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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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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