Adam Isacson

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

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Border Security

Weekly Border Update: 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.

#SafeNotStranded: “Remain in Mexico” before the Supreme Court today

Here’s Guerline Jozef of the Haitian Bridge Alliance giving great remarks at today’s #SafeNotStranded rally, in front of a Supreme Court that’s hearing arguments about the “Remain in Mexico” policy right now.

It was great to see so many colleagues at this event—both Washington-based and visiting from the border—in actual 3-D, after dozens and dozens of Zoom meetings since 2020.

May the justices make the right choice and allow the Biden administration to end the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico”: for humanitarian reasons, but also for “not forcing presidents to carry out their predecessors’ bad policies” reasons. The latter seems like an especially important constitutional principle.

Weekly Border Update: April 22, 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.

Due to staff travel, there will be no Border Updates for the next two weeks. We will resume publication on May 13.

This week:

  • U.S. authorities encountered migrants 221,303 times at the U.S.-Mexico border in March, the most since March 2000. As Title 42 expulsions led to a very large number of repeat attempts, the number of actual individual migrants was 159,900. 50 percent were expelled under Title 42. 77 percent—a larger proportion than in recent years—were single adults. 40 percent were from countries other than Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. Cubans rose to the number-two spot, and Ukrainians increased by 1,103 percent.
  • Political maneuvering around the scheduled May 23 end of Title 42 continues. Moderate Democrats, claiming worry about the lack of a clear plan to process a likely post-May 23 increase in migration, are clamoring for a clearer plan. Sources are telling media outlets that White House and DHS leadership are also concerned.
  • The secretaries of State and Homeland Security were in Panama this week to meet with foreign ministers from around Latin America in preparation for the June Summit of the Americas. Cooperation to manage the region-wide increase in migration led the agenda in Panama. Mayorkas visited Panama’s Darién Gap region, which has seen a sharp increase in migrants coming across from South America despite very dangerous conditions.
  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) lifted onerous cargo vehicle restrictions that had strangled trade with Mexico for days, potentially costing the U.S. economy $9 billion. Abbott’s busing of migrants to Washington continues, but has been getting little notice, while questions about the efficacy of his “Operation Lone Star” continue to mount.

CBP reports one of its highest-ever migration totals in March

On April 18 U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced that it “encountered” undocumented migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border 221,303 times in March, 33 percent more than in February. The 209,906 times that Border Patrol encountered migrants between the official land ports of entry was the most the agency had recorded in any month since March 2000.

This pushed CBP’s “migrant encounters” total for fiscal year 2022, which began last October, over 1 million in 6 months. 63 percent of migrants so far this year have come from countries other than Mexico.

50 percent of March’s encounters ended with the migrant’s rapid expulsion, even if the migrant intended to ask U.S. authorities for asylum or other protection. The Trump and Biden administrations have used Title 42, the controversial pandemic authority allowing these expulsions, 1,817,278 times since COVID-19 first forced border closures.

For migrants who want to avoid being apprehended, Title 42’s quick expulsions have eased repeat attempts to cross the border. In March, 28 percent of people CBP encountered had already been in the agency’s custody at least once in the past 12 months, double the 2014-2019 average (14 percent). That means the actual number of people encountered was significantly lower: 159,900.

Though exceptions abound, single adults are more likely to attempt to avoid capture, while children and families are more likely to turn themselves in to seek asylum. The large number of repeat crossings contributed to the reporting of the most single adult migrant encounters—162,030—at least since October 2011, when the agency started providing public data about adult, child, and family migrants.

77 percent of migrants reported in March were adults, an unusually high proportion. Unaccompanied children (7 percent) and “family units” (parents with children, 16 percent) both increased from February to March, but were in fact fewer than in March 2021.

Until 2020 (when it was 88 percent), more than 90 percent of CBP’s migrant encounters were with citizens of four countries: Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. In March, those countries accounted for just 60 percent of migrant encounters. 88,110 were with migrants from somewhere else, which is certainly a record.

Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are the four countries whose citizens Mexico accepts as Title 42 expulsions across the land border. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must expel all other countries’ citizens by air, which is costly or, in some cases, diplomatically complicated. As a result, 99 percent of March’s 109,549 Title 42 expulsions were applied to citizens of these four countries only.

Of the other countries accounting for border arrivals, Cuba was in second place in March, with 32,141 of its citizens (about one in every 353 Cubans) encountered at the border last month. Cubans appear to be migrating in rapidly increasing numbers via Nicaragua, which lifted visa requirements for Cubans last November, enabling air travel. Cuban migrants’ numbers doubled from February to March, and tripled from January. Nearly all Cubans turn themselves in to U.S. authorities; if they remain in the United States for a year, the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 makes them eligible to apply for permanent residency.

Cuba has not accepted expulsion or other removal flights from the United States since February 2020, before the pandemic. The United States has meanwhile maintained almost no consular staff since the still-unresolved “Havana Syndrome” health incidents caused the U.S. government, in 2017, to reduce its diplomatic presence and close its consulate in Havana. On April 21, diplomats from the United States and Cuba met to discuss migration cooperation for the first time since July 2018, reviving what had been biannual talks.

Migrant encounters increased from February to March at the border for every nationality except Brazil, which declined slightly. In addition to Cuba (+231 percent), the countries whose citizens have seen the greatest increases are Romania (+141 percent), Turkey (+167 percent), Colombia (+287 percent), and Ukraine (+1,220 percent).

3,274 citizens of Ukraine, fleeing the Russian invasion that began on February 24, were encountered at the border in March, nearly all of them at ports of entry because the Biden administration encouraged CBP agents not to expel them under Title 42. Most have appeared at ports of entry between Tijuana and San Diego. As of April 21, the Washington Post reported, about 15,000 Ukrainian citizens had arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border. “Every day, 500 to 800 Ukrainians arrive in Tijuana,” the Wall Street Journal noted.

On April 21 the Biden administration announced a new program, calling it “Uniting for Ukraine,” allowing up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees to receive two years of humanitarian parole in the United States, applying from outside the United States with help from U.S.-based sponsors. This will apparently mean a closure of the Mexico route which, because the U.S. government had lacked a process, was the simplest way for Ukrainians to reach the United States. Mexico’s Foreign Ministry warned Ukrainians against attempting to enter the United States through its territory after April 24, when CBP plans once again to employ Title 42 to prevent Ukrainian citizens from accessing border ports of entry.

The sharp increase in arrivals of citizens from Colombia appears to be a result of Colombian citizens flying to Mexico, which does not require them to have a valid visa, then traveling to the U.S. border—70 percent of the time, to Yuma, Arizona—to turn themselves in to authorities. While the United States accelerated Title 42 expulsion and ICE removal flights to Bogotá in March, CBP’s data show Title 42 being applied to 303 out of 15,144 apprehended Colombians last month.

The past year had seen similar sharp increases in migrants from countries from which Mexico did not require visas: Ecuador, Brazil, and Venezuela. When Mexico reinstated visa requirements—most recently for Venezuelans, on January 21, 2022—encounters with migrants from these countries dropped rapidly.

Despite likely entreaties from the Biden administration, Mexico may not be as quick to reinstate visa requirements for Colombians. Under the Pacific Alliance framework, which incorporates Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, member countries have a Schengen-style arrangement allowing visa-free travel.

Political maneuvering around Title 42 continues

The Biden administration officially remains firm in following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) decision, discussed in our April 1 update, to end the Title 42 expulsions policy by May 23. However, though the Biden administration has had more than a year to prepare for a likely post-Title-42 increase in migration at the U.S.-Mexico border, officials are privately voicing worry that DHS is not ready to process the increased number of arrivals in an orderly way.

Sources told Axios that “President Biden’s inner circle has been discussing delaying the repeal of Title 42 border restrictions.” A source “close to the White House” told CNN of a “high level of apprehension” in the West Wing, where staff “watch the border numbers every day.”

Axios reported that DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas “has privately told members of Congress he’s concerned with the Biden administration’s handling of its plans to lift Title 42 on May 23,” though Mayorkas’s public stance is that DHS will defer to the CDC. “Mayorkas has also indicated a level of frustration and unease with the repeal rollout.” A delay of the May 23 date is more likely than a full reversal of the decision to end Title 42, which “would effectively force the White House to overrule the CDC,” Axios adds.

Either way, there is some possibility that a Louisiana federal judge could strike down or suspend the CDC order before May 23. More than 20 states’ Republican attorneys-general have filed suit to block the end of Title 42, and the district judge hearing the case, Robert Summerhays, is a Trump appointee.

Some Democrats, worried about chaotic images from the border affecting their already grim midterm legislative election prospects, have been calling on the Biden administration to be more transparent about its plans for managing large numbers of protection-seeking migrants after Title 42 is lifted.

Mayorkas has resisted doing so publicly, telling CNN, “I think we have to be very mindful of the fact that we are addressing enemies, and those enemies are the cartels and the smugglers, and I will not provide our plans to them. We are going to proceed with our execution, carefully, methodically, in anticipating different scenarios.” Democratic legislators and staffers, Axios reports, say that “after Mayorkas walked them through the DHS’ preparations for the potential border surge, they did not feel the administration had reached the level of preparedness needed to carry out the operation successfully by May 23.”

Among the skeptics is Gary Peters (D-Michigan), the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, who said he would “still want to hear more.” While indicating he will defer judgment until he sees the full plan, Peters, according to The Hill, sees Title 42’s repeal as “something that should be revisited and perhaps delayed” until he sees what he regards to be “a well thought out plan.”

The Title 42 debate generated much political commentary over the past week:

  • Frank Sharry of the pro-immigration group America’s Voice told The Hill, “All of a sudden, all these candidates are saying the same thing [Peters] is saying, so clearly it’s coordinated. And they’re basically saying, ‘we can’t trust this administration to defend its plan or to implement it competently. And so we’re gonna need to distance ourselves from the administration on this, because we can’t count on them. That is a real indictment of a failed political strategy, as well as a lack of confidence in their ability to operationalize policy.’”
  • Felipe de la Hoz at the New Republic: “Since taking over, the Biden administration has been extremely skittish about perceptions of chaos at the border, and political opponents are practically salivating at the prospect of long lines or a disorderly-looking processing, which can be shot, edited, and packaged just in time for use in midterm election campaigns.”
  • Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum, at the Daily Beast: “The Biden administration has utterly failed in terms of laying out a clear vision on immigration policy. Right-wing Republicans who seek a return to the Trump/Miller approach have filled the vacuum, leading a growing number of Democrats and reform-minded Republicans to call for Title 42 to remain in place.”
  • Jorge Ramos at Univision: “This enormous immigration wave will create powerful tensions on both sides of the border. We have been warned. I just hope we rise to the challenge and treat the new arrivals with patience, generosity and solidarity.”

Diplomats go to Panama to talk migration

Though it is one of many agenda topics, the high current levels of region-wide migration are likely to be the principal issue discussed when U.S., Canadian, and Latin American leaders convene for the Ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles on June 6-10. This week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken led a U.S. delegation to Panama for a preparatory meeting with 21 foreign ministers from around the region. Blinken and DHS Secretary Mayorkas also held bilateral meetings with officials from Panama, which has seen record levels of migrants passing through its territory.

Blinken described a wide-ranging agenda:

Here in Panama, we talked about some of the most urgent aspects of this issue, including helping stabilize and strengthen communities that are hosting migrants and refugees; creating more legal pathways to reinforce safe, orderly, and humane migration; dealing with the root causes of irregular migration by growing economic opportunity, fighting corruption, increasing citizen security, combating the climate crisis, improving democratic governance that’s responsive to people’s needs.

Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols told reporters that the Summit of the Americas will likely produce a declaration on “migrant protection,” though it is not clear how detailed its commitments will be, the Miami Herald reported. Several U.S. and Latin American organizations, including WOLA, issued a statement calling on governments to develop their regional approach to migration “in consultation with civil society,” prioritizing “respect for migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees through increased protection and complementary legal pathways, humanitarian assistance, and access to justice.”

The White House meanwhile issued a status report this week on its strategy to address the “root causes” of migration in Central America. Among efforts it notes are the encouragement of $1.2 billion in new private investment to create jobs, and the training of more than 5,000 Central America civilian police in calendar year 2021 “on topics such as community policing, investigations, and human rights.”

In Panama City, U.S. and Panamanian officials signed an arrangement to increase cooperation on migration, similar to one signed months ago with Costa Rica. It commits Washington to providing Panama with more resources to provide shelter to migrants arriving from South America, most of them headed toward the U.S. border.

Eastern Panama, near the Colombia border, is sparsely populated and roadless; the treacherous Darién Gap jungles used to be a natural barrier to migration. That is no longer the case: Panamanian migration authorities counted 133,726 migrants making the 60-mile walk through the Darién in 2021, up from a 2010-2019 average of 10,929 per year (and well under 1,000 at the beginning of the decade). Another 13,425 migrants exited the Darién Gap in the first 3 months of 2022. In 2021, a majority of these migrants were Haitian; so far in 2022, Venezuela is the most frequent country of citizenship.

Migrants often report passing through the barely governed Darién as the most harrowing part of their journey to the United States. Assaults, including sexual assaults, are frequent, and many speak of seeing dead bodies along the path.

Secretary Mayorkas paid a visit to the Darién region with Panama’s public security minister, Juan Pino. The Minister, EFE reported, said he explained Panama’s migrant processing procedures: they are “taken to migratory reception stations (ERM), where their biometric data is taken and they are provided with health care and food.” Pino added that “‘Panama is the only country that carries out verifications’ of migrants, which has produced ‘biometric alerts of terrorism and organized crime’” shared with DHS.

Texas governor faces backlash for border tactics

On April 15 the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott (R), lifted onerous cargo vehicle inspections imposed at the state’s border crossings, which had halted most trade between Texas and Mexico for several days. Abbott, a critic of the Biden administration’s border policies, had imposed the stoppage— covered in last week’s Border Update—in response to the imminent lifting of Title 42.

He did so after inking brief agreements with the governors of the four Mexican states that border Texas, who committed to increasing security efforts on their side of the border. Tamaulipas, for instance, agreed to carry out “special operations” along 10 migrant smuggling routes identified by U.S. authorities. Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, reacted strongly to Abbott’s tactics on April 18: “Legally they can do it, but it’s a very despicable way to act… I would say it’s chicanadas (half-baked) antics from the state government.”

Gov. Abbott’s blockade generated a backlash, as it caused financial losses for industries dependent on trade with Mexico. The Texas-based Perryman Group estimated $8.97 billion in losses to the U.S. economy between April 6 and 15, $4.23 billion of it hitting Texas’s gross state product.

Abbott also continued sporadic departures of half-filled buses of asylum-seeking migrants to Washington. These received little notice in the city’s busy downtown, while volunteers helped migrants arrange travel to their final east coast destinations. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who represents El Paso and opposes Abbott’s policies, ironically thanked him in a tweet: “Bussing migrants to D.C. helps get them closer to their final destination and saves their sponsors travel costs. This is one of the most humanitarian policies [Abbott] has ever enacted. I’ll take the poetic justice while we wait for real justice.”

Abbott and other Republican governors remain determined to make border and migration issues a central theme for the 2022 campaign (congressional elections, plus Abbott’s bid for re-election to the Texas governorship). Analysts note that Abbott may have his eye on a 2024 presidential run, which would mean that the intended audience for his recent tactics is Republican primary voters nationwide. “This is all really about 2024. Abbott is worried about being outflanked by DeSantis,” Republican fundraiser Dan Eberhart, who backs Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), told the Washington Post. “Abbott needs to be focused on introducing himself to 2024 primary donors and staying relevant in the party nationally. Picking a fight on immigration keeps him on the news.”

Republican figures have been kicking around the idea of invoking the U.S. Constitution’s “invasion clause” to justify using law enforcement personnel and National Guard troops to block migrants, including asylum seekers. It remains far from clear that governors, rather than the federal government, would have the authority to determine whether migrants constitute an “invasion.” Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) also issued an April 19 press release announcing an “American Governors’ Border Strike Force,” along with 24 other Republican-led non-border states, that would contribute personnel to state border security efforts.

The largest state-government border security campaign has been Abbott’s “Operation Lone Star,” which has spent over $3 billion to build fencing, jail migrants on state trespassing charges, and deploy up to 10,000 National Guardsmen to the border. This operation continues to be troubled:

  • A Houston Chronicle investigation found that Abbott’s “disaster” declaration at the border, which he renews every month, has allowed the state to engage in contracts without a formal solicitation process, which “critics say drive[s] up costs and promote[s] cronyism.”
  • The Texas National Guard has replaced its third top general associated with “Operation Lone Star” since mid-March: “Brig. Gen. Monie Ulis relinquished command of the task force controlling the mission,” Military Times and the Texas Tribune reported.
  • A new analysis by Propublica, the Texas Tribune, and the Marshall Project looked back on 17 years of Texas governors’ border security operations, usually launched in the run-up to elections, none of which appears to have had any lasting impact on security or reduced migration.

Links

  • The latest DHS “Cohort Report” for the revived Remain in Mexico program finds that the agency enrolled 1,444 asylum-seeking migrants into the program in March, up from 896 in February, and returned 900 of them to Mexico, up from 487 in February. Asylum-seekers from Nicaragua have made up 73 percent of all 3,012 “Remain in Mexico” enrollments between December 6 and March 31, followed by Venezuelans (8 percent) and Cubans (7 percent).
  • The Supreme Court will hear arguments on April 26 as the Biden administration challenges a Texas district court judge’s August 2021 ruling ordering it to restart the Trump-era Remain in Mexico program.
  • DHS Secretary Mayorkas will be testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on April 28. Expect many concerned and contentious questions about the end of Title 42 and other border issues.
  • A new report from Human Rights First describes dehumanizing conditions suffered by tens of thousands of asylum seekers who were sent to ICE detention centers during the Biden administration, most of them after turning themselves in to U.S. authorities at the U.S.-Mexico border. “Government data reveals that asylum seekers in ICE detention who established a fear of persecution have been jailed for an average of 10.75 months (326.8 days), as of late-March 2022,” the report reads.
  • According to Mexican government data cited in Milenio, between 2019 and 2021 “1,478 Mexicans died trying to reach the United States in an irregular manner, 308 of them between the ages of 0 and 17.”
  • A Border Patrol vehicle pursuit near Edinburg, Texas, reaching speeds of 100 miles per hour, ended with the death of two people after the driver being pursued lost control and the car rolled over. As our January 15 update noted, Border Patrol stands accused of carrying out high-speed vehicle pursuits with less regard for safety than most other law enforcement agencies.
  • For March, CBP reported month-on-month declines in border-zone seizures of cocaine (-11 percent) and methamphetamine (-22 percent), and increased seizures of heroin (+7 percent) and fentanyl (+55 percent).
  • “Anxiety attacks happen frequently. And nonprofit medical clinics are swamped, attending to broken limbs, pregnancies, rashes and mental trauma,” reports Dianne Solis of the Dallas Morning News from the increasingly crowded and unsafe migrant encampment near the border bridge in the high-crime city of Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas. A quickly-built shelter just opened in Reynosa that can accommodate about 250 parents and children, the Rio Grande Valley Monitor reports. That’s probably only enough to accommodate about a tenth of the people currently packed into the Reynosa square, awaiting Title 42’s end and a chance to request asylum at the port of entry.

Weekly Border Update: April 15, 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:

  • Texas’s Republican governor, an immigration policy hardliner, responded to Title 42’s imminent lifting by imposing onerous cargo inspections at border crossings, snarling trade between Texas and Mexico and causing a supply-chain crisis. Greg Abbott also began sending busloads of released asylum-seeking migrants to Washington, an attempt to use migrants as political props that, in fact, covers the transportation costs—at Texas taxpayers’ expense—of people who intend to pursue their asylum cases in the U.S. east coast.
  • Customs and Border Protection data show the agency processed nearly 10,000 Ukrainian migrants between February 1 and April 6. Because of dysfunction in the U.S. immigration system, the fastest way for Ukrainians to take advantage of the Biden administration’s offer of protection is to arrive in Mexico first and apply for asylum at the U.S. border, mainly San Diego. Several hundred Ukrainians are now taking this route every day, causing a growing backlog in Tijuana.

Texas governor blocks trade, offers free voluntary transport to asylum seekers

The Republican governor of Texas, a critic of the Biden administration’s border and migration policies, put in place two measures at Texas’s border with Mexico that may be generating political blowback for him. In response to the announced May 23 end of the Title 42 pandemic policy—which has expelled migrants, including asylum seekers, from the United States over over 1.7 million times since March 2020—Greg Abbott (R) sent police to impose stringent vehicle inspections on all cargo entering Texas, and sent busloads of asylum-seeking migrants to Washington.

The vehicle inspections have snarled trade along the 13 ports of entry used to ship cargo between 4 Mexican border states and Texas. Calling it one of several “aggressive actions by the State of Texas to secure the border in the wake of President Biden’s decision to end Title 42 expulsions,” Abbott ordered the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) to conduct “safety inspections” of all cargo vehicles. State police installed checkpoints just beyond the ports of entry, where Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel already carry out inspections of entering cargo traffic, forcing Mexican trucks to undergo two separate procedures.

The Texas police have been taking more than 45 minutes to inspect each truck; as of April 13 they had turned nearly a quarter of them back to Mexico, citing defective headlights or taillights, brakes, or tires. The operation “hasn’t intercepted any drugs or immigrants,” DPS Director Steven McCraw said to the Wall Street Journal.

“I know in advance this is going to dramatically slow traffic from Mexico into Texas,” Gov. Abbott said before the operation began. The resulting slowdown has been dramatic, backing thousands of trucks as much as eight miles into Mexico from some ports of entry. The “safety inspections” forced some truckers to wait more than 36 hours to cross, often while carrying perishable products.

Abbott is seeking re-election in November. His Democratic opponent, former congressman Beto O’Rourke, took advantage of the cargo chaos with an event and messaging blaming the Governor for worsening already strained supply chains and contributing to inflation.

The outcry, though, has also come from quarters that rarely criticize tough border policies. A CBP statement made clear that “the longer than average wait times—and the subsequent supply chain disruptions—are unrelated to CBP screening activities and are due to additional and unnecessary inspections being conducted by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) at the order of the Governor of Texas.” Business leaders voiced increasing concern as losses mounted over the week. Texas’s Republican Agriculture Commissioner issued a statement accusing the Governor of “turning a crisis into a catastrophe,” warning that it could “quickly lead to $2.00 lemons, $5.00 avocados and worse.” The governors of Mexico’s four states bordering Texas (Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas) sent Abbott a letter noting, “political points have never been a good recipe to address common challenges or threats.” Texas state legislators representing border districts sent a letter criticizing Abbott for failing to consult local officials.

Cargo traffic came to a total halt early in the week at busy bridges between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, and between Reynosa and Pharr, as Mexican truckers staged protests that blocked vehicle lanes. The Pharr bridge is the busiest cargo crossing in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region, with about 3,000 trucks on a normal day, and the United States’ busiest land port for produce.

Both trucker protests stood down by April 13. That day, organized crime operatives in Reynosa set fire to trucks in an apparent effort to force an end to the protests. All illegal drugs except marijuana cross into the United States mostly through ports of entry, and the blockages were apparently hurting criminal business, too.

On April 13 Abbott held a press conference with the governor of Nuevo León, a Mexican state that shares 9 miles of Mexico’s 1,254-mile border with Texas, including one port of entry. In what appeared to be a face-saving deal, Gov. Samuel Alejandro García agreed to step up security on his state’s side of the border, and Abbott responded by lifting vehicle inspections at Nuevo León’s port of entry. Similar deals were reached with governors of Chihuahua and Coahuila states on April 14. It is not clear how greatly the Mexican governors’ new measures will depart from current practices. As of April 14, no agreement was in place with the government of Tamaulipas, and Abbott’s vehicle inspections continue in southeast Texas’s busy Rio Grande Valley region.

Imports from Mexico to Texas totaled $104 billion—$284 million per day—in the pre-pandemic year of 2019, so the cost of Abbott’s slowdowns has been significant. CBP and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that commercial traffic into Texas dropped by 60 percent. “Just-in-time” supply chains for household goods and car parts have been disrupted, and produce is in danger of spoiling. The inspections have cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to Texas-based Little Bear Produce, a company official told the Washington Post. “It’s at crisis level now,” the president of the Texas International Produce Association told the New York Times.

The other new measure Abbott adopted this week was also of unclear political benefit to the governor. Arguing that Washington should deal with asylum-seeking migrants who get released into the United States, he ordered Texas officials to send some of them on buses to the District of Columbia. At least two buses arrived near the Capitol starting on April 13, dropping off a few dozen migrants outside the building that houses Fox News studios.

The bus trips are voluntary, and many migrants wish to live with relatives or sponsors on the U.S. east coast while pursuing their asylum cases. So in staging a political stunt using migrants as props, Abbott was also doing them a favor, saving them or their relatives hundreds of dollars in transportation fares by having Texas taxpayers foot the bill.

On the morning of April 13, the first bus dropped off 24 migrants from Colombia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, the endpoint of a 30-hour trip from Del Rio, Texas. Many went to nearby Union Station to arrange transportation to other eastern U.S. destinations. “We are very thankful for all the help that has been given to us,” a Venezuelan mother of two told a reporter from the Texas Tribune. “Frankly, we did not have the money to get here otherwise, so we are very thankful for the help.” The White House’s Psaki told reporters, “These are all migrants who have been processed by CBP and are free to travel, so it’s nice the state of Texas is helping them get to their final destination as they await the outcome of their immigration proceedings, and they’re all in immigration proceedings.”

Sister Sharlet Wagner, of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, was on hand to receive the bus; she told CBS news that the migrants’ journey was only sort of voluntary: “they felt it was the only way to get out of Texas. I don’t know how much choice they were given.” Gov. Abbott said the buses, and perhaps charter planes, would continue to arrive in Washington.

This is the latest in a series of hardline border policies that Greg Abbott has imposed. The Governor has spent over $3 billion in Texas funds on fence construction, a National Guard deployment, and an effort to imprison migrants on state trespassing charges. This week’s measures are harder to understand from a purely political point of view. Causing large money-losing delays and giving free rides to asylum seekers may not be going down well with Abbott’s pro-business, anti-immigrant political base as re-election nears.

Ukrainians keep arriving in Tijuana

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data obtained by CBS News show that U.S. border officials processed 9,926 undocumented Ukrainian migrants between February 1 and April 6. (The Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24.) On April 6 alone, CBP processed 767 Ukrainian migrants.

The vast majority have come to ports of entry, rather than trying to cross the Rio Grande or climb the border wall. The 9,926 probably includes many who arrived at airports. In February, only 272 out of the 1,147 undocumented Ukrainians CBP encountered “nationwide” were at the Mexico border, and 17 at the Canadian border.

The same set of statistics obtained by CBS shows 5,207 Russian migrants processed between February 1 and April 6.

Most Ukrainians are arriving in Tijuana. The Biden administration has announced an intention to receive up to 100,000 refugees from Ukraine, often through offers of “humanitarian parole.” So far, though, the most common process by which Ukrainians have been able to take advantage of this offer has been by arriving in Mexico—which does not require visas of visiting Ukrainians—and traveling to the U.S. border. The most established migration route goes to Tijuana and San Diego.

That the Mexico border route is the best approach for Ukrainians seeking refuge in the United States indicates the dysfunction of the backlogged U.S. immigration system. In March, just 12 Ukrainian refugees were resettled in the United States—all of them “likely in the resettlement pipeline before the Russian invasion,” CBS News notes.

The backlog at U.S. ports of entry has caused a backlog of Ukrainian citizens in Tijuana—a city where the Title 42 policy has already contributed to a burgeoning population of protection-seeking migrants from many other countries. “As of a few days ago,” National Public Radio reported on April 13, the main Tijuana shelter set up for Ukrainians awaiting their turn to present at the port of entry “had registered about 10,000 people.”

CBP has effectively given Ukrainians a “fast lane” at the San Ysidro port of entry between Tijuana and San Diego. This has shown a greater ability to process large numbers of migrants than has been common in the past. It has also been controversially selective, surpassing migrants from all other nationalities, who have been waiting weeks or months in Tijuana for a chance to present before authorities. Several hundred Ukrainians are now arriving in Tijuana each day, overwhelming even the increased CBP capacity at the port of entry. What had been a two to three day wait for Ukrainians in Tijuana is beginning to lengthen further.

Other news

  • Republican officials in 21 states have signed on to a lawsuit seeking to block the Biden administration’s plan to end the Title 42 pandemic restriction on asylum seekers at the border.
  • The New York Times published one of the most thorough accounts of the Biden administration’s infighting around border and migration policy, with the President reportedly demanding in March 2021, “Who do I need to fire to fix this?” Disagreements led to delays in developing new rules and procedures to speed asylum processing, which won’t be in place during the anticipated mid-2022 jump in migration at the border.
  • A 32-year-old Mexican woman died painfully, hanging upside down, while attempting to rappel down the border wall near Douglas, Arizona on April 11. Mexican authorities recovered the body of a 52-year-old Nicaraguan man who drowned in the Rio Grande along with his adult son. Luis Alberto Jiménez and his son “are added to about 10 Nicaraguans who have perished in the Rio Grande’s waters during the first three months of 2022,” reports Nicaragua Investiga.
  • Agence France Presse profiled a swim instructor in Estelí, Nicaragua who is giving free lessons to people planning to migrate, so that they might avoid drowning in the Rio Grande. Most of his pupils are single mothers planning to flee with their children.
  • Since Nicaragua dropped visa requirements for migrants from Cuba last November, “The minimum price of a flight to Nicaragua from Cuba is $3,000” and “at least five airplanes a day leave Cuban passengers in Managua, and not infrequently they return empty,” reports the Central American investigative website Expediente Publico.
  • The family of Carmelo Cruz Marcos, a migrant from Puebla, Mexico who was shot to death by a Border Patrol agent, is pushing for an investigation of what happened on the night of February 19 outside Douglas, Arizona. The Border Patrol agent involved said that Cruz, seeking to avoid capture, was about to throw a rock at close range; the agent fired his weapon repeatedly, hitting Cruz four times. Cruz’s family is contemplating a lawsuit, the Tucson Sentinel reports, noting that a Border Patrol Critical Incident Team—a secretive and controversial unit accused of interfering with investigations of agents when alleged abuses occur—was on the scene.
  • Yahoo News obtained a March 16 CBP intelligence document indicating that Border Patrol officials in the Del Rio, Texas sector had reached out to Mexican counterparts for help to “deter migrant traffic,” including asylum seekers, “away from the sector’s overwhelmed ports of entry.” Officials in Coahuila state agreed to set up four “tactical checkpoints” manned by state police. (Coahuila’s state force, known as Fuerza Coahuila, has a troubled human rights record.)
  • Forced displacement is on the rise in Mexico, as fighting between organized crime groups comes to resemble wars, Mary Beth Sheridan reports at the Washington Post. About 20,000 people have fled Michoacán state in the past year, and “thousands more have abandoned their homes in other states like Zacatecas and Guerrero.” Some may seek refuge in the United States after Title 42 is lifted.
  • Longtime Tijuana shelter operator José María García told local media he expects “a new migrant caravan” after Title 42 comes to an end on May 23. He is concerned because shelters “are at 90 percent capacity” already. In Guatemala on April 11, government authorities met to plan responses to a possible post-Title 42 “caravan.”
  • Tijuana is in the midst of a wave of violence with five armed attacks taking place in a 12-hour period on April 9. Meanwhile, KPBS reports that asylum-seeking migrants ejected in February from a tent encampment near the main Tijuana-San Diego port of entry “have been pushed out to dangerous neighborhoods in the outskirts of Tijuana, where they have limited access to jobs, social services and stable housing options.”
  • At the Border Chronicle, Melissa del Bosque accuses Border Patrol union leaders of “echoing the ‘great replacement theory,’ a white-supremacist belief with roots in the French nationalist movement of the early 20th century,” in their media statements.

Weekly Border Update: April 8, 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 CDC’s April 1 decision to end its “Title 42” pandemic order, which would reopen the border once again to asylum-seeking migrants after May 23, was a hotly debated issue in Washington this week. Most Democrats—including those at an April 6 House hearing—hailed the decision. Conservative Democrats, and those facing stiff re-election challenges seven months from now, criticized the Biden administration for a lack of clear planning to manage a likely increase in protection-seeking migrants at the border. A legislative push to prolong Title 42 could complicate big COVID relief legislation moving through Congress.
  • DHS has exempted Ukrainian citizens—and only Ukrainian citizens—from Title 42, allowing them to cross in steadily growing numbers at ports of entry, especially in Tijuana where at least 2,800 are now waiting for a chance to cross to San Diego.
  • The non-governmental watchdog POGO revealed documents pointing to timid oversight at the DHS Inspector-General’s office, even in the face of very grave findings about sexual harassment and domestic abuse among the workforce of the Department’s troubled law-enforcement agencies.

Amid concerns about capacity, Title 42’s end faces political blowback

One of the thorniest political issues in Washington this week surrounded the April 1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) decision to terminate “Title 42,” the pandemic authority allowing even asylum-seeking migrants to be quickly expelled from the U.S.-Mexico border. (See last week’s Border Update for details about that decision.)

Migrants’ rights advocates and progressive Democrats applauded the decision to return to the regular asylum system laid out in U.S. law, after more than two years and 1.7 million expulsions, though some lamented the CDC’s decision to delay Title 42’s end until May 23. Republicans, conservative Democrats, and a few Democratic legislators from conservative states criticized the decision to end the public-health authority. Democratic critics argue that the Biden administration has not yet put in place the planning and processing capacity necessary to avoid forcing migrants into overcrowded and ill-equipped facilities, along with images of politically damaging chaos, once—as most expect—Title 42’s lifting causes a sharp rise in migration.

Even with Title 42 in place, migration numbers are already high; Border Patrol is reporting several daily apprehensions of groups exceeding 100 people at a time. Migrants from countries whose citizens are difficult or costly to expel have hit historic highs. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) apprehended more than 32,000 Cuban citizens in March, according to unpublished figures revealed by the Washington Post. That will almost certainly make Cuba the number-two nationality, after Mexico, of migrants encountered at the border last month. (The sharp increase in Cuban migration owes largely to Nicaragua’s November 2021 decision to suspend visa requirements for Cuban visitors.)

Ricardo Zúniga, the State Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, told the Los Angeles Times to expect an initial decrease in migrant arrivals at the border, as single adults will likely no longer attempt repeat crossings. (WOLA echoed this analysis in a March 31 Q&A document.) After that, though, Zúniga expects numbers to increase, as asylum seekers—especially families—from Mexico and Central America take advantage of the renewed opportunity to ask U.S. officials for protection in the United States.

While there could “very well” be a spike in arrivals at the border after May 23, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told CBS News that the Department is planning and preparing for “different contingencies.” As last week’s Border Update discussed, DHS has formed a “Southwest Border Coordinating Center,” headed by a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) official, to coordinate inter-agency responses. “Having DHS physically in the room with other agencies makes a huge difference,” former Biden immigration adviser Tyler Moran told Vox.

A 16-page March 28 “Southwest Border Strategic Concept of Operations” document signals an intention to increase CBP holding capacity to as much as 25,000-30,000 migrants awaiting processing, nearly double current space. Managing this sort of flow would call for an additional 1,500-2,500 law enforcement officers, the document adds, requiring CBP to borrow personnel from other agencies. “600 additional Border Patrol agents have been deployed and a senior DHS official said the department is prepared to mobilize other officers,” notes an April 1 DHS statement. The Defense Department has agreed to a DHS request to provide additional assistance for at least 90 days, including buses to transport migrants, contracted medical personnel, and perhaps space on military installations to hold and process recently arrived migrants.

An April 4 document from CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus includes a bulleted list of additional steps the agency is taking to prepare for a post-May 23 spike in migrants requiring orderly processing, but as Reuters notes, the list lacks “details about the number of agents being deployed or specific locations for deployments.”

Critics worry that these plans are insufficient, or not specific enough, to handle a big increase in migration. Those outside the government, like humanitarian NGOs and members of Congress, say they’ve received little detailed information about what the plan is, though WOLA is hearing that DHS has begun to reach out to border-area NGOs. “The most important thing will be to know the method for receiving asylum applications once Title 42 is eliminated,” said the official in charge of migrant response for Tijuana’s municipal government, Enrique Lucero. “Let’s hope that this announcement is very clear to see the methodology, because if it must happen in person, it will be chaos at the border, inevitably. But if they do it online, upload their application and they are given their appointment, that will make our job easier, because they would no longer have to travel to the border.”

Citing the lack of a plan, a small but significant number of Democratic legislators has called not for getting CBP to hurry up and install capacity by May 23, but instead for prolonging Title 42, despite the suffering that would cause for asylum seekers. These include conservative Democrats (Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, Rep. Henry Cuéllar of south Texas) and moderate Democrats from conservative states whose vulnerable seats are up for re-election this year (Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona, Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Rep. Vicente González of south Texas).

Five Democratic senators joined six Republicans in sponsoring a bill that would block the CDC from lifting Title 42 until 60 days after the end of the U.S. government’s declared COVID-19 emergency. During those 60 days, DHS would have to submit a plan to address increased migrant arrivals; if it failed to do so, Title 42 would remain in place for 30 more days.

This bill would not be a standalone piece of legislation: the senators expect to attach it to a $10 billion COVID relief package currently on a fast track for congressional approval. While this amendment might have the necessary votes in the 50-50 Senate, its approval in the Democratic-majority House is less certain. Most House Democrats, like those who led the House Homeland Security Committee’s first-ever hearing on Title 42, on April 6, have strongly supported terminating the pandemic expulsions provision and restoring asylum.

Already, Senate Republicans blocked an effort to push through the COVID relief bill before this weekend, when Congress begins a 2-week recess—an express step that would have required all 100 senators’ consent—by demanding that the process include amendments, including one to preserve Title 42.

Republicans are gearing up to make post-Title 42 migration a top issue in their campaigning for 2022 elections. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a fierce Biden critic who is up for re-election this year, held an April 6 news conference announcing a further hardening of state-government border measures in response to the CDC announcement. Abbott plans to step up “safety inspections” of cargo coming across the border from Mexico, even though it would “ dramatically slow” vehicle traffic coming from border ports of entry.

The governor also announced an intention to put asylum-seeking migrants, upon their release from CBP custody, on buses going directly to Washington, DC. As that would technically constitute kidnapping across state lines, the governor’s office revised this proposal to clarify that it is “voluntary.” If this proposal goes forward, Gov. Abbott would ironically be doing a favor for migrants whose relatives, support networks, and immigration court dates are on the U.S. east coast: by paying their way to Washington, Texas taxpayers would be saving migrants and their families hundreds of dollars in transportation costs that they would otherwise have to pay themselves. “I think that would be good if they ask the migrants, ‘are you going to the East Coast? So, yes? Great!’” said Sr. Norma Pimentel of Rio Grande Valley Catholic Charities.

Gov. Abbott has used state funds to deploy about 10,000 Texas state National Guardsmen to respond to increased migration, about 6,500 of them physically at the border. The governor announced plans to send riot gear and concertina wire, and to have guardsmen hold “mass migration rehearsals,” in preparation for a foreseen post-Title 42 migration increase.

Meanwhile, though, Abbott’s military deployment is running out of money. Stars and Stripes reported that the Governor’s $3.9 billion “Operation Lone Star” state border security effort, which includes the National Guard presence, will be out of funding by May 1. “The Guard would need about $531 million to maintain its current force at the border through the end of the fiscal year in Texas, which is Aug. 31,” Texas State Adjutant General Thomas Suelzer told a Texas State Senate committee. Gen. Suelzer expects to begin reducing the troop footprint soon.

Ukrainian migrants are arriving in ever-greater numbers

The Biden administration announced in March that the U.S. government would accept 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion “through the full range of legal pathways.” It has not, however, revealed details about how this will work. Mexico, meanwhile, does not require visas of Ukrainian tourists—they can legally remain in the country for 180 days—so thousands have been arriving by air. They then seek to cross into the United States, where DHS appears to be granting humanitarian parole to most of them.

CBP is processing Ukrainians at ports of entry, but has not built capacity to handle more than a few hundred per day. As a result, the Ukrainian population in Mexico’s border cities is growing fast. This is especially the case in Tijuana, where most are arriving, though we are now hearing about arrivals in Ciudad Juárez and, anecdotally, in Reynosa.

“More than 2,000 Ukrainians have made their way to the U.S. border from Mexico over the past 10 days,” up from 50 a week earlier, the New York Times reported on April 6. Local media reported 2,800 in Tijuana alone on April 8.

At first, Ukrainians in Tijuana gathered near a small bus stop by the San Ysidro port of entry leading to San Diego, the border’s busiest official crossing, as they waited a turn to petition CBP personnel for protection. Tijuana’s municipal government opened up a nearby athletic facility, which about 1,800 are now using as a shelter. (It is the same facility where participants in a highly publicized “migrant caravan” first gathered in late 2018.)

CBP has slowly but steadily increased its capacity to receive and process the arriving Ukrainians. Earlier this week, the port of entry was only taking about 200 people per day; the number now able to cross, according to local authorities, is about 400-600 per day. In a scene familiar to those who’ve worked with asylum-seeking migrants in Tijuana in the past, migrants organized their own “waitlist” to approach the port of entry, using a yellow legal pad. (Volunteers assisting the migrants have since computerized this waitlist.)

The Ukrainians’ ability to approach the port of entry is a giant exception to Title 42, which has closed the ports to all other nations’ undocumented, protection-seeking migrants. Cities like Tijuana are full of migrants from numerous countries—including Russia—waiting for Title 42 to end so that they, too, might approach the port and ask for asylum or other protection.

Many of those blocked migrants are seriously threatened, but the vast majority are non-European, a fact that gives rise to allegations of racism. While she applauds the decision to welcome Ukrainian refugees, Blaine Bookey of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at University of California Hastings, who has been assisting Ukrainians in Tijuana, told the New York Times, “There is no way to look at what’s happening at the southern border other than along racial lines.”

DHS Inspector-General suppressed information about sexual harassment and domestic violence in the workforce

The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) obtained documents from the DHS Office of Inspector-General (OIG) indicating that the agency’s independent watchdog has been suppressing, delaying, and watering down information about serious patterns of sexual harassment and domestic abuse within the Department’s law enforcement agencies.

Past weekly Border Updates have recorded numerous allegations of improper use of force, racist messaging, mistreatment of migrants, and other indicators of serious organizational culture issues within agencies like CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). These concerns call for strong internal oversight controls—but POGO’s findings indicate that those controls, at least at the OIG, are weak.

The POGO report, “Protecting the Predators at DHS,” is a worthwhile read with some shocking findings, as is the New York Times’s April 7 coverage of the report. Some key points include:

  • A 2018 OIG survey found that more than 10,000 CBP, ICE, Secret Service, and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees had experienced sexual harassment or sexual misconduct at work. That is more than a third of the 28,000 survey respondents. Of these, 78 percent said they did not report the incident, often out of a belief that doing so would derail their careers. Examples included “surreptitious videotaping in bathrooms, unwelcome sexual advances and inappropriate sexual comments.” The survey was part of an OIG report for which fieldwork ended two and a half years ago, in October 2019—but the report has still not seen the light of day.
  • Of 1,800 sexual harassment cases within the Department, 445 were at ICE and 382 were at CBP.
  • The unpublished OIG report found that DHS agencies paid 21 employees nearly $1 million in settlements from sexual harassment-related complaints over six years, but there are few records of any investigations or disciplinary actions against the aggressors. One victim received a $255,000 payout. Senior officials at the OIG objected to mentioning these settlements in the as-yet unpublished report.
  • The unpublished OIG report notes that “women made up only 5 percent of CBP’s Border Patrol workforce,” well below the federal law enforcement average of 15 percent.
  • Another OIG report, published in 2020, covered DHS law-enforcement personnel found to have committed domestic violence when off duty. Inspector-General Joseph Cuffari and his staff pushed to withhold many key findings that had appeared in this report’s earlier drafts. Initially, the report found that agents who committed domestic abuse received “little to no discipline.” In an internal memo, Cuffari ordered that removed, calling it “second-guessing D.H.S. disciplinary decisions without full facts.” This language is troubling, as second-guessing disciplinary decisions is something that inspectors-general are often compelled to do.
  • Employing law enforcement personnel with a demonstrated propensity for abusing domestic partners and family members places at risk the other populations these personnel might encounter, like migrants. “It raises questions about someone’s fitness for the job if they abuse someone they have committed their life to,” James Wong, a former CBP deputy assistant commissioner for internal affairs, told POGO. “How are they going to treat a total stranger they have no relationship with? Who’s going to stop them?” The OIG report’s draft had raised concerns that allowing these agents to keep their weapons “put[s] victims and the public at risk of further violence,” but Cuffari ordered that language removed for risk of “appearing biased.”

POGO, a non-governmental watchdog group, has published past reports and allegations critical of Cuffari, whom Donald Trump named to the DHS Inspector-General post in 2019. “The suppressed DHS watchdog reports on sexual misconduct and domestic violence are part of a pattern where Cuffari has appeared unwilling to oversee his department as an independent watchdog,” POGO’s report contends. “Sadly, Cuffari himself has an undeniable pattern of removing significant facts and evidence from major reports. As a result of this pattern, his independence and impartiality are in question.”

In other CBP accountability news:

  • NBC reported an October 2021 letter from a National Archives and Records Administration official voicing strong concern about Border Patrol agents’ and CBP officers’ use of Wickr, an Amazon-owned encrypted messaging app that automatically deletes messages. CBP has spent more than $1.6 million on Wickr subscriptions for its personnel since 2020. “This has had real consequences for accountability by impeding investigations and oversight of the agency’s activities,” said Nikhel Sus of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which has filed a lawsuit against CBP to obtain records about the agency’s implementation of Wickr.
  • On April 4, border-district Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona) and Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) sent a letter to CBP Commissioner Magnus “urging him to implement measures that would increase accountability and transparency within the agency.” Four other House Democrats, including two whose districts touch the border, joined the letter, which includes a long list of issues and steps that the agency should address in order to treat “migrants, border community residents, and all others who encounter CBP with dignity and respect.”

Links

  • WOLA published two resources this week. Adam Isacson of the Defense Oversight program reflected, based on recent fieldwork in Tamaulipas, Mexico, on how current policies directly benefit Mexican organized crime. Kristen Martínez-Gugerli of the Venezuela program gave an overview of recent Venezuelan migration, including Mexico’s recent reinstatement of visa requirements and increasing travel through Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap.
  • Colombian authorities told Camilo Montoya-Galvez of CBS News that the United States has expelled or removed 1,800 Colombian migrants by air since a flight program intensified in early March. The latest monthly flight-monitoring report from Witness at the Border counted 10 U.S. expulsion or removal flights to Bogotá during March—up from 2 in February—with 9 of them occurring between March 11 and 31.
  • Citing UN Migration Agency data, Montoya-Galvez also found that U.S. authorities had sent 1,958 asylum seekers across the border into Mexico under the “Remain in Mexico” program, which restarted under a Texas federal court’s order in early December. (That number, up from less than 900 at the end of February, could be too high, as it may double-count those who return to Mexico after their initial U.S. hearings.) “A senior DHS official said the US will enroll more migrants in the program once Title 42 is lifted,” Montoya-Galvez added.
  • As of April 3, CBP had apprehended an average of 346 unaccompanied children per day at the U.S.-Mexico border during the previous 30 days, and was holding 436 in short-term custody. Another 10,326 children were in shelters managed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). While a historically high number, this is much fewer unaccompanied kids than a year ago. On April 2, 2021, the 30-day average was 505 apprehensions, 5,381 children were in CBP custody, and 13,359 were in ORR shelters.
  • At Texas Monthly, James Dobbins profiles “Patriots for America,” a heavily armed far-right militia group that has been patrolling the border with the support, or at least the toleration, of authorities in Kinney County, Texas.
  • The Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and State held a “Smuggling Roundtable” in Mexico on April 4-5, with counterparts from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. A Justice Department release offers little detail about what the event achieved. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meanwhile, will visit Panama within two and a half weeks for a meeting with regional foreign ministers to discuss migration.
  • 72 Ecuadorian migrants have disappeared in Mexico or the United States during their northward journeys between 2019 and 2021, according to a BBC report. The actual number is likely greater: 72 is only the number of disappearances reported to Ecuadorian authorities.
  • Expediente Publico counts 284,000 Nicaraguans—about 4 percent of the country’s population—who have fled to other countries since a vicious government crackdown on protesters in 2018. The main destinations are the United States and Costa Rica, with others going to Spain, Panama, and Mexico.
  • Ursula Roldán, a migration expert at Guatemala’s Rafael Landivar University, told Reuters that U.S. deportations of Guatemalans have dropped even as Guatemalan emigration continues at high levels. “It’s not that people aren’t trying to leave Guatemala. It’s that the containment is in Mexico, at the southern and northern borders. That’s where the problem is building.”
  • Mexican migration agents and National Guard personnel confronted, then broke up a migrant caravan in the southern state of Chiapas, apprehending 701 people including 126 women and 75 children. The group included citizens of Haiti, Venezuela, Cuba, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Brazil, Chile, Dominican Republic, Senegal, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Argentina, Uruguay, Bangladesh, Peru, and Mauritania. This caravan was the latest edition of the “Migrant Via Crucis,” an annual event begun by Mexico-Guatemala border zone advocacy groups to draw attention to migrants’ plight in the weeks before Easter. The 2018 Migrant Via Crucis became a fixture on Fox News and an obsession of then-president Donald Trump.

Another rough year for humanitarian work in Brooks County, near the border in south Texas

“Last year there were 119 skeletal remains and bodies recovered in Brooks County. This year we’re already up to 20, and spring has just started. We haven’t even hit summer yet.”

That’s Eddie Canales, founder of the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias, Texas, interviewed by Melissa del Bosque at the Border Chronicle. (Hear a podcast I recorded with Eddie back in 2020.) Falfurrias, about 80 miles north of McAllen and the border, is where Border Patrol has a highway checkpoint. Migrants are instructed to get out of their vehicles and walk around the checkpoint, miles through the dry, flat ranchland of Brooks County (population 7,000). Every year, dozens die of dehydration and exposure.

Canales and his staff of mostly volunteers put out water stations and work with Texas State University forensic experts to help identify bodies. Since most land in south Texas is in private hands, he has to negotiate with ranchers to place the water stations—barrels full of water jugs. He tells Del Bosque where stations are needed, and names the Big Bend region, 500 miles to the west—a very remote area that, until very very recently, saw very few migrants.

Right now, we’ve got about 175 water stations, and we need a lot more. I’d like to set up more on the east side of Brooks County if I can get ranchers to agree to it. I’d also like to set up water stations in the Big Bend sector, where a lot of migration has shifted. The cartels have warehouses of people in Ojinaga, [a border town in Mexico near Big Bend] and are trying to get people through.

Del Bosque asks Canales about some ranchers’ argument that the water stations draw migrants to cross. He responds:

I don’t think that that bears out. The trail is created by the guides and coyotes. The water ends up being for stragglers, for people who are ill or who have gotten lost. Groups get chased and scattered by Border Patrol when they’re trying to apprehend them. Many get lost that way and die. I think it’s not a question of attracting more. It comes down to a question of trying to save lives and mitigating the suffering. It’s not aiding and abetting. It’s humanitarian aid.

In some recent years, Brooks County has led all other parts of the border in recovered human remains—and it’s more than an hour’s drive from the border. Eddie Canales sounds frustrated about the system that keeps sending migrants to their deaths, and pessimistic about what is to come.

As long as people already in this country are saying there’s plenty of work, people are going to keep coming. And, you know, decision makers could create more temporary work visas and other programs to regularize migration, but I think they’ll just keep the conditions that exist. And, you know, let people try to get through as best they can. And let the Border Patrol try to catch them, and then yell and scream that the border is unprotected.

[Del Bosque:] Does that mean that the deaths are going to go up in Brooks County?

Yes, I believe so.

It’s a great interview and a worthy newsletter. Read it here.

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: April 1, 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.

Title 42 may end in late May

Every 60 days, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) must decide whether to renew or terminate the “Title 42” pandemic border provision, which has allowed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to expel undocumented migrants quickly from the U.S.-Mexico border without affording them a chance to seek asylum.

The most recent 60-day period expired on Wednesday, March 30. At mid-day on April 1, the CDC published its order. Title 42 is to be terminated and phased out by May 23.

This decision is unsurprising in the face of public health data pointing to a waning pandemic, including very low positivity rates for migrants currently arriving at the border and in 91 percent of U.S. border counties, making the pandemic authority’s continued use difficult to justify. A blistering March 23 article in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded, “The rationale behind the Title 42 order not only is unsupported by evidence but also, in some respects, is blatantly false.” Biden administration officials continue to indicate that they will abide by whatever the CDC decides.

WOLA published a March 31 overview of what might happen after Title 42’s late-May repeal. “This return to normal U.S. asylum law will bring an end to a policy that has placed tens of thousands of people in harm’s way in Mexican border cities,” it finds—but DHS will need to adjust nimbly and surge resources to the border in order to avoid chaos and overcrowding. WOLA’s analysis expects already-high levels of migration to increase further in the weeks or months up to and after Title 42’s lifting: though arrivals of single adults may decline, families’ numbers will increase, especially those from the four countries subject to 98 percent of today’s Title 42 expulsions: Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. WOLA’s overview voices concern that DHS preparations so far are insufficient to process a large flow of protection-seeking migrants in an orderly way.

As usually happens in spring—and especially during a worldwide increase in pandemic-spurred migration—arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border are already heavy. Border Patrol Chief Raúl Ortiz told this week’s “Border Security Expo” convention that March migrant encounters are likely to reach 200,000, a monthly threshold crossed only a few times in this century. In a March 29 call with reporters, unnamed DHS officials said that personnel are currently encountering about 7,101 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border each day, up from 5,900 per day in February. Facilities in Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector, which straddles the Arizona-California border and has been a major destination for non-Mexican and non-Central American migrants, are at nearly 300 percent of capacity, and the Del Rio, Texas Sector is also “maxed out,” the Washington Post reported.

When Title 42 ceases, officials expect migration to increase still further. DHS personnel on the March 29 press call said they are preparing for scenarios of 12,000 migrants per day and 18,000 migrants per day. That latter figure adds up to 540,000 per month, nearly 2 1/2 times the largest monthly number Border Patrol has ever publicly reported. Officials caution that these are planning scenarios, not projections or predictions.

A DHS official told reporters that 30,000 to 60,000 migrants currently in northern Mexico are in “wait and see” mode, and “could seek entry within hours” of a Title 42 repeal, CNN reported. An “official familiar with the planning” told the New York Times that a post-Title 42 jump in border crossings “would likely last a few weeks.”

Chaos and overcrowding at U.S. border facilities would not only create a humanitarian crisis, but would create images that immigration hardliners who are skeptical of asylum would use as political fodder to attack the Biden administration in the runup to November’s hotly contested congressional elections. Officials have laid out a series of steps they are taking, or plan to take, ahead of Title 42’s likely late-May lifting. It remains to be seen whether these steps will be enough. They include the following.

Physical infrastructure to receive protection-seeking migrants: “CBP’s [U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s] processing capacity will be determinative,” a recent Migration Policy Institute report points out. “Officials will need to be able to quickly transport migrants to Border Patrol stations or processing centers and efficiently register migrants’ information and move them along, while maintaining safe and humane conditions.” That has been a problem in the past: recent years’ mass arrivals at the border have come with disturbing imagery of families and children packed for days or weeks in overcrowded Border Patrol facilities, or even under bridges near border crossings.

Right now, CBS News reports, CBP’s short-term processing facilities can hold about 16,000 migrants at a time. “But the government would need to expand CBP’s holding capacity to accommodate between 25,000 and 30,000 migrants in U.S. custody on any given day if the worst case scenarios materialize,” according to a DHS “Southwest Border Strategic Concept of Operations” document.

The planned DHS response is to expand capacity at “soft-sided” migrant processing facilities (the term means “comprised of big tents”) in Yuma, Del Rio, and Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. A longer-term plan, using 2022 appropriations, would build more permanent multi-agency “joint processing centers” for this purpose, but those won’t be online in the immediate post-Title 42 period.

DHS is also reportedly signing contracts for transportation of migrants needing processing, which could double the current capacity of about 5,000 migrants by land and 350 by air each day.

Personnel to staff these facilities: The processing of protection-seeking migrants continues to rely heavily on armed, uniformed Border Patrol agents. A big jump in migration will create an urgent need for additional personnel. Border Patrol has “detailed 350 additional Border Patrol agents to assist at the U.S. southern border and another 150 agents are helping with processing remotely,” according to CNN. A DHS strategic planning scenario cited by CBS News foresees augmenting that with “up to 2,500 law enforcement officers, 2,750 support staff and more than 1,000 medical personnel to the U.S.-Mexico border.”

Involving FEMA and setting up a coordination center: DHS has set up a “Southwest Border Coordination Center (SBCC)” that, a March 30 Department fact sheet notes, will “coordinate planning, operations, engagement, and interagency support” during a post-Title 42 increase in migration. On March 18 DHS named a senior official of its Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), MaryAnn Tierney, to head the SBCC. FEMA “is currently providing ‘technical assistance’ to border authorities, but has not deployed personnel to the southern border,” CBS News reported.

Vaccinating migrants in custody: On March 28 DHS began offering COVID-19 vaccines to migrants in custody who cannot show proof of vaccination. CBP plans cited by CBS news call for expanding vaccinations from a current rate of 2,700 daily doses to 6,000 per day by the end of May. Asylum seekers who refuse vaccines and cannot be detained will be released with monitoring devices and “stringent conditions” on their movements, the New York Times reported. The Times added that “President Biden’s domestic policy adviser, Susan Rice, has privately raised concerns that it would provide an incentive for more undocumented migrants to try to cross the border,” an argument that has lost relevance as U.S. vaccination rates have slipped below those of many Latin American countries.

New asylum rules: Regulations published March 29, to begin taking effect around May 28, will seek to speed up asylum adjudication by giving asylum officers the ability to decide claims, and by reducing timeframes at key steps in the process. Advocates like the American Immigration Council voice concerns that the sped-up procedures could harm asylum seekers’ due process and ability to obtain legal representation. Either way, the new rules will be rolled out slowly and may have little impact on the ability to process a post-Title 42 wave of asylum seekers.

The Migration Policy Institute, which developed a proposal on which the new rules are based, notes that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which employs asylum officers, would also have to expand dramatically: “As of March 2021, USCIS employed 785 asylum officers; the new rule predicts the agency will need to hire between 794 and 4,647 new officers and staff to process between 75,000 and 300,000 cases annually.”

Budget needs: In order to meet post-Title 42 asylum processing and adjudication needs, the Biden administration may need more money. The 2022 Homeland Security appropriation, signed into law as part of the federal budget on March 15, “would not be sufficient to fund the potential resource requirements associated with the current increase in migrant flows,” the DHS fact sheet warns. The Department says it will need to reallocate and reprioritize funds, and perhaps resort to “engaging with Congress on any potential need for supplemental appropriations.”

With Title 42 set to end in as little as seven weeks, it’s not clear whether these announced preparations will come in time, or be sufficient, to avoid disorder and overcrowding at the border. “There have been no major changes to how migrants are processed at the U.S.-Mexico border and no increase in holding facilities for them,” the Associated Press warns. “The immigration court backlog continues to soar to more than 1.7 million cases.”

The Biden administration’s conservative critics foresee a mess at the border. Noting that processing can take hours per person, the head of the Border Patrol employees’ union, Brandon Judd, told the New York Times, “There’s no way we’re prepared to deal with what’s coming. We’re going to see complete chaos.” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters, “Border Patrol agents told me they expect a tsunami of humans to come across the border and the Border Patrol has said they will lose control entirely.”

Most congressional Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, have been calling for Title 42’s end for a while. However, a handful of centrist and conservative Democrats, arguing that DHS is not ready to deal with an increased migration flow, have joined Republican calls to keep Title 42 in place for now. These include Texas border-district Reps. Vicente González and Henry Cuéllar, who signed a letter, along with all Republican members of Texas’s congressional delegation, calling to keep Title 42 in place because “DHS appears unprepared to handle a likely unprecedented increase in apprehensions along the southwest border.” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) sent a letter to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky warning, “now is not the time to throw caution to the wind.” The Senator later told CNN, “Oh my goodness. Just watch the news y’all put out every day, what’s coming across.”

Arizona’s two moderate Democratic senators, Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, wrote a March 24 letter making similar arguments to keep Title 42 in place until DHS is “completely ready to implement and coordinate a comprehensive plan.” Two prominent Arizona-based legal and humanitarian organizations, the Kino Border Initiative and the Florence Project, responded in a March 25 letter: “We agree with Senators Sinema and Kelly that the Biden administration should have an ascertainable plan to end Title 42 safely and humanely and should have begun coordinating with service providers months ago. However, there is little to be gained by continuing this policy to put a plan in place when federal agencies have already had over two years to plan for an end to what was supposed to be a short-term emergency measure.”

Many groups defending migrants’ rights are unhappy with Title 42 remaining in force until May 23, arguing that it should end immediately. “We have clients in crisis right now seeking asylum at the border who are sick or who have already been kidnapped and tortured in Mexico,” Jessica Riley of the south Texas-based Project Corazón told the New York Times.

Mexican border cities remain hazardous for those made to “Remain in Mexico”

Two reports BuzzFeed published this week point to dangerous and inhumane conditions suffered by asylum-seeking migrants who have been sent into Mexican border cities to await their U.S. asylum hearings, under the court-ordered revival of the “Remain in Mexico” program. Many are in substandard shelters, some have disappeared, and insecurity has forced DHS to suspend Remain in Mexico enrollments in one border city.

Between December and February, the Biden administration had complied with a Texas court’s order by sending nearly 900 single adults across into Mexico with orders to report at U.S. border crossings for asylum hearings. Unlike the Remain in Mexico program pioneered by the Trump administration, this iteration is meant to come with assistance for Mexican migrant shelters accommodating migrants made to “remain.” That aid is administered by the State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees, and Migration.

Despite that promised improvement, BuzzFeed found that conditions in these shelters fall short of the “safe and secure” standard foreseen in the Remain in Mexico program’s reboot, and in fact make it difficult for asylum seekers to obtain counsel and prepare their U.S. immigration court cases.

BuzzFeed reporters Adolfo Flores and Hamed Aleaziz cite letters from two legal aid organizations that have been trying to work with migrants enrolled in Remain in Mexico, the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) and the Vera Institute of Justice. Both organizations found their ability to communicate with clients restricted by “perceived threats from the shelter staff, safety concerns, lack of or limited availability of Wi-Fi connections, and restricted access to personal phones.” In San Diego, immigrants told Vera that when they go to attend their U.S. hearings, their shelter space “is not guaranteed upon return.”

Security concerns abound as well. In Ciudad Juarez, many migrants subject to Remain in Mexico  are staying in a large shelter run by Mexico’s federal government. There, a man who had been expelled under Title 42 was found dead on March 7, but his death had gone “unnoticed anywhere from more than 24 hours to up to three days.” ProBAR cites a shelter from which three migrants under Remain in Mexico left on an errand, were kidnapped, and have since missed their U.S. hearings. Two women disappeared from another shelter after leaving to purchase medicine on February 24; when migrants asked shelter operators to call police, “the staff refused, saying they didn’t trust authorities.” (A San Antonio television station this week profiled a gay Ecuadorian asylum seeker, enrolled in the Trump-era Remain in Mexico, whose case remains in limbo because he missed his U.S. court date while kidnapped.)

“Perhaps both governments created too high expectations when announcing MPP 2.0 and how it would work because these are civil society shelters and they struggle a lot,” James MaGillivray of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Mexico office told BuzzFeed. “Even if they receive support from us and other NGOs and US agencies, at the end of the day… they’re going to keep struggling.”

BuzzFeed also obtained a March 18 email from a State Department official strongly advising DHS to pause Remain in Mexico enrollments in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, across from Laredo, Texas. There, as WOLA’s March 18 Border Update noted, Mexican authorities arrested and extradited the city’s maximum organized crime figure, Juan Gerardo Treviño, alias “El Huevo” (“The Egg”), on March 14. The arrest triggered days of violence around the city, including cartel gunmen firing on, and lobbing grenades at, the U.S. Consulate. Migrants enrolled in Remain in Mexico from Laredo have the option of being transported to the somewhat safer city of Monterrey, a few hours south of Nuevo Laredo. Even that is currently unsafe, the State Department email finds, as “immigrants escorted in the area under the protection of the Mexican National Guard were attracting a lot of attention, which could put them in the crosshairs of criminal networks angry with the government,” BuzzFeed reported.

2023 budget request is out

On March 28, less than two weeks after the 2022 federal budget finally became law, the White House sent to Congress its budget request for fiscal 2023. This includes $56.7 billion in discretionary funding for the Department of Homeland Security next year, up $2.9 billion from 2022.

Key documents include the White House’s overall budget proposal and Appendix for Homeland Security, and the lengthy “Budget Justification” documents for each individual DHS agency.

While WOLA staff have not yet been able to do a “deep dive” into these documents, the following border-related elements stand out to us.

  • CBP’s budget would be $17.45 billion, up from $15.95 billion in 2022. That would be enough to fund 65,621 positions.
  • No new money would go to border barrier construction. However, “CBP is moving forward with some activities necessary to address life, safety, environmental, and remediation requirements, and is conducting robust planning (including environmental planning) and stakeholder engagement related to future/ongoing border wall projects.”
  • Over $1 billion would go to new border security technologies.
  • CBP would receive funding to hire 300 new Border Patrol agents and 300 new Border Patrol Processing Coordinators—non-law-enforcement personnel who assist with processing recently arrived migrants, particularly asylum seekers.
  • The proposal calls for $765 million for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), up from $250 million in 2022, to help the agency, among other purposes, “efficiently process increasing asylum caseloads.”
  • $375 million would go to implementing the Biden administration’s new asylum rule.
  • $494 million would go to “processing and care costs” for migrants apprehended at the border.
  • The DHS Inspector-General would see a budget increase from $220 million in 2022 to $233 million in 2023.
  • $20 million would go to the Family Reunification Task Force, which continues to seek to locate parents of children separated by the Trump administration’s so-called “Zero Tolerance” policy.
  • Holding adult migrants in detention centers will cost Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) $148.62 per day per detention bed, with a request to fund 9,000 fewer beds than in 2022.
  • The Justice Department request asks for $1.4 billion for the immigration court system, up $621 million from 2021, to address the system’s giant backlog of 1.7 million cases. This includes funds to hire 100 new immigration judges. On March 25, Justice announced the hiring of 25 new immigration judges. As of January, the system had 578 judges.

The CBP Budget Justification also includes some notable statistics among its performance measures.

  • CBP reports that 26.6 percent of migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2021 were “encountered multiple times.” That is up from less than 11 percent in the years just before the pandemic. The average number of repeat encounters was 3.14.
  • Border Patrol estimates that it apprehended 82.6 percent of all migrants who attempted to cross undocumented into the United States. That is the second-highest “interdiction effectiveness rate” reported in the five-year 2017-2021 period.
  • Joint operations conducted “by Border Patrol agents and Mexican law enforcement partners” declined to 22 in 2021, from 43 in 2018.

Links

  • “For many years, Cubans began their journey to the U.S. border in South America,” notes a new WOLA commentary on migration from Cuba. “Things changed in November 2021, when Nicaragua lifted visa requirements for Cuban nationals, opening a new, and shorter, path to reach the U.S.”
  • Beyond the Bridge,” a new report by Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and the Haitian Bridge Alliance, documents examples of U.S. and Mexican personnel abusing and mistreating Haitian migrants during and after a large-scale migration event in Del Rio, Texas last September.
  • The U.S. government had used Title 42 to expel 600 Colombian migrants on 6 flights to Colombia during the first 4 weeks of March, CBS News reporter Camilo Montoya-Gálveztweeted, citing the head of Colombia’s migration agency.
  • In early February, Tijuana authorities evacuated and bulldozed a year-old tent encampment by the port of entry to San Diego, at which several hundred migrants had been living as they awaited a post-Title 42 opportunity to seek asylum. (See WOLA’s February 11 Border Update.) Almost two months later, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported, the people who lived in the encampment “have scattered.” Some are in shelters, some are living elsewhere in the city, some have crossed irregularly into the United States, and some are still living in tents.
  • In Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas, the busiest Mexico-Guatemala border crossing (near Tapachula), migrants continue to protest the slow pace of immigration officials’ processing of their status requests. Milenio notes that the Suchiate River, which separates Mexico from Guatemala here, is currently only two feet (60cm) deep at its deepest point.
  • At VICE, Nathaniel Janowitz reports on the proliferation of .50-caliber sniper rifles in Mexico, smuggled across the border after being purchased at U.S. gun shops. No U.S. federal law expressly prohibits trafficking in firearms.
  • VICE also reported about a “secret deal with Mexican officials” that allowed 35 Russian asylum seekers to cross from Tijuana to San Diego “under cover of night” at “a checkpoint that has been closed to the public for several months.” This allowed the Russian individuals to cross ahead of migrants from other nationalities who have been waiting for the chance to ask for asylum at the U.S. port of entry, which remains closed to asylum seekers, with rare exceptions, due to Title 42.
  • Bethesda Magazine published an interesting feature about Central American children who arrived at the border unaccompanied and are now trying to adjust to life and school in Montgomery County, in suburban Washington, DC, which  has one of the United States’ largest numbers of unaccompanied minors who have been released to sponsors.
  • In a new book Will Hurd, who represented a west Texas border district in Congress, tells of taking other Republican representatives to visit the border: “Some were nervous when I took them into Mexico. Many were expecting the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, with shootouts in the streets like Black Hawk Down.”

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: March 25, 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.

The spring migration increase is underway

Weekly Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data shared with the Washington Post point to the agency being on pace to encounter undocumented migrants more than 200,000 times at the U.S.-Mexico border by the end of March. That is a threshold that CBP crossed in July (213,593) and August (209,840) of 2021. Arrivals dropped moderately after that, reaching 154,745 in January. March 2021, Joe Biden’s second full month in office, saw 173,277 migrant encounters.

“An internal email sent to senior ICE officials in recent days warned that authorities are bracing for a ‘mass migration event,'” the Post reported, “and urged closer coordination with charities and nongovernmental groups that can help shelter and transport migrants after they are released.”

As in recent months, many migrants are arriving in Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, in rural mid-Texas. Del Rio was number one in migrant encounters among the agency’s nine U.S.-Mexico border sectors in January, and second in February. As of late 2020, there were 1,504 Border Patrol agents stationed in Del Rio, 6th among the 9 sectors. Border Patrol has just one temporary place-a tent compound in Eagle Pass, Texas-to hold and process apprehended migrants in Del Rio, other than its stations’ small holding cells.

“6 days in a row, DRT [Del Rio sector] agents are faced with large groups turning themselves in, over 700 migrants,” tweeted Border Patrol Chief Raúl Ortiz. “These type of encounters are exhausting our resources & manpower.” The sector chief reported 2,565 migrant encounters over the March 19-20 weekend, including four large groups turning themselves in to agents on March 18, 20, and 21.

Those four groups, totaling 485 people, were notable for their nationalities. Smugglers grouped together migrants from 17 countries, but only 2 out of the 485 individuals were from Mexico or Central America’s “Northern Triangle” (Honduras, in this case)-the countries that made up more than 90 percent of all apprehended migrants as recently as 2019 (and more than 95 percent in the years just before that). The rest were from countries, from Colombia to Cuba to Venezuela to several African nations, to which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cannot easily expel migrants using the Title 42 pandemic authority, due to distance or poor diplomatic relations.

The Washington Post reported that CBP is currently holding more than 15,000 migrants per day in short-term custody, up from fewer than 7,500 per day in February. Even after more than a year of consistently high migration numbers, the agency has permanent and temporary facilities able to hold and process only 5,200 migrants, plus the small holding cells at Border Patrol stations. Those processing facilities, mostly tents, are in Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley, Del Rio, El Paso, Tucson and Yuma sectors.

The capacity to process protection-seeking migrants-checking backgrounds and health status, gathering biometric data, starting asylum processes-is essential, especially if the COVID pandemic’s ebb brings an end to Title 42 expulsions. The 2022 Homeland Security appropriation, which finally became law on March 15, includes $200 million to build two permanent processing facilities, which Border Report calls “European-style ‘one-stop’ centers” incorporating several agencies under one roof.

A permanent processing facility was just renovated in McAllen, Texas, and another is nearing construction in El Paso using $192 million appropriated in February 2019. As of December, DHS was still seeking to purchase land for the El Paso site. The Department has 90 days to report to Congress its plans for the new $200 million outlay.

Title 42 may (or may not) be entering its last week

Processing capacity will be essential if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) decides that reduced COVID indicators warrant a lifting of Title 42 restrictions. The policy comes up for a 60-day renewal-or termination-on March 30.

Since March 2020, the Trump and Biden administrations have depended on this provision to expel migrants quickly, without affording a chance to ask for asylum, more than 1.7 million times. If Title 42 goes away, then migrants must be processed under regular immigration law (including a small but growing portion of asylum seekers subjected to the “Remain in Mexico” program).

White House and DHS leadership say that the decision is up to the CDC. “They’re going to make the decision that they make within the parameters of their authority,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told the Washington Post. “It’s a public health authority, not an immigration policy. And so they’ll make their decision and then we will proceed accordingly.” The Washington Examiner reported that “multiple government officials,” including a “senior CBP official,” are expecting the CDC to end Title 42 by April. It is still possible, though, that the CDC could cite the coronavirus’s emerging BA.2 variant as a reason to continue the border expulsions policy.

Though DHS has set up a “command post,” among other steps, to deal with a potential post-Title 42 overwhelm, CBP’s processing capacity (discussed above) remains insufficient. A March 24 letter to President Biden from Arizona’s two moderate Democratic senators, Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, worries that DHS has not created a “comprehensive plan” for “a secure, orderly, and humane process at the border” after Title 42, despite the senators having requested one of Secretary Mayorkas last June. For that reason, Kelly and Sinema ask that Title 42 remain in place-even without a public health justification-until a plan exists and DHS is ready to carry it out.

Title 42’s use meanwhile continues to expand. Following discussions with the Government of Colombia, earlier this month DHS began using Title 42 to expel hundreds of Colombian migrants back to Bogotá by air, CBS News revealed. A credible source tells WOLA that many Colombian migrant families were held in cells for as much as 20 days in Border Patrol’s Yuma sector stations, only to be expelled. The expulsions policy was meant to be a public health measure to avoid exactly this sort of practice: holding people for long periods in cramped CPB spaces where the virus could spread.

Title 42 continues to close ports of entry (official border crossings) to asylum seekers. At the line between Tijuana and San Diego, that has meant CBP officers turning away Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion, and Russians fleeing the Putin government’s repression. U.S. authorities have begun admitting Ukrainians, offering them humanitarian parole. CBS News’s Camilo Montoya-Gálvez tweeted that between February 23 and March 23, 168 Ukrainians had requested parole.

Russians are among the many other nationalities whose asylum seekers remain in limbo in Tijuana. Blocked by Title 42, some Russian families have been camped out on the sidewalk outside the San Ysidro port of entry leading to San Diego. Nationals from other countries, from Central America to Africa, continue to be unable to access protection at the port. “The racism is blatant at this point,” Hollie Webb, an attorney with the Tijuana-San Diego legal services organization Al Otro Lado, told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Mexico’s foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, said on March 21 that 1,300 Russian and Ukrainian citizens have gathered at the U.S. border. They appear to be concentrated mostly in the western part of the border: officials in Ciudad Juárez say they have seen “few if any” Ukrainians. In Baja California, the Mexican state whose largest city is Tijuana, education officials said that they had enrolled 15 Russian and Ukrainian children in the state’s schools.

“Operation Lone Star” faces serious questions

It has been just over a year since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a fierce critic of the Biden administration’s border policies, launched “Operation Lone Star,” a big state-funded security deployment along Texas’s border with Mexico. Abbott has increased the state’s border security budget to more than $3 billion through 2023. These funds have paid for miles of fencing on state-owned and some private land, along with the reconditioning of two jails to hold migrants arrested on state trespassing charges.

Operation Lone Star has sent about 10,000 Texas National Guardsmen and state police to the border. “To pull this off,” the Texas Observer noted this week, “the state ordered Guard members, under threat of possible arrest, to separate from families and civilian jobs, sometimes with just days’ notice, for an assignment set to last a year.”

As past WOLA Border Updates have reported, Abbott’s military deployment has been seriously troubled. “Troops have dealt with late paychecks, limited access to necessary equipment and cramped living conditions for a mission that some soldiers have said lacks purpose,” Stars and Stripes put it this week. Several soldiers have committed, or attempted, suicide.

The deployment’s problems have brought some unusual mid-course leadership changes. This week, the Texas National Guard abruptly replaced the commander of its 36th Infantry Division, which comprises 16,000 of Texas’s 23,200 National Guard troops. Gen. Charles Aris is the second Texas general to be replaced in two weeks: Gov. Abbott pushed out Gen. Tracy Norris as adjutant-general of the Texas Military Department on March 14. “Transitions for both command positions are typically announced in advance and include a formal public ceremony,” Stars and Stripes reported. “The announcements made last week were effective immediately and officials said ‘appropriate’ ceremonies are in the planning stages.”

At a March 10 event in the Rio Grande Valley, Gov. Abbott had commemorated Operation Lone Star’s one-year anniversary, claiming many criminal arrests, drug seizures, and migrant apprehensions. A big March 21 investigation by the Marshall Project, ProPublica, and the Texas Tribune cast serious doubt on these claims of success. The journalistic organizations found that among the Operation’s purported results, Texas authorities had been counting arrests and drug seizures that took place far from the border, involving police units unaffiliated with “Lone Star,” and in some cases taking place before the deployment even began. They note that “Abbott, DPS [Texas Department of Public Safety] and the Texas Military Department have fought two dozen public records requests from the news organizations that would provide a clearer picture of the operation’s accomplishments.”

Operation Lone Star’s arrests and jailings of migrants continue to be very controversial. A new filing by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, in a lawsuit challenging the mass arrests’ constitutionality, finds that migrants continue to be locked up for as much as five months before having access to an attorney or having misdemeanor charges filed against them. Texas law requires that defendants be assigned a lawyer within three days of asking for one, and prohibits jailing misdemeanor defendants without charges for more than 30 days.

On March 22 the Texas Observer profiled one of Operation Lone Star’s most outspoken critics, Sgt. Jason Featherston, who until late 2021 was the command sergeant major of the Texas Army National Guard. Guardsmen are part-time volunteer soldiers with civilian careers and families; Abbott gave most just a week or two to get their affairs in order and report to an unclear border mission. “Many requested exemption from deployment and were denied,” the Observer reports. “Among them were hospital staff combatting COVID-19 surges in their local communities; police officers in understaffed departments; a federal agent who helps protect the country’s nuclear weapons; and Texans helping tend to ailing relatives.” In Sgt. Featherston’s view, “Texas was trying to get a number to go to the border; they didn’t care how they got it.”

Links

  • WOLA published a photo essay recounting an early March trip to the Del Rio, Laredo, and Rio Grande Valley sectors of the U.S.-Mexico border, including four Mexican border cities.
  • The Biden administration has published new regulations to govern the process by which migrants seek asylum. They empower asylum officers at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to issue decisions, among other efforts to “streamline” the overloaded adjudication system. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council summarizes the new rules’ 512 pages in a Twitter thread. He warns that the streamlined timelines, aiming to process cases within about 90 days, “are punishing, brutal, and will almost certainly prevent the vast majority of asylum seekers going through this system from being able to obtain lawyers.” The new rules will begin their phase-in in a little more than two months.
  • A letter from 22 House Democrats to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, led by Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-El Paso, Texas) calls for in-country asylum processing programs, so that protection-seeking migrants might avoid “harsh terrain, threats of violence, harassment from local authorities, and even exploitation by smugglers and cartels” in the journey across Mexico.
  • The more than 2,000 migrants packed under tents and tarps in a plaza in the high-crime border city of Reynosa, bottled up there by Title 42, are to be moved soon to a safer site at a converted baseball field. That project, though, is running far behind schedule, Border Report’s Sandra Sánchez finds, and Reynosa municipal authorities want the migrants out of the square.
  • Nuevo Laredo continues to experience a convulsion of violence in the wake of the March 14 arrest and extradition of the town’s maximum organized-crime boss, Juan Gerardo “El Huevo” Treviño. Mexico’s federal government deployed 250 elite special forces troops to the city.
  • Staff from the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) spoke to EFE about a recent visit to Panama’s migrant reception centers at the end of the treacherous Darién Gap jungle route. CEJIL’s director for Central America and Mexico, former Guatemalan attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz, said that “more and more women, and with minors” are crossing the Darién, “and the main consequence is an increase in sexual violence suffered during transit.” Panamanian government statistics indicate that 30 percent of migrants who passed through the Darién during the first two months of 2022 were Venezuelan-more than double the second-place country, Haiti.
  • Nicaragua’s November 2021 lifting of visa requirements for visiting Cubans has created a new migration route through Central America and Mexico to the U.S. border, BBC Mundo reports. Cuba was the number-three country of citizenship of migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border in February. Florida International University expert Jorge Duany calls the Nicaragua route a “silent Mariel,” referring to a historic 1980 mass migration event. The entire trip, including exorbitant airfare, smugglers’ fees, and bribes to officials, costs about $10,000 per person.
  • Nicaraguans, too, are fleeing to the United States in increasing numbers. “The historic destination had been Costa Rica, but the course changed,” Divergentes reports. “Nicaragua is going to empty out like Venezuela,” a migrant said.
  • “Returns to Haiti are life-threatening now, and will continue to be so, until security conditions in Haiti improve,” reads a new report from Human Rights Watch calling on the United States to suspend expulsions and other removals.
  • Daily protests by migrants stranded in the Mexico-Guatemala border zone city of Tapachula, Chiapas have become violent at times, Lillian Perlmutter reports at the Los Angeles Times. “Frustration rises to a boil, and people begin throwing things.”
  • Protesting migrants reportedly blocked a road less than an hour’s drive south of the U.S. border in Allende, Coahuila, site of a notorious 2011 massacre abetted by a DEA trained and vetted federal police unit. The migrants claim that their documents are in order, but Mexican forces are blocking them from traveling further north to the border (Del Rio sector).
  • CBP documents and situation reports that The Intercept obtained via the Freedom of Information Act reveal extreme steps the agency, along with Mexican authorities, took to block “migrant caravan” participants’ attempt to seek asylum in early 2019. Mexican forces confined nearly 2,000 migrants to a former body-bag factory in Piedras Negras, and blocked others from accessing the port of entry across the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, Texas. “Some of the Mexican officials watching over the migrants were part of Fuerza Coahuila, a body within the Coahuila State Police that has faced hundreds of complaints of human rights abuses, including forced disappearances.”
  • CBP has published a plan and a “stakeholder feedback report” outlining proposed efforts to “remediate” border barriers in the agency’s Tucson, Arizona sector.
  • The Border Chronicle reveals that “Veterans on Patrol,” a militia that espouses QAnon conspiracies, is intercepting unaccompanied minors near the border wall in Arizona. “They take the phone numbers of the children’s sponsors and, in some cases, confront the sponsors at their homes in the United States.” Local Border Patrol agents appear to be aware of and cooperating with them.
  • While a Border Patrol agent was apprehending a group of migrants near the border wall in Santa Teresa, New Mexico earlier this month, an individual came across from Mexico, hurled a rock through the windshield of the agent’s parked SUV, and crossed back into Mexico.
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