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: September 1, 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.

Due to a holiday followed by an especially heavy event schedule next week, there will be no Border Update on September 8, 2023.

THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:

The military component of the Texas state government’s controversial border security operation came under heavier scrutiny this week, after an August 26 cross-border shooting incident in El Paso and an August 29 investigation into improper spying on civilian migrants. This component of Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) “Operation Lone Star” is a very rare domestic use of military force on U.S. soil with both a long timeframe and rules of engagement permitting use of force against civilians.

Panama is reporting over 70,000 migrants passing through the treacherous Darién Gap region so far in August, a record by far. Data releases from Honduras and Mexico also point to record levels of people in transit. Costa Rica, whose president met with President Biden this week, declared a state of emergency along its border with Panama. Migrants come from dozens of countries, but Venezuela is the predominant nationality.

Alarms went off in parts of the Biden administration earlier this year, CNN reported, after a smuggler who had facilitated some Uzbek asylum seekers’ arrival at the U.S.-Mexico border was alleged to have “links” to ISIS, a group on the U.S. government’s list of terrorist organizations. The migrants themselves, who were released into the United States pending immigration court hearings, are not believed to have terrorist ties.

THE FULL UPDATE:

Shooting, spying incidents deepen controversy about Texas National Guard border deployment

The military component of the Texas state government’s controversial border security operation came under heavier scrutiny this week, after an August 26 shooting incident at the border in El Paso and an August 29 investigation revealing improper spying.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a border and migration hardliner and critic of the Biden administration, expects to spend over $9.5 billion between 2021 and 2025 on a set of border security initiatives he calls “Operation Lone Star” (OLS). These include building segments of border wall with state funds, deploying thousands of police and Texas National Guardsmen to arrest and jail migrants—including asylum seekers—on state charges of “trespassing,” and laying down miles of razor-sharp concertina wire along the Rio Grande, as well as a 1,000-foot wall of buoys in the middle of the river in Eagle Pass.

Since 2021 Abbott has used state funds to send several thousand National Guardsmen to the U.S.-Mexico border, in an unusually large and long mission for a state military force. That deployment has faced past controversies, including poor initial planning that left Texas troops in miserable living conditions and the deaths, in some cases by suicide, of eight assigned guardsmen.

While details about what happened at about 8:50 PM on August 26 remain under wraps, we know that a Texas National Guardsman stationed near the El Paso side of the Paso del Norte bridge fired a shot into Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, wounding  the leg of a Mexican man on the opposite riverbank.

Mexican authorities identified the victim as Darwin José García, 37, of Veracruz, Mexico. He was treated in a Ciudad Juárez hospital and released. The Juárez newspaper El Diario reported that police said García told them he was planning to cross the river to the United States; the victim told reporters he was “practicing a sport” on the Mexican side.

The circumstances leading the unnamed Texas guardsman to fire their weapon into Mexico remain unclear. The Washington Post, citing a CBP official who had been briefed about the incident, reported that “the Texas Guard member opened fire after three men on the Mexican side of the border started attacking a group of migrants with a knife as the migrants attempted to cross the river.”

The official added that “details are hazy.” If that is what happened—and it is possible, as Mexican criminal groups do use violence to keep migrants from crossing without paying fees—then the guardsman could argue that the action was within the limits of CBP’s use of force policy. That policy permits lethal force if personnel have “a reasonable belief that the subject of such force poses an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the LEO [law enforcement officer] or to another person.”

The incident is being investigated by the state government’s Texas Rangers and by Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is serving as a liaison between Texas and Mexican authorities. At an August 30 meeting with Texas authorities, Mexico’s consul-general in El Paso “reiterated that the Texas National Guard member’s action was inadmissible,” according to a statement.

This is the second time this year that a Texas National Guardsman has fired a weapon at a civilian. On January 13 near McAllen, Spc. Angel Gallegos shot migrant Ricardo Rodríguez Nieto in the shoulder with his pistol, wounding him. The guardsman claimed that the shooting happened during a scuffle, which Rodríguez Nieto and other migrants dispute; Hidalgo County prosecutors nonetheless declined to seek an indictment. In January 2022, a guardsman also fired his rifle in Laredo to disable a vehicle whose driver had reportedly attempted to run over another guardsman.

In the United States, which since the 1870s has placed strict limits on using military personnel for internal law enforcement, it is exceedingly rare for U.S. military personnel to use lethal force against civilians on U.S. soil. (See WOLA’s 2010 report contrasting the U.S. civil-military model at home with the model its aid programs promote in Latin America.)

All U.S. state governors command National Guard units, soldiers who receive training with the regular U.S. military and serve on a part-time basis unless called up for an emergency. National Guardsmen can also be called up for federal government duty, at which point they are no longer at the governor’s command. Many served lengthy tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and presidents since George W. Bush have deployed National Guard and active military personnel to the border.

Those 21st-century federal border missions have restricted guardsmen to duties (“support for CBP”) and rules of engagement that seek to minimize potential contact with civilians. The Biden administration has sent 2,500 National Guard personnel border-wide in a federal support role, but they are rarely in view. (Biden augmented this force with an additional deployment of 1,500 regular military personnel in May, in preparation for the end of the Title 42 pandemic border policy; that force is to be drawn down by the end of August.)

The Operation Lone Star National Guard mission is different because it was ordered by Gov. Abbott, and is funded entirely with Texas’s state budget. That places the guardsmen under the governor’s command, authorized by a different section of the U.S. Code. Abbott has taken the unusual step of authorizing them to detain civilians, and otherwise to be in situations that may involve use of force against them.

Texas National Guardsmen wear uniforms, use weapons, and receive training—including combat training—identical to what the regular U.S. armed forces wear, use, and receive. For a military force to carry out a domestic mission this long in duration, and with such a high probability of hostile interactions with civilians, is highly unusual in the modern United States.

The civil-military risks were underscored on August 29, when two reporters who have covered Operation Lone Star’s military component since 2021, Davis Winkie of Military Times and James Barragán of the Texas Tribune, revealed that members of a Texas National Guard intelligence unit had “secretly infiltrated invite-only WhatsApp group chats filled with migrants and smugglers.”

This activity violated rules against domestic U.S. military spying on civilians, and against state governments running their own espionage operations. Those rules have been in place for decades for a reason, Winkie and Barragán explained: “Defense Department personnel ran massive domestic intelligence operations during the Vietnam War that targeted Americans based solely on how they legally exercised their First Amendment rights.”

The allegations, deeply detailed in the journalists’ report, assert that First Lieutenant Emmanuel Pierre, a guardsman of Haitian descent, infiltrated private WhatsApp groups used by Haitian migrants starting in 2021, when large numbers of Haitian asylum seekers began arriving at the Texas border.

Pierre’s digital spying was overseen by Maj. Dezi Rios, Operation Lone Star’s deputy intelligence director at the time who, when named to the position in October 2021, “had resigned from the San Antonio Police Department that same month after his involvement in a third road rage incident in four years led to misdemeanor criminal charges.” Rios claimed that he voiced concerns about the WhatsApp operation to superiors, but was rebuffed.

At least four Texas National Guard intelligence officers “have faced interim administrative discipline” for the WhatsApp operation and for improperly sharing classified FBI intelligence with colleagues.

The report claims that Operation Lone Star commanders “demanded military-style intelligence from their intelligence personnel.” One service member put it: “Everyone [in charge] wanted to pretend it was like Iraq in 2003… They wanted to do Army stuff, even though this is [legally] not Army stuff.”

“Such intelligence work is essentially unheard of for National Guard members on state active duty,” the Military Times and Texas Tribune report explained, noting that it sets a troubling precedent. “You give intel soldiers enough tools—we’re violating many constitutional rights very quickly,” an unnamed service member told the reporters. “If they’re willing to compromise their integrity over something like that,” one National Guard source said, “who knows where they’ll stop?

In other Operation Lone Star news from the past week:

  • Oklahoma, one of about 15 Republican-led states to send National Guardsmen to Texas to support Operation Lone Star, ended up paying $825,000, or $550 per person per day, for a 30-day deployment of 50 personnel, according to the Oklahoman.
  • A Border Report dispatch from Eagle Pass, Texas recalled that the controversial buoys and concertina wire that Operation Lone Star has placed along the town’s riverfront have done nothing to deter migrants seeking to turn themselves in and request asylum.
  • A petition circulated by Faithful America, a Christian social justice group, accused Gov. Abbott, who is Catholic, of taking “neither Catholic social teaching nor the Gospels’ instructions to welcome the stranger seriously” with his management of OLS. The document has over 10,000 signatures, Newsweek reported.

From the Darién Gap to Mexico, migration levels break records

As August draws to a close, reports from countries south of the U.S.-Mexico border point to migration reaching unprecedented levels.

(On the evening of August 31, as this Update neared publication, the Washington Post published preliminary estimates pointing to 177,000 Border Patrol migrant apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border in August, including a record 91,000 family unit members. Measured in migrant encounters, that would make August about 77 percent busier than June, and the 16th busiest month of the Biden administration.)

Panama’s Public Security Ministry tweeted that as of August 28, 68,340 people had migrated in August through the Darién Gap, a roadless region of treacherous primary jungle straddling Panama’s border with Colombia. That number of migrants—which has since grown beyond 72,000 in August—vastly exceeds Panama’s earlier single-month record of 59,773 (October 2022).

The Darién Gap was considered an impenetrable barrier between North and South America until migration increased in the mid-2010s and vastly expanded in 2021. Scores of migrants die each year there of drownings, disease, wild animals, and criminal attacks, and many more are injured, robbed, or sexually assaulted.

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At GitHub, a tool for viewing official U.S.-Mexico border migration data

Over at GitHub, I’ve added source files for a little tool that generates tables of Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) U.S.-Mexico border migration data since 2020. (CBP updates its dataset every month; as of now, that’s a CSV file with 61,567 rows.)

Here’s what this looks like. First, you see a form asking you to choose what you want to see. In this example, the selected checkboxes ask for, by year, how many Venezuelan family-unit members and unaccompanied children came to ports of entry, or arrived between ports of entry, in Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector and CBP’s El Paso Field Office.

Screenshot of form showing selections: "Year," "At Ports of Entry or Between Them," "El Paso Sector," "El Paso Field Office," "Venezuela," "Family Unit Members," "Unaccompanied Children"

And here’s the resulting table.

This is super-useful for my work, and I’m happy to share it. But generating the tables is pretty server-intensive. A search for monthly data, with a column for every month since October 2019, takes at least several seconds to generate as the MySQL server processes separate queries for each table cell.

So while I’ve got a working version of this on the web somewhere, I can’t make it public because if dozens of people use it each day, I’ll get some stern notes from my web hosting service.

But all the source files are on GitHub: it’s just 3 PHP files and an SQL version of CBP’s dataset. This will take you a couple of minutes to set up if you’re familiar with using free software (like MAMP for Mac, WAMP for Windows, or LAMP for Linux) to run a web server, unconnected to the internet, on your computer.

Here’s screenshots of a form showing a search for, by month and nationality, how many migrants were encountered in Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector, and the very large resulting table.

Screenshot of form showing selections: "Month," "Nationality," and "Yuma Sector"

Screenshot of resulting table

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

Border Patrol’s apprehensions of migrants between ports of entry increased 33 percent from June to July. While still far fewer than in July 2022, the numbers signal that a post-Title 42 lull in migration has come to an end. Nearly all of the increase was arrivals of children and families, with Ecuador, Guatemala, and Honduras the nationalities whose numbers grew the most. Though large numbers of Venezuelan migrants are en route to the border, the number of Venezuelan migrant encounters actually declined. More than 50,000 people were processed at ports of entry, a record.

The Justice Department’s lawsuit against the state of Texas, seeking to compel Gov. Greg Abbott (R) to remove a “wall” of buoys in the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, went before a federal judge in Austin. Texas’s attorneys were not permitted to use their “invasion defense” argument to justify the barrier’s placement. This is one of several recent controversies surrounding Gov. Abbott’s “Operation Lone Star” security buildup.

Mexico’s immigration agency and Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley opened a facility, on the grounds of an unused hospital, in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, across the river from Brownsville, Texas. The site intends to provide an alternative to a sprawling tent encampment that has formed along the Rio Grande in Matamoros, as asylum seekers there struggle to secure appointments using the CBP One smartphone app.

 

THE FULL UPDATE:

CBP releases July migration details

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released data on August 18 revealing a 33 percent increase in July, compared to June, in the number of migrants whom U.S. Border Patrol apprehended between the U.S.-Mexico border’s ports of entry (99,539 to 132,652).

Data table

This was still 27 percent fewer migrants than a year ago, in July 2022 (181,834), when the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy was in full effect. In July 2023, 9 percent of migrants had been encountered at least once before in the previous 12 months; that was way down from 22 percent in July 2022. This “recidivism” number was much higher during the Title 42 period, when quick expulsions eased repeat crossings.

Data table

The sharp increase over June indicates an end to the sharp drop in migration that followed Title 42’s May 11, 2023 termination. July’s partially recovered migration flow differs from the pre-May 11 period, though, in its demographic makeup, in the part of the border where migrants are arriving, in migrants’ ability to use ports of entry, and to some extent by migrants’ nationalities.

Demographic makeup

Nearly all of the July increase was child and family migrants, whose numbers grew 85 percent from June to July (38,002 to 70,206, combining family-unit members and unaccompanied children). The 60,161 family-unit members apprehended in July 2023 were the most in a single month since December 2022, and before that since September 2021.

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At the Border Chronicle – Impunity in the Borderlands: A Conversation with WOLA’s Adam Isacson

A real honor to be invited to do a Q&A with one of my top can’t-miss-an-article websites about what’s happening at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Border Chronicle, and its co-founder Todd Miller, author of some essential books about border security and human rights.

We talk in depth about WOLA’s recent report, with the Kino Border Initiative, on CBP and Border Patrol abuse and accountability at the U.S.-Mexico border. Why we did the report, what it found, what we recommend, and what happens next. Read it at the Border Chronicle.

At wola.org: Crisis and Opportunity: Unraveling Colombia’s Collapsing Coca Markets

Here’s an analysis I’ve been working on, bit by bit, for the past several weeks.

The market in Colombia for coca, the plant whose leaves can be used to produce cocaine, is in a state of historic collapse, bringing with it an acute humanitarian crisis in already impoverished rural territories. The unusually sharp and prolonged drop in coca prices has several causes. WOLA has identified 12 possible explanations, some more compelling than others.

Regardless of the reason, the crisis is sure to be temporary as world cocaine demand remains robust. The Colombian government, and partner and donor governments including the United States, should take maximum advantage of this window of opportunity before it closes. The humanitarian crisis offers a chance for Colombia to fill vacuums of civilian government presence in territories where insecurity, armed groups, and now hunger are all too common.

Read on—in English or Spanish, HTML or PDF—at WOLA’s website.

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: August 18, 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:

A little girl, placed on a bus to Chicago by Texas authorities in Brownsville, died of still-unclear causes as the bus traveled through southern Illinois. This new tragedy, plus a survey finding that most of Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) Rio Grande “buoy wall” lies on Mexico’s side of the river, added new layers of controversy this week to the Texas state government’s “Operation Lone Star,” a $9.5 billion series of politicized border security measures.

New data from Panama showed that 55,387 people, 69 percent of them Venezuelan, migrated through the treacherous Darién Gap region in July 2023. It was the second-largest monthly total ever measured in the Darién, and it pushed Panama’s count of migrants for 2023’s first seven months ahead of its total for all twelve months of 2022.

The Biden administration is asking Congress for $40.1 billion in additional emergency spending for what remains of 2023, including about $4 billion for border and migration-related priorities. These include nearly $1 billion for “responding to migration surges,” nearly $800 million to help Latin American countries accommodate migrants, more than $400 million to counter fentanyl, and authorization for a new program of “community based residential” facilities for asylum-seeking families placed in expedited removal proceedings.

THE FULL UPDATE:

Death of three-year-old Venezuelan girl draws fresh attention to Texas state government crackdown

A three-year-old Venezuelan girl died on August 10 aboard one of the buses that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has contracted to take asylum-seeking migrants from his state’s border areas to cities run by Democratic mayors.

The bus, full of asylum seekers who had been released from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody into Brownsville, Texas, had traveled 1,200 miles into southern Illinois. The girl, who was with her parents, showed symptoms of illness—fever and diarrhea—then lost consciousness. The coroner of Marion County, Illinois told the Dallas Morning News that “preliminary autopsy results were inconclusive, but additional tests are being done that could establish what happened.” Those tests could take “a couple of weeks.”

Jismary Alejandra Barboza González, born in Colombia to Venezuelan parents in August 2019, traveled with her parents through the Darién Gap and across Central America and Mexico. The state of Illinois is covering the funeral costs for her family, who planned to live in Indiana while pursuing their asylum claim. A GoFundMe page exists to help her parents with “medical and psychological expenses.” She would have turned four on August 25.

The Texas state government’s Division of Emergency Management stated that every bus passenger had been processed by CBP before their release, and that Texas authorities checked all for fevers or medical conditions before boarding them onto the bus.

The death aboard the Texas bus is the latest in a string of controversies involving “Operation Lone Star” (OLS), a set of strategies that Gov. Abbott—a hardliner on border and migration policy—launched in 2021, with a price tag expected to reach $9.5 billion by 2025. They include:

  • Busing more than 30,000 migrants to Washington, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver, and Los Angeles, at a cost of more than $2,000 per passenger, without coordinating with or notifying those cities’ governments.
  • Deploying several thousand Texas National Guardsmen to the border, at first on very little notice and under miserable conditions (see WOLA’s December 10, 2021 Border Update). Eight guardsmen assigned to the mission have died: one while performing risky duties, some by suicide.
  • Sending police and guardsmen to arrest migrants on state charges of trespassing, often by encouraging asylum seekers to turn themselves in on what turns out to be state land. Migrants— mostly men—are jailed; when they get to court, judges usually release them with “time served” as their penalty. Most then go on to pursue asylum claims.
  • Arresting and jailing fathers, on at least 26 occasions this summer, separating them from the rest of their families who end up in CBP custody (see WOLA’s August 4 Border Update). An August 15 letter from 28 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus called on the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to “immediately launch an investigation” into Texas’s family separations.
  • Facing questioning, after scrutiny from outlets like ProPublica, about the veracity of Operation Lone Star’s statistics claiming inflated results against drugs and criminality.
  • Laying down 60 miles of razor-sharp concertina wire along, and within, the Rio Grande around Eagle Pass, Texas, where in July the Texas state government installed a 1,000-foot “wall” of buoys, with jagged circles of sharp metal between the individual spheres. The razor wire has injured migrants, while a Texas state police whistleblower revealed that police and guardsmen are encouraging asylum seekers on U.S. soil to get back into the river, denying them water and medical care despite record heat (see WOLA’s July 21 Border Update, among other Updates from July and August 2023).

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called the Venezuelan child’s death in Illinois “devastating and heartbreaking… horrific news and horrific to hear that,” expressing condolences to the family. She criticized Gov. Abbott for taking “dangerous” and “unlawful actions,” adding, “it doesn’t just put, sadly, young migrants at risk or migrants at risk, but it also puts at risk the Border Patrol who are trying to do their job. And he gets in the way of that every day.”

Asked whether CBP, a federal agency, would halt cooperation with OLS while a Justice Department lawsuit against Gov. Abbott’s “buoy wall” proceeds, Jean-Pierre responded, “I don’t have a response to that.”

That lawsuit, filed on July 24, seeks to force Abbott to take down the buoys in the middle of the river in Eagle Pass, asserting that they violate laws, and treaties with Mexico, governing management of the Rio Grande. “In Eagle Pass, sediment falling into the river from the installation of fences and buoys is already altering the water’s flow, according to environmentalists,” Reuters reported. U.S. District Court Judge David Alan Ezra will hear arguments in San Antonio on August 22.

About 80 percent of the “buoy wall” is in fact on Mexico’s side of the borderline, which runs down the center of the river, according to an August 15 Justice Department filing in the case. The filing includes the results of a July 27-28 survey carried out by the International Boundary and Water Commission, a binational body governing use of the river. The results uphold a claim that Mexico’s government has been making since the buoys were installed in July.

Alicia Bárcena, Mexico’s foreign minister, raised the issue in a joint August 10 appearance with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Bárcena added that Mexico will not take unilateral action to remove the buoys until the Justice Department’s lawsuit plays out. Blinken, contending that “we’re a country and a government that proceeds by rule of law,” said that the Biden administration would not remove the buoys until the courts rule on their legality.

The Texas state government’s response to the Justice Department lawsuit argues that the state “has a federal constitutional right to defend itself against invasion from even non-state actors.”

Elsewhere in Texas, amid a historic heat wave in the southernmost part of the state where people frequently find the remains of migrants who died of dehydration and heatstroke, someone has been stealing barrels of water left out on ranch lands by the South Texas Human Rights Center, a humanitarian group. The Associated Press reported that the cause could be road crews moving obstacles, wildfires, or something more nefarious.

In El Paso, the city “is again seeing small groups of migrants sleeping on the streets of Downtown and South El Paso as area shelters are at capacity and migrants are ‘timing out’ of their allowed stay,” El Paso Matters reported, as Border Patrol has been transferring and processing migrants from other parts of the border that are once again seeing elevated migration.

Darién Gap saw second-largest ever monthly total of migrants in July

On August 10 the government of Panama posted July statistics documenting migration through the Darién Gap, a highly treacherous region straddling the country’s eastern border with Colombia. Until a few years ago, this region, requiring a 60-mile walk through inhospitable jungle, fast-flowing rivers, and criminals operating unimpeded, was considered an impassable barrier to most transit.

The Darién jungle “is not a migratory route,” Samira Gozaine, director of Panama’s National Migration Service (SNM), told the U.S. Southern Command’s Diálogo website earlier this month. Panama’s numbers, though, show otherwise.

  • Panama counted 251,758 migrants passing through the Darién Gap during the first 7 months of 2023. That already exceeds the 248,284 migrants counted in all of 2022, which at the time was a shockingly large number. The 2010-2020 average was 10,717 migrants per year.

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More asylum appointments desperately needed at the Arizona border

Here’s another foray into brief video, as I continue practicing use of some very complicated software.

This one is about the border with Arizona. During a very hot summer, the busiest part of the U.S.-Mexico border has made only 100 appointments per day available to asylum seekers.

Instead of reporting to a point of entry, thousands are crossing in dangerous desert during record heat. The number of CBP One appointments needs to increase in Nogales.

Video: August 11, 2023 Border Update

I’m trying something new here. If I don’t manage to keep it up after a few weeks, I’ll never mention it again.

It’s a quick overview of this week’s WOLA Border Update, for use in social media.

I’m trying out both my brand-new office space (WOLA just completed a renovation), and my low-on-the-learning-curve Adobe Premiere skills.

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: August 11, 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:

In July, Arizona’s hottest month on record, Border Patrol apprehended more migrants in its Tucson Sector—which comprises most of the state’s border miles—than in any month since April 2008. Large groups of migrants are arriving in very remote desert areas west of Nogales, straining U.S. agencies’ capacity to process them. Preliminary data point to many migrants perishing in the intense heat.

False rumors spread on social media, pointing to some sort of change in CBP policy at ports of entry, caused hundreds of migrants to gather at border bridges in Ciudad Juárez and Matamoros on August 7 and 8. U.S. personnel employed tear gas and pepper balls in El Paso, and closed a main Brownsville-Matamoros bridge for about nine hours.

A visiting delegation of Democratic members of Congress highlighted the integration of serrated, saw-like metal discs in the design of buoys that Gov. Greg Abbott (R) ordered installed in the middle of the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, Texas. Media revealed that federal agencies have repeatedly been communicating to Texas that its border-hardening measures along the river are illegal. A hearing in the Justice Department’s lawsuit seeking to take down the Eagle Pass buoys is scheduled for August 22.

THE FULL UPDATE:

Despite intense summer heat, Arizona is migration’s new geographic epicenter

Much of the U.S.-Mexico border is experiencing its hottest summer on record, and the heat has been especially intense in Arizona. Temperatures in Phoenix reached or exceeded 110 degrees Fahrenheit every day between June 30 and July 30; closer to the border in Tucson, residents experienced a record 45 straight days of temperatures of 100 degrees or more.

Surprisingly, the record-breaking hot month of July 2023 appears also to have been the heaviest month for migrant arrivals in Arizona since April 2008.

Border Patrol may have apprehended 40,664 migrants last month in its Tucson Sector, which includes most of Arizona, according to preliminary agency data leaked to the Center Square, a conservative website. (A month ago, this website published leaked data for June, which ultimately proved to be about 3 percent greater than Border Patrol’s final total.) That would make Tucson, one of nine Border Patrol sectors along the U.S.-Mexico border, the destination for nearly one in three migrants border-wide last month. Another 7,127 may have been apprehended in Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector, which includes slivers of western Arizona and eastern California.

If accurate (similar, though less exact, preliminary July numbers have been reported by the Washington Post and NBC News), that would mean Border Patrol apprehended over 1,300 people per day in the Tucson Sector in July. That appears to have risen to 1,900 per day “in recent days,” CBS News reported on August 7. That would be “an increase of 134% from an average of 812 in June.”

Border Patrol has been reporting several apprehensions of large groups of migrants, often including children and parents, in very remote desert areas west of Nogales. The Border Patrol station in the desert community of Ajo, west of the Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation and north of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, has vastly exceeded the capacity of its austere holding cells.

In late July, The Intercept found “roughly 50 migrants confined in a chain-link pen” outside the Ajo station, in heat above 110 degrees Fahrenheit, “gathered under a carport-like structure, crowding themselves into a single, narrow strip of shade to escape the desert sun.” Border Patrol told CNN and CBS that it has transferred personnel to Ajo and nearby Lukeville and is endeavoring to move migrants as quickly as possible to facilities elsewhere with more food, water, and medical services. “Currently, the average time in custody at the Ajo station is 15 hours, with some migrants spending a portion of those hours outside waiting to be transported,” CNN reported.

The dangerously high heat continues to kill many who attempt to migrate. The data from the Center Square point to Border Patrol recovering the remains of 64 people border-wide in July, down from 70 in June. Of those recoveries, 21 were in the Tucson sector in July, up sharply from 8 in June. These numbers are far from final, and Arizona-based humanitarian groups like No More Deaths and Humane Borders routinely find a much larger number of remains in the state’s borderland deserts.

An August 4 Customs and Border Protection (CBP) release recounted Border Patrol’s rescue of a severely heat-exhausted Colombian woman near Three Points, Arizona in the late afternoon of July 11; she died of cardiac arrest in a Tucson hospital early the next morning.

Rumors mislead migrants into gathering at border bridges

A false rumor, which spread quickly over social media, alleged that U.S. authorities would be suspending the Biden administration’s restrictive asylum rule on August 8. On that day, messages indicated, CBP would allow people to turn themselves in at land-border ports of entry without first making appointments using the CBP One smartphone app.

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A 15-year regional high in migration… during the hottest month ever in Arizona

July was the hottest month on record for the state of Arizona (a very hot state), by nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, which takes up most of the state’s border miles, the agency apprehended more migrants (about 40,000) than in any single month since April 2008.

That is incredibly dangerous. Migrants face an elevated risk of death by dehydration or heat stroke in the region that, of all nine Border Patrol U.S.-Mexico border sectors, has been the deadliest for migrants over the past 25 years (blue in this chart).

The move to Arizona is recent. It appears to be a shift in response to the Biden administration’s post-Title 42 policies limiting access to asylum: word appears to have gotten out—correctly or not—that turning oneself in to Border Patrol in remote parts of Arizona increases chances of entering the U.S. asylum system without being deported, detained, or forced to wait weeks or months in a Mexican border city.

Saw blades. In a river. In the 21st century.

This part of the Texas border story needs more amplification:

“There are serrated metal plates that look like circular saw blades between each buoy.”

Photo caption in linked article:

"Swimming under the barrier is not an option. It’s anchored to the shallow water with thick cables and concrete bases. And there are serrated metal plates that look like circular saw blades between each buoy to deter anyone from climbing over it."

Who puts SAW BLADES in the middle of a fast-flowing river navigated by civilians, in an area where many people, including children and families, attempt to cross and often drown?

From Texas Public Radio.

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: August 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 IN BRIEF:

Preliminary data revealed by the Washington Post point to Border Patrol apprehensions of migrants increasing from just under 100,000 to about 130,000 from June to July. The lull in migration that followed the end of the Title 42 policy has ended. This erodes the narrative that the Biden administration’s tough new asylum rule—recently struck down by a federal court but still in place for now—has deterred migration. Rights groups filed a new legal challenge to CBP’s use of its “CBP One” app to limit asylum seekers’ access to ports of entry. Meanwhile, data from Panama, Honduras, and elsewhere point to continued increases in migration.

The past week’s developments in Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) “Operation Lone Star” include revelations that Texas police are arresting migrant fathers for “trespassing” and separating them from their families; the discovery of two deceased people’s remains in or near the “buoy wall” that Abbott ordered built in the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass in July; the Eagle Pass City Council’s revocation of a legal document that Operation Lone Star has used to carry out its activities there; and the Biden administration’s imminent drawdown of active-duty troops deployed border-wide in May.

As of July 27, the appropriations committees of the Democratic-majority Senate and the Republican-majority House of Representatives have both approved draft legislation funding the Department of Homeland Security in 2024. The bills, which Congress must reconcile into a single budget, differ widely in overall amounts, and in border-relevant items like funding for wall construction, Border Patrol hiring, shelter funds, and ICE detention beds.

THE FULL UPDATE:

Border Patrol apprehensions increased 30% in July

Citing preliminary data from Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Washington Post reported that Border Patrol’s apprehensions of migrants between the U.S.-Mexico border’s ports of entry jumped by more than 30 percent from June to July. “U.S. agents made more than 130,000 arrests along the Mexico border last month, preliminary figures show, up from 99,545 in June,” reporters Nick Miroff and Maria Sacchetti revealed.

The fastest growth was in Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, which comprises most of Arizona, despite a long string of days there with temperatures exceeding 110 degrees. The 40,000 apprehensions in July were the most that the Tucson sector has measured since April 2008. As recently as December 2022, Tucson was in 5th place for migrant apprehensions among Border Patrol’s 9 U.S.-Mexico border sectors. Unnamed CBP officials told the Post that migrant smugglers have shifted to desert areas west of Nogales “because they know U.S. authorities have limited detention space and migrants who cross into Arizona are more likely to be quickly released.”

NBC News, also citing preliminary data, reported that Border Patrol’s daily average apprehensions of family-unit members (parents traveling with children) tripled from early June to late July, from 790 to 2,230 per day. An unnamed CBP official told the Washington Post that “parents with children comprise about half of the migrants currently held in CBP custody.”

Based on current trends, NBC predicted that August’s Border Patrol migrant apprehensions could increase to 160,000. If that happens, migration will have recovered to the high levels last seen in May (171,387), the last month before the Biden administration replaced the Title 42 pandemic policy with a restrictive new asylum rule. Migration dropped sharply in the weeks after Title 42’s termination, but as WOLA’s recent Border Updates have noted, that lull is now ending.

The asylum rule, facing revocation

As covered in many recent updates, the Biden administration had replaced Title 42 with an administrative rule that blocks access to asylum, with some exceptions, to all non-Mexican migrants who (a) come to the border between ports of entry (land border crossings), instead of making an appointment using Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) “CBP One” smartphone app; and (b) did not try and fail to seek asylum in at least one other country along their route. People subjected to the rule are deported—and deported into Mexico if they are citizens of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, or Venezuela—and banned from entry into the United States for five years.

In a July 27 exchange with Spanish-language journalists, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) assistant secretary for border and immigration policy, Blas Núñez-Neto, revealed that since the rule went into effect on May 11, his Department has deported more than 85,000 people to 115 countries (not all of them asylum seekers). Of that total, 4,000 of the deportees were citizens of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela returned back into Mexico, as the Mexican government agreed when Title 42 ended. The rest are Mexican citizens sent back to Mexico, or other countries’ citizens placed aboard deportation flights, which total about 120 per month.

The emerging July apprehension totals indicate that this asylum rule is not deterring desperate migrants. “Each crackdown is followed by a short-term drop in apprehensions, as migrants adopt a “wait and see” approach,” Dara Lind observed in a July 28 analysis for the American Immigration Council’s Immigration Impact site. “But as it becomes clear that at least some people are successfully getting into the U.S. – and as situations in migrants’ home countries, or the countries they’re waiting in, may become harder to bear – border apprehensions start to increase again.”

As noted in WOLA’s July 28 Border Update, the asylum ban is in legal peril anyway. A U.S. district judge struck it down on July 25, agreeing with migrant rights defenders who argued that it is contrary to existing law guaranteeing the right to seek asylum. The Biden administration is appealing this decision, and on August 3 the  federal judiciary’s Ninth Circuit kept the asylum rule in place while deliberations continue. Should the Ninth Circuit’s eventual decision concur with the district court and strike the rule down, the administration may go to the Supreme Court.

203 civil, human rights, and immigrant rights organizations (including WOLA) signed an August 2 letter to President Joe Biden asking him to desist from appealing the district judge’s July 25 decision and “redouble your focus on effective, humane, and legal solutions.” A letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Attorney General Merrick Garland from 13 U.S. senators and 53 representatives, all Democrats, called for an end to application of “expedited removal” to asylum seekers, a process requiring people to defend their cases within days of apprehension while still in CBP’s austere custody conditions, usually with no access to counsel.

CBP One, an insufficient “carrot”

Along with its tough asylum rule, the Biden administration has sought to keep post-Title 42 Border Patrol apprehensions low by steering asylum seekers to the ports of entry (official border crossings), creating a system of appointments accessible from northern Mexico using CBP One, a smartphone app. CBP One appointments now total 1,450 per day, leading in recent months to record numbers of migrants able to access the ports of entry instead of crossing rivers, climbing border fencing, or otherwise ending up in Border Patrol custody.

That number of appointments still means migrants must wait, usually unemployed and insecure, for weeks or months in Mexican border cities before they get a chance to approach the ports of entry. In Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas, that has spurred the formation of a massive encampment of migrants along a mile-long stretch of the Rio Grande, despite a recent reported increase—from 350 to 600 per day—in CBP One appointments at the Brownsville port of entry.

In the midst of a deadly, historic heat wave in much of the border zone, this has been intolerable for many migrants, Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and its migrant shelter services in south Texas, told NBC News. “She said many of the families who come to her shelter are there because they can no longer wait in the ‘merciless heat’ and live under the threat of violence in Mexico.”

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