’s school system.
Further south in Mexico City, the coordinator of the Casa Tochan migrant shelter told La Jornada that expelled migrants have recently arrived there. “They mainly continue to be Venezuelan, but there are also Nicaraguans.”
In the city of Tapachula, Chiapas, near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, Fredy Castillo of the Haitian Bridge Alliance told EFE that his humanitarian organization has “noticed an increase in people after the last U.S. decree [expanding Title 42]. There is a lot of misinformation from social networks (but that increase) is remarkable.” Some migrants in Tapachula “of diverse nationalities” told EFE “that they will seek to transit irregularly through the Latin American country [Mexico] until they reach the northern border in an attempt to challenge the new U.S. immigration program.”
The population of migrants stranded in Tapachula remains large. In the pre-dawn hours of January 16, a municipal police operation blocked migrants’ access to a public space in the city’s center where hundreds of them, mostly Haitians, had been gathering each day to earn small amounts of money by selling goods. The operation involved “no injuries,” according to La Jornada.
All along the migration route, “Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama are facing limitations on capacity at migrant shelters, with some countries having to shutter shelters due to lack of funding,” according to a non-public December 15 report, produced by the DHS “Intelligence Enterprise’s Migration Indicators and Warnings Cell Migrant Fusion Cell,” cited by Yahoo News.
That report finds Costa Rica’s government “overwhelmed by the migration surge as well as the related health, education, and security costs.” It adds that in late July 2022, Panama’s government “notified the U.S. that it will begin limiting long-term detention for known or suspected terrorists and other special interest migrants, citing lack of funding and overcrowding and ‘lack of specific justifications for prolonged detention.’” Detaining a migrant costs Panama “between $55 and $65 per day.”
Guatemala’s government meanwhile issued a January 13 “yellow alert,” deploying additional police and soldiers to its border with Honduras, citing “the possible mass arrival of migrants at its borders in the coming days.”
The “CBP One” app, now used for Title 42 exemptions, quickly hits capacity
As discussed in WOLA’s January 13 Border Update, the Biden administration on January 6 began using a CBP smartphone app to manage asylum-seeking migrants’ applications to access a small but growing program of Title 42 exemptions for those deemed “most vulnerable.” Appointments available through the CBP One app, which can book appointments within a two-week window, quickly filled up.
Those who apply must be in Mexico above the 19th parallel (roughly north of a point just south of Mexico City). Those who get appointments may approach a land-border port of entry to request asylum. CBP will use Title 42 to expel them, though, if officers determine that the migrant does not meet “vulnerability” criteria.
“Vulnerable” migrants are those who have a physical or mental illness, a disability, are pregnant, lack safe housing or shelter in Mexico, have been threatened or harmed while in Mexico, or are under 21 or over 70 (or family members of migrants who meet these criteria). The criteria do not include LGBTQ status as a vulnerability.
The app replaces a less formal, often confusing Title 42 exemption process that had relied on recommendations of the most vulnerable migrants shared with CBP by NGOs, immigration attorneys, and other service providers. CBP had been granting about 180 exemption appointments each day at its San Ysidro port of entry south of San Diego, the border’s busiest, and about 70 per day in El Paso, the Associated Press reported. In Nogales, appointments averaged 60 per day.
Critics of the CBP One app have voiced concern about CBP’s use of location and other data that the app gathers, and the possibility that it could exclude some of the most threatened, who may lack smartphones and internet access.
Appointments for Title 42 exemptions using the app filled up very quickly. By January 16, a screenshot of the app shared by the Cato Institute’s David Bier showed no appointments available until at least January 31, and no ability to make an appointment until January 19.
“In Matamoros on 01/18, the available spaces for a POE appointment in Brownsville, TX, lasted approximately 90 minutes, after which the asylum seekers had to choose other ports until there were no more available,” tweeted Estuardo Cifuentes of Lawyers For Good Government’s Project Corazon in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. In Matamoros, Voice of America talked to perplexed migrants who were only able to secure appointments dozens or hundreds of miles away, requiring travel through Mexico’s dangerous state of Tamaulipas.
“It’s like Ticketmaster but for asylum seekers — and then if you don’t get it, you don’t get it,” Erika Pinheiro of San Diego/Tijuana-based Al Otro Lado, a legal services non-profit, told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “There’s no queue of people who tried to get an appointment and didn’t get it.” Cato’s Bier tweeted, “The whole premise of the app was that people would not cross illegally if they knew that they could enter legally, but now they don’t know that they can. It defeats the purpose.”
New York’s mayor visits El Paso
New York City Mayor Eric Adams paid a January 14-15 visit to El Paso. There, he appealed to the federal government to provide funds and take other steps to help New York and other large cities accommodating a large number of arrivals of asylum-seeking migrants.
Adams’s city has been averaging about 400 daily arrivals of migrants who first come to the U.S.-Mexico border, including 875 on January 12, according to the New York Times. (If sustained over a year, 400 people per day would increase New York City’s population by nearly 2 percent.) “Over 36,000 people have gone through New York’s system, and roughly 24,000 are still in the city, according to the latest figures from the mayor’s office,” the Times added; according to Border Report, Adams cited a figure of 40,000 asylum seekers “welcomed” by New York City since last spring, adding that the city had received 3,100 people in each of the two previous weeks.
“We still have over 26,000 people still in our care,” including many in homeless shelters, the New York mayor said. The cost to the city of sheltering, feeding, schooling, and providing other services for newly arrived migrants could be “anywhere from $1.5 billion to $2 billion,” Adams told a New York radio station on January 13.
“In New York and Houston and Los Angeles and Washington, our cities are being undermined and we don’t deserve this,” Adams said in a press appearance with El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser. “Migrants don’t deserve this and the people who live in the cities don’t deserve this.”
Many of the migrants arriving in New York and elsewhere—though probably not a majority—have arrived on buses funded by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican who has made a point of ensuring that cities and states run by Democrats feel the impact of the current increase in asylum-seeking migration. Mayor Adams voiced strong criticism of Abbott’s “disrespectful” and “wrong” busing effort, which the Texas state government carries out with no coordination with receiving cities’ local governments or NGOs. (Adams extended his rebuke to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, who had briefly begun busing migrants to New York and Chicago until those mayors asked him to stop.)
On January 15, the Guardian published the story of a Colombian migrant mother whom Texas placed on a bus to Philadelphia, far from her intended destination, with a sick child. “Food was in short supply and there was no medical attention available.”
Mayor Adams toured a migrant processing center, visited the border wall, and spoke with migrants outside Sacred Heart Church in El Paso’s Segundo Barrio neighborhood, where many migrants receive humanitarian assistance. Outside the church, Adams struck a different tone than his “undermining” message, telling a cheering group of migrants, “We are fighting for you for an opportunity to work and experience the American dream.”
The Mayor called on the federal government for help. He asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide more assistance to New York and other cities, and to coordinate more closely with local governments. He called on Congress to change the law to allow asylum seekers to obtain work authorizations earlier in the asylum process, so that they might be less dependent on public assistance to survive.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said on January 15 that she “wholeheartedly” agreed with Adams’s call for more federal support, CBS News reported. In Miami, meanwhile, the city school district’s rolls increased by 14,723 foreign-born students during the current academic year, 9,935 of them from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, the Miami Herald reported.
CBP updates its vehicle pursuits directive
After years of increasing fatalities associated with Border Patrol’s chasing down suspected smuggling vehicles on border-area roads, CBP on January 12 made public a new directive on “Emergency Driving and Vehicular Pursuits.” It expands on a January 2021 directive—the first one that CBP ever made public, in November 2021—by spelling out more clearly when Border Patrol agents should engage in risky vehicle pursuits, when it makes sense to terminate a pursuit, and how the agency must report incidents afterward.
Border Patrol agents frequently pursue vehicles that agents suspect of transporting undocumented migrants or contraband, or otherwise violating the law. When suspect vehicles “fail to yield,” these pursuits on public roads, usually at high speeds, become hazardous. “As many modern police agencies move away from high-speed chases, placing tight restrictions on when their officers can pursue suspects, the Border Patrol allows its agents wide latitude to use them to catch people trying to enter the country illegally, a practice that often ends in gruesome injuries and, sometimes, death,” a 2019 ProPublica and Los Angeles Times investigation reported.
That investigation looked at over 500 reported vehicle pursuits along the U.S.-Mexico border between 2015 and 2019, finding that 1 out of every 3 ended in a crash, with at least 250 people injured and 22 killed. The ACLU of Texas and New Mexico documented 22 people killed as a result of Border Patrol vehicle pursuits in 2021, up from 14 in 2020 and 2 in 2019.
ACLU lawyers argued that CBP’s existing vehicle pursuit policy “gives agents too much discretion in determining the risk to public safety,” the New York Times reported in January 2022. Under the existing policy, “What we see in practice is that agents will engage in pursuits really on the basis of zero information and under any circumstances,” Shaw Drake, then an attorney with ACLU of Texas, told the Associated Press. In May, CBP’s commissioner at the time, Chris Magnus, announced that the agency would be revising this policy following an extensive review process, which would include learning other law enforcement agencies’ best practices.
“Critically, this policy does not prohibit pursuits. CBP’s unique border security mission requires that it retain the ability to pursue vehicles,” reads the agency’s January 12 release. It does, however, clarify the “reasonableness” standard that agents must consider before engaging in, and while persisting in, a high-risk vehicle pursuit. The new policy defines “Objectively Reasonable” as follows:
When the Governmental Interest in apprehending a subject at the moment outweighs the Foreseeability of Risk to the public, other law enforcement, and vehicle occupants. It is the constant responsibility of all officers/agents involved in a Vehicular Pursuit to continue weighing Pursuit Risk Factors if a Subject Vehicle continuously Fails to Yield to an Authorized Officer/Agent’s authority. If after weighing these factors, a Pursuit is no longer Objectively Reasonable, the Pursuit must be Terminated consistent with the requirements of this directive. Objective Reasonableness is based on the totality of the circumstances known by the officer/agent at the time of the event rather than the advantages/benefits of post-incident hindsight.
The new directive will become effective in May 2023.
The announcement came just days after a January 8 Border Patrol vehicle pursuit in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, west of El Paso, that ended in a crash that killed two and injured eight aboard the fleeing vehicle. Three days earlier, near Hachita, New Mexico, a vehicle rolled over, injuring two aboard, in a pursuit incident that followed the rare shooting of a Border Patrol agent, who was wearing body armor and emerged unharmed.
- A letter from three Senate Democrats, reported in The Hill, raised alarms about federal inaction against armed private militia groups operating along the U.S.-Mexico border. “Absent federal action cracking down on their unauthorized behavior, vigilante groups will continue to operate and weaken the government’s ability to maintain migrant safety, protect human rights, and defend the rule of law at the border,” reads the communication from Sens. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
- A document from the National Immigrant Justice Center lays out a set of principles for a more humane system to receive migrants at the border, based on coordination with local government and civil society, “non-custodial, humanitarian reception centers at the border,” and large investments in asylum processing and humanitarian needs.
- A Human Rights First fact sheet condemns the Biden administration’s proposal to issue a “transit ban” rule making it very difficult for asylum seekers to apply for protection in the United States if they did not first apply in a country through which they passed en route to the U.S. border. Almost 300 organizations, including WOLA, sent a letter to Biden expressing “alarm and condemnation” of this proposed rule.
- A Cuban migrant woman died in Border Patrol custody on January 2 in Eagle Pass, Texas, CBP reported. The cause of death, perhaps, was heart failure.
- Since November, Ecuadorians have been the number-one nationality of migrants passing through Panama’s Darién Gap jungles; in April 2022, Mexico suspended its visa exemptions for Ecuadorians, making the air route complicated for those not qualifying for tourist visas. “According to Ecuadorians who have already arrived in the United States or are awaiting passage in Mexico,” reported Spain’s El País, “migrants are sold the Darién route as a complete package that leaves Quito, passes the Rumichaca bridge on Colombia’s southern border, and arrives in the jungle. However, some do not appreciate the harshness of the journey.” (For now at least, Ecuador is not among the countries whose citizens Mexico accepts as land-border Title 42 expulsions.)
- A 2022 Gallup poll found that about 30 percent of Latin Americans—which would be roughly 140 million people—“would like to move to another country permanently if they could.” Of those, about a third, perhaps 46 million, would move to the United States.
- In Mexico’s violent border state of Tamaulipas, the state police’s “elite” U.S.-trained unit, the Special Operations Group or GOPES, is getting a name change and losing about a quarter of its members, according to Elefante Blanco. Now to be called the Special Forces of the State Guard, the unit is under a cloud of human rights and corruption allegations, including members’ role in a January 2021 massacre of migrants.
- “It’s unclear how much the federal government will have to spend to remediate the damage in the Coronado National Forest. Or whether it will remediate” following the Arizona state government’s takedown of a “shipping container wall” built between gaps in the border fence on federal land, reported Melissa del Bosque at the Border Chronicle.
- After consulting with “stakeholders,” CBP is releasing a new plan for border wall replacement south of San Diego, near the Pacific Ocean. This apparently includes a plan to reopen “Friendship Park,” a 1970s-era space where U.S. and Mexican citizens were once able to interact. Now, as in the recent past, interactions will have to occur between fence bollards.
- Mexican immigration agents found three Salvadoran unaccompanied children, sisters aged nine, six, and one year old, stranded on an islet in the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas and Piedras Negras, Coahuila.
- “President Biden has let cartels run rampant on the border,” wrote Rep. Mark Green (R-Tennessee), the new chairman of the House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee. Rep. Green is among 50 Republican sponsors of the “Border Safety and Security Act,” one of the first pieces of legislation to be introduced by the new House Republican majority. That bill would expel most undocumented migrants—including asylum seekers—encountered at the border, and suspend the right to seek asylum until DHS achieves “operational control” of the border. A letter to Congress signed by 250 U.S. organizations, including WOLA, calls this bill part of “an alarming uptick in hateful rhetoric and violence targeting asylum seekers and immigrants in the United States.”