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: October 15, 2021

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.

Biden administration, complying with court order, will soon restart “Remain in Mexico”

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D), who represents Laredo, Texas, said October 13 that the Biden administration would roll out a revived “Remain in Mexico” program, as ordered by a Texas judge, “within the next month or so.” According to CQ/RollCall’s Suzanne Monyak, Cuellar said “That means that you’ll see the tents in the Laredo area be expanded.” By “tents,” the congressman was referring to temporary facilities by the port of entry where, during the Trump administration, asylum seekers forced to remain in Mexico attended their immigration hearings via videoconference.

The term “Remain in Mexico” refers to the so-called “Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP),” a program begun by the Trump administration in late 2018 and early 2019. It sought to deter and discourage would-be asylum seekers by forcing more than 71,000 of them to await their U.S. hearing dates on Mexican soil, where many were subjected to kidnapping, assault, and other crimes. Candidate Joe Biden criticized this program, and his administration quickly terminated it. On August 13, though, Amarillo, Texas District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk (a Trump appointee), responding to a suit brought by the Republican attorneys-general of Texas and Missouri, ordered the Biden administration to restart Remain in Mexico. The Supreme Court upheld this order while lower-court appeals continue.

At midnight on October 15, the Biden administration submitted its latest monthly filing, required by Judge Kacsmaryk, on the steps it has taken to restart the controversial program. The document reports that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been “recreating the administrative, personnel, physical, and policy framework necessary to operate MPP and are prepared to re-implement MPP in mid-November, subject to Mexico’s decision to accept those that the U.S. seeks to return.” It adds that “multiple discussions” have taken place with Mexican authorities, who would have to receive the asylum-seekers, about a re-start. Further, the filing notes that construction of Remain in Mexico hearing facilities has begun in Laredo and Brownsville, Texas, as Rep. Cuellar had partially indicated, at a cost of $14.1 million.

Mexico has not yet agreed to take back migrants subject to the Remain in Mexico program. It has not refused, either. A brief October 15 statement from Mexico’s Foreign Ministry expresses “concerns” about the program and about how the United States has implemented Title 42 pandemic-related migrant expulsions (discussed below), but notes that “Mexico will continue the dialogue.”

If the Biden administration finds itself implementing both Remain in Mexico and Title 42 at the same time, a possible result might be a two-tier system in which Mexico’s border towns receive two classes of non-Mexican migrants. The first class would be citizens of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, who might be expelled under the public health authority without even a chance to seek asylum. The second would be Spanish or Portuguese-speaking residents of the “other” countries, many of whom have been arriving in greater numbers lately, as discussed in a section below: Brazilians, Colombians, Cubans, Ecuadorians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans. Right now, Mexico does not accept citizens of these countries as Title 42 expulsions—but under a revived “Remain in Mexico” program, Mexico might receive them as people with pending asylum cases. Those from Mexico and the northern triangle would not have pending asylum cases due to Title 42.

U.S. asylum advocates have issued scathing responses, arguing that the Biden administration has had other options to keep from complying with the court order to re-start Remain in Mexico, such as more swiftly issuing a new memo to “re-terminate” the program with clearer wording about its decisionmaking process.

  • “Trump 2.0 policies at the border are a recipe for continued cruelty, disorder, and violations of refugee law,” Eleanor Acer of Human Rights First told The Hill. “The Biden administration must honor its promise to terminate this horrific program.”
  • “The Biden administration has had nearly two months to issue a new memo that addresses the district court’s concerns and formally terminate the MPP program for good,” said Jorge Loweree of the American Immigration Council. “The fact that it has not done so and is instead moving forward with plans to restart the program in November is a betrayal of the president’s campaign promises.”
  • “There is no humane way to implement a program that was intended by [Trump advisor] Stephen Miller as a way to torture asylum seekers as deterrence model after the national outcry to family separation,” tweeted advocate Alida García, who spent a short stint this year as a White House senior advisor for migration.

Official border crossings to reopen to vaccinated travelers, but “Title 42” persists

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced on October 12 that next month, after 19 months of pandemic-related closures, the United States’ land borders will once again open to documented foreign travelers coming for “non-essential” reasons—as long as they have proof of COVID-19 vaccination. Starting in early November, tourists or people visiting family members will once again be able to enter the United States from Mexico and Canada.

Those who enter will need to present paper or digital proof of having received a full dose of a vaccine approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization. Unlike those who arrive by air, those entering by land will not have to provide proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test.

The pandemic travel restrictions had reduced documented border crossings significantly. 92 million people or cargo vehicles crossed into the United States from Mexico during the first 6 months of 2021, a one-third reduction from 136 million in the first 6 months of 2019.

As it ends pandemic restrictions on documented border crossers, DHS is keeping in place the so-called “Title 42” policy of swiftly expelling undocumented border crossers, including people seeking asylum. A Biden administration official told CBS News that “the policy considerations are different because migrants are generally held in Border Patrol facilities where social distancing can’t be enforced.”

Between February and August 2021, the Biden administration’s DHS expelled undocumented migrants 704,019 times at the U.S.-Mexico border. 92,676 of them were traveling as families (parents and children). Mexicans and many citizens of Central America’s “northern triangle” countries were pushed back across the border into Mexico. Others, like nearly 8,000 Haitians since September 19, have been flown back to their countries, often in shackles or occasionally worse.

New data obtained by CBS News show that while DHS has carried out more than 1,163,582 expulsions since the Trump administration imposed Title 42 in March 2020, the agency has permitted only 3,217 asylum seekers to petition for protection in the United States, using the higher evidentiary standards of the UN Convention Against Torture. Of these, only 8 percent (272) passed their interviews.

“It’s a heartbreaking thing to see” the expulsions of “individuals who are seeking a better life,” Mayorkas told a conference in Qatar this week. But he insisted that “the Title 42 authority is a public health authority. And it is not an immigration policy. It is not an immigration policy that we in this administration would embrace. But we view it as a public health imperative as the Centers for Disease Control has so ordered.”

Public health experts dispute that. “It’s clearly something that is politically expedient and I think that’s dangerous,” Michele Heisler, the medical director at Physicians for Human Rights, told the American Prospect. Added Paul Spiegel of the Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health, “This is not a public-health issue, it’s a lack of immigration policy and I think we know that, and we can’t let them keep on.”

Harold Hongju Koh, a senior adviser on the State Department’s legal team, shared this assessment. A former dean of Yale University’s Law School and former assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Koh resigned his post on October 4, two days after issuing a memo calling the Title 42 policy “illegal and inhumane,” concluding, “It simply is not worthy of this Administration that I so strongly support.”

Yale Law School’s Lowenstein Project, together with 13 non-governmental organizations, submitted an emergency petition to the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) seeking precautionary protection measures for 31 asylum seekers subject to Title 42. “These expulsions,” it reads, “mark persons returned to Mexico as migrants trapped in Mexico, rendering them particularly vulnerable to this rampant violence, including kidnapping, sexual assault, extortion, and other forms of abuse at the hands of organized criminal groups and corrupt authorities.” Lee Gelernt, the ACLU attorney leading one of the main legal challenges to Title 42 in U.S. federal court, noted in the American Prospect that “evidence the organization submitted in trial court indicated that 20 percent to 40 percent of families [expelled under Title 42] are kidnapped by cartels.”

Aftermath of the Biden administration’s mass expulsion of Haitians

As covered at length in our September 27 update, for several days in mid-September a remote sector of the U.S.-Mexico border in Del Rio, Texas saw the sudden arrival of nearly 15,000 mostly Haitian migrants, nearly all of them seeking to turn themselves in to U.S. authorities and request asylum. The Biden administration dealt with the influx by applying Title 42, expelling most of those who did not return to Mexico.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) paid GEO Group, a controversial private prison and immigrant detention center operator, over $15 million to operate a swift tempo of flights expelling migrants back to Port-au-Prince and Cap Haïtien, Haiti. Most of those expelled via air had not lived in Haiti in a long time: they had fled to South America in the years after a devastating 2010 earthquake, living and working in Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere until the pandemic caused employment to dry up. They then braved the dangers of the multi-country journey northward—including Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap jungles—only to be shackled, placed on aircraft, and returned without any chance to ask for protection in the United States.

The expulsion flights began on September 19. Since then—according to Tom Cartwright, who monitors flights for Witness at the Border—there have been 74 flights expelling about 7,900 people to Haiti. The pace appears to be slowing as the number of Haitians in custody has no doubt declined. By comparison, Cartwright points out, the United States repatriated just 5,659 Haitians over the 40 months between January 2018 and April 2021. Counting people sent to Haiti from Mexico, Cuba, the Bahamas, and intercepted at sea, the International Organization for Migration counts 10,218 expulsions and returns since September 19.

It remains unclear how such a large number of Haitians made it all the way across Mexico virtually undetected in mid-September, just weeks after Mexican security and immigration forces harshly blocked four mass attempts to leave the southern state of Chiapas. Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News looked into it and found “a well-organized effort by human smuggling organizations facilitated through social media, and by Mexican authorities who either looked the other way or were simply overwhelmed.” Ruben Figueroa of the Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano told Corchado of Haitians suddenly being allowed to board vehicles in the southern border-zone city of Tapachula, Chiapas, where Mexican forces had earlier been confining them. “This just doesn’t happen without the complicity of government authorities,” Figueroa said.

Tens of thousands of migrants from Haiti and other countries remain in Tapachula. There since late September, Mexico’s overwhelmed refugee agency (COMAR) has been attempting to process roughly 2,000 asylum seekers per day at the city’s soccer stadium.

Further south, the number of mostly Haitian refugees waiting in Colombia’s Caribbean coast town of Necoclí to board ferries to Panama’s dangerous Darién Gap region has risen to 22,000, up from the 17,000 to 19,000 noted in our October 4 update. Colombian migration authorities report at least 82,000 arrivals in Necoclí since January. Panama’s National Migration Service counted 88,514 emerging through the Darién as of late September, according to Reuters. Of those, 19,000 were minors, perhaps half of them under the age of 5, according to UNICEF.

Journalists continue to document the extreme dangers of the 60-mile pedestrian journey through the Darién, which was once regarded as nearly impenetrable. NPR’s John Otis accompanied a lone Cuban migrant for the start of the trip, before he crossed into Panama, in an audio report posted October 11.

In Colombia, where Secretary of State Antony Blinken is to visit next week for a “high level dialogue,” President Iván Duque said he plans to ask the Biden administration to send messages to Haitian migrants that would “minimize expectations” of being granted protection in the United States.

More scrutiny of migrants from beyond Mexico and the Northern Triangle

In August 2021, 29 percent of migrants U.S. authorities encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border were from countries other than Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. That, to the best of our knowledge, is the first time this has happened before.

The Haitians discussed above are part of this population, but so are migrants from South America who have been flying into Mexico—which since 2018 has not required visas for several South American countries—then traveling to the U.S. border, crossing, and requesting asylum. During the first 11 months of fiscal 2021 (October-August), CBP reports encountering 46,410 migrants from Brazil, 88,786 from Ecuador, and 37,859 from Venezuela. In most cases, U.S. authorities do not expel citizens of these countries under Title 42: Mexico has not agreed to take them, and long flights would be expensive. A Wall Street Journal article portrayed these new arrivals as “middle-class migrants.” Reporter Alicia Caldwell spoke to a dozen Venezuelans who arrived together near Yuma, who said that their entire journey took about two days.

Reuters reported on Brazilian authorities’ June arrest of a businessman accused of charging would-be migrants nearly $20,000 each to be smuggled into the United States via Mexico. “To pull it off, [Chelbe] Moraes has constructed an international network that includes corrupt cops and officials as well as U.S-based family members,” allegedly coaching clients to pose as tourists in Mexico,” the report reads.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) raised eyebrows by telling Fox News that, on a recent trip to Yuma, he had seen Brazilian migrants “headed for Connecticut wearing designer clothes and Gucci bags.” Attempting to clarify his comments to the Washington Post, Graham said, “Usually when you go to the border, you see people who are dressed really haggardly and who look like they’ve been through hell. This time at Yuma, there were dozens that looked like they were checking into a hotel — and smartly dressed.”

At the United States’s behest, Mexico is now tightening visa requirements for citizens of Brazil and Ecuador. Guatemala, too, has begun requiring visas of Ecuadorians.

Links

  • At ProPublica, Dara Lind reports on a new DHS Inspector-General report about a CBP intelligence unit that targeted U.S. citizen activists and journalists it suspected of association with migrant “caravans” in 2018 and 2019. “[A]t least 51 U.S. citizens were flagged for interrogation—often based on evidence as flimsy as once having ridden in a car across the border with someone suspected of aiding the caravan.” As its name indicates, CBP’s “Tactical Terrorism Response Team” was created to respond to terrorist threats, not migration events.
  • The Senate Finance Committee will meet October 19 for the nomination hearing of Tucson, Arizona police chief Chris Magnus, the Biden administration’s choice to be CBP commissioner. Magnus’s nomination has been delayed by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), who was demanding that CBP first provide more information about role the agency played in combating protesters in Portland in 2020, during the Trump administration.
  • Mexico captured 652 migrants at a military checkpoint in southern Tamaulipas state on October 7. 101 of them were unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, whom Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM, the government’s immigration authority) expelled days later.
  • Border Report cites rumors of a “mother of all caravans” being organized by unnamed “activists” for October 23 in Chiapas, southern Mexico. We have seen no other source corroborating this rumor, and colleagues in southern Mexico say they haven’t heard anything.
  • “There is a growing gulf between the progressive immigration values President Joe Biden professes and the enforcement policies he’s implementing at the border,” reads an analysis by Vox immigration reporter Nicole Narea, “and it’s led to confusion among immigration officials, uncertainty for migrants, and questions about whether the president has a coherent strategy on immigration at all.”
  • “To be a Haitian asylum-seeker knocking at the door of the U.S. is to stand at perhaps the most visible convergence of race and empire imaginable in this hemisphere,” writes Miriam Pensack at The New Republic.
  • A retired rear admiral is replacing a retired army general as the head of Mexico’s INM in the northern border state of Chihuahua.

Weekly Border Update: October 1, 2021

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. Due to staff travel, there will be no update next week; we will return on October 15.

Haitian migrants: Biden administration carries out an aerial expulsion campaign of historic proportions

By September 24, U.S. authorities had cleared the large encampment of mostly Haitian migrants near the Rio Grande in Del Rio, south-central Texas. Between September 9 and then, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) told Border Report, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Border Patrol had encountered 30,000 migrants in CBP’s once-quiet Del Rio Sector, most of them from Haiti.

According to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, 8,000 of these 30,000 crossed back into Mexico. About 13,000 were processed into the United States: about 3,000 sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers, and about 10,000—presumably mostly families with children—released into the U.S. interior to pursue asylum claims in the U.S. immigration system. As of the middle of this week, about 4,000 were still in DHS custody being processed, at which point officials would determine whether migrants get released, detained, or expelled, under the “Title 42” pandemic authority, back to Haiti without a chance to seek asylum.

It is not clear how DHS is determining which migrants get released, detained, or expelled. “Officials have said families with vulnerabilities could be exempted from Title 42 (pregnancy, medical issues),” tweeted Camilo Montoya-Galvez of CBS News. Another factor in favor of release, the New York Times indicated, is the ability to “produce evidence of a friend or relative who could help provide a foothold.”

The Biden administration’s effort to expel as many Haitians as possible has been massive. By the end of September 30, the U.S. government had expelled 6,131 Haitians on 57 flights to Port-au-Prince or the northern city of Cap-Haïtien, Haiti over 12 days. Seven flights landed on September 30 alone, discharging 773 expelled Haitians. Of the first 50 flights, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported, 32 had gone to the capital and 18 to Cap-Haïtien. About 44 percent of those expelled were women and children.

In the 12 months before September, ICE ran 57 removal flights to Haiti, according to the count kept by Witness at the Border. We have now seen 57 flights in 12 days.

More than 210 of the children expelled with their Haitian parents were born in Chile, Brazil, Venezuela, or Panama. Nearly all of the Haitians who arrived in Del Rio had not lived in Haiti in a long time: they had migrated to South America in the years after a 2010 earthquake devastated their home country. Many found Brazil and Chile, in particular, to be inhospitable, with legal status difficult to obtain or maintain. (Anti-migrant sentiment, in this case against Venezuelans, erupted in Chile’s northern city of Iquique on September 25. A march against migrants grew violent as protesters built a bonfire of homeless Venezuelans’ belongings.)

The journey from South America leads up through Panama’s Darién Gap jungles, Central America, and Mexico. Analysts and local officials voiced surprise that such a large number of migrants could cross Mexico, and arrive in the small city of Ciudad Acuña across from Del Rio, in such a short time. What we know is that the migrants crossed Mexico in small groups, often taking public transportation and paying a premium in artificially high fares, and in bribes at Mexican authorities’ road checkpoints. Writing for Politico, Jack Herrera reports that a rumor spread among Haitians that U.S. authorities were allowing crossings in Calexico, California, and Del Rio, and that September 16—Mexico’s bicentennial independence day, when authorities might be distracted—would be a good time to travel.

Giuseppe Loprete, the head of the IOM mission in Haiti, noted Haitians’ extreme anguish upon return to a country that most had fled years earlier. “They’re very distressed,” he told CBS. “They start crying the moment they arrive. I’ve seen young, strong guys—some freak out. Women cry. Kids cry because they see the women crying.” IOM is distributing meals, toiletries and a roughly $100 per person stipend to returned Haitians, and is testing them for COVID-19, which the U.S. government does not do. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) “said it is providing $5.5 million to IOM so it can serve deported Haitians,” according to CBS.

Ultimately, though, Haitians arriving in Port-au-Prince are being ushered out of the airport into what the Associated Press calls “an archipelago of gang-controlled islands in a sea of despair.” A strong statement from IOM and three UN agencies paints a very grim picture of an already-struggling country, the hemisphere’s poorest, that since July has seen its president assassinated, a devastating earthquake, and a tropical storm:

Haiti continues to face an escalation in violence and insecurity, with at least 19,000 people internally displaced in the capital Port-au-Prince in the summer of 2021 alone. Well over 20 per cent of girls and boys have been victims of sexual violence. In addition, nearly 24 per cent of the population, including 12.9 percent who are children, live below the extreme poverty line of US$1.23 per day. Some 4.4 million people, or nearly 46 per cent of the population, face acute food insecurity.

IOM, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) called “on states to refrain from expelling Haitians without proper assessment of their individual protection needs,” recalling that “International law prohibits collective expulsions and requires that each case be examined individually to identify protection needs under international human rights and refugee law.” That is the opposite of how Title 42, which affords no opportunity to ask for asylum, is operating.

Reuters reports that IOM asked Brazil to receive some Haitians who have Brazilian-citizen children, or who passed through Brazil on their way north through South America. Two sources “said the first request was more likely to be approved.” A DHS statement notes that the agency is engaging with Brazil and Chile “to ensure they too are doing their part to offer protection for vulnerable populations and receive individuals who had legal status there.”

That statement adds that DHS Secretary Mayorkas met on September 28 with Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond. Mayorkas thanked Haiti’s government “for supporting the safe return and re-integration of Haitian nationals.” He added that investigations of mistreatment of Haitian migrants “is ongoing”; Edmond had raised the shocking and widely shared photos and videos of mounted Border Patrol agents running down migrants on the banks of the Rio Grande in Del Rio.

No State Department official of similar rank was present at the Haitian ambassadorial meeting, but the newly confirmed Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Brian Nichols, traveled to Port-au-Prince September 30 with the National Security Council’s director for the hemisphere, Juan González. The visit appeared mostly focused on Haiti’s political impasse; the Miami Herald reported that “the duo said they had no agenda other than to listen to Haitians.”

Haitians in Mexico

Mexico’s government carried out its first removal flight to Haiti in some time, flying 70 Haitian migrants, including 13 minors, to Port-au-Prince on September 29. Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) called this an “assisted voluntary return” of Haitians who desired to go back to their country, or who at least had not voiced a desire to seek asylum in Mexico. It referred to those aboard as “the first group,” but it is not clear how frequently the INM plans to run these flights. Mexico reported deporting 223 Haitians in the first 8 months of 2021, 138 of them in August.

This flight occurred after a September 23-24 visit of Haitian authorities to Mexico’s southern border zone, where they toured INM installations and agreed to re-activate aerial removals. Those aboard the September 29 flight had been living in the southern border state of Tabasco, or in central Mexico. They had not been to the U.S. border, and had not been living in the southern border-zone city of Tapachula, where most Haitians in Mexico are currently stranded as they await decisions from the country’s backlogged asylum system.

Mexico’s foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, told a committee of the country’s senate that his government plans to provide refuge to about 13,255 Haitian citizens. “What will Mexico’s position be? That those who want refugee status will be granted it. Mexico is one of the countries that least rejects refugee status,” Ebrard said. The chief diplomat condemned excessive use of force by INM agents and National Guard personnel in the southern state of Chiapas in early September.

As noted in our September 3 and 10 updates, photo and video evidence showed Mexican personnel kicking, beating, and aggressively chasing Haitian migrants who had sought to walk northward from Tapachula, a city of 350,000 that offers them few income opportunities while they await asylum decisions from COMAR, Mexico’s refugee agency. The OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights added its condemnation, and urged Mexico to hold responsible personnel accountable, in a September 27 statement.

COMAR is taking steps to speed asylum processing in Tapachula, where 55,000 people had requested asylum between January and August. For the next four weeks, COMAR is managing a reception center outside Tapachula’s soccer stadium, where it plans to process 2,000 people per day, using about 200 staff, many seconded over from other agencies.

In August, Chiapas Paralelo estimated that as many as 30,000 Haitians were stranded near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, especially in the city of Tapachula. After so many fled to Del Rio, it’s not clear how many remain in Tapachula awaiting COMAR’s response; the agency is requiring all to check in at the stadium in order to remove inactive cases from its giant backlog.

On October 1 Andrés Ramírez, COMAR’s coordinator, tweeted that 90,314 people had requested asylum in Mexico between January and September, shattering the country’s previous full-year record of 70,423 set in 2019. At this pace, Ramírez pointed out, Mexico will receive 120,000 asylum requests by the end of 2021. More than one-third of Mexico’s asylum seekers so far this year are Honduran (31,884), followed by Haiti (26,007), Cuba (7,683), El Salvador (5,170), and Venezuela (4,670). COMAR also shows 3,591 Chileans and 1,691 Brazilians: many of these are probably children born in those countries to Haitian parents.

Haitians who remain in and around Ciudad Acuña, across from Del Rio, are under strong pressure from Mexican authorities to relocate or return to Tapachula, to await COMAR’s decisions on their status. INM has arranged transport for many to return to the southern city. Reuters notes that a growing number of Haitians are arriving elsewhere at Mexico’s northern border: in Tijuana, where a few thousand of their fellow citizens settled after a 2016 migration event. This population is generally doing well economically, but “most are wary of going public about their achievements lest it cause them problems with migration authorities or attract the attention of organized crime.”

Elsewhere in northern Mexico, in Tampico, Tamaulipas, some Haitian migrants protested outside the local INM office demanding that they be granted some legal status, without which the city’s hotels are prohibited from even renting them rooms.

The Darién Gap

Further south along the migration route, perhaps 17,000 to 19,000 people, mostly Haitians, remain crowded into the small Caribbean coast city of Necoclí, Colombia. For migrants who wish to pass through Panama and northward, Necoclí is where the road ends. Migrants must take a ferry across northwestern Colombia’s Gulf of Urabá, then cross into eastern Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap jungles.

Our September 10 update noted that 11,400 migrants were in Necoclí, with the town’s mayor predicting that “by the end of September we’re going to have more than 25,000 migrants.” That prediction wasn’t far off.

An agreement between Colombia and Panama is allowing ferries to take 500 people per day to Panama—but estimates of the number of people newly arriving in Necoclí range from 1,000 to 1,200 to 1,500, so the population in Necoclí keeps growing as the wait time for a ferry passage stretches through the end of October. That means a month camped on the town’s beach or paying $10 a night for a shared room, as townspeople charge migrants high prices for food, water, restroom access, and supplies for the journey through Panama. Some migrants are paying smugglers to take them across the Gulf clandestinely.

A handful of Haitians—perhaps 250, according to Colombia’s human rights ombudsman’s office—have decided to abandon their journey after seeing the Biden administration’s big expulsion flight push.

“So far this year,” Reuters reports, “88,514 migrants have entered Panama through the Darien jungle, according to figures from the National Migration Service, and Panama went from receiving an average of 800 migrants in January to 30,000 in August.” About 70 percent of them have been Haitian.

The idea of this many people passing through the Darién Gap is unheard of. This Connecticut-sized jungle zone, where the Pan-American highway ends and government presence is nearly zero, is notorious for the dangers it poses—both natural and criminal—to those who attempt the 60-mile, several-day walk. For a harrowing account of this region’s dangers, see “When Can We Really Rest,” an April 2020 report in California Sunday that won Canadian journalist Nadja Drost the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for feature-writing.

The Darién provincial prosecutor’s office has recorded the bodies of 41 migrants found along the region’s rivers so far this year. The Wall Street Journal, citing Doctors Without Borders and other sources, documented an epidemic of rapes of migrant women at the hands of criminals who operate freely in the zone. Still, as nearly a third of migrants U.S. authorities now encounter at the U.S.-Mexico border are coming from places other than Mexico or Central America’s northern triangle, we can expect even greater numbers of migrants from Haiti and elsewhere to attempt the journey through the Darién.

“Remain in Mexico” and Title 42 in the courts

On September 29 DHS announced its intention to issue a new memo terminating the Migrant Protection Protocols, or “Remain in Mexico” (RMX) program. RMX was a Trump administration initiative that forced over 71,000 non-Mexican asylum-seeking migrants to await their immigration hearings while living in Mexican border towns for months or years. The Biden administration terminated RMX on inauguration day, and formally terminated it in a June 1 memo. However, a lawsuit from the Republican attorneys-general of Texas and Missouri convinced a Texas district judge to force the Biden administration to restart the program, and the Supreme Court left that order in place pending appeals. (See our August 27 update for the full story.)

The ruling left the Biden administration compelled to implement a policy it bitterly opposes. Opponents of RMX, who cite at least 1,500 attacks and kidnappings suffered by migrants forced to remain in Mexican border cities, have contended that the administration might satisfy the courts’ conditions by issuing a new memo terminating the program, one that does more to explain its legal reasoning. That is the step that DHS announced this week.

The “re-termination” memo won’t necessarily stop the reimplementation of RMX for the time being, however. “A new memorandum terminating MPP will not take effect until the current injunction is lifted by court order,” the September 29 DHS statement explains. In the meantime, the Department must continue to show the Texas court that it is working “in good faith” to restart the program. That means ongoing diplomatic talks with Mexico about accepting other countries’ asylum seekers again, and building up staffing and “tent court” infrastructure near border crossings to handle cases.

Speculation continues that these “good faith” efforts could lead to some sort of “Remain in Mexico lite” that forces a smaller number of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico, but with “better living conditions and access to attorneys,” as Politico put it.

Even with RMX on hold, the “Title 42” pandemic expulsions policy continues to send large numbers of would-be asylum seekers either to their home countries (like expelled Mexicans, or the massive Haiti flights) or to Mexico in the case of citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. As noted in our September 17 update, on the 16th, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled that Title 42 could not be used to expel asylum-seeking families.

This victory for migrant rights groups has been followed by disappointment. Judge Sullivan delayed his ruling’s implementation for two weeks, to give the Biden administration—which used Title 42 to expel more than 92,676 family unit members between January and August—a chance to respond. On September 30, just as Sullivan’s ruling was to go into effect, a panel of three Washington, DC Circuit Court judges (appointees of Clinton, Obama, and Trump) stayed its implementation pending the outcome of the Biden administration’s appeal. As oral arguments on the appeal are scheduled for January, the Biden administration is free to expel asylum-seeking families well into 2022.

The Trump administration developed the Title 42 expulsions policy at the pandemic’s outset in March 2020, and the Biden administration has maintained it, although it no longer applies it to unaccompanied children. The policy has been roundly condemned by human rights and migrant rights groups, medical experts, and the UNHCR. Human Rights First has tracked “at least 6,356 kidnappings, sexual assaults, and other violent attacks against people blocked at ports of entry or expelled to Mexico by DHS since President Biden took office.” The ACLU led the litigation to stop its application to families, leading to Judge Sullivan’s September 16 ruling.

Officials like DHS Secretary Mayorkas insist that Title 42—which allows quick expulsions and thus less contact with possibly infected migrants—remains necessary due to COVID-19’s continued prevalence. “The pandemic is not behind us. Title 42 is a public health policy, not an immigration policy,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press on September 26. Mayorkas told a September 27 Migration Policy Institute conference that the migrant population has had “a rate of illness of approximately 20 percent.”

Mayorkas has publicly insisted that Title 42 is a public health measure and not an “immigration policy.” CBS News notes, though, that “in a court filing Monday [September 27] defending the continued enforcement of Title 42, Justice Department lawyers called the expulsion policy ‘a significant deterrent to the entry of family units.’” On a call this week with senior DHS officials, NBC News reports, Mayorkas also speculated that a termination of Title 42 for families could lead to “a worst-case scenario in which 350,000 to 400,000 migrants cross the border in October,” roughly double the high migration totals of July and August.

In a filing, several children’s and migrants’ rights groups urged the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to lift the court order forcing the Biden administration to reinstate RMX, citing the number of children that the program had subjected to “gang violence, attempted kidnappings and unsanitary conditions.” A September 28 Noticias Telemundo report published horrific accounts of torture, rape, and kidnapping suffered by more than 30 migrants expelled into Mexico between 2019 and 2021. Expulsions have also led to the death of asylum seekers who see no choice but to re-enter the United States. “Maria Eugenia Chavez, a Mexican national who twice crossed the border and asked the Border Patrol to file an asylum claim only to be returned to Mexico under Title 42, drowned off the coast of San Diego when the boat she was on fell apart on her third attempt to cross the border,” reads a September 28 tweet from the Immigrant Defenders Law Center.

The ACLU vows to continue pushing the Title 42 case. “I think litigation is as important in holding the feet to the fire of our quote ‘allies’ [in the Biden administration] as it is about fighting the foes of civil liberties and civil rights, because that is what creates the political will,” Executive Director Anthony Romero told the Associated Press. “The policies that they [Biden administration officials] are actively pursuing are very different than the ones they promised,” added Todd Schulte of FWD.us. “The policies they are actively pursuing are failing. Yet the continued direction is in the wrong direction.”

Texas’s crackdown overwhelms its courts

In Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has loudly criticized the Biden administration’s border and migration policy from the right, the state government continues its own crackdown on migration. Abbott will double the Texas National Guard presence along the border, using state funds, to about 2,500 guardsmen by the end of October. Even after the Del Rio migrant camp was cleared, the Texas National Guard left 70 Humvees “prepositioned in the area in case a similar situation arises,” Stars and Stripes reported.

The guardsmen are in addition to a federal force of 3,500 National Guardsmen deployed along the entire border since 2018 to support CBP. The Texas Military Department posted a request for volunteers on social media, offering guardsmen who join the effort lodging and a $55 daily per diem. The Texas force will be building border barriers—a 10-foot chain link fence—mainly on private land with border landowners’ permission. About three miles of fence have been built so far. This is all part of a $2 billion program of enhanced border security measures that Abbott, who is up for re-election in 2022, calls “Operation Lone Star.”

As part of that operation, National Guard troops—who are rarely given arrest authority on U.S. soil—arrested more than 2,000 undocumented border crossers, and reported seeing another 200 turn back into Mexico, in just the past week, a Texas official said on September 30. While Texas cannot charge its detainees with violating federal immigration law, it has jailed at least 1,000 single men since June for state crimes, nearly always trespassing. Detained migrants are being held in two prisons in central and south Texas (Dilley and Edinburg). As of September 27, the state prisons were holding more than 900.

This has not been an orderly process. On September 28 the state was forced to release 243 jailed migrants because they had not been formally charged with any crime within the 15-day deadline state law requires. The delay usually owes to the Texas state police force’s (Department of Public Safety) inability to produce arrest reports without long delays.

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid came to an agreement with counties’ prosecutors to release the migrants, 168 of whom had been held without charges for more than 30 days. Most don’t speak English and have “spent weeks or months with little to no legal help, few opportunities to talk to their families and often fewer chances to find out what is happening to them or how long they will be imprisoned,” the Texas Tribune reported.

Once Texas releases migrants—whether because they were uncharged, or because they have finished serving their jail time—they don’t necessarily end up in ICE custody; some may be released into the U.S. interior. “It is not clear how many people Immigration and Customs Enforcement might choose to take into custody, and the agency did not immediately clarify,” the Washington Post reported.

On another legal front, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody filed a lawsuit September 28 seeking for the Biden administration to stop the practice of releasing migrants with pending cases, including asylum seekers, into the U.S. interior. This suit would seem to contradict laws giving DHS discretion about whom to detain, and legal precedents (like the 1997 Flores settlement agreement) limiting child and family detention. But the U.S. legal system has issued some surprising rulings on immigration lately, so it’s impossible to say with certainty that this legal challenge won’t move forward.

Links

  • For the second time, the Senate’s Parliamentarian has dealt a blow to Democrats’ efforts to use budget legislation to allow about 8 million undocumented immigrants in the United States to apply for legal status. This proposal, Elizabeth MacDonough ruled, was not sufficiently budget-related. As a result, under Senate rules, the immigration legislation would need 60 votes to stop debate and move to a vote—that is, to block a Republican “filibuster.” Democrats hold 50 seats in the 100-seat Senate. Senate Democratic leaders are weighing next steps.
  • Citing Freedom of Information Act documents that he had to fight to obtain, Bob Moore of El Paso Matters found that CBP often turned away asylum seekers at the El Paso port of entry in 2018, claiming they were “at capacity” even when the port had plenty of available space to hold them. “We knew, we knew, we knew (that the capacity explanation was untrue), and there was nothing that we could do about it,” said Ruben Garcia of El Paso’s Annunciation House shelter.
  • “Migrant deaths from border wall falls have increased from four in 2020 to 12 this year as replacement border wall barriers increased in size under former President Donald Trump, according to the Southern Border Communities Coalition statistics,” writes Pedro Rios of the American Friends Services Committee. “There have also been hundreds of injuries, according to the Mexican Consulate. In a meeting between local San Diego advocates and then-Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott in June 2018, which I attended, Scott shared that the Border Patrol purposely chose the height of new replacement border wall after it conducted psychological tests to establish at what height an average person becomes so disoriented that he or she would stop climbing a wall—30 feet.”
  • A letter to Justice Department leadership and the DHS Inspector-General from Alliance San Diego alleges that former Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott, who left his post in August, is violating the Ethics in Government Act. Scott established a consulting firm in July, while still working for Border Patrol, and issued a Facebook request for CBP and ICE personnel to provide information, possibly including restricted information, “to counter the lies and misinformation that the DHS Secretary and Biden officials spew.”
  • “Today, while asking me about who I was visiting on my trip, a Border Patrol agent said I was being ‘coy’ with my answers and suggested that it would be possible that I am friends with—I kid you not—Osama Bin Laden,” tweeted Abdallah Fayyad, a member of the Boston Globe’s editorial board.
  • “For the past decade,” writes Border Patrol critic Garrett Graff at the Washington Post, the agency’s “heavily armed and kitted-out agents have primarily faced a much different challenge that it’s proved itself repeatedly poorly equipped to handle,” that of processing protection-seeking migrants.
  • Mexico’s chief prosecutor, Alejandro Gertz Manero, met with U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland in Washington. “The two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to work closely on criminal investigations and prosecutions of cross-border crime,” reads a Justice Department statement, “including with regard to narcotics and firearms trafficking, human smuggling and trafficking, and illicit finance and money laundering.”
  • Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) has lifted his hold on the nomination of Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus to be the next commissioner of CBP. The nomination will begin advancing through the Senate Finance Committee (“Finance” because of CBP’s “Customs” role). Wyden had been demanding that CBP first provide information about the Trump administration’s violent deployment of border personnel to Portland, Oregon to confront protesters in 2020.
  • “Relentless in its border crisis coverage, Fox News has influenced how other cable networks, such as CNN and MSNBC, talk about the border,” Sergio Muñoz of Media Matters for America said in an excellent narrative analysis by Melissa del Bosque at the Border Chronicle. “Major news outlets characterize the border as in crisis, playing into the right-wing narrative that it is a dangerous place and under constant assault, and that Trump’s policies, which effectively ended asylum, should remain in place.”
  • A new Biden Administration initiative is providing government-funded attorneys to unaccompanied children facing deportation proceedings in eight U.S. cities.
  • Once released from Office of Refugee Resettlement custody to family members or sponsors in the United States, many unaccompanied children face years in “a purgatory of insecurity and, on occasion, exploitation” as they wait years for their cases to be decided, writes immigration scholar Diana Gordon at the New York Review of Books.
  • Expelled migrants, among them would-be asylum seekers, held a protest south of the borderline in Nogales, Mexico, on September 25. When a few participants in the protest tried to approach the U.S. port of entry to petition for asylum, CBP shut the automatic gates, sealing off the port.
  • Two Mexican military vehicles carrying 14 soldiers crossed an international bridge into El Paso after midnight on September 25. CBP detained the soldiers, processed them, and sent them back to Mexico within hours. One was found to be possessing a small amount of marijuana. “The CBP (agents) yelled at the soldiers to put their hands up and drop their weapons immediately,” a witness told Reuters.
  • “Just 35% of Americans approve of [Joe] Biden’s handling of immigration, down from 43% in April, when it was already one of Biden’s worst issues,” according to a new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.

Weekly Border Update: September 24, 2021

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.

A large group of Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas faces horses, hunger, expulsion flights, and—for some—“notices to report” in the United States

This week, one of the remotest and most rural segments of the U.S.-Mexico border witnessed an event of major humanitarian, human rights, and political impact. Over the course of about a week a large group of migrants, mostly Haitian in origin, arrived en masse at the border crossing between Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila, Mexico, and Del Rio, Texas, a site where the Rio Grande is shallow enough to wade across.

By September 18, Del Rio’s mayor, citing information from Border Patrol, said that 14,534 migrants were encamped on the riverbank, under and around the border crossing bridge. There, while awaiting their turn to be processed by Border Patrol, they washed in the river and slept in tents, under shelters built out of vegetation, or in the open air. While access to the site has been restricted, the scene appeared to be chaotic but peaceful.

Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, which sits east of Big Bend National Park and west of Laredo, usually ranks low among the agency’s nine land border sectors in number of migrant arrivals. By August of this year, though, Del Rio had broken its annual record for migrant encounters.

Between October 2020 and August 2021, Del Rio border agents encountered citizens of Mexico, Honduras, Venezuela, Haiti, Ecuador, and Cuba at least 10,000 times each. Fear of organized crime in Mexico’s borderlands influences where migrants cross, and word had gotten out among citizens of these countries that Ciudad Acuña was a relatively safe place. “It’s unclear how these rumors started,” Nicole Phillips of the Haitian Bridge Alliance told the Intercept.

How they’ve arrived

Though Haiti this year has suffered COVID-19, the assassination of its president, an earthquake, and a tropical storm, very few of the Haitians in Del Rio have been there recently. Most left the country years ago, in the years after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, to pursue work opportunities in South America, especially Brazil and Chile. (Haitian labor was important, for instance, in Brazil’s effort to build infrastructure for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.)

The pandemic hit South American economies hard, and several Haitian migrants in Del Rio told the New York Times that “they made the journey because they had lost their visas or their jobs and had no choice but to find a way to survive in the United States.”

At the moment, large numbers of Haitian migrants are backed up at key points along the migrant trail between South America and the U.S.-Mexico border. A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) document seen by NBC News claims that 3,000 Haitians are currently in Peru. Colombia’s human rights ombudsman, Carlos Camargo, said on September 22 that 19,000 mostly Haitian migrants were waiting in the Caribbean coast town of Necoclí for their turn to take ferries to Panama.

Once there, they walk through eastern Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap region, an ungoverned jungle area where unknown but significant numbers die of dehydration or illness, or are attacked and robbed—or worse—by criminals. This is the heaviest year ever for migrant flows through this route; estimates range from “more than 50,000” people to “more than 70,000 people, among them 13,000 children” passing through the Darién so far this year.

The DHS document cited by NBC estimates that about 1,500 Haitians are in Panama. In August, Panama’s migration authorities reported encountering 15,279 Haitian citizens exiting the Darién Gap.

In August, Chiapas Paralelo estimated that as many as 30,000 Haitians were stranded near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, especially in the city of Tapachula. There, most are confined to the area as they await decisions on asylum requests before Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR. Our weekly updates from late August and early September covered Mexican authorities’ repeated attempts to keep Haitian and other migrants from leaving Tapachula on foot. These included four operations to stop “caravans” in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas. Some of these operations generated outrage, as photos and videos circulated of agents from Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) chasing and beating migrants.

Following a September 21 conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Mexico’s Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said that most of the Haitians in Mexico had refugee status in Chile or Brazil and were not seeking it in Mexico. (In fact, Haiti is the number-two country among COMAR’s asylum applicants.) “What they are asking for is to be allowed to pass freely through Mexico to the United States,” Ebrard concluded.

It remains a mystery how nearly 15,000 Haitian migrants could so quickly make their way to remote Ciudad Acuña so soon after INM’s repeated crackdowns in Tapachula. “Many of the recently arrived Haitians took buses through Mexico, expediting their arrival and increasing their numbers,” NBC reported. They were able to do so despite the INM, National Guard, and other Mexican agencies maintaining numerous highway checkpoints.

“The Haitian community did not arrive at the northern border without the complicity of the federal authorities,” alleges veteran migration reporter Alberto Pradilla of Animal Político. “Either they looked the other way or they benefited (there are policemen who asked for bribes and companies that charged tickets at a very high price).” Pradilla also speculates that the INM may have responded to criticism of its human rights performance in Chiapas by catching a case of the “blue flu.” He notes, “a week of looking the other way shows the consequences [of their inaction], and then they can tell the U.S., ‘don’t question our methods.’”

Many Mexican officials blame organized crime. “They are domestic gangs, they come from the south and everything derives from there, but whoever receives them here also has to do with the polleros [smugglers] who work between Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Coahuila,” said Coahuila governor Miguel Riquelme. The smugglers “have tricked them…telling them, let’s go to the United States because they’re going to give us residency or even citizenship,” said Ebrard.

According to the Associated Press, though, the Haitian migrants are “a population that relies little on smugglers and instead moves based on shared experience and information exchanged between the tight-knit community, often via WhatsApp or Facebook, about where it is safest, where jobs are most plentiful and where it is easiest to enter a country.” Earlier this year, the AP notes, Haitians were coming more frequently to the El Paso sector hundreds of miles west of Del Rio. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that the shift to Del Rio “was unusually sudden.”

Following this word of mouth, Haitians are even leaving other Mexico border cities to travel—eastward or westward, often through territory under heavy organized crime influence—to Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio. In the Gulf Coast state of Tamaulipas, Mexican authorities forced a group of a few hundred Haitians to dismount the buses on which they had been riding. They walked or hitched rides northward, and by the middle of this week, many were sleeping near the border in San Fernando—a town notorious for a 2010 massacre of 72 migrants by the Zetas organized crime group.

Some arrived in the Tamaulipas border city of Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas—a town known both for very high violent crime and for a very large population of mostly Central American migrants recently expelled by the United States. Few Haitians plan to stay or to cross there. (Milenio reported, though, that some intend to settle in the prosperous industrial city of Monterrey, just south of Tamaulipas.)

A Haitian woman in Reynosa told the Rio Grande Valley Monitor that her goal was to arrive in Ciudad Acuña, more than 300 miles away—and that she wasn’t even aware that Reynosa was on the border. On the other end of the border, other Haitian migrants are planning to leave Tijuana for Ciudad Acuña, according to Milenio.

Catching U.S. authorities unprepared

The rapid arrival of such a large population of migrants in Del Rio came as a surprise to U.S. authorities. CNN reported that Border Patrol agents in Del Rio had been asking management since June for more resources to process migrants, but—at least according to the local union—had not received an adequate reply.

In response to the Haitians’ rapid arrival, CBP surged 600 Border Patrol agents, CBP officers, and DHS volunteers to Del Rio, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said during a September 20 visit to the sector. CBP also shut down Del Rio’s official land port of entry (the border bridge), and closed Border Patrol checkpoints north of Laredo, Texas, allowing traffic to flow freely without inspection while personnel moved to Del Rio.

By September 21, CBP had constructed a field hospital and was more systematically providing food for migrants encamped around the border crossing. Chef José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen also provided numerous free meals. But for the first several days, food and clean water were scarce at the Del Rio site. This forced migrants to wade into Ciudad Acuña, Mexico to buy food at local stores and restaurants, then wade back into the United States with their provisions.

Some disturbing images

On their return to U.S. soil, some of the migrants, often laden with bags of food, encountered hostile Border Patrol agents on horseback. Photos and videos showed agents appearing to charge at migrants, including some children, at the water’s edge, apparently trying to force them to return to Mexico. One can be heard using a profane slur against Haiti. Some are shown waving or making slapping motions with lariats or long reins, which bore a resemblance to whips.

“Video footage of Border Patrol’s actions in this incident clearly demonstrate that the migrants being encountered by mounted agents did not present an imminent threat,” an ACLU letter describes the scene. “In one video an agent stops a family with small children, makes derogatory and xenophobic comments to the family, and then maneuvers his horse in a way that comes dangerously close to trampling a child.”

Border Patrol Chief Raúl Ortiz, a former Del Rio sector chief, claimed the agents were attempting to control the horses with the reins. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote that “this was an apparently isolated encounter, one that soon resolved with those seeking to enter the country and return to or arrive at the camp able to do so.”

Nonetheless, images of uniformed White men on horseback menacing Black people with what looked like whips blanketed U.S. social media on September 19 and 20, inspiring horrified reactions.

Immigrant rights and civil rights groups joined in condemnation. In Miami, 200 Haitian-Americans protesting outside the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) field office forced road closures. The NAACP tweeted side-by-side “then” and “now” images: a drawing of a slaveholder whipping a Black man next to one of the Del Rio photos. A letter from civil rights groups said Biden’s promises for a more humane immigration policy “are being shredded before our eyes.” Human Rights Watch called it “the latest example of racially discriminatory, abusive, and illegal U.S. border policies that are returning people to harm and humanitarian disaster.”

Reactions in Congress were strong. The images were “horrific and disturbing,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “We had not seen the horses and the whips with any other population of people, so that to us goes to racism,” said Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. House Oversight Committee Democrats sent a letter demanding a briefing from Biden administration officials by September 24.

Strong words also came from the Biden administration itself. “As it relates to those photos and that horrific video, we’re not going to stand for that kind of inhumane treatment and obviously we want this investigation to be completed rapidly,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. “What I saw depicted, those individuals on horseback treating human beings the way they were, was horrible,” said Vice President Kamala Harris. “Human beings should never be treated that way, and I’m deeply troubled about it.”

On September 24, President Joe Biden addressed the images for the first time. “It’s horrible what you saw. To see people like they did, with horses, running them over, people being strapped, it’s outrageous,” he said. “I promise you, those people will pay. There is an investigation underway right now and there will be consequences.”

DHS promised an investigation and disciplinary actions, and suspended the use of horse patrols in Del Rio. However, “There is little reason to have confidence in the department’s willingness to hold its agents accountable,” Chris Rickerd and Sarah Turberville contend at the Los Angeles Times, noting that “CBP’s own records found that it took no action in 96% of 1,255 cases of alleged Border Patrol misconduct between January 2012 and October 2015.”

The state government’s “steel wall”

Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R), an immigration hardliner who has made border security a signature issue as he heads toward a 2022 re-election campaign, sent hundreds of Texas state police to Del Rio, where they parked their vehicles in a tight line along the bank of the river. It’s not clear whether Haitian migrants were deterred by Abbott’s so-called “steel wall” of cars, since they were already on U.S. soil and waiting for Border Patrol to take them into custody and process them.

On the right, where some conservative media has been openly portraying this non-white migration as part of a Democratic party-orchestrated “great replacement,” politicians called for a Trump-style crackdown on asylum seekers and defended the actions of the Border Patrol agents depicted in the controversial horseback photos. “As tens of thousands of illegal immigrants come across the border, Joe Biden promises them citizenship,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) falsely stated on Twitter.

Meanwhile, life in the small town of Del Rio has been largely unaffected by the situation along the riverbank. “Residents collectively agreed the situation at the bridge and the release of migrants into their region and town are not directly affecting their daily lives,” read a Washington Examiner article whose headline nonetheless describes the town as a “dusty war zone.”

Expulsion flights

While voicing outrage about the horse patrol photos, Biden administration officials doubled down on the use of Title 42, the pandemic provision that the Trump administration implemented in March 2020 and the Biden administration has continued. Title 42 allows U.S. authorities to expel undocumented citizens rapidly in the name of public health, even without affording them a chance to ask for asylum in the United States.

“I want to make sure that it is known that this is not the way to come to the United States,” DHS Secretary Mayorkas said. On September 19, DHS began filling planes with Del Rio Haitians and expelling them back to Haiti, regardless of asylum concerns. The tempo of flights from Texas to Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien increased from three on September 19 to six on September 24.

By the evening of September 23, the number of Haitians taken from Del Rio and flown back to Haiti had climbed to 1,949. Those sent back to Haiti reported being shackled by their hands and feet for the duration of their flights. Some said they were not told where the planes were going, and only found out they were back in Haiti—a country most had left many years ago—when they landed. 

DHS is not testing the expelled Haitians for COVID-19. The Haitian government claimed it would provide food, a COVID test, and US$100 cash to the new arrivals, but “deportees said they got only half or a quarter of that amount,” according to the New York Times.

Expelled migrants vented their despair at the Port-au-Prince airport. They pelted a plane with stones and shoes on September 21. Authorities dumped their belongings on the tarmac; “video footage taken at the airport shows people scrambling for their personal belongings,” the BBC reported.

Jean Negot Bonheur Delva, the head of Haiti’s government migration office, pleaded for a suspension of the flights. “It is unconscionable to return migrants against their will to this situation of uncertainty and mortal danger,” read a statement from Doctors Without Borders, which adds, “The insecurity that we see today in Port-au-Prince is the worst we have seen in decades.”

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi put out a statement voicing his “shock” at the images from Del Rio and calling for the United States to “fully” lift the Title 42 expulsions policy. After a meeting between Congressional Black Caucus members and White House officials, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California, who WOLA presented with its 2021 Human Rights Award on September 22) called for a halt to deportations of Haitian migrants. Speaking from the Senate floor, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said, “I urge President Biden to put a stop to these expulsions and to end this Title 42 policy at our southern border. We cannot continue these hateful and xenophobic Trump policies that disregard our refugee laws.”

As we noted last week, on September 16 U.S. District Judge Emmett Sullivan ruled that Title 42 must no longer be applied to families—but he paused his ruling, which the Biden administration immediately appealed, for two weeks. If the appeals court doesn’t overturn Sullivan’s decision by October 1, it’s possible that DHS will no longer be able to expel Haitian or any other families.

Some are released

Only a fraction of the Haitians in Del Rio are being put on planes. Some, especially those with small children or unspecified “vulnerabilities,” are being given a chance to apply for asylum in the U.S. interior. These releases are happening on a “very, very large scale,” in the thousands, a U.S. official told the AP. Who goes where appears to be determined by a color-coded system of “tickets” that Border Patrol agents have been handing out to yet-to-be-processed migrants.

As often happens with asylum-seeking families, most are being released with a notice to appear at ICE offices, in or near their destination cities, within 60 days. These “notices to report” take less time to issue, but they are not appointments for a hearing to start immigration proceedings.

DHS, with support from the Defense Department, has been busing Haitian migrants from Del Rio to other, more populated, Texas border sectors, and flying a few to Tucson, Arizona, where Border Patrol then processes them. Those who are processed in Del Rio itself and then released are mostly dropped off at the town’s bus stop, which is really just a gas station.

Mexico starts cracking down

At least several hundred (or possibly several thousand) of the migrants, fearing expulsion to Haiti, fled back across the river from Del Rio to Ciudad Acuña. The Mexican town has since been encircled by migration agents and other authorities, who have been sweeping through parks and hotels where migrants have been staying.

While Mexico isn’t sending captured migrants back to Haiti—at least not yet—it has begun busing and flying many back to southern Mexico: the cities of Villahermosa, Tabasco, and Tapachula, Chiapas, where thousands of migrants are already living while they await decisions on their asylum applications. Detained migrants, an official told AP, may be “flown directly to Haiti once Mexico begins those flights” if they fail to ask for asylum.

Those who ask for asylum inside Mexico will wait many months for a decision from the country’s overburdened refugee agency, COMAR. As a steady flow of Haitians continues to manage to exit Tapachula, the COMAR office in Mexico City this week saw a big jump in Haitian asylum seekers applying there.

Guantánamo?

On September 22 NBC News, noticing an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contract announcement, reported that the agency was seeking a private contractor to run a Migrant Operations Center at the U.S. naval facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The facility, which was used in the 1990s to detain thousands of Haitians intercepted at sea, has not been used for that purpose since 2017.

“The facility has a capacity of 120 people and will have an estimated daily population of 20 people,” the request reads. “However the service provider shall be responsible to maintain on site the necessary equipment to erect temporary housing facilities for populations that exceed 120 and up to 400 migrants in a surge event.”

A DHS spokesperson was quick to clarify that the agency did not intend to use the facility to hold Haitians detained at Del Rio or elsewhere along the land border. It is apparently being stood up to respond to a possible increase in Haitians attempting to migrate by sea.

Dissent within the Biden administration

The persistence of Title 42 expulsions, and a general sense that the administration’s immigration and border policies lack direction, appear to have increased frustration among officials within the Biden administration. There are also splits between those who want a new approach to asylum-seeking migrants at the border, and those who urge tougher policies to “deter” large-scale migration.

“Several officials who have been involved in discussions about the border said that Susan E. Rice, Mr. Biden’s domestic policy adviser, has been a leading proponent of more aggressive enforcement,” the New York Times notes, “arguing that it is more compassionate to pursue an immigration system that is orderly in order to pass broader reforms.” However, “Esther Olavarria, a Cuban-born immigration lawyer who serves as Ms. Rice’s deputy, has often pushed to allow more migrants into the United States so they can pursue asylum claims.” DHS Secretary Mayorkas “is sympathetic to Ms. Olavarria’s view, several people said, but as the head of the department he has been the public voice of the harsher approach.”

Speaking anonymously, some of 20 government officials who communicated with BuzzFeed’s Hamed Aleaziz had some strong things to say:

  • There is a complete lack of direction. Everything is deferred to the White House National Security Council, which can’t see past low polls on immigration and are terrified their own shadow may be a pull factor. Career and political staff are equally concerned.”
  • “I don’t know what our immigration strategy is at all. I don’t know if we are building an infrastructure for the future, or what direction we will be going in as we head into a midterm election year.”
  • “They are almost exclusively focused on detention, deterrence, and generally treating asylum-seekers with as much violence and inhumanity as the prior administration. Honestly, I don’t know how much longer I can stay at DHS if this continues. I stayed because I believed Joe Biden and Kamala Harris when they promised to build it back better. The despair I am feeling about what they are doing now is indescribable. I can’t go on like this.”
  • “​​This administration’s immigration policy is schizophrenic. Their words are not backed up by policy choices or deeds. The border would be challenging under any circumstances, but this administration is stuck in a deterrence-only posture, expecting different results from similar approaches. Flows are going to continue. It would be better for the administration to focus on how to process them in a faster and more humane manner instead of focusing on how to convince desperate people not to make the journey.”

On September 22, the State Department’s special envoy for Haiti, Dan Foote, resigned with a very strongly worded letter. “I will not be associated with the United States inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees,” he wrote.

Numbers are going down in Del Rio

Meanwhile, at the Del Rio site, the number of migrants awaiting processing continues to fall. As of the morning of September 23, there were just over 4,050, down from the September 18 peak of 14,534. The chief executive of Val Verde County, of which Del Rio is the seat, said that the expectation is for the camp to be empty by September 25, as migrants are expelled, flee to Mexico, are moved elsewhere for processing, or are released into the U.S. interior. 

Update: as we write this on September 24, Secretary Mayorkas is reporting that the Del Rio site is now empty of migrants. 

Links

  • “Suddenly Ecuadoreans, Brazilians, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, Haitians and Cubans are turning up by the hundreds of thousands, a trend that accelerated sharply in the past six months,” reads a Wall Street Journal analysis. “After the pandemic, what we are now seeing is like a pressure cooker in which the valve has exploded,” said Enrique Vidal, of the Tapachula, Mexico-based Fray Matías de Córdoba Human Rights Center.
  • As of September 20, Texas state authorities operating under Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) orders had arrested 925 migrants, mainly on trespassing charges. They’ve been sent to jails in Dilley and Edinburg.
  • Guatemalan authorities report that between August 22 and September 20, 238 buses had dropped off 8,594 Guatemalans and Honduras at the very remote Mexico-Guatemala border crossing of El Ceibo. Mexican authorities have expelled these migrants—many of them expelled by the United States on flights into southern Mexico—in most cases without offering any opportunity to request asylum or protection in Mexico.
  • A still-unreleased DHS Inspector General report finds that CBP improperly targeted U.S. advocates whom the agency believed had some involvement with 2018-19 migrant caravans through Mexico. These individuals were subjected to more intrusive inspections when crossing the border into the United States, and “sensitive information” about them was shared with the Mexican government.
  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s much-heralded effort to assist Central American nations with job-creation efforts—and thus reduce migration—has fallen far short of its objectives, reports Animal Político.
  • Just-retired former Border Patrol chief Rodney Scott authored a letter claiming—among numerous concerns—that Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas “and other political appointees within DHS have provided factually incorrect information to Congressional Representatives” and are directing Border Patrol to admit people who, in Scott’s view, should be expelled under Title 42.
  • A dozen organizations (including WOLA) published “a summary of migrant and refugee rights violations in Mexico documented by civil society organizations and journalists from August 2021 through the present.” It recommends an immediate rescission of the Title 42 expulsions order.
  • BuzzFeed reports that CBP officers insisted on expelling back into Mexico a Honduran LGBT woman whose spine was fractured in an anti-gay attack in Mexico, and who had also been raped by Mexican police.
  • In operations involving more than 28,000 personnel, Mexico’s armed forces claim to have had a hand in 63,614 migrant apprehensions between August 21 and September 20. That, if reported accurately, would shatter Mexico’s monthly migrant apprehensions record of 31,396 set in June 2019. Mexico’s INM reported apprehending 117,052 migrants over the first 7 months of 2021.
  • At National Geographic, Anna-Cat Brigida explores the “collective despair”—depression and suicide—plaguing Honduran youth, many of whom choose to migrate.
  • Border Patrol is expanding its hiring of “Processing Coordinators,” a new non-law-enforcement position, The Hill reports. They will be charged with handling asylum seekers’ paperwork and release or handoff to other agencies—tasks that have been up to armed, uniformed Border Patrol agents up until now.
  • The Texas Civil Rights Project reports that on September 21, “a federal judge ordered that Pamela Rivas be given back her land, which was seized for the border wall in Los Ebanos, Texas. This is the end of a condemnation fight that began under President Bush in 2008.”
  • A CBP officer was among those arrested at the small “Justice for January 6” far-right protest in Washington on September 18.

Order at the border

I’m rushing these words out because we need to have this conversation now. Just like it says at the top of this site, these are my views, not necessarily the consensus view of WOLA. I base them on 10 years of border policy work. Still, I have blind spots—we all do, this is a very complicated issue—so I’m happy to be corrected.

Many Democrats, including those who support immigration reform, see images like this one and worry. They see themselves losing ground to the Greg Abbotts and Ted Cruzes. Even among Latino constituents who, until recently, voted reliably Democratic.

Why are they losing ground? Because these images look chaotic. They look disorderly.

You may feel empathy for the migrants, but you’re worried about your community too. Since COVID began—even since the 2008 financial crisis began—you’ve seen high-paying jobs disappear, crime rates climb, services cut back. It feels like the wheels are coming off.

You want government to stop the chaos. (Whether the chaos is perceived or real, you want it to stop.) As it spreads through communities, that desire for order is catnip to the Abbotts, Cruzes, and Stephen Millers out there calling for crackdowns on migrants.

But do you know who else wants order? Desperately?

These people.

The Haitians in Del Rio right now have circumnavigated the Western Hemisphere for a decade, trying to outrun chaos and severe uncertainty. They want an orderly, predictable, safe place to raise their kids and earn a living.

But when they finally get to the US border, do they find “order?”

No. They see this.

Agents charging at them on horseback. But also, a migration and asylum system so underfunded and rickety—so unable to adjust to what’s now a 7-year trend of asylum-seeking migration—that it’s easily overwhelmed, leaving them under a bridge for days.

Chaos.

So voters, including those who view themselves as welcoming, want order and predictability. Migrants want order and predictability too.

Also, residents of border counties and states—many of them hit hard by COVID and economic blight—don’t want to feel overwhelmed. That’s fine: most migrants have support networks elsewhere in the US, far from border counties and states.

So if everybody except the “deterrence through cruelty” crowd wants an orderly, non-chaotic process, what would that look like?

Obviously, nothing at all like Del Rio.

But what? Here are some ideas. Let’s go south to north.

In the region

First, ours should be a region of countries nobody feels forced to leave. That’s the “root causes” strategy we’re always hearing about. A key “root cause,” though, is so-called “partner” governments or elites that are corrupt and despotic. Help the reformers, not them.

If large numbers of people in a country are fleeing for their lives, don’t make them run the gauntlet of Mexico so they can touch US soil and ask for asylum. Make refugee status more available, in their own countries, to people in grave danger.

On migration routes

If people do have to flee through Central America and Mexico, the trip shouldn’t be terrifying. Some transit visas are OK. Help prosecutors, investigators, and others working to dismantle criminal networks that prey on migrants. And the corrupt government officials who enable them.

Many asylum seekers may be happy to settle in countries along the way, particularly Mexico, if those countries have credible, quick asylum processes and ways to make a living. Help those countries’ refugee agencies, like Mexico’s underfunded COMAR, to be more welcoming.

At ports of entry

Many, though, aim to seek asylum in the United States. That should mean going to a port of entry and asking for protection. What should happen then?

First, there should be no wait. After 7 years of large-scale family and asylum-seeking migration, our land border ports of entry need to adjust. There should be personnel at the port on hand to respond to asylum seekers, who can then be taken to nearby processing facilities.

What are these “nearby processing facilities?” We’re talking about a place where people spend a day or two while personnel take biometric data, look up criminal backgrounds, test for disease, start asylum paperwork, etc.

Those personnel need not be uniformed, gun-toting Border Patrol agents, who don’t want to do this paperwork anyway. CBP’s Processing Coordinator program is a start.

So to recap: asylum seekers come to a port of entry and are taken to (probably austere, warehouse-sized) facilities where they spend a day or two being processed. They get meals, a chance to take a shower, somewhere to sleep.

They get credible fear interviews, or dates for such interviews, or immigration court hearing dates in the cities where they intend to live with relatives or other support networks. And then, in nearly all cases, they’re released into the US interior.

Alternatives to detention

“The US interior” rarely means border towns, other than a moment at charity-run respite centers. Most migrants have relatives or support networks all over the country. Efficient processing and alternatives to detention means migrants spend very little time in border communities. Locals need not worry about absorbing them.

When released, asylum seekers go into “alternatives to detention” programs that supervise their stay in the United States. Case officers who link them with social services and ensure they attend all their hearings.

Past pilot “alternatives to detention” programs that involve case workers’ regular check-ins, and clear explanations of the process, have managed to get nearly all migrants to show up for their court dates. And they’ve cost a small fraction of what ICE detention costs.

Adjudication

The adjudication of asylum claims, though, shouldn’t take the 3 or 4 years or more that it currently takes in our backlogged immigration court system. If large-scale migration is our new reality, then we’re going to need more asylum officers and judges to reduce wait times.

How long should it take to adjudicate asylum claims? As long as due process allows. This is not my area of expertise, but I imagine it would probably be well under year inside the United States, normally, if our system weren’t so badly backlogged.

Once a migrant gets due process and a decision is handed down, what if they don’t qualify for asylum or other protected status in the United States? This is painful, but even under a pretty generous interpretation of our asylum laws, many would have to leave.

Some who don’t have strong asylum claims may still get to stay, for instance, if our temporary guest worker visa program expanded its country carve-outs to align with reality. (And clearly aligned with fair labor standards to avoid abuse.)

Make the border boring

The goal here is no more chaos, even in our 2014-to-present environment of very high family and asylum-seeking migration. Ideally, this entire process—work with other countries, processing, alternatives to detention, adjudication—would be efficient, data-driven, and… even boring.

There’s really no other choice but to bring order from this chaos. 10 different Latin American countries have seen large-scale out-migration this year. From COVID to climate change, there are many reasons this isn’t going to change soon.

An orderly, “boringprocess would mean no more Fox News B-roll, no more squalid camps, and no more anxiety in border communities. It would devastate smugglers. It would cost money, but probably less than hundreds of miles of border wall construction.

Weekly Border Update: September 17, 2021

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

Judge orders halt to family expulsions

A September 16 ruling from Washington DC District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan blocks the Biden administration from using the “Title 42” pandemic expulsions policy to expel members of migrant families encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border. Judge Sullivan stayed his decision for 14 days in order to give the administration a chance to appeal or to adjust the way it implements Title 42. If his ruling stands, undocumented migrant parents arriving at the border with children must once again be processed under regular immigration law, which means if they ask for protection in the United States, they must be allowed to seek asylum.

“Title 42” refers to an old, little-used quarantine authority that the Trump administration implemented in March 2020, along with COVID-19-related border shutdowns, and the Biden administration has kept in place. In the name of preventing disease spread, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) uses Title 42 to expel—eject from the United States with minimal processing, often in a matter of hours—as many apprehended migrants as possible, usually without even offering an opportunity to ask for asylum or protection. Mexico accepts many expulsions of migrants at the border from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, along with citizens of other countries who have any visas or migratory status in Mexico.

Between March 2020 and August 2021, CBP has used Title 42 to expel 1,163,582 people, including 1,027,506 single adults, 118,466 family unit members, and 15,915 unaccompanied children.

Most of these expulsions happened during the Biden administration. Since February 2021—Joe Biden’s first full month in office—CBP has used Title 42 to expel 704,009 people, including 610,249 single adults, 92,676 family unit members (the expulsions that Judge Sullivan’s decision would stop), and 32 unaccompanied children.

In November 2020, ruling on an earlier challenge to Title 42, Judge Sullivan had halted all expulsions of unaccompanied children. This ruling was overturned on appeal in late January 2021, but the Biden administration refused to resume expelling children, alone, to their home countries. (Unaccompanied Mexican children are still deported alone.)

Judge Sullivan’s latest decision comes after a month (August 2021) that saw CBP expel the largest number of family members (16,240) since April: 20 percent of those encountered were expelled last month, the largest percentage since May. Most families who are not expelled are admitted into the United States to await adjudication of their asylum claims, a process that often takes years due to immigration court backlogs.

Under Judge Sullivan’s ruling, the blue part of this chart would shrink to zero.

The ban on family expulsions is a victory for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the other organizations involved in litigation dating back to the final month of the Trump administration. The Biden administration and ACLU had put this case on hold until August 2, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—citing the persistence of COVID-19 and its Delta variant—abandoned plans to phase out family expulsions, leading the organizations to resume litigation.

“We hope the Biden administration has no plans to appeal and continue to place families in grave danger,” Lee Gelernt, the ACLU’s lead lawyer in the Title 42 families challenge, had told CBS News on September 16. Nonetheless, on September 17 the administration moved to appeal Judge Sullivan’s ruling.

This is not completely surprising: the Wall Street Journal pointed out that DHS’s assistant secretary for border and immigration policy had defended Title 42’s implementation in an August 2 court declaration. That official, former Democratic Senate Judiciary staffer David Shahoulian, resigned his post this week, citing personal reasons.

Single adults, for now, can still be expelled under Title 42; CBP expelled 77 percent of single adults it encountered in August 2021.

Migration “levels off” in August

That August 2021 number comes from a September 15 CBP release and data update pointing to a 2 percent drop, from July, in the agency’s “encounters” with undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. CBP reported 208,887 encounters with 156,641 individual migrants during August, the second-largest total (after July) in 2021 and one of the largest monthly totals this century.

Several trends stood out in our analysis of this data.

  • Measured by individual migrants, not encounters, the first 11 months of fiscal year 2021 are about 18 percent ahead of the pace set in 2019, which at the time was the busiest year for migration at the border since 2007.
  • Encounters with single adults declined for the third straight month. Single adults are now down 15 percent from May, though their numbers remain far higher than in the decade before the pandemic. Numbers of single adults shot upward after March 2020, in part because rapid Title 42 expulsions trigger repeat attempts by adult migrants who wish to avoid being caught. Of the migrants the agency encountered in August, CBP had already encountered 25 percent at least once already this year. (CBP’s September 15 statement mentions a “Repeat Offender Initiative,” begun in July, that seeks to prosecute more repeat border crossers.)
  • Encounters with family unit members grew by 3.6 percent over July.
  • Encounters with unaccompanied children stayed near July’s record levels, dropping by just 0.6 percent—though, as noted below, new arrivals of unaccompanied children have declined in late August and so far in September.
  • 47 percent of those encountered by Border Patrol were expelled in August, the same proportion as July.
  • As noted above, Title 42 expulsions of family unit members increased from July to August. “The number of encounters with family unit individuals so far this fiscal year (415,185),” CBP reports, “remains below the number of encounters at the same point in Fiscal Year 2019 (505,102).”
  • Migrants from Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador declined somewhat from July to August (red arrows in the graphic below). All other nationalities with over 100 monthly encounters increased. The largest proportional increases were migrants from Colombia and Haiti.
  • There is remarkable variation, by country, in which nationalities are expelled most often under Title 42.
  • Fully 30 percent of encountered migrants—and 39 percent of family unit members—are from countries other than Mexico or Central America’s “Northern Triangle.” We have seen no record of that ever happening before this year.
  • Daily reports from CBP (collected here as a large zipfile) point to declining arrivals of unaccompanied children since mid-August, to their lowest numbers in three months.

Data as of September 10 viewed by NBC News point to an overall decline in migration at the border over the prior three weeks: “the 21-day average of immigrants stopped crossing the U.S.-Mexico border by Customs and Border Protection was 6,177 per day, down from 7,275 in mid-August.” The daily number of Title 42 expulsions, however, increased over the past month—from 2,550 per day on August 11 to 2,733 per day on September 10.

This recent decline in migration at the border, however modest, means that “pressure on DHS from the White House to get a handle on migration across the southern border has cooled over the past two weeks,” a “source directly involved with internal discussions” told NBC. The source said that this has allowed DHS to devote more bandwidth to processing Afghan evacuees.

As thousands of mostly Haitian migrants arrive in rural Del Rio, Texas state government escalates crackdown

As of mid-September, migration is clearly not declining in at least one part of the border. The border sector centered on the town of Del Rio, Texas (population 40,000, across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila), is where CBP encountered 69 percent of Haitian migrants in August, along with 55 percent of Cubans and 64 percent of Venezuelans. The flow to Del Rio—which migrants and smugglers often view as a safer, if very remote, route—is pronounced: while nearly 20,000 Haitians came to Del Rio between October and August, only 12 (twelve) came to south Texas’s very busy Rio Grande Valley sector.

This week, Del Rio has seen a further increase in migrant arrivals, overwhelming CBP’s local processing capacity. As of the evening of September 16, the town’s mayor, Bruno “Ralphy” Lozano, was tweeting that 10,503 migrants—perhaps 70 percent Haitian, but also many Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans—were waiting under the Del Rio-Acuña border bridge for Border Patrol to process them. That number, the mayor said, was up from 8,200 that same morning. This is up from 2,500 on September 11, the sheriff of surrounding Val Verde county told the Texas Tribune.

The migrants’ wait to turn themselves in—in most cases, to apply for asylum—may take up to five days, several told Reuters. U.S. border agents are giving each person or family unit a ticket with a number that they will eventually call.

Once processed with an asylum claim, the majority will probably be allowed to remain in the United States to await that claim’s adjudication. Logistical and consular issues make it difficult for CBP to expel migrants to Port-au-Prince, Havana, Managua, or Caracas. However, on September 15 DHS sent a deportation flight to Haiti for the first time since August 14, when a 7.2 magnitude earthquake caused widespread devastation in the Caribbean nation.

The migrants in Del Rio are being concentrated outdoors where heat is in the high 90s; water, food, and sanitary facilities are scarce; and social distancing is difficult. Migrants with CBP’s “tickets” have been wading the knee-deep river back to Acuña to buy food, water, and other provisions on the Mexican side. “CBP is scrambling to send additional agents to Del Rio to help process the migrants,” the Washington Post reports. Pictures and footage from the area are striking.

Mayor Lozano told the Post that the migrants have been arriving on buses from elsewhere in Mexico to Ciudad Acuña. “It just sounds like there’s an off-grid bus system that’s not registered with the Mexican government that are driving these individuals north,” he observed.

The situation in Del Rio has drawn the attention of conservative media (Fox News battled CBP for the right to shoot drone footage) and figures like former Trump advisor Stephen Miller.

One of the most vocal proponents of a hardline approach to asylum-seeking migration, Texas governor Greg Abbott (R), announced on September 16 that he had directed state police and guardsmen “to surge personnel and vehicles to shut down six points of entry along the southern border to stop these [migrant] caravans from overrunning our state.” Abbott added that “The border crisis is so dire that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection is requesting our help as their agents are overwhelmed by the chaos.”

It wasn’t clear what Gov. Abbott was talking about: state law enforcement agencies do not have the authority to shut down border ports of entry, which are run by the federal government. CBP spokespeople said they had made no requests to Texas for help, and had no plans to shut down ports of entry. Later on the 16th, Abbott reversed himself, claiming that the Biden administration “has now flip-flopped to a different strategy that abandons border security.”

Abbott, meanwhile, has plans to divert more than $2 billion into border security efforts over the next year, expanding a package of crackdowns, begun in March, that he calls “Operation Lone Star.” He has deployed Texas state police and National Guard personnel to the border zone, giving soldiers a rare power to arrest people. He plans to use state funds to build border fencing where landowners allow it, and the Texas Facilities Commission just signed an $11 million contract with two firms charged with planning and design of barriers.

In a program first rolled out near Del Rio, Abbott ordered police and guardsmen to arrest migrants found on state and private land, so that they may be charged with, and jailed for, the crime of trespassing. Hundreds of migrants—including some who turned themselves in with the expectation of asking for asylum—have been jailed at a facility in Dilley, Texas, and now at a second prison in Edinburg.

Migrants initially jailed in July are now being released, often with dropped charges. It is unclear what happens to them next: because they haven’t committed violent offenses, they are not a priority for ICE, and because they’ve been in the country for a while, they are not a priority for CBP. Texas authorities have started releasing formerly jailed migrants at a gas station bus stop in Del Rio. Under a new process agreed last week, CBP will process migrants released from Texas jails. Some who have entered this process so far have been deported, but roughly half have been released from CBP custody to await adjudication of their asylum cases within the United States.

In south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region, local station KRGV reports, “Operation Lone Star” has meant a sharp increase in often frivolous traffic stops as state police crowd local roads. Citations for “having anything on the car’s windshield,” among other examples, are up 1,060 percent. KRGV cites a 2014 study by the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights, which found that during past deployments to the Rio Grande Valley border region, Texas state police oversaw a 127 percent increase in traffic citations for Hispanic drivers—and a 40 percent drop in citations for White drivers.

Links

  • As required by the judge in the case, the Biden administration has submitted its first monthly report documenting its “good faith efforts” to restart the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, or “Remain in Mexico,” program.        
    • The report explains that while Remain in Mexico hasn’t restarted yet, an “interagency task force” is “meeting regularly to quickly and efficiently rebuild the infrastructure and reapportion the staffing required.”
    • Rebuilding facilities to hold immigration hearings at ports of entry “will cost approximately $14.1 million to construct and $10.5 million per month to operate.”
    • Mexico, the report notes, hasn’t agreed yet to take back any migrants. Discussions between the United States and Mexico must determine where returns could happen, how many people could be returned, demographic questions (like whether Mexico would take families or would limit ages of children sent back), and how Mexico would support those made to remain in the country for months or years to await their U.S. hearing dates.
  • 68 organizations, including WOLA, sent a letter to President Biden and DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas urging a series of policy changes and measures to reduce extreme heat-related deaths of migrants on U.S. soil, which have totaled more than one per day so far this year.
  • Mexican migration authorities apprehended 150 Haitian migrants near the Guatemala border-zone city of Tapachula, Chiapas on September 11, then expelled them into Guatemala.
  • As Mexican immigration agents and National Guard personnel continue to block asylum-seeking migrants from leaving Tapachula, Chiapas Parelelo notes migrants’ increasing use of northward routes through central Chiapas, like the Angostura Reservoir region.
  • “Women and children seeking refuge instead find themselves incarcerated in detention centers or prisons for migrants that are paid for with our tax dollars, whether in Tapachula (the prison-city as those womean call it) or in Iztapalapa or Tijuana,” reads a letter from dozens of women’s rights groups and activists from Mexico and several other countries.
  • The coordinator of Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR, which as of August had already broken its single-year record for asylum requests, pleads for a budget increase in an interview with Mexico’s El Universal.
  • An Alabama National Guard soldier assigned to the border security mission was arrested near McAllen, Texas, while transporting about a kilogram of cocaine in a Border Patrol vehicle.
  • At least 600 migrants per day are passing from Colombia through Panama’s dangerous, ungoverned Darién Gap region right now, and about a quarter of them are children, the Associated Press reports.
  • Ciudad Juárez has reappointed a former municipal police chief, César Omar Muñoz, who had led the force from 2013 to 2016. Human rights groups accuse Muñoz of ordering human rights violations and defense officials have alleged that he has organized crime ties, Vice reports.
  • “It hurts my heart” to see the effects in Mexico of cross-border arms trafficking from the United States, where weapons are easy to obtain, said Ken Salazar, the new U.S. ambassador to Mexico. The Ambassador added that there is a need for “a new bilateral migration model,” though he did not offer specifics.
  • The New York Times looks at residents’ disagreements about border wall construction in the Rio Grande Valley border town of Los Ebanos, Texas.
  • A New York Times essay by journalist Lauren Markham recalls that past U.S. experiments with “alternatives to detention” programs for asylum seekers, including social work support, have achieved near 100 percent appearance at court dates.
  • “The Central American migrants crossing Mexico have undoubtedly been subjects from whom everyone has taken everything they can,” author and journalist Óscar Martínez tells Mexico’s SinEmbargo. “Both the state and organized crime, the small gangs of assailants who kill and rape. The passage through Mexico is a kind of enormous toll where the decision to seek a better life has to be paid with much suffering.”
  • “Few people will throw stones at a tree planting program, but Guatemalans aren’t going to stop leaving home because they got temporary work planting trees,” writes former WOLA executive director Joy Olson at Reforma’s Mexico Today. “The tree program is about Mexico looking like it is responding to a migration crisis without actually doing much. The US needs to provide serious numbers of work visas to Central America, and Mexico should push them to do it.”

Weekly Border Update: September 10, 2021

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

Mexico solidifies role as bulwark against U.S.-bound migration

On September 5, for the fourth time in about a week, Mexican immigration agents and militarized National Guard personnel broke up a “caravan” of migrants in Chiapas, near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala.

Perhaps 800 people, mostly from Haiti, Central America, Cuba, and Venezuela, many of them parents with children, sought to leave en masse from the southern border-zone city of Tapachula on September 4. They got about 30 miles up Chiapas’s Pacific coastal highway to the town of Huixtla, where most bedded down at a basketball court.

There, before dawn on the 5th, about 200 agents and guardsmen descended on the migrants. The Mexican forces spent the next eight hours chasing people through Huixtla and its environs, capturing many and hauling them away in vehicles. An unknown number escaped.

We saw many people injured and wounded, in states of shock and fear,” reported Isaín Mandujano at Chiapas Paralelo. “Many people stated that the INM [Mexico’s National Migration Institute] took their documents and belongings during the operation.” Human rights defenders alleged that agents deliberately separated families “as a coercion strategy” to get people to turn themselves in. “They began to hit me all over,” a woman told the Associated Press “amid tears, alleging that police also beat her husband and pulled one of her daughters from her arms.” A Honduran man told Chiapas Paralelo that a National Guardsman threw him to the ground and hit him with his rifle butt. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Mexico office noted, INM and National Guard personnel also acted aggressively toward human rights defenders and journalists present in Huixtla, interfering with their ability to monitor the situation.

“So far the strategy of the authorities is to allow the migrants to walk, let them get tired, and then launch operations to detain them and return them to Tapachula,” observed reporter Alberto Pradilla at Animal Político. Some, however, are being expelled into Guatemala, even if they have documentation indicating that their asylum cases are pending.

While they await decisions on their petitions, Mexico requires asylum seekers to remain in the state where they filed their requests. For most, that means Chiapas: the country’s poorest state. Of the 77,599 people who have requested asylum in Mexico this year through August—a number that already breaks Mexico’s full-year record for asylum requests—55,005 applied in the Tapachula office of Mexico’s beleaguered refugee agency, COMAR. The agency is so badly backlogged that asylum case decisions—which used to come within 45 working days, before pandemic-related measures removed the deadline—are taking many months: a migrant who starts the asylum process in Tapachula today might receive an interview appointment date for January or February.

For tens of thousands of migrants from Haiti, Central America, and elsewhere, this means many months confined to Tapachula, a city of 350,000, with almost no ability to earn an income. With shelters long since filled, migrants are sleeping in slum housing, parks, and streets throughout what Pradilla and Chiapas Paralelo’s Ángeles Mariscal are calling a “city-jail.” Many of the caravan participants claim they are seeking simply to relocate to other parts of Mexico where they might find employment while they wait for COMAR to consider their petitions.

“What is collapsing us in Tapachula is the unusual arrival of Haitians who are not refugees,” COMAR’s coordinator, Andrés Ramírez, alleged in Animal Político. “They do not come from Haiti, they come from Brazil and Chile, but due to the lack of migratory alternatives they come to make their request with COMAR, oversaturating our asylum system and placing us in a very complicated situation to the detriment of those who really need protection.” Enrique Vidal of the Tapachula-based Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center responded that the Haitians are, in fact, “de facto asylum seekers” because they’ve begun the procedure and deserve due process—or some other form of international protection inside Mexico, because their lives and integrity may be at risk if they are deported.

If its just-released 2022 budget request is any indication, Mexico’s federal government does not plan to expand COMAR’s capacity to consider asylum requests. Adjusting for inflation, the request for 45.7 million pesos (US$2.3 million) would represent a 0.58 percent reduction in COMAR’s budget from 2021 to 2022. (The INM’s budget would increase by 0.29 percent.)

Haitian and Honduran migrants interviewed by Chiapas Paralelo allege corruption at both the INM and COMAR. “It takes more than 8 months to get a humanitarian visa, but if you have 4,000 dollars, or 5,000 dollars, it will be granted,” said a man whom the publication identified as a leader of the failed fourth caravan. “They tell us that the [COMAR asylum application] process is free, but there are people who ask us for money to enter, there are people who tell us that we have to hire a lawyer,” said a Haitian migrant. Others contend that middlemen offer to quickly secure humanitarian visas for US$1,300 or refugee status cards for US$4,000 to US$5,000. COMAR insists that it does not tolerate any corrupt behavior.

Human rights defenders and migration experts are raising the volume on their calls for Mexico to change course. “We call on the Executive Branch, the Ministry of the Interior, the National Migration Institute and the National Guard to put an end to the repression, detention, and violence against forcibly displaced persons, and to provide real strategies to solve the root causes of this displacement,” reads a statement from numerous Mexican human rights groups.

Emilio Álvarez Icaza, a former Executive Secretary of the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and now an independent senator, held a press conference to demand that top officials testify about the numerous abuse allegations coming out of Chiapas. The National Guard and INM are “out of control,” the senator said. “What Mexico is doing is the dirty work of the United States, first Trump and now Biden. We did not create the National Guard to chase migrants, but to fight crime.”

Tonatiuh Guillén, a longtime migration expert who headed the INM during the first six months of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s term, told Spain’s El País that the images of abuse in Chiapas “portray a profound regression of this government’s migration policy, which I believe had started out with a very different scenario, one of respect for human rights. We’re on the other side now.” This, Guillén added, is a result of Mexico’s “institutional internalization of the containment agreements established with the Trump Administration.” Now, “it is in line with militarization. The INM and the Guard are acting as though they’re confronting an enemy.”

WOLA’s Mexico and Migrant Rights Program Director Stephanie Brewer published a commentary calling on the Biden administration to “cease pressuring Mexico to act as an externalized U.S. border that blocks, contains, or deports as many migrants as possible, a bilateral focus that has led to a series of rights-violating practices. Current policies are producing outcomes as dangerous as they are absurd.”

“We don’t accept pressure from any government,” said President López Obrador in one of a few daily press conferences at which the migration issue came up this week. “Yes, we have this situation that concerns us and that we are dealing with, but it’s not because we’re puppets of the U.S. government, it’s because we’re putting things in order and helping, protecting.” López Obrador alleged that a “disinformation campaign” by his political adversaries is behind many of the allegations of human rights abuse and corruption.

“We do this,” the president said, “because we have to care for the migrants, though it seems paradoxical. If we allowed them to cross to the north of the country to cross the border, we would be running risks, many risks. We just rescued a very large group of migrants in the north who were practically kidnapped.” (Anarticle at the Mexican publication Lado B explores how Mexican migration authorities favor such euphemisms to describe their work: “rescues” instead of “apprehensions,” “repatriation” instead of “deportation,” “migratory stations” instead of “detention centers.”)

López Obrador mentioned that two INM agents had been fired for kicking a migrant on video during an attempted caravan the previous week. Francisco Garduño, the INM’s commissioner, told reporters that “more will also have to be fired,” but did not know how many more agents face abuse allegations. Asked about videos showing personnel beating migrants, the National Guard’s commander, retired Gen. Luis Rodríguez Bucio, responded only, “Todo tranquilo, estamos trabajando”—“don’t worry, we’re working on it.”

The Mexican president called on the United States to accept more migrants in order to face its labor shortages, and to provide more assistance to Central America. “That is what is going to be raised again today with the U.S. government, that work be done immediately in Central America because there has been nothing for years.”

By “today,” López Obrador was referring to a September 9 “High Level Economic Dialogue” meeting in Washington, inaugurated by Vice President Kamala Harris. That dialogue’s agenda has four “pillars” of which “pillar two” is “Promising sustainable economic and social development in southern Mexico and Central America,” something Mexico’s president has been advocating for years. López Obrador has particularly sought U.S. support for a program that would pay Central Americans to plant trees; the Biden administration has not yet committed to that. At the September 9 meeting, Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard gave his counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a letter from López Obrador with a proposal for creating employment opportunities in Central America.

Migration via South America hits record highs

Hundreds of miles to the south, the number of migrants whose northward journeys might lead them to Chiapas keeps growing. In Colombia, according to the government’s human rights ombudsman (Defensoría), 11,400 people, most of them Haitian, are stranded in the Caribbean town of Necoclí. This is the last stop before ferries to the Panama border for migrants who mostly entered Colombia via Ecuador, 700 miles further south.

This is the second time in two months that the number of people waiting in Necoclí has reached 10,000 (see our August 6 update). They have filled hotels and private homes, and many are sleeping on the beach. Mayor Jorge Tobónsays that 1,000 people are arriving in Necoclí each day right now, but the ferries are only talking 500 per day—the result of an agreement between Colombia and Panama to limit the flow into Panama. As a result, “if this trend continues, by the end of September we’re going to have more than 25,000 migrants in Necoclí,” the mayor says.

Panama claims that Colombia is in fact permitting more than 500 migrants per day to depart. “Right now we have 6,500 more people than we would have if the accord had been complied with,” said the director of Panama’s National Migration Service. The country’s security ministersaid that a remarkable 70,000 migrants have arrived in Panama so far this year, way up from 7,000 in the same period of 2020 and 17,000 in the same period of 2019. The Associated Press reported a still-high figure of 50,000, of whom about 16 percent are children.

The most worrying aspect of this sharply increased migration is that this route requires people to cross through Panama’s roadless, ungoverned Darién Gap wilderness. Migrants who travel through South and Central America routinely say that the Darién is the most dangerous part of their journey. As a Pulitzer-winning April 2020 report from Nadja Drost vividly documents, migrants in the Darién are routinely robbed and see dead bodies in a forest dominated by criminal bands and armed groups. The Wall Street Journal reported that Doctors Without Borders began providing medical care in May to migrants exiting the jungle from the Darién Gap. Since then, the group has documented 180 cases of rape. 70 percent of the time, the migrants were raped on Panamanian territory. “The group believes the true number of victims is likely far higher since many migrants don’t report the attacks.”

Further south, Ecuador has suddenly become the fourth-largest nationality of migrants whom U.S. authorities encounter at the U.S.-Mexico border. This owes heavily to Mexico’s 2018 decision to lift visa requirements for visiting Ecuadorians. Many who could afford a plane ticket have been flying to Mexico, traveling north, and crossing the land border into the United States. There, most have avoided expulsion under the “Title 42” pandemic policy, since deportation flight capacity to Quito is limited.

Ecuador’s government says 88,696 of its citizens traveled to Mexico from January to July 2021, and only 34,331 have returned. During those seven months, U.S. border agencies encountered citizens of Ecuador 62,494 times.

In response, very likely at the strong suggestion of the U.S. government, Mexico has reinstated its visa requirement for Ecuadorian citizens. This may mean a brief reduction in migration from Ecuador, but experts interviewed by the Guayaquil daily El Universo expect that migration routes will adjust. Even if the route becomes more dangerous, the state of the country’s COVID-battered economy may still lead many Ecuadorians to risk the journey.

Biden administration weighs “Remain in Mexico Lite,” feeds into Mexico’s southern-border “chain expulsions”

The Biden administration continues to consider how it will revive the Migrant Protection Protocols or “Remain in Mexico,” a policy that it bitterly opposes and sought to shut down. As detailed in our August 27 update, the Supreme Court refused to suspend a Texas judge’s order, still under appeal, forcing the Biden administration to make a “good faith effort” to revive the program, which Donald Trump’s administration launched at the end of 2018.

“Remain in Mexico” sent over 71,000 non-Mexican asylum-seekers back into Mexican border towns, penniless, homeless, and vulnerable to crime, to await eventual immigration hearing dates in the United States. Over 1,500 suffered assault, kidnapping, or other abuse, and less than 2 percent of those who were present for all of their hearings were granted asylum. President Joe Biden suspended Remain in Mexico the moment he was sworn in, in January 2021, and officially ended it on June 1.

Now, though, the court is ordering a restart, and on September 15 the administration must provide Amarillo, Texas District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk its first monthly report on the progress of its “good faith efforts.” What those next steps might look like isn’t clear, but reporting is pointing to some sort of limited “Remain in Mexico ‘Lite.’”

Homeland Security Department (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas repeated his opposition to Remain in Mexico in an interview with CBS news, but acknowledged that “We’re planning to implement the program while we litigate the ruling.” CBS revealed that “the department’s policy office has been working on logistical plans to facilitate its ‘expeditious reimplementation,’ including cost estimates, according to an internal memo.” Mexico, too, will have to give at least an informal green light; it is not clear where talks about this currently stand.

“Some Biden officials were already talking about reviving Mr. Trump’s policy in a limited way to deter migration,” unnamed officials told the New York Times. They say the Supreme Court’s ruling gives them a chance to “come up with a more humane version of Mr. Trump’s policy.” A proposal under consideration, three sources told Politico, “would require a small number of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their cases to be processed but give them better living conditions and access to attorneys.”

Asylum advocates reject the idea that a “lite” version of the program can exist.

  • “There’s no lite MPP just as there’s no lite police brutality or lite torture,” tweeted Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council.
  • “The answer is not to simply find a gentler, kinder MPP 2.0. That completely flies in the face of his [President Biden’s] promise” to end the program, said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of National Immigration Law Center.
  • “There’s no way to implement it in a way that will satisfy actual due process or keep people safe, because it’s impossible to keep migrants safe in Mexico,” said Taylor Levy, an attorney who represented many victims of Remain in Mexico.
  • “The reinstatement of MPP will place thousands of asylum seekers in harm’s way and deny them the right to a fair hearing of their claims,” said asylum officers’ union leader Michael Knowles.
  • “I rejoiced when you declared an end to this immoral policy on your first days in office, and despaired when the Supreme Court required your administration to implement it once again,” reads a letter to President Biden, published in the Washington Post, from Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs Catholic Charities of Rio Grande Valley’s large migrant respite center in McAllen, Texas. “We must not make children live for months in rain-logged tents. We cannot abandon them to communities where their mothers are afraid to let them use the bathroom at night for fear they might encounter a gang member or be assaulted.”

Instead, advocates are calling on the administration to meet the court’s requirements by “re-terminating” the program. That would mean issuing a memo, as it did when it formally shut down the program in June, addressing Judge Kacsmaryk’s and the Fifth Circuit of Appeals’ concerns that the administration didn’t consider the “benefits” of Remain in Mexico when it decided to close down the program.

A letter from 31 Democratic congressional representatives and senators, led by Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), proposes exactly that. “The court orders leave ample room for your administration to ensure MPP never again puts another person in harm’s way,” it explains:

The decisions suggest that the potential perceived problem with your administration’s termination of MPP was that it did not say enough to demonstrate that it had sufficiently weighed the potential consequences of its decision to terminate. The court did not endorse the states’ claims that the government is actually required to return people to Mexico under the immigration statutes. As amicus briefs explained, those claims were egregiously wrong. Thus, we believe your administration can and should re-terminate MPP with a fuller explanation in order to address any perceived procedural defect of the termination.

While the Biden administration continues to deliberate over what to do about a program that sent 71,000 people to Mexico, though, it continues to carry out a program that, to date, has sent people—including asylum seekers—back to Mexico more than a million times since March 2020. “Title 42,” the pandemic policy permitting rapid expulsions of migrants, without regard to asylum or protection needs, remains in place. Mexico continues to receive expulsions of its own citizens and those of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Expelled migrants filling a plaza in Reynosa, Mexico are living in even worse conditions than Remain in Mexico victims who had inhabited an encampment in the nearby, and similarly crime-plagued, city of Matamoros, the Los Angeles Times reported. “There’s less potable water, fewer bathrooms, showers and other sanitation that U.S.-based nonprofits spent months installing in Matamoros. Mexican soldiers circle in trucks with guns mounted on top. Migrants face not only cartel extortion and kidnapping, but also COVID-19 outbreaks and pressure to leave from Mexican authorities.” Reynosa’s critical security situation scares off U.S. volunteers and attorneys. The L.A. Times estimates that 2,000 people are currently inhabiting the plaza. Sister Pimentel’s letter notes, “Recently we estimated that there are close to 5,000 migrants in Reynosa.”

Another encampment with a large number of expelled migrants persists at the other end of the border, right outside the main pedestrian border crossing in Tijuana. There, on September 3, migrants were gathering for vaccinations when word quickly spread—inaccurately—that U.S. authorities had opened the border. Hundreds of people rushed to the line, only to find a phalanx of riot gear-clad CBP officers.

Expulsions don’t just happen at Mexico’s northern border. Since early August, DHS has put expelled Central American migrants, including many families with children, on planes destined for Mexico’s far south: the cities of Villahermosa, Tabasco and Tapachula, Chiapas. Once those planes land, Mexico’s INM has gathered the expelled migrants onto buses and driven them to southern border crossings, instructing them to exit into Guatemala. At no moment do the expelled people have any migratory status in Mexico, much less any opportunity to ask for asylum or protection.

“These expulsions ridicule public health and human rights by crowding people into planes and buses and preventing legal access to asylum in violation of domestic and international law,” reads a report and list of recommendations for the U.S. and Mexican governments produced by several organizations, including WOLA. This document, based on Witness on the Border’s monitoring of deportation and expulsion flights, counted 34 planeloads of migrants to Villahermosa and Tapachula—about one every weekday—between August 5 and August 31.

There is no official count of the number of people who have been subject to these “chain expulsions.” Animal Político, citing Guatemala’s migration authority, reports that 4,243 people were expelled between August 22 and September 6. Many were pushed across the line into the very remote village of El Ceibo, a village of a few hundred people in Guatemala’s sparsely populated frontier department of El Petén, on the edge of the Lacandón jungle a few hours’ drive from Villahermosa.

The 4,243 are not all migrants from the U.S. government’s long-distance expulsion flights. The number includes some migrants whom Mexico’s INM apprehended in southern Mexico. Unnamed official sources tell Animal Político that the number of people expelled by the United States “could be around 3,500”: 2,000 whom Mexico went on to expel in El Ceibo, and 1,500 at the Talismán border crossing near Tapachula.

“While the majority are Central American, the expulsion of Venezuelans, Cubans, and even a Senegalese person was recorded.” One may have been a U.S. citizen, Reuters reports. Animal Político has seen evidence that southern Chiapas municipal police captured Haitian families in mid-August, then handed them over to INM, which expelled them into Guatemala.

“Upon their arrival,” migrants expelled at El Ceibo and Talismán “don’t have a peso or a quetzal in their pockets,” Mexico’s La Jornada puts it. At times, the expulsion buses have dropped people in El Ceibo in the middle of the night. “Mexican immigration authorities have not coordinated these expulsions with the Guatemalan government; nor notified the Guatemalan, Honduran, or Salvadoran consulates; nor arranged for onward transport,” reads a briefreport from Human Rights Watch. “Many of those expelled have been forced to sleep on the street upon arrival in El Ceibo.” Some of those expelled, HRW reveals, had pending asylum applications in Mexico.

On September 2, Guatemala’s foreign minister announced an agreement with the U.S. government to send expulsion flights to the airport in Guatemala City instead of to southern Mexico. That agreement, though, will not go into effect until the end of the month—and it of course maintains Title 42’s refusal to consider migrants’ asylum or protection needs.

Links

  • While border-zone migrant deaths from dehydration, exposure, or similar causes are horrifyingly common, most victims have been single adults: migrant parents and children have been rare. That seems to be changing.        
    • A 21-year-old Ecuadorian woman died of dehydration on August 28 after attempting to migrate with her 2-year-old daughter in the desert of Sonora, Mexico, near the U.S. border. Jazmín Lema left her country, likely fleeing domestic violence, on August 21, flying to Mexico and taking buses north until stopped at a migration checkpoint. The child survived.
    • Another Ecuadorian woman, traveling with children aged seven and one, was rescued in the Arizona desert near Yuma after calling 911.
    • These events come just days after the death from dehydration, near Yuma, of a Colombian woman and her oldest child, while her toddler survived.
  • Also near Yuma, a Mexican man died after falling from a 30-foot-high section of border wall. He fell on the Mexican side, requiring rescuers to open a gate in the wall that was not wide enough for an ambulance, then carry him for a mile before he passed away.
  • Texas’s state Facilities Commission has recommended that a joint venture of two companies, Michael Baker International and Huitt-Zollars, get a contract to build fence or wall, using state funds, along parts of the state’s 1,200-mile border with Mexico. Texas’s state budget for 2022 includes $750 million to build barriers. If built at the per-mile cost of the Trump administration’s border wall, this money would build about 30-35 miles of barrier.
  • Writing at the Border Chronicle, a new journalistic newsletter, Todd Miller narrates the rapid growth of a bipartisan “border security industrial complex” made up of well-connected technology, detention, and munitions companies that have been awarded large CBP contracts. These companies’ technologies, Miller warns, are often invasive and threaten civil liberties.
  • At the Intercept, Melissa del Bosque reveals the vast expansion in CBP’s Tactical Terrorism Response Teams since their inception in 2015, finding that the secretive units detained and interrogated more than 600,000 travelers at airports and border crossings between 2017 and 2019, about a third of them U.S. citizens. The databases the teams use to flag suspected travelers rely on what is “essentially a black box algorithm,” as an ACLU attorney put it.
  • A third whistleblower has come forward with allegations of abuse of unaccompanied migrant children held at a giant emergency shelter at Fort Bliss, Texas, run by contractors of the Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Valerie González at the Rio Grande Valley, Texas Monitor rebuts alarmist claims by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) by sharing recent data pointing to reduced migration to the busy Rio Grande Valley region during August.
  • About 1,500 people from Michoacán, Mexico have arrived in the border city of Tijuana, displaced by warring organized crime groups who often give them hours to leave their homes.
  • A Georgia National Guard soldier, assigned to the border security mission that Donald Trump launched in 2018, died in a drunk driving incident in McAllen, Texas. The Guard immediately imposed an alcohol ban and curfew on all 3,000-plus personnel assigned to the mission.
  • “Not a single terrorist has illegally crossed the Mexican border and then committed an attack on U.S. soil,” writes the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh in a scathing book review, citing numerous statistics, at Reason.

Unaccompanied Children at the Border: Update through September 7

New arrivals of unaccompanied children are trending steadily downward at the US-Mexico border, after rising in July.

The population of unaccompanied children in Border Patrol custody is way down, below 500 for the first time in 4 months.

The number in the Health and Human Services Department’s (HHS) network of shelters, awaiting placement with US-based relatives or sponsors, remains stubbornly over 14,000.

HHS hasn’t increased the pace at which it discharges children since early May.

The data comes from 116 daily reports saved in a zipfile (13.5 MB) at http://bit.ly/uac_daily.

Weekly Border Update: September 3, 2021

Cross-posted from wola.org. 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

Mexico pushes back asylum seekers attempting to leave its southern border zone

Several hundred migrants from Haiti and other countries sought to leave Mexico’s border zone with Guatemala, where many are confined while awaiting outcomes of their asylum cases. Three times in the past week, their northward progress was blocked—at times brutally and on camera—by personnel from Mexico’s migration agency (National Migration Institute, INM) and its National Guard (a militarized police force, created in 2019, under Army control).

Each time, authorities allowed small “caravans” to walk several dozen miles up the highway that follows the Pacific coast west and north, away from the Guatemala border, through Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas. Each time, authorities then swept in and apprehended migrants as they rested, or sought to block them further up the highway. No significantly sized group of migrants managed to make it more than about 110 kilometers into Mexico. (Despite several attempts, no “caravan” of migrants has succeeded in traveling through Mexico’s southern border zone since January 2019.)

The migrants are chiefly from Haiti, but were joined by Central Americans, Cubans, Venezuelans, and other countries—even apparently some from Equatorial Guinea. Many are parents with children; some are unaccompanied children. Most have traveled through many countries, including all of Central America, only to have Mexico block their progress near its southern border.

The groups sought to leave Tapachula, a city of about 350,000 people near the Guatemala border in Chiapas’s Pacific lowlands. There, thousands have applied for asylum in Mexico with COMAR, the Mexican government’s refugee commission, whose Tapachula office is its busiest in the country by far. Through July, COMAR had received 64,378 asylum requests throughout Mexico; of those, 45,072 were filed in Tapachula. (COMAR’s year-to-date asylum request total jumped to 77,559 through August, the agency’s director, Andrés Ramírez, just revealed. That’s a new record: eight months into 2021, Mexico has now received more asylum requests than in any full year.)

Though Mexican law requires COMAR to issue an asylum decision within 45 working days, a pandemic emergency measure has waived this deadline. The badly backlogged agency now takes many months to decide cases. “Currently, if someone wants to apply for asylum, they receive an appointment for the month of January,” reports Alberto Pradilla of the online news outlet Animal Político. “There’s a historic arrival of migrants to Mexico as a result of the systemic crises in their countries of origin, and the Mexican government has not strengthened the migration system in terms of budget and personnel,” Enrique Vidal of the Tapachula-based Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center (recipient of WOLA’s 2020 Human Rights Award) told Chiapas Paralelo.

While awaiting a decision on their asylum applications, migrants receive a document that allows them to be present only in the state where they submitted their claim. . This is a difficult part of Mexico in which to be confined: Chiapas is the poorest of Mexico’s 32 states, with three-quarters of its population living below the poverty line. Few opportunities exist for migrants to generate an income while they remain there. Chiapas Paralelo estimates that 5,000 Haitians, and 3,000 Central Americans and Cubans, currently find themselves in this position in Tapachula. This number vastly overwhelms shelter space, and many are living in severely substandard conditions.

Many of the migrants trapped in Tapachula say they aren’t necessarily seeking to enter the United States: they would be content to settle in Mexico, but in a part of the country—like the more economically dynamic north—where employment opportunities exist. “The important thing we need is to leave Chiapas, because in Chiapas there is no work,” a migrant told veteran Chiapas-based journalist Ángeles Mariscal. “In Chiapas there is no way to live, the people are treating us like animals.”

The Haitian and other migrants marooned in Tapachula have begun gathering, usually near COMAR’s offices, to protest their situation. The protests became larger in size during the last week of August. Then, on the morning of August 28, a group of several hundred left the city on foot, walking up the Pacific coastal highway that leads into Oaxaca and the rest of Mexico.

This group walked about 42 kilometers, getting as far as the town of Huixtla, Chiapas before being captured and broken up. On the road, INM agents backed up by riot gear-clad National Guard personnel surrounded and blocked the migrants’ passage. Their methods were often brutal: mobile phone videos showed a Haitian man being pushed to the ground by guardsmen’s riot shields as he held his two-year-old baby, and an INM agent kicking another man in the head as others restrained him on the ground. It appears that one of the individuals restraining the man was Jorge Alejandro Palau, the director of Tapachula’s Siglo XXI facility, often described as the largest migrant detention center in Latin America.

A second group of migrants got through authorities’ roadblocks and made it to the town of Mapastepec, Chiapas, 107 kilometers from Tapachula. On the morning of September 1, as the migrants sought to rest in the town’s central square, INM and National Guard personnel surrounded and arrested them, chasing many throughout the town.

A third group left Tapachula on September 1, only to be detained and dispersed, in Mapastepec and other towns, within about 24 hours. INM agents raided hotels in towns along the migrant route, and pursued them through rural-dwellers’ fields and yards. A few migrants confronted the agents, throwing stones. Journalists and human rights defenders in Mapastepec reported “aggressions” at the hands of authorities; National Guard personnel used their shields to block reporters’ attempts to record video of what was happening.

Mexican authorities have not revealed what happened to the migrants captured in these operations. Haitians and others may have been “brought to Tapachula and left on the street in the middle of the night,” the Associated Press reported. Many captured Central American migrants were deported into Guatemala.

Video images of Mexican authorities beating and roughing up migrants generated outrage all week. “These painful images confirm the Mexican government’s turn into full-on immigration deterrence at the behest of the U.S. government,” columnist Leon Krauze wrote at the Washington Post. At VICE, Emily Green noted the contrast between the Mexican government’s high-profile reception of over 100 refugees from Afghanistan, and its treatment of other asylum seekers—more than 75 percent of whom had been granted refugee status by COMAR through July of this year.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador addressed the issue at a September 1 press conference. “The human rights of migrants haven’t been violated,” López Obrador insisted. “The exceptional case of a few days ago, in which two immigration officers kicked a Haitian citizen, was dealt with that same day. They were dismissed and placed at the disposal of the corresponding internal control body.”

Three UN agencies issued a statement on August 31 calling the video images “profoundly concerning,” noting threats to human rights defenders in the context of the Chiapas operations, and calling on Mexico to hold accountable all who committed abuses. “What happened in Chiapas last weekend is yet another example of the need to strengthen COMAR’s capacity for asylum processes, and to establish migratory alternatives that guarantee the human rights of migrants,” reads the document from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In a separate statement, the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission (CIDH) called out Mexican forces’ excessive use of force and cautioned against cracking down every time migrants travel as a group.

President López Obrador upheld the policy of containing migrants “as far as possible in the south, southeast of the country. Because allowing them to enter the territory completely, to cross our country, means many risks of human rights violations, especially on the northern border.” The Mexican president repeated his call on the United States to collaborate on a strategy that addresses the root causes of why people are migrating, declaring his intention to send a letter next week to U.S. President Joe Biden laying out a proposal.

Mexico’s Interior Department, which includes the INM, indicated that it is communicating with UNHCR and Mexico’s Bishops’ Conference regarding plans “to establish a humanitarian encampment in the state of Chiapas, where attention would be offered to the migrant population of Haitian origin.” The Bishops’ Conference put out a statement clarifying that it received an “encampment” proposal but has not necessarily agreed to support it. UNHCR stated that this Mexican government proposal was one of several issues that they discussed with regard to attending to the Haitian population. 

The pushback operations in Chiapas drew fresh attention to the role of Mexico’s military in the effort to keep migrants from reaching the United States. The recently created National Guard is currently made up of more than 75 percent active-duty military personnel; while he originally billed it as a civilian force, President López Obrador announced plans in June to make it a branch of the Army.

On August 27, the day before alarming videos of migrant abuse would be recorded in Chiapas, Mexico’s defense secretary, Gen. Luis Cresencio Sandoval, told reporters that “detaining all migration” is now the armed forces’ principal mission in Mexico’s border zones. Documents accompanying President López Obrador’s annual September 1 “state of the union” presentation reveal that, as of June, Mexico had deployed 6,244 troops and 1,449 guardsmen to its southern border states on migration control missions. The document claims that military and National Guard personnel captured 134,932 migrants. Mexico’s migration agency, the INM, reports capturing 157,919 during the 12 months ending in July 2021—so either there is a lot of double-counting, or the armed forces have been involved in the vast majority of Mexico’s recent nationwide migrant apprehensions  The Iberoamerican University found, based on information requests, that 78 percent of migrant detentions between June 2019 and December 2020 were at the hands of soldiers or members of the National Guard. 

Remain in Mexico’s “awkward” restart

The Biden administration continues to reckon with how to comply with a Texas judge’s order—upheld, for now, by the Supreme Court on August 24—that it reinstate a policy that it bitterly opposes. In response to a lawsuit filed by the Republican attorneys general of Texas and Missouri, Texas District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk has forced the Biden administration to carry out “good faith efforts” to revive the Migrant Protection Protocols or “Remain in Mexico” program. Launched by the Trump administration in December 2018, this program forced more than 71,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their hearings in Mexican border towns, where many were left homeless, without income, and preyed upon by criminals.

As a candidate, Joe Biden had pledged to undo the controversial policy, and he issued an order suspending it on Inauguration Day 2021. Now that his Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must reinstate it, next steps are not clear, a Washington Post analysis finds. “Early indications suggest the controversial Trump-era policy may not return on a large scale,” report Nick Miroff and Mary Beth Sheridan. Judge Kacsmaryk has required the Biden administration to file monthly reports, with the first one due September 15, on its “good-faith efforts” to restart the program.

“I have talked to DHS and of course digesting this Supreme Court decision, my understanding is that they will have to start implementing it,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), whose district includes a busy section of the Texas-Mexico border, told reporters. “They are waiting on those instructions as they are working in the D.C. headquarters on that as I talked to the judges that will have to be involved with this, and they are also getting ready to start getting this and coordinating with DHS.”

Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, an ardent proponent of Remain in Mexico, accused the Biden administration of “slow-playing” the program’s re-establishment. On a visit to the Rio Grande Valley sector of the border zone, Cruz recounted a meeting with local Border Patrol leadership. “We asked what have you done to comply with the order? They said, ‘nothing.’ They said they were instructed to do nothing. Their political leadership instructed them to do nothing.”

Whether, and at what scale, Remain in Mexico might restart depends on the government of Mexico, which would once again have to agree to receive a large population of non-Mexican citizens. Two Mexican officials interviewed by the Washington Post signaled willingness to cooperate with the U.S. government on managing migration and the border, including “technical talks” about a Remain in Mexico restart. However, these officials noted that “their capacity to take back more U.S. asylum seekers and migrants remains limited… and they regard other enforcement tools and policies to be more effective.”

The López Obrador government’s first ambassador to the United States, Martha Bárcena—who retired earlier this year—speculated that a revived Remain in Mexico would be smaller. “Mexico does not have the resources to take in asylum seekers on an indefinite basis, as it did last time,” she told the Post, adding, “the lesson from the last time was that the U.S. doesn’t keep its promise to rapidly process their cases.”

Though he “has not engaged in any conversations with Mexican counterparts on the topic,” Sen. Cruz called on the Biden administration to bully Mexico into agreeing to a robust restart of Remain in Mexico. “In particular, President Trump threatened to impose 25 percent tariffs, which would have a massive economic impact on Mexico. That threat got their attention. Absent that threat, there’s no way they would have agreed to it.”

Between February and the Supreme Court’s upholding of Judge Kacsmaryk’s decision, the Biden administration worked with UNHCR to parole into the United States 13,256 migrants with pending asylum applications who had been forced to remain in Mexico, the Arizona Republic reported. Another 3,500 migrants had registered with UNHCR, 2,000 of whom were still having their eligibility verified and 1,500 of whom were approved and awaiting their dates to enter the United States. Because of the courts’ decision, these 3,500 people must now remain in Mexico.

In California, the local ACLU filed to revive a January 2020 preliminary injunction that had required guaranteed access to counsel for migrants subject to Remain in Mexico in immigration courts within the jurisdiction of the federal courts’ Ninth Circuit (California and Arizona). The courts had vacated this injunction in June, when the Biden administration had formally ended Remain in Mexico.

“Of all the draconian measures instituted by former President Donald Trump, this was among the worst—right up there with separating kids from their parents,” reads a strong editorial in the San Antonio Express-News. “Immigration advocates are urging the administration to appeal the ruling, but since the high court deemed the suspension of the policy ‘capricious,’ the Department of Homeland Security may be able to solve the problem by fashioning a clearer statement about its intentions.”

A troubling report documents CBP abuses in Arizona

A report from two Catholic human rights advocacy groups details 35 troubling cases indicating “a pattern of abuse by Customs and Border Protection (CBP)” in the Arizona section of the U.S.-Mexico border. Due Process Denied, produced by the Washington-based NETWORK and the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Arizona-Sonora (KBI, recipient of WOLA’s 2017 human rights award), finds a “systemic culture of abuse of migrants.”

KBI operates a shelter and kitchen in Nogales, Mexico near Arizona’s busiest border crossing, about an hour and a half south of Tucson. Many of the migrants in their care have just been released from CBP’s custody, or otherwise interacted with the U.S. border agency after being deported, expelled under the Title 42 pandemic measure, forced to “remain in Mexico,” or prevented from asking for asylum at a port of entry.

When these migrants describe suffering abuse at the hands of U.S. personnel, KBI documents it, and often files complaints with CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility or DHS’s office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. KBI stands out among border groups for the extent and detail of its abuse documentation.

The Due Process Denied report highlights 35 cases in Nogales from October 2020 to mid-August 2021. “The abuses range from migrants being denied due process, such as not given an opportunity to seek asylum or destruction of documentation, to outright physical violence.” NETWORK and KBI divide them into five categories: “1. Immigrant claims of credible fear dismissed; 2. Immigrants being forced to sign documentation and then expelled; 3. Theft of documentation; 4. Medical negligence; and 5. Physical abuse.”

For the most part, the 35 incidents the report documents are not spectacular, headline-grabbing events like shootings or severe beatings. Instead, they point to an insidious pattern of “everyday” abuse that, because it is so frequent, appears to be embedded into the agency’s culture.

A few examples from the report:

  • “A Salvadoran woman, her 10-year-old daughter, 1-year-old son, brother, cousin, and cousin’s daughter, entered the United States on April 17, 2021. They saw a Border Patrol truck arriving and waited for it to arrive so they could ask for asylum. The Border Patrol agent who got out of the truck was enraged. He pulled a gun on the mother and family. He berated them, calling them ‘damned criminals,’ ‘rats,’ ‘terrorists,’ and ‘criminals,’ as they cried and asked for asylum.”
  • “At the Tucson border facility, the [Guatemalan] woman approached an agent asking how they should apply for asylum and informing him that her son has a medical condition and needs medical care. She showed him the documents (a diagnosis, x-rays, etc.) to prove that her son was in need and that he needed surgery within the next two months. The agent took the documents and threw them in the thrash. When she went to retrieve them from the trash, he took them again and told her ‘they belong in the trash.’”
  • “Everyone was asked to walk across the border to Mexico. He [a Guatemalan man] asked the agents why he was being sent to Mexico when he was Guatemalan. An agent hit him with a baton on the knee and threatened to hit him on the head.”
  • “At the Tucson facility, she [a Guatemalan woman] told an agent she was afraid to return to Guatemala and she tried to show documentation of violence, the death certificates of her family members killed by organized crime. The CBP agent told her that her documents were likely fake because she comes from a ‘corrupt’ country.”
  • “The border patrol agents who arrested them were driving a four-wheeler. They drove really fast, right towards the immigrants. The immigrants had to jump out of the way to avoid being run over.”

Though KBI is meticulous about documenting testimonies and filing complaints, the organization sees almost no evidence that CBP and DHS internal affairs or disciplinary mechanisms are functioning. Impunity for these “everyday” abuses is near total:

“Of the thirty-five complaints in this report, none of them resulted in a response to KBI or the complainant about disciplinary action taken against the perpetrators of these abuses. This means agents who attack migrants may still be on the job, repeating these same violations.

Links

  • San Diego-based 9th Circuit Judge Cynthia Bashant ruled September 2 that CBP’s practice of “metering” is unconstitutional. The term refers to posting officers on the borderline to turn back asylum seekers and limit the daily number who may approach a port of entry. The ruling against metering is the result of a suit brought four years ago by Al Otro Lado, a San Diego and Tijuana-based legal services organization (for which WOLA is among several groups that provided declarations). The decision came despite Biden Justice Department lawyers arguing for the ability to keep metering as a policy option, even as they said that the administration was reviewing its use. “The judge said she would issue her decision and then ask for more briefings on how to move forward based on that decision,” the San Diego Union-Tribune had reported. It’s not clear what will change right away, since the Title 42 pandemic policy continues to expel a large number of asylum seekers.
  • Claudia Marcela Peña, a mother from Boyacá, Colombia, flew to Mexico with her two children in late August with the intent of crossing the border to reunite with her husband in the United States. Their smuggler apparently abandoned them in Arizona. Ms. Peña and her oldest child died, most likely of heat exposure. Only her two-year-old child was alive when border agents found them.
  • As growing numbers of Brazilian citizens have been flying to Mexico then being apprehended by Border Patrol, Mexico has started denying entry at its airports to Brazilians whose passports lack a U.S. tourist visa, even when the Brazilians intend to visit Mexico. Researcher Charles Pontes Gomes reports that this is happening about 600 times per month on average.
  • Texas’s state legislature approved $1.8 billion in new spending for National Guard troops, construction of fencing, and stepped-up arrests and imprisonment of undocumented migrants charged with trespassing. “The money is in addition to the $1 billion for border security initiatives approved by lawmakers during this year’s regular legislative session and $250 million in state funding Abbott used to kick-start construction of his border barrier,” reported the Austin American-Statesman. Taken together, that’s about $105 from each of the 29.2 million people residing in Texas. Some Democratic state legislators from south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region voted for the money, which funds projects started by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. “I have talked to many of my constituents in Cameron and Hidalgo County… and I can tell you the vast majority of those people want border security and want the wall, believe it or not,” Brownsville State Sen. Eddie Lucio (D) told the Texas Tribune.
  • 344 organizations, including WOLA, signed a letter to President Biden and other top officials calling for a halt to deportation flights to Haiti, which since July has endured a presidential assassination, an earthquake, and a tropical storm. In the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, the Defense Ministry reported apprehending and deporting 178,000 Haitian citizens in the past 12 months.
  • During a visit to Mexico, UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, Gillian Triggs, voiced concern about three U.S. policies: Title 42 expulsions, flights expelling non-Mexicans to southern Mexico, and the court-ordered revival of Remain in Mexico, a program she called “a threat to the asylum system.”

Remain in Mexico plus Title 42 would mean a vicious two-tiered system of asylum denial at the U.S.-Mexico border

With Trump-appointed judges and the Supreme court forcing the Biden administration to re-start the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, or “Remain in Mexico”) program at the border, watch what happens to migrants according to their nationality.

If Remain in Mexico gets implemented at even some of the intensity that it was during the Trump years, and if the Biden administration at the same time continues expelling many migrants—including asylum seekers—under the Title 42 pandemic authority, then something ugly might happen.

Basically, we can group affected migrants into three types of nationalities.

First, citizens of Mexico have always had a hard time making asylum cases in the United States. They weren’t subject to “Remain in Mexico” but were massively expelled back to Mexico after the pandemic measures went into effect in March 2020. Here’s all Mexican citizens encountered at the border, and then those traveling as families (parents with children):

Second, citizens of the “Northern Triangle” countries—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—were massively placed into “Remain in Mexico.” Then, after March 2020—because Mexico agreed to take most of them—they’ve been massively expelled under Title 42, also. No matter what happens, they’ve had a slim chance at due process when they ask for protection in the United States.

Attorneys who work with expelled migrants tell me that they hear constant horror stories from parents with kids stuck in Mexican border cities about what happens to them at the hands of criminal groups after they’re expelled.

Third, citizens of several other Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries were subject to “Remain in Mexico,” and many ended up in Mexican border towns. But they haven’t been expelled in large numbers under Title 42 for logistical or consular reasons.

Mexico won’t take them as expulsions across the land border. It’s expensive to fly them back to their countries of origin, and some of their governments (Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela) have poor relations with the United States.

They’re not as much part of this story, but it’s worth mentioning that there are a few other countries, particularly Haiti, whose citizens didn’t have to remain in Mexico, but in some cases have been expelled by air.

In July, 23 percent of migrants—and 31 percent of families—encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border were from countries whose citizens weren’t being massively expelled, but would have had to “remain in Mexico” when Trump was president. Right now, few are being expelled.

72 percent of migrants—63 percent of families—were from Mexico and Central America, and still often subject to expulsion under the Title 42 pandemic order.

If they get carried out together right now, Remain in Mexico combined with Title 42 would create a very ugly two-tiered system.

Keep in mind that Title 42 is even worse than Remain in Mexico because it doesn’t even give asylum seekers a court date in the United States. So if the courts force a true restart of Remain in Mexico, nearly one-third of families might get shoved into Mexico with a court date, while most of the rest wouldn’t even get that. That’s a new level of malice.

Unaccompanied children at the border: update through August 30

Here’s some updated data on unaccompanied migrant children.

New arrivals of kids at the US-Mexico border have declined somewhat after sharp growth in July. But more are arriving than were in May-June.

The number of kids in Border Patrol’s child-inadequate holding facilities jumped up in August, but now is back below 1,000.

After a bump in August, the number of kids in the Health and Human Services Department’s network of shelters, awaiting placement with US-based relatives or sponsors, is similar to late June. The population stubbornly remains between 14,000 and 15,000 kids.

Last week, HHS discharged more children per day from its shelters, on average, than in any prior week. 594 per day.

Subtract the number of kids discharged by HHS, from the number of unaccompanied kids newly apprehended by Border Patrol, and last week was the third straight week when the population in US government custody declined. That’s good.

Download a 12-megabyte zipfile of all 111 daily reports used to make these graphics, from http://bit.ly/uac_daily. Like this one:

Weekly Border Update: August 27, 2021

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

Supreme Court fails to block judge’s demand to reinstate “Remain in Mexico”

A Supreme Court decision issued the evening of August 24 leaves in effect a district court order for the Biden administration to reinstate the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), or “Remain in Mexico,” program. Between its December 2018 inception and January 2021, whenever asylum seekers from several Spanish or Portuguese-speaking countries arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, this program forced them to spend months or years in Mexican border towns—with no guarantees of housing, sustenance, or security—to await their hearings in U.S. immigration courts. (Read WOLA’s statement warning of this potential “return to an inhumane and unlawful policy.”)

Remain in Mexico forced 71,038 asylum seekers back across the border. Mexico’s government, under intense pressure from the Trump administration, went along with the program, including a sharp mid-2019 expansion.

Remain in Mexico spurred the creation of unsanitary and unsafe encampments in Mexican border cities. Human Rights First documented at least 1,544 cases of rape, kidnapping, torture, and other crimes against those subject to the program inside Mexico. If their cases even reached U.S. immigration court, difficult access to counsel and rushed, often virtual procedures made asylum all but impossible to obtain. Of the more than 15,000 closed cases for which asylum seekers attended all their hearings while remaining in Mexico, only 720—4.7 percent—were granted any form of relief from deportation.

“Donald Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy is dangerous, inhumane, and goes against everything we stand for as a nation of immigrants,” then-candidate Joe Biden tweeted in March 2020. “My administration will end it.” The Biden administration suspended Remain in Mexico with an order on January 20, 2021, and then formally terminated it on June 1. Now, though, federal courts are ordering “a good-faith effort” to restart the controversial program, at least while appeals proceed.

The action stems from a lawsuit filed by the Republican attorneys-general of Texas and Missouri, who alleged that the Biden administration failed to “consider all relevant factors” in terminating Remain in Mexico. They link the program’s end to an increase in migration this year, which they claim has increased financial costs for both states.

On August 13, Amarillo, Texas District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk agreed with the attorneys-general and ordered the Biden administration to restart Remain in Mexico, giving it a week to do so. Kacsmaryk is a Trump appointee. (Ian Milhiser reports at Vox that “Before Trump made Kacsmaryk a judge, Kacsmaryk worked at a religious-right law firm. He’s previously written that being transgender is a ‘mental disorder’ and that gay people are ‘disordered.’”)

His opinion claimed that a 1996 immigration law only gives “the government two options vis-à-vis aliens seeking asylum: (1) mandatory detention; or (2) return to a contiguous territory.” This is flatly incorrect: immigration law offers federal officials other options including parole, release on bond, and alternatives to detention.

Kacsmaryk, Milhiser observes, also effectively claimed that the 1996 law “required the federal government to implement the Remain in Mexico policy permanently. That policy didn’t even exist until 2019, so the upshot of Kacsmaryk’s opinion is that the government violated the law for nearly a quarter-century and no one noticed.”

The Department of Justice (DOJ) asked for a stay of Kacsmaryk’s decision while appeals proceed. A panel of three Trump-appointed judges from the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit denied that request on August 19. DOJ then went to the Supreme Court, which suspended the Remain in Mexico reinstatement until August 24.

That evening, with its three liberal-leaning judges dissenting, the Supreme Court refused to suspend Kacsmaryk’s decision while litigation continues. (While it didn’t offer a reason for its refusal, the Court cited a 5-4 decision in 2020 that blocked then-president Donald Trump’s repeal of the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) program.) Remain in Mexico—or, at least, good-faith efforts to reinstate it—have thus officially gone back into effect as of 12:01 a.m. August 25.

After suspending it, the Biden administration had endeavored to admit many of those subject to the program into the United States to await their immigration court proceedings. About 13,000 of the 71,000 Remain in Mexico victims entered through a process managed with cooperation from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)  and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). That process has now been suspended—those awaiting their turn to enter the United States must now stay in Mexico—and the website for new registrations has been shut down.

What happens now isn’t entirely clear. The district court’s ruling requires the Biden administration to make a “good faith effort” to restart Remain in Mexico, but neither it nor the Supreme Court define what that means. While expressing “respectful disagreement” with the courts’ decisions and pressing its appeals, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stated that it “will comply with the order in good faith,” adding that it “has begun to engage with the Government of Mexico in diplomatic discussions.” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki reiterated that on August 25.

While the administration “vigorously” pursues its appeals, one possible next step would be for DHS to “re-terminate” the program with a fuller explanation of the reasoning behind its decision to do so. That is a step that the ACLU recommends. “In theory, that’s a solvable problem,” Milhiser writes. “Except that the Supreme Court does not even offer a hint as to why it deemed the Biden administration’s original explanation insufficient.”

There is also concern that the administration might seek to create a “lite” version of Remain in Mexico. The administration “could reimplement it on a very small scale for families who meet certain criteria from very specific nationalities,” Jessica Bolter of the Migration Policy Institute suggested to the Associated Press. “Shockingly,” reads a statement from Human Rights First, “the administration is reportedly considering launching a ‘gentler’ version of the inherently unfixable policy—an exercise doomed to fail given the policy’s illegality and pervasive violence against asylum seekers in Mexico.”

Even that, though, depends on concurrence from the government of Mexico, which must consent to the possible introduction of tens of thousands more non-Mexican asylum-seekers on its soil. Remain in Mexico would not begin again if Mexico were to say “no.” An August 23 letter to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador from more than 74 international NGOs, including WOLA, calls on him to do just that. “As a sovereign nation, Mexico has the right to reject the reinstatement of MPP or any future iteration of this policy that aims to externalize the U.S. border into Mexican territory. It is impossible to re-implement MPP in a way that upholds human rights and due process, and Mexico has the responsibility to block this detrimental policy.”

So far, Mexico hasn’t clearly indicated how it will respond. Roberto Velasco, the director for North American affairs in Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department, made clear that the U.S. courts’ rulings don’t compel Mexico to do anything. He added, though, that “the Mexican government will start technical discussions with the U.S. government to evaluate how to handle safe, orderly and regulated immigration on the border.” At his morning press conference on August 26, President López Obrador said Mexico wants to “help,” but sought to shift the conversation to efforts to address the economic causes of Central American migration. The president rejected as “conservative” those who argue that such “root-causes” strategies are long-term in nature, and don’t address the present suffering of migrants stranded in Mexico’s border cities.

Title 42 expulsions continue, including flights to southern Mexico

Regardless of next steps for Remain in Mexico, we should recall that the Trump administration did not employ the program heavily after March 2020, when pandemic border restrictions went into effect. Of the 71,000 people enrolled in the program, only 6,153 were added between April 2020 and January 2021.

That is mainly because after March 2020, the Trump and Biden administrations had a new way to expel non-Mexican migrants into Mexico. Since COVID-19 pandemic border restrictions began, authorities have employed a public health provision called “Title 42” to expel migrants rapidly, usually without an opportunity to ask for asylum or protection in the United States. Mexico takes back its own citizens and citizens of other countries with some migratory status inside Mexico, and agreed in March 2020 to accept expelled citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Between March 2020 and July 2021, U.S. authorities have used Title 42 to expel migrants at the southern border 1,069,777 times. 431,662 of those times, the expelled migrants were not Mexican. (Several thousand of this number were expelled by air to their home countries, not by land into Mexico.) These numbers dwarf the 71,000 who were subjected to Remain in Mexico.

With Title 42 allowing it to expel them into Mexico, the Trump administration almost completely stopped applying “Remain in Mexico” to Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans. The 6,153 people enrolled in the program during the Trump administration’s last 10 months were almost entirely citizens of 6 Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries to which expulsions are difficult: Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

Even as it ended Remain in Mexico, the Biden administration has energetically continued to expel people under Title 42: 610,208 expulsions, including 76,384 parents and children, between February and July. Because it is hard to expel them, though, the Biden administration has processed into the United States many citizens of the six countries that were subject to Remain in Mexico during the Trump administration’s pandemic tenure.

A two-tier system has resulted. Between February and July:

  • Citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were expelled, under Title 42, 54 percent of the time. If traveling as families, they were expelled 34 percent of the time.
  • Citizens of Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela were expelled 22 percent of the time. If traveling as families, they were expelled 4 percent of the time.

Citizens of most of these six countries have been arriving in greater numbers since February. By July, increases in citizens of Ecuador and Nicaragua had pushed El Salvador into sixth place among arriving migrants. This was quite possibly the first time El Salvador has ranked so low, even though arrivals of its citizens did increase from June to July.

Each column ranks all countries that had at least 100 migrants encountered by CBP at the U.S.-Mexico border in at least one of the last two months. Red arrows indicate decreases in the number of encounters; grey arrows represent increases.

If Remain in Mexico is reinstated, citizens of the six countries might find themselves pushed back into Mexican border towns again. However,  they would at least have hearing dates in U.S. immigration courts, while Title 42 persists they would still be better off than the Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans being expelled without even a chance to ask for asylum.

On August 25 Human Rights First published a major update of its running series of reports documenting abuses committed against migrants after their expulsion into Mexican border towns. By gathering information from interviews and local organizations’ surveys and databases, the group has now “tracked at least 6,356 kidnappings, sexual assaults, and other violent attacks against people blocked at ports of entry or expelled to Mexico”—just in the months since President Biden took office. Of migrants participating in the surveys who identified as LGBTQ, a stunning 89 percent reported suffering recent attacks or threats while in northern Mexico.

Two encampments made up of expelled or blocked migrants continue to grow. One is in a public square near the border crossing in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, a city plagued by violence. Recent press estimates of the population subsisting there range from “more than 2,000” to “at least 2,500” to “over 5,000.” A similarly sized encampment sits outside the Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana.

The New York Times describes the Reynosa camp as “filthy and foul-smelling, lacking the health and sanitation infrastructure that nonprofit groups had spent months installing” in an earlier, now-demolished camp for Remain in Mexico victims in the nearby border city of Matamoros. “Assaults and kidnappings for ransom are commonplace.” Several people interviewed there “said that they had tried to make a case for asylum to U.S. Border Patrol agents, but that the agents would not listen. They were told, they said, to just answer questions and follow directions,” and were bused back to Mexico.

Several non-governmental groups are seeking to raise money for a facility to shelter roughly 400 COVID-positive migrants so that they might at least be able to leave the camp while they recover. Meanwhile, Reynosa’s municipal government—which recently sought to close down the city’s largest church-run migrant shelter—ordered the confiscation of gas cylinders that migrants in the camp were using to cook food, citing safety concerns. The migrants now depend more heavily on charitable food donations.

The U.S. government is offering no support. To the contrary: unnamed sources told Reuters that U.S. officials are urging Mexico to clear the encampments, “in part because the sheer volume of people in them could jeopardize security if they made a sudden rush for the border.”

In some cases, the U.S. government is seeking to move migrants even further from the border: since sometime in early August, DHS began expelling some Central American migrants via aircraft to two cities in southern Mexico—Tapachula, Chiapas, and Villahermosa, Tabasco—a relatively short drive from the Guatemalan border. From those cities’ airports, Mexican authorities have been busing migrants to border crossings and escorting them into Guatemala. The migrants are given no opportunity to ask for asylum in either country.

Guatemala has voiced particular concern about expulsions into the tiny border town of El Ceibo, in the country’s remote, sparsely populated, and organized crime-influenced northern department of Petén, which borders Tabasco, Mexico. Guatemala only authorizes, and has facilities to handle, deportees at one border crossing site hundreds of miles away, in the Pacific-zone border town of Tecún Umán. Very few services exist in El Ceibo, where Guatemala’s Migration Institute (IGM) on August 24 estimated that Mexico had dropped off 500 Central American migrants in the previous 3 days.

August migration may be declining somewhat

In July 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported taking 154,288 migrants into custody at the U.S.-Mexico border through 212,672 separate “encounters,” a term that includes many repeat crossings. This was the largest number all year, and one of the largest monthly totals in this century.

Some indicators, however, point to at least a modestly lighter flow of migrant arrivals in August. Daily reports (available here as a 12MB zipfile) show a decline over the month of August in arrivals of unaccompanied migrant children at the border, after a sharp increase in July. During the last two weeks of July, an average of more than 500 children per day were entering CBP custody at the border, and more than 600 per day the first week of August. This has dropped to 424 per day during the week of August 15 and 469 per day so far this week.

In Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, the sector that receives by far the largest number of migrants, especially children and families from Central America, numbers also appear to be dropping. myRGV.com reports:

Assistant City Manager Jeff Johnston reported that the numbers were down significantly last week.

“Back on Aug. 9, we reported an all-time high of 11,026 immigrants dropped off by Customs and Border Protection that week here in McAllen. That was an average of about 1,575 per day,” Johnston told city commissioners during Monday’s meeting. “This last week, our numbers were down quite a bit from that, in fact down by over 40%. We had 6,320 drop-offs this last week for an average of about 900 per day.”

COVID-19 positivity rates among asylum seekers in the Rio Grande Valley were also down “from about 15 percent two weeks ago to approximately 12 percent this week.”

Links

  • During Fiscal Year 2021 so far (October through July), Border Patrol has found the remains of 383 migrants on U.S. soil near the U.S.-Mexico border, the New York Times reports. Most died of dehydration, exposure, or drowning. That is more remains than Border Patrol has found in any full year since 2013 (451); with two months to go, 2021 is already the sixth-worst year since 1998, when Border Patrol’s records begin. CBP reports finding more than 100 remains of migrants just in the Rio Grande Valley sector, “on rugged ranch lands in south Texas,” adding, “Last week alone, 10 decedents were discovered on the ranch lands. This month, more than 20 people have lost their lives during smuggling attempts.”
  • Mexican officials assert that seven out of every ten Ecuadorians traveling to Mexico in recent months have ended up apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol near the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexico is tightening visa requirements for Ecuador’s citizens, after easing them in 2018.
  • Because it wants cooperation on limiting migration, the Biden administration has not been following up officials’ tough anti-corruption talk with action against Central American government officials, a New York Times analysis asserts. The piece leads with the scoop that shortly before being fired and forced into exile, Guatemala’s top anti-corruption prosecutor had a witness tell him of going to President Alejandro Giammattei’s home and delivering “a rolled-up carpet stuffed with cash.”
  • As environmental advocates had warned would happen, monsoon rains in Arizona’s desert caused flash flooding that blew recently built border wall segments’ gates right off of their hinges.
  • Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) has now sent about 1,000 National Guardsmen to the border with Mexico, with more than 60 of them tasked with building “temporary barriers in key areas.” These state-funded troops are in addition to about 3,800 soldiers and guardsmen whom the Trump administration sent to the border to support CBP, a deployment that the Biden administration has continued. Abbott’s move has pulled National Guard personnel away from the role they were playing in manning El Paso’s only food bank during the pandemic, forcing it to close most of its locations, at least temporarily. The governor has charged police and guardsmen with arresting undocumented migrants near the border on state charges, nearly always trespassing. As of August 25 Texas was holding 486 migrants in a prison in the town of Dilley, and is considering using a second facility in Edinburg, in the Rio Grande Valley. By a 14-8 vote, the Texas House’s Appropriations Committee approved $2 billion on August 24 to pay for Abbott’s crackdown.
  • “Most public-health experts say it isn’t likely that migrants are contributing significantly to [COVID-19] transmissions within the U.S., since nearly all are tested and quarantined before release, and because the Delta variant is already widespread,” reads a Wall Street Journal analysis. “Think about an entire city on fire and I was to walk in and drop a match,” said one epidemiologist.
  • Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and other voices on the U.S. right are alleging that the rapid Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, which included a mass prison release, may lead to terrorists seeking to enter the United States via the border with Mexico.
  • Large numbers of Haitian migrants are stuck in Mexico’s border zone near Guatemala, where they must await decisions from Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, on their asylum cases. They are urging COMAR to adjudicate more quickly. Activists tell Chiapas Paralelo that their numbers in the border zone could be as high as 30,000, with another 15,000 en route, currently in Colombia and Panama. (The actual number may be smaller.)
  • Intense fighting between the Jalisco cartel and local organized-crime groups, with almost no government intervention, has displaced thousands from the town of Aguililla, in Mexico’s Pacific state of Michoacán. Many families are trying to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, Vice reports.
  • August 24 marked the 11th anniversary of an infamous massacre of 72 migrants from at least 6 countries in San Fernando, near the Texas border in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Nobody has ever been sentenced for the crime.

Very bad year for border deaths

“Through July,” Simon Romero reports at the New York Times,” Border Patrol officials found 383 dead migrants, the highest toll in nearly a decade, and one already far surpassing 253 recovered in the previous fiscal year.”

Here’s that number in the context of the past 24 years:

Migrants trying to avoid apprehension die in shockingly high numbers, usually of dehydration or exposure, on U.S. soil. Local NGOs usually find much higher numbers of remains than Border Patrol does in the areas where they operate.

This is an especially bad year. It’s been a summer of record-high heat. The pandemic “Title 42” policy, which instantly expels most apprehended migrants—even many asylum-seekers—gives some migrants an extra incentive to avoid apprehension, but also eases repeat attempts to cross.

It’s so bizarre how little attention this gets. Somebody dies a painful death on U.S. soil every day—yet stories like Romero’s Times piece today are remarkably rare.

Unaccompanied migrant children at the border appear to be declining again. Who knows why.

You may recall that in March, in its early months, the Biden administration was hit by a large increase in unaccompanied migrant children, mostly from Central America, being apprehended at the border. Numbers of children began dropping in April and May, only to rise again in June and July. Now, they’re dropping again.

As a result, the number of kids stuck in Border Patrol’s child-inappropriate holding facilities, which had been rising alarmingly a couple of weeks ago, has dropped again.

By law Border Patrol must, as fast as possible, release unaccompanied children to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which manages a network of shelters around the country. Currently, a few thousand children are in short-term emergency shelters where conditions are austere and grim. Health and Human Services must discharge children to relatives or other sponsors in the United States, with whom they stay while their asylum or protection cases are adjudicated.

Health and Human Services increased the pace of its discharges to U.S. sponsors in the weeks after the initial “wave” of children. Since then, though, the pace of discharges flattened out.

As a result, the full population of kids in U.S. government custody—17,174 on August 18—has barely budged: it hasn’t been below 15,000 in a long time. The last two weeks, at least, appear to have seen net decreases.

I made these charts using a collection of (as of today) 103 daily reports on unaccompanied children, issued by Customs and Border Protection and Health and Human Services. You can download those as a big (11MB) zipfile at bit.ly/uac_daily.

Weekly Border Update: August 6, 2021

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

We will not publish updates on August 13 and 20, but look forward to resuming on August 27.

Preliminary data point to 210,000 migrant encounters in July

David Shahoulian, the Department for Homeland Security’s (DHS) assistant secretary for border and immigration policy, submitted an August 2 declaration as part of ongoing litigation (discussed below) regarding expulsions of asylum-seeking migrants. Shahoulian’s document offers a preview of official data about migration at the border in the month of July, which Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has not yet released.

Some highlights:

  • CBP is likely to have encountered about 210,000 undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in July.

This would be the largest number of times that U.S. border authorities have encountered migrants since March 2000, when Border Patrol reported 220,063 apprehensions, and the third-largest on Border Patrol’s reporting of all monthly totals since 2000. This chart shows approximately how July would compare to all months since October 2011:

There is much double-counting, though: repeat crossings are far more common now than in 2000, since pandemic expulsions ease repeated attempts. As a result, the number of individual people whom CBP is encountering is probably in the low-to-mid 100,000s. That is still high, but probably not even in the top ten monthly totals of the past 22 years.

Still, it is extraordinarily unusual for a hot month of July to exceed migration levels measured in spring. Long-standing seasonal patterns no longer apply. As a new WOLA analysis points out, the number may keep increasing, as family and child migration patterns in place since 2014 have been heightened by the pandemic’s impact on governance and economies throughout the hemisphere. “Based on current trends,” Shahoulian’s document reads, “the Department expects that total encounters this fiscal year are likely to be the highest ever recorded.”

  • “July also likely included a record number of unaccompanied child encounters, exceeding 19,000.”

Numbers of unaccompanied children arriving at the border had been inching upward since May, but jumped approximately after the July 4 holiday, for unclear reasons. On August 4, Border Patrol reported taking into custody a remarkable 834 non-Mexican children who arrived at the border unaccompanied. That is the largest single-day number in all daily reports on unaccompanied children that CBP and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have produced since March 24, and may be the largest daily number ever.

Along with the increase in child arrivals has come an increase, once again, in the number of unaccompanied children in Border Patrol custody, in the agency’s jail-like holding cells and processing facilities. A smoother process of handoffs to HHS, which runs a network of shelters as it works to place children with U.S.-based relatives or sponsors, had reduced numbers in Border Patrol custody from more than 5,000 in March to fewer than 1,000 in May and most of June. The volume of new arrivals, though, has caused the number to climb again.

As of August 4, 2,784 children were in Border Patrol facilities. Reuters reported on August 3 that, according to an unnamed “source familiar with the matter,” unaccompanied children were spending about 60 hours in Border Patrol custody, just under the legal limit of 72 hours for handoff to HHS. However, Reuters added that as of August 3, 877 kids had exceeded the 72-hour threshold.

  • July encounters with family unit members are cited either as “over 75,000” or “around 80,000.”

This number of family members—which, like children, includes few repeat crossers—would be second only to May 2019, when Border Patrol apprehended 84,486.

  • Two of the nine sectors into which Border Patrol divides the border “experienced a disproportionate amount of these encounters.”

They are both in Texas: the Rio Grande Valley, the easternmost part of the border; and Del Rio, in the central part of Texas’s border with Mexico, across from Coahuila, Mexico. “These two sectors have also experienced a disproportionate amount—about 71 percent—of family encounters.”

  • As of August 1, Border Patrol facilities were at 389 percent of their “COVID-19 adjusted capacity,” with 17,778 non-citizens, including 2,233 unaccompanied children, in the agency’s custody.

10,002 of them were in the Rio Grande Valley sector, 3,623 of them in a temporary processing facility in Donna, Texas, which has a normal (non-COVID) operating capacity of 1,625. “Border Patrol was over capacity in seven of its nine southwest border sectors.”

Images posted on social media by Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and a Border Patrol union leader showed large numbers of migrants, including families with children, being held under bridges, outdoors, for days. These are Border Patrol’s Temporary Outdoor Processing Site (TOPS) under the Anzalduas International Bridge in Mission, Texas, and the Del Rio International International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas.

In the Rio Grande Valley, about 800 migrants, mostly asylum-seeking family members, are being brought each day to the Catholic Charities humanitarian respite center in downtown McAllen. “The center struggles every day to have enough supplies and donations to meet the growing demand,” reports Border Report, adding that the facility’s air conditioning broke down over the July 31-August 1 weekend “and temperatures were in the triple digits.”

Northbound migration becomes more visible in Colombia

Colombia sits along a route long used by migrants moving northbound from South America, often via countries like Ecuador or Brazil that are relatively more open to travelers from outside the continent. In its northwest corner, though, there is a major bottleneck: the Pan-American highway does not cross the Darién Gap, an area of dense jungle between the Colombian border and central Panama.

“Before the pandemic,” notes the Bogotá daily El Espectador, “Colombia issued a safe-conduct so that migrants could transit through national territory and leave within 30 days, but with the [pandemic border] closure, it stopped issuing them.” Although Colombia reopened its borders in May 2021, the safe-conduct system “has not resumed.”

Most international migrants transit Colombia with the aim of reaching the Atlantic coast town of Capurganá, which borders Panama. From there, they walk through the Darién Gap—a part of the journey to the United States that many migrants recall as the most miserable and dangerous—until they end up at facilities run by the Panamanian government and humanitarian groups on the other side. From there, they travel through Central America and either seek asylum in Mexico or seek to reach the U.S. border.

Capurganá is poorly served by roads, though, so migrants usually take a 40-mile ferry across the Gulf of Urabá, an inlet of the Caribbean Sea, from Necoclí. This municipality of 45,000 is part of Antioquia department, of which Medellín is the capital. A stronghold of pro-government paramilitary groups during the worst years of Colombia’s armed conflict 20 years ago, Necoclí remains under the influence of the Gulf Clan, an organized crime syndicate descended from the paramilitaries.

As migration surges throughout the Americas, the bottleneck in Necoclí has become dramatically backed up. About 10,000 migrants from Haiti and several other countries are in the beachfront town waiting for a chance to board one of the 12 daily ferries to Capurganá. The town’s only ferry company “simply cannot match demand,” Agence France Presse (AFP) reports; a translator for the company told CNN they “try to move eight or nine hundred migrants per day, but it’s hard.” This backup is forcing migrants to spend many days in Necoclí.

Colombian Defense Minister, visiting the town on July 31, said that the country’s navy would build an emergency pier that would allow more boats to operate. President Iván Duque pledged to work more closely with Panamanian authorities.

Most of the Haitian migrants stranded in Necoclí left Haiti years ago and settled in South America, often in Brazil or Chile. The pandemic dried up employment opportunities in these countries, though, and “they say their visas were not renewed,” reports AFP. Colombian migration authorities told CNN that Haitians are more likely to attempt the Darién route in family units with children.

The stay is expensive: a Haitian man told AFP that he “paid US$105 to enter Colombia illegally from Ecuador, another US$200 for a four-day bus ride to Necocli, and more still to pay police bribes,” and that a room in Necoclí costs US$10 per person. “Some migrants denounced mafias that sell them ‘tourist packages’ to make the journey from Ipiales, in Nariño [where the Pan-American Highway crosses from Ecuador to Colombia], charging up to 300 dollars to cross the border,” said Colombia’s human rights ombudsman, who visited Necoclí.

During the week, Colombia reported two apprehensions of migrant groups along the Pan-American Highway in the country’s southwest, several hundred miles south of Necoclí. Police stopped two buses carrying 99 Haitians in the Andean highlands of rural Nariño, and a vehicle carrying seven Haitians and a Brazilian in Valle del Cauca, not far from Cali.

12 developments last week affecting asylum seekers

As their numbers increase, the situation of asylum seekers in the United States and Mexico grew more complicated in several ways last week, though there was progress on some fronts. There is so much to report that this section avoids going into detail; follow links to learn more.

  1. U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone granted a temporary restraining order blocking a July 28 executive order from Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R). Abbot would have required Texas state police, in the name of preventing COVID spread, to stop, divert, and even impound vehicles transporting migrants—mainly asylum-seekers—released from CBP custody. The order would have crippled humanitarian groups’ efforts, and the Justice Department, which sued to challenge Abbott’s order on July 30, included statements from Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials contending that the order would block contractors hired to transport migrants. (In the Rio Grande Valley alone, Border Patrol has used contractors to transport most of 100,700 released migrants in Fiscal 2021, according to Sector Chief Brian Hastings’ filing.) Judge Cardone said Abbott’s order would end up “exacerbating the spread of COVID-19.” Her restraining order expires on August 13, when a new hearing is scheduled.

    In addition to the Justice Department action, the ACLU and several other Texas organizations filed suit against Abbott’s order on August 5. While the Justice Department is focused on the government’s ability to transport migrants, the organizations’ suit focuses on the racial profiling and other harms that might result from the order.

    Governor Abbott meanwhile continues to oversee a state effort to arrest, charge, and jail undocumented migrants on charges of trespassing near the border. According to Texas Tribune reporter Jolie McCullough, who has done the closest monitoring of this operation, more than 150 migrants are now jailed at a Texas prison in the town of Dilley, with the first arraignments scheduled for August 11. On July 30, McCullough witnessed Texas police separating a Venezuelan husband and wife, taking the husband off to jail as a “visibly confused” Border Patrol agent looked on.
  2. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a new order on August 2 renewing the controversial “Title 42” authority to quickly expel migrants, including asylum seekers, in the name of preventing COVID-19 spread. The order does not apply to unaccompanied children, but families will still be subject to expulsion, despite expectations a month ago that the Biden administration would no longer apply Title 42 to families.

    “Processing a family under Title 42 typically takes 10 to 15 minutes and is largely conducted outdoors, while processing a family for Title 8 can take 1.5 to 3 hours and is generally conducted indoors,” according to the above-cited filing by DHS’s Shahoulian. The document was part of the Biden administration’s defense to ACLU-led litigation against Title 42’s application to families. Negotiations between the ACLU and the government collapsed upon notice that the CDC would issue its renewal order, and both parties made a joint filing in Washington, DC district court on August 2.
  3. The renewal of Title 42, and of litigation, spells an end to two arrangements that were allowing a few hundred expelled asylum seekers per day judged “most vulnerable” to re-enter from Mexican border towns and be processed within the United States. The so-called Huisha-Huisha and Consortium processes were temporary arrangements that placed non-governmental organizations in the role of determining who was most vulnerable. They allowed over 16,000 individuals to be processed in the United States since May. Now, they are taking no new entrants.
  4. Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR revealed that, as of July 31, it had accepted 64,378 asylum applications so far in 2021. In August, less than two-thirds of the way into the year, the Mexican agency is likely to break its annual record for asylum applications of 70,405, set in 2019. While applicants come from 97 countries, 41 percent are Honduran, 21 percent are Haitian, and 10 percent are Cuban. For a week, COMAR closed its busiest office, in Mexico’s southern border zone town of Tapachula, Chiapas, for pandemic-related deep cleaning. When it reopened on August 5, hundreds of migrants gathered outside and local authorities deployed the National Guard when the crowd became unruly.
  5. The Rio Grande Valley Monitor reported, and the Washington Examiner added more detail, about Mexico (or at least, many Mexican states) possibly refusing expulsions of non-Mexican families whom CBP encounters at other parts of the U.S.-Mexico border. This step may already have been reversed by subsequent dialogues between U.S. and Mexican officials. But if it were to take place—which seems unlikely at the moment—it would put a halt to “lateral” expulsions, for instance where CBP takes a family into custody in a busy sector and transports them to a quieter sector for expulsion into Mexico. Neither the U.S. nor the Mexican federal government has confirmed the change.
  6. DHS announced on July 30 that it carried out its first “expedited removal” flight, returning family members to Central America who had either failed a credible fear screening or did not express fear of return to CBP personnel. The flight had a capacity of 147, but only 73 were family members because many had tested positive for COVID or been exposed to an infected person, the Washington Post found. As noted in last week’s update, the Biden administration announced that it would resume expedited removals on July 26.

    This process is flawed, a Houston Chronicle editorial contends: “Many migrants are unlikely to have lawyers to walk them through this process, subjecting them to Border Patrol agents who are often poorly trained for these encounters.” The Chronicle cites a 2016 finding from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that “in 86.5 percent of the cases where a fear question was not asked, the record inaccurately indicated that it had been asked, and answered.”
  7. Reuters reported that DHS has begun expelling some Mexican and Central American adults and families by air, sending them deep within southern Mexico. It appears the first expulsion flight took place on August 5. “The United States will work with non-governmental organizations and shelters in southern Mexico to ensure that migrants can safely return to their home countries,” a source told Reuters—though there is no indication that such organizations or shelters are willing to cooperate with this arrangement. This process is for Title 42 expulsions into Mexico, not the expedited removals mentioned in the above point.
  8. NBC News reports that, in order to ease crowding of Border Patrol facilities, many unprocessed families will be transferred to ICE. That agency will either place families in alternatives-to-detention programs within the United States, or put them on deportation flights if they do not express credible fear of return. “In an unprecedented move,” NBC reports, “an agency usually tasked with detention, enforcement and removal of undocumented immigrants… will be performing health screenings, offering COVID vaccines, telling immigrants their legal rights and connecting them with non-governmental organizations that can help them.”
  9. The Washington Post reports that the Biden administration is preparing to offer the Johnson and Johnson single-dose COVID vaccine to migrants along the border. The vaccine would be administered to those being processed in the United States—including those facing deportation—but not to those expelled under Title 42. The same article notes that ICE continues to lag badly in its administration of vaccines within its network of U.S. detention centers, though an oversight official’s July 31 report claims that “46 percent of ICE detainees who were offered vaccine had refused it during the past month.”
  10. The average daily population of ICE’s detention facilities rose to 27,041 in July, up from 15,100 in January, the Biden administration’s first month. Of the 25,526 in ICE custody as of July 31, 3,318 (13 percent) were detained asylum seekers.
  11. As the Biden administration seeks to reunify the last few hundred of 3,913 asylum-seeking families separated during the Trump administration, a BuzzFeed investigation looked at what happened to some families after reunification. Documents indicate that “families from the first group of reunifications have reported homelessness shortly after entering the country.”
  12. A new report from the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) and FWD.us offers important perspective on asylum. It documents how the United States and other recipient governments have been steadily chipping away at the right to seek refuge for years. Policies weakening the ability to seek asylum “have caused unimaginable human suffering and loss, particularly for Black, Brown, and Indigenous asylum seekers,” the report points out.

Links

  • A new WOLA commentary explains the current rise in migration at the border and throughout the hemisphere as part of a trend going back as far as 2014, heightened by the pandemic. It argues that the increase presents the Biden administration with an opportunity to show the world a different approach: how to handle a migration event without another cruel and ineffective crackdown.
  • Local government in Mexico’s troubled border state of Tamaulipas announced on August 4 that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) unit gave recognition awards—plaques citing “exceptional contributions” and “outstanding service”—to Arturo Rodríguez, head of a 150-person state police unit. Prosecutors accuse eight or twelve members of this unit, the GOPES (Special Operations Group), of carrying out a grisly massacre of 14 Guatemalan migrants and five other people near the border, in the municipality of Camargo, in January. VICE detailed the Camargo massacre and its investigation in a report also published August 4. Associated Press coverage of the DEA/HSI award describes other serious recent allegations that GOPES personnel have killed, stolen from, and otherwise abused civilians.
  • CBP announced it will begin to outfit its officers and Border Patrol agents with body-worn cameras, in order “to better enhance its policing practices and reinforce trust and transparency,” especially regarding migrant encounters and use-of-force incidents. The agency plans to deploy about 6,000 body cameras by the end of 2021. Reuters notes that in 2015, CBP under the Obama administration had piloted the use of body cameras but ultimately rejected them, citing “a number of reasons not to adopt the devices, including cost and agent morale.”
  • Mexico is building three permanent National Guard barracks in Ciudad Juárez, across from El Paso, including one in the western colonia of Anapra, a frequently used migration corridor.
  • The government of Mexico, where legal firearms are rare, filed suit in a Boston federal court against several U.S. gun manufacturers and distributors. The suit alleges that these companies seek to profit from Mexican criminal groups, who pay for weapons smuggled south over the border from the United States, where they are easy to obtain legally.
  • A report from the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) recommends that the U.S. Department of Justice issue an “opinion that clarifies that climate change serves as grounds for refugee status under U.S. law.”
  • A passenger van carrying 30 people, most of them probably undocumented migrants, crashed after taking a high-speed turn off a highway in Brooks County, Texas, about 80 miles north of McAllen and the border. The driver and nine passengers were pronounced dead. Brooks County is where large numbers of migrants die walking through arid scrubland trying to evade a Border Patrol highway checkpoint; its sheriff reported finding 50 human remains during the first 6 months of 2021.
  • Mexican Army troops and national guardsmen in the border city of Mexicali rescued six men from the southern state of Guerrero, whom a criminal group was holding captive. It turned out they were being used as forced labor to build and operate an 80-meter-long, 16-meter-deep tunnel under the border into Calexico, California.
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