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.
Migration at the border flattened out in April
Despite spring normally being a time of greater migration, Border Patrol’s “encounters” with undocumented migrants crept up by only 2.5 percent from March to April. The surprisingly slow growth comes after encounters increased 30 percent in February and 73 percent in March.
With 173,460 migrants encountered, April 2021 was still Border Patrol’s heaviest month in 21 years (180,050 in April 2000). That number, though, counts “encounters” and not individual “people.” There is much double-counting: “CBP has reported that about 40 percent of the adults it arrests are ‘recidivists’ or repeat offenders,” according to the Washington Post.
That is a far higher recidivism rate than in recent years: it ranged from 7 to 16 percent between 2013 and 2019. Border Patrol first started reporting this rate in 2005, when it estimated 25 percent; the highest total before now was 29 percent recidivism in 2007.
Repeat crossings are more frequent now because of the pandemic border closure measure, known as “Title 42,” that the Trump administration put in place in March 2020 and the Biden administration has continued (public health experts have strongly criticized the “Title 42” measures as having no basis in protecting public health). In the name of preventing the spread of COVID-19, Border Patrol has been quickly expelling most migrants, usually with no opportunity to ask for asylum. This means most migrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are expelled across the border into Mexico.
Border Patrol expelled 63 percent of migrants it encountered in April, the same proportion as March. In December 2020, the Trump administration’s last full month in office, expulsions stood at 85 percent.
Expulsion is a hardship for protection-seeking migrants, who normally seek to turn themselves in to CBP or Border Patrol. For migrants who wish to avoid being apprehended, though, expulsion has made the process easier: if they are caught, they get taken back across the border within hours, usually without even seeing the inside of a Border Patrol station, and in many cases try to cross again.
Single adult migrants are more likely than children or families to attempt to avoid apprehension, and thus to try crossing again after being expelled. Border Patrol’s encounters with single adults increased by 12 percent from March to April, to 108,301. Trying to avoid apprehension often means taking dangerous routes, such as through remote desert areas or by sea, and it appears that more migrants are dying on U.S. soil or in U.S. waters, the Wall Street Journal reported this week.
Encounters with unaccompanied children and members of family units, though, plummeted 10 percent—a result that almost nobody foresaw in March, when children and families increased by 102 percent and 177 percent, respectively.
Border Patrol encountered 48,226 family members, down 5,000 from March. The sharpest one-month decrease was in families from Guatemala (-29 percent) and Honduras (-22 percent), while families from “other countries”—neither Mexico nor Central America’s “Northern Triangle” region—jumped by 34 percent, to 14,448.
This appears to be an outcome of the Title 42 expulsions into Mexico. 48 percent of family members from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were expelled, similar to 47 percent in March (we reported a smaller percentage a month ago, but CBP radically revised its family expulsion data). With a roughly 50-50 chance of being expelled or being allowed to petition for asylum or protection inside the United States, Central American families face a confusing set of outcomes that smugglers are exploiting, reports Lomi Kriel at ProPublica / Texas Tribune. By contrast, Border Patrol expelled just 5 percent of family members from “other countries”—often places like Cuba or Venezuela where sending expulsion flights is not currently possible.
As noted in past updates, numbers of unaccompanied children continue to drop, even though the Biden administration is not expelling non-Mexican children who arrive. Border Patrol encountered an average of 268 non-Mexican children per day between May 9-12. This is a sharp drop from the 387 average of May 2-6, and the high 400s logged in late March and the first three weeks of April.
The agency encountered 2,268 Mexican children in April, almost identical to March (2,277). While almost none were expelled under Title 42, most were quickly repatriated back to Mexico, as was the norm before the pandemic, because the 2008 law requiring that unaccompanied children go into the asylum system only applies to kids from non-contiguous countries.
Only a daily average of 493 children were being processed in Border Patrol facilities during May 9-12, down from well over 5,000 in late March and early April. Nearly all were handed over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s (ORR) network of shelters within about 24 hours. The population of unaccompanied children in ORR shelters has also dropped to 20,397, the fewest since April 19 and down from an April 29 high of 22,557.
These shelters, which include convention centers, tent facilities, and a military base, face serious challenges of crowding, living conditions, and logistics, the New York Times reported, sharing an internal “senior leader brief” showing a thorough level of data collection. This week, the Dallas Morning News found that ORR had been keeping unaccompanied children for days at a time on buses parked outside a Dallas convention center that it is using as an emergency shelter. Politico reported that the White House has been leaning hard on Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, whose department oversees ORR, to speed the pace at which the agency releases children to relatives or sponsors in the United States.
Late March predictions that ORR would need bed space for 34,000 or more children are now looking too pessimistic. With the drop in child and family migration has come a notable drop in press coverage of events at the border.
Family expulsions have generated a quiet crisis of family separation in Mexican border cities, as expelled parents, aware that unaccompanied children don’t get expelled, make the painful decision to send their children back into the United States alone. “Between January 20 and April 5, Border Patrol agents came across at least 2,121 unaccompanied migrant children who had been previously expelled,” CBS News reported. That is 24 family separations per day—one per hour.
Title 42 is easing, slightly
In April CBP expelled people 111,714 times under the Title 42 pandemic authority. On May 13 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told the Senate Homeland Security Committee that he did not have a timetable for lifting Title 42. Recent weeks, though, have seen some modest changes to the policy’s application to asylum seekers.
On May 12 CBS News got confirmation from CBP that the agency, citing “operational needs,” has stopped flying families from south Texas, where the bordering Mexican state of Tamaulipas has been limiting expulsions of families with small children, to other parts of the border where expulsions are easier. Since March 8, near-daily planeloads of people had been taking Central American families from McAllen, Texas to El Paso, Texas and San Diego, California. Witness at the Border, which monitors ICE flights, detected 60 of these “lateral” flights in April and 108 between March 8 and April 30, enough to expel about 10,000 people.
Once in El Paso and San Diego, DHS personnel were taking families to the borderline and leaving them in Mexico, often without telling them where they were or what was happening to them. Human Rights First discussed some of the families’ treatment at the hands of Border Patrol and other DHS personnel in a May 13 memo. U.S. media outlets have reported on tearful, disoriented families who had just been flown thousands of miles to be expelled.
The lateral expulsion flights have now stopped, although DHS is still busing some families from south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region about four hours west to Laredo, in order to expel them into the organized crime-dominated border town of Nuevo Laredo. At a May 13 Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) accused DHS Secretary Mayorkas of canceling the expulsion flights in response to “left-wing groups.”
Another tiny erosion into Title 42 is a small but growing number of humanitarian exceptions for some of the most vulnerable expelled migrants who wish to seek asylum in the United States. “The latest plan is kicking off on a pilot basis,” a source told CNN, “adding that families will be put in immigration proceedings” in the United States. In recent weeks, about 35 vulnerable families a day have been exempted from expulsions, at the recommendation of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is the plaintiff in a lawsuit against DHS seeking to overturn Title 42. It is not clear to what extent that number may expand. On May 13 the ACLU agreed to the latest in a series of delays to that lawsuit; the next deadline is May 25.
Border drug seizure data
Seven months into fiscal year 2021, CBP’s reporting on drugs detected at the U.S.-Mexico border points to big increases in fentanyl and cocaine seizures, a big drop in cannabis seizures, and little change in heroin and methamphetamine seizures. As in past years, nearly all drugs are seized by CBP agents at ports of entry, with the exception of marijuana:
Fentanyl: 6,103 pounds seized October-April, 89 percent of it at ports of entry. If this pace is maintained through September, CBP will seize 10,462 pounds of fentanyl in FY 2021, a 130 percent increase over FY 2020.
Cocaine: 17,407 pounds seized October-April, 86 percent of it at ports of entry. If this pace is maintained through September, CBP will seize 29,841 pounds of cocaine in FY 2021, a 57 percent increase over FY 2020.
Heroin: 3,061 pounds seized October-April, 91 percent of it at ports of entry. If this pace is maintained through September, CBP will seize 5,247 pounds of heroin in FY 2021, a 2 percent increase over FY 2020.
Methamphetamine: 99,681 pounds seized October-April, 93 percent of it at ports of entry. If this pace is maintained through September, CBP will seize 170,882 pounds of meth in FY 2021, almost identical to FY 2020.
Marijuana: 162,073 pounds seized October-April, 39 percent of it at ports of entry. If this pace is maintained through September, CBP will seize 277,839 pounds of marijuana in FY 2021, a 45 percent decrease from FY 2020.
The Senate Homeland Security Committee held a March 13 hearing on the situation of unaccompanied minors, with DHS Secretary Mayorkas the lone witness. Committee Chairman Sen. Gary Peters (D-Michigan) noted the recent decline in arrivals of unaccompanied children and praised Border Patrol agents who were paying for toys out of their own pockets. Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nevada) voiced strong concerns about Title 42 expulsions, including the growing number of family separations discussed above.
On the Republican side, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) lamented that, once in the United States, unaccompanied children are infrequently returned to their home countries, calling that an incentive for more children to come. Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), and Rick Scott (R-Florida) relied heavily on a prop: a chart of weekly apprehensions that appeared to show a sharp jump in migration after Joe Biden’s inauguration, but was simply wrong—based on a basic conflation of “apprehensions” and “encounters.” Sen. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) said that overwhelmed Border Patrol agents had released 19,000 asylum-seeking family members into the United States without “notices to appear” in immigration court.
Disgruntled with the Biden administration’s modest walk-back of the Trump administration’s hardline migration policies, some Border Patrol agents “are considering early retirement” or “are buying unofficial coins that say ‘U.S. Welcome Patrol,’” Reuters reports.
A U.S. delegation led by National Security Council Western Hemisphere Director Juan González paid an in-person visit to Mexico on May 13. According to the Mexican Foreign Relations Secretariat’s release, topics covered included arms and narcotics trafficking, organized crime violence and financial flows, and “addiction as a public health problem.” The words “migration” or “border” do not appear.
Reuters reports on how as many as 2,000 migrants, apparently misinformed about the Biden administration’s migration policies, have set up an encampment outside the busy El Chaparral pedestrian port of entry in Tijuana, across from San Ysidro, San Diego County, California. “The camp is growing increasingly dangerous, migrants and activists told Reuters, with unsanitary conditions, drug use, and gangs entering the area.”
At Rest of World, Jeff Ernst reports on how migrant caravans—which haven’t successfully reached the United States since late 2018—are increasingly being organized by scammers trying to shake down desperate people over social media, especially in Honduras.
El Paso Matters reports on the unique challenges faced by Indigenous migrants from Central America, many of whom speak little Spanish. “On a phone call with El Paso Matters, West Texas CBP spokesperson Landon Hutchens said that after hundreds of years since the Spanish colonization of the Americas, ‘you’d think (Indigenous immigrants) would have learned Spanish by now.’”
A memo from Mijente and Just Futures Law warns of the civil liberties and migrant safety dangers of deploying surveillance and other technologies along the border—a measure that many border wall opponents in the Biden administration and Congress propose instead of a barrier. The memo lists some of the “Tech-Border-Industrial-Complex” corporations that would stand to gain from a big investment in drone and other surveillance technology.
Tijuana municipal police found a cross-border “narco-tunnel” leading under the border wall into San Diego County’s Otay Mesa area. The tunnel began in a building located across the street from a Mexican National Guard barracks.
USA Today published a long profile of Rep. Henry Cuéllar (D-Texas), whose district includes a large portion of the Texas border including Laredo. One of the most conservative Democrats in the House, Cuéllar has been a critic of the Biden administration.
A Pew Research Center study of news coverage during the Biden administration’s first 60 days found that immigration was the subject of 11 percent of stories: 8 percent of stories in outlets with a “left-leaning audience,” and 20 percent of stories in outlets with a “right-leaning audience.”
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.
Unaccompanied child population declines, temporary shelters pose challenges
Daily reports from the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Health and Human Services (HHS) point to a slow month-long decline in arrivals of unaccompanied migrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border, after a record-breaking, headline-grabbing increase in March.
Border Patrol encountered an average of 400 unaccompanied non-Mexican children per day over the four days between May 2 and May 5. That is down from 489 per day during the last week of March.
(These numbers don’t include unaccompanied Mexican children, who were 12 percent of all unaccompanied kids encountered at the border in March. A 2008 law mandating that unaccompanied migrant kids be turned over to the HHS refugee agency only applies to those from “non-contiguous” countries. Nearly all children from contiguous Mexico are swiftly returned, as Border Report noted this week.)
The reason for a decline during spring months, when numbers usually increase, is not clear. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council posits that pent-up demand to migrate may explain the earlier February-March burst of arrivals. It was very hard to migrate from Central America during the COVID-19 pandemic’s initial months, and the Trump administration was implementing its “Title 42” quarantine policy so severely that it was rapidly expelling even unaccompanied children—until a judge stopped that practice last November. It’s possible that some of that pent-up migratory demand is now exhausted, so numbers are dropping a bit. But nobody really knows: it’s entirely possible that arrivals could start climbing again in May.
For now, though, the population of children in U.S. government (DHS plus HHS) custody is starting to edge downward. Over the past 10 days for which DHS and HHS have reported data, 479 more unaccompanied children departed U.S. government custody than entered it. HHS, through its Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), handed over 4,612 children to relatives or sponsors in the United States, with whom they will stay while their protection needs are adjudicated. Border Patrol took a smaller number newly into custody: 4,133.
As of May 5, 749 children were in Border Patrol’s austere holding facilities, awaiting transfer to ORR’s network of shelters. That is down from more than 5,700 at the end of March. Children are now transferred from Border Patrol to ORR in an average of about 24 hours, far less than the alarming 5 1/2 days or more that were the norm a month ago.
DHS posted a series of photos of CBP’s processing facility in Donna, Texas, where children had been occupying virtually every square foot of floor space in mid-March. Now, the holding spaces are nearly empty (though children are still lying on mats on the floor under mylar blankets). “The progress we have made is dramatic,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters on May 2.
The number of children in HHS/ORR’s network of about 200 shelters has also begun, very gradually, to decline, from a high of 22,557 on April 29 to 21,848 on May 5—3 percent over 6 days. ORR is endeavoring to minimize the length of children’s stay in these shelters, speeding up their placement with relatives or sponsors. The Wall Street Journal reports that the agency has cut the length of stay in its custody “from an average of 42 days at the start of the Biden administration to 29 days last month [April].” This owes in large part to “aggressive actions” to speed placements, the Associated Press reports, “such as by putting them on flights to be with their families.”
Normally, ORR’s shelters have capacity to hold about 13,500 children. With an assist from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), ORR set up emergency facilities in at least a dozen convention centers, camps, army bases, and similar large sites. Three administration officials told the Journal that these sites are “a short-term solution while they work to open more licensed shelters.”
While the temporary emergency shelters remain open, though, child welfare advocates worry about conditions. Mark Greenberg of the Migration Policy Institute compared them to “hurricane shelters” in the Journal’s reporting. While FEMA logistical support has been important, the same story reported, its rapid pace left some ORR staff “feeling that it had lost control over the quality of the locations being opened.” Two facilities, in Houston, Texas and Erie, Pennsylvania, were shuttered shortly after being opened in April. ORR places strict limits on access to its shelters, citing both public health and child privacy reasons. While understandable, this makes conditions in the unlicensed temporary facilities impossible to verify.
AP and the Daily Beast reported about some of the corporations and nonprofits that received over $2 billion in quick no-bid contracts to run these shelters and related logistics.
Deployed Resources LLC, based in Rome, New York, could receive up to $719 million for a 1,500-bed tent shelter in Donna, Texas. This company assembled the notorious “tent courts” where asylum seekers in the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program were subjected to immigration court proceedings via video conference in 2019 and 2020.
Family Endeavors, based in San Antonio, Texas, could get up to $580 million for a facility in Pecos, Texas. Endeavors, whose CEO told AP, “Many nonprofits were asked but declined,” is also executing an $87 million contract from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold asylum seeking families in hotel rooms while their cases are being processed.
Rapid Deployment Inc., based in Mobile, Alabama, has received two contracts totaling $614 million to manage the facility at Fort Bliss, outside El Paso, Texas.
MVM Inc., based in Ashburn, Virginia, is getting a contract, and expansion of another, totaling $136 million for the transportation of migrant children to, and between, ORR facilities. The company gained notoriety during the 2018 family separation tragedy, when Reveal News reported that it was keeping migrant children, including some separated from their parents, in an empty office building in Phoenix. In July 2020, when the Trump administration was holding children in Texas hotels before expelling them under Title 42, the Texas Civil Rights Project posted a viral video of one of its lawyers being shoved into a hotel elevator by MVM guards yelling profanities at him.
Title 42 remains deeply controversial
The Biden administration’s maintenance of the Title 42 public health policy continued to generate controversy even as DHS began to ease it slightly. The policy, which the Trump administration launched in March 2020, seeks to expel most undocumented migrant adults and families without regard to asylum needs, in an accelerated process. Mexico has agreed to take citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. An April 20 report by Human Rights First, Al Otro Lado, and the Haitian Bridge Alliance documented at least 492 attacks on and kidnappings of expelled migrants since Joe Biden took office in January.
Authorities in Mexico’s state of Tamaulipas, citing a child welfare law that prohibits holding children in immigration detention centers, are not receiving most Central American families with children under seven years of age. Tamaulipas is across from south Texas; DHS has responded by flying daily planeloads of Central American asylum-seeking families to El Paso and San Diego, then expelling them into Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana. “At least a hundred people are returned to Juarez daily” from flights, in addition to those turned back at the border, Juarez’s municipal human rights director, Rogelio Pinal, toldTexas Standard.
In March, Mexico appeared to be accepting expulsions of about 32 percent of the Central American families whom Border Patrol was encountering. Those who don’t get expelled are allowed to begin asylum petitions and released into the United States with notices to appear in hearings.
There is still no real rhyme or reason as to which families get to stay, and which are expelled, whether by land or air. “Some families are swiftly expelled without due process while others are allowed to stay in the U.S. because of where they entered, the age of their children, or sheer luck,” reported Camilo Montoya-Galvez of CBS News. “If a person wants to come to the United States right now, the only chance they have is to maybe go through Reynosa [across from McAllen] and be one of the lucky ones that doesn’t get expelled,” Linda Rivas of El Paso’s Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center told the Texas Standard, in an article highlighting the resulting overcrowding in Ciudad Juarez shelters. “That’s not an asylum system.”
While we haven’t seen April data yet, there is some likelihood that Mexico is accepting more Central American families border-wide. Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, told Montoya-Galvez that “she has been receiving fewer families from U.S. border officials in recent weeks, compared to earlier in the spring. She said that is likely due to U.S. authorities expelling more families to Mexico,” including through the lateral flights.
Even while seeking to maximize family and single adult expulsions, the Biden administration has been moving to make exceptions for those whom advocacy groups identify as most vulnerable. Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) told CBS that his organization has been sending a daily list of people stranded in Mexico who are most endangered, so that they might be brought across and allowed to continue their cases in the United States. The definition of “vulnerable” isn’t clear, but El Paso Matters reported that a number of trans women have recently been able to cross to El Paso.
In Reynosa, a city of 700,000 that is probably the most dangerous of all Mexican border towns due to frequent disputes between organized crime factions, a park near the main port of entry continues to fill up with expelled non-Mexican families. Border Report estimates that over 700 asylum-seeking migrants are now in Reynosa’s Plaza de la República. Tents are going up, reviving miserable images of the tent city in nearby Matamoros that had filled up with “Remain in Mexico” subjects in 2019 and 2020. Doctors Without Borders told AP that the improvised site lacks water supplies or health services.
Reynosa’s security situation is a major concern. The Doctors Without Borders coordinator in Reynosa, José Antonio Silva, told AP, “We have reports of people disappearing day and night at the square, which is very worrisome.” A Texas-based charity, the Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers—which first began working in the Matamoros camp—is now taking one or two of the most vulnerable families each day and paying to check them in to Reynosa hotels or apartments, says Border Report.
Mexico’s migration enforcement solidifies “buffer” role
On April 12, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki had told reporters:
Mexico made the decision to maintain 10,000 troops at its southern border, resulting in twice as many daily migrant interdictions. Guatemala surged 1,500 police and military personnel to its southern border with Honduras and agreed to set up 12 checkpoints along the migratory route. Honduras surged 7,000 police and military to disperse a large contingent of migrants.
As the Intercept notes, Guatemala and Honduras soon backpedaled from that, insisting that there had been no agreement to deploy personnel to block migrants. Mexico, however, did the opposite: “The Mexican government clarified that its efforts involved 12,000 people, though not just troops and not just to the southern border.” Mexico also closed its southern border with Guatemala to all non-essential travel, a more restrictive standard than it maintains at its northern border with the United States.
Along Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, in Tapachula, Yuriria Salvador, coordinator for structural change at the Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center, told the Intercept that new Mexican migrant interdiction deployments at the United States’ request are nothing new: “The response of the Biden administration is very similar to the response of the Trump administration.”
This reinforces Mexico’s role as an “interdiction state,” or “a buffer zone where enforcement activities are fluid and subject to geopolitical negotiation,” the Washington Post reports. Migration researcher Cris Ramón told the Post that Mexico’s role increasingly looks like that of Turkey, which has received material and diplomatic benefits from Europe by serving as a buffer for Syrian refugees. “In both cases you’re externalizing your borders and making another nation your border authority.”
An increasing number of migrants are deciding to seek asylum in Mexico, where the government’s refugee agency (COMAR) reports receiving 31,842 asylum requests during the first four months of 2021. That sets COMAR on pace to shatter its 2019 record of 70,422 asylum requests. (As recently as 2015, COMAR only received 3,424.) Nearly half of COMAR’s 2021 asylum seekers are from Honduras, followed by citizens of Haiti, Cuba, El Salvador, Venezuela, and Guatemala.
Disturbingly, migrant advocates in Tapachula told the Intercept that Mexico’s National Guard and migration enforcement agency (INM) may have begun carrying out sweeps outside COMAR’s offices during early-morning hours, detaining and presumably deporting undocumented asylum seekers as they begin queueing to fill out applications.
The U.S. National Security Council’s director for the Western Hemisphere, Juan González, told the Post that the Biden administration’s migration agenda with Mexico goes well beyond personnel deployments. “Yes, we talk about enforcement, but also about support for humanitarian programs, addressing the root causes of migration and promoting economic investment.”
Still, reporters Nick Miroff and Mary Beth Sheridan assert that U.S. officials’ dependence on Mexico to crack down on Central American migration, which reduces political pressure at the border, gives Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador leverage to push for U.S. concessions on other priorities. These may include abstaining from criticism of AMLO’s security policies or recent anti-democratic political maneuvers.
Luis Rubio of the México Evalúa think tank told the Post that a basic premise of the bilateral relationship “that dated back to the 1980s” held that the U.S. and Mexican governments would discuss different issues—trade, drugs, migration—as separate items. That way, “a dispute in one area wouldn’t contaminate the entire relationship.” By demanding cooperation on migration in exchange for concessions in other areas like trade or democracy, Rubio argues, Donald Trump undid that “separate lanes” tradition. That in turn allows AMLO to seek concessions on other issues in exchange for helping to push back migrants, including asylum seekers.
Miroff and Sheridan note, though, that a sharp recent increase in arrivals of Mexican single adult migrants could diminish some of López Obrador’s potential leverage.
In what it calls a “trial balloon,” the Biden administration’s Interagency Task Force on the Reunification of Families reunited four deported migrant parents with children whom the Trump administration had separated from them in 2017 and 2018. The plan is eventually to reunify, in the United States, over 1,100 families who remain separated, from an overall total of about 5,500 separations. Deported parents still haven’t been located for at least 445 separated children in the United States. At the New Yorker, Jonathan Blitzer recounts the end of a Honduran mother’s long wait to be reunited with her teenage sons after Border Patrol separated them in 2017.
A 40-foot boat carrying 30 undocumented Mexican migrants and one undocumented Guatemalan migrant ran aground and broke up off of San Diego’s Cabrillo National Monument on May 2. Three migrants drowned, the rest are in U.S. government custody, and the boat’s U.S. citizen pilot is facing criminal charges. “Many of the passengers told authorities that they paid $15,000 to $18,000 to be smuggled into the United States,” the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. “The Border Patrol tallied 1,273 smuggling arrests on the California coast during the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, a 92 percent increase from the same period a year earlier,” according to AP. “Since Oct. 1, it has made more than 900 arrests.”
“Currently, the plan is for me to travel to Mexico and Guatemala on June 7 and 8th,” said Vice President Kamala Harris. She is scheduled to have a conversation with Mexican President López Obrador on May 7. This will be her second meeting with AMLO. At a Council of the Americas event, Harris discussed plans for assistance to Central America to address “acute causes” and “root causes” of migration. “If corruption persists, history has told us, it will be one step forward and two steps back,” she said.
A challenge to those plans occurred on the evening of May 1 in El Salvador, as a newly seated legislative supermajority immediately fired independent high court justices and the chief prosecutor. “Just this weekend, we learned that the Salvadoran Parliament moved to undermine its nation’s highest court. An independent judiciary is critical to a healthy democracy and a strong economy,” Vice President Harris warned.
At Vox, Nicole Narea questions whether “root causes” aid actually reduces migration, noting studies that have found most migrants from Central America, while poor, have some resources and tend not to be among the region’s poorest.
The Biden administration officially canceled border wall construction projects paid for with money that Donald Trump, declaring a national emergency, had drawn from the Defense Department’s budget. This money was to build about 466 miles of wall, of which about 123 remained unbuilt when Donald Trump left office. Documents seen by WOLA indicate that of $9.9 billion in money taken from the Defense Department, about $3.5 billion remains unspent, of which perhaps $1.4 billion would go to contract termination and suspension costs. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also announced it would use funds to repair Rio Grande levees damaged by wall construction in Texas, and to undo soil erosion damage caused by wall-building in San Diego.
At Roll Call, moderate Senate Democrats Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Mark Kelly (D-Arizona) voiced support for the Biden administration’s plan to provide CBP’s infrastructure account with $1.2 billion in 2002 for facilities and technology—but not for border walls. “[W]e need to have area vehicles, satellite, the ability to interface with Border Patrol and Customs, and so I’m open to whatever it is. We’re not building a wall,” Menendez said.
Two investigations by the Intercept, about anti-drone measures and harvesting data from cars’ onboard computers and mobile phone links, raised concerns about how providing CBP with new border technologies “could lead to further surveillance and militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border.”
A strong Washington Post editorial calls ICE “The Super Spreader Agency.” It contends that because the agency ignored foreseeable “red flags” about the spread of COVID-19 in its mostly privately run detention centers, “Nearly 13,000 detainees have tested positive—likely an undercount of the virus’ real spread—and at least nine have died.”
A Pew Research Center poll found 68 percent of adult U.S. respondents saying the government is doing a very bad or somewhat bad job of dealing with increased numbers of asylum seekers at the border; 47 percent “say it is very important to reduce the number of people coming to the U.S. seeking asylum; another 32% say this is somewhat important.” A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found a first-place tie among Texas voters: 16 percent ranked the pandemic as the top issue facing the state, and 16 percent chose immigration and border security. A Civiqs poll commissioned by the Immigration Hub found “57 percent of Americans accept illegal immigration when the immigrants are fleeing violence in their home countries,” but the number falls to 46 percent when the cause is poverty or hunger, 36 percent for family reunification, and 31 percent for job-seeking.
Dozens of U.S.-bound Haitian migrants were stuck for weeks in Honduras because the government is demanding they pay US$190 each to obtain exit visas after entering the country irregularly, reports the Honduran outlet ContraCorriente.
The Biden administration has named reformist border-state sheriffs to head CBP and ICE—two agencies in serious need of reform. If confirmed, they may face real friction with management and rank-and-file. Great conversation about this today with Michel Martin on NPR’s All Things Considered.
With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. Since what’s happening at the border is one of the principal events in this week’s U.S. news, this update is a “double issue,” longer than normal. See past weekly updates here.
Aid is forthcoming for Central America
Vice President Kamala Harris met virtually on April 26 with the president of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei, to discuss cooperation to address the causes of large-scale migration from his country. It was their second such meeting, following a conversation on March 30. “We want to work with you to address both the acute causes as well as the root causes in a way that will bring hope to the people of Guatemala that there will be an opportunity for them if they stay at home,” the vice president said in joint remarks before the meeting.
This distinction between “acute causes” and “root causes” is at the center of the Biden administration’s current thinking about how to assist Central America. The first category includes the effects of recent hurricanes, droughts, and the pandemic. The second includes poverty, climate change, corruption and poor governance, and “violence against women, Indigenous people, LGBTQ people, and Afro-descendants.”
Harris said she plans to visit Guatemala in June. “But from here to June,” Giammattei replied, “I believe that we should build a roadmap between government and government so that we can reach agreements so that we can then work on.”
The vice president held a meeting April 27 with Guatemalan non-governmental leaders, and plans to have a call next week with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Harris has not spoken with, or announced plans to speak with, the presidents of El Salvador and Honduras.
The first, Nayib Bukele, has raised concerns about recent authoritarian behavior, and refused to meet with U.S. Special Envoy Ricardo Zúñiga during his April 7 visit to San Salvador. (Bukele had failed to get meetings with the brand-new Biden administration when he flew, with little advance notice, to pandemic-shuttered Washington at the beginning of February.) The second, Juan Orlando Hernández, was re-elected in a 2017 vote that was likely fraudulent, and is named as a co-conspirator in U.S. judicial actions against Honduran drug traffickers, including his brother who was sentenced to life in U.S. prison in March.
There are strong concerns about official corruption in Guatemala, too. A years-long backlash against anti-corruption reformers swept out a UN-backed international prosecutorial body (the CICIG) in 2019, and is now undermining the highest courts’ ability to hold accountable those who engage in graft or collude with organized crime. This month, the legislature’s leadership refused to swear in Gloria Porras, an anti-corruption judge, to Guatemala’s Constitutional Court. She fled to the United States, while Giammattei’s chief of staff was swiftly sworn in to another seat on the court. The day of the Harris-Giammattei meeting, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on two well-connected current and former Guatemalan congressional representatives.
Biden administration officials see a connection between corruption and the poverty and insecurity that drive migration. “[A]ddressing corruption is at the center of what the Biden administration has focused on in seeking to create those enabling conditions for broad-based improvement in Central America,” Zúñiga told reporters on April 22. Regional governments’ track record on corruption, then, will complicate working with them on root causes. “The governments are going to be part of that but, quite frankly, they’re probably going to be unwilling partners,” Dan Restrepo, the National Security Council’s Western Hemisphere director during Barack Obama’s first term, told Bloomberg.
This may mean carefully working around some elected leaders and executive-branch agencies. Zúñiga reiterated that an administration priority will be “supporting those within the countries—and that’s civil society as well as public servants—who are involved in efforts to promote transparency and combat corruption and impunity.” He added that the administration may coordinate this work with “an anti-corruption task force that is going to involve the Department of Justice and other U.S. agencies, with the support of the Department of State.”
To confront “acute causes” of migration, the White House announced April 27 that the U.S. government is reprogramming $310 million in current-year assistance to meet immediate humanitarian needs for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
About $104 million will come from the Department of State “to meet the immediate safety and protection needs of refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, and other vulnerable populations,” a fact sheet reads; this probably means it will come through the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
$26 million will come from the Department of Defense “to increase its partnership activities in the region to provide essential health, education, and disaster relief services.”
$125 million will be USAID funding, mainly emergency food and agricultural assistance: $55 million for Honduras, $54 million for Guatemala, and $16 million for El Salvador.
The Department of Agriculture will provide an additional $55 million in food security assistance.
While details of the longer-term “root causes” aid package have yet to emerge, Zúñiga previewed that the 2022 budget request to Congress—which is likely to be submitted next week—will include $861 million for Central America. “It’s an initial payment on the $4 billion over four years that President Biden announced before coming into office,” he said. The administration envisions the money going to three areas: good governance and anti-corruption; economic development; and security and justice.
Another Guatemalan border task force
On April 26 Vice President Harris and President Giammattei agreed on another, less “root cause”-focused aid activity: U.S. support for a Guatemalan border security task force. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will send 16 trainers to Guatemala “to train local officials in strengthening border infrastructure,” Reuters reported. “The effort will be spearheaded on the Guatemalan side by the Division of Border Ports and Airports,” according to the Associated Press. This likely dovetails with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s April 12 disclosure that “Guatemala surged 1,500 police and military personnel to its southern border with Honduras and agreed to set up 12 checkpoints along the migratory route.” It’s less clear how—if at all—this “border task force” effort overlaps with the Obama administration’s past assistance to Guatemalan military-police-prosecutor border-zone “Inter-Agency Task Forces” created in 2013, a program that appears to have been abandoned.
Harris and Giammattei also reportedly agreed that the United States would help Guatemala build shelters for deported or expelled migrants, along with some assistance to assist deportees’ transition.
Finally, on April 27 DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced a stepped-up effort to target the smugglers who make possible most migrants’ journey through Mexico to the U.S. border. “We will identify the smugglers and their associates and employ a series of targeted actions and sanctions against them. We will have a broad approach and a strong one. It will include every authority in our arsenal,” Mayorkas told CNN and other reporters. Tools may include revoking visas and travel documents, and freezing assets and the ability to use U.S. financial institutions. “Operation Sentinel” will involve Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations division (ICE-HSI), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the State Department, and, within the Justice Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
No other details about Operation Sentinel are yet available, so it’s not clear how the effort will be assured of targeting the infrastructure on which smuggling networks depend. Migrant smuggling is a very decentralized activity. While smugglers have to pay Mexico cartels to pass through their territory, they are not cartels themselves; they tend to be small and regional. “A Mexico based official” with ICE-HSI explained to the Los Angeles Times that “cartels make millions merely charging tolls, whereas low-level human smugglers work in ‘very disjointed cells.’”
These localized operations depend heavily on official corruption, for instance in order to pass easily through checkpoints on Mexican highways. It remains to be seen whether Operation Sentinel will make a dent in this corruption, or whether it will simply rack up actions against small-time smugglers. The Salvadoran investigative journalism website El Faro reported this week on an outcome that Operation Sentinel would do well to avoid: Salvadoran prosecutors have locked up a single mother who ran a small pupusa restaurant, a man who works as a private guard, and a farmer, charging them with smuggling because they discussed plans to join a migrant caravan on WhatsApp.
Big drop in unaccompanied children in CBP custody
In late March, amid rapidly increasing arrivals of unaccompanied children, U.S. border and migration agencies were estimating that, by the end of May, the government would need 34,100 to 35,500 beds to accommodate them. While things could always change, that projection now appears far too pessimistic.
Against nearly everyone’s expectations, unaccompanied child numbers stopped increasing in April. The month has seen a slow, modest, but real decline in Border Patrols encounters with unaccompanied kids, from an average of 489 per day during the last week of March to an average of 431 per day during April 25-28, according to CBP’s daily reports on unaccompanied child encounters and processing.
As new arrivals have eased, the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) has opened up many emergency facilities to house children while seeking to place them with relatives or sponsors in the United States, with whom they will live while their asylum or protection cases are adjudicated.
As a result, there has been a spectacular drop in the number of children spending many days crowded in Border Patrol’s inadequate, prison-line holding facilities as they await ORR placement. On March 28, 5,767 children were in Border Patrol custody. On April 28, that number had fallen 83 percent to 954, and the average time in custody had dropped to 28 hours, from 133 hours on March 28.
As grim images of children sleeping on floors fade away, the next challenge is to reduce the population in ORR’s shelters, which is still growing but much more slowly than it was during the first half of the month. This means quickly identifying and vetting the relatives or sponsors with whom children will live. During the last week of March, ORR was only discharging 245 children per day. By April 25-28 it had increased that rate to 403 per day.
This is important progress, but even at reduced numbers, as noted above, CBP is still encountering 431 kids per day, so the overall number of children in U.S. government custody—in the low 20,000s for the past two weeks—continues to edge slightly upward.
As ORR placement capacity increases, we expect this “total in U.S. custody” number to decline—unless, for some reason, unaccompanied child arrivals at the border start increasing again in May. It is impossible to predict whether that will happen, or whether April’s gradual declines will continue.
After children are placed with families, of course, the U.S. government’s woefully inadequate asylum system presents another bottleneck: what is usually a years-long wait for hearing dates and decisions from badly backlogged, overwhelmed immigration courts.
Reactions to the “Bipartisan Border Solutions Act”
Four border-state legislators from both parties and both houses of Congress introduced a bill on April 22 seeking, in their words, “to respond to the surge in migrants coming across our southern border.” The “Bipartisan Border Solutions Act” (S. 1358) is sponsored by Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona), and by Representatives Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Tony Gonzales (R-Texas).
Creating at least four processing centers to receive newly apprehended, mostly asylum-seeking, migrants.
Processing capacity is urgently needed so that asylum seekers may approach ports of entry, and request protection, without having to spend weeks or months on waiting lists in Mexican border towns. However, critics of the legislation point out that the “processing” the bill proposes would include “credible fear screening interviews and potentially full asylum interviews…conducted within 72 hours—an absurd time frame for life-and-death adjudications,” as Human Rights First describes it. “While this bill includes some positive provisions,” an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) response warns, “any proposal that further increases reliance on Customs and Border Protection in the asylum and detention process is a step in the wrong direction, given the agency’s record of abuse.”
Authorizing DHS to carry out pilot programs to speed up asylum screening (credible fear determinations) and adjudication.
During “irregular migration influx events,” allowing immigration courts to move recently apprehended asylum seekers’ cases to the top of their dockets.
Critics of the legislation warn that past “pilot programs” and “rocket docket” efforts badly weakened due process guarantees for asylum seekers. During the Trump administration, CBP implemented two pilot programs, Prompt Asylum Claim Review (PACR) and Humanitarian Asylum Review Process (HARP), that turned around quick asylum decisions—nearly all of them rejections—in a matter of days while families remained in CBP custody with no meaningful access to counsel. Past docket-adjusting initiatives “lead to massive due process violations with few, if any, gains in efficiency,” warned the Arizona-based Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project.
Raising vetting standards for family members or sponsors before placing unaccompanied children with them.
A concern about this provision is that it could backlog ORR’s already struggling efforts to place children with families, forcing them to spend even more time in the agency’s shelter system—including in ORR’s thrown-together emergency facilities currently in heavy use.
Improving legal orientation and access to counsel (though not paying for counsel).
Improving transportation of asylum-seeking migrants and coordination with NGOs and receiving communities.
Hiring 150 more immigration judge teams (there are currently about 520), 250 Border Patrol processing coordinators (non-law enforcement personnel who specialize in processing of asylum seekers), and 300 asylum officers at USCIS, among other personnel.
Improving congressional oversight with new reporting requirements.
The legislation’s critics are generally supportive of these points, with some caveats.
S. 1358’s endorsers are largely business groups: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Business Immigration Coalition, Texas Association of Business, New American Economy, Americans for Prosperity, and The LIBRE Initiative. The National Immigration Forum, too, calls it “a positive step that bodes well for the chances for immigration reforms this year.”
Mexico’s Interior Department released data showing that migration forces detained 14,254 undocumented people in March 2021, the most since August 2019. 51 percent were from Honduras, 36 percent from Guatemala, 7 percent from El Salvador, and 6 percent from other countries. Along migrant routes in southern Mexico, shelters are full, turning people away amid COVID-19 capacity restrictions. Meanwhile, a government human rights body reported that at least 2,000 migrants were reported as disappeared in Mexican territory in 2020.
Guatemalan President Giammattei is to travel to Mexico on May 3 and meet with Mexican President López Obrador the following day. López Obrador indicated that the discussion “is related to the next call he will have with [U.S. Vice President] Harris” next week.
An investigation by the Los Angeles Times’s Molly O’Toole documents how the “Title 42” pandemic policy, which expels Central American migrants back into Mexico, has been an enormous boon to kidnappers and other organized crime bands that prey on them in Mexican border communities. At the Dallas Morning News, Dianne Solís and Alfredo Corchado report on the previously unthinkable, but now widespread, practice of expelling Central American families with children into high-crime Mexican border towns in the middle of the night.
The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff reports on migrants who were kidnapped after the Trump administration sent them to Mexican border towns to await their U.S. asylum hearings under the “Remain in Mexico” program. As their captivity forced them to miss their U.S. hearing dates, they are now absurdly blocked from applying for asylum. Syracuse University’s TRAC public records project meanwhile reports that people enrolled in Remain in Mexico speak 40 different languages.
The sheriff of Harris County, Texas, Ed González, is the Biden administration’s nominee to direct Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). González, whose county includes Houston, has criticized aggressive ICE tactics that target migrants with no criminal records.
The New York Times posted a video along with data analysis finding that “ICE detention facilities had an average infection rate five times that of prisons and 20 times that of the general population.” The Times elsewhere reported that CBP is releasing asylum-seeking migrant families into U.S. border communities without testing them for the virus, leaving that up to private charities.
10,000 migrants, mainly from Haiti, Cuba, and several African countries, are in northern Colombia awaiting a chance to migrate northward through Panama, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
At Texas Monthly, Aaron Nelsen reports on migrant smugglers’ widespread use of simple ladders to defeat the border wall. Meanwhile local news in Arizona reports that construction equipment is “collecting dust” as the Biden administration’s wall-building pause continues.
Arizona Public Media published a video short about members of the Hia C-ed O’odham nation who resisted border wall construction on their lands in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, including the ecologically fragile Quitobaquito Springs, in 2020.
92 academics from the United States and Mexico signed a letter proposing six practical recommendations for next steps that both countries should take to restore asylum and improve logistics.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is launching an internal review to weed out white supremacy and extremism among its workforce.
With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border.Since what’s happening at the border is one of the principal events in this week’s U.S. news, this update is a “double issue,” longer than normal. See past weekly updates here.
Pressure grows to end Title 42
The Biden administration continues to apply “Title 42,” a public health order that the Trump administration put into place at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. As implemented, Title 42 allows Border Patrol to expel migrants it encounters back to their countries of origin—or, if they are Salvadoran, Guatemalan, or Honduran, back into Mexico. In most cases, expulsion occurs in as little as an hour or two. In nearly all cases, it occurs without migrants getting any chance to ask for asylum or other protection.
Over 85 percent of single adult migrants and about a third of migrants arriving as families with children are expelled. The Biden administration is not expelling children who arrive unaccompanied, unless they are from Mexico (and a court prohibited the Trump administration, too, from expelling children during its last two months). CBP is flying Central American families every day from south Texas—where Mexico has placed limits on expulsions—to El Paso and San Diego, then expelling them there.
“By sending asylum seekers back to danger without asylum assessments, the administration fails to protect refugees and blatantly violates U.S. refugee laws and treaties,” reads a report published on April 20 by Human Rights First, Al Otro Lado, and the Haitian Bridge Alliance. The product of a big team of researchers, the 33-page document offers an up-to-the-moment view of the suffering that the Biden administration’s application of Title 42 is causing. Failure to Protect is a very informative, but brutal, read.
Its most alarming topline finding: “Human Rights First has tracked at least 492 attacks and kidnappings suffered by asylum seekers turned away or stranded in Mexico since President Biden took office in January 2021.” The organizations count 17 countries, from Russia to Venezuela to Somalia, whose citizens have been expelled since Biden was sworn in. Since February 2021, 27 expulsion flights have sent 1,400 adults and children back to Haiti.
Among the report’s many alarming examples:
“In February 2021, a 37-year-old asylum seeker who fled Haiti after being kidnapped, beaten, and raped because of her involvement with a political opposition group was expelled to Haiti with her husband and baby, where they are now in hiding.”
“Nicaraguan authorities detained a Nicaraguan political activist, her husband, and seven-year-old child for 11 days, interrogated, and beat the couple after CBP expelled the family along with approximately 200 other Nicaraguans in June 2020.”
“Nine- and fourteen-year-old Honduran children were kidnapped with their asylum-seeking mother in Monterrey in March 2021 after CBP expelled them three times since December 2020.”
“In February 2021, a Guatemalan woman who had been expelled by CBP to Mexicali after attempting to seek asylum was raped in Tijuana.”
“CBP expelled a 15-year-old Guatemalan boy and his asylum-seeking mother to Ciudad Juárez where they had been kidnapped in February 2021. The woman told Human Rights First researchers that when she tried to explain the danger she faced, U.S. immigration officers told her that they didn’t care because ‘the president is not giving political asylum to anyone.’ CBP expelled the family to dangerous Ciudad Juárez at night during a snowstorm after they were held in CBP custody for days without food or water.”
“At least 20 LGBTQ Jamaican asylum seekers are stranded in Mexico facing violence and discrimination, but they are too terrified to approach the U.S.-Mexico border to request protection for fear they will be immediately expelled to Jamaica where they would face continued persecution.”
The report also includes numerous outrageous accounts of Border Patrol agents’ casual cruelty and aggressive behavior toward migrant parents and children—so many that they could form a separate report.
The organizations highlight the painful trend of expelled families deciding to separate inside Mexico, sending children back across the border unaccompanied, where they might end up in immigration proceedings inside the United States, perhaps living with relatives. Mounting evidence points to these Title 42-induced family separations happening more often than we had imagined. Citing secondary sources, the report reads:
16 percent of unaccompanied children screened by Immigrant Defenders Law Center between December 2020 and March 24, 2021 had traveled to the border with a parent or other family member who was blocked from seeking protection with the child due to the Title 42 expulsion policy. In April 2021, a Border Patrol official told CNN that more than 400 unaccompanied children taken into custody in South Texas had previously tried to enter the United States with their families.
More accounts of Title 42-related family separations surfaced this week in reporting by KPBS in Tijuana and the Guardian in Reynosa.
Litigation against Title 42 remains active in Washington, DC Circuit Court. On April 22 the ACLU agreed with the Biden administration on the latest of several extensions of a pause in its lawsuit against the expulsions policy. The court is set to resume on May 3.
Increases in migration appear to be flattening out
For migrant families who don’t get expelled, most U.S. border cities have a charity-run facility that provides a short-term place to sleep, food, clothing, and help with travel arrangements. “Respite centers” like Catholic Charities of Rio Grande Valley, Annunciation House in El Paso, Casa Alitas in Tucson, and the San Diego Rapid Response Network receive asylum-seeking migrants whom Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has released from custody, usually with a notice to appear in immigration court.
The expulsion of so many families to Mexico has left these respite centers below capacity, even at a time when U.S. authorities are encountering large numbers. Annunciation House is taking in 30 to 35 migrants per day, even as one or two planeloads of 100-plus migrants each arrives in El Paso each day: the rest are expelled into Ciudad Juárez. Sister Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities toldAxios that her shelters in the Rio Grande Valley, the sector where 67 percent of family migrants were apprehended in March, are receiving 400 to 800 migrants, mostly families. That sounds like a lot, but she noted, “I haven’t seen the numbers as high as 2019.” That number, roughly extrapolated border-wide, points to only a minor increase, if any, over the number of family migrants encountered at the border in March.
Indeed, the rate of growth of family and child arrivals seems to have hit a pause in April. Weekly CBP apprehension data seen by WOLA points to Border Patrol’s “encounters” of family and unaccompanied child migrants receding slightly during the first half of April, after more than doubling from February to March. The percentage of families who are expelled into Mexico appears to remain in the 30-40 percent range (this number includes a small number of Mexican families). Encounters with single adults, well over 80 percent of whom are expelled, continue to rise, but at a slower pace than in March.
Daily Border Patrol data shows slightly more unaccompanied children arriving at the border this week, mildly reversing a trend of steady declines since late March. There is some good news, though: on April 21, for the first time since the current jump in child migrant encounters began, the number of unaccompanied children in U.S. government custody actually declined. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) discharged—placed with families or sponsors in the United States—more children (480) than Border Patrol newly apprehended at the border (419). On this chart, the green exceeded the blue for the first time:
A lull in April doesn’t necessarily mean that this spring’s increase in migration has flattened out for good. There is a pattern. Though spring is usually a time when migration jumps, Border Patrol migrant apprehension data for 2014, 2015, 2018, and 2019 show small April increases sandwiched between larger increases in March and May. The May increases, though, were never larger in percentage terms than March.
As unaccompanied children don’t get expelled, the overall downward trend in child arrivals since late March can’t be ascribed to Title 42 serving as a “deterrent.” An increase in Mexico’s migrant interdiction operations could be contributing: Tonatiuh Guillen, a longtime Mexican migration expert who briefly headed the Interior Department’s National Migration Institute (INM), told the Wall Street Journal that “apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border are likely to go down this month in part as a result of Mexico’s actions.” That hypothesis is difficult to prove at the moment, though.
Mexico sends troops and talks trees
The Failure to Protect report calls out Mexico’s government for acceding to the Biden administration’s requests to cooperate with the Title 42 expulsions, noting that doing so “continues to facilitate U.S. violations of international protections for refugees.”
Mexico has also deployed larger numbers of its new National Guard and regular armed forces along its northern and southern borders to interdict migrants. Near Guatemala, the Wall Street Journal reports citing Mexican officials, Mexico has deployed about 9,000 soldiers and guardsmen along with 150 immigration officers from the INM. The immigration agency has installed “dozens of checkpoints” along roads in the southern border states of Chiapas and Tabasco, where agents, accompanied by security forces, are pulling many undocumented Central Americans off of buses, then detaining and deporting them.
At Mexico’s northern border, guardsmen have been stationed at some sites where large numbers of families had been crossing the Rio Grande and awaiting Border Patrol apprehension on the riverbank south of the border wall. (One must be standing on U.S. soil in order to request asylum in the United States.)
Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News talked to some of the National Guard troops at a frequent crossing point in downtown Ciudad Juárez, where the Rio Grande is barely 10-15 feet wide and shallow, and the border wall looms dozens of yards away. One member of the National Guard estimated that crossings in that area had fallen 70 to 80 percent since his unit was deployed there. He doubted, though, that this has deterred asylum-seeking families.
“We’ve pushed them outside to desolate areas, out in the desert,” he said, conceding their efforts only put the migrants and their children in a more dangerous situation. “The desert doesn’t serve as a deterrence. They, women and children, cross in spite of the rattlesnakes, giant spiders, the hot sun. That’s what poverty does to you. The American dream is so alluring that you risk it all.”
The Failure to Protect report, meanwhile, recalls the human rights dangers associated with increased security-force deployments, which WOLA has documented in much past reporting. “Mexican police, immigration officials and other government authorities are directly involved in kidnappings, extortion and other violent attacks against asylum seekers and migrants forcibly returned by DHS to Mexico,” it reads.
Mexico hasn’t yet reported its migrant apprehension and detention data from March. However, the Wall Street Journal obtained statistics pointing to a 32 percent jump in INM apprehensions of Central American migrants from February to March, to 15,800. U.S. apprehensions of migrants jumped 72 percent from February to March.
UNICEF said that the number of non-Mexican migrant children currently in Mexico grew from 380 in January to 3,500 at the end of March, with 275 minors entering the country every day—some coming from Central America, and some being expelled with parents from the United States. Children make up about 30 percent of the population in Mexico’s migrant shelters, the UN agency reported, and half of them traveled unaccompanied. “These children arrive after perilous journeys of up to two months, alone, exhausted and afraid,” said UNICEF director Henrietta Fore. According to the Mexican daily Milenio, “She explained that at every step they are at risk of violence and exploitation, gang recruitment and trafficking, which has tripled in the last 15 years.”
The INM reported that Mexico will be opening up 17 temporary shelters for child migrants in Chiapas and Tabasco, which will be run by the government’s child and family welfare agency (DIF).
Milenio found that an increasing number of families are migrating without making large payments to smugglers. Instead, more Central American parents with children are walking hundreds of miles and boarding cargo trains, an enormously risky journey. Migrants told the paper that Mexican authorities they encounter are less likely to detain them if they are traveling with children. “Hundreds of migrants believe that they have found in children a way to access certain benefits,” Milenio reports, but “the reality is that they expose them to bad weather, kidnapping, poor nutrition, disease, and the risk posed by La Bestia,” the notorious cargo trains.
This route is very dangerous. On April 20, two Honduran migrants were shot dead, and three more wounded, as they tried to flee a gang seeking to rob them along the railroad tracks, in broad daylight, in a rural zone of Tabasco state.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador recorded an April 18 video from Palenque, Chiapas, a town along one of the main train routes. There, he laid out a proposal for cooperation with the United States to address Central American migration. Central American and Mexican migrants seeking to emigrate, he said, should work for three years in Mexico planting trees and other crops in a reforestation program his government calls Sembrando Vida (“sowing life”). Upon completion of this obligation, the United States should grant these migrants a six-month temporary work visa, along with the right to apply for U.S. citizenship.
López Obrador said he would present this plan, which he billed as an environmental initiative, during the April 22 Leaders Summit on Climate virtually hosted by President Joe Biden. U.S. officials did not appear interested in discussing the idea at the summit, however. In response to a question from the Mexican daily Reforma, an unnamed senior U.S. official stated, “This is not a conversation about migration but a conversation about climate change. We are not focused on the interplay of issues.” The official added, “We just recently heard [President López Obrador’s proposal] and it doesn’t sound like it has had a chance to be part of extensive discussions in Mexico or between Mexico and the United States.”
Vice President Kamala Harris is to talk to Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on April 26, and take part in a virtual roundtable with Guatemalan “community-based organizations” on April 27, Axios reports. She may visit Central America in June.
The Washington Post and New York Times dig deep into President Biden’s awkward April 16 double about-face on the U.S. government’s annual refugee cap. Susan Gzesh of the University of Chicago points out at Just Security that “almost no Guatemalans, Hondurans, or Salvadorans have ever been welcomed to the United States through USRAP,” the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.
The Biden administration has ordered U.S. border and immigration agencies to stop using terms like “alien,” “illegal alien,” and “assimilation” in their communications.
A group of senators from both parties met on April 21 to discuss how immigration reform legislation might move forward. According to The Hill, “the starting points” are a Republican demand for a “streamlined” asylum process at the border that would reduce the number of unaccompanied children allowed into the United States, and a Democratic demand that so-called “Dreamers” be given a path to citizenship. Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) led the meeting of four Democrats and four Republicans. At an April 20 meeting with Congressional Hispanic Caucus members, meanwhile, President Biden indicated he might favor allowing immigration reform legislation to go forward under “reconciliation,” Senate rules allowing budget-related bills to pass on a simple majority without a filibuster.
The process of winding down the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program, known as Migrant Protection Protocols or MPP, is proceeding slowly. As of the end of March, TRAC Immigration reports, 3,911 of 26,432 Remain in Mexico subjects with pending asylum cases had been allowed into the United States—or at least, had changed their venues away from MPP courts to normal immigration courts elsewhere in the country.
Republican border-state governors are actively opposing any alteration of the Trump administration’s border and migration policies. Arizona’s governor, Doug Ducey, announced a $25 million deployment of his state’s National Guard to the border, although his state’s border sectors account for only 18 percent of Border Patrol’s migrant encounters since October. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, working in tandem with a legal group that former Trump advisor Stephen Miller is billing as the opposite of the ACLU, is suing to force the Biden administration to expel unaccompanied children under Title 42.
At the Intercept, Ryan Deveraux files a lengthy, multi-source report from Arizona and Sonora. It finds that the Biden administration’s persistent application of Title 42 expulsions “is making one of the deadliest stretches of the U.S.-Mexico divide more dangerous, endangering the people the president purports to support and enriching the illicit networks he purports to oppose.” Many expulsions are happening in the middle of the night.
About 90 days after the White House launched a 60-day review of the future of Donald Trump’s border wall, “the wall’s future remains in limbo and the review continues” amid increasingly mixed messages, ABC News reports.
A Vice investigation details how U.S. money-transfer companies profit from ransom payments wired to those who kidnap migrants in Mexico from their relatives in the United States.
At Talking Points Memo, Tierney Sneed tells the story of how Donald Trump’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) got over its misgivings and embraced “We Build the Wall,” a private, donor-supported border wall-building project that, prosecutors allege, turned out to be riddled with fraud.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) shut down an emergency shelter for unaccompanied migrant girls in Houston, after allegations of mistreatment, including telling the girls “to use plastic bags for toilets because there were not enough staff members to accompany them to restrooms.” The facility was run by a non-profit “with no prior experience housing unaccompanied migrant children,” ABC News reports.
Border Patrol reported encountering a female Honduran migrant “incoherent and in medical distress” in south Texas on the evening of April 15, while with her adult daughter and two young children. The woman died at the McAllen, Texas hospital early the next morning.
With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. Since what’s happening at the border is one of the principal events in this week’s U.S. news, this update is a “double issue,” longer than normal. See past weekly updates here.
Tucson Police Chief is CBP commissioner nominee
On April 12 the Biden White House revealed its nominee to head U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the agency that includes Border Patrol and all land, sea, and air ports of entry. Chris Magnus, the current chief of police of Tucson, Arizona, would be only the second Senate-confirmed CBP commissioner since January 2017: except for Kevin McAleenan’s 13-month tenure in 2018 and 2019, all commissioners since then have been in an “acting” role.
A native of Michigan, Magnus has served as police chief in Fargo, North Dakota; Richmond, California; and, since 2016, Tucson, a city about an hour’s drive from the U.S.-Mexico border. While heading this 1,000-person department, he has favored community policing, de-escalation, and other law enforcement strategies often labeled as “progressive.” Magnus was the 2020 recipient of the Police Executive Research Forum’s (PERF’s) Leadership Award. (The Obama administration, under then-CBP commissioner Gil Kerlikowske, had hired PERF to perform a 2014 review of the agency’s use-of-force policies.)
Though he opposed a 2019 ballot initiative to declare Tucson a “sanctuary city” refusing to share information with ICE about detained individuals, Magnus has a broadly liberal record, which at times has earned him “frosty” relations with Border Patrol, as the Washington Post put it.
In 2014, as chief of the Bay Area city of Richmond, California, Magnus was photographed holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign.
In March 2017, he cut short his department’s cooperation with a Border Patrol manhunt for an apprehended migrant who had escaped a hospital, angering the agency. The following year, Border Patrol’s hardline union, which endorsed Donald Trump in the 2016 primaries, called Magnus “an ultraliberal social engineer who was given a badge and a gun by the City of Tucson” in a Facebook post.
In a 2017 New York Times op-ed, Magnus argued that the Trump administration’s rhetoric and policies were complicating law enforcement because undocumented communities were less willing to come forward with information.
In June 2018 he tweeted strong opposition to the Trump administration’s child separations policy, asking, “Is this consistent with the oath you took to serve & protect? Is this humane or moral? Does this make your community safer?”
He opposed the Trump administration’s border wall in December 2018 congressional testimony and a February 2019 NPR interview.
In 2019, amid an increase in asylum-seeking migration, Magnus tweeted, “it’s worth being reminded why human beings flee from their homelands in the first place (not unlike a lot of our ancestors).”
In 2020, Magnus refused to accept so-called “Stonegarden” grants to local law enforcement from Trump’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS), because the administration was prohibiting expenditures for humanitarian aid to asylum seekers.
Magnus’s nomination received statements of support from both of Arizona’s Democratic senators. If confirmed, he would be the first openly gay CBP commissioner.
The White House also revealed its nominee to head U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, the DHS component that runs legal immigration, including refugee and asylum processing). As expected, it is Ur Jaddou, who was a senior USCIS official during the Obama administration. During the Trump years, Jaddou worked at the progressive immigration reform group America’s Voice, where she ran an oversight campaign called DHS Watch.
The Biden administration has yet to name a director to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Unaccompanied children situation may be easing; family expulsions continue
Data about unaccompanied migrant children in U.S. custody point to a modest easing of the situation, after weeks of concern about children packed into inadequate CBP and Border Patrol facilities. As of April 14:
Border Patrol had apprehended a daily average of 431 unaccompanied non-Mexican children so far this week, down from an average of 475 per day the previous week and 489 the week before that.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) has been taking over 700 children per day out of CBP custody during the past two weeks, placing them in its network of shelters and emergency facilities.
With more kids leaving CBP custody than entering it, the number stuck in CBP’s holding facilities has dropped sharply, from 5,767 on March 28 to 2,581 on April 14. CNN reported on April 12, however, that the average child still spends about 122 hours in CBP custody, far exceeding the 72 hours required by law.
The number in ORR’s shelter network has marched steadily upward, from 11,551 on March 23 to 19,537 on April 14. It should top 20,000 any day now.
ORR still faces challenges in getting kids out of its shelters, placing them with relatives or sponsors in the United States. ORR discharged a daily average of 281 children per day last week, which increased only to 283 per day so far this week.
Subtracting the number leaving ORR custody from the number newly entering CBP custody reveals the net daily overall increase of children in the U.S. government’s care. That daily increase averaged 194 children per day last week, and 148 per day so far this week. For the population of unaccompanied kids in U.S. custody to fall, this daily number needs to fall into negative territory. On this chart, the green needs to start exceeding the blue:
Getting children out of ORR custody is the most urgent bottleneck right now. While more than 80 percent of children have relatives in the United States, shelters still must perform some vetting to ensure that they are not inadvertently handing children off to traffickers. The agency has also been occupied trying to stand up large temporary facilities around the country to create space to get kids out of CBP’s austere holding spaces.
Reuters reports that White House officials—especially domestic policy adviser and Obama-era national security advisor Susan Rice—are exerting pressure on ORR and its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to move faster. A source tells the wire service that “getting yelled at” in interagency meetings is taking a toll on ORR and HHS staff. “Everyone’s working around the clock, and there’s a big morale issue,” an official said. “These are people who signed up to help kids.”
ORR “has temporarily waived some vetting requirements, including most background checks on adults who live in the same household as sponsors who are close relatives,” according to Reuters, and has reduced the amount of time children spend in its shelters from 42 to 31 days. Still, Neha Desai, an attorney with the National Center for Youth Law, told Reuters that the majority of kids in the emergency shelters still don’t have case managers assigned to them to begin vetting their relatives.
As the number of unaccompanied children newly arriving declines, it’s likely that the number of migrants arriving as intact family units continues to increase. While we haven’t seen numbers from April, this was the fastest-growing category of apprehended migrant at the border in March, growing 174 percent over February.
Unlike unaccompanied children, the Biden administration is endeavoring to use a Trump-era pandemic order to expel back into Mexico, in a matter of hours, as many families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (the “Northern Triangle” countries) as it can. In nearly all cases, these so-called “Title 42” expulsions happen without regard to families’ fear of returning to their countries.
As the number of family members from the Northern Triangle increases (40,582 in March), Mexico has hit limits. It is accepting expulsions of a larger number, but a smaller percentage, of families: about 31 percent of the total in March. Mexico cites a late 2020 law that prohibits detention of children in adult facilities. Mexico’s law “certainly snuck up on us,” a senior Biden administration official told the Washington Post.
Of the nine sectors into which CBP divides the border, by far the most arrive in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region. There, Border Patrol is processing families outdoors under the Anzalduas International Bridge near McAllen and at a nearly adjacent temporary site known as TOPS. Indoor processing happens at a large tent facility in nearby Donna. These sites are mostly off-limits to reporters, but the Rio Grande Valley Monitor shared some drone footage this week showing Border Patrol agents with bullhorns lining families up on benches.
CBP continues to expel large numbers of Central American families, particularly those with older children, each day from the Rio Grande Valley into dangerous Mexican border towns like Reynosa and Matamoros. When Mexico refuses expulsions in this region, DHS puts about 200 family members per day on planes to El Paso and San Diego, from where they expel them into Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana. (100 per day per city appears to be a limit that Mexico has set.)
Expelled migrants interviewed by the New Humanitarian in Juárez and by the San Diego Union Tribune in Tijuana coincide in saying that U.S. agents “tricked” them, lying that they were being admitted into the United States while boarding them on aircraft out of Texas. They only discovered they were returned to Mexico after their U.S. escorts left them there. Both border cities have seen distraught Central American parents forced to ask strangers what city they were in.
In Tijuana, Mexican authorities give the families a 30-day permit to remain in the country with instructions to return to their home countries. They are then taken to one of the city’s very full, mostly charity-run, migrant shelters.
Meanwhile, as last week’s update noted, more than 11 expelled families per day appear to be making the terrible decision to separate while in Mexican territory. Knowing that unaccompanied children aren’t being expelled, parents who find themselves returned to Mexico are sending their children to walk north, across the border, alone. CNN—which reported that Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol had apprehended, in a 28-day period, 435 unaccompanied children who had already been expelled with their parents—spoke to tearful expelled parents who had said goodbye to their children at the borderline.
Mexico’s deployment of forces gets scrutiny
Senior officials revealed this week that the Biden administration recently reached agreements with Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala to deploy more security forces to deter migration, without mention of migrants’ protection or asylum needs. These agreements appear to be informal rather than written.
Tyler Moran, the White House Domestic Policy Council’s special assistant to the President for immigration, told MSNBC on April 12, “We’ve secured agreements for them to put more troops on their own border. Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala have all agreed to do this.” Moran insisted that such action “not only is going to prevent the traffickers, and the smugglers, and cartels that take advantage of the kids on their way here, but also to protect those children.”
Later that day, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki gave reporters a bit more detail.
[T]here have been a series of bilateral discussions between our leadership and the regional governments of Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala. Through those discussions, there was a commitment, as you mentioned, to increase border security.
So, Mexico made the decision to maintain 10,000 troops at its southern border, resulting in twice as many daily migrant interdictions. Guatemala surged 1,500 police and military personnel to its southern border with Honduras and agreed to set up 12 checkpoints along the migratory route. Honduras surged 7,000 police and military to disperse a large contingent of migrants.
Psaki attributed these moves to “discussions with the region about what steps can be taken to help reduce the number of migrants who are coming to the U.S.-Mexico border,” adding, “I think the objective is to make it more difficult to make the journey and make crossing the borders more—more difficult.”
This was news in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, where leaders had made no prior reference to agreements with the United States. Honduras’s defense minister, Fredy Díaz, confirmed that an agreement existed. He added that at the moment, his country is not moving new security forces to its border with Guatemala to interdict migrants. Instead, he told the Honduran network HRN, his ministry is working on a plan for military support to police to slow migration, insisting that “the armed forces have stood out for their respect for the law and human rights.”
On April 13 Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, confirmed to reporters that his government had deployed at least 12,000 officials to the country’s southern region, including immigration agents, soldiers and national guardsmen, and health and child welfare officials. Mexico had said on March 22 that nearly 9,000 troops and guardsmen were stationed near its northern and southern borders.
López Obrador portrayed the deployment as an effort to protect migrant children. “We’ve never seen trafficking of minors on this scale,” he said, adding, “To protect children we are going to reinforce the surveillance, the protection, the care on our southern border because it’s to defend human rights.” The president appeared to allege that smugglers are using children to help migrants pass as family units, a practice that occurs, but not frequently.
López Obrador said he will meet next week with the governors of Mexico’s southern states that border Guatemala and Belize, and that the director of the country’s child and family welfare agency (DIF) would relocate for some time to the southern border-zone city of Tapachula. He promised that Mexico would accompany the United States in increasing investments to create economic opportunity and alleviate migration’s “push factors” in Central America, including through aid programs like “Sembrando Vida” and “Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro,” which to date have devoted very few resources.
Tonatiuh Guillén, a leading Mexican migration expert who briefly headed Mexico’s migration authority (INM) at the beginning of the López Obrador government, lamented to the Guardian that his country’s migration system has “turned into a very strong and very heavy control apparatus, largely due to pressure from the U.S. government.” Reporting from the remote Mexico-Guatemala border crossing of Frontera Corozal, however, Guardian reporter David Agren saw no evidence of a crackdown: “it looked like business as usual” as Central American families crossed the Usumacinta River and began a long walk through the edges of the Lacandón jungle en route to Palenque, Chiapas.
Some Mexican security forces are arrayed along this jungle route, Agren reported, manning checkpoints. “But migrants said they simply paid to pass through – or were robbed by the officers they met.” The prevalence of corruption among the Mexican forces deployed to control movement in the southern border zone is a large unaddressed factor as the López Obrador government sends more personnel. “It’s a cartel. They’re acting in cahoots with smugglers…with taxi and bus drivers. It’s a network taking advantage of migrants,” Father Gabriel Romero of the “La 72” migrant shelter in Tenosique told Agren. Added Guillén, the former INM director: “Governments in Mexico, the United States and Central America have never really put much of an effort into controlling these trafficking organizations.”
No pause to border wall property seizures in Texas
The White House’s 2022 discretionary funding request to Congress, a summary document known as the “skinny budget,” would end border wall construction. It requests $1.2 billion for CBP’s border security infrastructure needs, but specifies that none will go toward border barriers. It also “proposes the cancellation of prior-year balances that are unobligated at the end of 2021,” shutting down any previously funded construction.
That doesn’t necessarily stop border wall construction, however, during fiscal 2021, which ends on September 30. For now, wall-building has been “paused” since Inauguration Day, but contracts have not been canceled. As noted in last week’s update, CBP may have communicated to DHS a preference to continue building in areas where the pause in construction has left “gaps.”
In south Texas, where most land bordering the Rio Grande is privately held, the Justice Department has not stopped eminent domain proceedings to seize more than 215 property owners’ land for wall construction. On April 13 the Cavazos family, which has held riverfront property since Texas was under Spanish rule, saw a court order the condemnation of 6 1/2 acres of its farmland. “We are utterly devastated,” Baudilla Cavazos said in a statement. “We thought President Joe Biden would protect us. Now we’ve lost our land. We don’t even know what comes next.”
In February, the Justice Department had postponed the Cavazos family’s land seizure case, which has been before a U.S. district court. When it came up again in April, Justice did not seek to postpone again, for unclear reasons.
Throughout the border zone, environmental activists and tribal leaders “are urging the government to begin habitat restoration efforts and take down sections of wall that are blocking wildlife migration pathways so that animals can once again move freely,” the Arizona Republic reported in a very detailed piece documenting damage to desert ecosystems. In Arizona, “We watched in horror as construction crews dynamited our ancestors’ gravesites, chopped ceremonial plants to bits and cleaved our sacred lands in two with a deadly mass of metal,” wrote Tohono O’odham Nation community organizer Hon’mana Seukteoma in a Medium column. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, meanwhile, called for a return to the formula of immigration reform with a large increase in border security, which he called “high wall, big gate.”
In a new edition of WOLA’s Podcast, four staff experts look at Mexico’s response to the increase in migration, including Mexico’s U.S.-encouraged deployment of security forces and acceptance of more expelled Central American families.
Vice President Kamala Harris has been learning about “root causes” of migration from Central America, including a virtual meeting on April 13 with directors of several organizations (including WOLA). She may visit the region “soon.” As the Biden administration’s point person for working with the region, the vice president faces the dilemma of working with Central American leaders who “are considered complicit” in creating some of the conditions causing people to migrate, the Los Angeles Times observes.
Local activists ridiculed Republican members of Congress who, on a visit to the Rio Grande Valley, boarded a Texas Department of Public Security gunboat. Wearing tactical vests and with a Fox News crew in tow, the delegation motored past a playground, waterslide, and picnic areas on the Mexican side of the river.
Asked repeatedly about the border and migration situation at an April 13 House Armed Services Committee hearing, the general and admiral who command U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Southern Command sought to emphasize the multiple, complex causes of the current large-scale migration and the need for a “whole of government” response.
A report and series of working papers from the Migration Policy Institute surveys how “to lay the foundation for a regional migration system that privileges safe, orderly, and legal movement,” evaluating current legal frameworks and asylum capacity in Mexico, the Northern Triangle, Costa Rica, and Panama.
At the Intercept, Ryan Deveraux talked to beleaguered humanitarian volunteers helping asylum-seeking families whom Border Patrol, upon releasing them from custody, is leaving in Arizona desert towns with few services.
In a key family separation lawsuit, the Biden administration’s Justice Department has decided not to share internal documents revealing the Trump administration’s decisionmaking leading up to the 2018 “zero tolerance” policy that caused DHS to take thousands of migrant children away from their parents. Among the documents that will remain classified, NBC News reports, is “the agenda from a May 3, 2018 meeting, which… included a show of hands vote to move forward with separating families.”
Reuters points out that the White House’s 2022 “skinny budget” includes a 22 percent increase in funding for internal affairs offices at CBP and ICE, partially to “ensure that workforce complaints—‘including those related to white supremacy or ideological and non-ideological beliefs’—are investigated quickly.”
The WOLA Podcast continues to cover the situation at the border, this time what’s happening in Mexico. There, the Biden administration has been leaning on the national government to send more security forces and accept more expelled Central American families. I gathered four colleagues for what turned out to be a really informative discussion about the current moment, and it’s not good.
As migrants from Central American countries flee instability at home, Mexico is increasingly a final destination for them. COMAR, the Mexican refugee agency, received a record number of asylum requests in March 2021. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has struck deals with Mexico (and other regional governments) to militarize its southern border. The consequences of such deals means migrants will face more dangers in their journey north, including from state actors.
Despite the unfortunate response from regional governments, non-governmental actors are working hard to ensure that migrants lucky enough to make it into Mexico or the United States are supported and treated with dignity. This conversation details what is happening on the ground in Mexico, as well as what civilian groups in the United States are doing to support the first people to enter the United States as “Remain in Mexico” winds down.
With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border.Since what’s happening at the border is one of the principal events in this week’s U.S. news, this update is a “double issue,” longer than normal. See past weekly updates here.
CBP reports its March migration data: key trends
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported encountering 172,331 undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in March. This mostly happened between the border’s official ports of entry, where CBP’s Border Patrol component had 168,195 “encounters” or apprehensions, a 72 percent increase over February’s total of 97,549. This was Border Patrol’s largest monthly total in exactly 20 years, since March 2001.
Of these 168,195 encounters:
101,897 (61 percent) were people who ended up expelled rapidly under the so-called “Title 42” pandemic order issued in March 2020. Mexico has agreed to take Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran migrants expelled back across the border, with some exceptions discussed below.
About 28 percent were people who had been expelled before, or “recidivist” in CBP’s terminology. This means there is quite a bit of double (or triple) counting, and the actual number of people encountered at the border is smaller.
35 percent were from Mexico, 25 percent were from Honduras, 20 percent were from Guatemala, 6 percent were from El Salvador, and 14 percent were from other countries.
This means that in one month, Border Patrol encountered 46 citizens of Mexico for every 100,000 Mexican citizens living in Mexico; 146 citizens of El Salvador for every 100,000 in El Salvador; 194 citizens of Guatemala for every 100,000 in Guatemala; and 429 citizens of Honduras for every 100,000 in Honduras.
96,628, or 57 percent, were single adults, a 40 percent increase over February. This is the largest number of single adults in the 114 months for which we have demographic data (since October 2011). 87 percent (84,545) were expelled under Title 42. The majority (57 percent) came from Mexico, 14 percent were from Guatemala, 11 percent from Honduras, 4 percent from El Salvador, and 13 percent from other countries.
52,904, or 31 percent, were members of families (parents with children), a 174 percent increase over February. This is the fifth-largest number of family members in the 114 months for which we have demographic data. 33 percent (17,345) were expelled under Title 42. 47 percent came from Honduras, 22 percent were from Guatemala, 8 percent from El Salvador, 4 percent from Mexico, and 20 percent from other countries.
According to the New York Times, Border Patrol encountered “more than 1,360” family members on March 28 and expelled less than 16 percent (219). On March 26 the agency encountered “more than 2,100 family members and expelled less than 10 percent (200).
18,663, or 11 percent, were children arriving unaccompanied by a parent or guardian, a 101 percent increase over February. This is the largest number of unaccompanied children in the 114 months for which we have demographic data, significantly breaking the earlier record of 11,475 set in May 2019. Almost no children (7) were expelled under Title 42, as the Biden administration is refusing to expel children alone without giving them access to protection. 47 percent came from Guatemala, 33 percent were from Honduras, 12 percent from Mexico, 8 percent from El Salvador, and 1 percent from other countries.
CBP encountered 4,136 migrants at its official ports of entry, which are generally closed to “inessential” travel and people without documents under pandemic measures. 73 percent were single adults.
As of April 7, a record 20,596 unaccompanied children were in U.S. government custody. Of these, 16,489 were in shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS), including several temporary emergency facilities set up in recent weeks. The remainder—4,107—are stuck in Border Patrol’s inadequate holding and processing facilities, waiting for new ORR space to open up.
Those newly apprehended by Border Patrol are decreasing, from over 600 per day two weeks ago to an average under 500 per day today.
Those in Border Patrol custody fell to 4,107 on April 7, from a high of 5,767 on March 28, as more children have been transferred to ORR’s new facilities.
Daily transfers from Border Patrol to ORR have increased from less than 500 per day two weeks ago, to well over 700 per day on most recent days. Still, a child’s average stay in Border Patrol’s holding spaces is more than 135 hours. The law requires that it not exceed 72 hours.
As a result, the ORR shelter population of 16,489 represents a huge increase from the 11,551 children in shelters on March 23. ORR is “set to open at least 11 emergency housing sites with 18,200 beds at convention centers, work camps, a church hall and military posts in Texas and California,” CBS News reports.
ORR seeks to minimize children’s stay in shelters by placing them with relatives or sponsors in the United States, with whom they stay while their needs for protection or asylum are assessed. Transfers out of ORR custody are increasing, but only exceeded 300 per day for the first time on April 7. The number being newly apprehended by Border Patrol still exceeds the number being transferred to families or sponsors by roughly 150 per day.
While the Biden administration is not expelling unaccompanied children under Title 42, it is expelling as many families with children as it can. 80 percent of families Border Patrol encounters are from Mexico or Central America’s “Northern Triangle” (Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala), and Mexico has agreed to take in expelled citizens of the latter countries. Mexico can only take so many, however; as a result—as noted above—about two-thirds of encountered families were not expelled in March.
This contradicts President Biden’s statement at his March 25 press conference that “We’re sending back the vast majority of the families that are coming.” An unnamed Biden administration official—apparently trying to reassure critics—told the Dallas Morning News, “We are doing our best to expel under Title 42 authority, where we can.”
Families whom Mexico does not allow to be expelled get released into the U.S. interior with an order to appear in immigration court. In south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region, where the largest number of Central American migrants arrive, the demand appears to be overwhelming Border Patrol’s processing capability. The Associated Press reported that “U.S. authorities are releasing migrant families on the Mexican border without notices to appear in immigration court or sometimes without any paperwork at all” in order to save time and ease pressure.
It is not clear which families Mexico will and won’t take back under Title 42. “It doesn’t seem to have rhyme or reason,” Joanna Williams of the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales told the Wall Street Journal, which cited a CBP spokesperson explaining that expulsion decisions “were on a ‘case-by-case basis,’ based on factors including COVID-19 protocols, holding capacity, Mexican law and migrants’ health situations.”
CBP’s data for the fiscal year so far (October-March) show a wide variation across the nine sectors into which the agency divides the border. In the Rio Grande Valley, 32 percent of families get expelled to Mexico. The number is much higher in El Paso (88 percent) or Tucson (76 percent). The Rio Grande Valley may be lowest because authorities in the Mexican state across that part of the border, Tamaulipas, are generally refusing expulsions of families with children under seven years old.
Central American families who do get expelled into Tamaulipas find themselves homeless in one of the most violence-torn states in all of Mexico. A Honduran mother in the Tamaulipas border city of Reynosa, which is disputed by factions of Mexico’s Gulf and Northeast cartels, told the Dallas Morning News that Border Patrol “dropped [her and her child] off at the international bridge into downtown Reynosa at 1 a.m. Several other immigrants said they had been dropped off in the middle of the night, too.” Under non-pandemic circumstances, this would wildly violate the terms of the U.S.-Mexico repatriation agreements, as it represents a grave threat to the migrants’ security. Under Title 42, though, Border Patrol or CBP simply leave the families at all hours in the middle of the border bridge.
At a park in downtown Reynosa about a block from the border bridge, expelled Central American families have begun to congregate around a gazebo. The scene threatens to resemble a recently disbanded tent encampment in the nearby border city of Matamoros, where over 1,000 Central American family members subject to the now-defunct “Remain in Mexico” program lived for over a year. “I have a big concern that the numbers will increase to the point where we have a refugee camp like in Matamoros,” Sister Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley told the Dallas Morning News.
Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, a cofounder of the “Sidewalk School” that offers lessons to the children of asylum-seeking kids stuck in Mexico, told the Rio Grande Valley Monitor that Reynosa is much more dangerous than Matamoros. While her group accepted U.S. volunteers to support its work in Matamoros, the security situation makes that impossible in Reynosa. “We’re not bringing any Americans into this because of the cartels. We just keep ourselves safe at all times and we keep our heads down and mind our business.”
CNN, meanwhile, reviewed Border Patrol data indicating that many expelled families are separating inside Mexico: Parents are sending their children back across the border unaccompanied, knowing that they will be taken in and eventually placed with relatives inside the United States. The potential number of family separations is jaw-dropping: “From February 24 to March 23, there were 435 incidents in the south Texas region where children were apprehended crossing the border alone after previously being expelled with their family,” CNN reports.
Envoy visits Central America as USAID sends a team
Ricardo Zúñiga, a veteran diplomat who since March 22 has been the State Department’s special envoy for the Northern Triangle, visited Guatemala and El Salvador this week. His purpose appeared to be to get to know some of the key actors in both countries—in government, the judiciary, and civil society—while laying the groundwork for a future U.S. aid package aimed at addressing the “root causes” of migration from the region.
In Guatemala on April 6, Zúñiga and National Security Council trans-border director Katie Tobin met with President Alejandro Giammattei and senior cabinet members, as well as with non-governmental organization leaders and judicial sector representatives, including the country’s special prosecutor against impunity and a judge who has been recognized for her bravery. At a press conference, Zúñiga indicated that, in addition to economic aid and supporting reformers, the Biden administration is seeking means “to create legal means for migration so that people do not have to use irregular and dangerous routes.”
The U.S. envoy’s visit to El Salvador on April 7 was a bit rockier, as the country’s populist president, Nayib Bukele, refused to meet with him. Bukele, who enjoys very high popularity at home, has had chilly relations with the Biden administration and other Democrats:
In early February, he paid an impromptu visit to Washington seeking to meet members of the new administration, who refused to see him.
On his busy Twitter account, Bukele has objected to El Salvador being lumped in with its neighbors as a “Northern Triangle” country, arguing that its citizens migrate far less than do Guatemalans and Hondurans. While this is true, 1,570 fleeing Salvadoran children—51 per day—did show up unaccompanied at the U.S.-Mexico border in March.
Bukele got in an ugly April 1 Twitter argument with Rep. Norma Torres (D-California), the co-chair of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Central America Caucus. Torres told him the migration crisis was “a result of narcissistic dictators like you interested in being ‘cool’ while people flee by the 1000s & die by the 100s.”
Two of his aides told the Associated Press that “Bukele was angered by State Department spokesman Ned Price’s comments Monday [April 5] that the U.S. looks forward to Bukele restoring a ‘strong separation of powers where they’ve been eroded and demonstrate his government’s commitment to transparency and accountability.’”
Bukele does, however, place a premium on El Salvador’s relations with the United States. Among several contracts with Washington lobby firms is a new one with the law firm Arnold and Porter, signed on March 25: $1.2 million for the services of Tom Shannon, a former ambassador to Brazil and undersecretary of state for political affairs. “President Bukele is the most successful, politically stable and important leader in Central America,” Shannon said in a statement sent to AP.
In the end, Zúñiga and Tobin met with El Salvador’s foreign minister, its attorney general (who is a critic of Bukele), and private sector and NGO leaders.
Honduras was not on the U.S. delegation’s agenda. On March 30 a U.S. court handed down a life sentence for narcotrafficking to Tony Hernández, the brother of President Juan Orlando Hernández, who was named frequently as a co-conspirator in the prosecution’s case. Evidence presented in court pointed to the depth of corruption at the highest levels of power in Honduras. So while the U.S. envoy skipped Honduras during his first official tour of the Northern Triangle, the Hernández government’s foreign minister said that she had a “very fruitful” online conversation with Zúñiga during the week of March 24 and that Honduras’s dialogues with the Biden administration, which “started on February 4,” are “more advanced” than its neighbors’.
The Biden administration faces a conundrum of how to assist countries led by corrupt officials, or what National Security Council Latin America Director Juan González calls “predatory elites.” At his March 25 press conference, President Biden said the U.S government would seek to go around the elites where possible and assist communities directly, arguing that he pursued that approach when he was vice president: “What I was able to do is not give money to the head of state, because so many are corrupt, but I was able to say, ‘Okay, you need lighting in the streets to change things? I’ll put the lighting in.’”
This week we saw signs that the administration’s approach may have a shorter-term, faster-moving component. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that its Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance is deploying a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to the Northern Triangle countries “to respond to urgent humanitarian needs.” A USAID release notes that the agency “has provided approximately $112 million in life-saving humanitarian aid—including emergency food assistance, nutrition services, safe drinking water, shelter, programs to help people earn an income, and disaster risk reduction programs. Of this, $57 million is for people in Guatemala, $47 million in Honduras, and $8 million in El Salvador.”
While much past “root cause” discussions of Central America focused on gang violence and insecurity, the issue of the moment is hunger and severe malnutrition. The pandemic economic depression, two hurricanes in two November 2020 weeks, and a five-year climate change-caused drought, exacerbated by feckless government responses, have brought hunger to emergency levels.
“Guatemala now has the sixth-highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world. The number of acute cases in children, according to one new Guatemalan government study, doubled between 2019 and 2020,” the Washington Post reported. “In Indigenous communities in the country’s western highlands, where a disproportionate number of people are leaving, the chronic child malnutrition rate hovers around 70 percent, higher than any country in the world.” A World Food Program “March to July 2021 Outlook” report finds 570,000 Hondurans, 428,000 Guatemalans, and 121,000 Salvadorans facing “emergency” or “phase 4” food insecurity. The only level higher is “phase 5,” which it calls “catastrophe,” or famine.
Some border wall construction could restart
Sources at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told the conservative Washington Times of a conversation in which Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas indicated the Biden administration might allow construction to fill “gaps” in the Trump administration’s border wall.
As a candidate, Joe Biden had pledged that “not another foot” of border wall would be built under his administration. On January 20, he issued a proclamation freezing wall construction for sixty days. That period has passed, and wall construction contractors remain on hold but poised to continue work.
In his conversation with ICE employees, the Washington Times reported, Mayorkas told them that CBP—which manages border fencing—has submitted a plan explaining how it would wish to move forward. “It’s not a single answer to a single question. There are different projects that the chief of the Border Patrol has presented and the acting commissioner of CBP presented to me.”
The Secretary added that there is “room to make decisions as the administration, as part of the administration, in particular areas of the wall that need renovation, particular projects that need to be finished. These could include ‘gaps,’ ‘gates,’ and areas ‘where the wall has been completed but the technology has not been implemented.’”
At a March 17 House committee hearing, Mayorkas had struck a firmer tone. Asked, “Are you going to be asking the president to finish the wall, and the wall that has already been appropriated by Congress,” the Secretary replied, “No, I will not.”
The abrupt January 20 freeze in wall construction has left gaps where the barrier is unbuilt. Environmental groups, community groups, property holders, and Indigenous communities argue that there should be even more gaps, taking down segments of what was already built. This would mitigate environmental damage in fragile ecosystems, reopen wildlife migratory corridors, and protect ancestral and sacred sites. A coalition of 75 organizations (including WOLA) produced a document in February listing priority areas where existing border wall needs to be taken down.
Protection-seeking migrants aren’t just coming to the United States. In March Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, broke its record for most asylum requests in a month, with 9,076. With 22,606 requests in the first quarter of 2021, COMAR is on pace to exceed 90,000 requests this year, breaking its single-year record of 70,440 requests, set in 2019. As recently as 2015, COMAR was getting only 3,400 requests. More than half of this year’s applicants are Hondurans, followed by Cubans, Haitians, Salvadorans, Venezuelans, and Guatemalans. “We don’t know if it’s their first or their second intention” to remain in Mexico, COMAR director Andrés Ramírez told the New York Times. “What we can tell you is that more and more people are coming to us.”
The Department of Homeland Security is examining 5,600 cases of migrant children with the expectation that it will find “a small number of additional [family] separations on top of thousands that have already been reported,” according to Reuters. “There is also a lot of misinformation in the files—wrong dates, confusion in names, doubled up cases,” an official said.
Mexico’s immigration authority (the National Migration Institute or INM) has classified for five years its files on the January 22 massacre of 16 Guatemalan migrants, allegedly committed by state police agents, in Camargo, Tamaulipas. Curiously, at the crime scene was a vehicle that the INM (which has gone through numerous corruption scandals and allegations) had seized in a counter-migration operation a few months earlier. Eight INM agents were fired, but now details will not be public until 2026.
A March 26-29 AP/NORC poll of 1,166 U.S. adults gave Joe Biden a 61 percent overall approval rating, but only a 42 percent approval rating on immigration and 44 percent on border security. Independent voters disapproved of Biden’s performance on immigration by a 37 percentage-point margin (67 percent to 30 percent). 40 percent disapprove of Biden’s handling of unaccompanied children, and 24 percent approve. The New York Times cites a recent Gallup poll in which immigration tied for third place among issues that respondents viewed as the country’s most pressing problem. It was first place for those who identified as Republicans.
DHS Secretary Mayorkas paid a low-profile visit to El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley this week, speaking with border security personnel and community organizations.
Asked by Politico what she would like her colleagues to understand about the border, Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who represents El Paso, replied, “Number one, migration doesn’t stop. Number two, deterrence doesn’t work. And number three, the status quo hasn’t addressed anything.” Escobar, a recipient of WOLA’s 2020 Human Rights Award, also gave an interview to the Intercept in which, among many proposals, she called for the imprisonment of former Trump advisor Stephen Miller.
With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list. Since what’s happening at the border is one of the principal events in this week’s U.S. news, this update is a “double issue,” longer than normal. See past weekly updates here.
Migrant apprehensions may reach largest annual total since early 2000s, as most are expelled
The Washington Postpublished preliminary data from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) about migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border during March. It shows migrants came into the agency’s custody, at least briefly, on 171,000 occasions last month. That would be the largest monthly total since March of 2001, and a remarkable 76 percent more than February 2021. Here is how it would compare among the previous 115 months:
Of this “preliminary” figure of 171,000:
99,200 appear to be single adults, a 44 percent increase over February and the largest number of single adults encountered in the monthly data WOLA has collected, which go back to October 2011.
18,800 were unaccompanied children, a 102 percent increase over February, smashing the May 2019 record of 11,861.
53,000 were members of family units, a 180 percent increase over February and the fourth or fifth largest monthly total since October 2011.
Under the Trump-era “Title 42” pandemic restrictions that the Biden administration has kept in place, about 90 percent of adults and 10-20 percent of family members are being expelled, usually in a matter of hours. So the population of migrants taken into U.S. custody at the border looks more modest, perhaps similar to 2019:
CNN reported seeing Border Patrol estimates predicting that the agency might apprehend or “encounter” 2 million migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border between October 2020 and September 2021. That number—up to 1.1 million single adults, 828,000 family members, and 200,000 unaccompanied children—would shatter Border Patrol’s annual record of 1,643,679 migrant apprehensions set in 2000.
That estimate seems dubious. Even with 171,000 migrants apprehended in March, getting to 2 million would require Border Patrol to encounter a record-shattering 241,000 migrants for each of the next six months—about 20,000 more than the largest monthly total ever measured. Deputy Chief Raúl Ortiz said on March 30 that Border Patrol expects to encounter “more than a million” migrants in fiscal 2021. That appears more likely, and would be the largest annual total since 2006, exceeding the 851,508 apprehensions reported in 2019.
Unlike past years, a large portion of these migrants—one half to two-thirds, perhaps—would be instantly expelled under Title 42. And much of the total would be “double-counting” as expelled migrants try to cross again. In February, about 25 percent of people encountered at the border had crossed more than once, CNN reports, up from 7 percent in 2019.
While not on pace for a record-breaking year, Mexico reported apprehending 34,993 migrants in its territory between January 1 and March 25, 7,643 or 28 percent more than the same period in 2020. About 55 percent were from Honduras, 29 percent from Guatemala, and 7 percent from El Salvador. Of all migrants, said National Migration Institute (INM) director Francisco Garduño, 4,400 were minors, about 1,200 of them unaccompanied. Mexico’s totals so far this year “roughly mirror the numbers from early 2019, before Trump forced Mexico” to increase apprehensions by threatening to levy tariffs, the Associated Press observed.
Unaccompanied children: flattening out or even declining?
Much media coverage of the border continues to focus on U.S. agencies’ struggle to accommodate the record numbers of children arriving unaccompanied, whom the Biden administration refuses to expel under Title 42. As of March 31, 18,170 children were in U.S. government custody: 13,204 in permanent and emergency shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, HHS), and 4,966 awaiting ORR shelter space while stuck in Border Patrol’s inadequate detention facilities.
The most recent numbers we’ve managed to obtain do show a glimmer of good news, though, about unaccompanied children. The population in CBP’s custody has dropped under 5,000, from 5,495 on March 25, as new temporary ORR shelter spaces have opened up. And the number of non-Mexican unaccompanied kids Border Patrol is newly apprehending may be dropping. The agency took in more than 600 per day on each of the three days for which we saw data during the week of March 22, but between March 28 and March 31 it took in less than 500 on three of four days, and never reached 600. Though it’s early to be certain about trends, this points to a downward trendline:
The Washington Post, as noted, just reported a preliminary figure of 18,800 unaccompanied children taken into CBP custody in all of March—including Mexican children, who under current law are almost all returned to Mexico. According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. government expects to encounter between 18,600 and 22,000 children in April, and between 21,800 and 25,000 in May.
If the lower total since March 28 is sustained, though, unaccompanied child apprehensions will be on the low end, or even below, these estimates. One reason the number of kids arriving alone might decline is the increased probability, discussed below, that a family unit won’t be expelled under Title 42. If there is some likelihood of being released into the interior to pursue asylum, parents will be more inclined to accompany their children, resulting in fewer kids traveling alone.
In fact, Reuters revealed, a surprising number of “unaccompanied” children may have arrived with a family member—but because the adult relative was not a parent or guardian, Border Patrol separated the family. A data project managed by “a handful of nonprofit groups” estimates that as many as 10 to 17 percent of “unaccompanied” children actually arrived with an aunt or uncle, an adult sibling, cousin, grandparent, or other relative. Because they are not immediate family, CBP policy usually considers the child unaccompanied and expels the adult under Title 42. This very high estimate—between one in six and one in ten children separated from a relative at the border—has “not been made public before” and CBP “told Reuters they do not track such separations.”
In the meantime, the large population of unaccompanied kids continues to strain ORR and CBP capacities. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that CBP is “working around the clock” to move kids out of Border Patrol facilities and into ORR custody as space opens up. This space, as Mark Greenberg notes in a new Migration Policy Institute study, started out very scarce: “The Biden administration took office with less than half of the shelter capacity that ORR had estimated was needed for preparedness.”
Children are not meant to spend a long time in ORR’s shelter network: ideally, no more than about a month. The agency works to identify relatives or other sponsors who can take them while immigration courts rule on their protection needs. ORR has been moving between 200 and 300 children per day out of its system and into relatives’ custody, far fewer than the number of children being newly apprehended and transferred. This points to continued increases in the need for shelter space.
Internal government estimates reported by CNN and the New York Times indicate that ORR could need 34,100 or 35,500 shelter beds to keep up with the high projected number of arriving unaccompanied children. As last week’s update found, a series of emergency shelters—from convention centers to military bases—is increasing ORR’s capacity up to about 28,800 beds. And the New York Times reports that new facilities being “scouted” include “a Crowne Plaza hotel in Dallas, a convention center in Orange County, Fla., and a church hall in Houston.”
This new shelter capacity should alleviate the crowding in CBP facilities’ holding areas, where the law requires children to spend less than 72 hours. Transfers out of CBP custody have increased from about 400 per day the week of March 22 to about 800 per day the week of March 29.
On March 30 CBP allowed selected pool reporters to visit the largest of its holding areas, the temporary processing center in Donna, in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. This site is a complex of tents built in January while a more permanent facility in McAllen, outfitted in 2014, undergoes renovation. The press visitors to Donna found 3,400 unaccompanied children and 700 family members crammed into a space intended for 250. Most children are in eight “pods” separated by plastic dividers, while the youngest are in a “play pen” area where they sleep on mats on the floor. More than 2,000 kids had been in the facility for more than the maximum 72 hours, 39 of them for more than 15 days. Oscar Escamilla, the acting executive officer of Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector, told reporters that “250 to 300 kids enter daily and far fewer leave”—a situation that should begin to reverse as temporary ORR shelters come online.
“I’m a Border Patrol agent. I didn’t sign up for this,” the New York Times quoted Mr. Escamilla saying “as he looked at some of the younger children, many of them under 12.” However, as veteran immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson observed in The Atlantic, even after seven years of child arrivals, CBP has resisted building more family-appropriate holding facilities out of the unproven belief that, as a commissioner told her, “such a project could send a message that would encourage even more people to migrate to the United States.”
The border saw some tragic and outrageous episodes involving children this week. Border Patrol found a mother, her 9-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son unconscious on an island in the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas. The mother and son were resuscitated, but the girl died. In remote New Mexico desert, Border Patrol night-vision video meanwhile captured smugglers dropping two Ecuadorian girls, age 3 and 5, from atop a 14 foot tall section of border fence. CBP found the girls and “they are said to be in good health,” Al Jazeera reported.
The category of migrant that appears to have increased fastest in March was family members. Border Patrol reported a 180 percent increase in encounters with families—parents or legal guardians with children—from 18,945 in February to 53,000 last month. The Washington Postnoted that DHS officials “are privately warning about what they see as the next phase of a migration surge that could be the largest in two decades, driven by a much greater number of families.”
The Post noted that groups of asylum-seeking families “sometimes collectively numbering as many as 400” have been “showing up this month along the riverbanks in South Texas.” El Faro published a series of photos showing what these nighttime arrivals look like, as Border Patrol has set up card tables on a dirt road in Roma, Texas, at which they check in new arrivals.
What won’t be clear until we see CBP’s detailed March data is how many of these families were allowed into the U.S. interior to begin removal and asylum proceedings, and how many were expelled under Title 42. Under the pandemic expulsions policy, Mexico agreed in March 2020 to take back citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras apprehended at the border. It is still taking back nearly all single adults, who are the majority of all apprehended migrants. But even as it takes a larger number of expelled families than it did in 2020, Mexico appears to have hit a ceiling and is now refusing about 80 to 90 percent of family expulsions, especially of those with small children, according to the Washington Post. (That article’s co-author, Nick Miroff, notifies us that the percentage more recently appears to have fallen to 75 to 80 percent—perhaps due to U.S. requests that Mexico take more expelled families.)
In order to get around this, DHS has been flying some families from segments of the border where Mexico is refusing expulsions to segments where Mexico is still accepting them. Planes continue to arrive daily to El Paso, where El Paso Matters has documented the anguish of parents with small children taken from the airport to the middle of the border bridge and left in Ciudad Juárez.
Garduño, the director of Mexico’s INM, told press that smugglers are advising would-be migrants to bring children. They “suggest that migrant parents travel with their children ‘to facilitate entry into Mexico and the United States.’”
Families often get to remain in the U.S. interior for a long time as badly backlogged U.S. immigration courts consider their requests for asylum or other protection. “On average, it takes almost two and a half years to resolve an asylum claim,” Jonathan Blitzer reported in The New Yorker. The Biden administration, NPR, reported, is considering a plan—devised with heavy input from the Migration Policy Institute—that would seek to speed the process by empowering asylum officers from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to decide more cases of people apprehended at the border. They already do this with asylum seekers who apply elsewhere in the United States. (We discuss this in an April 1 WOLA Podcast with asylum expert Yael Shacher of Refugees International.)
Mexican Army kills Guatemalan citizen amid southern border crackdown
Mexico has responded to the Biden administration’s appeals to reduce migration flows by deploying more military, security, and migration personnel to its border with Guatemala. On March 27 a large number of soldiers, marines, national guardsmen, local police, and INM agents—3,000 people by one estimate—paraded through Tapachula, the largest city near Mexico’s southern border, then arrayed themselves along frequently used border crossings. On the Guatemalan side, in the border town of Tecún Umán, security forces increased their presence as well; officials from both sides held a protocolary photo-op in the middle of the border bridge over the Suchiate River.
Mexico’s Army is part of the deployment, making migration control one of many internal non-defense roles that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has encouraged the military to take on more fully. One army unit carrying out these duties, the 15th Motorized Cavalry Regiment, was involved in a tragic incident along the border on March 29.
Soldiers shot and killed a 31-year-old Guatemalan citizen, Elvin Mazariegos, a passenger in a truck near a usually unmonitored land border crossing in Mazapa de Madero, near Motozintla, Chiapas in the mountains north of Tapachula. When the truck, en route back into Guatemala, shifted into reverse upon seeing a group of Mexican Army soldiers, one fired at the vehicle in an incident that Mexico’s Defense Secretary called “an erroneous reaction.”
Like about 10 percent of residents of a zone where Mexico and Guatemala blur together and many road crossings lack customs or INM presence, Mazariegos, a resident of the Guatemalan town across the border, worked transporting products to and from retail stores on both sides. On March 29 he had gone with co-workers “to drop off money at bodegas where he worked.” Like most, he did not have an official border crossing card.
In areas like Mazapa de Madero, Mexico’s Animal Político notes, encounters with government forces often mean dealing with corruption. “An ‘assist’ to the authority in exchange for not having a rigorous inspection. According to his sister, the victim had already suffered on occasion from having to pay these bribes.”
That may explain why the vehicle in which Mazariegos was traveling appeared to seek to flee the scene. One of the combat-trained soldiers responded by firing several shots at the vehicle, despite the lack of any provocation or danger—a textbook example of why civil-military experts frequently warn about misusing armed forces for internal duties like migration control.
Hundreds of angry townspeople took the soldiers into custody—which sometimes occurs in Indigenous communities—and brought them to the Guatemalan side, where they stayed until the community received some assurances that the responsible soldier would be brought to justice and the family would receive some recompense.
Mexico’s Defense and Foreign Relations secretaries said the responsible soldier is “at the disposal” of the civilian criminal justice system. The Army told Mazariegos’s wife that it would pay the Guatemalan’s funeral expenses and reportedly offered a payout of 1 million Mexican pesos (US$50,000), which his family says is not enough to support the deceased man’s three young children.
Though not part of its ongoing southern border migration crackdown, Mexico was shaken this week by another official killing of a Central American migrant. Four police officers killed Victoria Esperanza Salazar, a Salvadoran mother of two daughters, who worked as a hotel chambermaid in the beach resort of Tulum. In a scene reminiscent of the May 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a female police officer knelt on Salazar’s neck, breaking her spinal column and killing her, while onlookers recorded the incident and entreated the police to stop.
Salazar, 36, fled Sonsonate, El Salvador in 2016, and sought asylum in Mexico’s system, citing “gender violence.” Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR granted her asylum in 2017, and she had worked and raised her daughters in Tulum since then.
On March 27, a convenience store video showed Salazar appearing agitated, as though in the throes of a panic attack. After she left the store, police came and subdued her, inexplicably using extreme brutality and killing her. The attorney general of Quintana Roo, the state that incorporates Tulum, said that the four police officers are in custody and will be charged with “femicide.” President López Obrador lamented the crime: “She was brutally treated and murdered … It is an event that fills us with pain and shame.” In a stream of tweets about the incident, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele called on Mexico to hold the police officers accountable.
Articles this week in the Mexican publications SinEmbargo and Chiapas Paralelo provided updates on the miserable conditions faced by Central American and other migrants in the INM’s detention centers. In Chiapas and elsewhere near Mexico’s southern border, these detention centers are near capacity right now as migrant flows rise and the government’s crackdown intensifies.
Using partially available INM data, SinEmbargo counts the deaths of at least 20 migrants in INM detention in 2013 and between 2015 and 2019 (2014 and 2020 data are unavailable). Causes range from cardiac arrests and infections to “falling from bunk beds.” Brenda Ochoa of the Tapachula-based Fray Matías Human Rights Center (recipient of WOLA’s 2020 Human Rights Award) told the publication that migrants in INM detention receive “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, ranging from pressure to sign their deportation papers to physical and psychological abuse, particularly of women.”
Guatemala prepares another caravan response
Amid word on social media that Hondurans were planning to form a northbound migrant caravan on March 30, representatives of the Guatemalan, Honduran, and U.S. governments held a virtual “high-level working meeting” to coordinate their response.
Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei declared a “state of prevention” for five of the country’s twenty-two departments, restricting freedom of movement, assembly, and public protest in order to ease the security forces’ efforts to block or disperse any migrants traveling in a caravan. While it is normally legal for residents of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua to travel in each others’ territories without a passport, Giammattei based his order on COVID-19 precautions.
A statement from Amnesty International, the Mexico-based Institute for Women in Migration (IMUMI), and the El Salvador Independent Monitoring Group warned Guatemala “that imposing measures that could incite the excessive use of force against migrants and applicants for international protection is inexcusable.” The statement recalled Guatemala’s January 16 dispersal of an attempted Honduran caravan near the countries’ common border, in which “soldiers severely repressed people who tried to move forward.”
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, the Biden administration’s point person for outreach to Mexico and Central America on migration issues, spoke by phone with President Giammattei on March 30. “They discussed the significant risks to those leaving their homes and making the dangerous journey to the United States, especially during a global pandemic,” along with priorities for economic assistance, according to a White House readout of the call. Even as the Guatemalan president decreed a state of emergency, the official record notes, Harris “thanked President Giammattei for his efforts to secure Guatemala’s southern border.”
In the end, by April 1 Guatemalan forces had quickly dispersed a small caravan whose members crossed the border.
As the Biden administration develops a U.S. assistance response to Central America, Dan Restrepo, the National Security Council’s Latin America director during Barack Obama’s first term, argued in The Hill that some forms of U.S. aid to the region—while not solving migration’s “root causes”—could show results more quickly than most might expect. These include “immediate disaster relief, cash-for-work programs, COVID-19 vaccines, alternatives to irregular migration, and a clear break with predatory elites.” On that latter point, Restrepo suggests publicly indicting Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who was repeatedly named as a co-conspirator in narcotrafficking, in a U.S. trial that concluded this week with the president’s brother being sentenced to life in prison.
Speaking with NPR, Juan González, who holds Restrepo’s old position in Joe Biden’s NSC, repeated the phrase “predatory elite” to describe Central America’s corrupt political class. “You have, frankly, a predatory elite that benefits from the status quo, which is to not pay any taxes or invest in social programs,” González said. “Migration is essentially a social release valve for migrants.”
WOLA’s latest audio podcast discusses the border situation and how the asylum system should work, with guest Yael Schacher of Refugees International.
Though the Biden administration’s 60-day pause in border wall-building has expired, it remains in place pending an eventual announcement of a plan. However, eminent domain cases in Texas courts have not been closed, and the government continues seeking to seize private property along the border for wall construction.
NBC News, USA Today, and the Guardian covered Democratic and Republican legislators’ separate “dueling” border visits, to different parts of Texas, over the March 26-28 weekend.
Reuters’ interviews with migrants and smugglers, and reviews of closed Facebook groups, indicate how “coyotes” are feeding migrants many false messages about the Biden administration’s policies toward migrants at the border.
Felipe de la Hoz at the New Republic and Julia G. Young at Time make the point that the history of U.S. foreign policy in Central America is a key “root cause” underlying migration from the region.
House Homeland Security Committee ranking member John Katko (R-New York) and border district Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) introduced legislation creating a $1 billion contingency fund, from which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could draw to attend to migrants at moments when they arrive at the border in large numbers.
“Predicting a problem is not the same thing as having the right tools at your disposal,” writes Cecilia Muñoz, who headed the Domestic Policy Council in the Obama White House, in The Atlantic. Muñoz voices exasperation with “immigration advocates who project confidence that 100 percent of migrant families are fleeing danger and deserve asylum,” adding that “most are unable or unwilling to name any category of migrant who should ever be returned.”
“The bottom line is that through expulsions and deportations, the United States is returning migrants and asylum seekers to situations of instability and danger amidst a pandemic, and this must be stopped,” reads an explainer document from the Latin America Working Group.
“Immigrants are not coming to the U.S. because they are attracted by President Joe Biden’s inclusive language, and they were not repelled by former President Donald Trump’s use of racist imagery,” argues Greg Weeks of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. At Mother Jones, several immigration experts voice doubts about whether Biden administration messaging makes much difference for would-be migrants’ decision making.
“One of the reasons why Mexican migration [to the U.S.] went down so much after 2007 is that there are about 260,000 people every year who come from Mexico to work legally in the U.S. and go back home,” Andrew Selee of the Migration Policy Institute tellsPolitico in a wide-ranging interview. “In 2019, the comparable number [for Central Americans] was 8,000; last year, it was about 5,500. There really is no line for a Central American to get into.”
Yael Shacher, senior U.S. advocate at Refugees International, is a historian of U.S. asylum policy. She offers an invaluable perspective on the current increase in asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, and how the system should work. That’s hugely important right now as the US-Mexico border is seeing another big increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving, mostly from Central America.
As the number of asylum-seeking children and families at the U.S.-Mexico border rises for the fourth time since 2014—and as the U.S. government once again responds chaotically—we need to step back and look at the U.S. migration and asylum system. It is clearly inadequate for receiving this population.
We do that in this episode with an expert colleague, Yael Schacher of Refugees International, a historian of U.S. asylum law and policy. Shacher makes many points in this conversation that don’t get enough attention in the current discussion of the border and protection-seeking migration. She notes that U.S. asylum laws were not written with people fleeing the Western Hemisphere in mind. An asylum system adapting to today’s realities, she adds, would abandon “expedited removal” and give a greater role to asylum officers in adjudicating cases—fairly, but more quickly than backlogged immigration courts. And the whole conception of how asylum seekers are received should change.
In this episode Yael Shacher shares many other observations and recommendations, steeped in an understanding of the history of how we got here. Most would not require a change in existing law as much as changes in attitudes and resource allocations. These inputs come at an important time as the Biden administration gradually dismantles the Trump administration’s policies and reviews broader changes to asylum, even while child and family arrivals increase.
With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list.Since what’s happening at the border is one of the principal events in this week’s U.S. news, this update is a “double issue,” longer than normal. See past weekly updates here.
This is a long update. Use these bookmarks to skip to topics:
Migrants are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border at a pace rivaling the large numbers encountered in 2019, when Border Patrol apprehended more undocumented people than it had since 2007. Unlike those years, though, about half of all apprehended migrants are being expelled, usually without ever seeing the inside of a Border Patrol facility (most are rapidly turned back into Mexico even if they are Central American). These expulsions are taking place under a public health authority known as “Title 42.”
The Trump administration began implementing Title 42 expulsions in March 2020, and the Biden administration has continued them for all migrant populations except children who arrive unaccompanied by a parent or guardian.
Based on very partial data, mainly provided by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to journalists or on Twitter, we roughly estimate that Border Patrol may encounter 150,000 people in March 2021. (The Wall Street Journal, citing “internal Homeland Security documents,” reported that “border agents had recently averaged about 5,000 arrests a day”—which would be 150,000 over a month.)
150,000 would be the largest monthly total since 2006—except about half of those migrants will have been expelled. The number of migrants who actually have to be processed under normal U.S. immigration law would be perhaps half that: 75,000, a number that was exceeded during March, April, May, and June of 2019.
5,156 unaccompanied children were in CBP’s jail-like holding facilities, where they normally should only be for a maximum of 72 hours before being handed off to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which maintains a network of licensed shelters. The previous high, set in June 2019, was only 2,600 children.
11,900 children were in custody of ORR, whose existing shelters can hold 13,200 children.
Add those two numbers, and that’s 17,056 unaccompanied migrant children in U.S. government custody as of March 24.
On March 24 alone, CBP apprehended 681 unaccompanied children.
CBP was able to transfer 437 children into ORR custody that day—so CBP’s net population in custody grew by 244.
ORR moved 268 children out oif its shelters that day, placing them with relatives or sponsors. The agency seeks to avoid having children in its custody for long-term stays: the goal is to place them with relatives in the United States (in over 80 percent of cases; in 40 percent of cases with parents residing in the United States, and otherwise with a sponsor).
According to the Washington Post, “Border officials are on pace to take in more than 17,000 minors this month, which would be an all-time high,” exceeding the record of 11,475 set in May 2019. Here is how that total would appear on a chart of unaccompanied child encounters since the COVID-19 pandemic began:
As the numbers above indicate, ORR has been unable to find space to take children into its shelter system as quickly as CBP is apprehending new children. That may change soon with emergency measures discussed below. For now, though, it is causing alarming backlogs in CBP’s inadequate facilities, mainly Border Patrol stations and processing centers. More than 822 children had been in Border Patrol custody for over 10 days as of March 22.
A temporary soft-sided (tent-based) facility set up to process apprehended migrants in Donna, Texas—a substitute for a more permanent processing facility in McAllen that is under renovation—had 3,889 children housed in its tents on March 20. It was designed to accommodate 250 migrants.
The Biden administration has sought to expel asylum-seeking families under Title 42, continuing a Trump-era arrangement with Mexico allowing it to expel families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras back across the border into Mexican border towns. The data indicates, though, that apprehensions of mostly Central American families are rising sharply—probably more sharply than unaccompanied children—and that even if Mexico takes back more expelled families than it did in February, a large majority will not be expelled.
Instead, as in past years, families are being released from CBP custody into U.S. border towns with notices to appear in immigration court to pursue asylum claims. Most U.S. border towns have nonprofit “respite centers,” most of them now receiving federal funds, that receive families and help them with travel arrangements to destinations elsewhere in the United States.
CBP data reported by Axios point to 13,000 family members encountered at the border between March 14 and 21. Of these, 13 percent were returned to Mexico, far less than the 64 percent in January and 42 percent in February. On March 19, according to NBC News, Border Patrol apprehended 1,807 family members and expelled 179, or just under 10 percent.
The decreased percentage of expelled families is in part due to at least one Mexican state (Tamaulipas) refusing to accept families with children under age seven, perhaps because of a recent law prohibiting detention of migrant children. The main reason, though, may be capacity. As this rough projection shows, Mexico may in fact take back more expelled Central American families in March than in any prior month. But Mexico may have hit a ceiling of the number of family members it can absorb.
With increased family and child migration, there is an increase in the number of large groups of migrants arriving on the U.S. side of the border, mostly in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region, and awaiting Border Patrol apprehension. These voluntary mass apprehensions usually happen near the Rio Grande riverbank, south of any existing border fence. As of March 18, Border Patrol reported encountering 32 groups of 100 or more migrants since October, up from 10 such groups in all of fiscal 2020. As of March 22, 25 of those group apprehensions had taken place in the Rio Grande Valley, one of nine sectors into which CBP divides the border.
As of late March, it’s safe to say that family members have eclipsed unaccompanied children as the fastest-growing category of migrant now being encountered at the border. “I would’ve said two weeks ago that this was nothing like 2019,” the Migration Policy Institute’s Andrew Selee told CNN. “The fact now that a high percentage of families are being admitted means that it’s likely we’ll see an exponential increase of families getting across.”
Single adults are probably still the majority of encountered migrants, and more than 90 percent of them continue to be expelled quickly under Title 42. With almost no hope of seeking asylum, single adults have little incentive to turn themselves in to border authorities; most seek to avoid them.
An unusually large number may be having success in doing that. “During the past seven days, border officials estimated that about 6,500 people evaded detection,” the Wall Street Journal reported on March 24, citing “a person familiar with the government’s internal estimates.”
Of those who are caught and expelled under Title 42, many try to cross again. “The percentage of migrants caught at the border who had already been caught once grew to nearly 40% during the past six months, compared with 7% in 2019,” according to the Journal. “That’s the wonderful thing now. You have the opportunity to bat again and again. That’s better for us,” a Honduran migrant said. Because of this recidivism, “too often it’s groundhog day,” an unnamed federal law enforcement agent in El Paso told the Dallas Morning News. “We encounter the same person again, and again and again. The harder we make it, the more profitable it becomes.”
“Remain in Mexico” returns continue
Every day, the U.S. government continues to admit about 200 non-Mexican asylum-seeking migrants whom the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program had relegated to Mexican border towns. As of March 18, the UNHCR representative in Mexico tweeted that 2,660 people subject to the program had been brought across the border to pursue their asylum claims in the United States. In a March 23 meeting, administration officials cited a figure of 3,200. The total population of Remain in Mexico subjects eligible for admission in the United States is estimated at over 25,000; as of March 20, 16,776 had registered to do so.
Admissions had been happening at three ports of entry along the border. Two more Texas ports of entry got added this week: McAllen and Laredo.
Title 42 isn’t going anywhere
Though children and most family members are now avoiding expulsion under Title 42, the Biden administration has been forcefully conveying the message that it intends to keep the Trump-era border restriction in place, offering no sense of a timetable for when it might be lifted. Officials also indicate that they are encouraging Mexico to accept more expelled families.
“The border is closed. We are expelling families, we are expelling single adults and we have made a decision that we will not expel young, vulnerable children,” Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas toldMeet the Press, in one of five March 22 Sunday-morning news show appearances.
A March 19 Los Angeles Times analysis by Molly O’Toole offers a thorough explanation of the Title 42 expulsions policy, its impact, and its legality. It explains that when encountering migrants, Border Patrol agents may not ask them whether they fear return to their country. If migrants spontaneously claim fear, they are still expelled unless they can meet threat criteria under the Convention Against Torture, which are more stringent than asylum. In Title 42’s first year, fewer than 1 percent of encountered migrants have been able to seek protection.
After the Trump administration implemented Title 42 last March, O’Toole notes, “lawmakers—including then-Sen. Kamala Harris—called it an unconstitutional ‘executive power grab’ that had ‘no known precedent or clear legal rationale.’”
“The Biden administration’s use of Title 42 is flatly illegal,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt, which sued the Trump and Biden administrations to stop the expulsions, told O’Toole. “There is zero daylight between the Biden administration and Trump administration’s position.”
On March 25, in his first formal press conference, President Biden offered a full-throated defense of Title 42, and urged its fuller application to families.
If you take a look at the number of people who are coming, the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of people coming to the border and crossing are being sent back—are being sent back. Thousands—tens of thousands of people who are—who are over 18 years of age and single—people, one at a time coming, have been sent back, sent home.
…What about dealing with families? Why are not—some not going back? Because Mexico is refusing to take them back. They’re saying they won’t take them back—not all of them.
We’re in negotiations with the President of Mexico. I think we’re going to see that change. They should all be going back, all be going back. The only people we’re not going to let sitting there [sic.] on the other side of the Rio Grande by themselves with no help are children.
Biden’s remarks were clearly triggering to the ACLU, which had agreed to hold its lawsuit against Title 42 expulsions until the end of the month while the administration developed plans to stop applying it to families. “We put our Title 42 case for families on temporary hold in exchange for good faith promise to negotiate,” Gelernt tweeted. “But POTUS JUST said his hope is that U.S. wants to expel ALL families if Mexico will allow them. Then litigation may be only choice.”
The expulsions don’t just affect Mexicans and Central Americans. The Invisible Wall, a March 24 report by the Haitian Bridge Alliance, Quixote Center, and UndocuBlack Network, documents a sharp rise in Title 42 expulsions of Haitian migrants back to their politically convulsed country, via numerous ICE flights to Port-au-Prince. “More Haitians have been removed to Haiti in the weeks since President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took office than during all of fiscal year 2020,” the report reads. It notes that more Haitians have been arriving at the border, misled by misinformation that the Biden administration had lifted hardline Trump-era policies like Title 42 expulsions. Writing in The Nation, Jack Herrera discusses the disproportionate challenges faced by Black migrants and those advocating for them.
“What gave Donald Trump his wall was Title 42,” Ruben García, director of El Paso’s Annunciation House respite center, toldThe Guardian. “That has been incredibly more effective than any physical barrier. This was never about the pandemic to begin with. This was precisely about border enforcement.”
Facilities for unaccompanied children coming online
The thousands of unaccompanied children stuck in CBP and Border Patrol custody are largely invisible, but accounts of conditions in facilities like the Donna, Texas processing center have filtered out via members of Congress. A few senators who accompanied DHS Secretary Mayorkas on a March 19 visit described miserable conditions at the Donna facility.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) tweeted of seeing “100s of kids packed into big open rooms. In a corner, I fought back tears as a 13 yr old girl sobbbed [sic.] uncontrollably explaining thru a translator how terrified she was, having been separated from her grandmother and without her parents.” CNN reported that “children are alternating schedules to make space for one another in confined facilities, some kids haven’t seen sunlight in days, and others are taking turns showering, often going days without one,” CNN reported.
At his press conference, President Biden recognized the problem, and promised that 1,000 kids would be moved out of the facilities and into ORR custody within the next week.
A big part of the strategy for doing so involves opening up emergency housing facilities, in some cases with assistance from DHS’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Defense. They include the following (with a hat tip to an informative tweet thread from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas):
952 beds at the Carrizo Springs Influx Care Facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, opened February 22.
700 beds at a facility in Midland, Texas, opened in mid-March with significant American Red Cross involvement. On March 19 the Associated Press reported that this facility had paused new intakes as it “has faced multiple issues,” including a 10 percent COVID-19 positivity rate among the children.
2,300 beds at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, Texas, opened March 19.
500 beds, expandable to 2,000, at Target Lodge Pecos North, in Pecos, Texas, announced on March 20.
500 beds at a second Carrizo Springs facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, announced on March 23.
1,400 beds at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, California, announced on March 24. Closed by COVID-19 until events are to resume in August, the Center was being used to shelter homeless people. It will be available for children for 90 days.
2,400 beds at the Freeman Expo Center in San Antonio, Texas, announced on March 25.
5,000 beds at Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Texas, announced March 25.
350 beds at Joint Base San Antonio Lackland, in San Antonio, Texas, announced March 25. A Pentagon spokesman, saying “we have just received this request” from ORR, said he had no details about Fort Bliss and Joint Base San Antonio.
It appears that plans have been abandoned to use Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, California and Fort Lee in Virginia. This would not be the first time military bases have been used to accommodate unaccompanied children. In 2014, the Obama administration sheltered up to 7,500 kids for about four months at Joint Base San Antonio; Naval Base Ventura County, California; and Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
All together, these facilities could shelter about 15,600 children which, added to ORR’s existing capacity of 13,200, would allow short-term care for 28,800 kids. These 15,600 beds, however, would be in emergency, often barracks-like conditions, instead of the more than 170 state-licensed childcare facilities that ORR normally runs.
ORR is also endeavoring to empty out its shelters as quickly as possible by placing children with relatives or sponsors in the United States. For so-called “category 1” children—those who have parents or legal guardians here—ORR is streamlining its background checks and approvals process, even paying the travel costs that relatives must incur in order to retrieve the children.
These measures could soon bring the child migrant situation more or less under control, at least bringing an end to the conditions revealed in a series of photos that Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) shared with Axios on March 23, depicting crowds of children in the Donna facility, lying on mats closely placed on a tent floor, under mylar blankets.
Rep. Cuellar said he shared the photos, which he had been given, because the Biden administration had been refusing media access to Donna. Both CBP and HHS have been refusing requests to visit their facilities, “due to agency COVID protocols and in order to protect the health and safety of our workforce and those in our care.”
Like Cuellar, other centrist Democratic legislators from border states have been urging the Biden administration to move faster. “The policy does need to change,” Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) told the Wall Street Journal. “I’m concerned they don’t totally have this figured out.” Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Arizona) “pressed the president in a closed-door meeting earlier this week for a timeline for additional resources, facilities and coronavirus testing protocols,” the Journal added. Arizona’s other Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona), produced a joint statement with Texas Republican John Cornyn (R-Texas) calling on the federal government to “rise to this challenge” without being “consumed by partisan battles on this critical topic.”
Accommodations for a rising number of families
As noted above, asylum-seeking families are now arriving in numbers that appear to exceed Mexico’s ability to receive expulsions, and many are now being released into the U.S. interior. This week NBC News and the Los Angeles Times reported that in some cases, the families are being released without an immigration court date specified on their paperwork. They were asked to provide contact information, then given documents with the court date “to be determined” with instructions to expect to be contacted within 30 days. Asylum attorneys cited say that migrants find this very confusing. A CBP document told Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol agents that they could release migrants without court dates when facilities reach 100 percent capacity, among other criteria—a standard that has long since been surpassed.
Most releases of asylum seeking families happen in border cities that have respite centers run by non-profit organizations, where migrants can often stay for a day or two and receive food and medical attention while making travel arrangements to their U.S. destination cities. One of the best known respite centers, the Catholic Charities facility run by Sister Norma Pimentel in McAllen, Texas, received 150 to 200 family members each day during the week of March 15, the Associated Press reported, while the Los Angeles Times learned that 350 family members were released into the surrounding Rio Grande Valley region in one day, March 22. The respite center run by Jewish Family Service in San Diego, California, is also busy. It sheltered 490 asylum seekers in February, while as of March 19 it had attended to a total of 1,510 for the month, with Hondurans, Brazilians, and Cubans the largest groups. As of March 21, it was lodging some of the family migrants in four hotels.
In Arizona, Border Patrol has begun releasing families into desert towns with few resources to attend to families, like Yuma, Ajo, and Gila Bend, forcing service providers to scramble.
Before releasing families, CBP is also facing challenges in processing them: collecting identifying information, performing background checks, starting asylum paperwork, and other duties. The agency is opening tent-based processing centers in Tucson and Yuma. ICE has signed an $86.9 million contract with the Texas nonprofit Endeavors to add 1,239 beds in seven Arizona and Texas hotels, where families can stay while completing paperwork. Families may be free to leave the hotels within six hours if paperwork is completed, they have transportation, and test negative for COVID-19.
The lack of processing capacity is leading to miserable conditions in the Rio Grande Valley, where up to 600 families have been spending up to a few days under the Anzalduas International Bridge in Mission, Texas, sleeping on the dirt “without much food or access to medical care,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “We asked them why we were there for so long,” a Honduran mother of a five-year-old told the Times. “All they told us was, ‘That’s your problem.’”
Messaging and smugglers
Biden administration officials are aiming to be “more aggressive” in communicating that the border is “closed” and migrants shouldn’t come. “The message isn’t, ‘Don’t come now,’ it’s, ‘Don’t come in this way, ever,’” Amb. Roberta Jacobson, the National Security Council’s (NSC) coordinator for the southern border, told Reuters. “The way to come to the United States is through legal pathways.” The U.S. government has contracted radio ads across Latin America, in Spanish, Portuguese, and six Indigenous languages, warning people not to come.
Still, the administration has come under fire for perceptions that officials sent mixed messages by allegedly indicating that they would be more welcoming than Donald Trump. “You’ve got to be unambiguous,” Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) told the Wall Street Journal. “’Don’t come now, come later?’ What kind of message is that?”
It’s not clear, though, that what officials say matters. In Tijuana, a small plaza outside the main port of entry to San Diego has filled up with 200 tents, housing perhaps 1,500 migrants, none of whom have a chance of being admitted to the United States as long as Title 42 remains in place. “Badly misinformed, the migrants harbor false hope that President Joe Biden will open entry to the United States briefly and without notice,” the Associated Press reported. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) told the Washington Post of an interaction with Central American teenagers at the Carrizo Springs ORR facility. “They said, ‘We see this on TV. We see images of people coming across. … We see people coming across, so we’re going to do the same thing.’”
Migrant smugglers, in particular, offer counter-messaging, on social media and through community ties, that almost certainly overwhelms whatever warnings a U.S. official might issue from a lectern. A migrant told the Dallas Morning News of being enticed by $10,000 to $15,000 smuggling package, with $6,000 up front, that “would include a paid Uber ride from a nice hotel to the border wall where he’d use a $6 rebar ladder to climb over part of a $15 billion structure.”
Smugglers know that the Biden administration is not expelling unaccompanied children, and some told Reuters that they’re encouraging parents to send their children alone. “It’s good to take advantage of the moment, because children are able to pass quickly,” Daniel, a Guatemalan smuggler, told the wire service. “That’s what we’re telling everyone.” A Mexican smuggler added that “the cartel that controls the territory along the border in his region mandates that he and other smugglers use the migrant children as a decoy for the cartel’s own drug smuggling operations.”
Kamala Harris to lead a foreign policy push
On March 24 the White House announced that Vice President Kamala Harris will lead U.S. efforts with Mexico and Central American governments to address migration. Her mandate will focus on diplomatic efforts both to “stem the flow” of migrants and to collaborate on efforts to ease the “root causes” underlying migration from the region. The vice president’s involvement “could help shift part of the conversation away from the media-centric idea that the sum total of this ‘crisis’ is what’s happening at the border, and focus it on the deeper causes of these migrations,” observedWashington Post blogger Greg Sargent.
The diplomatic push is already underway. On March 22 Amb. Jacobson traveled to Mexico, accompanied by NSC Western Hemisphere Director Juan González and the newly named State Department special envoy for Central America’s Northern Triangle, Ricardo Zúñiga. González and Zúñiga were to travel to Guatemala on the 23rd, but ash from the Pacaya volcano closed Guatemala City’s airport, so meetings were virtual.
In meetings with Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard and other officials, the U.S. delegation focused on how to cooperate “to manage migration” and make it “orderly and safe.” While we cannot confirm this, messaging probably included suggesting that Mexico interdict more northbound migrants and—as President Biden mentioned in his press conference remarks—accept more expelled families at the border.
Mexico cracks down
Mexico has clearly gotten the message, following up a March 18 agreement to do more to control migration with a deployment of immigration and security personnel to its southern border with Guatemala. On March 19, immigration agents and National Guardsmen in riot gear paraded through the capital of border state Chiapas. The next day, agents and a few guardsmen appeared at several sites along the Suchiate River bordering Guatemala, checking the credentials of all who cross irregularly—as both migrants and people conducting local business have done in this area for decades.
Mexico also declared its southern border closed to all inessential travel, which it had not done when the pandemic broke out a year ago. Counter-migrant operations in the border zone, officials announced, would include “the installation of sanitary and inspection filters [checkpoints] to verify the documentation and migratory status of individuals and families seeking to enter the national territory, through the use of technological equipment such as drones and night vision mechanisms for surveillance.”
Mexican Defense Secretary Luis Crescencio Sandoval announced on March 22 that 8,715 army troops and national guardsmen (many of them army personnel on temporary duty) were deployed to the country’s northern and southern border. The Washington Post questioned whether this number was enough: “barely more than the average of 8,058 troops posted at the borders during 2020” and less than the 15,000 troops sent to Mexico’s borders in mid-2019 when Donald Trump threatened the country with tariffs if it failed to crack down on migration.
Groups like WOLA and Mexico’s governmental human rights ombudsman warned that a militarized Mexican crackdown on migrants could have grave human rights consequences, as such operations have in the past. The announcement from Mexico’s migration authority, WOLA noted,
contains no reference to the possibility that any families might need asylum. Additionally, Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, is thus far glaringly absent from the list of institutions playing a role in the border operation. The institutions that are most visible instead include Mexico’s armed forces—whose core mission is to defend against enemies, not to carry out migration tasks—and the National Guard, which is composed mainly of military troops and has already been implicated in human rights abuses against migrants.
Central America aid
González and Zúñiga spoke with Central American reporters on March 23 about priorities for “root causes” assistance to the region. President Biden has voiced support for providing the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras)” with $4 billion in such assistance over four years.
The U.S. officials centered their message on countering corruption, which is “at the center of everything we have to do,” as González put it. They mentioned plans to create a task force to combat corruption, drug trafficking, and money laundering in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, with an emphasis on assisting “prosecutors, investigators, and judges in their own countries, who are carrying out these important investigations.”
Asked about relations with El Salvador President Nayib Bukele (who has repeatedly attacked democratic institutions and rule of law), Zúñiga emphasized the importance of separation of powers and strong institutions in a democracy. On Guatemala, the officials voiced support for an independent Constitutional Court, following recent nominations of a majority of justices believed to have ties to corrupt interests.
President Bukele tweeted in English that he was opposed to a “recycled plan that did not work in 2014.” He rejected “the ‘northern triangle’ concept” that treats El Salvador the same as Guatemala and Honduras, which send more migrants to the United States. Measured by apprehensions since January 2020 as a portion of population, though, El Salvador is only modestly behind the other two Northern Triangle nations:
Honduras: 849 U.S. border apprehensions/encounters per 100,000 population
Guatemala: 549 per 100,000 population
El Salvador: 459 per 100,000 population
Mexico: 316 per 100,000 population
For her part, Rep. Norma Torres (D-California), a member of the House appropriations subcommittee that allocates foreign aid, wrote a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recommending “severely restricting funding that goes to central governments of the region. Instead, our foreign assistance should go to civil society, non-governmental organizations, multilateral institutions, and other credible institutions.”
Eighteen Republican senators are paying a visit to the border on March 26, led by Texas Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) told Fox News that if the delegation is denied access to facilities where CBP is holding children, “we’re going to shut the Senate down.” Graham—who in 2013 was a member of the “Gang of Eight” senators who promoted a bipartisan immigration reform bill—added, “It will never change, President Biden, until you tell everybody to go home and stop bringing people into the United States.”
(Also coming to the border on the weekend of March 27 will be a delegation of Democratic members of Congress invited by another Texas legislator, Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) of El Paso.)
Elsewhere in the Senate, five Republicans sought, and failed, to obtain unanimous consent for consideration of legislation, the “Stopping Border Surges Act,” that would make child and family detention legal, would make it possible to immediately deport children from non-contiguous countries, would reinstate “safe third country” agreements with Central America, and would tighten credible fear standards, among other measures.
More than 60 Republican House members and 40 Republican senators have requested that the Government Accountability Office, an independent auditing arm of Congress, examine the legality of President Biden’s 60-day suspension of border wall construction. The building freeze, mandated by a January 20 presidential proclamation, formally ended on March 21 without a plan in place yet for how to proceed. Construction remains on hold, however. The Republican legislators allege that Biden’s freeze is “a blatant violation of federal law and infringes on Congress’ constitutional power of the purse.”
A DHS Inspector-General report made public on March 22 finds that, during the 2019 spike in child and family migration, the Trump administration threw out existing plans for dealing with the challenge, “created ad-hoc solutions,” and failed to get agencies to work together smoothly.
“Immigrant rights advocates and others claim that” March 11 footage of smugglers floating migrants across the Rio Grande, which aired on CNN, “was staged, potentially with the cooperation of the Border Patrol,” the American Prospect reports. Smugglers, it notes, “don’t normally provide face masks and life vests, nor ferry six boatloads of people across in broad daylight.”
The New York Times published a gripping photo essay from Comitancillo, Guatemala, depicting the return of the bodies of 13 migrants from that town who were massacred, apparently by Mexican state police, in Camargo, Tamaulipas, on January 22.
On March 18 the House of Representatives passed the Dream and Promise Act, which would create a path to citizenship for up to 4 million “Dreamers”—undocumented people who were brought to the United States as children—and recipients of Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list.Since what’s happening at the border is one of the principal events in this week’s U.S. news, this update is a “double issue,” longer than normal. See past weekly updates here.
Administration scrambles to accommodate children while expelling most others
Border Patrol apprehended 561 unaccompanied children across the U.S.-Mexico border on March 15, up from a daily average of 332 per day in February. On a March 18 call, senior Biden administration officials told reporters that about 14,000 migrant children who had arrived without a parent or guardian were in U.S. government custody.
Of these, 9,562 were in the shelter system of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR, part of the Department of Health and Human Services or HHS), where COVID-19 response had lowered a 13,200-bed systemwide capacity to about 8,000. Once they are in these shelters, ORR works to place the children with a relative or other sponsor in the United States, with whom they stay while the U.S. immigration court system decides whether deportation would endanger them. In more than 80 percent of cases, a relative is located, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas notified this week. In more than 40 percent of cases, that relative is a parent or legal guardian.
(Read more about how the processing and sheltering of unaccompanied migrant children are supposed to work, and how the caseload has grown, in our updates of March 12, March 5, and February 26 and in a new explainer document that WOLA published on March 17.)
The remaining 4,500 unaccompanied children were stuck in Border Patrol stations and processing centers as of March 18, awaiting placement in ORR’s shelters. This shatters the previous high of 2,600 kids in temporary Border Patrol custody, set in June 2019.
By law, children are not supposed to be in short-term Border Patrol custody for more than 72 hours. The agency’s austere holding facilities—which resemble the holding tanks in a local police station or, as some say, “cages”—are not designed for vulnerable populations. As of March 14, though, when 4,200 kids were in Border Patrol facilities, about 3,000 had been there longer than 72 hours. The average time in custody climbed to 120 hours by March 17. CNN reported on March 15 that more than 300 of the kids had been stuck for more than 10 days.
Two attorneys who visited CBP’s temporary migrant processing facility in Donna, Texas on March 11 came away horrified by what they heard from 20 interviews with kids. The Donna facility, which is mostly sturdy tents, can hold 250 people but had about 1,000 at the time, and children said they had gone days without showering. Kids are sleeping on gym mats or on benches and concrete floors, under thin mylar blankets. Many have been stuck in crowded tents for days. A “staggering” number of the 1,000 kids at Donna are under 10 years old, one of the lawyers told the New York Times.
The main bottleneck here is at ORR: the agency’s shelter system is nearly out of space, and can’t place children with sponsors as fast as new kids are arriving at Border Patrol facilities. The federal government is taking several measures to increase its capacity:
On March 12 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) allowed ORR to return its bed space back to pre-pandemic levels.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA, part of DHS) converted the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in downtown Dallas into a shelter for up to 3,000 migrant boys age 15 to 17.
FEMA has also converted an oil workers’ camp in Midland, Texas, into temporary shelter space for another 700 children, and HHS is looking at other facilities in Texas, Arizona, California, Florida, and Virgina.
On March 17 FEMA awarded $110 million in funds appropriated by the American Rescue Plan Act “to eligible local nonprofit and governmental organizations and state governmental facilities” working with migrants.
Secretary Mayorkas reported that more than 560 DHS employees had volunteered “to support HHS in our collective efforts to address the needs of the unaccompanied children.”
Families and expulsions
“We will have, I believe, by next month enough of those beds to take care of these children who have no place to go,” President Joe Biden told ABC News. “Let’s get somethin’ straight though,” the president added (with the contraction in the original transcript). “The vast majority of people crossin’ the border are being sent back. Are being sent back, immediately sent back.”
This is true. As last week’s update noted, 72 percent of migrants Border Patrol encountered at the border in February were expelled, usually within hours, without seeing the inside of a CBP facility or having a chance to ask for asylum or protection. They are either flown back to their own countries or, if they are Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, or Honduran, sent back across the border into Mexico, where the Mexican government has agreed to receive most of them.
This is done under a pandemic public health order, known as “Title 42,” that permits rapid expulsions, and which two presidential administrations have now interpreted to mean rapid expulsions without regard to migrants’ protection needs. The Trump administration began employing Title 42 in March 2020.
The Biden administration continues to use it, but it is not expelling unaccompanied children. It is, however, expelling nearly all single adults and a large portion of family units (parents with children).
As CBS News reported a week ago, nearly 60 percent of families Border Patrol encountered in February were not expelled. That is up from 38 percent not expelled in January. There appear to be two main reasons why a family does not get expelled. Either they are from countries to which expulsions are difficult, like Cuba or Venezuela, or they are part of a minority of families from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) whom Mexico is refusing to take back.
Though there is no public written evidence of a policy, authorities in Mexico’s border state of Tamaulipas have been refusing expulsions of families with small children, citing a lack of family-appropriate shelter space that would violate a recent child welfare law. (Ciudad Juárez faces some capacity limits too, according to the U.S. Border Patrol Chief in El Paso.)
This has led Border Patrol and ICE to release some asylum-seeking Central American families, with notices to appear in U.S. immigration court, in south Texas border cities. There, charities have been taking in the modest flow of family members: about 150 migrants per day in Brownsville, for instance, where the mayor told local news, “It’s not a threat at this point.”
DHS has found a way, though, to expel many families despite Mexico’s localized restrictions: flying them to parts of the border where they can still expel them. On March 9 authorities in El Paso were notified that two daily planeloads of migrants would begin being flown all the way across the state, from south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region. Even as shelters prepared to greet the families, by March 13 it was evident that DHS was bringing most from the airport straight to the border, sending them across into Ciudad Juárez. WOLA has heard, but hasn’t yet fully confirmed, that flights are also going to San Diego to expel families into Tijuana.
As the border remains closed with no end to Title 42 in sight, national news covered populations of protection-seeking migrants crowding into Mexican border towns: in a new tent encampment outside Tijuana’s El Chaparral port of entry; among the tearful expelled population in Ciudad Juárez; and at a grim government shelter in Reynosa that is now holding 700 unaccompanied children apprehended by Mexican authorities.
The Biden administration’s message to them continues to be “don’t come now,” as repeated by the president himself in his ABC News interview:
I can say quite clearly don’t come over. And the process of getting set up, and it’s not gonna take a whole long time, is to be able to apply for asylum in place. So don’t leave your town or city or community. We’re gonna make sure we have facilities in those cities and towns run by department of—by DHS and also access with HHS, the Health and Human Services, to say you can apply for asylum from where you are right now.
David Shahoulian, the DHS assistant secretary for border security and immigration, acknowledged that “the messaging to discourage migrants from coming had not been working and that the administration would need to be clearer in the future,” according to the New York Times. With thousands of expelled families clearly acting on erroneous information, it’s not clear what the administration can do to counteract inaccurate but rapidly propagated messages from smugglers and on social media. “At some point,” longtime Ciudad Juárez migration official Enrique Valenzuela told Public Radio International, “people were tricked into thinking that the U.S. opened its doors all the way to people seeking international protection.”
Reports indicate Biden administration pressing Mexico to interdict more migrants
In a March 1 video call with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the New York Times reported, President Biden asked Mexico to do more to “help solve the problem” of increased immigration flows to the United States. In the same conversation, López Obrador asked Biden for access to stockpiled doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, which is not yet approved for use in the United States.
On March 18 the White House announced that the U.S. government would share 2.5 million vaccines with Mexico and 1.5 million with Canada. Mexico, meanwhile, has agreed to do more to contain migration through its territory and to take more families expelled under Title 42, the Times and the Washington Post reported. Both countries’ officials insist that there was no vaccines-for-border-enforcement quid pro quo; a senior Mexican diplomat told the Post that it was a “parallel negotiation.”
Whatever it was, the result could be more Title 42 expulsions of families into Mexico, which as noted above has been refusing to take back Central American families with small children in some areas. “Mexican officials have told the Biden administration they are willing to alter or delay the implementation of a law passed in November that limits their ability to detain minors,” the same article continues. DHS Secretary Mayorkas had hinted at this in a March 16 memo: “We are working with Mexico to increase its capacity to receive expelled families.”
Mexican immigration and security forces have meanwhile stepped up immigration raids throughout its territory. Reuters reported that Mexican forces apprehended about 1,200 Central American migrants, including more than 300 children, along southern Mexican cargo train routes between January 25 and February 16. Another 800 were detained aboard buses and tractor trailers “in recent weeks.” Mexico has not released February migrant apprehension data yet; in January it reported apprehending 9,574 migrants—the second-highest monthly total since the pandemic began—of whom 9,145 were from the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador).
“A more visible Mexican immigration enforcement effort is expected to be announced soon, according to current and former Mexican officials,” the Washington Post reported on March 18. The new effort, it added, may be targeted less at migrants along the train route—generally the poorest migrant population—and more at the larger number who travel, often in private vehicles, with paid smugglers. Such an operation may require a large anti-corruption component to succeed, since much of smugglers’ high fees are reportedly spread among officials who enable their vehicles to proceed.
Mexico has also agreed to increase its presence—mainly of members of its National Guard, a new militarized police force—near its southern border with Guatemala, according to the New York Times and Reuters. On March 18, Mexico’s Foreign Relations Secretariat announced that it would be closing its southern border to all non-essential traffic, as the United States has done with its southern border. It’s not clear yet what criteria must be met for travel to be “essential.”
Secretary Mayorkas testifies as GOP cranks up “crisis” rhetoric
“We are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years. We are expelling most single adults and families. We are not expelling unaccompanied children,” reads a March 16 memo from DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas updating about the situation at the border. The secretary also gave his first major testimony since his nomination process concluded, appearing for four hours before a House Homeland Security Committee that displayed bitter divisions between its Democratic and Republican members.
“The border is secure, and the border is not open,” Mayorkas told the committee. His written testimony laid out very broad outlines for what a new approach to protection-seeking migration might look like, naming three elements: addressing root causes driving migration; helping regional governments offer more asylum or protection in their own countries; and “dramatically” improving the U.S. migrant processing and asylum adjudication systems.
That last point—asylum adjudication—is in bad shape: the testimony notes that backlogs are so bad that “[i]n some locations, there is a more than four-year waiting period for a final hearing.” Mayorkas’s March 16 memo sets a goal of “shorten[ing] from years to months the time it takes to adjudicate an asylum claim while ensuring procedural safeguards and enhancing access to counsel.”
Republican legislators at the March 17 House Homeland hearing were sharply critical. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), a committee member who is also the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, praised “Remain in Mexico” and other Trump-era restrictions on asylum, adding, “With all due respect, this administration has created this crisis. … Cartels and traffickers see that the green light is on at our southern border, and the United States is open for business.”
Several Republicans sought to get Mayorkas to use the word “crisis” to describe the situation at the border. The secretary’s reply to Rep. McCaul was blunt: “A crisis is when a nation is willing to rip a 9-year-old child out of the hands of his or her parent and separate that family to deter future migration.”
“Biden border crisis” is now one of the most prominent messages coming from GOP politicians and media outlets like Fox News and Breitbart. A group of 12 House Republicans, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) and ranking Homeland Security Committee member John Katko (R-New York), traveled to El Paso on March 15. They delivered statements in front of a half-mile segment of border wall that was built in 2019 by a private non-profit whose leadership—including former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, until Trump pardoned him—is facing fraud charges. “There’s no other way to claim it than a Biden border crisis,” Rep. McCarthy said. Rep. Katko called it “disorder at the border by executive order.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has been vocal about the border situation, made a March 17 appearance using as a backdrop the Dallas convention center where FEMA is sheltering unaccompanied children. “The Biden administration opened the floodgates to any child who wants to come across the border,” he said. Abbott asked the federal government to give Texas law enforcement officers access to the children in the convention center, in order to investigate human trafficking. The Biden administration turned him down on grounds that the children should not be forced to undergo the trauma of repeating their stories several times.
Two sets of Republicans’ claims about the border situation have been widely debunked.
First, Abbott and others had been alleging that the migrant population is spreading COVID-19. In fact, the acting head of FEMA reported that less than 6 percent of tests on migrants have come back positive, lower than Texas’s overall 7.4 percent positivity rate. Migrants in Brownsville showed a similar positivity rate: 210 of nearly 3,000 people tested since January 25, or 6 percent.
Second is terrorism. Katko, McCarthy, and others on the March 15 El Paso visit said Border Patrol agents told them they had apprehended four individuals so far in fiscal year 2021 who were on the U.S. “Known or Suspected Terrorist” list (or perhaps the Terrorist Screening Database). Three were from Yemen and one was from Serbia; McCarthy had also named Iran, Turkey, and China but later had to retract. While the U.S. government is not transparent about this data, four apprehensions of people on the watchlist appears to be normal, according to a Washington Post fact check that surmised, “the real number ranges from around three to a dozen per year.”
Former officials noted that being on this list is only an alert, and does not point to actual involvement in terrorism; it often indicates a degree of separation from a suspected terrorist. Investigative journalist Ryan Deveraux, who looked deeply into this in 2014, tweeted that the database “is a train wreck that has been shown to include huge numbers of people without facts or evidence.”
The “border crisis” narrative is likely to persist until ORR can accommodate the rising numbers of unaccompanied children, and until processing and other capacity exist to allow a long overdue wind-down of Title 42. In the meantime, as the Washington Post and Politico noted, Republicans are seizing on immigration as their banner issue as they endeavor to win back congressional majorities in the 2022 midterm elections.
“Can we just agree not to use these human beings in front of us as political pawns?” Ruben Garcia, director of El Paso’s Annunciation House migrant shelter, told Politico. “Let’s just make sure they’re taken care of.”
Don’t miss the 3,200-word explainer that WOLA published this week, covering the current moment for U.S. border policy and migration, and recommendations for what lies ahead.
Gen. Glen Vanherck, commander of U.S. Northern Command, told reporters that 3,500 National Guardsmen from 22 states remain deployed at the U.S.-Mexico border. That deployment is “100 percent of the forces” currently at the border, he said, which implies that the regular military personnel deployed by President Trump in 2019 are no longer there. The troops are manning observation sites looking for border-crossers, using 24 UH-72 helicopters for aerial detection and monitoring, and helping to maintain CBP vehicles. DHS, Gen. Vanherck continued, has indicated it would like the military presence to continue after its next expiration date, the September 30 end of fiscal year 2021. (As noted in our February 26 update, the military deployment was the subject of a detailed report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).)
The New York Times covers the fragments of half-built border wall scattered across wilderness areas as the Biden administration’s pause on barrier construction continues. The Palm Springs Desert Sun looks at segments of wall built at great cost in south-central California’s Jacumba wilderness.
The “La 72” migrant shelter, near the Guatemalan border in Tenosique, Mexico, attended to 2,836 people in the pandemic year 2020, according to its annual report released this week. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that “La 72” had already attended to 6,000 migrants so far in 2021.
The remains of 16 migrants massacred—probably by state police—on January 22 in Tamaulipas, Mexico, were returned to the migrants’ hometown of Comitancillo, San Marcos, Guatemala. That town, the Wall Street Journal reports, has sent many emigrants to Carthage, Mississippi, where a giant 2019 ICE raid of chicken processing plants caught up one of the murdered migrants, Édgar López, a longtime Carthage resident who was trying to return.
Border Patrol agent Alejandro Flores-Bañuelos, age 35, died on March 15 after being struck by a passing vehicle while assisting a traffic collision in southeast California’s El Centro sector.
NBC News reports that DHS is requiring that all inquiries to local Border Patrol personnel be routed through the press office in Washington, as was the policy during the Obama administration. Unnamed officials referred to it as a “gag order.”
Former Border Patrol agent Jenn Budd, a prominent critic of her former employer and its culture, believes that the agency is manufacturing a sense of crisis at the border right now. She contends that agents likely helped concoct a strange video, which appeared on CNN, depicting smugglers taking a boatload of migrants across the Rio Grande in broad daylight.
What’s happening at the border right now is concerning: there are bottlenecks in caring for unaccompanied minors. But it’s not a crisis. If anything, the crisis is in the large number of people who continue to be expelled, within hours, without a hearing.
Four of us at WOLA just published an explainer that I think is pretty good. Here’s an excerpt, but you should really read the whole thing, it’s got a lot of good graphics in it.
It may seem ironic, but even as it carried out the cruelest anti-migration policies in decades, the Trump administration presided over the largest flows of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border since the mid-2000s.
This continued through Donald Trump’s last months in office, which saw migration rise sharply even as stringent pandemic measures made the pursuit of asylum impossible. This shows the futility of declaring war on asylum, and the inevitability of large migration flows at a time of overlapping security, economic, political, public health, and climate crises.
The jump in migration of Trump’s final months continued accelerating during Joe Biden’s first two months in office. This is happening even as Biden’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) keeps in place “Title 42,” a probably illegal Trump-era pandemic provision that expels most migrants within hours, regardless of their protection needs.
Is there a “crisis” of people attempting to cross the border?
The increased numbers of people crossing the border right now is something that border experts have predicted for some time now. The roots of what is happening are in the Trump administration policies that caused massive numbers of people to be stuck on the Mexican side of the border—policies like “Remain in Mexico” (which forced over 70,000 asylum seekers to wait for their U.S. court dates in Mexico border cities) and “metering,” a practice under which U.S. border authorities place severe limits on who is allowed to approach ports of entry and ask for asylum, in violation of U.S. and international law.
The increased border crossings was predictable, not because of Biden administration policies like winding down “Remain with Mexico,” but because of the dangers put in place by Trump’s cruel and illegal policies of deterrence.
Of the 114 months since October 2011 for which WOLA has detailed monthly data, February 2021 saw the third-most Border Patrol encounters with migrants. (The actual number of people was probably much lower since, as noted below, many migrants expelled under Title 42 attempt to re-enter shortly afterward.)
While third-most sounds like a lot, the impact on border authorities’ workload is minimal because Title 42 persists. Of the 96,974 migrants whom Border Patrol “encountered” in February, it quickly expelled 72 percent—down only slightly from the end of the Trump administration, which expelled 85 percent in December and 83 percent in January. The remainder whom Border Patrol actually had to process last month—26,791 migrants—was the 77th most out of the past 114 months. Being in 77th place hardly constitutes a crisis.
There is a serious capacity issue right now, though, for one especially vulnerable category of migrant: children who arrive unaccompanied by a parent or guardian.
With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border.You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list.Since what’s happening at the border is one of the principal events in this week’s U.S. news, this update is a “double issue,” longer than normal.
Border Patrol facilities filling with unaccompanied children
Numbers of unaccompanied migrant children apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border rose in February to their highest level since May of 2019. Border Patrol apprehended 9,297 kids without adult accompaniment, up from 5,694 in January, while another 160 presented themselves at border ports of entry.
Media outlets with which CBP has shared preliminary March data, like CBS News, report that 3,500 more children were taken into U.S. custody during the first nine days of this month. Over the previous 21 days, CNN reported on March 10, U.S. border authorities had encountered an average of 435 unaccompanied kids per day, up from a 21-day average of 340 per day a week earlier.
Of the 9,297 unaccompanied kids apprehended in February, 42 percent were from Guatemala, 28 percent from Honduras, 19 percent from Mexico, 8 percent from El Salvador, and 3 percent from all other countries.
The rate of increase of unaccompanied child arrivals is “unprecedented,” according to “veteran” Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials cited in the Washington Post, who add that the influx has “the potential to be the largest in decades,” surpassing prior “waves” of unaccompanied children in 2014, 2016, and 2019. Indeed, of the 114 months for which WOLA has official data going back to October 2011, February 2021 was the fourth-heaviest month for apprehensions of unaccompanied children—and numbers tend to increase during the spring.
The increase isn’t made up entirely of children who fled Central America recently. The Trump administration’s crackdown on asylum, which included rapidly expelling unaccompanied children under a pandemic border-closure policy between March and November 2020, bottled up many who otherwise would have migrated last year. “These are kids who’ve been waiting at the border, in some cases for more than a year,” Jennifer Podkul of Kids in Need of Defense told the New Yorker. The Biden administration is still expelling most migrants—including asylum seekers—under the pandemic order, but it has refused to expel unaccompanied children.
A 2008 law requires that CBP and its Border Patrol agency must turn all unaccompanied minor migrants from non-contiguous countries (that means, other than Mexico) over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS), which maintains a network of shelters around the country. ORR then endeavors to get the kids out of the shelters as quickly as possible, turning them over to relatives living in the United States (in 90 percent of cases) or other sponsors. Most non-Mexican children who arrive unaccompanied, then, seek to be apprehended after crossing the border.
Eventually, in a process slowed by backlogs, the children go to immigration court to seek asylum or other protection. Citing DHS statistics, the Washington Post reports that 52 percent of the 290,000 unaccompanied minors who crossed the border since 2014 still have cases pending. 28 percent have been granted humanitarian protection, 16 percent have been ordered to leave but it’s unclear whether they did, and 4.3 percent have been deported.
The ORR shelter system is near capacity right now, which means that Border Patrol—which must release the children to ORR within 72 hours—often has nowhere to put them. By March 8, the number of children in Border Patrol stations and detention facilities had risen to 3,250. Nearly 1,400 had been waiting in these facilities—austere holding cells designed for adult males—for more than the legal guideline of 72 hours. Of the 3,250, 169 were under the age of 13. Children are now spending an average of 107 hours in the grim Border Patrol holding cells, with 24-hour always-on lighting, that Theresa Cardinal Brown of the Bipartisan Policy Center wrote in the Washington Post are “essentially police precincts with cement floors.”
Each day, according to the Post, an additional 500 or more children are arriving in CBP and Border Patrol custody, with nearly 700 on March 10. As of March 9, the refugee agency had just over 500 shelter beds available to accommodate them. ORR’s shelters usually hold about 13,200 children, but that number was reduced to about 8,000 due to COVID-19 social distancing measures. This week, the shelter population grew to about 8,500 as ORR relaxed some of these measures.
ORR statistics cited in the Post show that 70 percent of the unaccompanied child population is male, and 75 percent are 15 to 17 years old. “HHS officials have told the White House that they need about 20,000 shelter beds to keep pace with the influx,” the same article reveals.
As it begins its eighth week, the Biden administration has been scrambling to keep up with accommodations for the children. This is complicated by the pandemic, but also by its inability to prepare before January 20. “Trump’s political appointees at HHS and DHS refused to meet with” Biden transition officials, the New Yorker reported, “deliberately sabotaging their ability to plan ahead, according to two people with knowledge of the situation.” Agencies are taking the following measures to speed up the throughput in ORR’s system, reducing the amount of time a child spends in its shelters from the current average of 30 to 40 days.
Working “aggressively” to release children to the custody of sponsors, including proposals to help pay some of the children’s travel costs.
Loosening or lifting COVID-19 precautions that had reduced shelters’ capacity.
Asking DHS personnel to volunteer to travel to the border and help with processing.
Looking for additional ORR “influx facilities” to hold children ages 13-17, where conditions are more austere than in the agency’s normal shelters but superior to CBP custody. One has opened in Carrizo Springs, Texas, and may hold up to 952 children. Other candidates include Moffett Federal Airfield, a NASA site in Google’s headquarters town of Mountain View, California; a facility in Homestead, Florida that drew controversy during the Trump administration due to poor conditions; and Fort Lee, a U.S. Army facility south of Richmond, Virginia.
On March 6, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas led a 13-person delegation of top officials from several agencies to the border. They visited the Carrizo Springs facility and a temporary CBP processing center in Donna, Texas, and presented recommendations to President Joe Biden after their return to Washington.
February migration numbers rise overall, even as pandemic “expulsions“ policy remains in place
Unaccompanied children are one of a small number of categories of migrants who stand any chance right now of being released into the United States to seek asylum or protection. Most migrants apprehended at the border get expelled, often within an hour or two, under a pandemic measure referred to as “Title 42” that the Trump administration instituted in March 2020 and the Biden administration has maintained.
In addition to unaccompanied children, the other exceptions to rapid expulsion appear to be:
A growing proportion of family unit members (parents with children) apprehended at the border: CBS News reports that nearly 60 percent of family members apprehended in February “were processed under U.S. immigration law, with many allowed to seek asylum or other forms of protection while in American communities.” The rest were expelled.
A tightly controlled stream of migrants who had been subject to the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, or “Remain in Mexico”) policy. As of March 10, the White House reported that 1,400 MPP enrollees had been admitted into the United States to await their immigration court hearings. About 15,000 of a qualified population of over 25,000 had signed up for admission into the United States. The winding down of “Remain in Mexico” brought a happy bit of news: the closure of a squalid encampment of MPP enrollees in Matamoros, Mexico near the Brownsville, Texas border crossing. Though not all of the camp’s residents have been admitted yet, the number of those still waiting is small enough for shelters to accommodate them in Matamoros.
Migrants not in these categories, including many Haitian and Central American families, are still being expelled under Title 42. Still, U.S. authorities saw an increase in their encounters with all categories of migrants in February. Border Patrol encountered 96,974 migrants last month, up from 75,312 in January. CBP took another 3,467 into custody at ports of entry.
The 96,974 encounters were the most since May 2019, and the third-most in the 114 months since October 2011. 43 percent were from Mexico, 20 percent from Honduras, 19 percent from Guatemala, 6 percent from El Salvador, and 12 percent from other countries.
68,732 of those encountered were single adults. This was the most single adults for any month since October 2011 (we don’t have data breaking out adults before then). 57 percent were from Mexico, 17 percent from Guatemala, 12 percent from Honduras, 4 percent from El Salvador, and 10 percent from other countries. Nearly all single adults were expelled, and many reflected in this number are double- or triple-counted. CBP told CBS News that about 25,000 of migrants encountered in February had been caught before. The “recidivism rate”—the percentage of apprehended migrants who had been apprehended before, expelled, and tried to cross again—was 38 percent in January, up from 7 percent in 2019.
18,945 were members of family units. This was the most family unit members since August 2019 and the 12th largest monthly total since October 2011. As noted above, over 40 percent of these people were probably expelled. 47 percent were from Honduras, 19 percent from Guatemala, 9 percent from El Salvador, 4 percent from Mexico, and 21 percent from other countries.
As also noted above, 9,297 were unaccompanied children, the most since May 2019 and the 4th-most since October 2011. 42 percent were from Guatemala, 28 percent from Honduras, 19 percent from Mexico, 8 percent from El Salvador, and 3 percent from other countries.
The rate of increase alarmed unnamed officials, cited in the Washington Post, who “described the surge as ‘overwhelming,’ ‘on fire’ and potentially larger than the 2019 crisis, when CBP took nearly 1 million migrants into custody.” So far in March, U.S. agents are detaining more than 4,200 people per day, which if sustained would rival the 132,856 apprehensions recorded in May 2019, which was the most in 13 years.
Mexico, too, is seeing an increase in migration: the “La 72” migrant shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco, has served 6,000 migrants so far this year, more than in all of 2020. The refugee agency COMAR received 13,513 requests to enter Mexico’s asylum system in January and February; if that rate is sustained, it will break COMAR’s request record set in 2019.
Overall, U.S. authorities expelled 72 percent of the migrants they encountered in February, under the Title 42 pandemic measure. That was down from 83 percent in January and 85 percent in December.
55 percent of family unit members are being apprehended in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector. In order to balance out the caseload, CBP has begun flying some of those families elsewhere for processing. The Dallas Morning News and El Paso Matters reported that two planes per day, each carrying up to 135 migrants, have begun arriving in El Paso from the Rio Grande Valley. There, families would be processed, begin their asylum paperwork, and be turned over to Annunciation House, a respite center that gives them a place to stay for a few days while they make travel arrangements to the communities where they will live and go to immigration court.
At a March 10 White House briefing, Roberta Jacobson—a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico who is now the National Security Council’s southern border coordinator—repeatedly urged migrants not to come to the border right now, noting that Title 42 remains in force. She also acknowledged that migrant smugglers are likely capitalizing on the perception that the Biden administration will be more welcoming than its predecessor. While they say they intend to lift the pandemic measures and other Trump-era obstacles to asylum, Jacobson and other officials are asking for time to set up infrastructure for processing, alternatives to detention, and other needs. “We are… almost 50 days in,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said. “We are digging ourselves out of a broken and dismantled system.”
Republican leaders have ramped up their messaging about the increased migration numbers as evidence of a “Biden border crisis.” House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (D-California) plans to lead a delegation of Republicans to the border soon. “The border is breaking down as I speak,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) told Fox News. “Immigration in 2022 [midterm legislative elections] will be a bigger issue than it was in 2016.” Trump’s former acting DHS secretary, Chad Wolf, co-authored a Fox News column alleging that the Democratic Party’s plan is to allow larger numbers of undocumented aliens to enter, give them citizenship and turn them into loyal voters.
Texas’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, has probably received the most attention by alleging that admissions of asylum seekers are spreading COVID-19. In fact, as the Associated Press reported, there is no evidence to back up that claim. As he sends up to 1,000 state police and Texas military forces to the border, Gov. Abbott is refusing the Biden administration’s offer of Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) money for Texas communities to provide COVID-19 testing for asylum-seeking migrants and to cover other costs associated with their arrival.
As foreseen in an early February White House executive order, the Departments of State and Homeland Security reinstated the Central American Minors program. This Obama-era effort allowed nearly 5,000 children to apply within their own countries to migrate to join parents with legal status in the United States. The Trump administration abruptly canceled the program in 2017, stranding about 3,000 kids who had been approved for travel.
The Biden administration announced on March 8 that it will offer Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 18 months to an estimated 320,000 Venezuelan migrants living in the United States.
At her March 10 White House briefing, Amb. Roberta Jacobson addressed plans for a four-year, $4 billion aid package to Central America to address the “root causes” of migration. She noted that unlike prior aid packages, there would be an effort to steer aid away from corrupt government leaders and toward civil society, the private sector, and other reformers. That dovetails with the recommendation of former Obama White House official Dan Restrepo, who wrote in Foreign Affairs that “where corrupt governing elites are resistant to change, Washington should partner with civil society.”
The ACLU sent a letter to DHS Secretary Mayorkas detailing 13 administrative complaints about abuse committed by border agents, which the organization had filed with the DHS Inspector General between 2019 and 2020. None of the cases have moved.
Reuters reports on smugglers’ increasing use of color-coded wristbands to indicate that migrants traveling through Mexico and crossing the border have “paid for the right to transit through cartel territory.”
The Cato Institute obtained official data pointing to a 41 percent or greater increase in successful “illegal entries” of migrants—what Border Patrol calls “got-aways”—during the Trump administration. Border agents meanwhile told the Washington Post that they counted 1,000 got-aways in a single day in February.
DHS Secretary Mayorkas is testifying in the House Committee on Homeland Security on March 17.
In its four years, the Trump administration “filled two-thirds of the immigration courts’ 520 lifetime positions with judges who, as a whole, have disproportionately ordered deportation,” Reuters reveals.
DHS builds up capacity for protection-seeking migrants as numbers rise
Right now the vast majority of migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, including many who would ask for asylum or other forms of protection, are being swiftly expelled under a Trump-era pandemic measure known as Title 42. The Biden administration has been taking steps, though, to increase capacity to process apprehended migrants who seek protection.
“Processing” means background checks, health screenings, and filing of asylum request paperwork. When Title 42 isn’t expelling them, most single adult asylum seekers get placed in ICE detention to await hearings in the immigration court system. Families with children, though, are usually enrolled in “alternatives to detention” programs and released into the U.S. interior to await hearing dates. This process should take less than 72 hours, especially when children are involved, but Customs and Border Protection (CBP)’s capacity is often limited by the space and personnel available at ports of entry and Border Patrol stations.
The Department of Homeland Security is boosting asylum seekers’ processing by:
Building temporary facilities—called “soft-sided” because much of the infrastructure is tents—at Donna, in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley (where a large processing facility, built in 2014 and famed for its chain-link fencing “cages,” is undergoing renovation); and soon at Eagle Pass, on the border in south-central Texas; and then at four or more additional sites across the border.
Repurposing two controversial ICE family detention facilities that opened during the Obama administration in Dilley and Karnes, Texas, which migrant rights advocates have long derided as “baby jails.” Instead of holding them until they can see an available asylum officer for a credible fear interview (or even longer), asylum-seeking families will be taken to Dilley (2,400 beds) and Karnes (839 beds) for rapid processing, then released to await screening and/or hearings. “The goal is to process and release 100 families per day,” according to plans seen by the Washington Post. If those centers fill up, an ICE contractor will transport families to hotels.
Hiring 300 Border Patrol processing coordinators, with a three-year goal of hiring 1,200, who will carry out most duties at these processing centers, freeing up “regular” agents whose training is in law enforcement, not asylum processing.
(These processing improvements are distinct from the opening of temporary shelters for unaccompanied children, discussed below. By the time they reach the shelters, unaccompanied kids have already been processed.)
“A detention center is not where a family belongs,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told NBC News on Thursday, adding, “I believe asylum seekers, individuals who claim credible fear by reason of their membership in a particular social group, should have the opportunity to present those claims to U.S. authorities. And they should be able to present those claims in an orderly, efficient, and safe way.”
We may be seeing the outlines of a different vision for handling the border’s changed reality of asylum-seeking, mostly child-and-family, migration—which in many years since 2014 has accounted for over a third, or even a majority, of all apprehended migrants. With sufficient capacity, migrants who fear for their lives could present at a border port of entry rather than cross the Rio Grande or climb a fence. They could then be taken to processing centers, screened for credible fear, placed into alternatives to detention, and have their cases adjudicated as quickly as due process allows.
That vision is far off right now, as most migrants continue to be expelled under the Title 42 pandemic order. For the moment, only three categories of asylum-seeking migrants stand a reasonable chance of being released into the United States to await their hearings:
Unaccompanied children from non-contiguous countries. (The Trump administration sought to expel unaccompanied children, but a court order had prohibited that during Trump’s last two months in office.)
Family units (parents with children) who ask for protection, from countries to where Title 42 expulsions are difficult, like Cuba and Venezuela. (The Trump administration had been applying the now-suspended “Remain in Mexico” policy to these families, sending them to Mexican border towns.)
A small number of Central American families with young children, whom authorities in Tamaulipas, Mexico, have not permitted to be expelled back across the border.
A fourth category is the tightly controlled flow of asylum seekers subject to the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, or “Remain in Mexico”) program, who since February 19 have begun entering the United States. Technically, these individuals were “processed” the moment they enrolled in the program, which in some cases was nearly two years ago. As of March 2, 862 people subject to MPP had been allowed to cross into the United States to await their asylum hearings.
Everyone else is subject to Title 42 expulsion. “They need to wait. It takes time to rebuild the system from scratch,” Mayorkas said on March 1. “We are not saying, ‘Don’t come.’ We are saying, ‘Don’t come now because we will be able to deliver a safe and orderly process to them as quickly as possible.’”
Adjustments underway to handle increased arrivals of unaccompanied minors
Those getting a lot of media attention are migrants in category (1) above: children arriving without parents. A 2008 law requires that unaccompanied children not from Mexico or Canada be delivered quickly to custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which runs a network of shelters. Children in these shelters are then placed with relatives or other sponsors in the United States. Pandemic measures, though, have reduced this network’s 13,200-bed capacity to 8,000, and even with the late-February opening of a 700-bed “influx facility” in Carrizo Springs, Texas, ORR is now at 94 percent of its reduced limit.
The administration projects that 117,000 unaccompanied migrant children could cross the border in fiscal 2021, which would shatter the record of 76,020 set in 2019. It expects their numbers to peak at 13,000 in May, up from 5,707 in January. We are still awaiting CBP’s February border migration data, but briefing slides seen by Axios point to “some 6,000 migrants aged 16 and 17” apprehended last month. Over the 21 days ending March 3, CNN reported, Border Patrol apprehended a daily average of 340 unaccompanied children.
When ORR shelters fill up and the agency can’t accommodate new intakes, apprehended minors end up spending more than the legally mandated maximum of 72 hours in Border Patrol’s austere holding facilities, which were designed for single adults’ short stays. The average time spent in these facilities, according to CNN, is now 77 hours. Border Patrol had 1,300 children in custody on March 2 waiting for HHS placement. In Yuma, Arizona, as of March 3 more than 600 people were crowded into a Border Patrol space designed for 104. In the Rio Grande Valley, more than 2,000 were in a space meant for 715.
In order to deal with the backup of unaccompanied children:
ORR is adjusting its existing shelters’ COVID-19 protocols to make room for an additional 2,000 children.
ORR is reopening another temporary influx facility south of Miami in Homestead, Florida, which migrant advocates revilebecause of past allegations of sexual abuse while it was under a for-profit corporation’s management, and because of its proximity to a Superfund toxic waste site.
ORR is implementing measures to free up shelter space by speeding children’s placement with relatives or sponsors. These include database improvements for relatives’ background checks, payment of some minors’ transportation costs, and no longer asking sponsors to provide their Social Security numbers.
President Biden is dispatching “senior members of his team” to the border, Reuters reports, so that upon return they may brief him on options for responding to the increase in unaccompanied minors.
Administration rejects opponents’ narrative of a “crisis”
March, April, and May are often the busiest months of the year for migrant apprehensions, and factors ranging from a regional pandemic economic depression to a new U.S. administration may make the spring of 2021 especially heavy.
Though the vast majority are being quickly expelled, Reuters reported that Border Patrol encountered 4,500 migrants on March 3 alone. If sustained over 31 days, that pace would mean 139,500 migrant encounters, the largest monthly total since 2006. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a conservative Democrat who represents a border district including Laredo, Texas, put out a March 4 release reporting that in one of CBP’s nine border sectors—the Rio Grande Valley of Texas—Border Patrol had encountered 10,000 migrants over the previous week. (In January, the Rio Grande Valley accounted for 23 percent of all border migrant encounters.) Rep. Cuellar said Border Patrol was temporarily transferring “hundreds” of agents to the sector.
Further west in El Paso, Texas, the situation appears quieter: “The only migrants coming through El Paso are those in the Migrant Protection Protocols [‘Remain in Mexico’],” Mayor Oscar Leeser told the Dallas Morning News.
Asked at a White House press briefing, “How is this not a crisis?” DHS Secretary Mayorkas rejected the term. “I have explained that quite clearly. We are challenged at the border.” The administration’s political opponents, though, have accelerated messaging to portray the border situation as a crisis.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott, facing criticism of his decision to lift all COVID-19 public health measures, repeatedly alleged that the Biden administration is “importing COVID” by allowing some asylum-seeking migrants to enter the country. In Brownsville, 108 migrants released by Border Patrol have tested positive for the virus—6.3 percent of those tested. This does not include those admitted from the “Remain in Mexico” program, who must test negative before crossing the border. Nor is it clear how this positivity rate might compare to that of the untested tens of thousands of people who cross the border into Texas legally every day. Most released migrants in the Rio Grande Valley end up at the local Catholic Charities respite center, which refers those who test positive to area hotels to quarantine.
Meanwhile, CNN reports that Abbott has yet to approve a DHS offer of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds to help test released migrants for the virus. “Based on the numbers I’ve seen, the percentages of migrants who have COVID are very low,” Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents El Paso, told the Dallas Morning News. “The governor of Texas knows that this kind of xenophobia, racism, and hate fuel hate crime.”
Still, ex-president Donald Trump used his February 28 speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to allege that Biden is seeking “to cancel border security.” And a visit to the foxnews.com “Immigration” page shows the network flooding the zone with an average of two stories per hour promoting the “border crisis” narrative.
We’re still awaiting CBP’s release of February numbers to see to what extent migration increased over the last few months of the Trump administration, when Border Patrol’s migrant encounters were already exceeding a very high 70,000 per month. Again, the vast majority continue to be expelled within hours under pandemic measures while the Biden administration slowly builds capacity to process them.
President Biden met virtually with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on March 1. The presidents committed—with no public discussion of specifics—“to immigration policies that recognize the dignity of migrants and the imperative of orderly, safe, and regular migration,” and “to collaborate on a joint effort to address the root causes of regional migration, to improve migration management, and to develop legal pathways for migration.” President López Obrador reportedly proposed the reinstatement of a guest-worker arrangement like the old Bracero program that ran until the 1960s. That, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, would require Congress to pass legislation.
Migrant smugglers crammed 44 people into two SUVs on March 2 and drove them through a gap where an entire panel of late 2000s-era border fence had been removed, probably with a high-powered saw. One of the vehicles burst into flames shortly afterward, and all 19 aboard survived. Another SUV, carrying 25 passengers, collided with a semi truck on a southeast California highway. Thirteen of those aboard died.
A coalition of nearly 70 organizations, including WOLA, sent a report (not yet public) to Biden administration officials specifying priority sections of the Trump administration’s border wall that need to be removed, chiefly for environmental reasons.
Democratic leadership says that the House of Representatives will take up two immigration bills next week: the Farm Workforce Modernization Act and the American Dream and Promise Act.
“CBP has deployed about 28 percent of the surveillance and subterranean technology solutions planned, even after receiving more than $700 million in funding since fiscal year 2017,” according to a report from the DHS Inspector General.
Children and parents brought back together by the Biden administration’s new family reunification task force might have the option to remain in the United States, said Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas, who said he’d “explore legal pathways” to making that happen.
Former Trump attorney general Jeff Sessions, the architect of the “zero tolerance” policy that led to thousands of family separations in 2017 and 2018, voiced mild regret in an interview with Reuters, though he mainly placed the blame beyond the Justice Department: “It was unfortunate, very unfortunate, that somehow the government was not able to manage those children in a way that they could be reunited properly. It turned out to be more of a problem than I think any of us imagined it would be.”
The Dominican Republic, whose CESFRONT border security force has received past U.S. assistance, including CBP training, has announced plans to build a fence along its entire 236-mile border with Haiti. Meanwhile, internal DHS communications revealed by BuzzFeed indicate that U.S. officials recognize that they are expelling Haitian migrants to potential danger, as ICE planes return them during a period of unusually severe political instability.