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 U.S.-Mexico Border Update: June 10, 2022

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.

This week:

  • Western Hemisphere leaders at the ninth Summit of the Americas are poised to publish a “Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection.” Provisions will endorse assistance to states managing large arrivals of migrants, legal pathways for migration, “humane” border management, and coordinated emergency response.
  • A large “caravan” of migrants departed the southern Mexico border city of Tapachula on June 6, but is now much reduced. Many migrants are apparently being offered humanitarian visas.
  • Newly revealed emails show that, in 2018, senior DHS officials sought to maximize the number of families being separated by the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy. They complained when criminal prosecutions happened quickly enough to allow parents and children to be reunited.
  • A Supreme Court decision has gutted the ability to sue Border Patrol agents and other federal law enforcement agents who violate constitutional rights.

Migration at the Summit of the Americas

Western Hemisphere leaders gathered for the ninth Summit of the Americas are finalizing the text of the “Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection,” which is to go public on June 10. Previewing the document on June 9, a senior Biden administration official billed it as “a regional partnership to address historic migration flows affecting every country in the region.”

In a framework of “responsibility sharing” at a moment of historically high region-wide migration, the Los Angeles Declaration is to have four “pillars”:

  • Stability and assistance for communities: including assistance to address “root causes” of migration, support for countries hosting large migrant populations, the reintegration of migrants in their communities of origin, and a new package of aid to Haiti.
  • Legal pathways: including commitments to expand temporary-worker efforts like the United States’ H-2A and H-2B visa programs, to expand refugee resettlement, and to improve asylum systems.
  • “Humane border management,” a pillar which includes the role of the region’s border, migration, and law enforcement forces and collaboration on prosecuting human smuggling and trafficking networks. An administration official mentioned “cross-screening people that enter one border, repatriating people that don’t qualify.”
  • “Coordinated emergency response,” a pillar which presumably includes cooperation to manage sudden increases in migration.

“Unlawful migration is not acceptable,” President Joe Biden said in remarks opening the Summit on June 8. “We will enforce our borders through innovative, coordinated action with our regional partners.” The Associated Press noted that this cooperative approach contrasts with that of the Trump administration, “whose unilateral demands for cooperation included a threat to Mexico to close the border and raise tariffs.”

Implementing this declaration may be complicated by the challenges of translating lofty statements and commitments to concrete actions on the ground, and by the absence from the Summit of the presidents of seven of the nine Latin American countries whose citizens were encountered most often at the U.S.-Mexico border in April. The Biden administration did not invite the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua, or Venezuela to the summit. The presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico declined to attend, though they sent foreign ministers or high officials and have likely been engaged with the Biden administration in negotiating the text. 

Vice President Kamala Harris, who is charged with developing the Biden administration’s “root causes” strategy for Central America’s “northern triangle” (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), announced new assistance for those countries. Little if any of it would go to these three countries’ governments, whose presidents all skipped the Summit. The Vice President announced more than $1.9 billion in new commitments from corporations willing to invest there, part of a private-sector “call to action” that, according to the White House, now adds up to over $3.2 billion in new investments. Further efforts include “In Her Hands,” a program that aims to “empower, protect, and train women in Northern Central America,” the creation of a Central American Service Corps for the region’s youth, a food security initiative, a Caribbean climate partnership, and a program to train health workers.

“We’re dealing with a challenge that, for a whole variety of reasons, is beyond anything that anyone has seen before,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN. “Countries are already having to do this,” Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols said to the Associated Press, “so rather than each country trying to sort this out and figure it out for themselves, what we’re doing is saying, ‘Let’s come together in a coherent way and construct a framework so we can all work together to make this situation more humane and more manageable.’”

A June 6 letter from 108 U.S. non-governmental groups, including WOLA,  urged the Biden administration and regional governments to carry out their border and migration policies in coordination with civil society and migrant-led organizations. It offered a series of recommendations for protecting migrant rights, ensuring access to asylum (including ending the Title 42 and “Remain in Mexico” efforts that block asylum access), protecting immigrants in the United States, and expanding legal pathways to migration.

“What we hope to see in the Declaration are commitments more focused on access to protection and other legal avenues for migrants in need of leaving their countries of origin,” WOLA’s vice president for programs, Maureen Meyer, told Venezuela’s Efecto Cocuyo. “It is of concern that so far the main focus of the United States and several countries is migration control at the expense of the rights of migrants and access to protection.”

“Caravan” departs Tapachula

Thousands of migrants departed Mexico’s southern border-zone city of Tapachula, Chiapas, on June 6. This latest attempt to form a “caravan” is already dwindling as Mexico’s government engages in negotiations and prohibits participants from boarding vehicles.

Estimates of this caravan’s size have varied widely. Its principal organizer, Luis García Villagrán of the Mexican NGO Center for Human Dignity, who said it was deliberately timed to coincide with the Summit of the Americas, foresaw 15,000 participants, a number that appeared in widely shared initial reporting. As the group departed Tapachula, Reuters estimated “at least 6,000 people.” By June 7, Villagrán told reporters that numbers had dropped to between 5,000 and 8,000.

According to the Guardian, Villagrán said that 70 percent of caravan participants are women and children. While it’s not clear that this was accurate, a significant portion do appear to be neither male nor adult.

It is widely reported, though, that a majority of participants are from Venezuela—80 percent, estimates veteran Chiapas-based reporter Isaín Mandujano—with Central Americans, Haitians, Cubans, and citizens of African countries making up most of the rest. As they walked up Chiapas’s Pacific coastal highway leading out of Tapachula, some carried Venezuelan flags, sang Venezuela’s national anthem, or chanted insults aimed at the country’s authoritarian leader, Nicolás Maduro.

A large presence of Venezuelans in Tapachula is new. Until recently, Mexico did not require visas of visiting citizens of Venezuela, so most who intended to migrate to the U.S. border flew to Mexico City or Cancún, then traveled by bus with valid visas in their passports. That ended on January 21, when Mexico began requiring visas of visiting Venezuelans, at the strong suggestion of the U.S. government after encounters with Venezuelan citizens at the U.S.-Mexico border increased to over 20,000 per month.

Arrivals of Venezuelan citizens at the U.S. border soon plummeted—U.S. authorities encountered 4,103 in April—but Venezuelans determined to migrate northward have begun traveling by land in greater numbers. In the first five months of 2022, more than half of migrants walking through Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap jungles (16,720 out of 32,797 people) have been Venezuelan. In all of 2021, 2,821 Venezuelans took this route, and just 50 in 2020.

When Venezuelans without visas arrive by land in southern Mexico, they face the same choices as other undocumented migrants, most of whom end up in Tapachula: risk capture, detention, or deportation, or seek asylum in Mexico’s overburdened system. Almost 33,000 people applied for asylum in Tapachula during the first 5 months of 2022, and 89,604 applied in 2021. (Tapachula’s population is about 350,000.)

(While many can claim government persecution, even Venezuelan citizens who do not qualify for asylum are difficult to deport or remove. The U.S. government, which has sought to use Title 42 robustly to expel as many migrants as possible regardless of asylum needs, has expelled 1 percent of the Venezuelan migrants it has encountered, and most of those probably had some legal status that made possible their expulsion to Mexico.)

According to EFE, García Villagrán estimated that 45,000 migrants are currently stuck in Tapachula awaiting resolution of their asylum applications. Normally, Mexico requires asylum applicants to remain in the state where they first applied, though cases can occasionally be transferred to other states.

This is a hardship in Tapachula, an economically struggling city in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state. With COMAR barely able to keep up, the agency’s Tapachula office is now scheduling initial asylum application appointments for August, and deciding cases many months after that. This leaves most migrants with no viable way to support themselves while they await decisions. (In early June, both WOLA and Human Rights Watch published detailed, vividly documented field research reports about the plight of migrants stuck in Tapachula.)

To some extent, the “caravan”—and several that have come before it—is a reaction to that. Though they continue to get a lot of attention in U.S. media, no caravan has arrived intact at the U.S.-Mexico border since late 2018. Mexico and Guatemala have dispersed them shortly after they’ve formed, either by blocking them through at times violent operations, by prohibiting participants from boarding vehicles, or by agreeing to allow marchers to transfer their asylum applications to other Mexican states—usually states with greater employment opportunities but still distant from the U.S. border. A few hundred participants in a late 2021 caravan walked all the way from Tapachula to Mexico City, roughly one third of the distance to the U.S. border, but dispersed after that.

The current caravan seems to be dividing. By June 8 its participants had traveled about 25 miles from Tapachula to the town of Huixtla, Chiapas, where Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) apparently offered to provide documents to those who desist. Mandujano reported that the document on offer is the Humanitarian Visitors Card (Tarjeta de Visitante por Razones Humanitarias, TVRH), which allows migrants to stay in the country for a year and work. Although humanitarian visas should be provided to asylum seekers while their cases are processed,  victims or witnesses of crime in Mexico, children, and for other humanitarian or public interest reasons, the U.S. government has often objected to Mexico’s use of this  visa because many who receive it go directly to the U.S. border.

It is not clear how many TVRHs the Mexican government is issuing to caravan participants. García Villagrán told EFE that “INM Commissioner Francisco Garduño called him and pledged to assist all of the members of the caravan with their immigration proceedings.” Over 2,100 had been issued by June 8.

The offer has apparently split or reduced the caravan. On June 9, about 2,000 migrants, mainly younger males, walked north from Huixtla, according to the Associated Press, “but throngs of families with children decided to wait in Huixtla to see if they could get some sort of temporary exit visa.”

In the United States, some are watching closely. Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols, according to EFE, warned caravan participants that “the U.S. border is not open… what I say to these people is not to risk their lives on a long journey that will not result in entry into the United States.” The caravan has been featured on the social media accounts of immigration and border hardliners like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), and the FOX News cable network.

Emails reveal that family separation was the point of “Zero Tolerance”

2018 email correspondence between Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials, made available via ongoing litigation, reveals that they sought to maximize the number of migrant parents and children being separated by the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy. Officials, some of whom remain in senior positions today, were upset that some parents were being released from the U.S. criminal justice system quickly enough to be reunited with their children.

Starting in late 2017 and intensifying during the spring of 2018, the Trump administration, led by then-attorney general Jeff Sessions, sought the highest possible number of criminal prosecutions of migrants who crossed the border between ports of entry, which is a misdemeanor. Under the “zero tolerance” policy, adult improper border crossers were jailed and made to appear in federal courts, regardless of whether they were seeking asylum. Meanwhile, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) carried out a policy called “metering,” sharply limiting the number of asylum seekers who could approach ports of entry “properly” to ask asylum, making improper crossings the only viable way to seek protection without a very long wait.

If the criminally prosecuted migrants arrived with children, CBP took the children away from parents, on the pretext that children cannot be held in prison, then classified the children as “unaccompanied” and sent them to the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). These separations happened more than 4,000 times until a San Diego federal judge ordered a halt to the “zero tolerance” policy in June 2018. For reasons that remain unexplained, CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) made very little effort to note the connection between jailed parent and separated child. As a result, hundreds of parents were deported without their children, and many remain separated today.

Trump administration officials sought to portray the family separations as an unfortunate byproduct of its “zero tolerance” effort to enforce existing U.S. laws. (“On multiple occasions, high-ranking members of the Trump administration denied developing a family separation policy,” CBS News put it this week.) The trove of emails, first revealed by the Washington Post’s Maria Sacchetti, explodes that claim. They show that the family separations were, in fact, the point: an effort to deter future migration by inflicting suffering on migrants, including asylum seekers.

On May 10, 2018, senior ICE official Matthew Albence sent a memo to top colleagues voicing his concern that, because judges were often sentencing parents to time served and releasing them, parents were returning to DHS custody too quickly, before their children could be classified as “unaccompanied” and taken away from them. According to the Washington Post, “Albence said CBP should work with ICE ‘to prevent this from happening,’ such as by taking the children themselves to ORR ‘at an accelerated pace’ or bringing the adults directly to ICE from criminal court, instead of returning them to their children.” Albence now works in the private sector.

Tae Johnson, a senior ICE official at the time, complained on May 25, 2018 that CBP was “reuniting adults with kids” after prosecution in McAllen. “What a fiasco,” he added. Tae Johnson is now the acting director of ICE, a position he has held since the final days of the Trump administration.

“We can’t have this,” Albence responded to Johnson’s e-mail. “ORR needs arm twisted,” wrote ICE official David Jennings. Albence added on May 26,“This obviously undermines the entire effort and the Dept is going to look completely ridiculous if we go through the effort of prosecuting only to send them to a [Family Residential Center] and out the door.” CBP official Sandi Goldhamer responded by suggesting “that Border Patrol ‘cease the reunification process’ if officials are ‘concerned about appearances.’”

Lawyers representing victims of family separation obtained these emails as part of a lawsuit filed against the U.S. government after settlement negotiations broke down in late 2021. The officials’ words, they say, strengthens the plaintiffs’ case: “in practice, the government implemented a sweeping administrative family separation policy—the exact DHS proposal discussed throughout 2017—under the guise of a prosecution policy, which was merely a pretext for the ultimate goal: separating families to deter immigration.”

Supreme Court decision shields border agents

In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 8 that a U.S. citizen could not sue a Border Patrol agent who assaulted him. The Egbert v. Boule decision will complicate future efforts to hold accountable federal law enforcement agents who violate constitutional rights.

The case stems from a 2014 incident in Washington state, along the U.S.-Canada border, in which Border Patrol agent Erik Egbert shoved and pushed to the ground innkeeper Robert Boule, who accused Egbert of illegally entering his property. The Supreme Court’s majority, in an opinion authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, decided that Boule did not have the right to sue a federal agent without explicit authorization from Congress.

This further weakens a 1971 Supreme Court ruling (Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics) that had allowed federal law enforcement officers to be sued for violating constitutional rights in some instances. The U.S. Constitution includes protections against excessive force or illegal search and seizure, but “it is silent about what the proper remedy is against an officer who violates these limits,” Ian Millhiser explained at Vox. The possibility of lawsuits as a recourse was already weakened by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2020 (Hernandez v. Mesa), which prohibited relatives of a 15-year-old Mexican boy from suing the Border Patrol agent who, while standing on U.S. soil, shot and killed him from across the border.

In a dissenting opinion cited in the Washington Post, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that “the court had ‘absolutely immunized from liability’ thousands of Border Patrol agents ‘no matter how egregious the misconduct or resultant injury.’”

Cecillia Wang, the ACLU’s deputy legal director, told the Los Angeles Times that the Ebert v. Boule decision “leaves victims of police violence by Border Patrol agents without an effective remedy and endangers us all. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is by far the largest federal police agency, and it has an appalling record of injuring and killing people.” Added the Southern Border Communities Coalition, “The decision in the Washington state case is a setback for victims and survivors of Border Patrol agents’ violence. The court found that BP agents cannot be held individually liable for abuse and excessive force used during their work day.”

Links

  • On June 7, WOLA co-hosted with partner organizations the Summit side event “From Deterrence To Integration: Civil Society Voices On Migration Policy Challenges and Good Practices in The Americas.” Video of the event is here.
  • NBC News revealed that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is developing a plan to alleviate overcrowding at the border by transporting asylum-seeking migrants to cities in the U.S. interior after initial processing. A DHS spokesperson said that “no decision has been made” on the proposal. The plan has been in the works for months, a CBP source told Univisión. DHS officials are jokingly referring to it as the “Abbott plan,” citing Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) scheme to send released migrants on buses to Washington, DC.
  • A letter from 104 organizations (including WOLA) urges President Biden to use all available authority, “to the greatest extent permissible under existing court orders—in order to ameliorate the harms caused by Title 42 and ensure access to asylum… This should begin first and foremost with an immediate rulemaking to rescind the CDC’s Title 42 order.”
  • A copy of a Border Patrol Critical Incident Team (CIT) incident report has been shared with the public for the first time. It was obtained by the ACLU, which is litigating the case of Eric Molix, a U.S. citizen who died in an August 2021 high-speed Border Patrol vehicle pursuit in New Mexico. As first revealed by the Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC) last October, CITs are Border Patrol units that often arrive at the scene when agents may have committed wrongdoing, and are accused of altering crime scenes or otherwise seeking to build cases that might exonerate agents. CBP announced in early May that it would phase out CITs by the end of September 2022.
  • Witness at the Border’s latest monthly tracking of ICE flights found that May 2022 saw the second-largest monthly total of migrant removal flights (139) since the organization began tracking in January 2020. The countries now accepting Title 42 expulsion flights, it reports, “made up 95% of all removal flights in May.” Those countries are “Haiti (36), Guatemala (32), Honduras (30), Colombia (21), El Salvador (12), and Brazil (1).”
  • The Biden administration may soon be able to enforce vaccine requirements for federal workers, which could mean disciplinary action, even firing, for possibly thousands of Border Patrol agents who have refused the COVID-19 vaccine, the Washington Examiner reports.
  • A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the U.S. Congress’s investigative arm, looked into oversight and data collection regarding Border Patrol’s 110 interior road checkpoints. It found that Border Patrol’s data on checkpoint drug seizures is reliable, but that the agency keeps poor records on “other checkpoint activity data, including on apprehensions of smuggled people and canine assists with drug seizures.”
  • A heavy presence of border law enforcement and military personnel “ultimately didn’t stop a homegrown shooter from inflicting terror” in Uvalde, Texas on May 24, the Dallas Morning News observed. At Palabra, Michelle García blames the border security apparatus and a “constructed war zone” for encouraging “violence and inhumanity.”
  • 500 Texas National Guardsmen assigned to Gov. Greg Abbott’s “Operation Lone Star” have been sent home during the past two months. This is a slight downsizing: about 6,000 were still stationed along the Texas-Mexico border as of May 27, and 3,700 are assigned elsewhere in Texas, according to Stars and Stripes.
  • In Mexico’s border state of Chihuahua, which includes Ciudad Juárez, kidnappings and disappearances of migrants happen most often in zones controlled by the Juárez Cartel, a regional organized crime structure now allied with the larger Jalisco New Generation Cartel, according to an investigation by the Mexican magazine Proceso.
  • Arizona’s Republican governor and Republican-majority legislature are near a budget deal that would devote $544 million in state funds to border security. “$355 million would be used for fencing,” Axios reports.
  • Mexican media reported on factories seeking to hire Haitian migrants currently stranded in the border cities of Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa, Tamaulipas.
  • The Texas Tribune profiles a Salvadoran family whose unification could be derailed by one of the Texas attorney general’s many lawsuits in the state’s federal courts. This suit would end the Central American Minors Program, which allowed threatened Central American children with family members in the United States to apply for protection at U.S. embassies. The Obama administration began the program in 2014, the Trump administration halted it in 2017, and the Biden administration revived it in 2021.
  • “Across the U.S., a surveillance system tracking the movements of tens of thousands of people seeking refuge or permanent residency in the U.S. is quietly but quickly expanding,” observes an investigation of alternatives-to-detention programs by Erica Hellerstein at Coda. Most are required to use a facial recognition app known as SmartLINK.
  • A New York Times photo essay depicts asylum seekers’ cross-border journeys from shelters on the Mexican side to custody on the U.S. side.

Don’t let the “caravan” in southern Mexico distract you

Media are reporting on a large number of migrants leaving Tapachula, the city near Mexico’s border with Guatemala where tens of thousands are stranded, because Mexico requires them to remain in the state where they first apply for asylum. (See an early June report on Tapachula from some of my colleagues at WOLA.)

Hungry and miserable while waiting for Mexico’s backlogged asylum system to move, many are packing up and leaving. This time, a large number are Venezuelan.

Reuters estimated on June 6 that “at least 6,000” people left Tapachula en masse. Fox News immediately took notice and started piping footage into their viewers’ eyeballs.

Three points about this:

  1. No “migrant caravan” has succeeded in reaching the U.S.-Mexico border since late 2018. Mexican forces routinely break them up. A large one last fall dwindled, with just a few hundred walking all the way to Mexico City (very, very far from the U.S. border), as Mexican forces prohibited caravan participants from boarding vehicles. Caravans have become more of a negotiating tactic for migrants to press for permission to live in parts of Mexico where jobs are while awaiting asylum outcomes. (Tapachula is in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state.)
  2. Even if the caravan did manage to arrive at the U.S. border, we’d hardly notice right now. In late May, Axios reported that “the administration’s internal data now counts about 8,000 people attempting to cross the southwest border each day.” So “at least 6,000” people is less than a day’s worth of migration at the border right now.
  3. Caravans are what migrants attempt when they can’t afford to pay thousands of dollars each to a smuggler to get them across Mexico. They attempt to band together as a form of “safety in numbers.” But as noted, caravans really don’t succeed anymore. Instead, most of those 8,000 people a day arriving at the U.S. border right now are paying smuggling networks. And most of them cross Mexico in a week or two, usually less, in vehicles. U.S. media outlets’ and anti-migrant politicians’ obsession over “caravans” benefits those smuggling networks by making them migrants’ only option.

And it totally lets off the hook the corrupt Mexican migration and security officials who enrich themselves by looking the other way, waving smugglers’ vehicles through their many road checkpoints. The need to pay those officials (and, in northern Mexico, organized crime) is why smugglers’ fees are so high in the first place. But corruption gets like one hundredth the attention that “caravan” footage gets. Stop being distracted by the caravans.

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: June 3, 2022

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.

This week:

  • Three more Nicaraguan migrants drowned to death in the Rio Grande. The chief of Border Patrol’s Del Rio, Texas sector reported 10 deaths there in a weekend. 2022 appears likely to be a record year for deaths of migrants on U.S. soil. This is in part because Title 42 has closed ports of entry to asylum seekers, routing many to the treacherous areas in between.
  • Mexico’s asylum system  is on track to experience its second-largest annual number of applicants in 2022. April was Mexico’s fifth-heaviest month ever for apprehensions of migrants. Half of those apprehended were not from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras, which is unprecedented. Many are from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and South America.
  • “Shared responsibility” is a main theme of a regional declaration on migration that the Biden administration hopes to sign with other Latin American and Caribbean heads of state at the June 8-10 Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles.
  • The Uvalde, Texas mass school shooting response has increased attention to BORTAC, Border Patrol’s little-known elite tactical unit, which has performed non-traditional, non-border-specific missions from Portland to Miami to foreign countries.

Still more migrant deaths

Last week’s Update noted that seven citizens of Nicaragua had died crossing the Rio Grande, in five separate incidents over about six days. This week, the grim toll continued to rise.

Three more Nicaraguan citizens perished in the river over the Memorial Day weekend, according to Nicaraguan Texas Community, a non-profit organization. Kelvin Antonio Tórrez Medina’s body was identified in Laredo, Texas, on May 27. The bodies of Alexander Zelaya Espinoza and Iván Ramiro Rivera Velásquez were recovered in Piedras Negras, Mexico, across from Eagle Pass, Texas, on May 28 and 29, respectively.

Between March 4 and May 19, 2022, more than 20 Nicaraguans have perished,” reports Confidencial, an independent Nicaraguan media outlet that persists despite repression from the regime of President Daniel Ortega. “Of these, nine died trying to cross the waters of the Río Bravo [Rio Grande], mainly in the Piedras Negras area.”

Another migrant of unknown nationality drowned on May 31 at California’s Border Field State Park, trying to swim around the border fence that continues for about 100 yards into the Pacific Ocean. CBP meanwhile posted a release about the death of a man who fell from the border wall in Tornillo, Texas on March 27. As documented in recent reports from the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Washington Post, the number of people dead or gravely injured from attempts to climb the border wall has multiplied since the Trump administration installed hundreds of miles of 30-foot fencing.

In mid-Texas’s Del Rio Sector alone, Border Patrol’s sector chief reported 10 deaths in a May 31 “Weekend Rewind” tweet.

In Tijuana, scores of people attended a June 2 funeral for two Haitian migrants: EFE identified them as “Joselyn Anselme, 34, who was killed in an attempted assault, and Caroly Archangel, 30, who died of a heart attack due to alleged medical malpractice.”

Border Patrol found the remains of more than 8,600 migrants on U.S. soil between 1998 and 2021. Humanitarian groups that recover bodies in specific regions routinely find far more than Border Patrol reports.

In a year that may break records for overall migration, it is not surprising that the number of migrants dying may be approaching record numbers. But the problem is exacerbated by the Title 42 pandemic policy’s closure of ports of entry to asylum-seeking migrants. Media reports point to many children and parents among the dead as they attempt to cross between the ports of entry, which used to be rare. Two small children are among the ten Nicaraguans recovered from the river this month.

Border Patrol is slow to report migrant deaths along the entire border: it has still not shared an official figure for 2021. When it does so for 2022, it’s probable that, even amid a rise in migration, the ratio of deaths to overall migrant encounters may be greater than normal.

48,981 people have applied for asylum in Mexico since January

The Mexican government’s Refugee Assistance Commission (COMAR) has published data documenting migrants’ applications for protection in Mexico’s asylum system through May 31. In the first five months of 2022, 48,981 citizens of other countries have filed asylum requests with COMAR.

That is already the third-largest annual total for Mexico, which as recently as 2013 got only 1,296 asylum requests all year. COMAR is on pace to finish 2022 with its second-largest number of asylum requests, after 2021 when a large number of Haitian migrants helped lift the total over 130,000. (However, new asylum applications have declined for the past two months, from 13,238 in March to 9,113 in May.)

This year, Haiti is not the number-one country of origin of Mexico’s asylum applicants. It is third behind Honduras (usually the number-one country) and Cuba, and followed by Venezuela, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Brazil (including many children of Haitian parents), Senegal, and Colombia.

The Mexican Interior Department’s Migratory Statistics Unit has updated data through April. That month saw Mexico’s migration authorities apprehend their fifth-largest monthly number of migrants ever: 30,980 people, which is in fact fewer apprehensions than Mexico measured in August, September, and October of 2021.

Half of migrants apprehended in Mexico in April were not from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. Instead, many are from (in declining order) Cuba, Nicaragua, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Haiti, Chile (mostly children of Haitian parents), and Peru. This is a sharp break with past years, when a quarter or fewer of Mexico’s migrant apprehensions were citizens of these “other” countries.

Mexico’s data also show an increase in the U.S. government’s deportations of Mexicans into Mexico. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 25,966 Mexican citizens in April, the second-highest monthly total (after March) since 2019. (This figure does not include Title 42 expulsions into Mexico, which often happen at the borderline without any Mexican authorities on hand to count them.)

April deportations to the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas (3,804), where organized crime activity and kidnapping are so severe that the State Department has issued a level-four “Do Not Travel” warning, hit their highest level since November 2020.

Migration on the agenda at next week’s Summit of the Americas

Presidents and heads of government from many Latin American and Caribbean countries will be in Los Angeles on June 8, 9, and 10 for the ninth Summit of the Americas, the latest in a series of high-level region-wide meetings that began in 1994. Five issues lead the agenda, White House and State Department officials explained to reporters on June 1: “democratic governance, health and resilience, the clean energy transition, our green future, and digital transformation.”

“On the margins of the summit,” National Security Council Western Hemisphere Director Juan González explained, will be an additional item: “addressing the historic migration crisis.” President Joe Biden is to “join other heads of state to sign a migration declaration, sending a strong signal of unity and resolve to bring the regional migration crisis under control.”

Though the U.S. political debate tends to focus on what happens at the U.S.-Mexico border, much of the hemisphere is also experiencing mass emigration, receiving large-scale immigration, or in some cases both. Over 6 million Venezuelan migrants have relocated to Colombia and elsewhere in South America. Nicaraguans fleeing the Ortega regime have arrived massively in Costa Rica. Mexico’s asylum system, as noted above, is facing unprecedented demand, much of it from Central America, Haiti, and Cuba. Haitians are crossing into the Dominican Republic or attempting dangerous sea voyages. (For more on the hemisphere-wide migration phenomenon, see WOLA’s May 26 commentary “Beyond the U.S.-Mexico Border.”)

Though the content of the Summit’s migration declaration isn’t yet known, U.S. officials are signaling a desire for greater shared responsibility at a time of very high migration throughout the region.

“For the last couple of months the President has and the Secretary of State and Secretary of Homeland Security, the Vice President, and others have been all-hands-on-deck to mobilize leaders around a bold new plan centered on responsibility sharing and economic support for countries that have been most impacted by refugee and migration flows,” González told reporters. “What we are hoping to do is…to look at the regional challenge from the context of responsibility sharing and the need to provide economic support to countries to have been impacted by refugee and migration flows, but also the importance of…in-country processing avenues, expanding refugee protections, and also addressing, I think, some of the core drivers of migration, which are lack of economic opportunities and insecurity.”

Brian Nichols, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, added that the summit’s migration declaration is likely to cover helping and “stabilizing” communities that are hosting migrants; ensuring access to legal documentation and public services; “promoting pathways for legal, orderly migration when appropriate”; ensuring ethical employment practices; “promoting humane migration management; and a shared approach to mitigating and managing irregular migration.”

It’s not clear how officials are squaring these goals and values with the court-ordered persistence of the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy, which has returned nearly 2 million migrants into Mexico, Haiti, or elsewhere, usually with minimal coordination with local authorities and without giving threatened migrants a chance to ask for protection in the United States.

Sixteen members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus sent a letter to President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging them to include a list of commitments in the Summit’s migration declaration. These include, among others, protecting the rights of migrant children and other vulnerable populations; guaranteeing migrants’ access to medical care and legal counsel; ending detention for children and families; upholding the principle of non-refoulement (not sending endangered people back to places where they are threatened); and expanding safe and legal, pathways to migration.

In an essay at Foreign Affairs, Dan Restrepo of the Center for American Progress—who held González’s National Security Council post during Barack Obama’s first term—calls on U.S. policymakers to recognize that high levels of region-wide migration are “not going to stop.” Adjusting to that reality, he argues, will require “a new, hemisphere-wide approach to migration, combined with steps to modernize U.S. laws, policies, and border infrastructure.”

A sustainable migration framework for the Western Hemisphere must help integrate and establish legal status for already dislocated populations, with additional protection measures for the most vulnerable among them. It must provide options for would-be migrants apart from overburdened asylum systems. And it must establish infrastructure to respond to sudden increases in irregular migration. Large numbers of people will be moving throughout the Americas for years to come. It is time the United States coordinated more closely with other countries in the region to make this a manageable trend, rather than a disruptive one.

School-shooting role draws attention to Border Patrol’s elite unit

Investigations at the New York Times and Vice profile BORTAC, Border Patrol’s elite 250-member SWAT-team-like tactical unit, whose personnel killed the gunman in Uvalde Texas’s Robb Elementary School on May 24.

Border Patrol may operate within 100 miles of a land or coastal border, or elsewhere in a declared emergency. As one of the few non-military federal law enforcement bodies with “special operations” capabilities, BORTAC has played numerous non-traditional, non-border-specific roles.

  • On Trump administration orders, its members fought protesters on the streets of Portland, Oregon, in the summer of 2020 following the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis. BORTAC personnel, with no insignia on their uniforms, were filmed grabbing protesters off the street and hustling them into unmarked, rented vans.
  • 66 BORTAC personnel were posted outside George Floyd’s funeral in Texas.
  • Also in 2020, BORTAC raided the desert camp of No More Deaths, an Arizona humanitarian group, on two occasions.
  • Its members carry out numerous overseas training missions, and likely were among personnel revealed to have confronted a January 2020 migration event in Guatemala by forcing Honduran migrants into unmarked rented vans and driving them back to Honduras.
  • In 2000 it was BORTAC personnel who took Cuban child Elián González from distant Miami relatives to return him to his father in Cuba.

Links

  • WOLA released a new report on June 2 based on fieldwork performed in Mexico’s southern-border city of Tapachula. “ Struggling to Survive: the Situation of Asylum Seekers in Tapachula, Mexico” follows the difficult challenges faced by asylum seekers stuck near Mexico’s border with Guatemala. Most are the result of U.S. and Mexican policies that stand in the way of accessing protection. Mexico, for instance, restricts most asylum seekers to the state where they first applied for asylum during the many months that their applications are under review.
  • WOLA will be hosting a side event, in conjunction with partner organizations, at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. Sign up to attend “From Deterrence To Integration: Civil Society Voices On Migration Policy Challenges and Good Practices In The Americas,” virtually on Zoom, Tuesday, June  7 from 5:00-6:30 PM U.S. Pacific Time (8:00-9:30 PM in the eastern United States).
  • Thousands of migrants stuck in Tapachula have been marching in protest, demanding quicker asylum processing or documents allowing them to transit Mexico. In response, the Mexican government is reportedly issuing permits for as many as 11,000 migrants to relocate to other, non-border states like Puebla, Morelos, Oaxaca, Jalisco, Michoacán, and Mexico state.
  • An analysis by Rebecca Beitsch at The Hill explores the Biden administration’s legal options now that a Louisiana federal court is preventing it from lifting the Title 42 pandemic policy, which enables the quick expulsion of asylum seekers at the border. While it challenges the court order, migrants’ rights advocates are encouraging the administration to quickly go through the rule-making and comment process that Judge Robert Summerhays expects it to undergo in order to end the public health policy.
  • Even with Title 42 still in place by court order, “US government protocols include exceptions for asylum seekers at a greater risk, and President Joe Biden has promised US agents will apply them. But border agents have broad discretion to grant or deny exceptions, and there are no clear consequences for agents who fail to do so or checks to ensure that exceptions are being handled properly.” The observation comes from a new Human Rights Watch report on LGBT asylum seekers stranded on the Mexico side of the border.
  • “Among the approximately 25 people with whom we spoke, over half had been waiting in Piedras Negras for a year or more and had close relatives in the United States,” reads a field research report from Refugees International. “Their most common questions were: When is Title 42 going to end? Why are some people able to cross at ports of entry (through exceptions), but not others? And why are some who try to cross the river not expelled but others are, especially Hondurans?”
  • The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) authorized a series of border barrier construction projects in five border sectors, using funds appropriated in 2017, 2018, and 2021, to “address operational impacts, as well as immediate life and safety risks.” Among others, the projects include gates and replacement of the border fence that enters the Pacific Ocean south of San Diego.
  • “Aid workers in Tucson are preparing for the likelihood of handling upwards of a thousand people a day very soon,” notes an NPR report from Arizona. “A good deal of the funding to support the growing humanitarian need in cities near the border like Tucson is coming from the federal government. Much of it is set to run out by the end of the month.”
  • At Reveal News, Aura Bogado discusses the post-government career path of Carla Provost, the Border Patrol’s chief during much of the Trump administration. Provost is a contractor for Endeavors, a non-profit that runs facilities, including emergency shelters, for the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement. Bogado notes that Provost managed the 2,000-bed Pecos Children’s Center in 2021 even though she oversaw Border Patrol during an era of family separations and an elevated number of in-custody deaths of children.
  • In its inaugural meeting on May 31, the Congressional Border Security Technology Caucus heard a presentation from Orbital Insight, a Silicon Valley geospatial analytics company that, according to Border Report, “analyzes satellite, drone, balloon and other unmanned-aerial-vehicle images, including cellphone geolocation data, to study a range of human activity, and provides business and strategic insights from the data.”

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: May 27, 2022

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.

This week:

  • As expected, a Louisiana judge has kept in place the Title 42 expulsions policy, which was set to expire on May 23, probably for months or even more than a year. A different federal court’s ruling affords migrant families a hearing if they fear expulsion. The Louisiana decision likely means repeat border crossings will remain very high, asylum seekers will continue to take risky routes, and more migrants will arrive from “difficult-to-expel” countries. Migration at the border is currently exceeding 8,000 people per day, straining shelters, and DHS may ask Congress for more money to manage it.
  • Data obtained by CBS News shows that more than 12,000 children whom CBP encountered as “unaccompanied” in 2021 had already been encountered, and expelled, as members of family units. This means that an alarmingly high number of families decided to “self-separate” after being expelled by Title 42, sending the children back across the border on their own.
  • Nearly 20 Nicaraguan migrants have drowned in the Rio Grande this year, including 7 in the space of a week in mid-May. Migrants also drowned this week off the coast of Mexico and in a river that separates Mexico and Guatemala.
  • The number of Haitian migrants removed by air to Haiti during the Biden administration has just surpassed 25,000.

Title 42 will remain in place for a while

Late in the day on May 20, Lafayette, Louisiana Federal District Court Judge Robert Summerhays issued a preliminary injunction blocking the Biden administration from lifting the “Title 42” pandemic expulsions policy. In the name of preventing the spread of COVID-19, this policy has enabled the rapid removal of migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border more than 1.9 million times since March 2020, without affording the chance to ask for asylum or other protection. The judge’s action makes it likely that this will continue, curtailing the right to seek asylum at the border for months or even years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had determined on April 1 that Title 42 was no longer necessary, setting May 23 as its final day. Twenty-four Republican state attorneys-general filed suit to reverse this rescission, claiming that ending Title 42 would harm their states by enabling an increase in migrants. They elected to file their suit before Judge Summerhays, a Trump appointee in the federal courts’ conservative Fifth Circuit, which encompasses Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

Summerhays’ ruling was unsurprising: he had already prohibited the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from preparing to lift Title 42 while he weighed arguments. Lawyers were unable to persuade the judge to limit his decision just to the states that filed suit, which would have allowed Title 42 to end in the Democratic-run border states of California and New Mexico.

The Department of Justice will appeal Summerhays’ injunction, but the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is likely to uphold it. In the meantime, the Biden administration will comply with the court’s order and continue to expel migrants quickly.

If the administration follows the ruling, its path to ending Title 42 requires the CDC to go through the federal government’s “notice and comment” rule-making procedures. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council explains:

Notice and comment rulemaking can be a lengthy process that will likely take the CDC months to carry out if it seeks to end Title 42 again. It requires the preparation of a formal “notice of proposed rulemaking,” a comment period of 30-60 days, agency review of all comments, the preparation of a final rule, review by the Office of Management and Budget, and then usually the final rule is delayed at least 30 days before going into effect. And even if the CDC were to go through this process, states in opposition to the policy change could simply sue again to block that new rule.

Though Title 42 was an emergency provision put in place rapidly, and although the March 2020 CDC order stated that it could be ended at any time, the Louisiana judge contends that the “emergency” cannot be rescinded without a deliberative process that could take, in Reichlin-Melnick’s estimation, “months, possibly years.”

By the end of May, the Biden administration will almost certainly have hit its 2 millionth expulsion of a migrant at the border under Title 42.

In an analysis published on May 23, WOLA listed three likely consequences of keeping Title 42 in place.

First, the number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border each month is unlikely to decline. It will remain near historic highs. The period since March 2020 has seen a sharp increase in the population of migrants who wish to avoid capture, rather than turn themselves in to seek protection. Encounters with single adults—a demographic that includes many non-asylum seekers—have quintupled from pre-pandemic levels. Repeat encounters have skyrocketed: Title 42 means that migrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras get dropped at the Mexico border without being processed, enabling many to attempt to cross again.

Second, migrants who do seek protection will continue to be forced either to cross improperly, or to wait for many more months in dangerous Mexican border cities. Because land ports of entry remain closed to them, asylum seekers will face strong incentives to risk their lives by climbing the border wall, fording the Rio Grande, and paying organized crime to smuggle them across so that they may turn themselves in to Border Patrol. If they do not wish to do that, migrants will remain stranded in Mexican border towns, where data collected by Human Rights First show at least 10,250 reports of murder, kidnapping, rape, torture and other violent attacks on migrants since January 2021.

Third, more migrants will come from “difficult-to-expel” countries, leaving Title 42 applied to only a minority of migrants. 99 percent of migrants who get expelled come from the four countries whose citizens Mexico allows to be expelled over the land border: Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. (In early May, Mexico agreed to take a limited number of Cuban and Nicaraguan citizens as well. As discussed below, thousands of Haitian migrants also get expelled by air.) Citizens of all other countries face minuscule odds of being expelled if they seek protection in the United States: their countries are too distant, or their governments have poor relations with the United States. These “other countries” made up 46 percent of migrants encountered at the border in April 2022. As a result, the Biden administration did not apply Title 42 to 59 percent of the migrants it encountered that month. That percentage is likely to increase as Title 42 persists.

In April, a remarkable 78 percent of migrants arriving as families came from these “difficult-to-expel” countries. Migrant families who turn themselves in to U.S. authorities to seek protection, however, now have a legal lifeline. A March 2022 District of Columbia appeals court ruling, allowing families to express fear of persecution or torture, went into effect on May 23.

Under the Huisha-Huisha v. Mayorkas decision, CBP officers and Border Patrol agents must give families who show fear of expulsion either an interview with an asylum officer to evaluate the credibility of that fear, or placement in regular asylum proceedings and release into the United States. New guidance issued to CBP and Border Patrol requires officials, as the San Diego Union-Tribune explains,

to watch for “manifestations of fear” that include asylum seekers saying they are afraid of being in that country, asylum seekers saying they have already been harmed or that they will be harmed in that country, as well as asylum seekers showing signs of fear. The documents list “hysteria, trembling, unusual behavior, incoherent speech patterns, self-inflicted harm, panic attacks, or an unusual level of silence” as examples of nonverbal signs of fear.

The guidance does not require U.S. personnel to ask the families if they fear expulsion. The families must speak up themselves, or the U.S. official must detect  the above-mentioned signs of fear.

These new procedures will give families from “easy-to-expel” countries a greater chance of avoiding Title 42 expulsion. An unnamed DHS official told NBC News that this new requirement is “the first nail in the coffin of Title 42.” In April 2022, DHS used Title 42 to expel 13 percent of families it encountered; this percentage is likely to decline still further.

The Biden administration already refuses to apply Title 42 to unaccompanied children. The combination of Summerhays’ ruling and the Huisha-Huisha procedures is likely to turn Title 42 into a policy applied almost entirely to single adults.

However, Lee Gelernt, the ACLU’s lead litigator on the Huisha-Huisha case, warned that some families may still be returned to danger: “We have significant concerns that families who need protection will not be screened because they will be too scared or confused to speak up without prompting and that non-verbal ‘manifestations’ of fear are too difficult to determine,” he told the Union-Tribune.

The Louisiana ruling likely reduces momentum for Republican members of Congress, accompanied by some moderate Democrats, to pass legislation to keep Title 42 in place. A bill introduced by Sens. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) would keep Title 42 until after the government’s COVID emergency declaration is terminated, potentially suspending the right to seek asylum at the border for years. It appeared that this legislation may have had enough support to be attached to a COVID-19 relief bill, but after the Louisiana court ruling some of its Democratic supporters, like Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Arizona), appear less willing to seek to attach it to the COVID measure. Republican senators insist that they still want a vote; the U.S. Congress is in recess until the week of June 6.

Meanwhile, the pandemic measure has not prevented migration at the border from reaching record levels. Internal CBP data reported by the New York Times and Axios point to 8,000 to 8,200 border crossings happening each day right now. About 1,200 adults and 1,300 family members per day are being released into the United States.

Axios revealed DHS documents’ estimate that 40,000 to 50,000 migrants, including over 10,000 Haitians, are now in Mexico awaiting an opportunity to cross. Judge Summerhays’ ruling had cited a figure of “between 30,000 to 60,000.”

At a rate of over 8,000 people per day, the backup inside Mexico is equivalent to just 6 or 7 days of migration. Erika Pinheiro of the Tijuana-San Diego legal aid group Al Otro Lado, which accompanied the mass processing of 20,000 Ukrainian migrants in March and April, told the New Yorker that CBP can handle a flow like this in an orderly way: “They have the capacity for humanitarian processing. If they treat everyone the way they treated the Ukrainians, we’ll clear this backlog in a matter of weeks.”

Between January 2021 and April 2022, about 700,000 undocumented migrants encountered at the border, mostly asylum seekers, were admitted into the United States, according to a New York Times analysis of federal data. Articles this week in the Times and the Dallas Morning News profiled the charity-run shelter networks in U.S. border towns that are endeavoring to receive these released migrants so that CBP doesn’t release them on these towns’ streets. “Attorneys to shelter operators to aid workers are in a constant scramble as ground conditions change and policies are applied to one nationality, such as Ukrainians, but not another,” the Morning News reported.

Pressure on shelters and service providers is mounting in Mexican border towns, too, where the northward flow of migrants is compounded by a steady southward stream of deportations and Title 42 expulsions from the United States (as WOLA discussed in a May 18 report from San Diego and Tijuana). The El Paso Times, La Verdad, and Milenio all reported this week from Ciudad Juárez, where the migrant shelter network is under stress, and where a growing number of Haitian migrants has been arriving.

NBC News reported that DHS is likely to ask Congress for “emergency supplemental” funding for the 2022 budget year to keep up with the cost of processing migrants. The Department claims that it is in danger of running out of money for this purpose before the fiscal year ends on September 30:

Without tapping into key programs, DHS agencies that handle migration would need roughly $1.2 billion in additional funds to cover the cost estimated if border crossings reach 10,000 per day, the document says. The extra costs would be higher if more migrants cross: $1.6 billion for 14,000 crossings a day and $2 billion for 18,000 per day.

Title 42 has caused a very high number of family “self-separations”

At about the same time Judge Summerhays issued his ruling, CBS News reported an alarming statistic that got buried under the Title 42 news. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, CBP informed CBS that, during fiscal year 2021, Border Patrol processed 12,212 unaccompanied children whom it had already processed and expelled, usually as members of family units.

About 33 times per day in 2021, then, an expelled family in Mexico appears to have “self-separated.” Parents made the wrenching choice to send their children back, unaccompanied, across the border, where they might be safer. The U.S. government stopped using Title 42 to expel families after a Washington, DC district court judge halted the practice in November 2020. Expulsions of families have continued at a robust rate, though, creating a perverse incentive for “self-separations.”

An unnamed U.S. official told CBS News that “The Biden administration has been ‘well-aware of this phenomenon’ of self-separations among migrant families and some officials have cited it as a reason to end Title 42.”

Migrants drowning in the Rio Grande and along maritime routes

The independent online media outlet Nicaragua Investiga reports that “At least in 2022, nearly 20 Nicaraguans have died trying to cross the Rio Grande to reach the United States, and another number have perished en route to the U.S. border.”

Among those appear to be 7 Nicaraguan citizens dead or missing after being swept away by the Rio Grande in about a week:

  • Kenneth Blas Cardoza, 27, on May 19
  • Irma Yaritza Huete, 25, on May 18
  • Huete’s 4-year-old daughter
  • Darling Francisca Rosales Ortiz, 32, on May 17
  • Rosales’s son Dominic, 5
  • Keythel Borges Castellón. 20, on May 14
  • Catalina Luna Orozco, 40, on May 14

The non-profit group Texas Nicaraguan Community has been keeping a grim count of the drownings.

Deaths are mounting elsewhere along the migrant route to the United States.

  • As many as seven Honduran migrants drowned when their 25-foot boat sank in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Veracruz, Mexico. Milenio notes that large numbers of migrants have been opting for a short-hop maritime route in this sector, in order to avoid three road checkpoints between Villahermosa, Tabasco and Agua Dulce, Veracruz.
  • The bodies of a drowned 36-year-old Salvadoran migrant and his 7-year-old son were found on May 19 in the Suchiate River, which forms the boundary between Guatemala and Mexico.
  • In Panama, “many of the migrants who enter the inhospitable Darién jungle in search of better living conditions die along the way,” reports the Venezuelan publication Tal Cual, citing Panamanian government data showing nearly 7,000 Venezuelans took this dangerous migration route in the first 4 months of 2022. The report is based on an alarming Twitter thread from Human Rights Watch researcher Juan Pappier, who just returned from a visit to the Darién region.
  • Though not headed to the U.S.-Mexico border, a rapidly growing number of Haitian and Cuban migrants have been taking to the Caribbean and the Florida Straits, often in barely seaworthy craft, in attempts to reach the United States. A vessel carrying Haitian migrants capsized near Puerto Rico on May 12; about 11 drowned. The Associated Press reports that the U.S. Coast Guard has interdicted about 4,500 Haitians at sea since October, more than 3,000 of them since mid-March. A new Migration Policy Institute report on maritime migration notes that early 2,000 Cuban migrants have also been interdicted since October.

Aerial expulsions to Haiti hit 25,000

As noted above, DHS applies the Title 42 expulsions policy almost entirely to migrants from the countries whose citizens Mexico accepts across the land border. Other countries’ citizens tend not to be expelled, with one major exception: Haiti.

Migrants from the island nation, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, are expelled often under a high-tempo aerial removal campaign that intensified in September 2021, when over 10,000 Haitian migrants arrived en masse on the banks of the Rio Grande in Del Rio, Texas. (See WOLA’s analysis published in February, when the Biden administration removed its 20,000th Haitian migrant.) Between September and April, CBP has encountered 39,585 Haitian migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. It has used Title 42 to expel 14,559 of them, or 37 percent. No other country whose citizens are expelled by air comes close to Haiti.

Adding expelled Haitians to deported Haitians yields an even larger number of removals to a country currently experiencing a severe wave of gang violence, kidnappings, and anarchy following the July 2021 assassination of the country’s president.

This week, the Biden administration removed its 25,000th Haitian migrant by air since January 2021, according to a count kept by Tom Cartwright of Witness at the Border, who monitors removal flights and uses International Organization for Migration (IOM) data to make regular small adjustments to his estimates. By Cartwright’s count, the administration hit the 25,000 milestone on May 25.

CBP “migrant encounters” data show a sharp increase in Haitians arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border since February. With that has come a sharp increase in DHS removal flights. 19 planes took migrants back to Haiti during the 7 days between May 20 and May 26, including an unusual 4 flights over the May 21-22 weekend. “522 people were expelled by the Biden admin to Haiti yesterday and today alone,” Guerline Jozef of the Haitian Bridge Alliance told NBC News’s Jacob Soboroff on May 22.

By the morning of May 27, Cartwright’s count had risen to 25,700. Haiti’s population is estimated at 11.4 million, so 1 in every 444 people living in Haiti today was aboard a U.S. removal aircraft during the past 16 months.

Links

  • A new WOLA analysis looks at migration beyond the U.S.-Mexico border, examining recent trends in human mobility and the challenges migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are facing throughout the hemisphere.
  • Bajo la Bota” (Under the Boot) is a new multimedia microsite put together by the Fundación para la Justicia y el Estado Democrático de Derecho (FJEDD) and five other Mexican human rights and migrant rights groups. It documents the increasing use of armed forces to counter migration in Mexico, in parts of Central America, and in the United States. “An iron-fisted wind is blowing in the region to contain the rising human river,” the site warns.
  • In circumstances that remain to be clarified, a Border Patrol agent shot and killed a Mexican migrant in Douglas, Arizona after midnight on May 24. According to the Arizona Republic, the Mexican consulate received an initial report stating that the migrant was taken to a Douglas hospital after being injured climbing the border wall, then “tried to escape and entered into a confrontation with a Border Patrol agent.” The May 24 incident is under FBI investigation, and being reviewed by CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility. This is the second agent-involved shooting near Douglas since February 19, when Agent Kendrek Bybee Staheli shot and killed Mexican migrant Carmelo Cruz-Marcos.
  • CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus said that the agency is developing a new policy for vehicle pursuits. High-speed chases involving Border Patrol agents, some of them in populated areas, have generated increasing controversy. The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and New Mexico, which has been documenting this closely, counted 22 people killed in vehicle pursuits in 2021, up from 14 in 2020 and 2 in 2019.
  • The embattled DHS Inspector-General, Trump-era appointee Joseph Cuffari, sent a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee leaders seeking to defend himself from allegations, first revealed by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), that his office (OIG) has been suppressing, delaying, and watering down information about serious patterns of sexual harassment and domestic abuse within the Department’s law enforcement agencies. Cuffari’s letter blames “senior DHS OIG officials who preceded me,” “the intransigence of some inspectors,” and OIG staff withholding information from him. “This is not the response of someone committed to meeting the statutory mandate for inspectors general,” reads a Twitter thread from POGO’s director of public policy, Liz Hempowicz.
  • A resolution seeking to block the Biden administration’s new asylum rule, which will take effect on May 31, failed by a 46-48 vote on May 26. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) was the only Democrat to vote for it. The White House had signaled its intention to veto it. The asylum rule is facing a legal challenge submitted by the Texas state government before Amarillo federal District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, the same judge who ordered reinstatement of the “Remain in Mexico” policy last August. Kacsmaryk will not issue a ruling before May 31, so the new rule will go into effect. It assigns a greater role to asylum officers in adjudicating cases, and speeds the asylum process in ways that concern immigration advocates.
  • “The government of Texas has been asking us to place barbed wire on the Mexican side of the border,” said the director of Mexico’s migration agency (INM), Francisco Garduño. “The policy of the Mexican government has been ‘no’ to the wall, and we do not believe in, and we do not want, a barbed-wire wall either.”
  • A Catholic priest who ran the Casa del Migrante migrant shelter in the Mexican border town of Tecate, east of Tijuana, was found dead on May 17. His body showed signs of torture.
  • “The Mexican government has a plan, a very good agenda for security along the Isthmus of Tehuantepec,” said U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar, referring to the region of southern Mexico where the country reaches its narrowest point. “There, in the Isthmus, for 300 kilometers, 180 miles, it’s easier to see what is happening in the 180 mile border and not 2,000 miles in the desert, so it is part of the migration solution. It is also part of the security solution.” He continued, “That’s where the keys are to solve the problems we have now regarding the flow of migration to the north.”
  • At the Dallas Morning News, Alfredo Corchado recalls the day, 25 years ago on May 20, when 18-year-old Esequiel Hernández became the first U.S. civilian killed by U.S. soldiers on U.S. soil since the May 1970 Kent State killings. Hernández, who was carrying a .22-caliber rifle while herding goats on his property in Redford, Texas, was shot and killed by a concealed active-duty Marine assigned to the border region on a counter-drug mission.
  • An agent from Border Patrol’s SWAT team, known as BORTAC, fired the shot that killed the gunman at the elementary school in Uvalde, Texas on May 24. Uvalde is about an hour’s drive from the border towns of Del Rio and Eagle Pass.

Three Consequences of Keeping Title 42 in Place at the U.S.-Mexico Border

Here’s another border analysis (the first in, like, 5 days), this one looking into what might happen next now that a Trump-appointed judge has kept the “Title 42” pandemic expulsions policy in place.

Besides “some threatened people may be turned back and die,” the three consequences discussed here are:

  1. The number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border each month is now very unlikely to decline. It will remain near historic highs
  2. Protection-seeking migrants will continue to be forced either to cross improperly, or to wait for many more months in dangerous Mexican border cities
  3. More migrants will come from “difficult-to-expel” countries, leaving Title 42 applied to only a minority of migrants

Read the whole thing here.

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: May 20, 2022

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.

This week:

  • The overall number of migrants encountered at the border increased from March to April, but this number declined when paroled Ukrainian migrants are subtracted from the total. It declined further—by 16 percent—when repeat crossers are subtracted. The “Remain in Mexico” program, revived by court order, continues to grow, though more exceptions are being made for migrants with credible fear of being made to wait in Mexican border cities.
  • It is another busy year for migration in Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap, where Doctors Without Borders has already counted 89 cases of sexual violence against migrants.
  • The Title 42 pandemic authority, which has enabled the rapid expulsion of migrants nearly 2 million times and curtailed the right to seek asylum, may expire on May 23, unless a Trump-appointed judge in Louisiana decides otherwise. Legislative efforts to preserve Title 42 are on hold for now. Large numbers of migrants in Mexican border cities are awaiting a chance to ask for protection in the United States, and the main shelter in El Paso is warning of capacity issues.
  • DHS witnesses in a House hearing warned that transshipment of synthetic drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine continue to increase at the border. They noted that nearly all of these seizures occur at ports of entry, not in the areas between where Border Patrol operates, and that there is little overlap between drug and migrant smuggling.

 

Migration declined slightly from March to April

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported data on May 17 about the agency’s encounters with migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border during the month of April 2022. It encountered 157,555 individual migrants on 234,088 occasions, 2 percent fewer individuals than in March. The gap between “encounters” and “individuals” indicates a very large number of repeat crossings, a result of CPB’s rapid expulsions of migrants under the Title 42 pandemic authority, which eases repeat attempts.

Of those 157,555 people, 32,288 reported to the border’s land ports of entry—20,118 of them citizens of Ukraine whom CBP paroled into the United States. Since repeat encounters are rare at ports of entry, subtracting 32,288 from 157,555 leaves a total of about 125,267 individual migrants apprehended by Border Patrol between the ports of entry in April. While high, this “unique Border Patrol apprehensions” number is 16 percent fewer than it was in March, and is 6th for the last 10 months, the period during which CBP has reported unique individual apprehensions.

April brings CBP’s overall “encounters” number to 1,478,977 since fiscal year 2022 began last October. As five months remain to the fiscal year, the agency is likely to break its annual migrant encounter record.

72 percent of migrants encountered at the border so far this year are single adults. Other than the pandemic year of 2020, this is the largest proportion of single adults since 2015. April continued the trend, with 71 percent of the month’s encounters occurring with adults traveling without children.

Adults are more likely than families or children to attempt repeat crossings, so Title 42’s easing of repeat attempts has inflated this number. Should Title 42 end, DHS officials say that they are prepared once again to apply “consequences” like immigration bans and even prison time to repeat crossers. As a result, they expect the number of repeat crossings—and thus the overall “encounters” number—to decrease after Title 42 comes to an eventual end.

Title 42 may or may not end on May 23, as this update discusses below. By that date, it’s somewhat likely that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will have used the authority to expel its 2 millionth migrant. The expulsions total at the U.S.-Mexico border stood at 1,915,848 on April 30.

CBP used Title 42 to expel 41 percent of migrants (and 54 percent of single adult migrants) whom its personnel encountered in April. Another 7 percent were processed under normal immigration law, but then removed from the United States. Of the remainder, 110,207 were released into the United States, in many cases to pursue asylum claims, and 7,782 were handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The 41 percent of migrants expelled under Title 42 is a somewhat smaller proportion than in earlier months, in large part because an ever larger share of migrants are coming from countries whose citizens the U.S. government cannot easily expel, like Cuba, Ukraine, Colombia, Nicaragua, or Venezuela.

In fact, Cuba and Ukraine were the number two and three countries of origin of migrants encountered at the border in April, a circumstance that is unlikely ever to repeat now that Ukrainian citizens have a more formal process to petition for refuge in the United States. The elevated number of Cuban arrivals at the border owes in large part to Nicaragua’s November decision to eliminate visa requirements for visitors from the island, making the journey much shorter.

Until 2018, 95 percent of migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border routinely came from four countries: Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. In 2019, that dropped to 91 percent. In April 2022, those four countries’ share of all migrant encounters declined to 54 percent. Still, the four made up 99 percent of all Title 42 expulsions last month. This is because Mexico accepts Title 42 expulsions over the land border of its own citizens, and of citizens from the three Central American countries (and as of early May, some citizens of Cuba and Nicaragua).

Encounters with migrants traveling as families (parents with children) increased 44 percent from March to April, though they remain significantly fewer than they were in 2019 and during the summer of 2021. A remarkable 72 percent of families encountered in April were not from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. Largely as a result, 13 percent of families were expelled under Title 42, a smaller proportion than in recent months.

Encounters with children traveling unaccompanied dropped 14 percent from March to April. The 12,221 encounters with unaccompanied children in April were significantly fewer than a year ago, even though the Biden administration is not using Title 42 to expel non-Mexican unaccompanied children.

A monthly report from DHS informed that it enrolled 2,005 migrants in April into the “Remain in Mexico” program, revived in December under a Texas federal court order. That is 39 percent more than in March, 124 percent more than in February, and 404 percent more than in January. Of the 5,014 migrants chosen to “remain in Mexico” between December 6, 2021 and April 30, 2022, all have been single adults, 62 percent have been Nicaraguan, 15 percent Cuban, and 7 percent Colombian.

When migrants express fear of being made to remain in Mexico, the Biden administration has taken those claims more seriously than did the Trump administration. 32 percent of those enrolled in the revived program (1,605 of 5,014) have been taken out of it, mostly due to credible claims of fear of harm in Mexican border cities.

Panama’s Darién Gap headed for second-busiest year ever

Panama, meanwhile, has posted data through April 30 about migration through the treacherous, ungoverned Darién Gap jungle region near its border with Colombia. In 2021 an unprecedented 133,726 migrants—101,072 of them Haitians traveling from South America—made the difficult 60-mile journey through the Darién. During the first four months of 2022, Panama has registered 19,092 migrants emerging from the Darién—fewer than last year but still on course to be the second largest annual number ever. This year, Venezuelans are the number-one nationality migrating through the Darién.

Doctors without Borders (MSF), one of few humanitarian groups present in the Darién region, tweeted that on May 16 “the Migrant Reception Station (ERM) in San Vicente, Panama, received 746 migrants in a single day,” far more than the daily average of 300. “In a single day, MSF has treated more than 220 patients for issues such as muscle pain, diarrhea, respiratory diseases, among other ailments.” Still more alarmingly, “over the course of this year we have treated 89 patients for sexual violence.”

Migrants who pass through it routinely say that the Darién is the most frightening part of their entire journey. In an article published this week, a Venezuelan migrant passing through Honduras told Expediente Público that he saw two dead bodies while passing through these jungles. Another said that “he and other migrants had been intercepted by armed individuals, who extorted them, sexually abused the women, and kidnapped the daughters of the people traveling with him.”

 

Title 42 may or may not be in its final days

On April 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determined that the COVID-19 pandemic’s severity no longer warranted maintaining the Title 42 expulsions authority. The CDC set this coming Monday—May 23—as its expiration date. As of May 23, the border will return to the application of normal U.S. immigration law, unless a Louisiana federal court postpones Title 42’s expiration.

“Normal immigration law” means that the right to seek asylum will be restored: migrants who express fear of return to their country will have the credibility of their fear claims evaluated and then have their petitions decided, either by an immigration judge or an asylum officer. It also means that migrants who had sought to avoid apprehension may, if caught, no longer just be quickly expelled: they will face what DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called “enforcement consequences we bring to bear on individuals who don’t qualify” for protection, like expedited removal, several-year bans on future immigration, and even time in federal prison, especially for repeat crossers. “We do intend to bring criminal prosecutions when the facts so warrant, and we will be increasing the number of criminal prosecutions to meet the challenge,” Mayorkas said during a May 17 visit to the border.

These measures will likely bring an increase in asylum-seeking migrants, and a reduction in other migrants. All, though, will need to be processed in some way—not just expelled at the borderline—which will mean more work for U.S. border personnel.

Whether Title 42 ends on May 23 is up to Louisiana District Court Judge Robert Summerhays, a Trump appointee who is considering a suit brought by several Republican state attorneys-general, including border states Texas and Arizona. Summerhays has already issued a temporary restraining order blocking the Biden administration from starting to phase out Title 42, and he is expected—probably on Friday, May 20—to issue a preliminary injunction keeping Title 42 in place.

We won’t know until Summerhays issues his decision how long Title 42 would remain in place, and under what circumstances. Suzanne Monyak at Roll Call pointed out that his order “could apply nationwide, or only to the border states that sued: Arizona and Texas,” allowing Title 42 to be lifted in California and New Mexico, whose Democratic state governors are not party to the lawsuit.

A judicially ordered suspension of Title 42 would probably reduce momentum in Congress to pass legislation to keep the pandemic order in place. Legislation introduced by Sens. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) would keep Title 42 until after the government’s COVID emergency declaration is terminated—potentially suspending the right to seek asylum at the border for years. It has solid support from Republicans and the backing of a few moderate or electorally vulnerable Democrats.

The House of Representatives is adjourning for a two-week Memorial Day recess, and the Senate will take a one-week break on May 27. This means that there is zero possibility of legislative action on Title 42 before at least the week of June 6.

Senate Democrats are weighing a bill to provide supplemental 2022 funding for border security, which Bloomberg Government called “a move that could alleviate concerns within the caucus and defuse a potentially divisive vote attached to a COVID-19 aid package” to prolong Title 42.

Mayorkas and other DHS officials continue to tout their “comprehensive strategy” to ramp up migrant processing and “consequence delivery” should Title 42 end on, or shortly after, May 23. That strategy, laid out in a 20-page late-April document, discusses increasing temporary processing capacity—like tent-based facilities near ports of entry—and personnel surges to manage a post-Title 42 increase in protection-seeking migration at the border. The plan also calls for reimbursements of private charity-run shelters in U.S. border cities, which receive protection-seeking migrants upon their release, provide food and other basic needs, and help with travel arrangements to migrants’ U.S. destinations.

A post-Title 42 increase in asylum seekers is very likely. As reports this week from the New York Times and Fronteras Desk point out, Mexican border cities currently have large populations of migrants waiting for the right to seek asylum to be restored. In the violence-plagued border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros, Mexico, the few existing migrant shelters have seen their capacities far surpassed by an unexpected arrival of thousands of migrants from Haiti, who until recently had rarely arrived at this part of the border, across from south Texas. (DHS is responding to an increase in Haitian migrants with a faster tempo of expulsion and removal flights to Port-au-Prince, which Tom Cartwright of Witness at the Border documents at his Twitter account.)

Many migrants from difficult-to-expel countries are already crossing between ports of entry to ask for protection. In El Paso, Texas at least, this is straining the longstanding network of shelters managed by Annunciation House, whose capacity of about 500 migrants is reduced on weekends when churches are in session. On Sunday May 15, CBP released 119 single adults at the bus station in downtown El Paso, the first such release since late December 2018.

Annunciation House director Rubén García held a press conference on May 18 to warn of the group’s capacity problems and the need for greater cooperation from the local government. Annunciation House received 2,700 migrants the week of May 8, and 1,730 people in just the first three days of the week of May 15. “And it’s only going to continue to increase,” García added. “I have no doubt in fact if Title 42 is lifted on May 23, you are going to see many, many individuals having to be released into the streets.”

The shelter director said he met on May 15 with officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and that 29 FEMA personnel came to Annunciation House’s main shelter on May 17. While this helps, García said, the shelters have been facing a “vast shortage” of volunteers, in large part a result of the pandemic. Another obstacle García identified, according to El Paso Matters, is “the increased vilification of migrants, especially those coming into the United States from the Southwest border. That has turned people away from lending a hand either because of their beliefs or a fear of being targeted for their involvement.”

 

House hearing on opioid smuggling

The House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation, and Operations hosted three DHS officials for a May 18 hearing on the smuggling of fentanyl and other synthetic drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border. As WOLA’s collection of border drug-seizure infographics indicate, fentanyl and methamphetamine continue to cross the border in ever greater amounts, even as seizures of plant-based drugs like heroin, cocaine, and cannabis have remained flat or declined.

“Most illicit drugs, including fentanyl, enter the United States through our Southwest Border POEs [ports of entry],” Pete Flores, the executive assistant commissioner of CBP’s Office of Field Operations, told the subcommittee. “They are brought in by privately owned vehicles, commercial vehicles, and even pedestrians.” 86 percent of fentanyl seized at the border this year has been taken at land ports of entry, while Border Patrol has seized another 6 percent at interior checkpoints, which in nearly all cases means the drugs had recently passed through a port of entry. Only 5 percent of fentanyl seizures take place in the areas between the ports where Border Patrol operates.

“Fentanyl shipments largely originate, and are likely synthesized, in Mexico and are often concealed within larger shipments of other commodities,” Flores explained, adding that CBP calculates that it seized 2.6 billion potential fentanyl doses, and 17 billion potential methamphetamine doses, in 2021.

At ports of entry (including seaports and airports), CBP currently uses 350 large-scale and 4,500 small-scale x-ray and gamma-ray scanners. Right now, CBP has the capacity to scan only 2 percent of “primary passenger vehicles” and 15 percent of “fixed occupant commercial vehicles” crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Flores said the agency expects to increase these “non-intrusive” scans in 2023 to 40 percent of passenger vehicles and 70 percent of commercial vehicles.

DHS Intelligence official Brian Sulc and ICE Homeland Security Investigations official Steve Cagen coincided in telling the subcommittee that there is little overlap between drug trafficking and undocumented migration. “We’ve seen some instances perhaps of migrants and drugs as a mixed event, but they’re still rare,” Sulc said.

DTOs [drug trafficking organizations] and human smuggling organizations are opportunistic and transactional with their operations, and they’re strongly motivated by profits. So combined drugs and migrant smuggling events are not really a routine practice at all. The illicit actors facilitating these movements are likely to keep these entities separate to minimize the risk of losing the potential revenue from the much higher value drugs, such as fentanyl.

“We see that drugs and human smuggling are separate,” Cagen added. “They might use the same routes, but we predominantly see the drugs coming in through the ports of entry.”

 

Links

  • WOLA staff were in San Diego and Tijuana during the first week of May. We held 16 meetings with advocates, shelters, officials, journalists, and experts. We talked about the 300,000+ migrants in transit each year, post-Title 42 challenges, and U.S. border law enforcement accountability issues. On May 18, we published notes about what we learned.
  • A May 18 decision from Mexico’s Supreme Court, based on a legal challenge by the Institute for Women in Mexico (IMUMI) a Mexican NGO, outlawed the government immigration agency’s (INM) use of road checkpoints to detect and detain undocumented migrants, finding that the agency’s racial profiling has harmed indigenous Mexicans.
  • Andrés Ramírez, director of Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR, told Milenio that assistance from UNHCR has helped his agency contract 230 staff members. COMAR received 130,637 requests for asylum in Mexico last year, and 40,954 during the first 4 months of 2022.
  • Expediente Público reported from the Honduras-Nicaragua border zone, where thousands of Cuban, Haitian, African, Venezuelan and other migrants find themselves stranded, forced to pay authorities a $210 per person fee to continue northward, or spend days waiting for a permit. The report adds, “There are allegations of police officers stopping buses, pulling off White people and collecting money from Black people who remain inside.”
  • Irma Yaritza Huete Iglesia, a 25-year-old mother from Nicaragua, was the latest of many migrants to drown in the Rio Grande between Piedras Negras, Mexico and Eagle Pass, Texas. Her 4-year-old daughter remains missing.
  • CBP officers at El Paso’s Bridge of the Americas fired at a southbound vehicle on May 14. “While attempting to inspect a vehicle, a driver made an abrupt movement, at which point the officers perceived a threat to themselves and fired at the driver who fled from the inspection area at a high rate of speed and crossed into Mexico,” a CBP spokesperson e-mailed the El Paso Times.
  • Acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Tae Johnson told House appropriators that his agency needs a larger budget for alternatives-to-detention programs, “a much more humane” and “effective and significantly less costly option” compared to funding detention beds for migrants who pose no threat to the public. This often means the use of ankle monitors and other electronic surveillance devices that have raised human rights and privacy concerns.
  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) continues to send buses of asylum-seeking migrants to Washington, DC, but “as a pressure tactic, it has fizzled,” the Dallas Morning News reported. Between April 13 and May 13, 35 chartered buses carrying 922 migrants had arrived near the Capitol and Union Station. Arizona’s Republican state government has announced its intention to start sending buses to Washington as well.
  • Todd Miller, author of Empire of Borders, published two analyses this week from southern Arizona. At the Nation, Miller discussed the network of surveillance technology, “an increasingly autonomous surveillance apparatus fueled by ‘public-private partnerships,’” that he calls “Biden’s Wall.” A “Reporters Notebook” piece at the Border Chronicle reflected on the recent deaths in southeast Arizona of migrants Griselda Verduzco Armenta (died painfully trying to scale the 30-foot border wall) and Carmelo Cruz-Marcos (killed by a Border Patrol agent).

New brief: Capacity, Security, and Accountability at the U.S.-Mexico Border’s Western Edge

During the first week of May 2022 in San Diego and Tijuana, WOLA staff held 16 meetings and interviews with advocates, shelters, officials, and experts working on border and migration. We talked about the 300,000+ migrants in transit each year, post-Title 42 challenges, and the U.S. border law enforcement accountability issues covered on this site. On May 18, we published notes about what we learned.

We found:

  • In Tijuana, Mexico’s largest border city, the U.S.-Mexico border’s largest and best-established system of humanitarian shelters is holding up, though strained by a large population of migrants in transit, deported, or blocked from seeking asylum in the United States. The city’s security situation is worsening.
  • Advocates generally believe that this part of the border can manage a potential post-“Title 42” increase in migration. CBP’s smooth recent processing of 20,000 Ukrainian migrants showed that capacity to manage large flows of asylum seekers exists, when the will exists.
  • The termination of Border Patrol’s “Critical Incident Teams,” a product of advocacy that began in San Diego, is a step forward for border-wide human rights accountability. However, citizen monitors in San Diego have other human rights concerns regarding U.S. border law enforcement: misuse of force, dangerous vehicle pursuits, threats to civil liberties from surveillance technologies, deliberate misinformation to asylum seekers, and a steep increase in border wall injuries.

Read the whole thing here.

Weekly Border Update: May 13, 2022

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.

This week:

  • Facing Republican-led litigation and a mostly Republican-led legislative push, the Title 42 pandemic policy, which denies the right to seek asylum, is unlikely to be lifted by its expected May 23 date. CBP granted an increased number of exceptions to Title 42 for the most vulnerable migrants waiting in Mexico, allowing 1,006 to present themselves at U.S. ports of entry during the week of May 3-9.
  • While CBP has yet to report April data, bits of information point to migration at the border increasing over already high March levels during the first half of April, then declining somewhat. Arrivals per day in early May could be fewer than they were in March.
  • Six migrants died over the May 7-8 weekend in Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, while a government watchdog finds that the agency has been under-reporting migrant deaths.
  • CBP is terminating ​​Border Patrol’s secretive Critical Incident Teams, which stand accused of interfering in investigations of Border Patrol agents’ use of force or other wrongdoing. One of these teams was present after the February 19 Border Patrol shooting of a Mexican man in Arizona, which local authorities just declined to prosecute. Some details of this case are troubling.

Title 42 is likely to remain in place

It now appears certain that the Title 42 pandemic order will remain in place after May 23, the date that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had announced that it would end.

“Title 42” refers to the March 2020 restriction at U.S. borders, continued by the Biden administration, enabling the quick expulsion of all undocumented migrants, even those seeking asylum, for ostensible public health reasons. Mexico agreed to take back citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras expelled by land, and more recently some Cuban and Nicaraguan citizens as well. U.S. authorities have used Title 42 to expel migrants at the border more than 1.8 million times.

Title 42 had to be renewed every 60 days, and the CDC announced on April 1 that the COVID-19 pandemic’s reduced severity warranted its termination on May 23. That decision—essentially, to return to regular immigration law and restore the right to seek asylum—has met stiff resistance. Opposition has come from immigration hardliners who seek to limit access to asylum, and from moderate Democrats worried that lifting Title 42 could cause a jump in already-high levels of migration at the border during a difficult legislative election campaign.

Officials from 21 Republican state governments filed suit in federal court in April to block Title 42’s lifting; the venue they chose is the Lafayette, Louisiana courtroom of District Judge Robert Summerhays, a Trump appointee. Summerhays has already issued and extended a temporary restraining order pausing the Biden administration’s efforts to terminate Title 42. Justice Department lawyers are to present arguments before Summerhays on May 13, after which he is expected to delay the CDC’s April 1 decision and keep Title 42 in place. It is not clear whether his decision will apply border-wide or just to Texas and Arizona, the two border states among the lawsuit’s plaintiffs.

Moves to prevent Title 42’s termination are also afoot in the U.S. Congress. Legislation introduced by Sens. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) would keep Title 42 in place until after the government’s COVID emergency declaration is terminated—potentially suspending the right to seek asylum at the border for years.

Republicans are demanding that the Senate consider this legislation as an amendment to a $10 billion COVID aid bill, as a condition to allow that stalled legislation to move forward. The Democratic majority’s number two and three leaders, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Patty Murray (D-Washington), say they are inclined to allow a vote on the Lankford-Sinema amendment; Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) says he will await the House of Representatives’ passage of a COVID aid bill and decide then. Talking to Politico, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), who supports ending Title 42, “ predicted Democrats would likely lose an immigration vote on the Senate floor.”

“That’s right,” wrote Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent at the Washington Post on May 10. “To deal with an ongoing pandemic that has killed around 1 million Americans, Democrats must deal a blow to the asylum system, keeping the United States’ doors closed to those fleeing oppression and violence.”

While the political wrangling continues, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been gradually expanding exceptions to Title 42, allowing migrants deemed most vulnerable (with input from non-governmental organizations) to approach six ports of entry to seek protection. A May 11 U.S. government filing for the Louisiana litigation reports that CBP processed 1,006 migrants under Title 42 exceptions in the 7 days between May 3 and May 9. These included 487 at the San Ysidro, California port of entry; 220 at El Paso, Texas’s Paso del Norte bridge; 124 in Hidalgo, Texas, across from Reynosa, Mexico; 91 in Nogales, Arizona; 83 in Eagle Pass, Texas; and 1 in Laredo, Texas.

In other Title 42 news:

  • In a May 11 hearing before the House Appropriations Committee, CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus told Republican backers of making Title 42 permanent that the policy has complicated border security efforts, easing repeat attempts to cross the border. “The problem with Title 42 is,” he said, “over and over again, those individuals who get walked back across the line come right back, and we see them over and over again.”
  • “We have always been against Title 42. We have always encouraged the government to eliminate it,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi told TV journalist Jorge Ramos.
  • “I would caution people not to assume that there will suddenly be an overwhelming rush at the border” after Title 42, Alex Mensing of Innovation Law Lab told Mother Jones. “It can be a lot more orderly,” he added, noting that CBP demonstrated the capacity to process up to 1,000 Ukrainian citizens per day in San Diego in April.
  • Title 42 continues to be applied aggressively to citizens of Haiti. As of May 12, Tom Cartwright of Witness at the Border had counted 235 expulsion or deportation flights to Haiti since the Biden administration began, 198 of them since the September 2021 arrival of thousands of Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas. Nicole Phillips of the Haitian Bridge Alliance was on hand for a flight’s arrival in Port-au-Prince on May 10: “Approx 100 ppl, mostly moms & young kids,” she tweeted. “Lots of complaints of ‘abuses’ by ICE. None were screened for asylum or told they were being deported. Chained by their wrists, waist & feet. Not able to shower or brush their teeth for days.”
  • The American Prospect reported that White House Domestic Policy Adviser Susan Rice remains a full-throated proponent of keeping Title 42 in place: “After learning that expulsion flights of migrants were not always full, Rice developed a daily fixation with ensuring full capacity on flights operating under Title 42.”

Migration has dropped slightly since March

While CBP has yet to share data from April, bits of information point to migrant arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border first increasing over the high levels reported in March, then, during the second half of April, declining to below those levels. Some of the indicators include:

  • A May 4 Washington Post citation of “preliminary figures” from CBP indicated that in April, “the number of migrants taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection rose to about 234,000, up from 221,000 in March.” (Two days earlier, Breitbart News, which has many sources within U.S. border agencies, reported much different numbers: a decline from 221,000 in March to “more than 201,000” in April.)
  • Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council, who has seen recent CBP preliminary weekly data, tweeted: “April will set new records for southwest border encounters, in part because of the 13-14,000 Ukrainians processed in at the San Ysidro port of entry, but by mid-April encounters appear to have temporarily peaked and then by last week fallen back to mid-March levels.”
  • According to data accompanying a May 11 U.S. government filing for the Louisiana Title 42 litigation, there is a modest decline in single adult migration as of early May. That document reports 37,021 encounters with single adult migrants in the seven days from May 3 to May 9, 2022. That rate—5,289 single adults per day—is 3 percent fewer than the 5,454 per day CBP reported in March.

The May 3-9 data pointed to decreases in encounters per day, compared to March, with single adult migrants from Colombia (-17%), Guatemala (-12%), Mexico (-10%), Honduras (-4%), and Cuba (-3%). Countries that measured increases in single adult encounters per day, compared to March, included Haiti (+410%), Venezuela (+17%), and Nicaragua (+5%).

Peru appears in the filing as the tenth-largest nation of origin of single adult migrants encountered between May 3 and 9, with 677 encounters in those 7 days. CBP’s monthly public reporting does not even specify migration from Peru, lumping it in an “other countries” category. Like citizens of Colombia, Peruvians may enter Mexico without first obtaining a visa, as part of the Chile-Colombia-Mexico-Peru “Pacific Alliance” arrangement.

Preliminary data indicate that Mexico’s migration agency (INM) apprehended 38,677 migrants in April. That is Mexico’s largest monthly migration total this year, but fewer than levels measured in August through October of 2021; Mexico set its record of 46,370 apprehensions last September. In a single day—May 7—INM reported apprehending 1,608 migrants from 38 countries, a pace that would break the agency’s monthly record if sustained.

As noted in the court filing above, there appears to be a springtime increase in arrivals of Haitian migrants at the border. Many of them are arriving in Mexico’s violence-plagued border state of Tamaulipas, a part of the border that Haitian migrants had avoided until recently. Border Report reported that 3,500 Haitians have arrived since late April in Nuevo Laredo, a city that has seen few asylum-seeking migrants in recent years because of tight control exercised by organized crime. 1,400 of them, mostly men, may have already departed Nuevo Laredo for the city of Monterrey, a few hours to the south. The same article notes, as we have heard elsewhere, that Haitians are also arriving in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, “hoping to migrate should Title 42 be lifted.” Hundreds of miles west of Tamaulipas, in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, La Verdad reported on a church-run program that has given Spanish lessons to 70 Haitian migrants since January.

Migrant deaths continue unabated

Jason Owens, the chief of Border Patrol’s Del Rio, Texas sector, tweeted that his agents had encountered “12 rescues” and “6 deceased persons” over the May 7-8 weekend alone. Six migrant deaths in two days in a single sector is an extreme amount. In all of 2020—the last year for which the agency has publicly reported migrant deaths by sector—Border Patrol reported finding 34 migrants’ remains in Del Rio.

Some, if not all, of the dead found in Del Rio appear to be drownings in the Rio Grande. They included an adult man, and a child from Angola whose sibling is still missing. On May 2, a Nicaraguan man drowned in the swiftly flowing river between Piedras Negras, Coahuila and Eagle Pass, Texas. Texas National Guardsmen told Fox News reporter Bryan Llenas, whose film crew captured the broad-daylight drowning, that they are prohibited from attempting rescues after 22-year-old Guardsman Bishop Evans died while trying to rescue a migrant in Eagle Pass on April 25.

Border Patrol, meanwhile, stands accused of under-reporting migrant deaths border-wide. The agency has counted over 8,600 migrant remains on U.S. soil, mostly of dehydration, exposure, and drowning, since 1998. The actual number is almost certainly greater, though, since over the past 10 years or so Border Patrol has been reporting fewer deaths than do local humanitarian groups or medical examiners, leaving out of its count the remains of migrants found by other entities.

This is the subject of an April 20 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), covered by the Intercept, which found that Border Patrol has been undercounting the actual number of migrant deaths in the U.S.-Mexico border region. For example, GAO found that Border Patrol in Arizona routinely reports finding roughly half as many remains as does the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants.

Border Patrol has yet to share public reporting of migrant deaths in fiscal year 2021, though CNN reported last October that the agency had counted a record 557 remains that year, more than double the 247 found in 2020.

CBP to terminate Border Patrol’s controversial “Critical Incident Teams”

A May 3, 2022 memorandum from CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus, revealed on May 6, terminated Border Patrol’s Critical Incident Teams (CITs), secretive units that often arrive at the scene when agents may have misused force or otherwise behaved in a way that might involve local law enforcement. While Critical Incident Teams may have other roles, they stood accused of altering crime scenes, interfering with law enforcement investigations, and coming up with exculpatory evidence to protect agents. (See the “Critical Incident Teams” tag at WOLA’s new Border Oversight database of border law enforcement conduct.)

No other law enforcement agency has a similar internal exoneration capability, and the CITs’ existence is not specifically authorized by law, according to the Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC), a non-governmental organization that revealed the units’ extent in October and has led efforts to abolish them. CITs have existed in some form since 1987, and include 12 agents per Border Patrol sector, according to a CBP PowerPoint presentation obtained by the SBCC.

“By the end of FY [Fiscal Year] 22,” Magnus’s memorandum reads, “USBP [U.S. Border Patrol] will eliminate all Critical Incident Teams and personnel assigned to USBP will no longer respond to critical incidents for scene processing or evidence collection.” CBP’s internal affairs body, the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), will take “full responsibility for responding to critical incidents” by October 1, 2022. OPR will require “substantial resources” to take on this mission, the memo reads; Magnus’s May 11 testimony to the House Appropriations Committee notes that the 2022 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) budget “included $74 million for 350 new Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) Special Agents.”

The CITs’ termination comes just over six months after the SBCC alerted Congress to their existence. SBCC member Andrea Guerrero, executive director of Alliance San Diego, had learned of the teams’ interference with the investigation of migrant Anastasio Hernández’s 2010 beating death in San Diego. Guerrero and colleagues at SBCC laid out their case in an October 27, 2021 letter to congressional oversight committee chairpeople asking them to investigate the CITs.

In a statement from SBCC, María Puga, Anastasio Hernández’s widow, called the CITs’ termination “an important first step towards addressing the longstanding problem of Border Patrol impunity.” SBCC “commends CBP for taking this action and acknowledges the leadership of Commissioner Magnus,” reads the statement, which calls on Magnus to ensure that all CIT-related records be preserved so that those who “have engaged in criminal acts of obstruction of justice” in the past may be held accountable.

Also present at an SBCC press conference was Marisol García Alcántara, a 37-year-old undocumented Mexican mother of three whom a Border Patrol agent shot in the head in June 2021 while she sat in the backseat of a vehicle in Nogales, Arizona. A CIT was at the scene in the case of García, who was deported to Mexico without ever being questioned about the incident by any U.S. authorities. The BBC published a May 11 profile of Ms. García, who continues to suffer memory loss as a result of her injury, which includes bullet fragments lodged in her brain.

In southeast Arizona, a police report, shared by the Intercept, confirmed that a CIT was involved in the aftermath of the February 19, 2022 shooting death of Carmelo Cruz-Marcos, a 32-year-old migrant from Puebla, Mexico.

Agent Kendrek Bybee Staheli claimed that he shot Cruz-Marcos, who died of four bullet wounds to his head and chest, out of fear for his life when the migrant moved to throw a rock at him at close range. Cruz-Marcos was with several other migrants whom Staheli and Agent Tristan Tang were chasing late at night in the desert; none witnessed the interaction that led to Cruz-Marcos’s death.

The Cochise County Sheriff’s report cites migrant witness Carlos Torres Peralta, who had learned some English while living in Wisconsin for three years:

He said the agent told his companion [Cruz-Marcos], “Stop or I’m going to shoot you. ” He said his companion ran off and when he tried to run he stumbled on rock and the agent caught him. He said the agent told him, “This is America motherf—.” He referred to the agent as Agent Stain. I believe he was referring to Agent Staheli. He said the second agent yelled at Agent Staheli if he was ok and Agent Staheli said he was ok.

…Carlos further added information concerning Agent’s Staheli and Tang. He states to SA Chiriguayo that he believed the agents had moved the decedent’s body, repositioned the body, and he heard them discussing how they should follow up with statements and not say anything to anyone, and that Agent Tang had told Agent Staheli “it would all be ok and that he had his back.” Carlos further said he heard Agent Tang tell Agent Staheli that he should say he was attacked with a rock. Carlos statements would suggest the agents had covered up evidence and would not be truthful with any after action interviews they would have.

In a May 6 letter to the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department, County Attorney Brian McIntyre reported finding insufficient evidence to contradict Agent Staheli’s self-defense claim beyond a reasonable doubt, and declined to prosecute.

Links

  • At the Border Chronicle and the Guardian, Melissa del Bosque reports on Border Patrol’s practice of discarding migrants’ possessions after apprehending them. “Agents in Yuma, according to Customs and Border Protection, require they leave everything behind, except for what they can fit into a small plastic Department of Homeland Security-issued bag.” Discarded items include passports, birth certificates, police reports (evidence for asylum cases), and x-rays.
  • A report from the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology, based on numerous documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, finds that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “now operates as a domestic surveillance agency.” The agency has built up a capacity to pull up information on even most U.S. citizens “by reaching into the digital records of state and local governments and buying databases with billions of data points from private companies.” The report calls it a “dragnet.”
  • Of the 15 years (2007-2021) in which it has worked on disappeared-migrant cases in Mexico, the Jesuit Refugee Service-Mexico’s Disappeared Migrant Search Program took on 53 percent of its 1,280 cases in just three recent years: 2018, 2019, and 2021.
  • With a large migrant encampment cleared on May 2 and existing shelters nearly full, expelled migrants are beginning to gather immediately outside the offices of Mexico’s Migration Institute (INM), at the port of entry in the violent crime-plagued city of Reynosa. Many are Cuban and Nicaraguan.
  • “Say No to the Coyote” is the name of a new digital ad campaign that CBP has launched in Guatemala and Honduras in an attempt to dissuade migration.
  • “There are now at least 22 pending lawsuits in federal courts across the U.S. on behalf of more than 80 parents and children seeking financial compensation for the trauma they endured” after being separated during the Trump administration, CBS News reports. The Biden administration had been negotiating compensation settlements, but pulled out after news of the negotiations generated Republican backlash late last year. Biden administration lawyers now argue that the families are not eligible to sue the federal government.
  • Tamaulipas and Texas state police, along with Texas National Guardsmen, carried out “a binational drill for the detection and containment of migrants” on May 7 at two border bridges between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo.
  • A brief May 9 statement from CBP notes the arrest of a Del Rio Sector Border Patrol agent “on a warrant stemming from an indictment on a charge of Official Oppression in connection with the alleged assault and mistreatment of a juvenile in custody.” No further details appear.

“Fearless”

When a message starts with “Women account for five percent of the United States Border Patrol Agents”…

You expect to read “but we plan to do better.” Not “rest assured they are fearless.”

I mean, General Custer was fearless, too, with similar asymmetry.

Photo

Seagulls atop the border wall in Tijuana last Thursday.

Asylum requests in Mexico

The Mexican government’s refugee agency, COMAR, is nearly on pace to tie Mexico’s record, set last year, for the most migrants applying for asylum.

Last year, the largest number of Mexico’s asylum seekers came from Haiti. This year, Hondurans have retaken the number-one spot.

These and 48 more infographics about the U.S.-Mexico border and migration now “live” at WOLA’s new “Border Oversight” website.

Back to the Border

I’m writing on a plane to San Diego. I’ll be spending the rest of the week there and in Tijuana, meeting lots of people whom I either haven’t seen in a long time or am looking forward to meeting for the first time.

There’s a lot to talk about here.

  • Border Patrol and CBP accountability issues
  • How might asylum processing work if Title 42 ends
  • Lessons from the rapid processing of 20,000 Ukrainians
    • Situation of remaining Ukrainians
  • What is happening with all other nationalities who are awaiting a chance to seek asylum?
    • What became of those cleared from the Chaparral Plaza encampment?
    • What is becoming of those forced to “Remain in Mexico” in Tijuana?
    • What nationalities are coming to Tijuana in greatest numbers now?
    • Are shelters keeping up / coping?
  • There are now long-term immigrant communities in Tijuana, especially the Haitians who settled starting in 2016. How are they faring?
  • The security situation in Tijuana seems dire. Lots more military being deployed. What is happening?

A New Resource About Border Abuse and Accountability

In our work at the U.S.-Mexico border, we regularly hear about abuses or improper law enforcement behavior by U.S. security agencies. But so often, whatever happens gets overtaken by the next events, forgotten.

I wanted to start damming up this steady, alarming stream going by us all the time. So, many months ago, I set up a new WordPress install, and my staff and I started throwing into it everything we’ve seen and heard since 2020 about abuses committed at the border.

The result is a database that we’re hosting at borderoversight.org. It has more than 220 entries so far, fully cited. We’ve captured these events and allegations, and organized them by category, place, agency, victim, and “accountability status.”

I’m not exactly “proud” of what we’ve created here. Actually, trying to read through it is a monstrous experience. There’s only so many use-of-force incidents, high-speed vehicle pursuits, spied-on U.S. citizens, Facebook slurs, non-return of belongings, dangerous deportations, and timid oversight that one can take in a single sitting. The picture is grim.

I don’t want this to be viewed, though, as an attack on the individuals who’ve chosen to build a career as a Border Patrol agent or CBP officer. I have met many agents and officers, and found nearly all to be decent and honorable people. But take CBP and Border Patrol as a whole, and something changes. Organizational cultures are powerful.

Our maintenance of borderoversight.org will be continuous: a database is never “done,” but we’ll use it to spin off a lot of other materials and carry out further work on what’s causing this problem and how to reform it.

I hope you find it useful as we work for greater accountability and cultural change at these agencies.

Here are some resources:

  • We added a page with links to reports about the border: from WOLA, from the U.S. and other governments, from non-governmental colleagues, and from the media. Organized by category. More than 270 of them so far are at borderoversight.org/reports.

And here’s a quick video explaining this work:

Big WOLA border project drops tomorrow

Tomorrow we’re launching a big new WOLA oversight resource about the border. I’ve been working on it for a while. It’s a site presenting a database of hundreds of recent credible allegations of human rights abuse and other improper law enforcement behavior at the U.S.-Mexico border.

It will also include a library of recommended reports and reading about the border, and 50 infographics about the border that I’ve produced over the past couple of years.

No link yet—I’m spending the day doing finishing touches and combing for errors. Stay tuned for more tomorrow.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.