Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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Border Security

Weekly border update: November 27, 2020

There’s so much happening at the U.S.-Mexico border—much of it outrageous, some of it heroic—that it’s hard to keep track. With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments in 900 words or less. We welcome your feedback.

Hurricanes expected to bring a rise in migration

In the aftermath of Hurricane Eta, which made landfall in Central America on November 3, and Hurricane Iota, which hit in almost the exact spot on November 16, aid workers and community leaders are telling media to expect a new wave of migration as many of the storms’ hardest-hit victims head north.

The hurricanes come on top of a COVID-19-related economic depression, which added to some of the world’s highest levels of criminal violence, in one of the world’s regions most susceptible to the impact of climate change.

Resulting migration “is going to be much bigger than what we have been seeing,” Jenny Arguello, a sociologist who studies migration flows in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, told the AP. “I believe entire communities are going to leave.” Added Mauro Verzeletti, director of the Casa del Migrante in Guatemala City, “They’ve already started to come, it has begun.”

Journalists from Mexico and Honduras wrote in a Washington Post column that the phrase “we’re taking a trip in January” is being heard in northern Honduras neighborhoods hit by the hurricanes. Alberto Pradilla and Jennifer Ávila recommend that President-Elect Joe Biden offer or expand Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to citizens of the affected countries, and end the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” (or Migrant Protection Protocols, MPP) policy, which has sent more than 70,000 asylum-seeking migrants back across the border to await their hearings in Mexico.

Migrants who seek to travel in “caravans” are unlikely to succeed: Mexican and Guatemalan forces have dispersed all attempted caravans since 2019. Those who pay large amounts to migrant smugglers are more likely to make it across Mexico to the U.S. border. But then, it’s not clear how quickly the Biden administration will dismantle MPP or the blanket CDC quarantine order that has quickly expelled most asylum seekers since March.

“If Biden hits reverse too hard, it could cost him politically,” observes Bloomberg Opinion columnist Noah Smith. Already, publications like the archconservative Washington Times have begun using the phrase “Biden surge” to describe increases in undocumented migration that actually began during the summer. CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan alleged that “perceived and or anticipated shifts in policies” once Biden takes office are a factor driving the increase.

Alejandro Mayorkas, DHS secretary nominee, may go slow on border and asylum

The Biden transition announced its choice of Alejandro Mayorkas, the Cuban-born son of Jewish parents who headed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) during the Obama administration, as its nominee for Secretary for Homeland Security. The Washington Post described Mayorkas as “a savvy department veteran” whose choice “thrilled immigrant advocates.”

Mayorkas oversaw the rollout of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, while gaining a reputation for, former acting DHS secretary Rand Beers told The New York Times, balancing “a vigilance of security threats with an interest in helping immigrants in need.”

Bloomberg’s Smith expects a Secretary Mayorkas to take a go-slow approach to dismantling the Trump administration’s curbs on asylum for Central American migrants. “Biden may even negotiate new, though less rigid, agreements to keep some asylum seekers at home as the administration tries to improve living conditions in those countries,” he noted. Much, too, will be up to Biden’s choice to head the Department of Justice, which has jurisdiction over the immigration court system and its interpretation of asylum criteria.

Mayorkas sits on the board of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which has played a central role in the humanitarian and legal response to “Remain in Mexico” in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and elsewhere. Still, observers caution that MPP may not disappear immediately after the inauguration. Fernando García of the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights told NBC that it remains unclear what will happen to those who have been “remaining in Mexico” for many months already, or how it might apply to a new wave of migrants. “To end it doesn’t mean now we have the capacity to bring everyone back right away and I’m very concerned. How are we going to handle it?”

McAllen processing facility closes for renovation

Processing capacity is the most crucial short-term need when a large number of protection-seeking migrants appears at the border. Border authorities need the ability to receive migrants at ports of entry, then quickly take personal and biometric information, scan for health issues, begin asylum paperwork, and enter people into refugee resettlement or alternatives-to-detention programs.

In Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, a warehouse-sized Central Processing Facility (CPC) played that role since the Obama administration’s CBP established it in 2014. Though migrants’ stays there rarely exceeded 72 hours, the facility gained notoriety for dehumanizing images of the cheap chain-link “cages” the facility used to separate groups.

The Washington Post reports that the CPC is to undergo renovation, in part using funds for upgrades in a 2019 emergency supplemental appropriation. This time, the Post notes, the chain link will be replaced “with clear plastic dividers,” with “more recreation and play areas for children, as well as more permanent kitchen, infirmary and shower facilities.”

The renovation will take a year and a half—which means no processing infrastructure will be available in the Rio Grande Valley if there is a wave of protection-seeking migration early in the Biden administration. The most likely solution will be to construct something temporary, like a “soft-sided” or tent-based facility.

Links

  • Laura Weiss at The New Republic and Catherine Rampell at The Washington Post explore transitional justice or other non-repetition guarantees that a Biden administration might pursue to hold Trump officials accountable for “one of the largest-scale, ethnically motivated human rights abuses perpetrated by the U.S. government since Japanese internment.”
  • The latest in a two-year series of quarterly reports on “metering” at border ports of entry, published by the University of Texas’s Strauss Center, finds approximately 15,690 asylum seekers, in 9 Mexican border cities, currently on waitlists to have a chance to ask officials for protection.
  • The Trump administration, reversing itself, agreed to delay the imminent deportation of as many as a dozen women who alleged medical abuse at the Irwin County ICE detention center in Georgia.
  • NBC News reports on 28 migrant children and their asylum-seeking parents who are now facing deportation after months in a family detention center, where they refused an ICE offer to allow the children to stay in the United States, in custody of the office of Refugee Resettlement, if they separated from their parents.
  • A new GAO report on the status of eminent domain cases for wall construction, mostly in South Texas, detailed plans to acquire 1,016 tracts of private land totaling 3,752 acres.
  • The Hill reports on a “coming showdown” between the Trump administration and House Democrats about whether border wall money will be in the 2021 federal budget. Congress needs to pass a budget—or approve a continuing resolution— by December 11 to avoid a “government shutdown”, and the House and Senate bills differ wildly on border wall funding. There is some likelihood, though, that Joe Biden, who has pledged to stop wall construction, would be able to transfer any wall-building funds in the 2021 budget to other priorities.

A few important border graphics

Late Thursday, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released a pile of data about migration and drug seizures at the U.S.-Mexico border in October.

Here are some key trends. Click on any graphic to expand in a new window. You can download a PDF packet of more than 30 of these infographics at bit.ly/wola_border.

The Trump administration has been around for 46 months (yes I know). Of those 46, October 2020 saw the 7th largest number of undocumented migrants apprehended at the border. And now they can’t blame it on “loopholes” or agents being constrained. They’re implementing some of the hardest-line anti-migration tactics ever, express-expelling most everybody, including asylum seekers, under a March 2020 CDC quarantine order.
Under the CDC border closure, US authorities have now express-expelled undocumented migrants 266,367 times. (The actual number of individual people is fewer, because some have been caught more than once.) At least 13,000 of those expelled were children who arrived unaccompanied, and were pushed back to their home countries unaccompanied.
Border Patrol is apprehending more single adults than at any time in the past decade. While there’s double-counting here because “expelled” migrants often make a second or third attempt quickly, this is a dramatic change in the profile of migrants. Many of them may be deportees seeking to reunite with spouses, children, or other family members. Nearly all seek to avoid apprehension, which means it’s likely that more will die of dehydration or exposure in deserts and other wilderness areas.
For much of the 2010s, a large number—often a majority—of apprehended migrants were children and families, usually seeking to be apprehended in order to petition for asylum or other protection. Draconian Trump policies like “Remain in Mexico” reduced child and family asylum-seeking migration—but it has been slowly recovering in recent months.
Expulsions mean it’s virtually impossible for a parent or child who needs protection to do so by approaching a port of entry (official border crossing).
Mexico’s migrant apprehensions recovered in September to pre-pandemic levels. The overwhelming majority are from Central America.
After a pandemic lull, applications for asylum before Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR recovered to early 2020 levels in October.
Something is up with drug seizures. I had to increase the y-axis on three of these charts because of a big jump from September to October. Nearly all seizures occurred at ports of entry where CBP officers inspect vehicles, not between the ports where Border Patrol operates.

Weekly Border Update: November 20, 2020

There’s so much happening at the U.S.-Mexico border—much of it outrageous, some of it heroic—that it’s hard to keep track. With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments in 900 words or less. We welcome your feedback.

October sees another big jump in undocumented migration

CBP reported on November 19 that, during October, Border Patrol apprehended 66,337 undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. (CBP encountered another 2,900 migrants at border ports of entry.) That was the most apprehensions since July 2019. It was the heaviest October since 2005. It was the 7th largest monthly total during the Trump administration’s 46 months.

57,206 of those apprehended, 86%, were single adults: by far the largest monthly single-adult total for the months we have data (since October 2011).

We say “apprehensions,” not “people,” as there may be some double-counting of migrants who were caught more than once. CBP reported a 37% “recidivism rate”—the portion of people caught more than once—between April and September 2020, up from 7 percent in FY 2019.

A key reason for high recidivism is the Trump administration’s pandemic policy, laid out in a March 2020 CDC order, of rapidly expelling nearly all undocumented migrants, with minimal processing. CBP is expelling Mexican and Central Americans back into Mexico, usually in less than 90 minutes, regardless of the migrants’ protection needs. US authorities expelled undocumented migrants 266,367 times between March and October. (See a May 2020 joint statement condemning the expulsion policy.)

As they involve minimal time in detention, and reduce the effort needed to cross again, the rapid expulsions facilitate repeat attempts. Migrant smugglers praised the pandemic policy in interviews with Reuters. They “often attempt to get migrants back across the border the very same day they are deported.” Their fees, “which can be $7,000, or double that,” for Central Americans, usually involve a “package” of two or three attempted border crossings. The border expulsions save smugglers money, as they don’t have to transit their clients all the way across Mexico again. One said the cost of that trip is “at least $800 per migrant paying off drug cartels for the right to transit through their turf,” plus funds for food, shelter, transportation, and bribes to Mexican authorities.

WOLA and others have been warning about a coming wave of migration from Central America and Mexico, due to persistently severe violence, climate-related crop failures, the COVID-19 economic depression, and now two strong hurricanes hitting Central America during the first half of November. That wave now appears to be underway.

A few other notes from the latest CBP data:

  • Apprehensions of children and families rose to their highest level since the pre-pandemic month of December 2019.
  • Mexico’s share of the apprehended population was 63%, up from a low of 13% in May 2019 but down from a high of 81% in May and June 2020.
  • Something is up with drug seizures. CBP seized 101% more heroin, 58% more fentanyl, 57% more cocaine, and 33% more methamphetamine in October than in September. 89% of fentanyl, and more than 90% of the other drugs, were seized at ports of entry.

Download WOLA’s package of border graphics illustrating this data, as a 4.5MB .pdf file, at bit.ly/wola_border.

Court says unaccompanied children can’t be expelled

Under the March 2020 CDC order, U.S. border authorities have expelled nearly all migrants who would otherwise be petitioning for asylum or other protection in the United States. Those expelled include at least 13,000 children from non-contiguous countries who arrived at the border unaccompanied. Before the pandemic measures, these children would have been automatically placed in custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement and entered into asylum proceedings, as mandated by the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA). Most troublingly, the New York Times reported in October that CBP had expelled some non-Mexican children, unaccompanied, back into Mexico.

On November 18 DC District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan, a Clinton appointee, ordered a stop to the expulsions of unaccompanied children, agreeing with ACLU-represented plaintiffs that the COVID-19 border measures cannot supersede the TVPRA. All other undocumented migrants at the border, however, remain subject to immediate expulsion.

In another victory for migrant children’s rights, Mexico published in its official register a legal change prohibiting its longstanding practice of holding children in its migrant detention centers. Mexico will instead transfer undocumented migrant children to its federal family welfare agency.

Speculation about what Biden might do with the border wall

During the 2020 campaign, President-Elect Joe Biden pledged to stop the Trump administration’s border wall construction. In August, he told reporters, “there will not be another foot of wall constructed on my administration.”

How Biden might do that, and how far he might go, was the topic of analyses published last week by The Arizona Republic, NPR, The Daily Beast, and Arizona NPR’s Fronteras Desk.

Some of the issues these analyses identified:

  • Ending the February 2019 “national emergency” declaration and other measures that Donald Trump has used to transfer approximately $10 billion from the Defense Department’s budget into wall-building. Biden can do this easily by withdrawing Trump’s declaration.
  • Canceling or modifying 27 existing contracts, with 11 different contractors, for border wall construction. While these contracts include clauses allowing a halt to work, which are standard in government procurement procedure, they may involve termination fees, and contractors could bring disputes to the federal government’s Court of Federal Claims.
  • Desisting from eminent-domain lawsuits to seize private property owners’ land for new wall, mainly in Texas: “End. Stop. Done. Over. Not going to do it. Withdraw the lawsuits. We’re out. We’re not going to confiscate the land,” Biden said in August. He can do this easily by pulling the suits.
  • Biden has not specified whether he would dismantle any wall. Advocates are urging the incoming administration to take it down in remote areas where it threatens fragile ecosystems, like Arizona’s Quitobaquito Springs and San Pedro River, along important wildlife migration routes, and at sites sacred to indigenous communities.

Weekly border update: November 13, 2020

Between Labor Day and Election Day, I produced super-brief weekly border and migration updates on a trial basis. We sent them to WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list, but didn’t advertise them widely because we wanted to evaluate how the trial run went. It went well: the “open rates” for the updates were quite high, and it proved to be a good exercise for me to take an hour summarizing, in as few words as possible, what’s been happening at the border.

So here’s a new feature: a weekly border update.

There’s so much happening at the U.S.-Mexico border—much of it outrageous, some of it heroic—that it’s hard to keep track. With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments in 900 words or less. We welcome your feedback.

Biden’s plans for the border and migration

After narrowly taking Arizona, President-Elect Joe Biden became the second Democratic Party presidential candidate to win three border states since 1964. While Donald Trump continues to deny the result, Biden has released lists of “agency review teams” for the transition, including a list for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) heavy with former officials and think-tank experts.

Biden’s team has also telegraphed to media some of the actions it might take in the days after January 20 to undo Trump’s hardline border and migration policies. As no laws were passed (other than appropriations) during the Trump administration, nearly everything can be undone through executive action. Changes include:

  • Reinstating Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which provides work permits and shields from deportation 650,000 undocumented people who were brought to the United States as children. The Obama-era program, which the Supreme Court at least temporarily stopped Trump from ending, can be revived with as little as a presidential memo, and possibly expanded in include more than 400,000 more eligible people who have been unable to apply.
  • Stopping all ongoing border wall construction, which would mean terminating contracts and desisting from eminent-domain property seizures. It is not yet clear whether the Biden administration would dismantle any wall that Trump has built, or whether it would fund remediation in places where wall-building has damaged fragile ecosystems.
  • Ending the Remain in Mexico (“Migrant Protection Protocols” or MPP) program, which has forced about 70,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their hearings in Mexico. Though Biden has pledged to end MPP, it’s still not clear how quickly that would happen, or when those currently waiting in Mexican border cities will be let into the United States. Still, news of Biden’s victory sparked celebrations in a tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, where nearly 1,000 people subject to MPP have been waiting for as much as a year.
  • Withdrawing from “safe third country” agreements committing El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to receiving asylum-seeking citizens from third countries and allowing them to seek protection in their barely existing asylum systems.
  • Probably preserving Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for approximately 300,000 migrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan, Nepal, and Honduras, many of whom have been in the United States for many years. And most likely offering TPS to many Venezuelans currently in the United States.
  • Creating a task force to help locate hundreds of migrant parents separated from their children at the border in 2017 and 2018. The number of kids whose parents can’t be located has risen to 666.
  • Reinstating the Obama-era Central American Minors program, which allowed some documented parents of children in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to bring those children to the United States, in some cases receiving refugee status.
  • Rescinding the “travel ban” on 13 mostly African or majority Muslim countries.
  • Freezing deportations for 100 days while drafting guidance reducing the scope of whom immigration agents may detain.
  • Increasing the annual refugee admissions cap to 125,000, up from the Trump administration’s 2021 target of 15,000 and from 110,000 in the last year of the Obama administration.

The Biden team has not indicated whether it would alter the March 2020 Center for Disease Control (CDC) order mandating rapid expulsion of nearly all migrants apprehended at the border, including unaccompanied children and asylum seekers. CBS News reported that Biden’s campaign promised to “direct the CDC to review the expulsions policy ‘to ensure that people have the ability to submit their asylum claims while ensuring that we are taking the appropriate COVID-19 safety precautions.’”

While all of this can happen through executive action, the new administration may have to go slow with some of these steps, particularly those that were implemented with new regulations, in order to avoid or overcome likely court challenges.

A hurricane could mean more migration from Central America

The end of Trump’s hard line on immigration has triggered speculation about a wave of undocumented migration, much of it protection-seeking, at the border early in Joe Biden’s term. That wave, however, may come before January 20.

Guatemala and Honduras, already battered by gang violence, climate-related reductions in crop yields, and COVID-19, were hit hard by Hurricane Eta during the week of November 1. Eta was the worst natural disaster to hit Central America since Hurricane Mitch, which killed more than 11,000 people in 1998. Central American migration to the United States increased for years after Mitch, and we can expect something similar from the double blow of COVID and Eta.

“A new caravan is already coming together on social media due to the current situation in the country,” Karen Valladares, director of the Honduran migrant rights group FONAMIH, told Univision. Recent attempted “caravans” have been dispersed by security forces in Mexico and Guatemala; migrants are more likely to arrive by paying smugglers to get them across Mexico.

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei said that Guatemala would request that the U.S. government grant TPS to its citizens as a result of the storm, though he held out little hope of Donald Trump assenting.

Other links

  • DHS employees told BuzzFeed that they hope the Biden administration may end years of “chaos” at their department.
  • Vice and BuzzFeed report that women who witnessed or alleged non-consensual gynecological procedures at a Georgia ICE detention center are being deported.
  • The United States has swiftly deported 1,400 unaccompanied minors to Guatemala since March under the CDC order.

ICE’s Removals of Cubans and Venezuelans Have Spiked Under Trump

This week DHS released its latest Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, offering data through 2019. It includes a table (Table 41, use the Excel version to get all years) of how many citizens ICE sent back to each country.

Look what happened to removals of Cubans and Venezuelans since Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant administration took office in 2017. Note that this doesn’t count Venezuelans whom the administration, we’ve now learned, has been stealthily sending back to Caracas via third countries.

Recall that despite this, fuzzy initial data show Trump beating Joe Biden among Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American early voters in Miami-Dade, Florida, where much of this community lives.

Why? Because in a dirty social-media-heavy campaign reminiscent of Colombia’s 2016 peace plebiscite, the Trump campaign and its surrogates have successfully implanted the idea that Joe Biden is a communist who would support the regimes that they fled. It’s amazing that they’ve gotten away with this while spiking deportations back to those same regimes.

Your chances of getting asylum vary by an absurdly wide margin across immigration courts

Syracuse University’s TRAC Immigration project, which obtains and presents official data, just posted information about asylum decisions in U.S. immigration courts in 2020. They found that the courts granted asylum or other relief in only 28.4 percent of cases during the 2020 fiscal year, down from 45.4 percent in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration.

Also remarkable, when you dig into their database, is the disparity among immigration courts. Though judges are following the same laws and guidelines, they’re many, many times more willing to grant asylum in New York or San Francisco than they are in Houston or Atlanta. Nobody has a great explanation for why that is.

Find this chart, and a few dozen other border and migration data visualizations, at bit.ly/wola_border, a continually updated PDF document.

400 Miles of Harm: There is Nothing to Celebrate about Border Wall Construction

I was aware that DHS was getting close to completing 400 miles of Trump’s border wall, and was racing to complete that much before the election. So I’d anticipated that there’d be some huge obnoxious campaign event that we’d have to respond to.

When I got wind on Tuesday that a 400-mile commemoration ceremony was planned for today, that seemed to be it. I made the cursor move left-to-right as fast as I could and cranked out these 1,800 words on how much of the wall is actually “new,” what it’s costing us, and how it has harmed the environment, indigenous communities, property rights, foreign relations, checks and balances, and corruption protections.

And then… a nothingburger. This morning, DHS’s “Acting Chad” Wolf and Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Commissioner of CBP Mark Morgan held a lonely event with a few assembled reporters, in the shadow of the wall on an unseasonably cold day in south Texas. It might pick up some minor media attention, but it served more to highlight how little Donald Trump is bothering to talk about the border and migration during his increasingly bizarre re-election campaign.

My “rapid response” may have been a bit too amped up here. But I’m glad I produced this piece, which is a good “cheat sheet” for all that is wrong with Trump’s border wall.

So tired of this guy

At least Stephen Miller avoids the spotlight. The unconfirmed DHS secretary, “Acting Chad” Wolf, prefers to play the role of a monster in public, telling blatant lies about family separation, then following it up with a vroom-vroom joyride on an ATV.

Please vote if you haven’t yet.

At wola.org: Fixing a Culture that Protects and Rewards Abuse at U.S. Border Agencies

This was a hard one to write, it took about two and a half weeks to crank out 3,000 words, even though nearly all the research was already in my database.

The main reason is in the middle of it: the bulleted list of CBP and Border Patrol offenses that have happened so far in 2020, which I copy below.

It was just so damn grim and painful to point out the horrors being committed on U.S. soil, by a U.S. agency, by people who—for the most part—we’d probably genuinely like if we met them at a bar or on line at a supermarket.

Beyond this list, the commentary is about the big challenges that lie ahead in changing the organizational culture of our border and migration agencies. Please read it.

While past abuses like “family separation” and “kids in cages” shocked much of the nation, evidence of a perverse institutional culture persists in the 2020 calendar year.


  • In January, CBP and ICE agents assigned to serve as advisors in Guatemala ended up packing hundreds of Honduran migrants into rented, unmarked vans and shipping them back to Honduras, without even an opportunity to seek asylum. An October report by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic staff found that DHS lied to the State Department, which was funding the CBP and ICE presence in Guatemala, about the bizarre operational role its agents were playing.
  • In February, a Guatemalan woman reported that while she was in Border Patrol custody, agents ignored her requests for medical attention. As a result, she had to give birth with her pants on, while standing and clutching the side of a trash can in the Chula Vista, California Border Patrol station. She was sent to a nearby hospital, then returned to the Border Patrol station where she spent a night “without an adequate blanket for the baby.”
  • Since March, Border Patrol agents and CBP officers summarily expelled more than 150,000 Mexican and Central American migrants back into Mexico, usually in about 90 minutes or less, with no real opportunity to request asylum if they were fleeing lethal threats. This has been done in the name of COVID-19 protections, but we now know—thanks to AP and Wall Street Journal investigators—that the Centers for Disease Control had recommended against closing the border, only to be overruled by Vice President Mike Pence. 
  • That number includes 8,800 children apprehended while unaccompanied by an adult, then swiftly returned to their home countries while unaccompanied, between March and August. (September data are still pending.) Border agencies made zero effort to ensure these children’s safety upon expulsion or even track their whereabouts. Those to be flown back were warehoused in border-city hotels, guarded by an ICE contractor not certified for childcare, while awaiting their expulsion.
  • In June the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined that CBP had broken the law. A year earlier, Congress had appropriated money for the agency to improve its care of children and families in its custody, paying for items like blankets, food, and medicine. Instead, CBP spent much of the humanitarian appropriation on items like computer network upgrades, vaccines for CBP personnel, dog food, and dirt bikes.
  • In June, elite Border Patrol agents were among DHS personnel sent to Portland, Oregon—against the wishes of the mayor and governor—to confront protesters following the killing of George Floyd. While some protesters were violent, the agents’ crowd control tactics—which included grabbing people off of sidewalks into unmarked vans—did nothing to de-escalate the situation, nor did they incorporate best practices for de-escalation. If anything, their aggressive tactics prolonged the confrontations.
  • In July in El Paso, a Border Patrol agent ran over a 29-year-old Mexican man while pursuing him in his vehicle. Though injured, the migrant was deported within 48 hours. Border Patrol refuses to make public its vehicle pursuit policy.
  • In July, Maria Cristina Vargas Espinosa, a 38-year-old mother from Guanajuato, Mexico, died after falling from the border wall west of El Paso. She was at least the second person to die of such a fall this year: a pregnant Guatemalan woman and her unborn baby died of a fall in Clint, Texas, in March. Neither Border Patrol nor other local authorities disclosed Ms. Vargas’s death or bothered to investigate it; her relatives in Mexico only learned of her fate from her smuggler. Asked by El Paso Matters how often such incidents happen, a Border Patrol agent said that “a large number of people…get major injuries.” His main concern, though, was that “those hospital bills are ridiculous.”
  • In July in Arizona, dozens of rifle-bearing Border Patrol agents, accompanied by an armored vehicle and helicopters, raided a desert camp run on private land by No More Deaths, an organization that provides humanitarian aid in an area where thousands of migrants have died in this century of dehydration and exposure. Agents arrested migrants receiving medical attention, seized phones, photos, and records, and “trashed” No More Deaths’ camp.
  • In July, the libertarian publication Reason revealed a 2012 internal affairs report indicating that a CBP instructor had told “a room full of supervisors” that “if Border Patrol agents feel threatened by a migrant, they should ‘beat that tonk like a piñata until candy comes out.’” This was yet another appearance of the word “tonk” or “tonc,” Border Patrol slang for an undocumented migrant. Former agents say that the word originates from the sound a human skull makes when clubbed with an agent’s heavy Maglite flashlight. When an agent uses a weapon, he or she must file a memo about the incident; no paperwork is required for flashlights.
  • By August, only four Border Patrol agents, of unknown rank, had been fired for their involvement in a graphically offensive Facebook group. The group, “I’m 10-15,” whose members included 9,500 current and former agents, was revealed to exist a full year earlier. Twelve months after launching an investigation, “CBP has provided little new information about” the group “or its efforts to address toxic attitudes within the ranks,” reported ProPublica, the outlet that revealed the group’s existence.
  • In August Tianna Spears, a Black U.S. diplomat who had been assigned to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juárez, published a lengthy account in Politico about the blatant racial profiling to which CBP officers subjected her whenever she crossed back into El Paso. “[O]fficers in primary inspection still made sarcastic comments, cruel jokes and belittling jabs implying I was not a U.S. diplomat, not a U.S. citizen and had stolen my own car.”
  • In September Border Patrol used taxpayer money to produce a video depicting a fictionalized Spanish-speaking migrant whose first action after eluding agents is to kill a man in a dark alley. With evidence pointing to lower crime rates among undocumented migrants than among the general population, “The Gotawayvideo reinforces racist stereotypes to which, we hope, most Border Patrol personnel do not actually subscribe.
  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, local media in El Paso and Arizona have reported about CBP officers and Border Patrol agents going unmasked in their interactions with the public, from checkpoint encounters to the July raid on No More Deaths.
  • CBP’s rapid border wall construction is doing permanent environmental damage: gouging at mountains, draining a fragile desert oasis to mix cement, and sealing animals’ migratory routes. Members of Indigenous communities have been arrested for carrying out civil disobedience against the construction in California and Arizona. But the building continues, with no meaningful engagement with affected communities.
  • While ICE is not the focus of this analysis, any discussion of this year would be incomplete without recalling allegations of non-consensual surgeries performed on women at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia; the deportation of a woman alleging sexual abuse at the El Paso detention facility while investigations were ongoing; the storing of children and families in border-town hotel rooms under questionable supervision; a slipshod, hardline response to COVID-19 that has led to a cumulative total of 6,541 cases in detention, deportations of COVID-19-positive individuals to countries with weak public health systems; and a sharp increase this year in the use of pepper spray and other force against the agency’s detainees.

Beyond all of this are the everyday allegations of racial profiling, roughing up (called “tuning up”) of apprehended migrants, abusive language, maintenance of hieleras and other deliberately uncomfortable custody conditions, and a view that people exercising their legal right to seek asylum are, in President Trump’s words, “scammers” gaming the system.


Read the whole thing here.

3 devastating reports in 11 days

In case you missed it, three shocking reports released between September 14 and September 24 document abuse, neglect, and dehumanization in ICE’s network of mostly privately run migrant detention centers.

  • September 14: a whistleblower at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, run by LaSalle Corrections, filed a complaint alleging inadequate medical care, poor COVID-19 protections, and—most shockingly, though not as clearly documented—hysterectomies or other non-consensual medical procedures performed on women. Project South, an advocacy group, compiled and submitted the complaint from Dawn Wooten, a nurse who worked at the facility.
  • September 21: The House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee published a staff report based on visits to eight ICE facilities and interviews with 400 detainees over a year. It finds deficient medical care, abuse of solitary confinement as a form of retaliation, difficulty accessing legal and translation services, and unsanitary conditions.
  • September 24: The House of Representatives’ Oversight and Reform Committee published a staff report based on a 14-month investigation of for-profit contractors operating ICE detention centers. Among its horrifying findings: “several detainees died after receiving inadequate medical care, including issues that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and detention contractors had previously identified.”

Though activists will tell you “it’s always been like this,” these reports reinforce the sense that our country is slipping into a new age of barbarism. Thanks to these official and non-governmental investigators for their unflinching look into ICE’s opaque and mostly unnecessary network of privatized human suffering.

Official June data from the border: single adults are migrating in the desert heat

U.S. Customs and Border Protection did its monthly data dump yesterday, reporting on how many people the agency, which includes Border Patrol, apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border last month. As the Washington Post noted, the most notable trend was a 40% increase, over May, in the number of undocumented migrants that Border Patrol encountered—even as the border is mostly shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A year ago, the big story at the border was children and families from Central America seeking asylum. The Trump administration has illegally ended asylum at the border for nearly everyone, so numbers of kids and parents have dropped sharply.

Instead, graphing the data out shows that all of the increase is in single adults, mainly from Mexico. Adults are blue in the charts below.

Keep in mind that adults are less likely to be seeking asylum. This means they’re probably trying to avoid being apprehended by Border Patrol. That in turn means many are probably migrating through some of the remotest, most treacherous parts of the border—at the very height of summer, when the desert heat is at its worst. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, there may be a spike in migrant deaths on U.S. soil, from dehydration and exposure, as a result of the COVID-19 border crackdown. Already, official Border Patrol Twitter feeds are full of accounts of rescues.

These graphics, and a few dozen others, are always available as a big PDF file at http://bit.ly/wola_border. Also of interest there are the ones showing a pretty big June jump in drug seizures, again “despite the pandemic.”

Migration will increase at the border again. Don’t freak out.

Here’s a new, forward-looking analysis that I wrote with several of my colleagues at WOLA, working on it bit by bit over the past month.

The target audience for this are people who will be in policymaking positions after Election Day, and after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. Most of these people won’t want to keep the cruel and illegal Trump border and migration policies in place. But some of them might be tempted to leave them in place for a while, for fear of facing a “tsunami” of migration at the border.

That’s not necessary, we argue here. Through inexpensive, low-drama strategies that don’t fit on a bumper sticker, the U.S. government can manage migration at its southern border in an orderly, humane way.

It’s about ports of entry and processing, alternatives to detention, functioning immigration courts, rule of law assistance in Central America, and asylum capacity in Mexico.

Read more here. We’ll be slicing-and-dicing these arguments in order to get them in front of audiences that don’t have time to read more than a single page of bullet points.

COVID-19 Border Closure Could Lead to Jump in Migrant Deaths in Summer Months

While going through the latest border numbers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), I found something alarming.

  • Even though the U.S.-Mexico border is effectively closed, with U.S. authorities expelling nearly all Mexicans and Central Americans right back into Mexico, apprehensions of migrants jumped from April to May.
  • The increase in migration is entirely single adults, mostly from Mexico.
  • For the most part, single adults are not seeking asylum. Instead of trying to be apprehended, they’re trying to evade Border Patrol.
  • “Trying to evade” means migrating through some of the most dangerous parts of the border area, where a lot of migrants die of dehydration and exposure.
  • The numbers of single adults are rising just as we hit the hottest and deadliest months of the summer in the borderlands’ deserts.

I wrote this up as a brief, graphical analysis on WOLA’s website. Look at the overlap between the border sectors seeing the most single adult migrants, and the sectors that have been deadliest since 1998. People are going to die.

Read more here.

Dirt bikes and riot helmets are not humanitarian aid

Photo source: CBP.

A year ago, the U.S. Border Patrol and its parent agency, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), came under fire amid revelations of miserable and unsanitary conditions in holding cells overcrowded with apprehended children and families.

At the time, the U.S. Congress was considering legislation to provide more resources to deal with an influx of asylum-seeking migrants. Legislators included about $112 million for “consumables and medical care” to improve conditions for migrants being held for processing. Over opposition from progressive Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) agreed to approve a bill diminished by the Republican-majority Senate “in order to get resources to the children fastest.”

We’ve now learned that much of these resources didn’t reach the children at all.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a June 11 decision finding that instead of medicines, food, diapers, blankets, and other humanitarian needs, CBP diverted this “consumables and medical care” money into:

  • detention guard services;
  • boats;
  • all-terrain vehicles (ATVs); 
  • motorcycles;
  • dirt bikes; 
  • small utility vehicles;
  • passenger vans for moving detainees;
  • printers;
  • security camera systems;
  • speakers;
  • HVAC upgrades for CBP facilities;
  • sewer system upgrades for CBP facilities;
  • janitorial services;
  • canine supplies and services like dog food;
  • computer network upgrades “to analyze factual information in support of CBP’s border operations;”
  • the CBP-wide vaccine program for CBP personnel; and
  • “tactical gear and law enforcement equipment, such as riot helmets, and temporary portable structures.”

This is a stunning example of an agency defying the will of the legislative branch and its constitutional powers. The “consumables and medical care” outlay resulted from a long process of negotiation within Congress, and between Congress and the administration—but CBP just ignored it anyway. 

That it even sought, in the first place, to portray the items in the list above as meeting humanitarian needs indicates an agency that either doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, what “humanitarian” means. That’s a huge problem, because much of CBP’s duties over the past several years have been humanitarian. Most of the undocumented migrants its agents have encountered have been children or families seeking refuge in the United States. These spending decisions evidence a lack of basic human empathy that call into question CBP’s management, training, and organizational culture. 

GAO reports that “CBP plans to adjust its account for several of these obligations.” It should do so for all of them, or its management should be held in violation of the Antideficiency Act for so nakedly defying the will of the American people’s representatives in the U.S. Congress. 

WOLA Podcast: Practicing Asylum Law in El Paso: “MPP is just—it’s utterly insane”

I enjoyed recording this conversation with someone I admire a lot, El Paso-based asylum attorney Taylor Levy. Here’s the narrative from the WOLA podcast web page:

In mid-2019 the Trump administration ramped up its “Remain in Mexico” program, forcing tens of thousands of non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their hearing dates in Mexican border cities. In order to do her job, Taylor Levy, an asylum attorney in El Paso, Texas, found herself spending most of her time on the other side of the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

This gave Levy a firsthand look at the cruelties of the Trump administration’s war on the right to seek asylum at the border—some of them dramatic and shocking, some of them everyday outrages.

In March 2020, when the spread of COVID-19 made a border closure look more likely, Levy relocated to Ciudad Juárez in order to serve her clients. She remained there until the pandemic forced the hotel where she was staying to close down.

In this podcast, Taylor Levy shares some of her recent experiences and some dire warnings about what is to come. Hers is a gripping testimony about what it is like to be on the ground in the middle of one of the worst human rights crises in recent Latin American history—one created by U.S. policy.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

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