Adam Isacson

Defense, security, borders, migration, and human rights in Latin America and the United States. May not reflect my employer’s consensus view.

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Other Views of J.D. Vance’s Home Region

(As with everything I post here without mentioning WOLA, this is my personal view expressed while writing at home and not during work hours. It does not necessarily reflect my organization’s point of view.)

Political writers are devoting a lot of pixels right now to J.D. Vance’s opportunism, digging into how his ambitions led him to ditch his former views and fully embrace white rage and Trumpism, riding that wave to the Republican vice presidential nomination.

Beyond that, I’m more concerned with a position that Vance hasn’t changed, but has only intensified: whose side he is on in the region he calls home, one of the poorest corners of America.

My view is colored by some reading I did over my two-month work sabbatical, which ends in a few days. More by circumstance than design, I dug into the work of two authors who come from Appalachia, not far from where Vance’s branch of his family lived before they moved to Ohio.

For many Americans—and to some degree for Vance, whose memoir Hillbilly Elegy I read in 2017—the mountainous, deeply rural, coal-and-tobacco region stretching from north Georgia into Pennsylvania is notable for high unemployment, family breakdown, drug addiction, and severe environmental degradation. Popular culture often ridicules its residents as “rednecks” or “hillbillies.”

The essays of Wendell Berry, the 90-year-old farmer and author from Port Royal, Kentucky, lament this condition, but place the blame far away. In his collected essays, which I re-read over my break (don’t miss the audiobook read by Nick Offerman), Berry’s Appalachia is a colony of the United States’ more prosperous areas, especially its cosmopolitan cities and big corporations.

[O]ur once-beautiful and bountiful countryside has long been a colony of the coal, timber, and agribusiness corporations, yielding an immense wealth of energy and raw materials at an immense cost to our land and our land’s people. Because of that failure also, our towns and cities have been gutted by the likes of Wal-Mart, which have had the permitted luxury of destroying locally owned small businesses by means of volume discounts.

…At present, in fact, both the nation and the national economy are living at the expense of localities and local communities – as all small-town and country people have reason to know. In rural America, which is in many ways a colony of what the government and the corporations think of as the nation, most of us have experienced the losses that I have been talking about: the departure of young people, of soil and other so-called natural resources, and of local memory. We feel ourselves crowded more and more into a dimensionless present, in which the past is forgotten and the future, even in our most optimistic ‘projections,’ is forbidding and fearful. Who can desire a future that is determined entirely by the purposes of the most wealthy and the most powerful, and by the capacities of machines?

A blighted area stripped clean of its natural assets, where a small-farmer economy is no longer viable, and from where people need to migrate elsewhere, to cities? That sounds like many regions I’ve known during my work in Latin America, where levels of economic inequality still generally exceed those in the United States, but by less than they used to. One could switch out “campesino” for “farmer” in much of Wendell Berry’s writing, and the argument would be identical. From a 2017 New York Review of Books essay:

Rural America is a colony, and its economy is a colonial economy. The business of America has been largely and without apology the plundering of rural America, from which everything of value—minerals, timber, farm animals, farm crops, and “labor”—has been taken at the lowest possible price. As apparently none of the enlightened ones has seen in flying over or bypassing on the interstate highways, its too-large fields are toxic and eroding, its streams and rivers poisoned, its forests mangled, its towns dying or dead along with their locally owned small businesses, its children leaving after high school and not coming back. Too many of the children are not working at anything, too many are transfixed by the various screens, too many are on drugs, too many are dying.

…The rural small owners sentenced to dispensability in the 1950s are the grandparents of the “blue-collar workers” of rural America who now feel themselves to be under the same sentence, and with reason.

I also read a work of fiction set in Lee County, the westernmost county in Virginia: Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and I recommended it unreservedly.

Kingsolver, who lives in that area, reminds us that while the people of Appalachia seem defeated now, it was not always so. Two centuries ago, the population of these areas of rural Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Georgia were smallholding farmers. Few owned slaves, and many supported the Union in the Civil War against their states’ plantation owners.

Their farms struggled to get beyond subsistence, then were bought up by coal barons (and much of the Black population migrated north, to industrial centers). They carried out some of the most militant union organizing in U.S. history to improve conditions in the coal mines.

“Men calling a strike, the company calling in the army to force them back to work, the miners saying guess what, we’ve got guns too. Serious shit. Battle of Blair Mountain, that turned into the biggest war in America ever, other than the civil one. Twenty thousand guys from all over these mountains, fighting in regiments. They wore red bandannas on their necks to show they were all on the same side, working men. Mr. Armstrong said people calling us rednecks, that goes back to the red bandannas. Redneck is badass.

…Anyway, it was all in the past, nobody in class had parents working in the mines now. We’d heard all our lives about the layoffs. The companies swapped out humans for machines in every job: deep-hole mines went to strip mines, then to blowing the heads off whole mountains, with machines to pick up the pieces. ”

The labor struggle cost many lives but earned some important gains in living standards—until mechanization, market forces, and captured politicians (of both parties) caused coal labor demand to dry up. Governments under-funded basic services, schools were not competitive enough to prepare students for a life of something better than coal mining. Then, in this century, came prescription opioids, ushered in by pharmaceutical companies’ lies, and then heroin and fentanyl.

Kingsolver, like Berry, paints a portrait of communities devastated by outside political and economic forces.

“Wouldn’t you think,” he [the main character’s teacher] asked us, “the miners wanted a different life for their kids? After all the stories you’ve heard? Don’t you think the mine companies knew that?”

What the companies did, he told us, was put the shuthole on any choice other than going into the mines. Not just here, also in Buchanan, Tazewell, all of eastern Kentucky, these counties got bought up whole: land, hospitals, courthouses, schools, company owned. Nobody needed to get all that educated for being a miner, so they let the schools go to rot. And they made sure no mills or factories got in the door. Coal only. To this day, you have to cross a lot of ground to find other work. Not an accident, Mr. Armstrong said, and for once we believed him, because down in the dark mess of our little skull closets some puzzle pieces were clicking together and our world made some terrible kind of sense. The dads at home drinking beer in their underwear, the moms at the grocery with their SNAP coupons. The army recruiters in shiny gold buttons come to harvest their jackpot of hopeless futures. Goddamn.

Kingsolver’s lament about the state of the region closely echoes Berry’s:

“Everything that could be taken is gone. Mountains left with their heads blown off, rivers running black. My people are dead of trying, or headed that way, addicted as we are to keeping ourselves alive. There’s no more blood here to give, just war wounds. Madness. A world of pain, looking to be killed.”

This brings us back to J.D. Vance. Hillbilly Elegy notes the same misery, but blames the people themselves, especially their “culture,” instead of predatory outside forces. Instead of corporations, globalization, and government siding with the economic winners and discarding the losers, Vance’s book blames government welfare programs for creating a culture of dependence and “laziness.”

We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job, but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness, or for stealing merchandise and selling it on eBay, or for having a customer complain about the smell of alcohol on our breath, or for taking five thirty-minute restroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance—the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.

…As far back as the 1970s, the white working class began to turn to Richard Nixon because of a perception that, as one man put it, government was “payin’ people who are on welfare today doin’ nothin’! They’re laughin’ at our society! And we’re all hardworkin’ people and we’re gettin’ laughed at for workin’ every day!”

Why would people vote for a politician who, like Vance, believes that they are lazy and that they only have themselves to blame for their problems? Because, the book explains, even the region’s most shiftless laggards insist that they have a strong work ethic.

People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown [Ohio, where Vance grew up, a town featured in Dreamland, Sam Quiñones’s study of the opioid epidemic]. You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness. … Of course, the reasons poor people aren’t working as much as others are complicated, and it’s too easy to blame the problem on laziness. For many, part-time work is all they have access to, because the Armcos of the world are going out of business and their skill sets don’t fit well in the modern economy. But whatever the reasons, the rhetoric of hard work conflicts with the reality on the ground.

While Vance passingly refers to economic realities besetting the region, he insists that its residents, and their culture, are more to blame: “It would be years before I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.”

J.D. Vance became a corporate lawyer who worked in Silicon Valley venture capital, getting to know donors like hard-right billionaire Peter Thiel. He published his memoir and, despite once being a harsh Trump critic, ran for Senate as one of the most unabashedly pro-Trump candidates of the 2022 election cycle. In so doing, he cast his lot with the coal barons, agribusiness enterprises, and corporations that, Berry and Kingsolver forcefully argue, have done such harm to Appalachia’s beleaguered population.

Appalachia’s rural population, though, has voted overwhelmingly for Vance and Trump—not for people who, like Berry or Kingsolver, lean leftward. Even though they enable pollution, oppose wage hikes, under-invest in education, and de-prioritize access to drug treatment, pro-big-business conservatives win by huge margins in the region today.

They do so, usually, by whipping up anger about social issues like immigration, religion, and culture-war rage, often by repeating utter lies including about the 2020 election result. J.D. Vance’s 2022 campaign was a master class in this.

Reading what Wendell Berry, Barbara Kingsolver, and others have written about the damage done to Appalachia makes J.D. Vance’s political success one of the most extreme existing cases of “the turkeys voting for Thanksgiving.” It’s a cycle that the Democratic Party is far from figuring out how to break.

A big part of the blame lies with the Democrats themselves. When I was young, this region voted solidly Democratic, a legacy of the New Deal era when the federal government invested in infrastructure and jobs, and supported labor unions. That investment and labor support ebbed badly during the past 50 years, as leading Democrats turned away from the region’s population, in some cases even embracing business elites just as Republicans have. From Bill Clinton to Joe Manchin, Democratic politicians have backed big energy companies and advanced free-trade deals and farm policies that harmed small producers.

That opened up a political space that opportunists like J.D. Vance leapt into. And now, like impoverished Colombian campesinos who back the large landowner-aligned candidate promising the harshest security crackdown, the colonized line up behind their most outspoken colonizers.

It’s going to take a lot of work, and a long look in the mirror, to break out of this.

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: June 7, 2024

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 an extended period of staff travel and commitments, this will be the last Weekly Border Update until July 26; we look forward to resuming a regular publication schedule on that date.

Support ad-free, paywall-free Weekly Border Updates. Your donation to WOLA is crucial to sustain this effort. Please contribute now and support our work.

THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:

As of 12:01 AM on June 5, migrants who enter U.S. custody between U.S.-Mexico border ports of entry, with few exceptions, may no longer apply for asylum. The Biden administration made this long-signaled change with a proclamation and an “interim final rule” on June 4. Asylum access is “shut down” until daily migrant encounters at the border drop to a very low average of less than 1,500 per day. The ACLU, which challenged a similar asylum ban during the Trump era, plans to sue. It is not clear whether, with its current resources, the administration will be able to deport or detain a significantly larger number of  asylum seekers than it already is.

Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, reported receiving 36,860 requests for asylum during the first five months of 2024. That is 42 percent fewer than during the same period in 2023. As in recent years, Honduras, Cuba, and Haiti are the top three nationalities of asylum seekers in Mexico’s system, and most applications are filed in Tapachula and Mexico City. This year’s drop in applications is unexpected, as Mexico’s government reports stopping or encountering over 480,000 migrants between January and April alone.

THE FULL UPDATE:

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: May 31, 2024

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 an extended period of staff travel and commitments, we will produce Weekly Border Updates irregularly for the next two and a half months. We will resume a regular weekly schedule on July 26.

Support ad-free, paywall-free Weekly Border Updates. Your donation to WOLA is crucial to sustain this effort. Please contribute now and support our work.

THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:

After failing twice to enact such a measure through legislation, the Biden administration appears poised to issue an executive order that would allow U.S. border authorities to turn back or deport asylum seekers whenever the number of arriving migrants exceeds a specific threshold. The legal authority on which such an executive order would be based appears shaky, and there is a significant probability that it would not withstand challenges in the judicial system.

Mexico’s government reported encountering or stopping 120,879 migrants during the month of April, a record that only slightly exceeds similar numbers reported every month since January. Well over half of April’s total were citizens of South American nations. Mexico’s stepped-up efforts to block migrants, which appear to involve aggressive busing into the country’s interior more than deportations or detentions, have left large numbers of migrants stranded there amid a notable drop in U.S. authorities’ migrant encounters.

The U.S. Border Patrol was founded 100 years ago this week. Some analyses of the milestone have focused on the agency’s checkered human rights record. The Southern Border Communities Coalition and congressional Democrats, drawing attention to a recent GAO report’s findings, voiced concern that reforms aimed at more impartial oversight of use-of-force cases aren’t going far enough.

Colombia voices skepticism about Panama’s new president’s promise to shut down Darién Gap migration. UNHCR data continue to show that many Venezuelan migrants in the Darién first sought to settle elsewhere in South America. Ecuadorians are skipping the Darién route by flying to El Salvador.

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: May 24, 2024

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 an extended period of staff travel and commitments, we will produce Weekly Border Updates irregularly for the next two and a half months. We will resume a regular weekly schedule on July 26.

Support ad-free, paywall-free Weekly Border Updates. Your donation to WOLA is crucial to sustain this effort. Please contribute now and support our work.

THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:

For the second time this year, the U.S. Senate’s Democratic majority sought to bring to a vote a package of border legislation that would, among other provisions, implement Title 42-style suspensions of the right to seek asylum at the border when the number of migrants at the border exceeds certain thresholds. The “Border Act” failed by a 43-50 vote in the face of opposition from some Democrats uncomfortable with the asylum suspension, and nearly all Republicans, who argued that it was not aggressive enough. Media are reporting that the Biden administration plans to issue an executive order in June to enable a similar asylum “shutdown” mechanism at the border.

Although May is normally a peak month for migration, the daily average of Border Patrol migrant apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border had dropped to 3,700 so far in May, one of the lowest points of the entire Biden administration. Weekly data indicate that even border sectors that had seen migration increases in the first months of the year, like Tucson, Arizona and San Diego, California, are now experiencing reductions.

Migrants allege that Texas National Guard personnel beat a Honduran migrant so badly that he later died on the Rio Grande riverbank in Ciudad Juárez. Arizona, not Texas, has seen the sharpest migration declines in 2024 despite Gov. Abbott’s claims that his policies have shifted migrants westward. Those policies,some of which Pope Francis called “madness,” have included striking levels of racial profiling, according to an ACLU Texas report. State authorities’ razor wire in Eagle Pass has caused “an unusually high number” of hospitalizations in Eagle Pass, “including young children,” USA Today reported.

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: May 3, 2024

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 an extended period of staff travel and commitments, we will produce Weekly Border Updates irregularly for the next two and a half months. We cannot publish Updates during the next two weeks; sporadic posting will begin in late May. We will resume a regular weekly schedule on July 26.

Support ad-free, paywall-free Weekly Border Updates. Your donation to WOLA is crucial to sustain this effort. Please contribute now and support our work.

THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:

Preliminary numbers published by CBS News and the Washington Post indicate that Border Patrol agents apprehended 129,000 or 130,000 migrants in April, a slight decline from February and March. U.S. officials continue to credit Mexican efforts to block migrants, which were the subject of a phone conversation between Presidents Biden and López Obrador. Migration through Panama’s Darién Gap also appears to have declined in April.

With fiscal year 2024 half over, CBP’s border drug seizure data points to notable declines in opioids, including the first-ever drop in fentanyl seizures. Cocaine and methamphetamine are increasing compared to 2023, while seizures of cannabis—which decreased precipitously after U.S. states started regulating its use—remain at a low level. Except for cannabis, at least 82 percent of border drug seizures occur at land-border ports of entry.

Human Rights Watch published a report on how the CBP One app denies access to asylum through “digital metering” at the U.S.-Mexico border. ProPublica and the Texas Tribune examined the relationship between U.S. border policies, including encouraging Mexico to interdict migrants, and tragedies like the March 2023 detention facility fire that killed 40 people in Ciudad Juárez. A consortium of journalists published a series on how organized crime, with corrupt officials’ collusion, transports migrants across Mexico in tractor-trailer containers.

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: April 26, 2024

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.

Support ad-free, paywall-free Weekly Border Updates. Your donation to WOLA is crucial to sustain this effort. Please contribute now and support our work.

THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:

Mexican security and migration forces’ stepped-up operations to interdict migrants, especially in the northern border state of Chihuahua, have been suppressing the number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. However, these have come with human rights complaints, and reductions are unlikely to last long as large numbers of people continue to migrate across Mexico’s southern border.

The House of Representatives’ April 20 passage of a Ukraine-Israel-Taiwan aid bill formally ended Republican legislators’ monthslong effort to tie strict border and migration controls to any aid outlay. That effort had foundered after a negotiated deal in the Senate failed in February. House Republican leaders allowed consideration of a separate hardline border bill on April 20; it failed but attracted five votes from centrist Democrats.

Panama reported removing 864 migrants, much of them with U.S. assistance, since April 2023. Guatemala has expelled over 7,900 migrants from other countries into Honduras and El Salvador so far this year. And Mexico has deported over 7,500 Guatemalans back to their country since January.

An upgrade to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report includes a list of the top 100 nationalities of migrants whom Border Patrol has apprehended since 2014. The data reveal that the apprehended migrant population was 97 percent Mexican and Central American a decade ago, but only 52 percent Mexican and Central American today.

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: April 19, 2024

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.

Support ad-free, paywall-free Weekly Border Updates. Your donation to WOLA is crucial to sustain this effort. Please contribute now and support our work.

THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) revealed in an April 12 data release that migration at the border declined from February to March for only the second time this century. The drop owes largely to the Mexican government’s stepped-up efforts to interdict migrants so far this year. San Diego may be surpassing Tucson as migrants’ number-one destination along the border.

On a party-line vote, the Democratic-majority U.S. Senate dismissed impeachment charges that the House’s Republican majority brought against Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. The Republicans had alleged that Mayorkas’s management of the border and migration merited the first impeachment of a cabinet secretary since 1876. The House may meanwhile consider a hardline border and migration bill, echoing provisions in H.R. 2, in coming days.

José Raúl Mulino, a conservative populist leading polls for Panama’s May presidential election, is promising to “close” the Darién Gap and repatriate migrants. This week a UNHCR survey (with a small sample), found one in five Darién migrants intending to settle somewhere other than the United States.

An Indiana National Guardsman serving under the Texas state government’s “Operation Lone Star” fired his weapon at an individual in El Paso who allegedly stabbed two people on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande riverbank. It was the third known event since January 2023 in which a National Guardsman working under Texas state authority has fired a weapon at, or in the presence of, migrants at the border.

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: April 12, 2024

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.

Support ad-free, paywall-free Weekly Border Updates. Your donation to WOLA is crucial to sustain this effort. Please contribute now and support our work.

THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:

Migration continues to experience an unusual springtime lull across the U.S.-Mexico border, with numbers appearing to decline below January-March levels. San Diego, California, where migration is level, might soon become the border’s busiest sector, a change that has exceeded federal and local capacities there. Some of the drop in migration is a result of a Mexican government crackdown that began with the new year. Numbers of migrants are higher in Panama and Honduras than they were last year, but are not increasing.

President Biden told a Univisión interviewer that he is still considering taking executive action to “shut down” access to asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border when daily migrant encounters cross a certain threshold. A possible legal justification for doing so, which courts have not upheld, is a broad presidential authority to block migrants whose entry is considered “detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas appeared separately before House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees on April 10. He called for 2025 budget increases for the Department, including a flexible $4.7 billion border contingency fund that Republicans have opposed. The Senate still awaits the Republican-majority House of Representatives’ transmittal of impeachment articles against Mayorkas, alleging mismanagement of the border. Those articles narrowly passed the House in February; an actual Senate trial is unlikely.

THE FULL UPDATE:

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: April 5, 2024

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.

Support ad-free, paywall-free Weekly Border Updates. Your donation to WOLA is crucial to sustain this effort. Please contribute now and support our work.

THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:

The number of migrants entering Border Patrol custody declined from February to March, by about 2 percent, according to preliminary data. Migration usually increases in spring: this is only the second time this century that Border Patrol has recorded a February-to-March decline. Increased enforcement in Mexico may be a cause. Weekly data show Border Patrol apprehensions declining in Arizona and California from the beginning of March to the end of March.

A 24-year-old Guatemalan woman’s fatal March 21 fall from the border wall in San Diego drew new attention to the region’s sharply increased numbers of wall-related deaths and injuries. Elsewhere in San Diego, a federal judge ruled that outdoor encampments where Border Patrol makes asylum seekers wait to be processed violate a 1997 agreement governing the treatment of children in the agency’s custody.

“Now, to be fair, maybe Texas went too far,” said Texas’s solicitor general in arguments before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considering the constitutionality of the state’s harsh new law, S.B. 4. The law, if allowed to go into effect, would permit Texas law enforcement to arrest, imprison, and even deport people for the crime of illegal entry from Mexico. However the appeals court rules, the law is almost certainly headed for the Supreme Court.

Panamanian authorities report that an average of 1,200 people per day migrated through the treacherous Darién Gap jungle region during the first quarter of 2024, well ahead of 2023’s record-setting pace. Human Rights Watch published a big report finding fault with the Colombian and Panamanian government’s responses to Darién Gap migration, and calling for the U.S. and other governments to expand legal migration pathways. The New York Times documented the alarming recent increase in cases of sexual assault committed against migrants in the Darién.

THE FULL UPDATE:

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: March 29, 2024

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.

Support ad-free, paywall-free Weekly Border Updates. Your donation to WOLA is crucial to sustain this effort. Please contribute now and support our work.

THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:

Migration at the U.S.-Mexico border usually  increases in springtime. That is not happening in 2024, although numbers are up in Mexico and further south. Increased Mexican government operations to block or hinder migrants are a central reason. Especially striking is migration from Venezuela, which has plummeted at the U.S. border and moved largely to ports of entry. It is unclear why Venezuelan migration has dropped more steeply than that from other nations.

Migration at the U.S.-Mexico border increased by 8 percent from January to February; the portion that is Border Patrol apprehensions of migrants grew by 13 percent. February’s levels were still on the low end for the Biden administration. Preliminary March data indicate no further increases this month.

Texas’s governor, an immigration hardliner, is claiming credit for a westward shift of migration toward Arizona and California. Uncertainty over a harsh new law—currently blocked in the courts—could be leading some migrants to avoid Texas, but the overall picture is more complex. Migration declined slightly in Arizona in February and is still dropping there in March, while four out of five Texas border sectors saw some growth in February.

President Bernardo Arévalo of Guatemala, in his third month in office, paid his first official visit to Washington, meeting separately with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. The White House touted $170 million in new assistance to Guatemala and the operations of a U.S.-backed “Safe Mobility Office” that seeks to steer would-be migrants toward legal pathways. In 2023, Guatemala’s previous government expelled more than 23,000 U.S.-bound migrants, most of them from Venezuela, back across its border into Honduras.

THE FULL UPDATE:

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: March 22, 2024

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.

Support ad-free, paywall-free Weekly Border Updates. Your donation to WOLA is crucial to sustain this effort. Please contribute now and support our work.

THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:

A report and database from No More Deaths document a rapid increase in the number of migrant remains recovered in Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector, which covers far west Texas and New Mexico. A preponderance of deaths occur in or near the El Paso metropolitan area, within range of humanitarian assistance. CBP meanwhile released a count of migrant deaths through 2022, a year that saw the agency count a record 895 human remains recovered on the U.S. side of the border. Heat and drowning were the most frequent causes of death.

Nearly six months into the fiscal year, Congress on March 21 published text of its 2024 Homeland Security appropriation. As it is one of six bills that must pass by March 22 to avert a partial government shutdown, the current draft is likely to become law with few if any changes. Congressional negotiators approved double-digit-percentage increases in budgets for border security agencies, including new CBP and Border Patrol hires, as well as for migrant detention. The bill has no money for border wall construction, and cuts grants to shelters receiving people released from Border Patrol custody.

Texas’s state government planned to start implementing S.B. 4, a law effectively enabling it to carry out its own harsh immigration policy, on March 5. While appeals from the Biden administration and rights defense litigators have so far prevented that, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court have gone back and forth about whether Texas may implement the controversial law while appeals proceed. As of the morning of March 22, S.B. 4 is on hold. Mexico’s government has made clear it will not accept deportations even of its own citizens if carried out by Texas.

THE FULL UPDATE:

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: March 15, 2024

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.

Support ad-free, paywall-free Weekly Border Updates. Your donation to WOLA is crucial to sustain this effort. Please contribute now and support our work.

THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:

73,167 people made the treacherous northbound journey through the Darién Gap region straddling Colombia and Panama during the first two months of 2024. That is 47 percent ahead of the same period in 2023, a year that ended with over 520,000 people migrating through. Panama’s government suspended Doctors Without Borders’ permission to provide health services at posts where the Darién trail ends; the announcement’s timing is curious because the organization had been denouncing rapidly increasing cases of sexual violence committed against the people whom their personnel were treating.

The White House sent Congress a $62 billion budget request to fund the Department of Homeland Security in 2025. The base budget for Customs and Border Protection would decrease slightly, though the agency would share in a $4.7 billion contingency fund for responding to surges in migration. The administration proposes to hire 1,300 Border Patrol agents, 1,000 CBP officers, 1,600 USCIS asylum officers, and 375 new immigration judge teams. The budget request stands almost no chance of passing this year, as Congress has not even passed the Department’s 2024 budget.

For at least a few more days, the Supreme Court has kept on hold Texas’s controversial S.B. 4 law, which allows state authorities to jail and deport migrants, while lower-court appeals continue. A federal judge threw out Texas’s and other Republican states’ challenge to the Biden administration program offering humanitarian parole to citizens of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. A state judge blocked Texas’s legal offensive against El Paso’s Annunciation House shelter.

The Republican response to President Biden’s March 7 State of the Union address included a graphic, harrowing story of a woman being subjected to years of sexual violence at the border. Further scrutiny revealed that Sen. Katie Britt’s (R-Alabama) account described crimes committed in Mexico during the Bush administration. President Biden voiced regret for using the term “an illegal” to refer to a migrant who allegedly killed a Georgia nursing student in February, in an off-the-cuff response to Republican hecklers during his address.

THE FULL UPDATE:

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: March 8, 2024

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.

Support ad-free, paywall-free Weekly Border Updates. Your donation to WOLA is crucial to sustain this effort. Please contribute now and support our work.

THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:

Leaked data points to a 13 percent increase in Border Patrol migrant apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border from January to February. Last month’s unofficial total is high for a typical February, but lower than most months during the past three years. The top two sectors for migrant arrivals were in Arizona and California. Mexico broke its single-month migrant apprehensions record in January, capturing nearly as many people that month as the U.S. Border Patrol did. Migration through Honduras illustrates many migrants’ use of a route that involves flights to Nicaragua.

Boats ferrying people to the beginning of the Darién Gap migration trail halted for five days at the end of February. The transport companies called a strike to protest the Colombian Navy’s seizure of two vessels. Ferries restarted after an agreement with the Colombian government, at a meeting that included the presence of a U.S. embassy official. The Darién route into Panama is growing more treacherous, as Doctors Without Borders is reporting an alarming increase in sexual assaults committed against migrants in the jungle so far this year.

As Democratic senators call on the Biden administration to increase funding for fentanyl interdiction at the border, CBP is reporting fewer seizures so far in fiscal year 2024. The agency is on pace to seize 25 percent less of the synthetic opioid than it did in 2023. This would be the first year-on-year decline after several years of very rapid growth. WOLA charts also depict a reduced pace of heroin and marijuana seizures, and an increased pace of cocaine and (less sharply) methamphetamine seizures.

THE FULL UPDATE:

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“Border and Migration 101”: A Screencast Recorded in March 2024

I enjoy giving “101-level” explanatory presentations with lots of graphics. I especially enjoy it when the time limit is not too tight.

I gave a talk about the border and migration to an audience last week and will do so again this week. In between, I recorded this screencast for practice, and I’m happy to share it.

This is an in-depth, graphical overview of what’s happening at the U.S.-Mexico border right now. Questions addressed include:

  • What is new and different about the people who are coming to the border today?
  • What is “asylum?”
  • What are people fleeing?
  • What countries are they coming from?
  • What role did U.S. policy historically play in the conditions they’re fleeing?
  • What is the trip to the U.S. border like? What threats to people face?
  • What happens when they get to the border? How does processing, case management, and adjudication work (or fail to work)?
  • What has the U.S. government done to try to “push the migration numbers down?”
  • What would a better policy look like?

Download the graphics shown here as a single PDF at bit.ly/border-101-march-2024.

For even more of WOLA’s border and migration work, see:

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: March 1, 2024

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.

Support ad-free, paywall-free Weekly Border Updates. Your donation to WOLA is crucial to sustain this effort. Please contribute now and support our work.

THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:

President Joe Biden visited Brownsville, Texas on February 29, the second U.S.-Mexico border visit of his administration. His remarks—calling for Trump to work with him to pass legislation that might, among other measures, deeply reduce migrants’ access to asylum—reflect the President’s recent rightward shift on border and migration issues. On the same day, Republican candidate Donald Trump was several hours’ drive west, at the border in Eagle Pass, where he offered anti-immigrant rhetoric alongside Texas state officials.

Numerous statements from Republican politicians and GOP-aligned media figures are raising the idea of “migrant crime” after the brutal murder of a Georgia nursing student, allegedly at the hands of a 26-year-old Venezuelan man who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso in September 2022. Analyses, though, continue to point out that migrants commit less violent crime than U.S. citizens, and that the alleged perpetrator of the Georgia murder arrived at a time when U.S. border policy was already very restrictive, with Title 42 firmly in place.

El Paso community leaders rallied around a Catholic non-profit migrant shelter under attack from the Texas state attorney general, who accuses Annunciation House of “alien harboring and human smuggling.” The incident drew attention to the vital role played by non-profit respite centers along the border that receive migrants from Border Patrol custody and help connect them to their destinations in the U.S. interior. Those that depend on federal funding are in danger of cutting back services or shutting their doors, which would force Border Patrol to leave migrants on border cities’ streets. This is already happening in San Diego and appears imminent in Tucson.

THE FULL UPDATE:

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Deterring Asylum Seekers: an Increasingly Bipartisan Idea that Won’t Work

tl;dr: This piece doesn’t make a human rights argument about asylum access, though it does acknowledge cruelty and human cost. Instead, the argument here is cold, analytical, and practical: the past 10 years’ numbers and experience show that trying to deter protection-seeking migrants just doesn’t work. All it does is push their numbers down temporarily.


As President Biden and candidate Trump head to the Texas-Mexico border, immigration opponents are blaming the President’s border policies for the horrific, tragic February 22 murder of a nursing student in Georgia. But the case of the alleged killer, a 26-year-old Venezuelan man named José Ibarra, shows the futility of trying to put asylum out of reach at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Title 42 was a “nuclear option” for denying asylum—yet it didn’t deter people from coming

Since 1980, U.S. law has clearly stated that any non-citizens on U.S. soil have the right to apply for asylum, regardless of how they arrived, if they fear for their lives or freedom upon return to their country for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Once here, they are entitled to due process, and even Donald Trump’s administration had to honor that, hundreds of thousands of times (though they constantly sought to cut corners).

That is presumably what José Ibarra sought to do when he arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso in September 2022. But in fact, Ibarra came to the U.S.-Mexico border at a time when the U.S. government was going to extreme lengths to make asylum unavailable.

Between March 2020 and May 2023, the “Title 42” pandemic policy—begun by Donald Trump and continued by Joe Biden—used public health as a pretext for carrying out the toughest restriction on asylum seekers since 1980. Title 42 empowered U.S. border officials to expel—not even to properly process—all undocumented migrants they encountered.

If they said “I fear for my life if you expel me,” in most cases migrants still didn’t get hearings: they were expelled from the United States as quickly as possible. If they were Salvadoran, Guatemalan, or Honduran—and later Cuban, Haitian, Nicaraguan, or Venezuelan—Mexico agreed to take many of them back across the land border.

In September 2022, when Ibarra turned himself in to Border Patrol, Title 42 was in full effect. But “expelled as quickly as possible” was often complicated.

In September 2022 alone, 33,804 Venezuelans—fleeing authoritarianism, corrupt misrule, violence, social collapse, and cratering living standards—arrived at the border.

Data table

That month was an especially busy time for Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector (one of the agency’s nine U.S.-Mexico border sectors, comprised of far west Texas and New Mexico). Agents there encountered 49,030 migrants over those 30 days, 20,169 of them from Venezuela, including José Ibarra.

(Let’s recall, too, that the vast majority of those people were seeking to step on U.S. soil and turn themselves in to Border Patrol. They weren’t trying to get away. The presence of a border wall near the riverbank is irrelevant: they just want to set foot on the riverbank.)

Of those 20,169 Venezuelan migrants in El Paso that month, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) used Title 42 to expel… 2.

Why so few? Because U.S. authorities had nowhere to “put” expelled citizens of Venezuela and many other countries. At the time, Mexico was accepting Title 42 expulsions of three non-Mexican nationalities, but not Venezuelans. (That came later, in October 2023, bringing a temporary drop in Venezuelan migration. But despite the threat of expulsion, by the last full month of Title 42—April 2023—the number of Venezuelan migrants had recovered to 34,633, at the time a record.)

In 2022—and again, now—Venezuela’s government, which has no diplomatic relations with the United States, was refusing deportations or expulsions by air. Those flights are very expensive anyway for a country thousands of miles away.

At that pandemic moment, but still today, the sheer number of arrivals at the border—often more than 200,000 per month, at a moment of more worldwide migration than at any time since World War II—often makes detaining asylum seekers impossible, for lack of space and budget. So then, and still now, U.S. authorities release many into the U.S. interior with a date to appear before ICE or immigration courts in their destination cities. (The vast majority show up for those appointments.)

This was the reality even during the draconian Title 42 period, when U.S. authorities did expel people—many of them asylum seekers—2,912,294 times. But even as Mexico took back land-border expulsions of many Mexican and Central American people with urgent protection needs, U.S. officials, unable to expel, released José Ibarra and many others into the United States.

Why cracking down on asylum doesn’t work

Let’s repeat: this is what was happening when it was U.S. government policy to expel as many asylum seekers as it could, as quickly as it could. Washington tried a massive crackdown on asylum, and it failed to deter people. This is what happened to Border Patrol’s migrant encounters during the Title 42 period:

Data table

Right now, though, curbing the ability to ask for asylum at the border is in vogue again. Language in a “border deal” negotiated by Senate Republicans and Democrats—defeated in early February because Republicans didn’t think it went far enough—would have switched on a Title 42-like expulsion authority whenever daily migrant encounters averaged more than 4,000 or 5,000 per day.

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: February 23, 2024

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.

Support ad-free, paywall-free Weekly Border Updates. Your donation to WOLA is crucial to sustain this effort. Please contribute now and support our work.

THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:

Media reports indicate that the White House is considering executive orders that would restrict asylum access. Possibilities include a new expulsion authority and a higher bar in credible fear screening interviews, though those could run counter to existing law or duplicate current policies. Meanwhile, a group of 10 moderate Republicans and centrist Democrats is sponsoring a bill that would mandate expulsions and “Remain in Mexico” along with Ukraine and Israel aid.

On March 5, depending on what a federal judge decides, Texas will begin enforcing a law making it a state crime, punishable by imprisonment, to cross the border without inspection. Texas is also accusing a respected El Paso migrant shelter of “harboring” and “smuggling” migrants and threatening to shut it down. The state’s governor is building a giant National Guard base near Eagle Pass.

The week of February 9-16 saw nine known examples of alleged human rights abuse, misconduct, or other reasons for concern about the organizational culture at U.S. border law enforcement agencies. Two senior Border Patrol officials were suspended, emails revealed widespread use of a slur to describe migrants, a new report detailed seizures of migrants’ belongings, and a whistleblower complaint revealed a bizarre incident involving “fentanyl lollipops.”

THE FULL UPDATE:

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: February 16, 2024

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.

Support ad-free, paywall-free Weekly Border Updates. Your donation to WOLA is crucial to sustain this effort. Please contribute now and support our work.

THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:

After migration at the U.S.-Mexico border reached a record high in December, new CBP data showed January to be the third-quietest month at the U.S.-Mexico border of the Biden administration’s 36 full months. Border Patrol apprehensions dropped 50 percent in a single month, the sharpest single-month drop in over 24 years of data. Reasons appear to include rumors circulating among migrants, seasonal patterns, and a crackdown by Mexican government forces. An increasing share of migrants are coming to Arizona and California.

After the February 7 failure of negotiated bill language restricting migrants’ access to asylum, the Senate approved a Ukraine, Israel, and other foreign aid funding bill without that language, or any other border and migration-related content. That bill now goes to the Republican-majority House, whose leadership opposes bringing it to debate because it does not harden the border or restrict migration. Democrats are seeking to take advantage of the “border deal’s” failure to shore up their position on border and migration issues as the 2024 campaign gets underway, even though doing so risks normalizing the idea of blocking most asylum seekers’ right to seek protection.

After failing to win enough votes to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas last week, House Republican leaders’ second try succeeded by a single vote on February 13. The impeachment, arguing that Mayorkas’s handling of the border and migration constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors,” now goes to the Democratic-majority Senate, where a conviction is all but impossible and even a full-blown trial is very unlikely.

THE FULL UPDATE:

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: February 2, 2024

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.

Support ad-free, paywall-free Weekly Border Updates. Your donation to WOLA is crucial to sustain this effort. Please contribute now and support our work.

THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:

Senators negotiating a deal that would restrict access to asylum at the border, as a Republican pre-condition for Ukraine aid and other spending, continue to insist that they are on the verge of making public the text of their agreement. Prospects for passage are growing ever dimmer, though. Donald Trump, House Republicans, and the rightmost wing of Republican senators are lining up against the deal because they don’t believe it goes far enough.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) updated its dataset of migration through December, showing a record 302,034 migrant encounters border-wide in December. The top nationalities were Mexico, Venezuela, Guatemala, Honduras, and Colombia. Encounters with members of family units rose to their second-highest level ever.

Among a variety of updates: A horrific number of sexual assaults recorded in the Darién Gap. Venezuela is halting U.S. deportation flights. ICE ran its first deportation flight to Mexico’s interior since May 2022. A “caravan” has almost completely dwindled in southern Mexico.

In addition to nearly throttling the Senate border deal, U.S. ultraconservatives have generated an avalanche of media coverage and political discussion around Texas’s challenge to federal authority at the border, and House Republicans’ effort to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

THE FULL UPDATE:

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: January 19, 2024

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 IN BRIEF:

In the most recent escalation of its hardline border policies, the state government of Texas barred Border Patrol agents from a riverfront park in the border city of Eagle Pass. Two days later, a woman and two children drowned in the Rio Grande. Texas National Guardsmen prohibited Border Patrol from entering the park even in emergencies. The Biden administration sent Texas a cease-and-desist letter, and the state-federal jurisdictional clash will likely go to federal court.

Following a meeting between President Biden and congressional leadership, top senators said a deal could emerge next week that might allow the President’s request for Ukraine aid and other priorities to move forward. The price would be meeting some Republican demands for restrictions on asylum and perhaps other migration pathways, which a small group of senators continues to negotiate. Even if senators reach a deal, it could fail in the Republican-majority House, where demands for migration curbs are more extreme.

After setting records in December, migration encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border have dropped by more than half since the holidays. Biden administration officials claim that Mexico’s government has contributed to the drop with more aggressive migration control efforts. Numbers are also down significantly in the treacherous Darién Gap region between Colombia and Panama.

THE FULL UPDATE:

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: December 21, 2023

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 will be the last Weekly Border Update until January 19. Best wishes for a happy holiday.

THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:

More than 10,000 migrants per day, mostly asylum seekers, have been arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. ​​Border Patrol sectors seeing the most arrivals are Del Rio and El Paso, Texas; Tucson, Arizona; and San Diego, California. Some of the rush is likely the product of false rumors and misinformation. Notably, it is happening even though U.S.-bound migration through Panama and Honduras has been dropping sharply since October.

The U.S. Congress has adjourned for 2023 with no agreement on Republicans’ demands for new restrictions on asylum and other migration pathways—their main condition for supporting a $110.5 billion package of aid to Ukraine and Israel, new border spending, and other priorities. A small group of senators and senior Biden administration officials has been meeting regularly, but has produced neither legislative language nor a basic framework. They will resume consideration of the spending bill after Congress returns on January 8, amid a growing outcry from progressive legislators and migrants’ rights defense groups.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed into law S.B.4, which makes irregular border crossings into Texas a state crime. Upon arrest, migrants will be jailed if they do not agree to be returned to Mexico—but Mexico is refusing to accept returnees from the Texas state government. The ACLU, El Paso County, and El Paso-based rights groups quickly filed suit in federal court to block the law.

THE FULL UPDATE:

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Testimony on Organized Crime and Human Rights in Colombia

I had a few extra days to submit my written testimony from last week’s hearing of the U.S. Congress Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, since I was added to the panel a couple of days before. I just finished it and sent it in.

Here it is—and here as a PDF.

Written testimony of
Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America
Hearing: “Organized Crime, Gangs and Human Rights in Latin America”
Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC
December 14, 2023

Chairmen McGovern and Smith, thank you for calling this hearing. It’s an honor to be with you today.

I’m going to talk about Colombia, which today has a confusing array of armed and criminal groups. A decade ago, I could have named all armed or criminal groups in Colombia that had more than 100 members; today, I cannot do that with confidence. A February 2023 report from the Colombian think-tank INDEPAZ counted about 22 of them, in the categories of “narco-paramilitaries,” “post-FARC groups,” and “guerrillas.”[1]

They run the drug trade. They degrade the environment. They facilitate migration, including through the treacherous Darién Gap, where the Gulf Clan “narco-paramilitary” organization has a monopoly on smuggling on the Colombian side.[2] They kill thousands each year, including the world’s highest numbers of murdered human rights and environmental defenders.[3] They displace or confine hundreds of thousands more.

INDEPAZ categorization of Colombian armed and criminal groups

Narco-ParamilitariesPost-FARC Groups (FARC Dissidents)Guerrillas
Drug trafficking groups, most of which have leaders who participated in the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a confederation of pro-government militias that demobilized in 2006. The Gulf Clan is by far the largest.Loose confederations of groups led by former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, who rejected the 2016 peace accord. Less than 10 percent of FARC members who demobilized in 2017 have re-armed.[4]The National Liberation Army (ELN), founded in 1964, is the only remaining leftist guerrilla group.
Active in about 345 of Colombia’s 1,104 municipalities (counties)Active in about 161 municipalitiesActive in about 162 municipalities
– Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces or Gulf Clan
– EPL or Pelusos
– La Oficina
– Los Pachencas
– Los Puntilleros
– Los Rastrojos
– Los Caparros
– Los Costeños
– Los Pachelly
– La Constru
– Los Contadores
– Los Shotas
– Los Espartanos
– Southeastern Bloc (Central General Staff)
– Comando Coordinador de Occidente (Central General Staff)
– Segunda Marquetalia
– “Independent” groups:
– 33rd Front
– 36th Front
– Oliver Sinisterra Front
– Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico
– 4th Front
– ELN
Source: “Informe sobre presencia de grupos armados en Colombia 2021 – 2022” (Bogotá: INDEPAZ, November 25, 2022), https://indepaz.org.co/informe-sobre-presencia-de-grupos-armados-en-colombia-2021-2022-1/

Why organized crime is so much harder to fight than guerrillas

In 2016 Colombia’s largest leftist guerrilla group, the FARC, signed a peace accord and demobilized, following a decade-long, U.S.-backed series of military offensives and four years of negotiations. Guerrillas have disappeared from many areas, from the roads around Bogotá to the slums around Medellín. But it is difficult to identify a territory in Colombia that was under organized crime’s influence 30 years ago—going back to the heyday of the now-defunct Medellín and Cali cartels—that is not under organized crime’s influence today.

Hundreds of top cartel and criminal-organization leaders have been killed, imprisoned, and extradited to the United States. The groups’ names change, they divide internally, or are supplanted by other groups. But organized crime is still remarkably active throughout Colombia, and a constant factor in millions of Colombians’ daily lives. Often, today’s active groups can trace their DNA back to the cartels of the 1980s and 1990s, the paramilitaries of the 1990s and 2000s, and remnants of demobilized leftist guerrillas.

Weakening the FARC to the point that it was willing to negotiate cost Colombia tens of thousands of lives, and billions of dollars (many from Washington) that could have saved or improved millions of lives. After all that, Colombia’s other adversary, organized crime, remains as strong and as wealthy as ever.

Why has organized crime been so much more resilient, and so much harder to confront, than leftist guerrillas? There are a few key reasons.

  • The FARC had a firm command hierarchy, while organized crime is looser and networked. Removing leaders did more harm to the FARC’s command and control.
  • Because of its loose structure, organized crime often fragments when confronted (and sometimes fragments anyway because of internal divisions). The result is dozens of groups instead of just a few.
  • Members and leaders of organized crime groups are more often mixed in with the population, more likely to be in towns and less likely to be in distant areas like jungle encampments, which are more susceptible to aerial attacks and other offensive operations.
  • Most importantly, the FARC actually wanted to fight the government. Organized crime groups will confront government forces or institutions when they see their interests gravely threatened or wish to send a message. But they prefer not to do that. Fighting the government is bad for a group’s business, as it focuses the state’s military and intelligence resources against it.

Instead, organized crime thrives on its relationship with government. Corruption is the oxygen that it breathes. Criminals need police who will look the other way when a cocaine shipment is going downriver. They need mayors who go along when they traffic people or dig illegal gold mines out in the open. They need prosecutors who let cases die.

The problem of government collusion with organized crime is especially concerning when it concerns the security forces. (Colombia’s military and police have been the Americas’ number-one recipients of U.S. security assistance since the early 1990s.) A scan of Colombian media reveals numerous examples of military and police personnel, at all levels and all around the country, accused of colluding with armed and criminal groups.

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: December 15, 2023

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 IN BRIEF:

With more input from the White House and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a small group of senators continues to negotiate a deal that might water down the right to seek asylum at the border, a Republican demand for passage of a $110.5 billion Biden administration request for Ukraine and Israel aid, the border, and other priorities. Migrant rights defenders are alarmed by reports that the administration and Democratic legislators might agree to a provision that would expel asylum seekers, Title 42-style, if daily Border Patrol apprehensions exceed a certain threshold. Congress was set to adjourn on December 14; the House gaveled out, but the Senate remains in session in order to give negotiators more time.

With nearly 10,000 Border Patrol migrant apprehensions per day, December 1-7 was one of the busiest weeks ever at the U.S.-Mexico border. Arrivals of asylum seekers are heaviest in Border Patrol’s Tucson, Del Rio, and San Diego sectors, where Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has partially or fully closed three ports of entry. More recent data point to a modest slowdown in migrant arrivals compared to the first week of the month. So do reports of reduced, though still historically high, levels of northbound migration through Honduras and Panama.

THE FULL UPDATE:

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: December 8, 2023

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 IN BRIEF:

Legislators have hit an impasse over the Biden administration’s request for $110.5 billion in additional funding for Ukraine, Israel, the border, and other priorities. In exchange for their support, Republicans are demanding tougher border and migration measures, including some that could put asylum and humanitarian parole out of reach for many. Talks between a small group of senators have broken down, a “test vote” in the full Senate failed, and the tone is acrimonious.

Border Patrol apprehended more than 10,000 migrants on December 5, one of the highest daily counts ever. A September-to-October dip in migrant arrivals has reversed. Large groups are waiting, at times for days in poor humanitarian conditions, in Border Patrol’s sectors in Tucson, Arizona; Del Rio, Texas; and San Diego, California.

U.S. authorities encountered over 28,000 citizens of China at the U.S.-Mexico border over the 12 months ending in October, a more than tenfold increase over the previous 12 months, with more than 8,000 arriving in September and October. Most are coming to San Diego. People who flee China tend to be middle class or lower middle class. They are escaping persecution but also cite fears of falling into poverty as the world’s second-largest economy falters.

THE FULL UPDATE:

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: December 4, 2023

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’s update is late because, as we approached our regular publication deadline, staff were testifying in the House of Representatives. The next update will resume, as normal, on Friday (December 8).

THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:

A group of six or seven senators is negotiating Republican demands for tighter border and migration measures in exchange for aid to Ukraine, Israel and more in a Biden administration request for additional 2024 funds. The senators may be close to requiring asylum seekers to meet a much higher standard of fear in initial interviews at the border, a possibility that has progressive members of Congress and migrants’ rights advocates, including WOLA, on edge. Republicans are also demanding Democratic concessions on “safe third country” agreements and the presidential humanitarian parole authority.

Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector, which includes far west Texas and New Mexico, experienced a very sharp increase in the number of migrant remains recovered during fiscal 2023. The agency reported that 15 people died by drowning in the Rio Grande in its Del Rio, Texas Sector between October 1 and November 20. Medical providers in San Diego report a sharp increase in deaths and serious injuries from falls off of the border wall. On the Mexican side of the border, a mass kidnapping in Tamaulipas and cartel battles in Sonora underscored the dangers migrants face in the border zone.

The federal judiciary’s Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered Texas to remove the “buoy wall” that Gov. Greg Abbott (R) had ordered built in the middle of the Rio Grande in June near Eagle Pass. Abbott said he would appeal to the Supreme Court. A Fifth Circuit district court also blocked a Texas state government suit seeking to prohibit Border Patrol agents from cutting through the razor-sharp concertina wire that Texas authorities have strung along the river’s banks, in an effort to block asylum seekers.

THE FULL UPDATE:

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U.S.-Mexico Border Update: November 17, 2023

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 IN BRIEF:

For the first time since May to June, the number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border declined from September to October. The main reason was a drop in migration of citizens of Venezuela, a likely “wait and see” reaction after the Biden administration, on October 5, announced a resumption of deportation flights to Caracas. Other trends included a rise in arrivals of Mexican families and a general westward shift in migrants’ destinations, with Arizona a particular focus.

Migration also declined in Panama’s Darién Gap region in October, led by a drop in Venezuelan citizens transiting the perilous jungle route. Migration through Honduras, however, jumped to over 100,000 people in October. The reason is an increase in aerial routes to Nicaragua, which does not require visas of most countries’ visiting citizens.

The state legislature of Texas, which is dominated by a Republican Party strongly critical of the Biden administration’s border policies, added the latest in a series of hardline measures: a law that would make it a state crime to cross the border irregularly from Mexico. The law raises questions about Mexico’s willingness to take back migrants expelled by Texas, the constitutionality of a state enforcing immigration laws, and a possible increase in racial profiling that today’s more conservative Supreme Court might uphold.

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: November 10, 2023

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 IN BRIEF:

The U.S. Congress is considering the 2024 federal budget and a supplemental budget request for Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, and the U.S.-Mexico border. In exchange for approval—especially for the supplemental request—Republican legislators are demanding changes to border and migration policy, including a series of measures that would severely curtail the right to seek asylum in the United States. Democrats are opposed, but signal that they are willing to discuss some concessions on asylum, possibly including a higher standard that asylum seekers must meet in initial “credible fear” interviews.

The International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch issued in-depth research reports about migration in the treacherous Darién Gap jungle region straddling Colombia and Panama, through which about half a million people have migrated so far this year. Both find stark gaps in government presence and a powerful role for organized crime, along with frequent and severe abuses of migrants passing through the zone. Recommendations recognize the complexity of the situation, and focus largely on efforts in source and transit countries to address the causes of migration, improved integration of migrants especially from Venezuela and Haiti, and better cooperation and coordination between states.

Brief updates look at Costa Rica’s and Panama’s policy of busing northbound migrants through their territory; at Nicaragua’s increasing use as an initial arrival point for migrants from Cuba, Haiti, and elsewhere; and at the situation of thousands of migrants stranded in Chiapas and Oaxaca in southern Mexico.

THE FULL UPDATE:

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: October 13, 2023

Due to staff travel, WOLA will not produce Border Updates during the next three weeks. Updates will resume on November 10.

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 IN BRIEF:

The Biden administration’s October 5 announcements of new border wall construction and renewed deportations to Venezuela reverberated at the border, along the migration route, and in policy discussions. Many Democratic Party political leaders and non-governmental organizations voiced criticism. Analysts suggested that the moves pointed to a grim political reality for the administration at a time of near-record migrant arrivals at the border.

After three months of sharp growth, migration may be leveling off or even declining since mid-September, according to partial data and anecdotal evidence. September data show a very slight August-to-September reduction in near-record migration through Panama’s Darién Gap Region, and a sharp rise in the number of people traveling through Honduras.

Videos show asylum seekers forced to get past a gauntlet of Texas state police, soldiers, and razor wire in order to access Border Patrol agents further from the river’s edge. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has snarled cargo traffic in northern Mexican border cities by ordering “safety” checkpoints for trucks exiting border bridges. An appeals court heard arguments about Gov. Abbott’s “buoy wall” in Eagle Pass.

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: October 6, 2023

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 IN BRIEF:

Two important policy developments occurred as WOLA was drafting and editing this update on October 5. The Biden administration announced that it will waive environmental, public health, and cultural resource protection laws to expedite the construction of the border wall in south Texas. The State Department announced that it will resume direct deportations of Venezuelan migrants to their home country, an economically collapsed dictatorship that the U.S. government does not formally recognize.

Preliminary data indicates that migration increased at the U.S.-Mexico border in September for the third consecutive month. Fiscal 2023 was Border Patrol’s number-two year ever for migrant apprehensions, exceeded only by 2022. 50,000 of September’s Border Patrol apprehensions were reportedly of citizens of Venezuela, which would be a record for a nationality other than Mexico. High migration levels have brought tensions and human rights concerns in San Diego, El Paso, and elsewhere. Deaths of migrants in Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector more than doubled from 2022 to 2023.

U.S. and Mexican diplomats are meeting at the highest levels to discuss issues including migration. Mexico has signaled a willingness to deport more citizens of Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia. The Biden administration is aiming to launch a pilot project to help Panama deport more migrants from the Darién Gap region.

About 6,000 people are crossing Mexico’s southern border every day, and the country is on track to exceed 150,000 asylum applications this year. Mexico continues to halt some trains and bus migrants into the interior, while accidents and attacks are claiming many lives along the migration route.

It appears that 75,268 migrants crossed the Darién Gap in September, the second largest-ever monthly total. A UN survey revealed that the average journey through this treacherous region lasts four days.

THE FULL UPDATE:

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The Administration’s Border Wall Messaging Will Make Your Head Hurt

This is a single screenshot from today’s New York Times article about the Biden administration’s announcement that it is building new segments of border wall. The highlighted bits are a few paragraphs apart.

<highlight>“There is presently an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the border of the United States in order to prevent unlawful entries into the United States,”</highlight> said Mr. Mayorkas in the notice.

It added that construction would be built with funds appropriated by Congress in 2019 for wall construction in the Rio Grande Valley. That appropriation followed a disaster declaration by the Trump administration amid soaring numbers of border crossers.

Mr. Biden said on Thursday that he had no choice but to use the money for the wall.

“The money was appropriated for the border wall. I tried to get them to reappropriate, to redirect that money. They didn’t. They wouldn’t,” he told reporters, apparently referring to Congress.

<highlight>Asked whether he thought the border wall was effective, he replied, “no.”</highlight>

It’s unusual to see that much self-contradiction in such close proximity.

If you listen to President Biden today, it sounds like his administration has been forced, against its will, to waive 26 environmental and cultural laws to build abut 20 miles of border wall in Starr County, in south Texas.

But if you listen to the Department of Homeland Security language in the Federal Register, it looks like they’re doing this out of a newfound enthusiasm for border walls.

Biden is correct: the wall-building money comes from 2019 appropriations, passed for then-president Donald Trump by a Republican congressional majority, which the Biden administration and congressional Democrats were unable to rescind. The Impoundment Control Act says that presidents have to spend money as Congress appropriates it, before it expires.

The money in question is in the blue section of this chart, in the 2019 column. (The chart comes from a January 2020 commentary I wrote for WOLA.) By the time Trump left office, the 2017 money was spent, the 2018 money was all but spent, but most of the 2019 money was not, and the 2020 money hadn’t been touched yet. (See this October 2020 “Border Wall Status” report that I saved.)

A 2020 chart breaking down sources of border wall money. The "blue part," denoting congressional appropriations, is $441 million in 2017 and $1.375 billion in each of 2018, 2019, and 2020.

So President Biden is right: he had no choice but to spend the border wall money before it expired, presumably with the September 30 end of the government’s 2023 fiscal year. But his administration has done a poor job of explaining that today.

Update October 7: After a lot of conversations about this on October 5 and 6, and I feel I should soften the “Biden is right” language above, because it’s more complicated.

While it’s true that Biden had to use the 2019 appropriations money, it’s unclear whether the Impoundments Act required him to waive 26 laws to proceed with the wall construction.

This is a question that federal courts would probably have to resolve. As seen in recent cases, the decision would likely be made following a lawsuit—possibly filed in the federal judiciary’s conservative Fifth Circuit by Republican state governments. It’s probable that the case would escalate to the Supreme Court. It’s understandable that the Biden administration would prefer not to engage its Justice Department in this litigation, considering it could drag on for a couple of years and potentially result in an unfavorable precedent.

However, the question remains: why didn’t the administration devise a barrier design that met congressional requirements without needing to waive environmental and other laws? Such a design would have been more likely to withstand legal scrutiny, and would have earned less criticism from environmental advocates and the President’s supporters.

One possible explanation is internal bureaucratic politics. The wall designs for Starr County were initially conceived during the Trump administration. It’s plausible that career officials from the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection (among them, one suspects, the drafters of that “acute and immediate need” language) were resistant to revisiting the designs. It seems that the Biden administration’s political appointees were not prepared to push back strongly on this issue. So here we are.

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