Adam Isacson

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

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Weekly Border Update: August 6, 2021

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

We will not publish updates on August 13 and 20, but look forward to resuming on August 27.

Preliminary data point to 210,000 migrant encounters in July

David Shahoulian, the Department for Homeland Security’s (DHS) assistant secretary for border and immigration policy, submitted an August 2 declaration as part of ongoing litigation (discussed below) regarding expulsions of asylum-seeking migrants. Shahoulian’s document offers a preview of official data about migration at the border in the month of July, which Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has not yet released.

Some highlights:

  • CBP is likely to have encountered about 210,000 undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in July.

This would be the largest number of times that U.S. border authorities have encountered migrants since March 2000, when Border Patrol reported 220,063 apprehensions, and the third-largest on Border Patrol’s reporting of all monthly totals since 2000. This chart shows approximately how July would compare to all months since October 2011:

There is much double-counting, though: repeat crossings are far more common now than in 2000, since pandemic expulsions ease repeated attempts. As a result, the number of individual people whom CBP is encountering is probably in the low-to-mid 100,000s. That is still high, but probably not even in the top ten monthly totals of the past 22 years.

Still, it is extraordinarily unusual for a hot month of July to exceed migration levels measured in spring. Long-standing seasonal patterns no longer apply. As a new WOLA analysis points out, the number may keep increasing, as family and child migration patterns in place since 2014 have been heightened by the pandemic’s impact on governance and economies throughout the hemisphere. “Based on current trends,” Shahoulian’s document reads, “the Department expects that total encounters this fiscal year are likely to be the highest ever recorded.”

  • “July also likely included a record number of unaccompanied child encounters, exceeding 19,000.”

Numbers of unaccompanied children arriving at the border had been inching upward since May, but jumped approximately after the July 4 holiday, for unclear reasons. On August 4, Border Patrol reported taking into custody a remarkable 834 non-Mexican children who arrived at the border unaccompanied. That is the largest single-day number in all daily reports on unaccompanied children that CBP and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have produced since March 24, and may be the largest daily number ever.

Along with the increase in child arrivals has come an increase, once again, in the number of unaccompanied children in Border Patrol custody, in the agency’s jail-like holding cells and processing facilities. A smoother process of handoffs to HHS, which runs a network of shelters as it works to place children with U.S.-based relatives or sponsors, had reduced numbers in Border Patrol custody from more than 5,000 in March to fewer than 1,000 in May and most of June. The volume of new arrivals, though, has caused the number to climb again.

As of August 4, 2,784 children were in Border Patrol facilities. Reuters reported on August 3 that, according to an unnamed “source familiar with the matter,” unaccompanied children were spending about 60 hours in Border Patrol custody, just under the legal limit of 72 hours for handoff to HHS. However, Reuters added that as of August 3, 877 kids had exceeded the 72-hour threshold.

  • July encounters with family unit members are cited either as “over 75,000” or “around 80,000.”

This number of family members—which, like children, includes few repeat crossers—would be second only to May 2019, when Border Patrol apprehended 84,486.

  • Two of the nine sectors into which Border Patrol divides the border “experienced a disproportionate amount of these encounters.”

They are both in Texas: the Rio Grande Valley, the easternmost part of the border; and Del Rio, in the central part of Texas’s border with Mexico, across from Coahuila, Mexico. “These two sectors have also experienced a disproportionate amount—about 71 percent—of family encounters.”

  • As of August 1, Border Patrol facilities were at 389 percent of their “COVID-19 adjusted capacity,” with 17,778 non-citizens, including 2,233 unaccompanied children, in the agency’s custody.

10,002 of them were in the Rio Grande Valley sector, 3,623 of them in a temporary processing facility in Donna, Texas, which has a normal (non-COVID) operating capacity of 1,625. “Border Patrol was over capacity in seven of its nine southwest border sectors.”

Images posted on social media by Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and a Border Patrol union leader showed large numbers of migrants, including families with children, being held under bridges, outdoors, for days. These are Border Patrol’s Temporary Outdoor Processing Site (TOPS) under the Anzalduas International Bridge in Mission, Texas, and the Del Rio International International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas.

In the Rio Grande Valley, about 800 migrants, mostly asylum-seeking family members, are being brought each day to the Catholic Charities humanitarian respite center in downtown McAllen. “The center struggles every day to have enough supplies and donations to meet the growing demand,” reports Border Report, adding that the facility’s air conditioning broke down over the July 31-August 1 weekend “and temperatures were in the triple digits.”

Northbound migration becomes more visible in Colombia

Colombia sits along a route long used by migrants moving northbound from South America, often via countries like Ecuador or Brazil that are relatively more open to travelers from outside the continent. In its northwest corner, though, there is a major bottleneck: the Pan-American highway does not cross the Darién Gap, an area of dense jungle between the Colombian border and central Panama.

“Before the pandemic,” notes the Bogotá daily El Espectador, “Colombia issued a safe-conduct so that migrants could transit through national territory and leave within 30 days, but with the [pandemic border] closure, it stopped issuing them.” Although Colombia reopened its borders in May 2021, the safe-conduct system “has not resumed.”

Most international migrants transit Colombia with the aim of reaching the Atlantic coast town of Capurganá, which borders Panama. From there, they walk through the Darién Gap—a part of the journey to the United States that many migrants recall as the most miserable and dangerous—until they end up at facilities run by the Panamanian government and humanitarian groups on the other side. From there, they travel through Central America and either seek asylum in Mexico or seek to reach the U.S. border.

Capurganá is poorly served by roads, though, so migrants usually take a 40-mile ferry across the Gulf of Urabá, an inlet of the Caribbean Sea, from Necoclí. This municipality of 45,000 is part of Antioquia department, of which Medellín is the capital. A stronghold of pro-government paramilitary groups during the worst years of Colombia’s armed conflict 20 years ago, Necoclí remains under the influence of the Gulf Clan, an organized crime syndicate descended from the paramilitaries.

As migration surges throughout the Americas, the bottleneck in Necoclí has become dramatically backed up. About 10,000 migrants from Haiti and several other countries are in the beachfront town waiting for a chance to board one of the 12 daily ferries to Capurganá. The town’s only ferry company “simply cannot match demand,” Agence France Presse (AFP) reports; a translator for the company told CNN they “try to move eight or nine hundred migrants per day, but it’s hard.” This backup is forcing migrants to spend many days in Necoclí.

Colombian Defense Minister, visiting the town on July 31, said that the country’s navy would build an emergency pier that would allow more boats to operate. President Iván Duque pledged to work more closely with Panamanian authorities.

Most of the Haitian migrants stranded in Necoclí left Haiti years ago and settled in South America, often in Brazil or Chile. The pandemic dried up employment opportunities in these countries, though, and “they say their visas were not renewed,” reports AFP. Colombian migration authorities told CNN that Haitians are more likely to attempt the Darién route in family units with children.

The stay is expensive: a Haitian man told AFP that he “paid US$105 to enter Colombia illegally from Ecuador, another US$200 for a four-day bus ride to Necocli, and more still to pay police bribes,” and that a room in Necoclí costs US$10 per person. “Some migrants denounced mafias that sell them ‘tourist packages’ to make the journey from Ipiales, in Nariño [where the Pan-American Highway crosses from Ecuador to Colombia], charging up to 300 dollars to cross the border,” said Colombia’s human rights ombudsman, who visited Necoclí.

During the week, Colombia reported two apprehensions of migrant groups along the Pan-American Highway in the country’s southwest, several hundred miles south of Necoclí. Police stopped two buses carrying 99 Haitians in the Andean highlands of rural Nariño, and a vehicle carrying seven Haitians and a Brazilian in Valle del Cauca, not far from Cali.

12 developments last week affecting asylum seekers

As their numbers increase, the situation of asylum seekers in the United States and Mexico grew more complicated in several ways last week, though there was progress on some fronts. There is so much to report that this section avoids going into detail; follow links to learn more.

  1. U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone granted a temporary restraining order blocking a July 28 executive order from Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R). Abbot would have required Texas state police, in the name of preventing COVID spread, to stop, divert, and even impound vehicles transporting migrants—mainly asylum-seekers—released from CBP custody. The order would have crippled humanitarian groups’ efforts, and the Justice Department, which sued to challenge Abbott’s order on July 30, included statements from Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials contending that the order would block contractors hired to transport migrants. (In the Rio Grande Valley alone, Border Patrol has used contractors to transport most of 100,700 released migrants in Fiscal 2021, according to Sector Chief Brian Hastings’ filing.) Judge Cardone said Abbott’s order would end up “exacerbating the spread of COVID-19.” Her restraining order expires on August 13, when a new hearing is scheduled.

    In addition to the Justice Department action, the ACLU and several other Texas organizations filed suit against Abbott’s order on August 5. While the Justice Department is focused on the government’s ability to transport migrants, the organizations’ suit focuses on the racial profiling and other harms that might result from the order.

    Governor Abbott meanwhile continues to oversee a state effort to arrest, charge, and jail undocumented migrants on charges of trespassing near the border. According to Texas Tribune reporter Jolie McCullough, who has done the closest monitoring of this operation, more than 150 migrants are now jailed at a Texas prison in the town of Dilley, with the first arraignments scheduled for August 11. On July 30, McCullough witnessed Texas police separating a Venezuelan husband and wife, taking the husband off to jail as a “visibly confused” Border Patrol agent looked on.
  2. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a new order on August 2 renewing the controversial “Title 42” authority to quickly expel migrants, including asylum seekers, in the name of preventing COVID-19 spread. The order does not apply to unaccompanied children, but families will still be subject to expulsion, despite expectations a month ago that the Biden administration would no longer apply Title 42 to families.

    “Processing a family under Title 42 typically takes 10 to 15 minutes and is largely conducted outdoors, while processing a family for Title 8 can take 1.5 to 3 hours and is generally conducted indoors,” according to the above-cited filing by DHS’s Shahoulian. The document was part of the Biden administration’s defense to ACLU-led litigation against Title 42’s application to families. Negotiations between the ACLU and the government collapsed upon notice that the CDC would issue its renewal order, and both parties made a joint filing in Washington, DC district court on August 2.
  3. The renewal of Title 42, and of litigation, spells an end to two arrangements that were allowing a few hundred expelled asylum seekers per day judged “most vulnerable” to re-enter from Mexican border towns and be processed within the United States. The so-called Huisha-Huisha and Consortium processes were temporary arrangements that placed non-governmental organizations in the role of determining who was most vulnerable. They allowed over 16,000 individuals to be processed in the United States since May. Now, they are taking no new entrants.
  4. Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR revealed that, as of July 31, it had accepted 64,378 asylum applications so far in 2021. In August, less than two-thirds of the way into the year, the Mexican agency is likely to break its annual record for asylum applications of 70,405, set in 2019. While applicants come from 97 countries, 41 percent are Honduran, 21 percent are Haitian, and 10 percent are Cuban. For a week, COMAR closed its busiest office, in Mexico’s southern border zone town of Tapachula, Chiapas, for pandemic-related deep cleaning. When it reopened on August 5, hundreds of migrants gathered outside and local authorities deployed the National Guard when the crowd became unruly.
  5. The Rio Grande Valley Monitor reported, and the Washington Examiner added more detail, about Mexico (or at least, many Mexican states) possibly refusing expulsions of non-Mexican families whom CBP encounters at other parts of the U.S.-Mexico border. This step may already have been reversed by subsequent dialogues between U.S. and Mexican officials. But if it were to take place—which seems unlikely at the moment—it would put a halt to “lateral” expulsions, for instance where CBP takes a family into custody in a busy sector and transports them to a quieter sector for expulsion into Mexico. Neither the U.S. nor the Mexican federal government has confirmed the change.
  6. DHS announced on July 30 that it carried out its first “expedited removal” flight, returning family members to Central America who had either failed a credible fear screening or did not express fear of return to CBP personnel. The flight had a capacity of 147, but only 73 were family members because many had tested positive for COVID or been exposed to an infected person, the Washington Post found. As noted in last week’s update, the Biden administration announced that it would resume expedited removals on July 26.

    This process is flawed, a Houston Chronicle editorial contends: “Many migrants are unlikely to have lawyers to walk them through this process, subjecting them to Border Patrol agents who are often poorly trained for these encounters.” The Chronicle cites a 2016 finding from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that “in 86.5 percent of the cases where a fear question was not asked, the record inaccurately indicated that it had been asked, and answered.”
  7. Reuters reported that DHS has begun expelling some Mexican and Central American adults and families by air, sending them deep within southern Mexico. It appears the first expulsion flight took place on August 5. “The United States will work with non-governmental organizations and shelters in southern Mexico to ensure that migrants can safely return to their home countries,” a source told Reuters—though there is no indication that such organizations or shelters are willing to cooperate with this arrangement. This process is for Title 42 expulsions into Mexico, not the expedited removals mentioned in the above point.
  8. NBC News reports that, in order to ease crowding of Border Patrol facilities, many unprocessed families will be transferred to ICE. That agency will either place families in alternatives-to-detention programs within the United States, or put them on deportation flights if they do not express credible fear of return. “In an unprecedented move,” NBC reports, “an agency usually tasked with detention, enforcement and removal of undocumented immigrants… will be performing health screenings, offering COVID vaccines, telling immigrants their legal rights and connecting them with non-governmental organizations that can help them.”
  9. The Washington Post reports that the Biden administration is preparing to offer the Johnson and Johnson single-dose COVID vaccine to migrants along the border. The vaccine would be administered to those being processed in the United States—including those facing deportation—but not to those expelled under Title 42. The same article notes that ICE continues to lag badly in its administration of vaccines within its network of U.S. detention centers, though an oversight official’s July 31 report claims that “46 percent of ICE detainees who were offered vaccine had refused it during the past month.”
  10. The average daily population of ICE’s detention facilities rose to 27,041 in July, up from 15,100 in January, the Biden administration’s first month. Of the 25,526 in ICE custody as of July 31, 3,318 (13 percent) were detained asylum seekers.
  11. As the Biden administration seeks to reunify the last few hundred of 3,913 asylum-seeking families separated during the Trump administration, a BuzzFeed investigation looked at what happened to some families after reunification. Documents indicate that “families from the first group of reunifications have reported homelessness shortly after entering the country.”
  12. A new report from the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) and FWD.us offers important perspective on asylum. It documents how the United States and other recipient governments have been steadily chipping away at the right to seek refuge for years. Policies weakening the ability to seek asylum “have caused unimaginable human suffering and loss, particularly for Black, Brown, and Indigenous asylum seekers,” the report points out.

Links

  • A new WOLA commentary explains the current rise in migration at the border and throughout the hemisphere as part of a trend going back as far as 2014, heightened by the pandemic. It argues that the increase presents the Biden administration with an opportunity to show the world a different approach: how to handle a migration event without another cruel and ineffective crackdown.
  • Local government in Mexico’s troubled border state of Tamaulipas announced on August 4 that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) unit gave recognition awards—plaques citing “exceptional contributions” and “outstanding service”—to Arturo Rodríguez, head of a 150-person state police unit. Prosecutors accuse eight or twelve members of this unit, the GOPES (Special Operations Group), of carrying out a grisly massacre of 14 Guatemalan migrants and five other people near the border, in the municipality of Camargo, in January. VICE detailed the Camargo massacre and its investigation in a report also published August 4. Associated Press coverage of the DEA/HSI award describes other serious recent allegations that GOPES personnel have killed, stolen from, and otherwise abused civilians.
  • CBP announced it will begin to outfit its officers and Border Patrol agents with body-worn cameras, in order “to better enhance its policing practices and reinforce trust and transparency,” especially regarding migrant encounters and use-of-force incidents. The agency plans to deploy about 6,000 body cameras by the end of 2021. Reuters notes that in 2015, CBP under the Obama administration had piloted the use of body cameras but ultimately rejected them, citing “a number of reasons not to adopt the devices, including cost and agent morale.”
  • Mexico is building three permanent National Guard barracks in Ciudad Juárez, across from El Paso, including one in the western colonia of Anapra, a frequently used migration corridor.
  • The government of Mexico, where legal firearms are rare, filed suit in a Boston federal court against several U.S. gun manufacturers and distributors. The suit alleges that these companies seek to profit from Mexican criminal groups, who pay for weapons smuggled south over the border from the United States, where they are easy to obtain legally.
  • A report from the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) recommends that the U.S. Department of Justice issue an “opinion that clarifies that climate change serves as grounds for refugee status under U.S. law.”
  • A passenger van carrying 30 people, most of them probably undocumented migrants, crashed after taking a high-speed turn off a highway in Brooks County, Texas, about 80 miles north of McAllen and the border. The driver and nine passengers were pronounced dead. Brooks County is where large numbers of migrants die walking through arid scrubland trying to evade a Border Patrol highway checkpoint; its sheriff reported finding 50 human remains during the first 6 months of 2021.
  • Mexican Army troops and national guardsmen in the border city of Mexicali rescued six men from the southern state of Guerrero, whom a criminal group was holding captive. It turned out they were being used as forced labor to build and operate an 80-meter-long, 16-meter-deep tunnel under the border into Calexico, California.

High Levels of Migration are Back. This Time, Let’s Respond Without a Crackdown

It looks like U.S. authorities encountered migrants 210,000 times in July at the U.S.-Mexico border. I think the number will increase. The pandemic is intensifying a pattern that we already saw in 2014, 2016, 2018-19: a jump in people fleeing several Latin American countries, punctuated by cruel, ineffectual crackdowns. It’s not just here: lots of countries in the region are absorbing migrants from Venezuela, Central America, Cuba, Haiti, and elsewhere.

Maureen Meyer and I just published an explainer laying out why, as the Biden administration reckons with this foreseeable but large new migration event, it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t need another crackdown. This is a time to show the world how high levels of migration can be managed through increased processing and increased adjudication capacity.

We should be able to consider large numbers of protection claims, promptly and efficiently, without locking people up. The process should be so bureaucratic and boring that FOX News can’t even generate much outrage about it.

Anyway, this new, long-ish report explains the trends the border is facing right now, and lays out the outlines of how to handle it without freaking out or cracking down. It’s full of helpful graphics and we wrote it in the plainest English that we could manage.

Please share it—there’s a lot of nativist, even white supremacist garbage analysis out there, and we need to drown it out with facts.

Busy day today

I’m not sure why items tend to congregate around a single day, but August 5 is one of those days for me.

  • The New York Times just published my column (second one in three months!) about Colombia’s troubling surplus of retired soldiers, who are massively entering the international market for contractors and mercenaries.
  • I’m moderating a WOLA event about forced eradication of illicit crops in Latin America, with colleagues from Bolivia, Colombia, and Mexico.
  • WOLA will be publishing a big analysis / explainer piece about the situation at the border.
  • We’re recording a podcast this afternoon about Cuba, which we’ll post shortly afterward.
  • I’m on a panel this evening hosted by Colombia’s El Espectador to talk about coca cultivation and drug policy.

I look forward to posting links to all of those.

New York Times column

The Times is running an opinion column by me this morning, about Colombia’s dangerous surplus of well-trained military veterans, who are being contracted for missions in Haiti and around the world.

Colombian leaders must address the lack of opportunity that has tempted some veterans to take illegal work or leave the country to be mercenaries. Colombia needs a version of America’s G.I. Bill — the legislation that helped propel millions of World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans into the middle class — that would offer much more generous benefits than the Colombian government currently does.

The country is still cementing peace. With the 2016 accord, it seemed that Colombia could finally begin to jettison its painful international association with drug traffickers, hit men and guerrillas. It would be tragic for the country to trade that reputation for one as a land of available mercenaries.

This is my second Times column about Colombia since May, which is great because the readership is high.

ChinaCom

Whenever a senior military officer is nominated to head the U.S. Southern Command, the Senate Armed Services Committee requires that officer to answer a list of advance questions. The responses are in a public document that accompany the officer’s nomination testimony before the Committee.

In December 2015, Adm. Kurt Tidd appeared before the Committee. His responses document mentioned China three times.

Yesterday (August 3, 2021), Gen. Laura Richardson appeared before the Committee. Her responses document mentions China 33 times.

The war on leftist insurgencies gave way to the war on drugs, which gave way to the war on terror, which became a focus on transnational criminal groups. But now, “great power” or “near-peer” rivalry looks like the main mission for the U.S. defense apparatus in Latin America.

Imagine seeing the world like Colombia’s ex-president

Once again, Colombia’s populist-extremist former president Álvaro Uribe uses Twitter to reveal the dark lens through which he views the world.

Imagine feeling threatened by conflict victims’ organizations—not political parties—having 16 temporary seats in Colombia’s 107-member House of Representatives for 8 years, as the 2016 peace accord foresaw.

Imagine being unable to distinguish between victims and “Farc and allies.”

Imagine believing that you get to judge who Colombia’s “true victims” are.

Since mid-July, a really big jump in migration

Valerie González at Texas’ Rio Grande Valley Monitor has a big scoop this afternoon:

Title 42, a federal public health code used to expel a large portion of migrants seeking asylum, is as of late this week no longer in effect for migrant families across the country, according to a federal Mexican source, and the implications of which may have already been seen in the Rio Grande Valley.

According to the source, they were made aware of the changes since Wednesday, but said no official communication had been released by Mexico’s office of Foreign Relations and the National Institute of Immigration, also known as SRE and INM. 

…By the end of the week, the practice was no longer applied to migrant families when Mexico began to decline accepting them. 

Since the pandemic hit in March 2020, the Trump and Biden administrations have sought to expel as many migrants as possible shortly after encountering them at the U.S.-Mexico border, without affording them a chance to petition for asylum. The Biden administration hasn’t applied this “Title 42” expulsions policy to unaccompanied children, but it expelled 65,920 family members between February and June. WOLA and a host of other organizations have bitterly opposed Title 42.

Mexico was made to agree to accept expelled families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. It started making exceptions to that in late January, refusing expulsions of non-Mexican families with small children to the state of Tamaulipas, which is across from the U.S. Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector in south Texas:

That is the sector where most Central American families arrive. As a result of the Tamaulipas limitation, Border Patrol has expelled families much less often from the Rio Grande Valley sector than elsewhere. See the rightmost set of columns here:

Now, Mexico’s ban on using Title 42 to expel non-Mexican families appears to be in place border-wide, even if the Mexican government hasn’t acknowledged it. (Why don’t they acknowledge these things? It’s not as though U.S. border authorities wouldn’t find out immediately.)

This is happening amid a jump in migration that appeared to start sometime after the July 4 holiday. González, who has been doing some excellent reporting from the Rio Grande Valley, has documented steady increases in the past two and a half weeks in the number of migrants—families, adults, unaccompanied children—stuck unprocessed in Border Patrol custody, just in this sector alone:

  • July 14: 3,500 in custody
  • July 19: 5,000 in custody
  • July 25: 7,000 in custody
  • July 31 (this morning): 10,000 in custody

Border Patrol’s rustic, jail-like Rio Grande Valley facilities have a capacity of only about 3,000.

You can see the post-July 4 increase in migration by charting out numbers of unaccompanied children whom Border Patrol is encountering at the border. Since their numbers jumped to record levels in March, the government has been providing daily (weekday, non-holiday) reports. (Get them all in a zipfile at bit.ly/uac_daily.) Here’s what that looks like:

You can see that on an average day, roughly 100 or more kids are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border unaccompanied now than were in late June and early July. If adults and families are following a similar pattern, we’re seeing an unprecedented July increase over already very high levels of undocumented migration. And as COVID travel restrictions ease worldwide, the numbers are likely to grow further.

The likely impact of Mexico’s shutdown of Title 42 family expulsions will be an increase in arrivals of families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras at the border. This may not be a tremendous increase, since—as the first chart above shows—70 percent of families from those countries arriving in the Rio Grande Valley were already being processed in the United States instead of expelled. But still, an increase is most likely.

If families face no danger of expulsion, though, we may see a decrease in arrivals of unaccompanied children. In a painfully large but unknown number of cases, families have been separating on the Mexican side of the border, with parents sending children across unaccompanied because they won’t be expelled. Without Title 42, families can attempt to petition for asylum while staying intact.

However, families who don’t ask “correctly,” or who fail “credible fear” interviews, may be flown home under the “expedited removal” policy that the Biden administration revived this week. Those deportation flights back to Central America restarted a couple of days ago.

Weekly Border Update: July 30, 2021

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

July migration appears to be exceeding June

Only twice in this century has migration at the U.S.-Mexico border been greater in the summer than in the spring. On both of those occasions, migration was recovering from a sharp drop earlier in the year: after the January 2017 inauguration of Donald Trump, and after the March 2020 imposition of COVID-19 travel restrictions.

2021 appears to be the first time this century that summer migration may exceed spring without an early-year reduction, despite the harsh heat along most of the border during the season’s height. This was foreseeable, as COVID-19 has devastated economies, border closures had stifled migration, and travel restrictions worldwide are gradually lifting. Still, in the past 22 years for which we have monthly data, we have not seen this pattern before.

Border Patrol’s encounters with migrants in July are “projected to be even higher” than June, according to preliminary data shared with the Washington Post. This past week, reporting about the summer increase has focused on Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Rio Grande Valley sector, the easternmost segment of the border, in south Texas. (CBP divides the U.S.-Mexico border into nine sectors.) There, Border Patrol Sector Chief Brian Hastings tweeted on July 25 that agents had apprehended more than 20,000 “illegally present migrants” during the previous week alone.

As of July 26, Border Patrol was holding about 14,000 migrants in its stations and processing facilities border-wide, the Rio Grande Valley Monitor reported. On the 25th, in the Rio Grande Valley, the agency was holding 7,000 migrants, up from 5,000 on July 19 and 3,500 on July 14. Border Patrol facilities’ capacity in the sector is about 3,000.

As of July 28, 2,246 of those in Border Patrol custody were unaccompanied children, up from 724 on July 12. This number of children in the agency’s rustic, jail-like facilities rarely exceeded 1,000 in June. That month, as the law requires, Border Patrol agents were able to move kids within 72 hours into shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). As of June 30, children were spending an average of 28 hours in CBP custody; the stay is almost certainly longer now.

This is due to a steady increase in arrivals of unaccompanied children, to levels not seen since late March. Border Patrol encountered an average of 501 children per day between July 25 and 28, and 547 per day the previous week. We had not seen an average over 500 since March 23-25, the first few days for which CBP and HHS started providing daily numbers of unaccompanied children.

Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol agents are apprehending large groups of kids, adults, and families all at once. On July 27, agents encountered a single group of 509 people, mostly families and unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Venezuela. It was the largest group encountered all year. Along the Rio Grande, where periodic flooding and currents make it impossible to build fencing on the water’s edge, migrants who want U.S. authorities to apprehend them gather on the riverbank south of the border fence. Once on U.S. soil, they have the right to ask for asylum or other protection in the United States. 

Migrant detention and processing duties have strained Border Patrol personnel to the extent that the agency was contemplating shutting down some interior highway checkpoints—a move that requires approval from CBP headquarters in Washington, which has not been forthcoming, the Monitor reported.

The large numbers have also strained capacities at the Rio Grande Valley’s largest humanitarian respite center, the Catholic Charities facility in McAllen, Texas. The respite center gives asylum-seeking migrant families a place to be—instead of out on McAllen’s streets—between their release from CBP custody and their travel to destinations elsewhere in the United States, where immigration courts will adjudicate their cases.

Late on July 26, the respite center had to close its doors to new migrants, as it had hit its 1,200-person capacity. Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, said she had to ask Border Patrol “to hold drop-offs to give us a chance to have space.” Still, agents kept dropping new busloads of migrants off on the street outside, and other area churches took in several hundred people. By July 28, Pimentel told the Monitor, the shelter was no longer at capacity.

Richard Cortez, who serves as county judge in Hidalgo—one of the Rio Grande Valley’s three counties, which includes McAllen—called on the federal government to “stop releasing these migrants into our communities” and on the governor of Texas to allow him to reinstate a mask mandate and other COVID-19 measures. “It was manageable last week, we did not have problems at all that I was aware of,” Cortez said on July 27. “Now, my understanding is that the Catholic Charities—who was taking over the responsibility of testing the immigrants, isolated them if they tested positive, they put them in the hospital if they were very sick…reached their capacity. So now there’s no buffer between the federal agencies and us.”

In June, the Rio Grande Valley accounted for one-third of Border Patrol migrant encounters along the border, and 56 percent of all encounters with child and family migrants. We don’t know yet whether Border Patrol’s other eight sectors are seeing a similar July increase in migration, though Tucson, Arizona, the fourth-busiest sector in June, has also begun to register large groups.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), whose district stretches along the border from Laredo nearly to McAllen, told Axios that, between July 19 and July 26, Border Patrol had released 7,300 migrants in the Rio Grande Valley sector without specific dates to appear in immigration court. In order to cut processing time, agents are issuing a document that instructs migrants to report to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office within 60 days, at which point their asylum or protection processes will begin. Officials told the New York Times that about 50,000 of these “notice to report” documents have been issued to migrants since March 19. Axios noted that just 6,700 have reported to ICE offices so far, while 16,000 have not shown up within the 60-day reporting window. About 27,000 more haven’t hit the deadline yet. In many cases, no-shows may owe to migrants’ confusion about the process.

Republican senators raised this “notice to report” issue to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who testified at a July 27 hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. The Secretary’s testimony coincided with the White House’s release of a fact sheet laying out a “Blueprint for a Fair, Orderly and Humane Immigration System.” That document, which contained little new information, declares, t “We will always be a nation of borders, and we will enforce our immigration laws in a way that is fair and just. We will continue to work to fortify an orderly immigration system.”

With an increase in migration, and the “Title 42” pandemic border policy (discussed below) making it harder to seek asylum, more migrants are traveling through dangerous sections of the border zone where, by Border Patrol’s conservative estimates, 8,258 people have been found dead of dehydration, exposure, and other causes since 1998. (See our July 16 update for a fuller discussion of migrant deaths.) In the Big Bend sector wilderness of west Texas, Border Patrol has found 32 remains of migrants so far in fiscal 2021, way up from 15 in all of 2020 and far more than the sector’s prior high of 10 (2018).

More migrants appear to be on their way, as COVID-19 travel restrictions begin to relax worldwide. Right now, at least 9,000 northbound migrants from Haiti and several other countries are stranded in the town of Necoclí, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. They aren’t being blocked: it’s just that their numbers have overwhelmed the ferry service that takes them to the opposite shore of the Gulf of Urabá, where they cross into Panama. Colombia lifted its pandemic border closures in May, and migration numbers jumped soon afterward.

Title 42 is not being lifted for families

Our July 6 update, which reflected media reporting at the time, noted that the “Title 42” pandemic measure “may be in its last days,” at least for migrant families. While no official had confirmed it, reporting indicated that Title 42 would stop applying to families by the end of July. That is not going to happen: the administration, citing concern over new COVID-19 variants and rising overall numbers, will continue to expel protection-seeking families.

Title 42 is the name given to an old law that the Trump administration’s Center for Disease Control (CDC) invoked, in March 2020, to rapidly expel nearly all migrants encountered at the border back to Mexico or their home countries, usually without a chance to ask for asylum. Most citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras get expelled into Mexico, as do migrants from other countries who have tourist visas or other migratory status in Mexico.

The Biden administration kept Title 42 in place, though it has not applied it to unaccompanied children and rarely applies it to those who can’t easily be expelled to Mexico. Fewer family members have been expelled in recent months—16 percent of all who were encountered in June—in part because Mexico’s border state of Tamaulipas is refusing expulsions of families with small children, and in part because since May, nearly half of families have come from countries other than Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras.

While the COVID-19 virus’s Delta variant is a key factor leading the CDC to prolong Title 42, two U.S. officials told NBC News that the Biden administration is also “concerned about funding, facilities and staffing issues associated with lifting the restrictions.” Six months in, the administration still lacks capacity to process large numbers of asylum seekers, enroll them in alternatives-to-detention programs, and adjudicate their protection claims.

“If CDC is going to continue with Title 42, they need to be prepared for a lawsuit and to answer very specific questions in a deposition about whether they genuinely believed there was no way to process asylum seekers safely,” ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt, who has led an ongoing lawsuit against Title 42’s application to families, told the Washington Post.

A July 28 report by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) disputes CDC claims that there is any public-health justification for expelling migrants. “Every aspect of the expulsion process, such as holding people in crowded conditions for days without testing and then transporting them in crowded vehicles, increases the risk of spreading and being exposed to COVID-19,” it reads. PHR researchers’ interviews with 28 expelled asylum seekers told of suffering “gratuitously cruel” treatment and family separations at the hands of Border Patrol agents, and assault, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual violence, along with shakedowns from Mexican authorities, after being expelled into Mexico.

On the night of July 26, DHS announced that it would resume applying “expedited removal” to migrant families who are not expelled under Title 42. As many family members as possible who don’t express fear of returning will be flown back to their home countries very quickly. Those who do express fear, in many cases, may be held in CBP custody until they can get fast-tracked “credible fear” interviews with asylum officers. (According to the 1997 Flores Settlement agreement, as revised, families with children cannot be held in custody for more than three weeks.)

Those who pass these interviews will likely be released with dates to appear in immigration court. Those who do not will be deported. A current and a former official told the Washington Post that deported families will be flown “back to Central America using the Electronic Nationality Verification program, which relies on biometric data to identify migrants who lack identification or travel documents.”

The expedited removal decision caused an outcry among rights advocates. “Jamming desperate families through an expedited asylum process would deny them the most basic due process protections and can hardly be called humane,” the ACLU’s Gelernt told the New York Times.

In an agreement with ACLU and plaintiffs in the ongoing suit against Title 42’s application to families, DHS had been permitting about 250-300 expelled family members considered “most vulnerable” to re-enter the United States from Mexican border towns to pursue their asylum petitions. However, CBP officials in San Diego started cancelling these appointments late during the week of July 18, citing capacity issues at the port of entry. Attorneys at Al Otro Lado, an organization that assists migrants in Tijuana and San Diego, said that several of their clients ended up homeless in Tijuana after CBP abruptly canceled their appointments.

Texas governor’s crackdown threatens to snare humanitarian workers

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who has already declared an “emergency” in some counties, hosted Donald Trump at the border, and sought to build segments of state border wall, continues to push back hard against migration.

As of July 29, his state was jailing 55 migrants, arrested on trespassing charges, in the Briscoe prison in the town of Dilley, between Laredo and San Antonio. That’s up from three on July 20. The Briscoe facility can hold more than 950 people; all of those jailed so far have been single adult men.

On July 27 Abbott expanded powers of Texas National Guard personnel whom he has deployed to the border, giving them the ability to arrest civilians. It is very unusual in the United States for military personnel to be empowered to carry out arrests on U.S. soil, a circumstance usually limited only to riots and insurrections, and then only for a brief time.

(Other states with Republican governors have sent small contingents of guardsmen or police to the border in response to a call from Abbott. On July 26 South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R), who controversially is paying for her state’s Guard deployment with a private donor’s money, gave remarks in front of a section of border wall behind a Whataburger fast-food restaurant near the Hidalgo-Reynosa border bridge. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) defended a two-week deployment of state police as “the right thing to do” and said she wanted to renew it. Elsewhere, Nebraska state troopers returned from a 24-day tour affected by the desperate conditions of the children and families they encountered.)

On July 28 Gov. Abbott upped the ante, issuing an order prohibiting anyone except law enforcement personnel from transporting migrants who “pose a risk of carrying COVID-19 into Texas communities.” As a result of this order, if personnel from Texas’s Department of Public Safety (presumably through profiling) suspect that a civilian vehicle is transporting migrants released from CBP custody, they may reroute the vehicle to its place of origin and impound it. 

This order falls heaviest on humanitarian workers: those, like volunteers at Sister Norma Pimentel’s Catholic Charities respite center, who need to transport asylum seekers to airports, overflow facilities, or quarantine hotels. It is unclear whether Abbott’s order would apply to Greyhound and other bus companies that transport migrants from border towns to their destinations elsewhere in the United States. “I assume, if you’re Greyhound or somebody that’s transporting people from the respite center on behalf of Sister Norma, (they’re) going to be prohibited from doing that,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) told the Rio Grande Valley Monitor.

Abbot issued his order as Rio Grande Valley counties are recording some of their worst infection numbers in months, as the Delta variant spreads. Still, as of mid-July the COVID-19 test positivity rate for migrants was below that of Texans as a whole, and more than 85 percent of migrants are reportedly getting vaccinated upon release. In one example of how humanitarian organizations are screening migrants for COVID-19, the Catholic Charities respite center in McAllen  performs COVID-19 tests on all migrants whom CBP drops off at its doors, at the expense of the McAllen city government. Additionally, Catholic Charities is paying more than 10 area hotels to house migrants who must be quarantined if they test positive. The respite center’s executive director has said that about 1,000 people are currently being housed in hotels—not all are COVID-positive, but some members of their family groups are—where they are required to stay, with volunteers delivering food and other needs, until they test negative.

On July 29 Attorney General Merrick Garland sent a letter to Gov. Abbott demanding that he reverse his transportation order, calling it “both dangerous and unlawful.” It notes, “The Order violates federal law in numerous respects, and Texas cannot lawfully enforce the Executive Order against any federal official or private parties working with the United States.” Garland promises that the Justice Department will “pursue all appropriate legal remedies to ensure that Texas does not interfere with the functions of the federal government.”

Links

  • A Mexican federal court has temporarily stayed municipal authorities’ order to evict the 14-year-old Senda de Vida shelter, the largest in Reynosa, Tamaulipas. Citing Rio Grande waterway requirements, the mayor’s office had given the shelter and its 600 occupants days to vacate the site, in one of Mexico’s most dangerous border cities.
  • A Mexican man died of head injuries after falling from a new 30-foot segment of border wall in Otay Mesa, just east of San Diego, on July 25.
  • A second Government Accountability Project whistleblower complaint includes new revelations of deplorable conditions at the private contractor-managed HHS emergency child migrant shelter at Fort Bliss, outside El Paso, Texas. Conditions included “riots” in boys’ tents, children cutting themselves, hundreds of COVID cases, and severe shortages of basic goods like face masks and underwear. One mental health clinician reportedly told a boy “he had nothing to complain about and that, in fact, he should feel grateful for all he was being given.”
  • Another report from the DHS Inspector General finds serious deficiencies in border and migration agencies’ attention to detainees’ medical needs. “Once an individual is in custody,” it finds, “CBP agents and officers are required to conduct health interviews and ‘regular and frequent’ welfare checks to identify individuals who may be experiencing serious medical conditions. However, CBP could not always demonstrate staff conducted required medical screenings or consistent welfare checks for all 98 individuals whose medical cases we reviewed.“
  • DHS announced it is canceling contracts to use 2020 Homeland Security appropriations money to build about 31 miles of border wall in and near downtown Laredo, Texas. The Trump administration’s wall-building project had been bitterly opposed by local leaders. A year ago, the city council had unanimously approved the painting of a giant “Defund the Wall” mural on a main street.
  • The White House issued a document outlining its strategy for addressing the root causes of migration in Central America, as foreseen in a February 2 presidential executive order. It covers cooperation on economic issues, corruption and governance, human rights, preventing criminal violence, and preventing domestic, sexual, and gender-based violence.
  • The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff profiles Eriberto Pop, a Guatemalan lawyer working to track down parents whom the Trump administration separated from about children. About 275 parents remain to be located. This involves a lot of riding a motorcycle around remote areas of Guatemala’s rural highlands.
  • El Diario de Juárez documents the experience of migrants from Ecuador, about half of whom have been encountered across from Ciudad Juárez in Border Patrol’s El Paso sector. “According to the Ecuadorian migrants themselves, the ‘coyoteros,’ as they call human smugglers in that country, fly them as tourists to Mexico City or Cancun, from where they are taken to Ciudad Juarez.”
  • ProPublica’s Dara Lind finds that ICEprosecutors are still seeking maximum deportations in immigration court, ignoring Biden administration guidance “to postpone or drop cases against immigrants judged to pose little threat to public safety.”
  • House of Representatives Republican leadership introduced legislation that would restore much of the Trump administration’s border and migration policies, including a restart of border wall construction.

5 links: July 29, 2021

(Even more here)

Western Hemisphere Regional

Mr. Mora was a fixture on Mr. Biden’s campaign in Florida last year, becoming a familiar face on television news programs in both English and Spanish

Colombia

Por tercer an?o consecutivo se presenta reduccio?n del a?rea sembrada con coca; sin embargo, la coca sigue en la parte ma?s alta de la serie histo?rica

Cuba

The crackdown has paralyzed, at least for now, the rebellious spirit that took hold on the island for a few hours on that recent Sunday

Mexico

“The Merida Initiative is dead. It doesn’t work, okay?” Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard told The Washington Post

U.S.-Mexico Border

Abbott’s order will mainly impact shelters like the respite center where volunteers drive migrants from the center to other overflow facilities, quarantine hotels, bus stations or airports

Mentioning fumigation without mentioning fumigation

Colombian President Iván Duque spoke twice yesterday at events relevant to U.S.-Colombian relations. At both, he referred to aerial eradication of coca with the herbicide glyphosate, a program that the United States supported between the early 1990s and 2015, when Duque’s predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, suspended the program out of concern for public health.

I say Duque “referred to” fumigation, because he managed to talk about it without using the words “aerial,” “spray,” “herbicide,” or “glyphosate,” much less “fumigation.” Instead, he used oblique references:

At a seminar about “urban terrorism” organized in Bogotá by the U.S. National Defense University’s Perry Center:

With regard to drug trafficking, we have to continue reducing the area planted with illicit crops, and we have to do it by combining all the tools.

One, manual eradication, for which our country reached the highest figure last year.

Two, alternative development and substitution, but also appealing to the precision mechanisms required in the complex areas of our territory.

At the swearing-in of Colombia’s next ambassador to the United States, former ambassador and former defense minister Juan Carlos Pinzón:

We all know that after you left the Ministry of Defense around 2014-2015 one of the effective methods of fighting illicit crops was suspended. We then saw an exponential jump.

From the beginning of Plan Colombia, when we had 188,000 hectares, until 2014, when we were below 50,000 hectares of coca, the world could see the comprehensive combination of policies. Unfortunately, when that comprehensiveness was fractured and one of the most effective mechanisms was rejected, we saw an exponential jump.

Weird that Duque not only uses such indirect language, but also doesn’t say “we’re going to restart the spray program.” Perhaps drug-policy expert Daniel Rico, who favors fumigation, was correct when he told El Tiempo’s María Isabel Rueda that Duque, with just over a year left in his presidency, has run out of time:

The political, budgetary and technical fight was lost. The President did not realize that within the government itself they were carrying out a turtle operation [deliberate slowdown], and that was what ended the opportunity he had to incorporate aerial spraying.

Q: Who was carrying out the turtle operation?

The National Health Institute, mainly; that is why there will be no aerial spraying in this government. Not as a consequence of a legal problem, because there was always a legal green light to spray, but because there was no leadership to articulate different positions, budgets and interests.

The President was very poorly surrounded on this issue; on the one hand, there was the inexperience of his vice-ministers and, on the other hand, there were obstacles to its implementation.

5 links: July 27, 2021

(I’m trying something different here, instead of the news blasts that I’ve been posting here since 2017. You can always find my entire database of news links here, with most recent links first. I don’t know if I’ll keep this format up, but I’m going to try it for a few days.)

(Even more here)

July 27, 2021

Colombia

La policía abandonó la comuna en la primera semana de mayo; aún no ha regresado. En su lugar, un grupo de jóvenes se encargó de controlar el orden público —en teoría

El amplio respaldo del mundo frente a la posibilidad de desactivar a la guerrilla mas antigua del planeta significa un rechazo generalizado a las disidencias, así algunas aparenten tener vocación política

Through three of the most consequential conflicts of the past century — the Cold War, the drug war, and the war on terror — the interlocking relationship between U.S. and Colombian security forces has produced a generation of hired guns

Colombia, Venezuela

Aguaclara es el más antiguo y central de los diez corregimientos que componen la zona rural de Cúcuta. No es el más grande pero sí el más estratégico

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

In recent years, traditional business elites in Central America have bankrolled efforts to roll back progress made by prosecutors and civil society groups to strengthen the rule of law

Payback in Cali

An update from Cali, a month after Colombia’s Paro Nacional protests mostly died down, from Elizabeth Dickinson of the International Crisis Group, writing for Razón Pública:

Four weeks after the lifting of a resistance point in one of the neighborhoods, the citizenry lives in an atmosphere of insecurity.

The police left the neighborhood during the first week of May; they have not yet returned. In their place, a group of young people took over control of public order—in theory. At first it was thought that the protagonists of the protest were in charge of security; this was not possible.

“Things got out of hand, it became unbearable,” said a local leader. Homicides have increased in the last two months and the neighbors are afraid to denounce: they say that dozens of people have died in that neighborhood since June, although these figures could not be confirmed.

The lawless situation is the result of the state’s neglect of basic citizen security. The elders of the area—the threatened leaders—consider that the disappearance of the police is a punishment to the community for having supported the strike.

(The boldface is mine.) Dickinson here is arguing that Colombia’s Police have abandoned poor neighborhoods to anarchy, as payback for having dared to protest police brutality. If accurate—and I have no reason to doubt this is what’s happening—this is just incredibly shameful.

What a vivid example of a long-governing elite punishing people for daring to step out of “their place” in Colombian society. Entire communities being denied the most basic of public goods—security—as punishment for having spoken out.

Families that get expelled, or not, at the border

Here’s a chart showing, by nationality, whether Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been deciding to process migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, or whether it has been deciding to expel those families under the “Title 42” pandemic order.

When the Trump administration promulgated Title 42 in March 2020, Mexico agreed to take back many expelled migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, as well as others who have Mexican visas.

The Biden administration is expelling fewer families, but your chances of getting an opportunity to seek asylum remain reduced if your family is from Mexico or Central America’s Northern Triangle.

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