Adam Isacson

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

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Border Security

Weekly Border Update: January 28, 2022

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.

December’s migration data

On January 24 U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released data about its encounters with undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border during December 2021. The agency took migrants into custody 178,840 times last month, probably the tenth-largest monthly total of this century. CBP’s Border Patrol component, which operates between official land border crossings (ports of entry), encountered 170,186 migrants, and its Office of Field Operations (OFO) encountered 8,654 at the ports of entry.

December’s total was 4,000 more than November—a 2 percent increase, the first month-on-month increase in the overall encounter total since June-July 2021. However, as CBP’s release pointed out, the agency actually encountered fewer migrants per day in December (with 31 days, after all, December is 3 percent longer than November).

As is common since the pandemic began, many of those “encounters” are the same person counted more than one time. The Title 42 policy, which expels many migrants back into Mexico with little time in CBP custody, has eased repeat attempts to enter the United States. The number of individual people whom CBP encountered in December was 135,040. While much lower than “encounters,” that “individuals” total was about 5 percent larger than November’s.

Walking through the numbers, an analysis from Philip Bump at the Washington Post points out that roughly one sixth of “encounters” result in a migrant being allowed to remain in the United States outside of detention while awaiting immigration court proceedings. The other five-sixths are expelled, or detained in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody.

In December CBP passed 1.5 million expulsions of migrants since March 2020, when the Trump administration first implemented Title 42. In many cases, these migrants were asylum seekers denied the chance to petition for protection from threats to their lives. 78,589 of December’s migrant encounters—44 percent—ended in expulsions.

That monthly percentage is the smallest since Title 42 went into effect. “CBP expelled only 44% of individuals under Title 42 in December 2021, again highlighting the Biden administration’s refusal to fully utilize the public health authority,” complained a press release from Republicans on the House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee.

44 percent did not represent any slackening in the use of Title 42, however. It instead reflects the nationalities of the migrants encountered in December. Of migrants who avoided expulsion last month, less than a quarter came from Mexico or from the three Central American nations whose citizens Mexico agrees to take back under Title 42 (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). The other three quarters are from countries to which expulsions are more difficult, either due to the cost of flying migrants back (as has happened to over 19,000 Haitians during the Biden administration), or due to poor diplomatic and consular relations.

Remarkably, 48 percent of December’s non-expelled migrants—47,682—came from Venezuela, Nicaragua, or Cuba. (Venezuela was 2nd overall in migrant encounters last month, after Mexico.) The Biden administration almost never sendsthose migrants on planes back to Havana, Managua, or Caracas. It is, however, sending citizens of those countries to “Remain in Mexico” to await their U.S. asylum hearings under a court-ordered renewal of this Trump-era program, which since December 8 has been undergoing a gradual rollout.

11,921 of December’s encounters were with children who arrived at the border unaccompanied. That was the smallest unaccompanied child total since February 2021, and 14 percent fewer than November. The Biden administration is not expelling unaccompanied children under Title 42.

Members of family units (parents with children) increased 14 percent from November, to 51,926. Remarkably, 7 out of every 10 family members encountered last month (69 percent) came from countries other than Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras.

After shooting upward when the Trump administration began applying Title 42 in 2020, then peaking during spring of 2021, encounters with single adults have plateaued. They dipped by a few hundred from November to December.

Of the nine sectors into which Border Patrol divides the border, South Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region continued to lead all others in monthly apprehensions, with 43,844, most of them Central American citizens. The number-two and number-three sectors are unusual and surprising: both are sparsely populated zones that saw little migration during the 2010s: Texas’s Del Rio sector (Del Rio and Eagle Pass the largest border towns), and the Yuma sector that straddles Arizona and California (Yuma the largest border town). Arrivals in Yuma during the first quarter of fiscal 2022 are up 2,391 percent over the first quarter of fiscal 2021.

Only 32 percent of migrants in Del Rio, and 7 percent of migrants in Yuma, came from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. These “unusual” sectors have seen high concentrations of migrants from “unusual” countries like Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Haiti, India, and Venezuela. 

This concentration of nationalities along specific geographic sectors seems to owe to fast-evolving smuggling networks, about which we have little information. “It is evident that migrants’ nationalities have concentrated route trajectories and precise points of arrival, unrelated to casual factors. We can say in jest that they share the same ‘travel agency,’” Tonatiuh Guillén, a longtime migration expert who was briefly the López Obrador administration’s first INM director, observed in a recent analysisof this phenomenon.

U.S. border authorities are expecting migrant encounters to rise in the spring of 2022, possibly exceeding 2021 totals. Two officials told Reuters that they “are preparing for as many as 9,000 border arrests per day by the spring”—which would mean record-breaking monthly totals above 270,000 encounters. That, however, is a “worst case scenario,” one of Reuters’s anonymous sources said.

In Mexico, meanwhile, on January 23 the government’s National Migration Institute (INM) reported apprehending more than 3,000 migrants in a 48-hour period, many of them discovered in the backs of cargo trucks. During 2021, a record-breaking year for Mexico, the INM apprehended an average of 690 migrants per day; reaching 1,500 per day over two January days is a strong sign that 2022 will be another year of very heavy migration for the region.

Mayorkas visits Border Patrol, hears griping

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas paid visits on January 26-28 to Border Patrol’s Yuma (Arizona-California), El Paso (Texas-New Mexico), and Laredo (Texas) sectors, where he met with many CBP and Border Patrol line personnel. Mayorkas filled his Twitter account with photos of him aboard Border Patrol boats and ATVs, showing up for early-morning muster, and conferring with sectors’ leadership. The Secretary repeatedly described agents as courageous, dedicated, mission-focused, talented, and impressive, while often calling for “more resources and support” for Border Patrol.

The feeling did not appear to be fully mutual. In Yuma, an agent surreptitiously recorded audio of the Secretary’s discussion with assembled agents and leaked it to TownHall.com, a right-wing website. The recording revealed some tense moments as Mayorkas fielded complaints from a workforce whose union—which claims to represent 90 percent of agents—strongly backed Donald Trump and vociferously criticizes the Biden administration’s policies.

“I know the policies of this administration are not particularly popular with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, but that’s the reality and let’s see what we can do within that framework,” Mayorkas told the agents. Some blamed the Biden administration for the increase in asylum-seeking migrants during 2021 that required agents to care for children and families while processing asylum paperwork, instead of the law enforcement tasks for which they were trained. “I know apprehending families and kids is not what you signed up to do. And now we got a composition that is changing even more with Cubans, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, and the like, it just gets more difficult,” Mayorkas said. One agent turned his back on Mayorkas after asking an aggrieved question about being forced to process children and families.

Another complained about the slow rollout of the Remain in Mexico program, ordered by a Texas federal district court judge, which to date has been applied to a few hundred migrants. In public, including in a strongly worded October memo“re-terminating” the program, Mayorkas has criticized “Remain in Mexico” and insisted that his department opposes the judicial order to restart it. In private, Mayorkas told the agent, “The numbers are not where they need to be. I agree with that.”

Though the Biden administration halted border wall building and publicly opposes Donald Trump’s use of resources to wall off the border, Mayorkas privately assured agents that “he has approved for gaps in the border wall system, which were created when Biden ordered a halt on construction, to be filled.”

After the audio leaked, DHS spokesperson Marsha Espinosa shared a statement with Reuters indicating that Mayorkas “welcomes candor during these conversations, and appreciates and respects the opinions of each member of the CBP workforce.”

In the Yuma meeting, an agent told the Secretary that “it has been ‘demoralizing’ to see politicians and others ‘demonize’ Border Patrol when they often save illegal immigrants from injury and death.” TownHall.com speculated—probably correctly—that this was a reference to an incident in Del Rio, Texas, in mid-September 2021. After video showed Border Patrol agents on horseback charging at Haitian migrants in an attempt to keep them from crossing the Rio Grande, Mayorkas had said he was “horrified” and President Joe Biden said “those people will pay.” At the time, the Border Patrol union shot back demanding an apology from the President.

“I want to assure you that we are addressing this with tremendous speed and tremendous force,” Mayorkas told the House Homeland Security Committee on September 22, days after the Del Rio incident, vowing that an investigation would “be completed in days—not weeks.” 128 days later, DHS has not made any public determination about what happened in Del Rio.

The DHS Inspector-General declined to take the case, and CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility shared preliminary findings with the Justice Department in October, to determine if criminal charges were warranted. Other than a list of next steps that DHS published in mid-November, there has been no further word. Now, unnamed DHS officials told the Washington Examiner that “a report may never be released.”

Congress steps up oversight of Border Patrol’s “Critical Incident Teams”

Accountability for alleged Border Patrol abuse came into focus in Congress on January 24, as the Democratic Party chairs of responsible committees launched investigations of secretive teams within the agency whose responsibilities appear to include protecting agents against abuse allegations. 

In an October 2021 document, the Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC) surfaced the issue of Border Patrol’s “Critical Incident Teams,” which often arrive at the scene when agents may have committed wrongdoing. While Critical Incident Teams may have other roles, coming up with exculpatory evidence to protect agents strongly appears to be one of them. No other law enforcement agency, the SBCC contends, has a similar capability, and the Teams’ existence is not specifically authorized by law.

SBCC was alerted to the Teams’ role while carrying out advocacy around the caseof Anastasio Hernández, a Mexican citizen whom border agents beat and tasered to death in a 2010 case caught on cellphone video. The Coalition found that a Critical Incident Team failed to notify San Diego police, controlled police investigators’ witness lists, tampered with evidence, sought to obtain Hernández’s medical records, failed to preserve video evidence, and “contacted the FBI and asked them to charge Anastasio with assault while he lay brain dead in the hospital. The FBI declined.”

Critical Incident Teams have existed in some form at least since 1987. (Their “challenge coin,” depicted in SBCC’s October document, says “Est. May 21, 2001” and includes images of a chalk outline and a rolled-over vehicle.) They are almost never mentioned in Border Patrol or CBP statements. “Their existence poses a threat to public safety,” SBCC argues, “by concealing agent misconduct, enabling abuse, and exacerbating impunity within the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Immediate investigations into BPCITs are imperative.”

The Critical Incident Teams came up again in a January 10 front-page New York Times story about Border Patrol vehicle pursuit tactics that have seen a growing number of fatal crashes. Following an August 3 crash in New Mexico, the Times reported:

Body camera footage from a state police officer captured one of the Border Patrol agents saying: “Our critical incident team is coming out. They’ll do all the crime scene stuff—well, not crime scene, but critical incident scene.” The agent said that he and his colleague would give statements to the team, which it would share with the police.

This reporting, and persistent work by the SBCC, moved leading members of Congress to act. A CBP briefing about the teams late last year, the New York Times notes, “did not fully address our questions,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Subsequent information requests have gotten no replies from the agency.

The next step came with two letters on January 24:

  • Ten chairpeople of House and Senate Judiciary, Homeland Security, and Oversight committees and subcommittees wrote to Comptroller-General Gene Dodaro, who heads the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO, the Congress’s auditing and investigative arm). They ask the GAO to produce a report about them: “We would like to better understand the roles and responsibilities of these Critical Incident Teams, including their authorities, activities, training and oversight.” The letter lists nine questions about the Teams’ authorities, procedures, training, budget, and track record.
  • The chairs of the House Homeland Security and Oversight Committees, Rep. Thompson and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) wrote to CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus, informing him in a more strongly worded message that they are launching their own joint investigation into the Critical Incident Teams. “We have grave concerns about the lack of transparency in the role of Border Patrol’s Critical Incident Teams,” the letter reads. “Despite the apparent lack of authority to investigate agent misconduct, Border Patrol appears to have created special teams of agents to investigate and collect evidence following incidents that may create criminal or civil liability, including allegations of excessive use of force.”

The Thompson-Maloney letter requires that CBP turn over, by February 7, a list of all existing Border Patrol evidence collection teams; a detailed list of the legal authorities under which the Teams operate; all polices, procedures, directives, guidances, and training materials for the Teams; all incident reports filed since 2010; and all reports of “potential misconduct or interference with criminal, civil, or administrative investigations by Border Patrol Critical Incident Teams or team members” since 2010.

Bloomberg Government asked CBP Commissioner Magnus, a former Tucson, Arizona police chief who has been in his position since early December, about the Critical Incident Teams. A statement responded that “U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s specialized teams are ‘vitally important’ in the collection and processing of evidence related to enforcement activities,” Bloomberg reported. “The teams assist CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility and other law enforcement agencies when they conduct investigations involving agents and work on enforcement cases related to human trafficking and drug smuggling.” Magnus said that CBP would work with the committees and with GAO.

Links

  • Vice President Kamala Harris was in Honduras on January 27 for the inauguration of President Xiomara Castro. The Biden administration hopes that Castro will follow through on her declared intention to pursue anti-corruption and other reforms to address “root causes” of migration away from Central America. Presidents of neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala have proved disinclined to pursue such reforms.
  • The revived “Remain in Mexico” program has begun operating in Brownsville, Texas, the third of seven ports of entry at which the Biden Administration is expected, under court order, to roll it out. The first three asylum seekers were returned on January 25. Brownsville is across from Matamoros, in Tamaulipas, a notoriously dangerous Mexican state for migrants. Those placed in “Remain in Mexico” in Matamoros will have the option to await their U.S. court dates four hours’ drive from the border in Monterrey, a large, and presumably safer, industrial city in Nuevo León state.
  • Lourdes Maldonado, shot in her car on January 24, was the second journalist to be murdered in Tijuana within a week. Concerns about insecurity and organized-crime violence are high in the border city, an active venue for the Remain in Mexico program. More than 2,000 members of the National Guard, Mexico’s new militarized police force, are to be deployed to Tijuana in coming days.
  • The U.S. embassy in Mexico tweeted photos of Mexican immigration agents being trained in what appear to be riot-control tactics, with plexiglass shields, in a November course in El Paso funded by the State Department and carried out by CBP.
  • The Intercept, the Texas Tribune , and the Houston Chronicle covered the unintended consequences of Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s (R) border crackdown, which has arrested over 10,000 undocumented migrants for trespassing since April 2021. Many who spend time in Texas state jails end up allowed to stay in the United States to pursue their asylum cases, avoiding Title 42 expulsion. Now, an Austin judge’s ruling on the constitutionality of the governor’s plan could bring it to an end.
  • Arizona has deployed about 220 National Guard troops to its border counties under a law enforcement support operation Gov. Doug Ducey (R) calls “Task Force Badge.” This is a smaller use of resources than the approximately 6,500 guardsmen whom Greg Abbott has deployed to parts of Texas’s border.
  • Groups of single male asylum seekers are being released in Brownsville, Texas, which is unusual because ICE prefers to detain single men. The reason isn’t clear, but a big spike in COVID cases at Texas’s ICE detention centers might be a factor, the Rio Grande Valley Monitor notes.
  • A report from the DHS Inspector-General finds that CBP spent about 15 percent of its 2021 budget ($3.08 billion) on counter-drug-related missions. The report also includes the most recent available count of the number of Border Patrol agents: 19,513 as of October 10, 2021— down slightlyfrom 19,740 in fiscal 2020. CBP’s Office of Field Operations (OFO), which mans ports of entry nationwide, had 25,662 officers in fiscal 2021, up from 23,147 in 2018.
  • Colombia reported that 106,838 migrants passed through its territory last year, more than 87 percent of them Haitians. That is up from 19,040 in 2019 and 3,922 in pandemic-hit 2020. Authorities say they expect a similar number this year. The Caribbean coastal town of Necoclí, from where ferries take passengers to Panama, was crowded with northbound migrants during the second half of 2021. Panama, meanwhile, counted over 130,000 arrivals from Colombia.
  • Far-right groups are gathering in the border city of McAllen, Texas on the January 29-30 weekend for a rally featuring Mark Morgan, who was Border Patrol chief under Obama and acting CBP commissioner under Trump, and Gen. Michael Flynn, who was briefly Trump’s national security advisor. Border Report cites some almost nonsensically extreme anti-immigrant language on the organizers’ website.

Weekly border update: January 21, 2022

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.

A girl from Venezuela drowns, as Mexico shuts down visas

Virginia Lugo Mayor, a 7-year-old girl from Zulia, in northwestern Venezuela, died on January 18 while she and her mother were trying to cross the Rio Grande to seek asylum in Del Rio, Texas. The drowning occurred three days before Mexico is to begin requiring visas of Venezuelans who arrive in the country, a move that may reduce the number who reach the U.S. border.

Del Rio is where nearly 10,000 Haitian migrants arrived during a few days in September, generating intense media coverage with photos of mounted Border Patrol agents charging at migrants by the riverside. In those images, the Rio Grande between Del Rio and Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, is quite shallow: ankle or knee deep.

The river was much higher on January 18. Virginia and her mother, Mayerlin Mayor, found themselves in over their heads, in a strong current. Ms. Mayor lost her grip on her daughter. Members of Grupos Beta, the humanitarian wing of Mexico’s migration authority (National Migration Institute, INM), found the girl’s body further downstream.

On the U.S. side, Border Patrol took Ms. Mayor, a former schoolteacher, into custody. According to the Venezuelan daily Tal Cual, Ms. Mayor has been released to pursue her asylum case. She is with a Venezuelan family inside the United States and is reportedly despondent.

U.S. border authorities have encountered a sharply increased number of asylum-seeking migrants from Venezuela in recent months. The monthly total of Venezuelan citizens taken into custody exceeded 1,000 for the first time in March 2021, remained between 6,000 and 7,500 between April and August, then shot up to 20,341 in November. (Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has yet to share its full December “encounters” data, a delay angrily noted by House Republicans.)

In recent years, Mexico had not required visas of citizens from several South American nations. As of January 21, Mexico is requiring visas of Venezuelans unless they have a U.S. tourist visa or are a legal resident of the U.S. or a number of other countries, a process that usually requires applicants to demonstrate economic solvency or proof (like an invitation to attend a professional event) that their planned visit is temporary. A January 7 INM document cites a “more than 1,000 percent” increase in Venezuelan arrivals compared to five years ago. It alleges that a third of Venezuelans who arrived this year as tourists have traveled north to the U.S. border in order to seek asylum or otherwise emigrate into the United States.

For similar reasons, Mexico also began requiring visas of arriving citizens from Brazil and Ecuador, at U.S. urging, earlier in 2021.

Guatemala disperses a migrant caravan

As foreseen by local media reports, a “caravan” of migrants departed San Pedro Sula, Honduras on January 15. They gathered just 12 days before Honduras is to swear in a new president, Xiomara Castro—an event that U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris is to attend.

No caravan—defined as a large group of migrants traveling together, usually to seek “safety in numbers” without paying a smuggler—has reached the U.S. border since late 2018. All have been dispersed en route by Mexican or Guatemalan forces. The same happened to the January 15 caravan, a relatively small group of 600 to 700 people.

As the migrants entered Guatemala on the evening of the 15th, in the town of Corinto, Izabal, they found further progress blocked by a human barrier of Guatemalan police and soldiers clad in riot gear. The migrants separated into smaller groups, seeking to enter. One group clashed briefly with the Guatemalan forces, hurling sticks and stones. Guatemalan authorities reported that 15 police and soldiers suffered injuries, most of them not serious. They provided no data about any injured migrants.

Normally, residents of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua may enter each other’s countries just by showing their national identity cards. Under pandemic measures, though, Guatemala is also requiring entrants to show proof of vaccination and a recent negative COVID test. Some migrants sought to show these documents to the Guatemalan forces arrayed at the border. Most were still sent back into Honduras.

Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry reported intercepting 622 “caravan” migrants in Corinto and nearby Agua Caliente, 23 percent of them minors. They were citizens of Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, Venezuela, and some African nations.

An unusually high number—perhaps half of the group—were Nicaraguans fleeing Daniel Ortega’s dictatorial regime. The online news outlet ContraCorriente talked to migrants who had spent time in Nicaraguan prisons for political opposition activity. One said it was difficult to leave Nicaragua because Ortega “has the Army everywhere” along the border with Honduras. Most of the Nicaraguans had learned about the January 15 caravan via social media. “Nicaragua is going to become like Maduro in Venezuela, where everyone emigrated,” one told ContraCorriente.

Guatemalan and Honduran media also reported allegations that Guatemalan police extorted some caravan participants, offering non-deportation into Honduras in exchange for bribes up to 800 quetzales (US$100). Venezuelan migrants told Guatemala’s Prensa Libre that police even searched their bags and wallets to verify that they had no money to give.

Indicators of an increasing migrant population on Mexico’s side of the U.S. border

The number of protection-seeking migrants—both Mexican and non-Mexican—has been steadily increasing for at least a year, due to U.S. authorities’ “Title 42” expulsions and the pandemic-related closure of U.S. ports of entry to asylum seekers. The most recent (November 2021) “ Metering Update” from the University of Texas’s Strauss Center estimated that 26,505 migrants were on makeshift waiting lists to cross from Mexican border towns into the United States, up nearly 6,000 from August. Many more are not on any lists.

The numbers are set to increase further as the Biden administration continues its court-ordered revival of the “Remain in Mexico” program, a Trump-era policy that sends non-Mexican asylum seekers back across the border to await their U.S. hearings on Mexican soil. This program began operating in El Paso in early December and in San Diego in early January; this week, CBP personnel in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector received briefings and guidance to begin implementing Remain in Mexico there, probably within the next few days.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Immigration Statistics produced a brief reportabout implementation of Remain in Mexico during the month of December, when it operated only in El Paso. Among its key points:

  • 267 single adults were enrolled in the program in December, of whom 162 (61 percent) were from Nicaragua, 59 (22 percent) were from Venezuela, 32 (12 percent) were from Cuba), 7 (3 percent) were from Colombia, and 7 (3 percent) were from Ecuador.
  • 242 of those 267 people (91 percent) claimed they feared being returned to Mexico, and were given non-refoulement interviews with asylum officers.
  • The asylum officers rejected the fear claims in 78 percent of cases (186 people), but 22 percent (51 people) were taken out of “Remain in Mexico” due to the credibility of their claims of fear of being in Mexico. Of those 51, 28 had “positive fear determinations” and 23 resulted in “administrative closures,” which “are generally, but not exclusively, related to individuals who are disenrolled from the program due to a finding of vulnerability.”
  • Though migrants are presumably given 24 hours while in CBP custody to contact an attorney and prepare for their non-refoulement interviews, only 11 of the 242 who claimed fear had an attorney accompanying them. Four of those eleven people were taken out of Remain in Mexico due to “positive fear” findings.
  • In all, 191 people were sent back into Mexico in December 2021, or 72 percent of all 267 people enrolled in “Remain in Mexico” that month. The remaining 76 were removed from the program due either to fear or other vulnerabilities, like medical conditions.

An analysis by the organized crime-monitoring group InsightCrime warns that the reinstatement of Remain in Mexico, along with ongoing Title 42 expulsions, gives Mexican criminal groups “another opportunity to profit from kidnapping those returned, especially in border towns rife with organized crime threats.” Using very partial data from Mexico’s National Kidnapping Unit, InsightCrime finds that at least one of every ten ransom kidnapping victims in Mexico is a migrant trying to reach the United States.

“The true number of victims is likely far greater,” the analysis continues, “especially for migrants targeted by organized crime groups, which at times collude with local police and government officials.” At Business Insider, reporter Luis Chaparro cites migrants’ view that INM agents’ collusion with organized crime can make it “more risky today to go and ask for political asylum at the [Mexico-US border] bridges,” where migrants will encounter INM personnel, “than to pay a smuggler and try to get across illegally.” A smuggler in Ciudad Juárez told Chaparro that for a fee, INM agents routinely deliver to him migrants whom U.S. authorities have sent back via Title 42 or Remain in Mexico.

The INM indicated on January 13 that 105 of its agents “were reported to its internal control office as under investigation for alleged ‘misconduct’ in 2021,” the Associated Press noted. (In 2019, INM had about 4,100 active agents.)

An increasing proportion of the migrant population in Mexican border cities is Haitian. As the Biden administration has ramped up expulsion flights to Haiti— sendingnearly 19,000 Haitians back to their troubled country on 185 planes since Inauguration Day 2021—more Haitians are deciding to stay in Mexico and seek protection there. At Vox, Nicole Narea notes the sharp increase in Haitians seeking asylum in Mexico’s system, along with estimates that about 3,000 Haitians remain stuck in Mexico’s southern border-zone city of Tapachula, while about 4,000 are in Tijuana, where they’ve been settling since the Obama administration halted humanitarian parole for Haitians in 2016. In Ciudad Juárez, Enrique Valenzuela of the Chihuahua state government’s Population Council (COESPO) tells Border Report that hundreds of Haitian migrants have recently arrived in the city “with (Mexican) humanitarian visas, so they’re mostly looking for work. They usually don’t ask us for shelter because they already have a place to stay.”

Arrivals of migrants from elsewhere in the region—including Mexicans displaced by violence further south—have swelled the population of Ciudad Juárez’s shelters, according to Border Report. “We know of 3,000 migrants, give or take, who are staying at the shelters,” Valenzuela said. “But only 30 percent stay at shelters, so Juárez must have a migrant population of 9,000 to 10,000 people right now.”

The city’s oldest shelter, the church-run Casa de Migrante, is at capacity with nearly 400 migrants living there. Low on supplies, the Casa is asking for “donations of clothing, diapers, baby formula and personal care items such as soap, toothpaste and razors.” When they show up for their hearings in El Paso, many of the asylum seekers enrolled in Remain in Mexico “listed Casa del Migrante as their address.”

Further west, in Sonoyta, Sonora, a desert town of 13,000, an increase in asylum-seeking families has led to rapid growth in shelter space. What was once a way station for single adult migrants “now hosts a migrant resource center and three shelters,” Melissa del Bosque writes at the Border Chronicle.

Still further west, in Tijuana, shelters are also expanding. The evangelical-run Agape shelter is enlisting migrants to help build new facilities on land donated by the Baja California state government. Pastor Albert Rivera told Border Report that the expansion will increase the facility’s capacity from 600 to 1,500. He added: “most of our migrants are from Mexico, the states of Michoacán and Guerrero, there are some from Central America and Haiti, but it’s mostly Mexico now.” Tijuana authorities say they expect increased shelter space to allow closure of an encampment that sprung up in early 2021 just outside Chaparral, the main pedestrian border crossing. Amid harsh winter weather, the estimated population living in tents in a square outside the crossing has dropped to 400, from nearly 2,000 in the summer. Here, too, most migrants are now “Mexican nationals who have fled violence in the states of Guerrero and Michoacán,” according to Border Report.

More reporting about the Texas National Guard deployment’s morale crisis

The New York Times and San Antonio Express-News published new details about a steadily escalating National Guard border mission that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a critic of the Biden administration’s border policies, launched in March 2021. They find miserable conditions, unclear missions, politicization, and severe morale problems.

The Times and Express-News stories build on reporting since early December by Army Times, which first revealed disciplinary problems, lack of payment, and poor housing and equipment for soldiers assigned to the Texas state government deployment, as well as for those assigned to a parallel federal government deployment begun by Donald Trump in 2018. Since October 2021, the state mission has suffered a series of suicides.

What Abbott calls “Operation Lone Star” has sent at least 6,500 National Guard troops to the border; earlier statements from the governor’s office cited as many as 10,000. (As last week’s update explains, National Guardsmen are part-time soldiers at the command of state governors.) Another 2,400 are assigned to the federal mission, supporting CBP in Texas and elsewhere along the border.

The Texas state National Guard mission grew by leaps and bounds during 2021, the Times reports, as Abbott neared a 2022 re-election campaign facing Republican primary challengers on the right. The Times gives some credit for the National Guard increase to an influential FOX News television host:

According to state documents, Mr. Abbott in September requested that 1,500 troops join the 500 or so who had already been deployed to the border. Later that same week, Tucker Carlson began attacking Mr. Abbott on his Fox News show, which is popular with conservatives, for not sending more National Guard troops, and in subsequent days invited Mr. Abbott’s Republican challengers onto his show to do the same.

Shortly after, Mr. Abbott requested that another 2,500 troops from the National Guard be sent to the border in October. The governor then appeared on Mr. Carlson’s show that month for the first time and said that 6,500 Guard members and state troopers were on the border.

Earlier this month, Abbott made his re-election bid official at an event in the south Texas border city of McAllen. His first television commercial, the Times notes, is sponsored by the National Border Patrol Council, the union that claims to represent about three quarters of Border Patrol agents, and features the National Guard deployment.

As Abbott increased the National Guard footprint at the border, it was no longer possible to call up guardsmen on a voluntary basis. Service at the border became mandatory, forcing guardsmen to abandon their families and civilian jobs, with a few days’ or weeks’ notice, for deployments that may last a year.

The mission was thrown together hastily. Many guardsmen, the Times found, “have complained of poor planning, pay problems and a lack of basic equipment, like winter gear for the cold or stethoscopes for medics. There have been Covid outbreaks on hastily created bases, where dozens of soldiers crowd together in mobile quarters so tight that commanders call them ‘submarine trailers.’” Guardsmen even lack toilet facilities while posted near the border. “They can call for a shuttle to get to a restroom, but that takes a while,” the Express-News noted. “Rather than relieve himself in the open, one specialist said, ‘I just hold it for 12 hours straight.’” Many have yet to be paid, forcing them to spend their downtime negotiating with bill collectors.

Some guardsmen say they’ve been given little to do, for a mission that “has appeared ad hoc, ill-defined and politically motivated.” One active guardsman told the Times, “All we’re doing is standing down here. If someone comes up, we ask them to stop and wait, we call Border Patrol. If someone runs, we call Border Patrol. We’re basically mall cops on the border.

It is exceedingly rare in the United States for soldiers to use force against U.S. citizens, or even to carry loaded weapons, as many Guard personnel assigned to Operation Lone Star are doing in Texas right now. On January 18 a National Guard soldier discharged his M4 carbine, shooting at and disabling a suspected smuggling vehicle near the border south of Laredo. While the incident report points to self-defense, and the soldier shot at the vehicle’s radiator and hood—not its driver—it is a highly uncommon case of military personnel firing weapons at a civilian target on U.S. soil.

National Guardsmen assigned to Operation Lone Star made further news on January 19, when one of the mission’s rental trucks, with two guardsmen aboard, crashed into a border levee gate on the premises of the National Butterfly Center, a private wildlife preserve along the Rio Grande. While they were unhurt, the guardsmen left the damaged vehicle, its hood crumpled into the gate. The Butterfly Center—which opposes border wall construction and has called on the National Guard to stop trespassing—posted several updates about the crash to its Twitter feed. (Border Report also published an update this week about the Butterfly Center’s legal battle with “We Build the Wall,” a private wall-building nonprofit, backed by prominent Donald Trump supporters, whose management is facing fraud charges.)

In other Defense Department border news, Stars and Stripes reports that the Pentagon has agreed to spend about $52.5 million to operate and maintain observation blimps along the border in Texas. Six of these “tethered aerostats,” which provide surveillance capability for as much as 200 miles, are owned by Border Patrol, and twelve are owned by the Defense Department. CBP had halted the program because it was deemed too costly; one of its main backers, though, is Laredo Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), a member of the House Appropriations Committee. (Cuellar, incidentally, had a difficult week, as the FBI raided his Laredo home on January 19 as part of an investigation possibly related to dealings with officials from Azerbaijan.)

Commentary about Joe Biden’s first year at the border

January 20 marked the end of Joe Biden’s first year in the U.S. presidency. His administration began with promises of reforms and a more humane approach to border, migration, and asylum policy. Several “Biden’s first year” media analyses came to similar conclusions about how that has turned out. A recent WOLA commentary also evaluates the Biden administration’s first year policies toward Latin America and includes analysis and recommendations on border policy for 2022 and ahead.

  • Camilo Montoya-Galvez at CBS: “In its first year, Mr. Biden’s administration made dozens of high-profile and little-noticed changes to the U.S. immigration system, many of them reversals of Trump-era restrictions. But the Biden administration also continued some policies instituted by Mr. Trump. …A year in, the Biden administration’s border strategy has divided the president’s appointees and frustrated critics on the right and left, who hurl accusations of lax immigration enforcement and outrage over the continuation of some Trump-era restrictions.”
  • Ted Hesson at Reuters: “Days after U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, two of his top immigration advisors outlined bold plans, including a major immigration reform bill, a 100-day deportation moratorium, and a strategy to restore protections for asylum seekers that were degraded under former President Donald Trump. …Now, the two White House officials who touted the plans, Tyler Moran and Esther Olavarria, are preparing to leave the administration, a White House spokesperson confirmed to Reuters. …Their departures are part of a greater exodus of senior Biden immigration staffers that suggests planned reforms could be put on hold or abandoned altogether as power tips to more security-minded White House officials.In the remaining camp is Susan Rice, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, who has tended to push for tougher enforcement at the border.”
  • Catherine Rampell at the Washington Post: “What, exactly, are these nativists unhappy with? In many respects, Biden is doing exactly what the Stephen Millers of the world want him to do — keeping Donald Trump’s worst border policies in place. …It’s unclear why Biden has maintained his predecessor’s policies. One possibility is politics — that these choices were intended to stave off right-wing attacks about lax enforcement. If that was the motivation, though, it failed. Instead, Biden has delivered the worst of all worlds: inhumane, immoral, potentially illegal policy — and bad-faith political blowback about ‘open borders’ all the same.”
  • Alicia Schmidt Camacho at the New Yorker: “To charges of human-rights abuses and failure, the Biden Administration, like others before it, answered weakly that they must follow the rule of law. But no law requires that people fleeing political violence and natural disaster should be met by the militarized cordon sanitaire in South Texas. …The U.S. government has largely excluded migrant-led organizations from the process of policy reform. And yet migrant communities have been crucial protagonists in the most vital struggles of our difficult moment.”
  • Maria Ines Taracena at El Faro (El Salvador): “From the resumption and expansion of the Remain in Mexico program, to the administration’s near-shutdown of the asylum system at the U.S.-Mexico border, and its ongoing invocation of Title 42 during the pandemic: Biden has embraced many of the same cruel practices as his predecessor. …Many of the executive actions on immigration Biden signed on his first day and initial weeks in office were, we can now see, largely performative.”

Links

  • After a holiday lull during which fewer than 100 unaccompanied children per day were arriving at the border, CBP is now once again encountering nearly 500 unaccompanied children per day.
  • While CBP has yet to report migrant encounter data from December, a January 14 “Remain in Mexico” court filing points to 178,840 border-wide migrant encounters, a slight increase from November (173,620). That is the first month-on-month increase since June-to-July. Of those 178,840, CBP used Title 42 to expel 56 percent (100,251).
  • The Biden administration’s Department of Justice defended the Trump administration’s Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy, which remains in effect, in oral arguments before the DC Circuit Court of Appeals on January 19. The case against Title 42, brought by the ACLU and four other organizations, calls for an immediate end to the policy, which the organizations consider to be illegal. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has used this “public health” authority to quickly eject migrants, regardless of asylum needs, over 1.5 million times since March 2020.
  • CBP has published a request for input, including detailed maps, on plans to build 86 miles of border barrier in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region. This barrier would be built with DHS funds that Congress appropriated in past years at the Trump administration’s request. The Biden administration has requested that Congress rescind those border-wall funds, but Congress has not yet passed a 2022 budget.
  • The White House is considering requiring all migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border and are granted court hearings to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, Axios reports.
  • Ciudad Juárez endured an outbreak of organized-crime violence the week of January 10, with criminals setting 11 vehicles and buildings ablaze around the city on the 12th. Mexico’s federal government sent over 2,000 members of the National Guard, a new militarized police force, to the city. In what may be a too-simplistic analysis, local media speculate about a possible alliance between the Jalisco and Juárez cartels against the Sinaloa Cartel.
  • Reporters from the Honduran daily El Heraldo talk with a smuggler who offers to take migrants across Mexico to the U.S. border by air, for US$13,000.

Weekly border update: January 14, 2022

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.

Border Patrol’s vehicle pursuits and “Critical Incident Teams” get more scrutiny

A front-page story in the January 10 New York Times drew attention to Border Patrol’s frequent high-speed vehicle chases, and to its use of secretive investigative teams whose main mission appears to be to exonerate agents.

Citing the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Times found that 21 people died in vehicle collisions in 2021 after Border Patrol agents pursued them at high speed. That is up from 14 in 2020 and an average of 3.5 per year from 2010 to 2019. The Southern Border Communities Coalition counts 49 deaths since 2010 in vehicle collisions involving Customs and Border Protection (CBP, Border Patrol’s parent agency).

A 2019 ProPublica study examining three years of data found that one in three Border Patrol vehicle pursuits ended in a crash: at least one every nine days. Some injure innocent bystanders. The overall number of pursuit-related injuries jumped 42 percent during the first two years of Donald Trump’s administration.

Times reporter Eileen Sullivan cites the example of 25-year-old Erik A. Molix, who died near Las Cruces, New Mexico, in August 2021. Molix was transporting nine undocumented migrants in a sport utility vehicle; agents chased him at speeds reaching 73 miles per hour. A Border Patrol vehicle clipped Molix’s SUV, sending it tumbling off the road. Molix and an Ecuadorian migrant died. Molix’s mother, a 5th-grade teacher in El Paso, found out about her son’s death from a CBP news release. While he may have been doing something illegal, she told the Times, “That doesn’t mean you have to die for it.”

A July 2020 complaint filed by Shaw Drake, an attorney at ACLU Texas’s El Paso office, contends, “The high number of injuries and deaths resulting from Border Patrol’s actions suggest either that the policy fails to protect the safety and lives of pursuit subjects or that agents are consistently acting outside the bounds of agency policy.” Drake continues:

Under certain circumstances, a high-speed vehicle pursuit can constitute use of deadly force. …Border Patrol pursuits continue to include lethal tactics, such as boxing in moving vehicles, puncturing tires and other methods aimed at spinning vehicles off the road. These chases also happen in treacherous weather conditions and in populated locations including school zones, residential areas, and strip mall parking lots. Moreover, Border Patrol agents have no official cutoff speed.

Border Patrol had long refused to make public its vehicle pursuit policy, declining requests from the ACLU, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), and others. A redacted version appeared in November. “A vehicle pursuit is authorized,” it reads,

when there is reasonable suspicion to believe the occupant(s) of the vehicle failed to stop at an immigration checkpoint, failed to yield to an Officer’s/Agent’s attempt to stop a vehicle for an underlying violation of law, or committed a vehicle incursion into the United States at or between a POE [Port of Entry], and both the Officer/Agent and the pursuit supervisor have determined that the law enforcement benefit of the vehicle pursuit outweighs the risk to the public.

That standard appears to exceed those of most U.S. law enforcement agencies. Justice Department guidelines, the ACLU complaint points out, state that “[f]or anyone other than a violent felon, the balance weighs against the high-speed chase.” The ACLU told the Times that Border Patrol “gives agents too much discretion in determining the risk to public safety.”

At the site of the crash that killed Erik Molix, New Mexico State Police body camera footage captures a Border Patrol agent saying, “Our critical incident team is coming out. They’ll do all the crime scene stuff—well, not crime scene, but critical incident scene.”

“Critical incident teams are rarely mentioned by Customs and Border Protection or the Border Patrol,” the Times pointed out. “There is no public description of the scope of their authority.” Their mission is controversial: a key role of Border Patrol investigators on these teams is “collecting evidence that could be used to protect a Border Patrol agent and ‘help deal with potential liability issues,’” an unnamed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official told the Times.

The existence of units that show up at crime scenes just to find exculpatory information or narratives had avoided scrutiny until October 2021, when the Southern Border Communities Coalition filed a DHS Inspector-General complaint and called on Congress to investigate Border Patrol Critical Incident Teams’ (BPCITs) activities. The Coalition’s letter to Congress calls these units seriously into question:

BPCITs began in 1987 in the San Diego sector, followed by other sectors thereafter. They are known by many names including Sector Evidence Teams and Evidence Collection Teams. Their stated purpose is to mitigate civil liability for agents. There is no known equivalent in any other law enforcement agency. They are not independent investigators seeking facts. Instead they seek to exonerate agents. They act as cover-up units, protecting agents, rather than the public, and they answer to no one except the Border Patrol chiefs that control them.

The BPCITs are not authorized by Congress to engage in federal investigations in agent-involved killings and other use-of-force incidents. That authority is given to the FBI, the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG), and in limited circumstances to the CBP Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR). They are also not formally deputized by any of these agencies to investigate. They are simply unlawful.

Every day that BPCITs continue to exist, abuses go unchecked and agents get away with murder.

The Times notes that a Critical Incident Team arrived on the scene in Nogales, Arizona in June 2021 shortly after a Border Patrol agent shot an unarmed undocumented woman in the head while she sat in the backseat of a car. Marisol García Alcántara spent three days in a hospital and was deported to Mexico 22 days after that, without ever being interviewed by U.S. law enforcement.

Alarms sound about Texas’s troubled National Guard border deployments

A series of reports since December 8 in Army Times, an independent news organization reporting on U.S. military issues, has highlighted a crisis of low morale, lack of mission clarity, payment and equipment shortfalls, discipline problems, and now a rash of suicides among national guardsmen assigned to two deployments at the U.S.-Mexico border, especially in Texas.

The first, a federal government mission to support CBP, was begun by Donald Trump in 2018 and today continues to post 4,000 guardsmen across the entire border. The second, begun in March 2021 by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a fierce critic of the Biden administration, has sent—by the governor’s office’s count—10,000 of the Texas National Guard’s 23,000 members to the border. This deployment is part of a border mission that Abbott calls “Operation Lone Star.”

In the U.S. system, national guardsmen are soldiers who receive the same military training, wear the same uniforms, and hold the same ranks as the regular military. Like reservists, though, they are normally civilians. Most spend about one weekend per month and two weeks per year undergoing training, and are called up in emergencies. Guardsmen are normally under the command of state governors, though (as happened often in Iraq) they can be called on to perform federal missions. In Texas right now, missions under both federal and state authority are operating at the border with Mexico. The state mission, commanded by Gov. Abbott, is larger.

Both missions are troubled. Army Times reported on January 13 that U.S. Northern Command—the Defense Department geographic combatant command that manages U.S. military activity in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the Bahamas—is launching an investigation “into a wide range of alleged issues” with the federal deployment. Northcom’s independent investigation team, headed by a general and “composed of senior members,” will “take the time required to thoroughly answer the Commander’s inquiry.”

Also on January 13, 13 Democrats from Texas’s U.S. House of Representatives delegation wrote to the inspector-general of Texas’s state Military Department calling for an investigation of “deplorable conditions for our National Guard troops participating in ‘Operation Lone Star.’” The letter cites low morale in the state mission; payment discrepancies; “lack of cold weather equipment, body armor, first aid kits,” and sleeping facilities; guardsmen trespassing on private land; and “a growing number of confirmed deaths by suicide.”

Army Times found that four guardsmen assigned to the Operation Lone Star state mission died by suicide between October 26 and December 17. Another shot and killed himself in an alcohol-related incident on January 1, and two survived suicide attempts in late December and on January 9.

“The thing that’s most alarming about these four suicide deaths is that they happened in a two month span. And when you see clusters like that starting to form in a very short time frame, that’s what gets really alarming,” Davis Winkie, the Army Times reporter who has driven most coverage of the Guard deployments’ crisis, told Slate’s “What Next” podcast. “I had better conditions in Iraq than some of these soldiers have on the Texas border,” said retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Featherston, who was the Texas Army National Guard’s senior enlisted advisor until November 2021.

Even as they live crowded into trailers, the guardsmen don’t appear to have much to do. “There’s a sub task force that’s ostensibly building a border wall right now where I had a soldier reach out to me to say we’ve actually only had two workdays in the last two months. Other than that, we’re just manning guard posts around our base camp,” Winkie told Slate.

Operation Lone Star’s state-run National Guard deployment—whose 10,000 personnel count may include Texas state police—has already cost Texas $412 million, could amount to $2 billion during fiscal 2022, and would jump to $2.7 billion in 2023, according to estimates obtained by the Dallas Morning News. Meanwhile, Texas has slashed its tuition assistance budget for guardsmen in half, as part of across-the-board budget cuts.

The federal mission is also troubled, as Army Times reported in early December and WOLA’s December 10 border update summarized. Three soldiers died in 2021 in motor vehicle and alcohol-related incidents, and commanders carried out more than 1,200 legal and disciplinary investigations into misconduct allegedly committed by the 4,000-person force.

Critics of Gov. Abbott’s deployment charge that, as commander in chief of Texas’s National Guard, he is politicizing a military force. “It is clear State leadership does not have our troops’ best interest in mind. Instead, they continue to use them as political props,” reads the letter from the Democratic members of Congress. Winkie told Slate that Operation Lone Star became more openly politicized over the course of 2021: “it started to change as we got into the fall months and when it appeared certain as well that Abbott was going to be facing a primary challenge from the right.” Guardsmen’s participation shifted from being voluntary to mandatory.

Abbott’s most prominent challenger in the Republican primary for Texas’s 2022 gubernatorial election is Allen West, a former congressman who first gained notoriety for beating and simulating the execution of an Iraqi policeman in 2003. Sgt. Featherston, the retired Texas National Guard senior enlisted advisor and vocal critic of Operation Lone Star, spoke at a press conference West organized in early January. Abbott’s likely Democratic opponent in the general election, former El Paso congressman Beto O’Rourke, wrote a January 2 column in the Houston Chronicle accusing the governor of dealing “a slap in the face to the men and women who’ve signed up to serve this state and country in uniform.”

Abbott defended himself by citing 476 suicides within the larger U.S. military over the first nine months of 2021 (the Texas Tribune could only find an official tally of 380). This number is similar to 2018 (541), 2019 (498), and 2020 (580).

Meanwhile, late in the week of January 3, a Honduran migrant drowned in a flooded gravel pit after running away from National Guard soldiers near Eagle Pass, Texas. It was a very rare case of a civilian death involving U.S. military personnel operating on U.S. soil.

The new “Remain in Mexico” closely resembles the old “Remain in Mexico”

As of January 10, DHS had returned 249 adult asylum seekers to Mexico since December 8, under the court-ordered restart of the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which sends Western Hemisphere asylum seekers back to Mexico to await eventual hearing dates in the United States. Of that total, 229 had been sent from El Paso back across to Ciudad Juárez, and 20 from San Diego to Tijuana. As last week’s update notes, the overwhelming majority have been citizens of Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela. By January 12, the border-wide number of returned migrants had risen to 256, noted a new Human Rights First report.

During Remain in Mexico’s first iteration (January 2019 to January 2021), Human Rights First was able to document over 1,544 abuses and violent crimes committed in Mexico against migrants placed in the program. The organization’s January 13 report counts “over 8,705 reports of kidnappings and other violent attacks against migrants and asylum seekers blocked in and/or expelled to Mexico” since the Biden administration took office. The victims have been kept in Mexican border cities by the U.S. government’s Title 42 pandemic expulsion policy, continued port of entry closures to asylum seekers, and the revived “Remain in Mexico.”

For more background on Remain in Mexico, see our December 3 and August 27 updates (among others), and a historypublished on January 7 by the American Immigration Council.

The Human Rights First report finds that the program is returning asylum seekers to Mexico despite often quite strong claims of fear. It cites findings of the Border Project, run by the Jones Day law firm: of 87 returnees consulted in Ciudad Juárez in December, 70 percent “had been persecuted by Mexican police and other government officials,” but were sent back anyway. Among several examples cited is “a Nicaraguan asylum seeker who was kidnapped and tortured by electrocution and beatings for three weeks in Reynosa in November 2021,” with photos and video evidence sent by his kidnappers to extort his relatives, who still did not pass a non-refoulement interview and was sent to Ciudad Juárez in December.

For an article in the January 8 San Diego Union-Tribune, reporter Kate Morrissey interviewed the two Colombian men who were the first to be sent back to “remain” in Tijuana. She found that their experience “included many of the issues that plagued the program under the Trump administration.”

The Biden administration’s December 2 guidance for the restarted program promised access to counsel. But Morrissey found that “the two Colombian men were not allowed to speak with attorneys while in U.S. custody.” The wife of one of the men, a green card holder in the United States, could have hired an attorney for him to support his claim of fear of return to Mexico, but officials denied his request to call her.

The men, who had turned themselves in to U.S. personnel in order to seek protection after receiving urgent threats in Colombia, recounted miserable treatment in CBP custody. They were placed in a cell in a Border Patrol station with “dozens of other men,” forced to sleep on the floor for nearly a week, with lights always on, for lack of bed space. They were not given an opportunity to bathe or shower. “Though they do not speak much English, they realized that agents were speaking badly about them, they said. They recognized words like ‘stupid’ and phrases like ‘go back to your country.’

As required by the new guidelines, a Border Patrol agent asked the men if they were afraid to return to Mexico, although they said “another agent tried to keep that official from asking the question.” Under the Biden administration’s new guidance, after expressing fear the men were entitled to 24 hours to contact an attorney before speaking with an asylum officer. It was during those 24 hours, they said, that CBP personnel refused to allow them “to make any calls or otherwise access legal counsel.”

They said an agent told them that no matter what happened, they would be sent back to Mexico. So, when the asylum officer asked if they wanted to wait longer in custody in order to access attorneys, the men waived that right, not wanting to spend more time in the crowded cell with their fate already decided.

The men added that they were not asked detailed questions about their medical history, even though the Biden administration’s new guidelines specify medical conditions for exemption from the program. Though the new guidelines specify that those subject to Remain in Mexico are to receive COVID-19 vaccinations if they need them, one man who had only received the first of his two shots was sent over the border before officials could administer his vaccine.

CBP meanwhile confused the men’s paperwork, Morrissey found. Each man had the first page of the other’s notice to appear in court. And at first, they were scheduled for hearings months beyond the six-month limit that the Biden administration had agreed with Mexico. They managed to reschedule for February after raising the issue with their asylum officer.

Now in Tijuana, the Colombian men told Morrissey that they are “confused and terrified.” They refused to provide their names, fearing that their notoriety leaves them exposed to extortion or attack. “We’re the two from Colombia,” one said. “Everyone knows we’re them. We already have problems.”

Meanwhile, legal service providers continue to avoid involvement in the new Remain in Mexico, The Hill reports; an October letter from 73 service providers had notified the Biden administration that they would not enable the renewed program by participating in it. Many fear for their security while attending to clients in Mexican border towns; attorneys had been threatened while trying to do that during the earlier iteration of Remain in Mexico.

In The Hill, Nicholas Palazzo of the El Paso-based Las Américas Immigrant Advocacy Center summed up concerns about the impossibility of representing “Remain in Mexico” clients:

To assume that an organization will have the capacity to provide an attorney on the spot—‘cause they’re being called on a hotline—and drop everything to speak with someone, prepare them, discussing an incredibly traumatizing series of events, while also explaining a confusing legal standard over the phone while the person is in CBP custody and then hopefully represent them on the phone, I mean, there are very, very few organizations, if any, at least on the border, that will have actual capacity to do that. …This is a problem of the administration’s own creation. You can’t really blame anyone else but the administration for designing a program that is inherently flawed and then expecting that legal organizations are going to be able to drop everything to assist people on the fly like that.

Links

  • A heavily redacted report from the DHS Inspector-General finds that CBP officers “did not evaluate unsubstantiated information, and made unsupported conclusions” when they revoked the “trusted traveler” status of two U.S. citizens whom they believed were aiding migrant caravans in 2018 and 2019. NBC’s San Diego affiliate talks to a pastor who is suing because CBP officers, believing she was tied to a caravan, requested that the Mexican government deny her entry.
  • Vice President Kamala Harris is considering attending the inauguration of Honduran President-Elect Xiomara Castro, CNN’s Priscilla Álvarez tweeted.
  • The humanitarian group Humane Borders recovered more than 220 sets of human remains in southern Arizona in 2021, the bodies of migrants who perished of dehydration or exposure in the state’s deserts. “In Arizona, the death toll was at least on par with a 10-year high in 2020,” Fronteras Desk reports.
  • The Arizona Daily Star updates on CBP’s proposed border wall “remediation” projects in Arizona, for which the agency is seeking public input. The report notes that this will probably include closing small gaps where Trump-era construction segments did not fully meet up. Environmental defenders point out that these gaps are some of the only remaining corridors for migratory wildlife. Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat, voiced support for closing the gaps in a December statement.
  • CBP reportedly encountered more than 29,000 undocumented migrants in its Yuma sector, in southwest Arizona and southeast California, in December. That monthly number is more than any of the Yuma sector’s full-year encounter totals between 2008 and 2018. Many are Haitians who continue to be quickly placed on expulsion flights to Haiti, the Washington Examiner notes.
  • Panama’s migration authorities reported apprehending 133,726 migrants in 2021, more than in the previous 11 years combined. About three quarters were Haitian, or the Chilean or Brazilian-born children of Haitian citizens. Caitlyn Yates of the Migration Policy Institute summarizes the data on Twitter, pointing out that Panama’s numbers fell sharply at the end of 2021.
  • A letter from 35 Democratic senators, including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, asks the Departments of Homeland Security and State to grant or re-designate Temporary Protected Status for citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua for humanitarian reasons.
  • Reports continue to emerge of a migrant caravan likely to depart from Honduras on January 15. (No caravan has succeeded in reaching Mexico’s U.S. border since late 2018.)
  • The sheriff of Real County, Texas (pop. 3,400, about 100 miles from the border) “is under criminal investigation for allegedly having his deputies illegally seize money and a truck from undocumented immigrants during traffic stops,” before handing them over to Border Patrol, the Texas Tribune reports.
  • Migrant smugglers’ fees to reach the United States from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala have risen from about $3,200 in 1996 to over $18,000 today, Al Jazeera finds.
  • A new filing from the Biden administration’s Family Reunification Task Force notifies that it has reunited 112 children with parents who were separated from them by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policies. The task force has yet to reach the parents of 237 children. At the same time, the administration is arguing in federal court that families whom the Trump administration separated are not entitled to financial damages. Meanwhile, media reports that victims of family separation might receive financial compensation have already caused some families to receive calls from extortionists, the Associated Press reported.
  • CBP’s warehouse-sized “Ursula Avenue” processing facility for migrants in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector, first opened during the first child migrant crisis in 2014, will reopen in a matter of weeks after more than a year of renovations. Its new design will no longer include its notorious pens surrounded by chain-link fencing.
  • Tijuana’s El Imparcial newspaper reports that a smuggling network charges an increasing number of migrants from Russia up to $10,000 to cross into the United States. CBP data show that of the 1,711 Russian migrants the agency encountered in November 2021, 95 percent crossed in the San Diego sector, which abuts Tijuana. That number more than doubled in three months.
  • During the holidays (December 30), Border Patrol’s El Paso sector tweeted about the apprehension of five migrants from Turkey, accompanying it with a graphic bearing the words “TURKISH INCURSION” in bright red letters.

Weekly Border Update: January 7, 2022

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.

Remain in Mexico has been applied to nearly 250 people

As of Tuesday January 4, the Biden administration’s “Remain in Mexico” (RMX) program had sent 217 asylum-seeking migrants back into Mexico to await their first U.S. immigration court hearings. The program, also known as “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP), had been applied to 135 citizens of Nicaragua (62 percent), 46 Venezuelans, 16 Cubans, 13 Ecuadorians, and 7 Colombians.

By January 5 a source at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) told Mexico’s Aristegui Noticias that 224 men had been sent back across the border since December 8, when the court-ordered revival of the Trump-era program began. In some of these cases, rights advocates have observed a failure to take steps that the Biden administration had promised to implement in order to make RMX more humane.

As explained in past updates, Remain in Mexico was a Trump administration initiative that sent 71,071 asylum seekers with U.S. cases into Mexico between January 2019 and January 2021. Most were sent across before March 2020, when the “Title 42” pandemic measure made requesting asylum nearly impossible by quickly expelling as many migrants as possible.

At least 1,500 asylum seekers suffered violent attacks after being made to remain in Mexico, according to information compiled by Human Rights First. Candidate Joe Biden pledged to end the program, and acted quickly to do so in early 2021, bringing more than 10,000 asylum seekers to await their hearings on U.S. soil. A lawsuit from the 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.

Republican attorneys general of Texas and Missouri led to a Texas federal judge, in August 2021, ordering the Biden administration to carry out a “good faith” effort to restart Remain in Mexico. The Supreme Court refused to put a hold on that order while lower-court appeals continued.

Title 42, which expels undocumented migrants without affording them a chance to request protection in the United States, is applied heavily to citizens of Mexico, and to citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, whose expulsions Mexico agreed to receive in March 2020. Citizens of other, more distant countries are harder to expel quickly, though (as discussed below) the Biden administration is implementing a large-scale airlift of expelled Haitian migrants.

If they are from the Western Hemisphere, asylum seekers from those “other” countries—who, including Haiti, made up 30 percent of all encountered migrants in November—are now increasingly likely to find themselves subject to Remain in Mexico. Not a single citizen of El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras has ended up in the revived program yet. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) continues to use Title 42 for people from those countries, which means that they (along with Mexicans) do not even get asylum cases or hearing dates in the U.S. immigration system.

It is notable that the top three nationalities to which “Remain in Mexico” has so far been applied—Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba—are undemocratic states whose human rights record the U.S. government forcefully criticizes. They are also countries less likely to accept expulsion or deportation flights—though as noted below, 18 flights landed in Nicaragua last year.

The new Remain in Mexico began December 8 in El Paso; on January 5 it expanded to San Diego, where two Colombian men became the first people sent across to await their U.S. hearings in Tijuana. There, IOM staff tested them for COVID-19, gave them information about what to expect in the RMX process, and took them to a shelter.

A U.S. Embassy representative told Tijuana shelter operators and migrant advocates that Remain in Mexico would steadily expand to a maximum of 30 people per day in Tijuana. The Biden administration plans to implement the program at seven ports of entry (San Diego and Calexico, California; Nogales, Arizona; and El Paso, Eagle Pass, Laredo, and Brownsville, Texas). If it applied Remain in Mexico to that full complement of 30 people per day per port of entry, 6,300 people could be sent into Mexican border towns each month. The Trump administration only exceeded that monthly total three times during the earlier incarnation of RMX.

That many new returnees, along with regular deportations and an increasing number of migrants arriving from Haiti and elsewhere, will strain shelters and other humanitarian efforts in Tijuana, Father Patrick Murphy, who runs Tijuana’s Casa de Migrante shelter, told Border Report. “Tijuana is going to be in a difficult position with this constant migration and we haven’t seen much of a response from our government, there’s no help, and they won’t talk to us or take our input.”

The U.S. government has reportedly pledged to provide funding that would benefit shelters receiving RMX participants in Mexican border towns, but where that stands is not clear. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) referred San Diego Union-Tribune inquiries about funding to the Department of State, which did not respond.

In El Paso, the first hearings took place on January 3 for asylum seekers who had been sent across the border into Ciudad Juárez in December. Thirty-six people reported to the port of entry, some at 4:30 AM, and were brought to the federal courthouse in downtown El Paso.

The Biden administration had promised that migrants would have greater access to legal representation in the rebooted program; during the Trump-era program, only 10 percent (18 percent of those who were able to attend all immigration hearings) had lawyers. The situation so far is unchanged: only five of eighty-two asylum seekers brought to El Paso on January 3 and 4 had attorneys present, according to Yael Schacher of Refugees International, who observed the proceedings.

Observers’ access to the courtrooms was also spotty: reporter René Kladzyk of El Paso Matters was barred from attending hearings even though a Department of Justice fact sheet reads, “when court space is limited, media representatives have priority over the general public.” An official cited COVID-19 capacity limitations.

Human Rights First researchers noted other inconsistencies with the Biden administration’s promises of a more humane Remain in Mexico program. Some of the first returnees to Ciudad Juárez said they were not asked required medical screening questions that might exempt people with some conditions from being sent back: DHS personnel had simply checked “no” on a form’s list of medical conditions. Every person Human Rights First staff interviewed upon return to Juárez reported suffering harm in Mexico, including kidnappings, or violence from police or other officials—but they were sent back to Mexico anyway. The Border Project, a legal watchdog group, identified 24 returnees whom it determined should have been exempted from RMX for medical reasons.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reports, “When asked about this issue in a press call on Monday [January 3], administration officials said that asylum seekers in the program can go to ports of entry or reach out to U.S. officials via email if they feel they’ve been incorrectly placed into the program or if their situations have changed.”

The Biden administration continues to insist that it opposes the renewed program, even as it expands it. On December 29 the Department of Justice asked the Supreme Court to expedite its consideration of the lawsuit brought by the Texas and Missouri attorneys general, which had forced the program’s restart, urging it to hold oral arguments in April. It is far from certain that the conservative Supreme Court would find in the Biden administration’s favor.

Meanwhile, proponents of Remain in Mexico are arguing that the administration is not moving to restore the program as quickly as the court order requires. Former Trump White House advisor Stephen Miller published a tweet lamenting that Remain in Mexico has been applied to “about 200” single adult men so far “out of the many 100’s of thousands flooding across unimpeded,” claiming that “Biden is violating a fed court injunction.”

Migrant removal flights increased from 2020 to 2021

Guatemala City’s first U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contractor flights of the year landed on January 4, one from McAllen, Texas and one from nearby Harlingen, Texas. They discharged 251 deported or expelled Guatemalan citizens, 67 of them children. This continues the pace of removal flights set in 2021, according to Guatemalan authorities who counted 184 flights last year discharging 17,806 migrants. Many of those migrants—we don’t have an exact amount—were detained at the border and expelled under Title 42; others were detained by ICE in the U.S. interior. Last year, Mexican authorities deported another 45,498 people to Guatemala, 4,775 by air and the rest on 1,195 buses.

What a new report from Witness at the Border calls “the largest mass deportation campaign in 5 decades” continues in Haiti. As of the morning of January 7, the Biden administration had sent 162 planeloads of Haitian citizens back to Port-au-Prince or Cap-Haïtien, returning about 16,300 people in less than a year. Most are Title 42 expulsions. (In 2020, the Trump administration operated 37 ICE removal flights to Haiti, according to Witness at the Border, which monitors likely ICE fights.) About 126 of those flights have occurred since September 19, 2021, after thousands of Haitian citizens arrived en masse in the border town of Del Rio, Texas.

Overall, Witness at the Border found an increase in migrant removal flights from the Trump administration’s final year to the Biden administration’s first year. 975 flights operated between February and December 2021 (discarding January 2021, which was split between the two presidents). This is up 6 percent from 917 flights between February and December 2020.

Among other interesting findings in the organization’s year-end report:

  • Removal flights going directly to El Salvador (-21 percent), Guatemala (-26 percent), and Honduras (-26 percent) decreased from 2020 to 2021. However, “this decrease of 135 flights was more than offset by the 143 flights to Villahermosa and Tapachula [southern Mexico] that resulted in chain expulsions of an estimated over 14,000 people, primarily Guatemalans and Hondurans, expelled first by US to southern Mexico by air, and then expelled by Mexico by land to Guatemala. In neither case were these people afforded their legal right to assert their rights to seek protection.”
  • One or two flights per month removed people to Nicaragua, despite the deteriorating political and human rights situation and a poor bilateral relationship. Flights continued even after Nicaragua’s illegitimate November 7 elections: two in November, two in December, and eighteen in the year, similar to the nineteen that operated in 2020.
  • The 19 destinations with more than 1 removal flight in 2021 were Guatemala City, Guatemala (184); all of Honduras (149); Port-au-Prince, Haiti (132); Villahermosa, Mexico (112); San Salvador, El Salvador (90); Ecuador (72); Tapachula, Mexico (56); Guadalajara, Mexico (52); Mexico City, Mexico (49); Morelia, Mexico (23); Cap-Haïtien, Haiti (22); Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (21); all of Brazil (21); Managua, Nicaragua (18); Querétaro, Mexico (16); Bogotá, Colombia (12); Kingston, Jamaica (12); Puebla, Mexico (7); and Piarco, Trinidad (3).

Asylum claims in Mexico

Mexico’s small refugee agency, COMAR, reported a record-smashing number of migrants requesting asylum in the country in 2021. The 131,448 applications last year exceeded COMAR’s previous high (70,351 in 2019) by 87 percent. It is more than 100 times the number of people who sought asylum in Mexico as recently as 2013.

For the first time, Haiti led the list of nationalities of asylum seekers in Mexico, with 51,827. Another 6,970 people listed as from Chile and 3,836 from Brazil are also mostly of Haitian descent: many are children of Haitian migrants who first emigrated to those countries. Honduras, with 36,361 applicants, was in second place—though the number of Honduran asylum seekers exceeds 2019’s record.

While the U.S. government continues Title 42 expulsions of Haitian migrants, Mexico (without even counting those listed as Chilean or Brazilian) has considered asylum requests from 837 percent more Haitians in 2021 than in 2019. Working with the UN Refugee Agency, COMAR has launched a pilot program to provide 200 Haitian asylum applicants with temporary visas allowing them to work while awaiting decisions on their cases. Mexico’s largest convenience store chain, Oxxo, also announced its intention to hire Haitians.

The busiest COMAR office continues to be the one in Mexico’s southern border city of Tapachula, Chiapas. In this city of about 350,000 people, 89,688 migrants applied for asylum last year: 68 percent of all of Mexico’s 2021 asylum requests. Tapachula was followed by COMAR’s offices in Mexico City (18,959); Tenosique, Tabasco (7,161); Acayucan, Veracruz (5,809); Palenque, Chiapas (5,696); and Tijuana, Baja California (4,135).

Of the 37,806 asylum decisions that COMAR issued in 2021, 72 percent were grants of asylum and 2 percent were grants of “complementary protection.” The other 26 percent of applications were denied. Adding asylum and complementary protection, COMAR approved 97 percent of Venezuelans, 85 percent of Hondurans and Salvadorans; 69 percent of Cubans; 35 percent of Haitians; and 56 percent of other countries’ citizens.

Texas’s troubled National Guard border mission

Since March 2021 Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has ramped up the National Guard presence along his state’s border with Mexico, part of a $2 billion crackdown that he calls “Operation Lone Star.” About 10,000 troops are helping to set up border fencing with state funds, to interdict migrants on charges of “trespassing,” and to support Texas state police in the border zone.

In the United States, National Guardsmen are military personnel commanded by state governors, though they may also be called up for federal government duty. A separate federal National Guard deployment, begun by Donald Trump in 2018 and continued in the Biden administration, maintained about 4,000 troops along the border in 2021. An extensive December 2021 investigation by Army Times finds this federal deployment “falling apart” amid low morale, discipline problems, and an unclear mission.

The state mission is also deeply troubled, Army Times investigator Davis Winkie revealed in a subsequent report published December 23. Four soldiers tied to Operation Lone Star died by suicide between late October and mid-December. A fifth “accidentally shot and killed himself in an alcohol-related incident Saturday [January 1] and another survived a suicide attempt during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day,” Winkie again reported on January 4.

A possible reason for the wave of suicides may be the disruption to the lives of guardsmen caused by call-ups on just a few days’ notice, causing significant hardship. Like reservists, most National Guard personnel are civilians, with non-military jobs and families, until they are called to serve.

The morale situation is exacerbated by Texas state government budget cuts that slashed tuition assistance grants for guardsmen by more than 50 percent this year. Meanwhile, many soldiers are not being paid on time, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Links

  • New arrivals of unaccompanied children at the U.S.-Mexico border have dropped sharply in the new year. CBP encountered 55 children on January 2, 68 on January 3, and 81 on January 4. That is down from a range of 145 to 168 per day the previous week, which itself is down from an average of 402 per day during fiscal year 2021. The number of unaccompanied migrant children in the shelter system run by the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) fell below 10,000 on January 2, for the first time since March 2021.
  • 11 months after the Biden administration paused border wall construction, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it will make improvements and remediations to include “closing small gaps that remain open from prior construction activities and remediating incomplete gates.” While we haven’t yet confirmed that this will happen, “closing gaps” appears to mean building some wall segments. “Some of the work involves ‘closing construction access gaps’ in the Tucson, El Paso and Yuma Border Patrol sectors ‘to address safety concerns,’” the Arizona Republic reports. “Other activities will involve flood and erosion prevention.” Environmental experts interviewed by the Republic foresee severe impacts on wildlife of closing remaining gaps in Arizona, where one stretch of border wall now runs for a continuous 70 miles, blocking animals’ migratory routes.
  • Biden administration attorneys filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought in a northern California court by three families whose members had been separated by the Trump administration’s notorious “Zero Tolerance” policy. “Actions speak louder than words, and by sending its lawyers to try to throw separated families out of court, the Biden Administration is effectively defending Trump’s cruel and unlawful family separation policy,” said Bree Bernwanger of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. Negotiations over damage payments broke down in November between the Biden administration and attorneys representing families. “That pits administration lawyers against immigrants who had their children seized—a legally and politically perilous scenario for a president whose support from Latinos and liberals is already shaky,” the Washington Post put it.
  • CBP is conducting a review of “Operation Whistle Pig,” a Trump-era program in which the agency’s secretive Counter Network Division used government databases to “vet” journalists, NGO personnel, members of Congress and others.
  • Tijuana recorded 1,972 homicides in 2021, a slight decrease from the previous two years—but with a population of 1.7 million people, that would be a homicide rate of nearly 120 per 100,000 residents, far higher than the hardest-hit U.S. cities. The homicide rate in Ciudad Juárez was nearly as high as Tijuana’s, with 1,424 recorded murders in a city of 1.3 million. Juárez’s 2021 homicide total, though, was 13 percent smaller than a year earlier.
  • The 2021 U.S. Senate session ended without a vote on the Biden administration’s nomination of Ed Gonzalez, the sheriff of Harris County (Houston), Texas, to be director of ICE. Republican senators have opposed his nomination, as Gonzalez’s department had curtailed some migration enforcement cooperation with ICE. His nomination was reintroduced on January 5. If approved, Gonzalez would be the first Senate-confirmed ICE director in five years.
  • As their country slides deeper into dictatorship, 47,534 Nicaraguans applied for asylum or other refuge in Costa Rica during the first 11 months of 2021—16,846 of them in October and November alone. The total since 2018 is 111,712 applicants.
  • At least 2,000 Hondurans may be planning to attempt a new migrant caravan around January 15, a migrant rights activist told local media. No “caravan” has succeeded in making it to the U.S. border since late 2018, as Guatemalan and Mexican authorities have blocked their progress. Guatemalan authorities report that they are preparing “protocols” to respond to a possible caravan arrival.
  • About 150-200 migrants gathered at the border bridge between Piedras Negras, Mexico and Eagle Pass, Texas late on the evening of January 2. They were apparently responding to a false rumor that CBP was processing asylum seekers. CBP closed the bridge for about an hour. Border Patrol told local news media that agents in its Del Rio sector, which includes Eagle Pass, are currently encountering about 1,000 migrants per day.

Weekly Border Update: December 10, 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.

This is likely the final Border Update of 2021. We look forward to resuming on January 7.

First migrants are returned under Remain in Mexico 2.0

The Biden administration’s court-ordered restart of the Remain in Mexico (RMX) program became reality this week in El Paso, the city where the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) get-tough border initiatives often get rolled out first.

As explained in last week’s and prior updates, Remain in Mexico (known formally as Migrant Protection Protocols or MPP) was a Trump administration initiative that forced 71,071 asylum-seekers to await their U.S. immigration hearings inside Mexico between January 2019 and January 2021. Most cases occurred before March 2020, when the “Title 22” pandemic measure made requesting asylum nearly impossible. At least 1,500 of these asylum seekers suffered violent attacks. Candidate Joe Biden pledged to end the program, and acted quickly to do so in early 2021. A lawsuit from the Republican attorneys-general of Texas and Missouri led to a Texas federal judge, in August 2021, ordering the Biden administration to carry out a “good faith” effort to restart Remain in Mexico. The Supreme Court refused to put a hold on that order while lower-court appeals continue.

Months of negotiations with Mexico culminated in a December 2 agreement to restart the program. Remain in Mexico is to restart at seven ports of entry, with a maximum of 30 people per day expected to be sent back into Mexico from each port. (That, if used maximally, would add up to more than 60,000 people per month; the Trump administration’s peak month, August 2019, saw 12,387 people made to remain in Mexico.) A court filing indicated that the program would restart on December 6; as of December 4, Border Patrol sources told south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley Monitor that the agency had not yet received guidance for how to implement it.

“More than 30 migrants had their asylum cases processed in El Paso this week,” the Washington Post reported on December 8. As of mid-day on Friday the 10th, we’ve seen 28 of them:

  • Two single men, a Colombian and a Nicaraguan, sent across into Ciudad Juárez on the 8th. Their transfer, originally planned for the 7th, was delayed “after the process hit a temporary snag and coordination issues,” according to the Post. They have hearing dates in early January. The Nicaraguan migrant told Reuters that “he felt a little sad, but gave thanks to God that he was still alive.”
  • Six adult men escortedover the bridge to Juárez, clad in DHS-issued sweatsuits, on the morning of the 9th. They are citizens of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.
  • As we write this update on the 10th, another 20 migrants have just been returned from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez, informs Julie Neusner of Human Rights First, who has been closely reporting developments on her Twitter account. As of 1:30pm eastern on the 10th, we don’t know these migrants’ nationalities; Neusner said they appeared once again to be single adult males.

In addition to likely logistical issues, the delay in rolling out the send-backs may have something to do with migrants being granted non-refoulement interviews. In a shift from the Trump-era program, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers must now ask whether those enrolled in Remain in Mexico fear being returned to Mexico. If they say “yes,” they are to have interviews with asylum officers after 24 hours of preparation in custody. In those interviews, they must prove a “reasonable possibility” of persecution and torture in Mexico; if they do, their asylum petitions may be processed inside the United States. Advocates like former WOLA executive director Joy Olson are skeptical: “When it comes to the US making exceptions for asylum seekers who are at risk if they remain in Mexico, I’ll believe it when I see it. Until now, even those who had previously been kidnapped in Mexico were returned when they tried to apply for US asylum.”

After release into Juárez, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) gives migrants COVID-19 tests and transports them to an approved shelter. For now, those shelters appear to be the Kiko Romero shelter run by the municipal government and the large Leona Vicario facility run by the federal government. The latter shelter housed several hundred Remain in Mexico subjects in 2019 and 2020.

Migrant rights advocates, including WOLA, are surprised by how robust a program the Biden administration is establishing at the Texas court’s obligation, given its professed opposition to Remain in Mexico. “The reimplementation of MPP by this administration is going well beyond what is required of them by court order,” Shaw Drake of the El Paso-based American Civil Liberties Union Border Rights Center told the Washington Post. Not only will Remain in Mexico operate at a large number of border crossings—including some across from the country’s most violent border cities—the Biden administration is applying it to a larger variety of nationalities than the Trump administration did.

While the Trump-era program made citizens of Spanish and Portuguese-speaking Latin America remain in Mexico, the Biden 2.0 program will apply to citizens of the entire Western Hemisphere, including Creole-speaking Haitian migrants. “This is going beyond good faith implementation of the court order,” a former Biden appointee told BuzzFeed. “When you add new populations and are doing it in addition to Title 42, you are intentionally implementing a program that you know is largely indistinguishable from the prior one and putting more populations in it.” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who insists that he opposes RMX, explained that because “the demographics along the border change with time,” any “good faith” implementation required adding Haitians.

Early indications show other similarities to the Trump-era program’s harsher aspects. CBP is once again sending migrants into Mexico without returning most of their clothing and belongings, purportedly because they “might be ‘carrying diseases,’” Neusner reports. She adds that CBP is once again requiring migrants to report at U.S. ports of entry for their court dates at 4:30 in the morning, a time when dark and empty border cities can be dangerous.

While the Biden-era program includes humanitarian adjustments, these “aren’t clear and haven’t materialized, and they most likely won’t comply with the needs of shelter, protection, or access to health care and legal assistance,” Tonatiuh Guillén, who headed Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) during the first months of the Andrés Manuel López Obrador administration, told the Post. Kennji Kizuka of Human Rights First notes in the same article that promises of humanitarian exceptions were routinely broken in 2019 and 2020.

A key concern is shelter space for individuals and families who may have to wait months inside Mexico for their hearings. Ciudad Juárez’s network of 27 mostly charity-run migrant shelters is already at 83 percent capacity, Sin Embargo reports. The municipal shelter’s capacity is 200, and it currently houses about 170 people. IOM data cited by the Spanish wire service EFE indicate that Tijuana’s 23-shelter, 2,967-bed network is 85 percent occupied. “We’re saturated, we practically can’t attend to anyone else,” José María García of Tijuana’s Juventud 2000 shelter told the local daily El Imparcial.

Father Francisco Gallardo, who manages shelters in Matamoros and Reynosa, told Animal Político that “for the time being they have not received any information or extra support to receive the migrants.” While the top official for North America at Mexico’s foreign ministry, Roberto Velasco, told an interviewer that about US$80 million in U.S. assistance would be forthcoming to assist migrants via international organizations, no figure has been published anywhere else, and word about shelter provision remains quite vague.

IOM will be providing transportation to shelters and to court hearings. The agency has also condemned RMX as “inhumane and contrary to international law.” For its part, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) makes clear that it “was never involved in implementing MPP and will not be supporting the reinstated policy.” IOM is “pushing Mexico to provide migrants with documents and ID numbers that would allow them to work legally, open bank accounts and access services while they wait,” the Washington Post reports. However, during the Trump-era version of the program, Animal Político had found, only 64 of the 71,000 migrants forced to remain in Mexico had managed to secure formal employment.

Access to legal representation remains a concern. During RMX 1.0, “nearly 95% of people placed into MPP were unable to find a lawyer, compared to just 40% of people inside the United States,” according to Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council. This time, citing strong reluctance to return to the personal danger involved with representing RMX clients in dangerous Mexican border cities, most pro-bono attorneys are refusing to include their names on CBP handouts listing lawyers. “We have huge capacity limits and don’t want to be complicit in the restarting of MPP,” Linda Rivas of the El Paso-based Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center told CNN. “When they rely so much on the NGOs to make things happen, they try to justify programs that are inhumane and don’t restore asylum.”

Perhaps the most urgent unmet need is security. “A program that requires asylum seekers to remain in one of the most dangerous parts of the world while their cases are pending in U.S. immigration courts cannot guarantee their protection from persecution and torture, as required by U.S. law,” reads a December 2 letter from the U.S. asylum officers’ union. “That first half hour of return to Mexico is the most dangerous point,” Taylor Levy, an attorney who represented many RMX subjects in El Paso, told the Monitor. “That first half hour, that first hour, that’s where we see the most kidnappings. We see systematic kidnappings particularly in Tamaulipas, particularly in Nuevo Laredo.”

In response to these concerns, plans for RMX 2.0 indicate that those sent back into some of the most dangerous border cities in Tamaulipas and Coahuila, Mexico, may be transported to cities deeper into Mexico’s interior. Much about this transport remains undefined, though, including how migrants would be brought back to the border for their hearings.

While the Remain in Mexico rollout proceeds, the Biden administration continues to implement the Trump-era “Title 42” policy of quickly expelling migrants, purportedly to limit COVID exposure, without offering a chance to request asylum. Mexico accepts rapid expulsions of most migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Citizens of other Western Hemisphere countries may now find themselves in Mexico, too—including many from dictatorial regimes that the U.S. government regularly condemns, like Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Unlike those from northern Central America, those in RMX will at least have court dates in the United States to begin their asylum processes.

Though the chance of gaining asylum through Remain in Mexico 1.0 was very slim—1.6 percent of closed cases resulted in any protected status inside the United States—some migrants may be viewing RMX as an incentiveto cross. As long as Title 42 remains in effect and ports of entry remain closed to the undocumented, Remain in Mexico is just about the only avenue available to seek asylum for migrants arriving at the U.S. border right now.

Senate confirms Chris Magnus as CBP Commissioner

By a 50-47 vote on December 7, the U.S. Senate confirmed Chris Magnus, the 61-year-old police chief of Tucson, Arizona, as the first commissioner of CBP since 2019. It was a near-total party-line vote, with only Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) voting with all Democrats to confirm Magnus. Though Magnus was nominated in April, his Senate process was delayed by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who had held the nomination until CBP provided information about the Trump administration’s use of agency personnel to combat protesters in Portland in 2020.

Magnus is the first openly gay CBP Commissioner. He was known as a relatively progressive police chief, marching with Black Lives Matter protesters in 2014 and vocally criticizing the Trump administration’s immigration policies. He will now head a 60,000-person law enforcement organization, encompassing all of Border Patrol, port-of-entry personnel, and an air and marine division, whose unions were outspoken in their political support for Donald Trump. Even before taking office, Magnus has come up for frequent criticism in the Border Patrol union’s podcast.

CBP also usually ranks among federal agencies with the lowest morale. The agency faces frequent allegations of improper use of force, as well as a culture of everyday abuse—treatment of migrants in custody, verbal abuse, attitudes expressed in a controversial Facebook group—reflecting hostility to undocumented migrants and asylum seekers.

This, combined with many agents’ and supervisors’ affinity for Trump, may spell difficult relations between the agency’s rank and file and Magnus, who said at his October confirmation hearing that he wanted to enforce the law “humanely” and include more sensitivity in Border Patrol agents’ training. Magnus also told senators that he is “not an ideologue” and would take a pragmatic approach with the agency.

Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum, which investigated CBP’s use of force during the Obama administration, told the New York Times that he did not expect Magnus to burst out the gate with a barrage of transparency and accountability reforms. “Police chiefs coming into an environment like this recognize that their learning curve has to go up, and that means listening a lot before you do anything.”

The Times reports that the Biden administration’s nominee to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Harris County, Texas Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, might come up in the Senate next week.

Caravans dwindle while Mexico allows asylum seekers to wait in other states

The Mexican daily Milenio published a helpful explainer about the migrant “caravans”—episodes of mass travel, on foot—that have departed from Mexico’s southern border-zone city of Tapachula since October 23. The vast majority of these caravans’ members are among the 123,000 migrants who have requested asylum before Mexico’s beleaguered refugee agency, COMAR, during the first 11 months of 2021.

Though some seek to reach the United States, many are pushing Mexico to loosen a guideline restricting them to the state where they first applied for asylum. Nearly 85,000 applied in Tapachula, a city of 350,000 in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state. Caravan participants want to exit the city, where employment and income opportunities are few. COMAR, though, is only able to process about 5,000 asylum requests per month nationwide, so migrants’ waits have become very long. (WOLA staff discuss this complex situation with Mexico-based asylum advocates in a December 7 episode of our podcast.)

Milenio identifies four main migrant movements since mid-October, all made up of people of mixed nationalities:

  • The original October 23 movement of about 4,000 migrants from Tapachula, some of whose members—prevented from boarding vehicles—have walked almost all the way to Mexico City over nearly seven weeks. Past weekly updates have documented its slow progress.
  • A second group that arrived in Veracruz state around November 9, possibly a 500-person offshoot of the first caravan. Authorities appear to have blocked or dispersed this group.
  • A third group of about 3,000 people that left Tapachula on November 18, only to dissolve after about five days after National Migration Institute (INM) personnel agreed to provide travel documents allowing most to await the result of their asylum applications in other Mexican states.
  • A fourth collection of smaller groups that Milenio calls “ant caravans,” each with several hundred people. These appear to have dissolved after coming to relocation agreements with INM, though some of their participants may have appeared in Veracruz state.

A remnant of the first group, numbering between 300 and 600 (including some who probably joined the caravan in recent days or weeks) is now in Mexico’s central state of Puebla, and may soon arrive in Mexico City. Its longest-lasting members have walked through Chiapas, Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Puebla, about 500 miles. Milenio reports that their plan is to gather in the Zócalo in central Mexico City to push for “respect for human rights, and humanitarian visas.” In mid-November the INM had reported having convinced at least 1,500 members of this “caravan” to desist in exchange for travel documents allowing them to await their asylum decisions in other southern or central Mexican states.

Reuters reported on a group walking towards Mexico City along the main highway from Puebla on December 9. It is not clear whether these migrants are part of the October 23 caravan, or a group that INM had relocated to Puebla.

These relocation arrangements are becoming more common as INM yields to migrants’ demands to leave Tapachula. In recent days the agency has been offering bus transportation from Tapachula to other states—all of them far from the U.S. border—to a number of migrants that is unknown but very likely in the thousands. Reuters mentions 45 buses leaving the city on December 4, 32 buses on December 5, and 70 more on December 6.

Enrique Vidal of the Tapachula-based Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center is critical. “It is an improvised reaction,” he told the Associated Press. “They have the people completely uninformed and they think they can move them like merchandise.”

A large crowd of mostly Haitian migrants—estimates range from 3,000 to 7,000 people—has encamped outside of the Tapachula soccer stadium that COMAR had been using as a processing facility. They are demanding documents allowing them to live outside of Chiapas, along with bus transportation.

The process has been chaotic, which in turn has slowed the flow of buses from the stadium to a “trickle,” according to attorney Arturo Viscarra from CHIRLA. Meanwhile the Mexican daily El Universal published allegations that corrupt INM agents have been selling bus tickets to Haitian migrants—which are supposedly free—for US$300 apiece.

Between the restart of “Remain in Mexico” and Title 42’s persistence, on one hand, and the Tapachula buses on the other, Mexico is in a strange situation of seeking to relocate migrants into its interior from crowded situations at both its dangerous northern border and its economically depressed southern border.

Report points to devastated morale among National Guardsmen assigned to U.S.-Mexico border

A 4,300-word investigation by Army Times reporter Davis Winkie finds that the National Guard mission at the border, begun in 2018 as part of Donald Trump’s response to migrant caravans, “fell apart” over the past year due to irrelevance, poor leadership, and low morale.

National Guardsmen have been at the border almost continuously since the Bush administration, usually in support of CBP in roles that involve no contact with migrants. By the early Trump administration, only a couple of hundred guardsmen were stationed at the border, carrying out technology-intensive missions like aerial surveillance. In April 2018, Trump greatly increased the Guard presence, and during 2021 about 4,000 personnel from 20 states have remained. A February 2021 Government Accountability Office report found fault with the deployment’s cost estimates and internal monitoring.

The Biden administration has maintained the deployment but cut back its law enforcement role; most personnel now maintain vehicles and equipment, perform light construction, and sit in vehicles all day observing the border, alerting Border Patrol to any suspicious crossings they witness. This is distinct from the National Guard deployment ordered earlier this year Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, which is funded from Texas’s state treasury and—in an unusual move—empowers soldiers to arrest civilians.

The Army Times article includes a series of bombshell revelations provided by anonymous guardsmen who had been deployed at the border. While the entire article is a rewarding read, some highlights include:

The irrelevance of the mission: Guardsmen “stared into the darkness and fell asleep on the job while awaiting shipments of equipment for months, and only assisted in less than one in every five apprehensions. Legal restrictions on the use of Guardsmen left them with little more than watching as a mission.” Most troops are manning 24-hour lookout sites; “most consist of two soldiers in the front seat of a borrowed vehicle, peering through binoculars.” The 2021 units went months without night-vision goggles, reduced to peering into whatever was visible within range of their headlights. An officer who served at the border last year says, “We’re useless and CBP treats us like we’re useless. We cost the taxpayer millions of dollars in pay, benefits, per diem, hotels, [and] vehicle rentals.”

Personnel deaths: Three members of a 1,000-soldier battalion-level task force died, in motor vehicle and alcohol-related incidents, while based in McAllen, Texas in 2021. “For comparison, only three Army Guard troops died on overseas deployments in 2021, out of tens of thousands.”

Severe discipline problems among bored troops included widespread alcohol and drug use—so bad that local police brought drug dogs to sniff the south Texas hotels where Guardsmen were staying. Commanders carried out more than 1,200 legal actions “including nonjudicial punishments, property loss investigations, Army Regulation 15-6 investigations and more. That’s nearly one legal action for every three soldiers.” A staff officer said, “We are literally the biggest threat to ourselves down here.”

Vehicle accidents: “Troops at the border had more than three times as many car accidents over the past year—at least 500 incidents totaling roughly $630,000 in damages—than the 147 ‘illegal substance seizures’ they reported assisting.”

“If we want to secure the border, 100 customs officers is better than 100 National Guardsmen,” Rep. Rubén Gallego (D-Arizona), a former Marine, told Army Times.

“It feels warm and fuzzy to say that we have guys with camouflage down on the border, but it’s just politicians playing with people’s emotions. [The troops] don’t actually end up being effective, and you’re eroding our military capability for real threats. All you’re doing is, basically, taking [Guardsmen] away from their families [and] taking people from actual training. You’re screwing with readiness. You’re screwing with morale.

Winkie’s article cites an anonymous letter a soldier slipped under doors at a brigade headquarters in September. “‘Someone please wave the white flag and send us all home,’ the letter pleaded. ‘I would like to jump off a bridge headfirst into a pile of rocks after seeing the good ol’ boy system and f—ed up leadership I have witnessed here.’”

Now that the U.S. government has entered fiscal year 2022, the 2021 hodgepodge of units from 20 states has been replaced by a 3,000-person mission coordinated out of the Kentucky Army National Guard. The officer who commanded the Guard units during the first five months of fiscal 2021, “then-Col. Martin Clay, was promoted to brigadier general in May.”

Links

  • The International Organization on Migration estimates that 5,755 migrants have died along North American and Caribbean routes since 2014, with more than 1,060 perishing so far in 2021. Of this year’s victims, at least 650 people have died along the U.S.-Mexico border, usually of dehydration or exposure. That is the most IOM has counted since the organization began documenting deaths in 2014. Over this eight-year period, IOM counts 3,575 deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border, far more than the 2,580 remains the U.S. Border Patrol reports finding.
  • A tractor-trailer carrying about 150 migrants, most from Guatemala, hit a barrier and flipped over on a highway outside Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of Mexico’s state of Chiapas, on December 9. More than 50 people died, a number that is likely to increase.
  • The mayor of Yuma, Arizona says that more than 6,000 migrants arrived at his city’s border with Mexico between December 4 and December 9, seeking to be apprehended and petition for asylum.
  • In a two-part series at Border Report, Sandra Sánchez tells the story of a Honduran family that was placed into the Remain in Mexico program in July 2019.
  • For about a week, Tijuana shelters have noticed an increase in arrivals of Haitian migrants.
  • An internal August memo from the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) recommended against expelling or deporting Haitian migrants back to their home country given the criminal violence and political turmoil being suffered there, BuzzFeed reports. The CRCL memo was not taken into account, as about 9,600 Haitians have been expelled under Title 42, aboard 91 flights, since September 19.
  • Nicaragua has abruptly dropped visa requirements for visitors from Cuba, leading Univision to predict an increased flow of Cuban migrants through Central America and Mexico toward the U.S. border.
  • Mexican migration authorities have vastly stepped up their operations against bus transportation: Animal Político accessed internal documents showing “an increase in the number of operations against public transport, which went from one check in March to an average of 400 in August and September.” 12,000 migrants have been detained while aboard buses in Mexico so far this year. (In a much-cited 2019 article, CBP sources had told the Washington Post’sNick Miroff of a phenomenon of “express buses” leaving hundreds of asylum seekers at the border at a time.)
  • DHS is requesting public comments on policy changes to prevent any future implementation of border policies that separate families, as happened thousands of times during the Trump administration. Los Angeles Times reporter Molly O’Toole remarked on Twitter that the request for comments is “bizarre” because it “sure as hell opens itself up rhetorically to: Just don’t?”
  • Our April 16 update discussed the Biden Justice Department’s persistence in a Trump-era border wall land seizure lawsuit against the Cavazos family, which has held riverfront property in Mission, Texas for centuries. This week the family, represented by the Texas Civil Rights Project, got good news: a federal judge ordered the Biden administration to return the family’s land.

WOLA Podcast: Is Mexico Prepared to be a Country of Refuge?

I MC’d a conversation between four very smart colleagues this afternoon, who helped make sense of a remarkable, and remarkably difficult, moment for migrants in Mexico. Here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

Mexico had always been considered a source of migrants, or a country through which other countries’ citizens transited. Not anymore: so far in 2021, more than 120,000 migrants have applied for asylum or other protection in Mexico. And now, the U.S. government’s restart of the “Remain in Mexico” program means Mexico will be hosting even more people who’ve fled their countries.

Mexico’s transition to being a country of refuge has not been smooth. Its refugee agency, COMAR, is overwhelmed. The emphasis continues to be on deterrence and detention, in what has been a record-breaking year for Mexico’s migrant detentions. Mexico’s government has begun employing the military in a migration enforcement role, with serious human rights consequences. And U.S. pressure to curtail migrant flows continues to be intense.

We discuss Mexico’s difficult transition to being a country of refuge with a four-person panel of experts:

  • Gretchen Kuhner is the founder and director of the Mexico City-based Institute for Women in Migration (IMUMITwitter/Facebook), a civil society research, advocacy, and legal aid organization.
  • Daniel Berlin is the deputy director of Asylum Access Mexico (Twitter/Facebook), the largest refugee legal aid organization in Mexico, with offices in 7 parts of the country.
  • Maureen Meyer is WOLA’s vice president for programs. (Twitter)
  • Stephanie Brewer is WOLA’s director for Mexico and migrant rights. (Twitter)

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Weekly Border Update: December 3, 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.

Remain in Mexico to restart Monday, December 6

On December 2 the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS), Justice (DOJ), and State announced, and Mexico’s government acknowledged, agreement on a court-ordered restart of the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program. Starting on December 6 at one port of entry—probably El Paso—non-Mexican asylum seekers will once again be made to await their U.S. immigration hearings inside Mexico, rather than inside the United States where many have family ties, support networks, and places to live. The program will “start in one location and will expeditiously expand… border-wide in the days that follow,” reads a DHS court filing.

Known officially as “Migrant Protection Protocols” or “MPP,” Remain in Mexico sent 71,071 asylum-seekers back across the border between January 2019, when the Trump administration began implementing the policy, and Inauguration Day 2021, when the Biden administration suspended it. Human Rights First was able to document 1,544 violent attacks on these asylum seekers—kidnappings, assaults, rapes—after their return to Mexican border towns with some of the hemisphere’s highest violent crime rates. Of 45,387 RMX asylum cases that reached a decision, only 740 (1.6 percent) resulted in grants of asylum or other relief, and only 10 percent (18 percent of those who were able to attend all immigration hearings) had legal representation.

Candidate Joe Biden opposed Remain in Mexico; in December 2019 Jill Biden decried the program on a visit to an encampment of asylum seekers in Matamoros, Mexico. The new Biden administration suspended it and brought more than 10,000 asylum seekers with pending cases back to the United States. A June 1, 2021 DHS memo officially terminated Remain in Mexico.

The Republican attorneys-general of Texas and Missouri sued to reinstate the policy. A federal district court judge in Amarillo, Texas (a Trump appointee) agreed on August 13 that the Biden administration had failed to weigh the consequences of terminating RMX, and ordered it to carry out a “good faith” effort to restart the program. The Supreme Court refused to place a stay on this order while the Biden administration appealed it.

DHS issued a new memo (on October 29) “re-terminating” Remain in Mexico, with strong arguments about the program’s cruelty and ineffectiveness. However, amid a sharp increase in migration at the border during the pandemic’s latter phases, the Biden administration has been internally ambivalent about re-starting the program. “Biden appointees at DHS and the National Security Council had already proposed reviving the policy months earlier, in the spring,” CBS News reported in November. And the administration has followed the Texas court’s order rigorously, setting up infrastructure for hearings near border crossings and negotiating with Mexico its reception of those who would be forced to “remain.”

As laid out in a November 26 statement, Mexico’s government had several demands for a restarted program. Asylum seekers, it said, should have improved access to legal assistance. They should have medical attention and COVID-19 vaccines. Those with vulnerabilities—pregnant women, people with physical or mental disabilities, the elderly, LGBTI people, those who speak only Indigenous languages—should not be made to “remain.” Returns should be closely coordinated with authorities on the Mexican side. The U.S. government should provide resources for shelter and “meaningful” efforts to improve migrants’ conditions.

U.S. negotiators committed, with varying degrees of specificity, to meeting all of these conditions, and Mexico gave its green light on December 2. According to the deal to restart Remain in Mexico, first reported by the Washington Post, asylum seekers will be sent back into Mexico at ports of entry in San Diego and Calexico, California; Nogales, Arizona; and El Paso, Eagle Pass, Laredo, and Brownsville, Texas. Immigration courts, with a total of at least 22 dedicated judges, will operate near the San Diego, El Paso, Laredo, and Brownsville ports of entry. The Laredo and Brownsville facilities will once again be tents where asylum seekers must argue their cases via videoconference.

Due to difficult security conditions across from Eagle Pass (Piedras Negras), Laredo (Nuevo Laredo), and Brownsville (Matamoros), “some individuals” sent across the border there “may be moved to the interior of Mexico to await their hearings,” reads the guidance DHS published on December 2. It is not clear how they will be transported back to attend those hearings.

An official told the Washington Post that the plan “initially” is to apply Remain in Mexico “primarily for single adult asylum seekers,” instead of families. This has not been reported or acknowledged elsewhere.

Though administration officials claim they are only reinstating Remain in Mexico, a program they oppose, to comply with a court order, their efforts to do so have been far from minimal. In fact, the program’s 2.0 version will apply to citizens of even more countries than before: “nationals of any country in the Western Hemisphere other than Mexico,” the guidance reads. The Trump-era program was applied only to Spanish and Portuguese speakers, but notices for migrants who claim fear of harm in Mexico are being translated into Haitian Creole as well, according to an internal document seen by CBS News reporter Camilo Montoya-Galvez.

Between September 19 and November 26, the U.S. government used the Trump-era “Title 42” pandemic authority, which remains in effect, to expel 8,898 people back to Haiti, 20 percent of them children, on 85 different flights, usually without any chance to ask for asylum. The Biden administration will most likely continue to apply Title 42 to most migrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, as Mexico agreed in March 2020 to take back expelled citizens of those countries. Asylum seekers from other hemispheric countries, who are harder to expel because of distance or poor consular relations, will now be more likely to end up forced to Remain in Mexico—apparently including Haitians. Those migrants will have U.S. hearing dates, while those expelled under Title 42 do not.

Immigration attorney Taylor Levy, who has represented numerous RMX clients, shared this chart of likely destinations for asylum seekers, by nationality, as the Biden administration operates Remain in Mexico and Title 42 simultaneously:

( Tweeted December 2 by Taylor Levy @taylorklevy)

U.S. government documents and media reports point to the following changes that the Biden administration has agreed to implement to “soften” Remain in Mexico.

  • All asylum seekers will receive a COVID vaccine (one-dose Johnson and Johnson if over 18, one dose of a two-dose regime if between 5 and 18). “Proof of COVID-19 vaccination will be required for re-entry into the United States.” Mexico’s December 2 statement refers to “making vaccines available to migrants subject to both [Remain in Mexico] and Title 42 of the United States Code,” but no U.S. statements have referred to vaccinating those expelled under Title 42.
  • Mexico demanded that cases be resolved within a six month maximum timeframe; DHS guidance commits only to coordinating with the Justice Department’s Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR, the immigration court system) “to align the number of new MPP enrollments with the number of cases EOIR states it generally can complete within 180 days.”
  • DHS will facilitate access to counsel by providing “legal resource packets;’ State Department information about “where they can locate places in Mexico to engage in telephonic or video communications with counsel;” toll-free, confidential telephone access to confer with attorneys while in DHS custody; and the ability to confer with counsel before their hearings. These measures may make little difference to most of those made to remain in Mexico:        
    • Only 10 percent of those in the Trump-era program had legal representation, compared to 60 percent inside the United States.
    • Confidential discussions with counsel are very difficult while in DHS custody. “How is DHS going to do this? They struggle to do this with people in ICE custody who aren’t in MPP. It’s hard to imagine CBP [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] pulling off confidentiality,” tweeted Ohio State Law professor César García.
    • Meanwhile, “getting a US lawyer while stuck in Mexico in MPP is nearly impossible,” as Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council put it. In an October 19 letter, 73 legal service providers, law school clinics, and law firms, representing the overwhelming majority of border-area pro bono legal counsel, refused to take RMX cases this time, citing past security threats and trauma while trying to do their jobs in Mexican border towns. They are declining government requests to be added to the contact lists that asylum seekers will be given before DHS returns them to Mexico. “We certainly hope and expect that there will be counsel who will be available to help this population,” an official told reporters on a December 2 call.
  • Procedures for expressing fear of returning to Mexico will be strengthened somewhat. CBP officials must now “proactively ask questions” about migrants’ fear of return to Mexico. Those who do will have 24 hours to consult with counsel while in custody, if they can obtain representation, before an interview with an asylum officer. Asylum seekers will not be returned to Mexico if they can convince the asylum officer “that there is a ‘reasonable possibility’ that they will be persecuted on account of a statutorily protected ground (race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion) or that they will be tortured in Mexico.” The standard of “reasonable possibility” is less stringent than the past RMX standard of “more likely than not.”
  • Vunerable people exempted from Remain in Mexico will include “those with a known mental or physical health issue, including a disability or a medical condition related to pregnancy”—but not pregnancy itself; “those with particular vulnerabilities given their advanced age” but not all elderly people; and those at risk “due their sexual orientation or gender identity.” Reichlin-Melnick observes, “These categories are very similar to what they were under Trump, and CBP routinely violated even the narrow protections in place. I fully expect CBP to ignore these exemptions this time around too.”
  • While security in Mexican border towns remains uncertain, the DHS guidance states that the agency is “working with” the State Department and government of Mexico to ensure “access to shelters in Mexico and secure transportation to and from ports of entry to these shelters, so as to enable safe transit to and from court hearings.” No specifics are yet available about shelters and safe transportation. (The Trump-era program made no allowances for shelter, and required asylum seekers to find their own way to ports of entry on their hearing dates, usually for 4:00AM appointments.)

When asylum seekers have no address in Mexico—which is almost always, since they have sought to travel through Mexico to reach the United States—the DHS guidance tells CBP officials to instruct asylum seekers to update their forms “once an address is secured.”

As in the past, finding shelter in Mexican border towns is entirely up to migrants, and relies heavily on those towns’ charity-run shelter systems. “If people put into MPP are to ‘have access to shelters,’ those shelters should already be ready. Where are they?” García tweeted. In fact, right now “many shelters are full, and some shelters continue to operate at a reduced capacity” due to COVID-19 in Mexican border towns, according to the latest (December 1) “ Metering Update” from the University of Texas Strauss Center. The 23 public and private shelters in Ciudad Juárez are already at 70 percent capacity, the Mexican daily Milenioreported this week.

During the Trump-era Remain in Mexico program, Mexico “resisted” UN or outside assistance to shelter asylum seekers, as the Washington Post put it. This time, the Mexican government’s November 26 statement “considers it essential to have additional resources from the United States, destined for shelters and international organizations to improve conditions for migrants and asylum seekers in a meaningful way.”  The IOM-Mexicooffice already reiterated its public criticism of the program, which it considers in violation of international law, and called on the Biden administration to end it as soon as possible. 

While all this happens, the Biden administration continues to challenge the Texas judge’s order in the courts; its appeal remains before the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit. The American Civil Liberties Union has indicated that it may revive its Trump-era lawsuit against Remain in Mexico. If it does, the Biden administration may find itself in the bizarre position of fighting the ACLU to preserve “Remain in Mexico” in one court, while simultaneously fighting the attorneys-general of Texas and Missouri to end “Remain in Mexico” in another court.

2021 border drug seizures overview

A massive mid-November drug seizure at a San Diego port of entry—17,584 pounds of methamphetamine and 389 pounds of fentanyl on a single truck—drew attention to increased trafficking of synthetic drugs at the U.S.-Mexico border, even as seizures of drugs derived from plants (cocaine, heroin, marijuana) are flat or declining. Further attention came from a much-mocked tweet by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-New York), chairwoman of the House of Representatives’ Republican Conference, reporting a big fentanyl seizure at a port of entry as a sign of “Biden’s Border Crisis.”

In late October CBP released statistics about border drug seizures during the 2021 fiscal year, which ended on September 30. Three trends in particular stand out.

1) For the first time, seizures of fentanyl exceeded seizures of heroin. This is remarkable because by weight and volume, fentanyl is about 50 times more potent than heroin. The drug, synthesized in labs, appears to be replacing heroin among U.S. users of illegal opioids; some journalistic reports have documented depressed prices and conditions for farmers who grow opium poppies in rural Mexico. By weight, fentanyl seizures in 2021 were more than double heroin seizures. Since 2018, CBP’s seizures of heroin have declined 9 percent while seizures of fentanyl have increased 456 percent. Fentanyl was involved in a majority of the shocking 100,306 estimated overdose deaths in the United States in the 12 months ending April 2021.

2) Another synthetic drug, methamphetamine, continues to increase, while seizures of cocaine—derived from the coca plant—are barely rising. Seizures of methamphetamine are up 39 percent since 2019. Cocaine is up only 8 percent since 2018, even as U.S. and UN estimates point to a multiplication of the drug’s production in the Andean region over the past 8 years. These charts point to a similar divergence between synthetic and plant-based drugs.

Seizures of another plant-based drug, marijuana, have plummeted even more steeply, by 71 percent since 2018. This owes largely to the drug’s legalization in many U.S. states, which has deeply reduced incentives to risk smuggling it across the border.

3) With the exception of the rapidly declining marijuana traffic, the overwhelming majority of border drug seizures happen at ports of entry, and not in the areas between where Border Patrol operates and walls get built. Drugs are most often smuggled in vehicles and amid cargo. Even a significant portion of Border Patrol’s seizures happen at vehicle checkpoints, and not out in the field. Reduced traffic at ports of entry during the pandemic—non-citizens were barred from entry for “non-essential” purposes between March 2020 and November 2021—may have helped CBP seize more drugs, Vice observes.

Caravan updates

“Caravans” of migrants from Central America, Haiti, and elsewhere continue to leave Mexico’s southern border-zone city of Tapachula, in Chiapas, the country’s poorest state. They are not succeeding in reaching either Mexico City or the U.S. border. Security-force and immigration personnel are preventing participants from traveling in vehicles, forcing them to walk. Many are meanwhile accepting offers of documents allowing them to await decisions on their asylum cases in other parts of the country.

Increasingly, the “caravans” are resembling less efforts to migrate than protests against Mexican government policies confining asylum applicants to the state where they applied. Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, is badly backlogged. It reported receiving 15,018 asylum requests in November, bringing its year-to-date total up to 123,187 asylum requests. This is by far COMAR’s record, 95 times more asylum requests than the agency received in 2013—and 2021 isn’t over yet. Two thirds of this year’s asylum seekers are from Haiti (47,494) or Honduras (35,161).

While people await decisions from the overwhelmed agency, they must remain in the same state where they applied. 68 percent of asylum seekers—84,606 people—submitted their applications this year in Tapachula, a city of 300,000 that offers very few employment and income opportunities for those whose Mexican migration documents restrict them to Chiapas. Groups of mostly Haitian migrants sought to exit Tapachula en masse in late August and early September, but were blocked or dispersed by Mexican forces. (In mid-September, though, a group of 15,000 mostly Haitian migrants made it all the way to Del Rio, Texas; how Mexico’s enforcement shifted to allow this to happen remains unclear.)

On October 23, a caravan of perhaps 3,000 mostly Central American migrants departed Tapachula, and has proceeded on foot for hundreds of miles, reaching the Isthmus of Tehuántepec, Mexico’s narrowest point, in the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz. By November 27, the Mexican daily La Jornada reported, this caravan’s numbers had dwindled to about 150; most had taken offers from Mexico’s migration agency, INM, of documents allowing them to reside in another central or southern Mexican state while awaiting outcomes from COMAR. In recent days, the remaining members of this caravan appeared to be attempting to board cargo trains, known as La Bestia, to take them from Veracruz to Mexico City.

Other groups that departed Tapachula in mid-November appear to be following a pattern of walking many miles up Chiapas’s coastal highway, then desisting. Usually, the marches end with official offers of documents allowing caravan participants to move to other Mexican states, along with bus transportation to those states, all of which are far from the U.S. border. Some of these recent “caravans” are now more properly described as highway blockades: protests to demand relocation outside of Chiapas.

Thousands of Haitian migrants remain in Tapachula. Many are assembled outside the city’s soccer stadium, which COMAR has been using as a processing facility. Most are demanding permission to await decisions in states other than Chiapas. Meanwhile, more Haitian people continue to arrive in southern Mexico. Panamanian authorities counted more than 75,000 Haitian citizens—most of whom had lived for years in Brazil and Chile—crossing through the treacherous Darién Gap region between January and October, the Houston Chronicle reports. 17,000 came through in October alone.

Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) meanwhile continues to report large numbers of migrant apprehensions. August (3rd), September (1st), and October (2nd) are INM’s top three months for migrant apprehensions in the 20 years since Mexico’s government started sharing records. Of 228,115 migrants Mexico has apprehended between January and October 2021, 97,968 are from Honduras, 64,733 from Guatemala, 18,988 from El Salvador, 17,516 from Haiti, 10,960 from Nicaragua, 5,133 from Cuba, 2,288 from Venezuela, 2,166 from Chile (nearly all of them children of Haitians born in Chile), and 1,766 from Brazil (many of them also probably Haitians born in Brazil).

Notably, Mexico has deported just over one migrant for every three it has apprehended this year—82,627 deportations between January and October. Those most frequently deported come from Honduras (42,375), Guatemala (32,427), El Salvador (3,682), and Nicaragua (1,222). Haitians are fifth with 816 deportations.

Links

  • A “Bicentennial Framework” has replaced the “Mérida Initiative” as the guiding set of principles for U.S. security cooperation with Mexico. It focuses on a public health approach to drugs, combating arms trafficking, and targeting illicit financial flows. A new analysis from WOLA’s Mexico Program unpacks the likely differences and continuities in U.S. policy and the bilateral relationship.
  • The latest quarterly “ Metering Update” from the University of Texas Strauss Center finds 26,505 asylum seekers on waiting lists in 8 Mexican border cities in November—a 29 percent increase from the researchers’ Augustreport.
  • A new report from the El Paso-based Hope Border Institute digs into the reasons why increasing numbers of migrants are arriving. 51 in-person interviews with migrants at Ciudad Juárez shelters revealed that COVID and climate change are layered onto the traditional reasons why people are fleeing. Using data gained from thousands of surveys in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the Migration Policy Institute, World Food Program and MIT Civic Data Design Lab found an increased desire to migrate, a modest increase in actual plans to migrate, and economic factors predominating over several causes behind people’s decisions to migrate.
  • A study by physicians associated with Physicians for Human Rights finds evidence of long-lasting mental disorders among migrants whose families were forcibly separated at the border during the Trump administration. The Dallas Morning News has an overview.
  • CBP took 2,021 formal disciplinary actions against members of its 60,000-person workforce in fiscal year 2020, up from 1,629 actions in 2019, according to a new report.
  • On November 17, just before a mandate that all federal employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 by November 22, Border Patrol had a 79 percent rate of full vaccination. Another 16 percent had pending requests for exemptions from the mandate, much higher than the federal government average, leaving 5 percent unvaccinated or unresponsive. At the Intercept, Ken Klippenstein writes about agents who resent or are resisting the vaccine mandate.
  • Numbers of unaccompanied children arriving at the border have been gradually increasing since mid-October, though daily totals are still well below March-April and July-August increases. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council charts it out.
  • The U.S. and Mexican governments announced agreement to support “Sembrando Oportunidades,” a joint program of development aid to Central America. This may have been an effort to sweeten the deal involving Mexico’s cooperation with “Remain in Mexico.”
  • CBP has issued a policy statement laying out standards for more humane treatment of, and medical care for, infants and pregnant, postpartum, and nursing women in the agency’s custody.
  • At the Arizona Daily Star, Curt Prendergast and Alex Devoid document repeated unsuccessful attempts to pass legislation to deal more effectively with migrant deaths on U.S. soil near the border. “In all but one instance, bills that addressed migrant deaths either stalled in committees or were voted down as part of comprehensive immigration reform bills.”
  • More than 200 migrants, including one group of 70 from Venezuela, have been apprehended in Texas’s Big Bend National Park, one of the remotest and usually least active stretches of the entire border, between November 25 and December 1.
  • Reuters reports from Alpercata, a small town in Minas Gerais, Brazil that has lost a large portion of its population to U.S.-bound migration—including 10 percent of students and 5 percent of employees at the mayor’s office—since the pandemic hit. As is the case with several South American countries, Mexico had not been requiring visas of visiting citizens of Brazil. Due largely to U.S. pressure stemming from large numbers of Brazilian citizens arriving in Mexico and being apprehended on the U.S. side of the border, Mexico on November 26 announced a temporary suspension of visa exemptions for Brazil.
  • Just since October 1, people have breached the border fence in CBP’s El Paso sector more than 198 times using bolt cutters, grinders, and acetylene torches, the agency reports. Still, in south Texas’s Starr County, the state government is preparing to use its own funds to build border fencing along about 20,000 acres of property fronting the Rio Grande.
  • As the world reacted to the COVID-19 omicron variant, first documented in South Africa, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) earned rebukes after tweeting that South Africans were being apprehended at the Texas-Mexico border. Border Patrol apprehended four South African citizens at the border in all of 2019, and four more in 2020.
  • Rodney Scott, the Trump administration’s last Border Patrol chief who exited his position in August, faced a San Diego Superior Court judge for a September tweet in which he advised former Border Patrol agent turned activist Jenn Budd, who has recounted being raped at the Border Patrol academy, to “lean back, close your eyes, and just enjoy the show.” Budd also posted screenshots on Twitter showing Scott among those on private CBP and Border Patrol agents’ Facebook groups sharing images of Border Patrol shoulder patches reading “Let’s Go Brandon,” a right-wing euphemism for “F— Joe Biden.”

Weekly Border Update: November 24, 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 post an update on Friday, November 26. The next update will be posted on December 3, 2021.

Migration declined in October for the third straight month

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported on November 15 that its personnel encountered 117,260 individual undocumented migrants on 164,303 occasions during the month of October. That was an 18 percent reduction in people, and a 14 percent reduction in “encounters,” from September. Encounters have dropped 22 percent in two months, from 209,840 in August, and 23 percent from July’s years-long high of 213,593.

The overwhelming majority of those encounters (158,575) took place between official border land ports of entry, where CBP’s Border Patrol component took the migrants into custody. CBP encountered 5,728 at the ports of entry, the fewest since April.

The giant difference between “individuals” and “encounters” owes to a large number of repeat crossings. “29 percent involved individuals who had at least one prior encounter in the previous 12 months, compared to an average one-year re-encounter rate of 14 percent for FY2014-2019,” CPB reported. The “Title 42” pandemic expulsions policy begun by the Trump administration and continued by the Biden administration, which rapidly sends Mexicans and most Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans back into Mexico, involves little time in CBP custody and appears to have facilitated repeat attempts to cross.

In McAllen, Texas, in the Border Patrol’s busiest sector (Rio Grande Valley), the reduced pace of arrivals is palpable. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is releasing fewer than 300 asylum-seeking migrants a day to the city’s respite center, run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. In July, according to Border Report, U.S. authorities were turning over “upwards of 2,000 migrants” per day to the respite center.


Despite the reduction, October’s monthly “encounters” figure is historically high: 164,303 is the 12th-largest monthly total this century.

Unlike most of this century, though, Title 42 is in place, and most of the  encountered migrants aren’t being processed. CBP expelled 57 percent of migrants it encountered in October, the largest monthly proportion since May. Of single adults encountered in October, 74 percent got expelled. 31 percent of family members were expelled, the largest monthly proportion since April. The Biden administration does not expel non-Mexican children who arrive unaccompanied.

70,627 undocumented migrants were not expelled, and instead processed in the United States, many of them asylum seekers. That is the lowest monthly number of non-expelled migrants since May. Non-expelled migrants have declined by 20 percent since September and 38 percent since August. The number of migrants whom CBP actually processed in October was fewer than it was during six different months of the Trump administration (February-July 2019). Of those who weren’t expelled in October, 60 percent were children and family members. Children and family members were 14 percent of the expelled population.

CBP’s 42,913 encounters with undocumented family members in October was the least since February 2021, and represented a 51 percent drop in just two months, from August’s high of 87,054. (These numbers include a small number of “accompanied children” encountered at ports of entry traveling with relatives other than a parent.)

Arrivals of unaccompanied children (12,807) dropped to their lowest level since February as well, and have declined 32 percent since August. In October, the American Immigration Council notes, “the average number of unaccompanied children in CBP custody was 595 per day, compared with an average of 772 per day in September.” The drop calls into question whether migrants are being deterred by application of Title 42: unaccompanied children are fewer even though the policy isn’t being applied to them. The Council’s Aaron Reichlin-Melnick warns, though, that “daily border apprehensions of unaccompanied children have been slowly rising in recent weeks.”

Encounters with single adults—who are most likely to attempt repeat crossings—haven’t declined as sharply. In October they totaled 108,583, down 4 percent from September, up 4 percent from August, and down 11 percent from their high point in May.

It is unexpected to see migration to have declined in October, during the cooler fall months when it usually increases, after reaching its highest point of the year during summer. Reasons may include:

  • Mexico has been cracking down harder; as we’ve noted in recent updates, Mexico broke its records for monthly migrant apprehensions in August and September (it has not yet released October data). Reporter Manu Ureste at Mexico’s Animal Político points out that Mexico’s apprehensions jumped 120 percent after U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’s June 8 visit to Mexico City, which included a meeting with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
  • Though the numbers dropped slightly from September to October, the Biden administration had increased its month-on-month expulsions of family members every month between July and September, which may have affected asylum seekers’ calculations.
  • It’s possible that the population of would-be migrants who were “bottled up” during many months of border closures at the height of the pandemic have now all had a chance to migrate, and we’re seeing a leveling off.
  • U.S.-led crackdowns caused dramatic September-October declines in migration from Haiti and Ecuador. The Biden administration has expelled about 8,800 Haitians back to their country on 84 flights since September 19, and encouraged Mexico to begin demanding visas of Ecuadorians arriving in the country, which it did on August 20. Border encounters with undocumented Haitian migrants fell 95 percent in a month, from 17,638 to 902. Ecuadorian migrant encounters fell 90 percent, from 7,353 to 744.

In September, CBP encountered migrants from seven countries more than 10,000 times each. In October, CBP encountered migrants from four countries more than 10,000 times each.

Beyond Haiti and Ecuador, migration from the so-called “Northern Triangle” countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) has been declining since July. 50,937 encountered migrants came from those countries in October, down 45 percent in two months, since August.

Migration from Brazil, too, hit its lowest point since June, as Mexico has demanded visas of at least some Brazilians arriving at its airports. In Tijuana, “Brazilian migration has been going on for months, there was even a time when 20, 30, 50 were arriving daily six or seven months ago, arriving with their tourist visas,” José María García Lara of Tijuana’s Movimiento Juventud 2000 shelter told the local daily El Imparcial.

In addition to small increases in Colombians and Russians, the countries whose citizens registered the largest September-to-October migration increase are Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. In October, these countries respectively occupied 4th, 6th, and 8th place on CBP’s list of most-encountered nationalities. The U.S. government has been pressing Mexico to impose visa requirements on Venezuelans arriving at its airports, Reuters reports, though one U.S. official “said Washington was not leaning hard on Mexico.” A Mexican government source said “Mexico was reviewing its options, and holding discussions with Venezuela to explore alternatives to imposing visa requirements.”

After declining during the summer, migration from Mexico has increased for two straight months. Of 65,276 encountered Mexican migrants in October, all but 4,628 were single adults.

Remain in Mexico may restart in “weeks”

The Biden administration’s latest monthly filing on efforts to restart the controversial “Remain in Mexico” program, submitted November 15 on the orders of the judge who ordered its revival, is much shorter than previous filings: just one page of information. (Here are September’s and October’s filings.) This one reports that the administration has “initiated the relevant contracts and largely finished its internal planning,” and that “reimplementation will begin within the coming weeks.”

Between January 2019 and Joe Biden’s January 2021 inauguration, this Trump-era program, officially known as “Migrant Protection Protocols,” sent 71,071 non-Mexican asylum seekers back into Mexico after their apprehension in the United states. There, they had to wait for many months or more, usually in high-crime Mexican border towns, for hearing dates in the United States. Human Rights First documented more than 1,500 assaults, kidnappings, rapes, and other crimes committed against migrants after U.S. officials sent them back. While the Biden administration sought to terminate Remain in Mexico, a district court judge in Amarillo, Texas forced its restart and demanded monthly filings about “good faith efforts” to do so. (This background is amply covered in past weekly updates.)

Restarting the program means negotiating with a Mexican government that has not yet agreed to resume receiving potentially thousands of non-Mexican asylum seekers. The negotiators, the filing reports, “are close to finalizing these discussions,” with “one set of outstanding issues that must be resolved.” The filing does not name that set of issues, but it may have to do with migrants’ access to counsel for their cases. Border-zone immigration attorneys have voiced strenuous opposition to being made once again to risk their safety trying to represent clients who, while forced to live in danger, faced extremely low asylum grant rates in the program. “We refuse to be complicit in a program that facilitates the rape, torture, death, and family separations of people seeking protection by committing to provide legal services,” reads an October 19 letter from the principal pro bono attorneys’ organizations.

An administration official said that Presidents Biden and López Obrador did not mention the Remain in Mexico restart during a November 18 White House summit of North American leaders.

Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which compiles large amounts of immigration data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, received documents indicating that 18 asylum seekers were placed in “Remain in Mexico” in October. This seems unlikely because Mexico has not yet approved the program. Austin Kocher of TRAC told Border Report that his organization hasn’t yet cleared up this data point: “18 is not a fluke. Still, the number is small enough (and things are more confusing now policy-wise) that it’s hard to say exactly what’s up.”

The border is a subject of two Senate hearings

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas appeared in an often contentious hearing before a polarized Senate Judiciary Committee on November 16. A day later, two DHS officials and a third from the General Services Administration participated in a more sober hearing before the Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Government Operations and Border Management. Here are a few highlights of both.

November 16: Oversight of the Department of Homeland Security

  • Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) opened with remarks contending that “The chaos during the previous administration hobbled DHS and put our nation’s security at risk.” Durbin gave specific mention to the Trump administration’s “emergency” transfer of Defense budget money to build miles of border wall. “The Trump administration endangered our national security by literally transferring billions of dollars and Department of Defense funds to build the President’s so called border wall. American taxpayers, not Mexican taxpayers, as President Trump had promised so many times have paid dearly for this costly endeavor.”
  • Ranking Republican member Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) colorfully went after the Biden administration: “When you terminate physical barrier constructions, when you severely restrict the ability of ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] to deport illegal immigrants, when you terminate the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, when you roll back asylum cooperative [‘Safe Third Country’] agreements, when you gut Title 42, when you openly support sanctuary cities policies, then you should not be surprised when there’s a surge at the southern border. When you allow the ACLU and open border immigration activists rather than career law enforcement professionals to dictate the terms of your immigration and border policies, then you shouldn’t be surprised when record-shattering numbers of people start showing up at the borders to take advantage of that situation. When you run DHS like it’s an ‘Abolish ICE fan club,’ you shouldn’t be surprised when you have an immigration crisis on your hands.”
  • Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) asked how many of the 1.7 million migrants encountered during fiscal 2021 are still in the United States. Mayorkas estimated “approximately 375,000 are still here.”
  • Of asylum seekers who were released and not detained, Mayorkas told Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), “Between January 1 and October 31 of 2021, my data indicates that 210,465 non citizens were issued notices to appear. And 94,581 were issued notices to report [which don’t include specific court dates]. We’ve discontinued the practice of issuing notices to report.”
  • Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said, “We know basically, based on Border Patrol projections, that this figure 1.7 million doesn’t include 385,000 or so people who simply evade detection by Border Patrol. We know that there are about 350,000 people who are subject to a notice to appear in court or a notice to report, by my count that’s 735,000 people who have successfully made their way into the United States.”
  • Sen. Cornyn alleged that 10,000 relatives or sponsors of unaccompanied children placed in the United States have not responded to follow-up telephone check-in calls.
  • On the September incident involving horse-mounted Border Patrol agents charging at Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), asked, “What about the issue with your Border Patrol agents recently being accused by some folks in the media of whipping illegal immigrants, when in fact they were not? Why on earth? Did you not defend them?… Your response and your failure to defend them then and now is nothing short of morale crushing.”
  • Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said Mayorkas should go to prison for not reinstating Remain in Mexico quickly enough. “Customs and Border Patrol [sic] agent leadership have told me that your agency is slow-walking and refusing to comply with the order from the federal court to return to the Remain in Mexico policy. What would you say to the judge? If the judge was asking why you should not be held in contempt and incarcerated for defying a federal court order?”
  • Sen. John Kennedy (R-Louisiana) asked, “Your department has released thousands of people illegally into this country who are drug dealers, haven’t you?” Mayorkas responded, “I’m not familiar with what you’ve just articulated.” Kennedy followed up, “Your department has released into our country thousands of people who have probably gone on welfare. Isn’t that the case?” Mayorkas replied, “I don’t believe that.”
  • Sen. Alex Padilla (D-California) raised the issue of Border Patrol’s use of “Critical Incident Teams” to find exculpatory evidence in use-of-force cases, a secretive practice recently revealed by the Southern Border Communities Coalition. Mayorkas responded by praising Border Patrol.

November 17: Federal Government Perspective: Improving Security, Trade, and Travel Flows at the Southwest Border Ports of Entry

  • Ranking Subcommittee member Sen. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) lamented the court-ordered end of “metering” of asylum seekers at ports of entry. “Career staff who served in the Obama and Trump administrations have stated the metering policy was useful as CBP navigated increasing flows of migrants. Rescinding the metering tool, I fear, will open up our ports to increased risk by leaving cartels to be able to surge migrants at the ports and overwhelm them to distract CBP, while they move funneling hard narcotics across the border as our country reopens to travel.”
  • Witness Stuart Burns of the General Services Administration, which manages government buildings like ports of entry, noted that the average land port of entry “was designed and constructed more than 40 years ago. As a result, many of these facilities are functionally obsolete for the 21st century.”
  • Witness Joe Jeronimo of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) said his agency devotes about 20 percent of its work hours to CBP port of entry drug seizures. “And every time there is an interdiction by CBP, HSI spends at a minimum 95 hours to handle that interdiction, from cradle to grave, 95 hours, that’s 12 business days. So again, that’s significant in nature. And that’s a huge commitment.”
  • Jeronimo praised the agency’s monitoring of travelers throughout the hemisphere. “Our second effort is our biometric collection system. Bitmap is a partnership with DOD, CBP, as well as FBI, we have Bitmap locations in 18 countries. And what that does is it gives us an opportunity to enroll individuals as they come into the Western Hemisphere, and make their way up through South America into Latin America and into Mexico, from Sao Paolo to McAllen, is 5000 miles. And when somebody enters into the Western Hemisphere, I can pretty much tell you with certainty where that when that individual arrives, and where they’re going to travel through before they reach the southwest border. And what that does is it gives us an opportunity to know in advance who we’re dealing with, especially individuals that we consider KSTs, or individuals of interest to the United States, before they reach the southwest border. That Bitmap program last year enrolled 35,000 individuals and about 80 percent of those do make it to the southwest border.
  • “In the last two years,” Jeronimo added, “we have initiated over 5000 cases and nearly 8000 arrests, specifically to human smuggling organizations.”
  • Sen. Lankford asked, “What’s the current going rate for coyotes in moving a person or a family?” Jeronimo replied, “Depends on location, if you’re coming from Asia it could be anywhere from $50 to $75,000, if you’re coming from Brazil could be 10 to 15,000. If you come from Latin America, Mexico, anywhere from 5 to 10,000.”

Two migrant caravans now moving, entirely on foot, through southern Mexico

Two caravans of migrants, both multinational but mostly Central American citizens, are now walking on roads in southern Mexico. Both departed the city of Tapachula, Chiapas, near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, where tens of thousands of migrants have applied for asylum. Mexico requires asylum seekers to remain in the state where they applied while their cases are being decided, but Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, offers few economic opportunities. So migrants are organizing and seeking to leave en masse, relying on “safety in numbers.”

The first group departed Tapachula a month ago, on October 23. Its members have walked the entire length of Chiapas, then turned northward in Oaxaca and crossed the Isthmus of Tehuántepec, Mexico’s narrowest point. They are now in the vicinity of Acayucan, a crossroads town in the state of Veracruz, not far from the Gulf of Mexico. The second group left Tapachula on November 18 and is only part of the way through Chiapas.

The group in Veracruz has between 800 and 1,500 members. With a significant number of children and families, they have traveled 300 miles on foot over 30 days. Mexican authorities—mainly the Interior Department’s National Migration Institute (INM) and the National Guard—have been preventing caravan participants from boarding vehicles, such as trucks, “for their own safety.” Migrants confronted National Guardsmen on this prohibition in Oaxaca, but the soldiers insisted that they walk. “I have no intention” of stopping them, a Guardsman told Agénce France Presse. “The only requirement is that they advance on foot.”

The group is still many hundreds of miles from its destination, and its numbers are dwindling due to exhaustion, and due to the INM’s repeated offers of documents allowing migrants to stay in other states—none near the U.S. border—while they await asylum decisions, if they abandon the caravan. INM reports that it has offered humanitarian and permanent resident cards for the central and southern Mexican states of Puebla, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Morelos, Hidalgo, Guerrero, Chiapas, Querétaro, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Mexico state, Jalisco, Michoacán, Colima, and Aguascalientes. 1,574 such cards had been issued as of November 16.

Caravan organizer Irineo Mujica of the group Pueblos Sin Fronteras has been urging the migrants not to accept the documents, alleging that they may be detained or deported. The INM issued a statement denouncing Mujica’s “lies and actions,” calling out his “attitude, more akin to that of human traffickers.”

The Veracruz caravan’s destination is not clear. Some may wish to proceed to Mexico City and petition the national office of Mexico’s asylum and refugee agency, COMAR, to consider their asylum petitions there. Others may seek to walk all the way to the U.S. border; Agénce France Presse mentions that some have recommended the border state of Sonora as a destination. According to Milenio, Mujica has proposed boarding the “La Bestia” cargo train.

The caravan group in Chiapas is currently on the state’s coastal highway between Escuintla and Mapastepec, where the earlier group passed at the very end of October. It appears to have started out with about 3,000 members, closely accompanied by INM agents and National Guard and Army personnel. Many are Haitian and as many as 20 to 30 percent may be Venezuelan; most migrants of both nationalities already have tough experience with long walks, having passed through Panama’s highly treacherous Darién Gap jungles.

Elsewhere in Mexico, a group of 40 migrants, including people from Ghana, Togo, Guatemala, Nicaragua, appeared traveling together in León, in Mexico’s central state of Guanajuato. They are probably unrelated to the other two caravans, and most likely traveled in vehicles for much of their route. Authorities meanwhile reported apprehending 600 migrants—455 men and 145 women—inside two tractor-trailer containers in Veracruz on November 20. They came from 12 countries: Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Cuba, El Salvador, Venezuela, Ecuador, Ghana, India, Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, and Cameroon.

Statements from Mexico’s Human Rights Ombudsman (CNDH) and a group of senators called on the INM and National Guard to respect the human rights, and right to seek protection, of migrants in the country, including caravan participants. “Caravans don’t help migrants, they don’t help the authorities, they don’t help the United Nations, they don’t help anybody,” Giovanni Lepri, the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) representative in Mexico, told reporters during a visit to Mexico’s southern border zone. “In order for the caravans to stop happening, there must be a more agile, quicker, and more diversified response from the authorities, so that people don’t feel rushed into believing that the caravans will help them solve their needs.”

Links

  • 79 percent of Border Patrol agents met a November 22 deadline to be vaccinated against COVID-19. About 16 percent more “had submitted a reasonable accommodation request.” The Rio Grande Valley, Texas Monitor reports that 5 percent of agents “were out of compliance with the deadline—3% were not fully vaccinated and had not filed a reasonable accommodation request, the other 2% were unresponsive to the agency.”
  • Border Patrol agents in the agency’s El Paso sector found a sharply increased number of deceased migrants, mostly from dehydration, exposure, and falls from the border wall. The number of dead rose from 10 in 2020 to 39 in fiscal 2021, El Paso Matters reports. CNN reported recently that Border Patrol found at least 557 bodies border-wide in 2021, which is by far a record.
  • Rep. Henry Cuellar (R-Texas) said that DHS is asking the Defense Department to increase the deployment of U.S. military personnel—probably National Guardsmen—at the border from about 3,000 to 4,500. The extra 1,500 would be “in part to operate observation blimps previously used by forces in Afghanistan,” Stars and Stripes reports.
  • Nicaragua has lifted visa requirements for visitors from Cuba, a decision that could increase the number of Cubans migrating across the rest of Central America and Mexico and into the United States.
  • The government of Haiti opened a consulate in the city of Tapachula, Chiapas, near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, where thousands of Haitian asylum seekers have been living for months, confined there while they await decisions in their cases.
  • “One of the things we proposed [at a November 18 summit of North American presidents] is the idea of, with a view to the Summit of the Americas next summer, working with all the leaders of the region towards a new and bolder framework for managing migration,” an unnamed U.S. official told EFE. At that summit, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called on Joe Biden and Justin Trudeau to “put aside myths and prejudices, stop rejecting migrants, when in order to grow we need a labor force that in reality is not sufficiently available either in the United States or in Canada. Why not study the demand for labor and open up the migratory flow in an orderly fashion?”
  • CBP continues to investigate the mid-September incidents in Del Rio, Texas, in which horse-mounted Border Patrol agents were caught on video charging at Haitian migrants on the banks of the Rio Grande. Though Homeland Security leadership had promised a swift investigation, CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility has not completed its work, and any discipline will be “subject to certain timelines established” in CBP’s labor agreement with the Border Patrol’s union.
  • “Between Oct. 28 and Nov. 9, agents encountered five groups, mostly from Brazil and Venezuela,” in Border Patrol’s California-based San Diego Sector, a CBP release reads. “The groups all entered the United States illegally and consisted of men, women, and children and were 43, 49, 73, 84 and 93 people in size.”
  • “There is little doubt that the administration has used the [Title 42] policy as a stopgap measure to quickly remove migrants who are gathering at the southern border in large numbers,” the New York Times Editorial Board wrote on November 13.
  • Anne Schuchat, an official at the CDC during the Trump years, confirmed that view in comments before a congressional select committee revealed on November 12. “The bulk of the evidence at that time did not support this policy proposal” and “the facts on the ground didn’t call for this from a public health reason,” she said.
  • The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, visited Mexico on November 22. He and Mexican officials signed an agreement to strengthen the capacities of Mexico’s overwhelmed refugee and asylum agency, COMAR.
  • CBP officers at San Diego’s Otay Mesa port of entry caught a trucker trying to smuggle 17,584 pounds of methamphetamine and 389 pounds of fentanyl in a single cargo load labeled as “auto body parts.”
  • The federal trial of Hia C-ed O’odham activist Amber Ortega continues in Tucson, Arizona. Ortega was arrested in September 2020 for interfering with border wall construction, carrying out civil disobedience near the ecologically fragile Quitobaquito Spring along the Arizona-Sonora border. While the Biden Justice Department continues pursuing her prosecution, the case’s district court judge has decided that Ortega may not use a “religious freedom” defense.
  • On October 29, the Tijuana municipal government counted 769 migrants, 40 percent of them children and many of them expelled or blocked from the United States under Title 42, living in a miserable encampment outside the Chaparral port of entry into San Diego. The mayor, who recently installed fencing around the site, expects numbers to decline with upcoming seasonal rains.
  • A Dallas Morning News – University of Texas at Tyler poll found 49 percent of Texans, and 38 percent of Texan independents, supporting Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) very hardline border policies. 50 percent of those polled, including 46 percent of independents, agreed that “a wall along the Texas-Mexico border is necessary for a safe border.”

Weekly Border Update: November 12, 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.

U.S. border reopens—but not to asylum seekers

On November 8, after nearly 20 months of closure to all “non-essential” foreign nationals, the United States opened its official land border crossings to documented, vaccinated travelers. Many ports of entry at first saw long lines as Mexicans with U.S. visas or border-crossing cards sought to reunite with relatives, resume doing business, or just shop on the U.S. side. Traffic flows quickly returned to normal nearly everywhere.

Ports of entry remain closed, though, to asylum seekers—migrants who lack U.S. visas but claim fear of return to their home countries—regardless of their vaccination status. The Biden administration continues to implement the Trump administration’s “Title 42” policy of expelling or quickly turning back all undocumented migrants, even if they seek protection.

In El Paso and Nogales, advocates accompanied asylum-seeking families, vaccination cards in hand, as they sought to cross into the United States to seek asylum the “proper” way—that is, by arriving at an official port of entry instead of climbing a fence or crossing a river. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers stationed at the borderline blocked them from accessing U.S. soil. The continued application of Title 42 even to vaccinated asylum seekers places great stress on administration officials’ insistence that the Trump-era measure is a public-health policy and not an immigration deterrent.

While CBP sought to dispel rumors that the border re-opening applied to undocumented travelers, anecdotal reports pointed to an increase in migrants arriving in Mexican border towns in the lead-up to November 8. “They haven’t listened to us and they don’t want to wait,” José García, whose Movimiento Juventud 2000 is one of several shelters currently filling up in Tijuana, told Reuters regarding recently arrived migrants who’ve received “misinformation.” About 1,200 people remain in a makeshift encampment just outside Tijuana’s main pedestrian port of entry into San Diego, California. Last week, municipal authorities built a fence around the encampment and cut off the power that residents had drawn from electric lines.

Many new asylum-seeking arrivals in Mexican border towns are Mexican citizens, primarily from states like Michoacán and Guerrero that are racked by criminal violence. Carlos Spector, a well-known El Paso-based immigration attorney who specializes in Mexican asylum cases, told the Border Chronicle that he expects to see a big increase in such cases after November 8. Some will be threatened Mexicans who already have U.S. travel documents: “that’s generally going to be the lower middle class on up. I’ve had calls from women working with coalitions searching for the disappeared.” And some will be Mexican human rights defenders who can no longer withstand constant threats to their lives and to their families’ lives: “The biggest thing I’m seeing is that these are heavyweight human rights leaders, who before told me they weren’t going anywhere.” Over roughly the last three years, nearly 100 human rights defenders have been killed in Mexico, including multiple family members of the disappeared.

This week saw several other notable developments in border and asylum policy:

  • A report from Syracuse University’s TRAC Immigration project revealed that a larger proportion of asylum seekers won their cases in fiscal year 2021 than in fiscal year 2020. TRAC, which compiles large amounts of data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, found that 37 percent of cases were successful in 2021 compared to 29 percent in 2020. Due to COVID-19 closing immigration courts for much of the year, however, 2021 saw only 23,827 asylum cases decided overall, compared with 60,079 decisions in 2020; only 8,349 people were granted asylum during this period, with another 402 granted some other form of relief. TRAC’s monthly plotting of the data shows that asylum approvals steadily increased after President Joe Biden was sworn in last January. “By September 2021, the asylum denial rate had dropped to 53 percent. That means that success rates had climbed to 47 percent.”
  • The Biden administration’s court-ordered restart of the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” program, which forces non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their hearings inside Mexico, is proceeding apace, even as Mexico’s government has not yet assented to hosting those foreign nationals again. The Rio Grande Valley, Texas Monitor showed construction of tent courtrooms to hold teleconference hearings underway in Brownsville; they are also being built in Laredo. Two top House of Representatives appropriators, Barbara Lee (D-California) and Homeland Security Subcommittee Chairwoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-California), sent a strong letter to the Departments of State and Homeland Security (DHS) rejecting the program’s restart and laying out some strict conditions that a new Remain in Mexico would have to meet in order to receive funding from Congress. On November 15 (Monday), the Biden administration must submit to Texas District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk its latest monthly report documenting its “good faith efforts” to restart the program. (The last two reports are here and here.)
  • Witness at the Border’s latest monthly report on U.S. deportation and expulsion flights finds that DHS ran 80 expulsion flights to Haiti between September 19 and November 7, “expelling an estimated 8,500 people, almost half of which were women and children.” October also saw 37 direct expulsion flights to Guatemala and 35 expulsion flights of Central American citizens to southern Mexico. Since the southern Mexico flights began in August, Witness at the Border estimates that the Biden administration has sent over 11,000 Central Americans to Tapachula and Villahermosa, Mexico.
  • CBS News reported that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will be sending court documents to about 78,000 asylum-seeking migrants who were released at the border without a court date, due to overloaded CBP processing capacity at the time. These individuals were issued “Notices to Report” at an ICE facility in their place of destination to begin their cases, rather than “Notices to Appear,” with specific hearing dates, which take longer to produce. While the majority of those who received “Notices to Report” indeed reported at ICE facilities, what the agency calls “Operation Horizon” is seeking to notify the rest by mail.
  • The Associated Press covers immigration judges deciding asylum cases on the so-called “rocket docket”: the Biden administration’s effort to reduce the amount of time it takes to decide the claims of the most recently arrived migrants. Asylum cases routinely take three or four years or more to decide. By placing at the head of some courts’ lines the migrants who arrived at the border most recently, officials assume that the quick resulting decisions, usually within 300 days, might deter others with “weaker” asylum claims from attempting the journey to the United States. More than 16,000 cases are now on this “last in, first out” docket; critics worry that the policy weakens due process, as “it rushes the complex work of building asylum cases, making it nearly impossible for migrants to have a fair shot.”

A diminished migrant caravan reaches the Isthmus of Tehuántepec

The migrant “caravan” that departed Mexico’s southern border-zone city of Tapachula on October 23 exited Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas, on November 7. By November 11, approximately 1,000 (or by one count, up to 2,500) mostly Central American migrants were beginning their day in the town of Zanatepec, in the state of Oaxaca, not far from Mexico’s narrowest point, the Isthmus of Tehuántepec. (The caravan’s past progress is covered in our last two weekly updates.)

The group is moving slowly, as Mexican forces—including the National Guard contingent closely accompanying the marchers—are preventing vehicles from transporting the migrants. Entirely on foot, they have covered about 200 miles in about 20 days.

Their numbers are dwindling. Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) said that it now numbers fewer than 1,000 people, down from as many as 4,000 during its first days in Chiapas. It is hard to count them for sure, as not all are traveling in a tight formation: a group of 60, for instance, appears to be far ahead of the rest, already crossing from Oaxaca into the state of Veracruz.

Exhausted and frequently ill, many caravan participants, especially parents with children, have been turning themselves in to Mexican migration authorities. The INM announced on November 10 that it has delivered humanitarian visas to 800 “vulnerable” caravan participants—children, pregnant women, people with disabilities, and their relatives—who will be allowed to await their asylum decisions in the southern and central Mexican states of Puebla, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Morelos, Hidalgo, and Guerrero.

The two activists accompanying or leading the caravan have indicated to the press that they no longer plan to walk to Mexico City. The original intention was to go to the capital and petition for better living conditions, particularly the right to live in states other than impoverished Chiapas, while Mexico’s overwhelmed refugee agency, COMAR, decides on their asylum applications.

Now, though, Irineo Mujica and Luis García Villagrán say that the group intends to go straight to Mexico’s northern border with the United States. They blame Mexican forces’ aggression for the route change. In an October 31 incident that earned criticism from Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, National Guardsmen fired on a truck driving through a roadblock, killing a Cuban migrant and wounding several others. On November 4, though, a group of migrants confronted National Guardsmen with stones and sticks on the highway near the town of Pijijiapán, Chiapas. While no migrants were reported wounded in the incident, five guardsmen were wounded badly enough to go to the local hospital; all were discharged by November 6.

The caravan’s new route would avoid the capital, crossing the Isthmus of Tehuántepec on foot from Oaxaca into the Gulf of Mexico state of Veracruz. Caravan leaders say that they could be in the Gulf Coast city of Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz within 10 days. There, they might meet up with another caravan reportedly set to depart Tapachula on November 17 or 18, then head several hundred miles into the northern border state of Tamaulipas.

“It’s a painful road, when the migrants enter the corridor,” U.S. Ambassador Ken Salazar told a press conference on November 9. “But the majority of them come to the corridor because they’ve been deceived by the traffickers, criminals and those organizations are the ones that are enriching themselves by millions of dollars.” In an apparent reference to Mujica and García Villagrán, the Ambassador blamed the caravan’s formation on people “doing it for the money, they’re not doing it for the benefit of the migrants… The organizers portray themselves as if they’re doing something for human rights, when in reality what they’re doing is filling their pockets with money that comes from the traffickers and criminals.”

 The Ambassador provided no evidence to clarify this accusation, however. Those who participate in caravans usually do so in an effort to avoid having to pay a smuggler, seeking to get across Mexico instead through “safety in numbers.”

Indicators point to migration decline in October

According to preliminary CBP numbers reported in the Washington Post, migration at the US-Mexico border may have dropped by 25 percent in the three months between July and October. “About 160,000 border crossers were taken into CBP custody during the month, preliminary figures show, down from 192,000 in September,” the Post’s Nick Miroff reports. “It was the third consecutive month that border arrests have declined, after peaking at 213,593 in July.”

The sharpest decline, Miroff adds, is in arrivals of migrants from Haiti. CBP and its Border Patrol component apprehended about 1,000 Haitians in October, way down from 17,638 in September. That month, a sudden arrival of nearly 15,000 Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas, made national news.

The decline in Haitian migration owes to the uniqueness of the Del Rio event, a finite, one-time flow. (However, several thousand Haitians, most of whom lived in Brazil and Chile, remain in Tapachula, and along migration routes in South America, Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap, and Central America). It also owes to the Biden administration’s harsh response to that event: since September 19, DHS has expelled about 8,700 migrants back to Haiti on 82 flights. As a result, the number of Haitians seeking asylum in Mexico has increased: Haitians in October overtook Hondurans as the number-one nationality of migrants seeking asylum before Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, so far in 2021.

As we await CBP’s official release of October data, another indicator of a significant decline last month is a chart of immigrant arrivals in the very busy McAllen, Texas area, maintained by Valerie González of the Rio Grande Valley Monitor. Her chart, included in a larger article about how Border Patrol scrambled to deal with a sharp increase in child and family migration in July and August, appears to show McAllen’s migrant arrivals dropping to near their lowest levels since Joe Biden took office.

(Image from the Rio Grande Valley Monitor)

Arrivals of unaccompanied children, too, are down. While in July and August CBP was routinely apprehending more than 500 children per day, daily official reports of unaccompanied child apprehensions (collected here by Twitter user @juliekayswift) show the agency rarely encountering more than 400 per day anymore, and often fewer than 300. As of November 9, 12,418 unaccompanied children were in U.S. government custody (11,742 with the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, 676 in short-term CBP custody); that is still a very large number, but it is down from over 20,000 in April and May.

Links

  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) began a crackdown on undocumented border-area migration this year, known as “Operation Lone Star,” that has led to the arrest of more than 1,500 people since July—including some asylum seekers—on state charges of trespassing, a misdemeanor. The Wall Street Journal revealed that only 3 percent of those 1,500 have been convicted so far. “Most of the rest are waiting weeks or months in jail for their cases to be processed.” Of 1,006 in jail as of November 1, 53 percent had spent more than 30 days confined—for a misdemeanor offense—due to small rural courts’ overwhelm. Meanwhile, “of 170 Operation Lone Star cases resolved as of Nov. 1, about 70% were dismissed, declined or otherwise dropped, in some instances for lack of evidence.” After release, many migrants are not expelled under Title 42: “some migrants who likely would have been deported had they been immediately caught by the Border Patrol are waiting in the U.S. after being released by state authorities.”
  • “You’re preaching to the choir, and we appreciate you coming, and we appreciate you being here, and we’ll take your help,” the judge (top local authority) of Kinney County, Texas told leadership of the “Patriots for America.” This armed citizen militia group had arrived in the rural border county to respond to what it called “an invasion of this county” by migrants. Kinney County is one of the most active participants in Gov. Abbott’s “Operation Lone Star,” with over 1,000 arrests in two months. Concerns about this county-militia relationship are raised in a November 10 public information request by ACLU of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project.
  • Reversing an initial statement that “it’s not going to happen,” President Biden said on November 6 that the Justice Department might settle lawsuits and pay significant sums to “compensate” many of over 5,600 migrant families who suffered harm when the Trump administration separated children and parents at the border. Dozens of Republican senators have sponsored an amendment to the 2022 defense authorization bill, currently under consideration, that would ban any such payments.
  • Some non-citizens who served in the U.S. military but were later deported after committing criminal offenses are being allowed back into the United States after many years, under a new Biden administration policy.
  • At least 45 Haitian migrants detained at the border are being denied access to counsel while held at Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Torrance County Detention Facility in New Mexico, according to several migrants’ rights groups. One pregnant woman was denied medical care at Torrance and had a miscarriage, according to a civil rights complaint that groups filed.
  • Reporting from Haiti for Public Radio International, Monica Campbell talks to migrants who were expelled from the United States in recent months. Many are already planning to migrate again.
  • Florida’s government reported spending $570,988 to deploy dozens of state law enforcement personnel and equipment to Texas’s border with Mexico, in response to a request from Gov. Abbott. “While in Texas, state law enforcement officers made contact with 9,171 undocumented immigrants,” the Miami Herald reported. “Just over 3% of those contacts resulted in a criminal arrest.”
  • Nearly two months after being shown on widely shared video clips charging on horseback at Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas, at least six Border Patrol agents involved “were slated to sit down with DHS investigators to offer their own accounts of what happened in interviews on Tuesday and Wednesday,” CBS News reports.
  • Manuel Orozco, a longtime Central America expert at Creative Associates, told an interviewer that he expects an increase in migration from Nicaragua after Daniel Ortega’s re-election in an illegitimate vote on November 7.
  • “In historical perspective, the percent of criminal individuals apprehended by Border Patrol is low at about 1 percent in 2021,” writes Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute. “The rate of criminal individuals apprehended in 2021 is near the historical low point of zero to 1 percent during the late 1940s through the mid-1950s. Far from living during a period of high criminal apprehensions along the border, we are likely living during a period of relatively low border criminality.”
  • The mayor of Laredo, Texas called on Mexican authorities to do more to police the highways leading up to his border city from Mexico’s interior. Laredo is the starting point for Interstate 35, a transcontinental U.S. highway that criminal groups use as a corridor for transshipment of illicit drugs to U.S. markets.
  • The data visualization experts at the Pew Research Center shared a new post, “What’s Happening at the U.S.-Mexico Border in 7 Charts.”

Weekly Border Update: November 5, 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.

Migrant caravan continues grueling journey through coastal Chiapas

A “caravan” of at least 1,000 and perhaps up to 3,000 mostly Central American migrants, many of them families with children, continues a journey begun nearly two weeks ago, on October 23. They are still following a highway leading up the Pacific coast of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. In about twelve days, they have progressed, entirely on foot, as far as a car could drive in about three hours (about 200 kilometers or 125 miles).

Since 2019, Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) and National Guard have blocked or dispersed several attempts to form caravans. Some migrants have sought to employ this collaborative tactic to cross Mexico without having to pay smugglers, opting instead for “safety in numbers.” While all departed from the Mexico-Guatemala border zone city of Tapachula, none since late 2018 has made it as far into Chiapas as the current caravan.

This group is larger than most of the previous unsuccessful caravans, and many of its members claim that they do not seek to cross into the United States. Instead, their stated goal is to come to Mexico City and negotiate the government’s requirement that they remain in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, as they await long-delayed decisions on their asylum applications.

Between January and October, Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR received 108,195 asylum requests, leaving far behind 2019’s full-year record of 70,406 requests. October saw a new monthly record with 18,034 new asylum applications. 69 percent of 2021’s requests have been filed in Tapachula, where this caravan’s participants have been compelled to remain while awaiting the overburdened agency’s decisions on their cases.

This year’s top seven countries, COMAR director Andrés Ramírez tweeted, are Haiti (37,849 asylum requests), Honduras (33,578), Cuba (7,915), El Salvador (5,433), Chile (5,294, nearly all of them children of Haitians), Venezuela (5,113), and Guatemala (3,799). COMAR approves about 40 percent of Haitians’ applications, far fewer than those of Venezuelans (97 percent) or Hondurans (87 percent).

While the INM and National Guard have not acted to block or disperse this caravan, they are accompanying it closely, and strictly preventing its members from boarding buses or other vehicles. As the shortest route from Tapachula to Mexico City is about 1,200 kilometers, it would take the caravan participants 10 more weeks to reach the capital at their current walking pace. Luis García Villagrán of the non-governmental Centro de Dignificación Humana, who is closely accompanying the group, said that the migrants may take a route from Chiapas into Veracruz, avoiding Oaxaca where authorities, in his words, have set up a “bunker” to await them.

Migrants are falling ill in the heat of Chiapas’s coastal Soconusco region. The INM reported on November 1 that six caravan participants, five of them children, had contracted dengue fever, a severe mosquito-borne illness. Irineo Mujica of the organization Pueblo Sin Fronteras, who along with Villagrán is accompanying the group and frequently serving as a spokesman, insisted that the children were only suffering from dehydration and that “the INM is lying.”

On November 4, a contingent of National Guard carrying riot shields sought to block a group of migrants described as “rezagados de la caravana” (stragglers of the caravan), just outside the town of Pijijiapán. Videos showed the group of migrants, who appeared to be adult men or teenage boys, hurling stones and branches at the guardsmen, and beating one of them unconscious.

Authorities, who were caught on video treating caravan participants very roughly in August and September, appeared to be showing restraint during the November 4 incident. This was just days, though, after National Guardsmen discharged lethal firearms at a vehicle carrying migrants, killing at least one.

The incident happened after midnight on October 31 on a dirt road south of the coastal highway, a few miles from Pijijiapán. A statement from the National Guard, a force created in 2019 whose members are mostly soldiers or marines “on loan,” claims that a pickup truck carrying 14 migrants ignored guardsmen’s order to stop at a checkpoint, and tried to ram into them. At least one guardsman opened fire on the vehicle, killing a Cuban migrant and wounding four more people aboard.

The Chiapas state prosecutor’s office at first claimed that a rifle was found in the truck, but the National Guard made no mention of that in its statement. “Images that circulated later showed a weapon right under the body of the migrant who was shot to death,” Animal Político reported, adding “it is unusual for migrants to carry weapons.” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said on November 3, however, that “they did not shoot, they did not attack and the Guard fired.”

On November 3 word emerged that a second migrant had died of wounds resulting from the incident. President López Obrador told his morning press conference, “Two migrants lost their lives, they were shot at.” Later that day, the INM and Chiapas health authorities reported that they only knew of one death, the Cuban man.

López Obrador had some strong words for the guardsmen involved. “I already gave instructions to make these elements of the National Guard available to prosecutors… This should not happen, there are other ways to detain those who are violating the laws, this took place on a rural road in Pijijiapan, Chiapas. They could have stopped them further ahead, closed the way, without shooting at them.”

While the president’s expression of concern is welcome, prosecutions of security-force personnel for human rights violations are rare. This rapidly escalated use of lethal force, too, is a predictable outcome of placing combat-trained military personnel in roles, like migration checkpoints, that involve frequent contact with the civilian population.

Two press accounts point to deep disagreements within the Biden administration

Two reports from border-zone reporters this week point to deep disagreements within the Biden administration over how quickly, and to what extent, to dismantle the hardline border and migration policies inherited from the Trump administration. Unnamed sources revealed some of the turmoil to CBS News’ Camilo Montoya-Galvez and to a collaboration between the Associated Press’s Elliot Spagat and AIM Media Texas’s Valerie Gonzalez. An edition of the new Border Chronicle podcast interviewing Stephanie Leutert, who left a State Department post in July, offered additional perspective.

The inter-agency division appears to run between “those who are more progressive and those who are more enforcement-minded,” as a source tells CBS; “immigration advocates” versus “Biden’s inner circle,” as AP/AIM characterize it; or “more progressive members and then more political members,” as Leutert puts it.

“These battles have led to paralysis, which has allowed things to get worse in several ways,” the first source tells Montoya-Galvez. “We’re not making any progress,” says another, “citing ‘so much division’ among Mr. Biden’s appointees.”

Divisions emerged early on, the AP/AIM reports, when “Immigration advocates on the transition team shot down a detailed memo circulated among top aides that called for turning back some migrants who cross illegally by making them seek protection in other countries.” According to this narrative, the immigration advocates pushed back against predictions that migrant flows would increase without this “turnback” policy. Migrant flows did increase, despite the Biden administration using Trump’s “Title 42” pandemic border closure policy to swiftly expel hundreds of thousands, including asylum seekers.

In early July, CBS found, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was ready to lift Title 42; officials had “a comprehensive nine-page plan” to step up asylum seekers’ processing and alternatives to detention. Senior officials at DHS and the White House—Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice is often named—spiked the plan, as migration levels increased and COVID-19’s Delta variant spread. “Other Biden appointees,” though, “believe the continued implementation of Title 42 is largely based on optics” more than public health imperatives, CBS reports. They see the expulsions policy persisting “because of concerns that ending it will fuel perceptions of a chaotic border.”

Now, a Biden appointee told CBS, “We are in this very weird place where we’re implementing Title 42 more strongly than the Trump administration did.”

AP/AIM noted “‘great frustration and irritation’ at the administration’s highest levels” when the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas began refusing to accept Title 42 expulsions of Central American families with small children. South Texas, across from Tamaulipas, has since had a much smaller percentage of expelled families than other parts of the border.

Officials have disagreed sharply on the September decision to expel Haitian migrants back to their troubled country through a massive airlift of about 80 expulsion flights since September 19. “Some Biden appointees were horrified,” CBS reports, but they were overruled by senior officials like Rice and White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, who believed the expulsions “would deter other Haitians from coming.”

CBS reveals that Biden appointees at DHS and the National Security Council had proposed reviving the Trump administration’s Remain in Mexico policy—which Biden halted on Inauguration Day—last spring, months before a Texas district court judge’s August order for it to restart. Aides presented the revival of the program—which forced non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their U.S. hearings in dangerous Mexican border towns—“as a deterrence tool.” (DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told a forum on November 4 that talks with Mexico to enable Remain in Mexico’s court-ordered restart will conclude “in the coming days.”) 

According to CBS, members of the administration also floated—unsuccessfully, so far—get-tough measures like expelling unaccompanied teenagers under Title 42, or trying to convince Mexico to sign a “safe third country” agreement forcing non-Mexican asylum seekers to apply there instead. (The Trump administration signed such agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, but could not compel Mexico. The Biden administration canceled the Central American agreements.)

“By midsummer, the pendulum swung to enforcement as patience wore thin in Biden’s inner circle,” AP/AIM put it. A few officials interviewed by CBS vented anger at “progressives” and non-governmental advocates who oppose harsh, Trump-like measures, insisting on reform to the asylum system even amid high current migration levels.

  • A Biden appointee: “Some administration officials ‘don’t want to see folks ever removed. That’s not where President Biden is. That’s not where the mainstream Democratic Party is.’”
  • An unnamed official: “The advocacy groups have not made things easy on the administration. The only policies they support are those in which every person who crosses the border is released into the country with cases that will take years to get to, if the government can get to them at all. That is not functional, or sustainable.”
  • Cecilia Muñoz, a former Obama White House domestic policy advisor who served on the transition team: “Some advocates have not grappled with the difference, if any, between their position and an open-borders position. And an open-borders position is anathema in the country. It’s like pushing the administration right off a cliff.”

Persistent divisions have brought a lack of clarity about the Biden administration’s long-term plan for handling large-scale flows of protection-seeking migrants. Particularly muddy is the administration’s vision for what asylum processing and adjudication—among other border and migration mechanisms—might look like after Title 42’s inevitable, eventual lifting. “The administration has yet to release detailed plans of the ‘humane’ asylum system that Biden promised during his campaign,” AP and AIM Texas observe.

“I think there are probably a couple ideas being floated around,” Leutert told the Border Chronicle’s Melissa del Bosque.

But I think publicly, no, and really a concrete vision of what the next two three years will look like, I don’t think that’s been clearly articulated. …If you don’t have that that kind of end point of, we’re building toward X, we’re building toward the border looking like this articulated vision, if you don’t have that, and not everyone’s rowing their oars in the same direction, you do get swept away by the day to day events.

There are so many thoughtful, talented people in the administration and in the interagency. And they are working really round the clock, because there’s so much happening on a day to day basis. And the challenge there is that when you’re working all the time, when you’re working long hours, you’re responding to whatever fire is burning that particular day. It’s hard to think long term. There’s so much on a day-to-day basis, the numbers are creeping up, the President is getting just pummeled about immigration on the border on Fox News and in conservative media.

Texas updates

Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R), who vocally opposes the Biden administration’s partial dismantling of the Trump administration’s border and migration policies, continues to carry out his own series of border enforcement measures using state resources. Abbott launched what he calls “Operation Lone Star” in March, and is devoting more than $2 billion in state funds to fence-building, National Guard and state police deployments, and efforts to arrest and jail migrants on state charges like trespassing.

On October 28 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested a Texas state policeman serving “Lone Star” duty. Pablo Talavera will face a charge of conspiracy to sell narcotics. A criminal complaint reported in the Rio Grande Valley Monitor discusses Talavera escorting “loads of money and methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine on behalf of his father and uncle’s drug trafficking organization, which allegedly operated in Tennessee” between May 26 and September 16.

At Texas Monthly, Aaron Nelsen reports from rural Kinney County (population less than 4,000), which has arrested and jailed more migrants under “Operation Lone Star” (1,300) than any of Texas’s 254 counties. “Though hundreds of those apprehended have been released on bond, 792 of the 914 immigrants currently in state prison were arrested in Kinney.” The caseload has overwhelmed “a county that hasn’t had a jury trial in seven years.”

About 70 percent of the state police and national guardsmen deployed on Gov. Abbott’s orders, Nelsen reports, are in Kinney and neighboring Val Verde counties. (Both are in Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, which for the first time ever in 2021 was second in migrant encounters among the agency’s nine U.S.-Mexico border sectors.)

“Biden is diffusing all of these people in our country to change our culture,” Kinney County Judge Tully Shahan told Nelsen. “The left is on the way.” (In Texas, a county judge is an elected top leadership position whose power and responsibilities extend well beyond courts.) A county commissioner added, “These people are obviously bringing diseases. There’s leprosy, tuberculosis, measles, chicken pox, they’ve had some show polio, and COVID as well.”

Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas), whose district includes much of San Antonio, led a letter calling for a Justice Department investigation into “Operation Lone Star” for constitutional violations. The letter bears the signatures of 26 Democratic House members and is addressed to DHS Secretary Mayorkas and Attorney General Merrick Garland. It cites Gov. Abbott’s operation’s “likely violation of the Supremacy Clause [stating that the Constitution takes precedence over state laws] and its treatment of migrants, especially in regards to an individual’s constitutional right to due process.”

“One county in particular, Kinney County, has had to manage over 80 percent of the cases, and many of the migrants there had been without attorneys for weeks.,” the letter reads. “Over the past month, the [county] has passed multiple state statute deadlines to file charges, and jails must release defendants without those charges filed, which has also not occurred in all cases. As a result almost 1,000 migrants [have had] to sit in prison for weeks and sometimes over a month.”

With “Lone Star” and frequent criticism of the Biden administration, Gov. Abbott has made the border a central issue ahead of a 2022 re-election campaign. A Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation poll released this week had Abbott virtually tied (43 to 42 percent) with likely Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke.

Links

  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) found the remains of 557 migrants on U.S. soil during the 2021 fiscal year, according to data shared with CNN. This number, not yet final nor broken down by region, would vastly exceed CBP’s prior record of 492 remains found in 2006. Groups that seek to locate bodies in some regions of the border routinely find far more than CBP does. Most migrants who perish succumb to dehydration, exposure, drowning, or other preventable causes while traveling through treacherous wilderness in an attempt to avoid capture.
  • A woman died and 36 more migrants were detained late on October 29, as a group of about 70 sought to swim the Pacific Ocean from Tijuana to San Diego, around the border fence that runs about 100 yards into the sea.
  • The Latin America Working Group’s Daniella Burgi-Palomino visited a migrant shelter in Mexico City that is at capacity amid an increase in Haitians seeking asylum there.
  • Republican legislators voiced outrage at indications, first reported in the Wall Street Journal, that families separated by the Trump administration might receive big payouts as part of a litigation settlement. Asked about it, President Biden said payments of $450,000 per person are “not going to happen.” The ACLU replied that “President Biden may not have been fully briefed about the actions of his very own Justice Department.”
  • The Senate Finance Committee approved the nomination of Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus to be the next commissioner of CBP, by a 15-13 vote. The lone Republican vote came from Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana), who said the agency needs someone in charge amid the “mess at the border” and that he appreciated the “straight answers” Magnus gave at his October 19 hearing.
  • A November 1 memo from acting CBP Commissioner Troy Miller officially rescinds Trump-era guidelines limiting the number of people allowed to approach land ports of entry to seek asylum (a practice known as “metering”). It calls on CBP officers to process asylum-seeking migrants as much as “operationally feasible,” including through use of CBP’s new “CBP One” mobile app. This changes little for the moment, though, since the “Title 42” pandemic expulsions policy prevents most everyone without documents from approaching ports of entry in the first place. The new guidelines comply with a federal district court judge’s September decision striking down “metering.”
  • A graphical report from Mijente, Just Futures Law, and the No Border Wall Coalition explains the extent, and the risks involved with, the installation of new border-security technologies. Among the capabilities the report covers are video surveillance systems, drones, biometric data collection, facial recognition, CBP’s new app, and telephone and internet communications intercepts.
  • Amber Ortega, a member of the Hia Ced O’odham tribe, is on trial in Tucson federal court for blocking border wall construction in southern Arizona’s ecologically fragile Quitobaquito springs in mid-2020. At that time, the Intercept reports, “For a low-level misdemeanor usually handled with a trespassing ticket, the two women [Ortega and fellow O’odham protester Nellie Jo David] were strip-searched, shackled, and driven to a for-profit jail 130 miles away, where they were held incommunicado, without access to a lawyer, for nearly 24 hours.”
  • Official border crossings, closed to “non-essential” travelers since the COVID-19 pandemic’s March 2020 onset, are to reopen to all documented people who are fully vaccinated with an approved vaccine brand, on November 8. The Dallas Morning News predicts that the reopening will ease labor shortages in Texas. El Paso Matters reports on south El Paso stores anxious to see the return of Mexican shoppers who make up most of their clientele. For 20 months, Ciudad Juárez residents who had U.S. visas or border crossing cards, and could afford airfare, could only come across the Rio Grande to visit El Paso by booking flights.

Weekly Border Update: October 29, 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.

CBP reports “record” annual migrant numbers, with notable changes in recent months

On October 22—just as last week’s update was going online—Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released data about its encounters with migrants during September 2021. As September was the last month of the U.S. government’s fiscal year, CBP was also making public its 2021 end-of-year totals.

Headlines noted that CBP and its Border Patrol component “encountered”—that is, took into custody, at least briefly—more migrants than in any prior fiscal year. The agency reported encountering 1,734,686 undocumented people between October 2020 and September 2021. Of that number, 1,659,206 were encountered between official ports of entry by Border Patrol. That narrowly exceeds the 1,643,679 migrant apprehensions Border Patrol logged in 2000.

In 2000, Border Patrol had about half as many agents as it does now at the U.S.-Mexico border and most migrants were seeking to avoid apprehension versus actively seeking agents out to request asylum. It is very likely, then, that a far larger number of additional migrants evaded capture in 2000 than did in 2021. So this year was almost certainly not the year with the largest number of overall border crossings.

The 2021 figure may also include more double counting than in the past: CBP reported that 26 percent of the migrants it encountered in September had already been encountered at least once before during fiscal 2021. That is way higher than the 14 percent “recidivism” average that the agency recorded between 2014 and 2019. (CBP does not have “recidivism” estimates from before 2005.)

The number of individual people encountered in 2021, then, was significantly fewer than 1.7 million. During the first 11 months of the fiscal year, CBP had reported 1.54 million “encounters” with 1,002,722 individual people. While the agency did not update these numbers for the full 12 months, the final number of individuals is probably about 1.15 million, which is larger—but not immensely larger—than 2019:

The reason for the increase in repeat crossings is “Title 42,” the pandemic border policy put into place by the Trump administration in March 2020, which the Biden administration has maintained. Under the pretext of avoiding holding migrants in congregate settings where COVID-19 might spread, “Title 42” seeks to expel them as quickly as possible, without regard to whether they might be seeking asylum. If they are Mexican, Guatemalan, Honduran, or Salvadoran, and sometimes from other countries, CBP or Border Patrol may send them back into Mexico within an hour or two. For many migrants, especially single adults, the rapid expulsions enable them to attempt repeat crossings.

The year-end statistics show that CBP used Title 42 heavily in 2021. The agency expelled migrants, either into Mexico or by air to their home countries, on 1,063,526 occasions over the course of the year. That’s nearly 61 percent of all encountered migrants in 2021. The number of expulsions since March 2020—1,268,313—is now roughly equivalent to the population of Dallas, Texas.

The Biden administration stopped expelling children who arrived unaccompanied (and who are not Mexican), even though an appeals court, overturning a November 2020 district court decision halting the practice, had cleared a legal path for sending kids back to their own countries alone. The number of unaccompanied children encountered in fiscal 2021—147,975—was a record, though numbers leveled off in August and dropped in September.

Migrants arriving as families—parents with children—totaled 483,846 in 2021, fewer than the 527,112 apprehended in 2019. The Trump and Biden administrations applied Title 42 to expel families 27 percent of the time in fiscal 2021. Both families and unaccompanied children declined from August to September.

Most of those expelled were single adult migrants, who were subject to Title 42 provisions 84 percent of the time in 2021. As single adults are more likely to attempt repeat crossings, their overall “encounters” number is artificially high, with much double-counting.

Migrants not seeking asylum often travel in remote and treacherous areas, seeking to avoid capture. So do migrants who might seek asylum but have decided against surrendering to U.S. authorities, because Title 42 has made asylum very hard to request. This has led to an increase in the number of migrants dying of preventable causes, like dehydration and exposure, on U.S. soil—often deep in borderland deserts. ABC News reported October 17 that CBP found “over 470” remains of migrants in 2021, a number that is near the annual record, but hasn’t been officially reported and could still rise. In the border sectors that they cover, local humanitarian organizations’ counts of deceased migrants tend to be higher than CBP’s as CBP only reports the remains it encounters, not the total number of migrants who have died in U.S. borderlands.

More than 80 percent of encountered migrants came from Mexico or Central America’s “northern triangle” region (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). In recent months, though, an increasing number of migrants—an unprecedented 36 percent in September—came from other countries (yellow on this chart).

In September, the number-five country was Haiti, which is unsurprising since nearly 15,000 Haitian migrants arrived in Del Rio, Texas over a few-day period in the middle of the month. During the entire fiscal year, though, the number-five country was Ecuador, followed by Brazil, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

For the first time ever, more than half of family unit members encountered at the border in September were from countries other than Mexico or the northern triangle. September also saw a very sharp drop (45 percent) from August in arrivals of family members from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

A look at the citizenship of family members from “other” countries shows that most are from South America (Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela) or Haiti. Brazil was just behind El Salvador as the number-five country of origin for families. Many of the South American citizens are likely to have arrived by air to Mexico, which does not require entry visas of them, and then traveled north to the U.S.-Mexico border.

A look at the top 12 countries of origin of 2021 migrants shows a wide variation in expulsion rates. U.S. authorities applied Title 42 to a majority of Mexicans and of citizens of other countries whom Mexico allows to be expelled: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. A majority of Ecuadorians were also expelled into Mexico; while we have no official word explaining this, most of them are single adults expelled in the El Paso sector—into Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where authorities may be permitting expulsions of Ecuadorian citizens.

Citizens of other countries are expelled relatively rarely. That is because the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must do so by air, to their home countries, which is costly. That cost did not stop the Biden administration from expelling over 8,000 Haitians by air since September 19, following the Del Rio migration event, or running 162 expulsion flights to Central America and 95 to southern Mexican cities between April and September.

The result is a two-tier system in which some countries’ citizens are swiftly expelled without a chance to ask for protection, while others stand a strong chance of being released into the United States to pursue asylum claims. Should the “Remain in Mexico” policy (discussed below) restart in November, it may be applied most heavily to those from this second tier who are from Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries.

Mexico released its own updated migrant apprehension data on October 29. It showed Mexico’s migration forces shattering their monthly apprehensions record in September, with 41,225. (Their previous record, narrowly set in August, was 32,155.) As with the United States, over 35 percent of September’s apprehensions were of citizens of countries other than El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

As noted in past updates, Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR has already more than broken its annual record for asylum requests; through the end of September the agency counted 90,314 applications, continuing a pattern of exponential growth interrupted only during the pandemic year of 2020.

The graphics used in this narrative, among others, are available as a regularly updated PDF document at bit.ly/wola_border.

Caravan forms in Chiapas

Some outlets reported during the week of October 17 that migrants stranded in Mexico’s southern border-zone city of Tapachula were planning an October 23 “caravan” to Mexico City, where they would petition for permission to move more freely about Mexico’s territory while awaiting decisions on their asylum cases. Mexican law currently prohibits asylum applicants from leaving the state where they submit their applications until their case is resolved, and tens of thousands of migrants are effectively confined to Tapachula, a municipality of 350,000 people, about a dozen miles from Guatemala in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state.

As announced, at least 1,000 migrants departed Tapachula on the 23rd for what they are calling the “March for Peace.” They have progressed entirely on foot, moving slowly and sticking together along southern Chiapas’s coastal highway. The march has attracted more participants along the way: estimates of its size—which is hard to gauge—now tend to run in the 2,000-3,000 range. On October 29, Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) offered an estimate of 1,200.

As of October 29, after six days of walking, the group was somewhere between Escuintla and Mapastepec, Chiapas, less than two hours’ driving distance from their starting point in Tapachula. Luis Villagrán, an activist closely accompanying the march, said that the slow pace owes to a deliberate choice to keep the group close together. Meanwhile, as John Holman has documented at Al Jazeera, Mexican authorities’ strategy so far appears to be to allow the group to walk in this zone’s intense heat, but to prohibit any vehicles or buses from giving rides to the migrants.

This larger caravan comes after four unsuccessful attempts by groups of several hundred mostly Haitian migrants to leave Tapachula en masse in late August and early September. On all four occasions—as covered in earlier updates—INM agents, backed by National Guard personnel, blocked or dispersed the migrants within a couple of dozen miles of Tapachula. (In fact, no “caravan” has successfully reached the U.S. border since the end of 2018.) At times, Mexico’s forces employed brutality to stop the migrants’ progress: agents were caught on camera punching and kicking people who were already subdued. These unsuccessful “caravans” were followed by the mysteriously sudden arrival of nearly 15,000 Haitian migrants at Mexico’s northern border, in Del Rio, Texas, in mid-September.

The current group includes some Haitian migrants, but appears to be mostly Central American with citizens of a few other countries, notably Cuba, accompanying. Many—perhaps a majority—are families with young children.

The only confrontation with Mexican security forces so far occurred at the very beginning of the march, when participants encountered a cordon of National Guardsmen and migration agents at Tapachula’s outskirts. The group pushed through, though a small boy suffered minor head injuries in the scuffle. Security forces have been closely shadowing the marchers ever since.

A significant number of marchers appear not to be intent on reaching the United States. Many are simply frustrated at being unable to leave Tapachula, where employment and income opportunities are scarce. Of the 90,314 people who applied for asylum in Mexico during the first 9 months of 2021, 70 percent (63,126) did so in Tapachula after crossing from Guatemala. While COMAR has taken some measures to try to speed asylum adjudication, such as using Tapachula’s stadium as a temporary processing facility, migrants are tiring of being forced to wait there for many months, particularly when more economically prosperous Mexican states have greater need for laborers. So while some caravan participants no doubt hope to reach the United States, for many the goal is to get to Mexico City where they can appeal to the COMAR office for either faster adjudication or the ability to await their decision elsewhere.

Two activists closely accompanying the march, Irineo Mujica of Pueblo Sin Fronteras and the above-cited Luis Villagrán of the Centro de Dignificación Humana, say they are bringing “46 packets with petitions to federal judges to allow the migrants to leave Tapachula.” At their current pace—if indeed they are permitted to exit Chiapas—the marchers will take over a month to get to Mexico City.

The INM reported on October 27 that it was facilitating returns to Tapachula of an unknown number of migrant families who, exhausted, sought to return there voluntarily. On October 29 the agency reported that in meetings with Mujica and Villagrán, it offered to provide humanitarian visas to especially vulnerable migrants, and “to transfer migrants to several states in the country to provide them with assistance in their procedures, as well as provide them with lodging in open-door shelters and food.” The activists rejected the offer, according to INM, arguing that people should be able to register in states of their choosing.

In fact, the marchers themselves rejected the offer, Holman reports, though “no government official actually came to put that proposal to the people, leaving the caravan organizers to frame it to them.” He adds, “the states finally on offer [as places to live and work] also weren’t the most attractive safety or work-wise: Morelos, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Puebla, and Hidalgo.” Most of these southern and central Mexican states, while still far from the U.S. border, have healthier economies than Chiapas, and UNHCR has local integration programs in Puebla and Guanajuato. However some, particularly Guanajuato, Guerrero, and Morelos, face severe public security challenges.

Two U.S. Border Patrol sources told the Washington Examiner that “government intelligence reports” tell them to expect caravan participants to arrive eventually in Del Rio, Texas and Yuma, Arizona. Mark Morgan, an acting head of CBP during the Trump administration, told the Examiner that he is “not as concerned with the caravan” because the number of migrants who arrive at the border with smugglers every day is much larger. “The United States Border Patrol deals with multiple caravans every single day. It’s just spread out through the entire southwest border.”

DHS issues Remain in Mexico “re-termination” memo

On October 29 DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas issued a long-awaited memorandum once again terminating the “Remain in Mexico” program (officially known as “Migrant Protection Protocols” or MPP). The Department shared a press release, the memo itself, and a longer explanatory statement. The Biden administration then filed a motion to send the matter back to district court.

The Trump administration launched “Remain in Mexico” in December 2018, applied it to migrants for the first time in January 2019, and expanded it dramatically in June 2019. Between then and January 2021, DHS sent over 71,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers back into Mexico with instructions to report back to border crossings months later, where their immigration court hearings would take place by teleconference. Mexico agreed to this arrangement, but provided few services or protection to the migrants waiting on its side of the border. More than 1,500 asylum seekers under the program were kidnapped or attacked while waiting in Mexican border towns, and asylum approval rates were far lower than in normal immigration courts, in part due to significant difficulties in accessing legal counsel.

Candidate Joe Biden opposed Remain in Mexico—his wife Jill even visited a tent camp where asylum seekers were subsisting in the city of Matamoros—and halted new enrollments in the program on Inauguration Day 2021. Soon after, DHS launched an effort that brought more than 10,000 asylum seekers under Remain in Mexico into the United States to pursue their claims. On June 1, Mayorkas issued a memorandum formally terminating Remain in Mexico.

In August, though, conservative critics of Biden’s border policies used the justice system to force the program’s revival. The Republican attorneys-general of Texas and Missouri brought a lawsuit alleging that the Biden administration failed to “consider all relevant factors” in terminating Remain in Mexico. On August 13, Amarillo, Texas District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk agreed with the plaintiffs and ordered the Biden administration to make a “good-faith effort” to restart the Trump-era program. On August 24, the Supreme Court refused to suspend Kacsmaryk’s order while lower-court appeals continue.

Court filings on September 15 and October 15 detail the Biden administration’s “good faith efforts,” including construction of “tent court” facilities for video hearings in Laredo and Brownsville, Texas, and ongoing negotiations with the Mexican government. Administration officials continue to insist, though, that they oppose the program that the courts are forcing them to reinstate.

Migrants’ rights advocates had been calling on DHS to issue a new memo “re-terminating” Remain in Mexico, this time with more specific language explaining the reasoning for doing so. By doing so, they hope, the administration can meet the court’s requirement to “consider all relevant factors” before shutting the program down. It took two and a half months, but Secretary Mayorkas produced that memo on October 29.

According to DHS’s interpretation, the new memo alone is not enough to halt Remain in Mexico. That will require “a final judicial decision to vacate the Texas injunction,” the memo reads—and that is up to the same court that agreed with the Texas and Missouri attorneys-general. In the meantime, DHS “will continue complying,” restarting the Remain in Mexico program. (Axios reports that the Biden administration is considering “softening” a renewed program by offering COVID-19 vaccines to all asylum-seeking migrants whom it forces to remain in Mexico.)

While DHS expects to have infrastructure in place by mid-November, it does not yet have Mexico’s agreement to admit thousands more non-Mexican asylum seekers on its soil. As the October 15 filing indicates, Mexico has raised some strong objections about long wait times for hearing dates, returns of especially vulnerable migrants, access to counsel, and other issues.

The October 29 memorandum may give Mexico further pause before agreeing to a restart of the program. While not going so far as to say that MPP was illegal, it details the program’s many failures, including ways in which it violated asylum seekers’ rights, even physically endangering them.

“I have concluded that there are inherent problems with the program that no amount of resources can sufficiently fix,” Mayorkas’s memo reads. The explanatory statement discusses migrants’ difficult conditions while waiting in Mexico, concerns about sending asylum seekers back to danger, access to counsel and other process issues, costs, damage to the U.S.-Mexico relationship, and unclear impact on reducing migrant flows, among several other issues.

“Significant shortcomings” in accountability for Border Patrol Facebook group posters

A strongly (and explicitly) worded report from the House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Reform, issued on October 25, details the disciplinary process following 2019 revelations of a secret Facebook page at which CBP personnel posted racist, violent, and lewd content. The Committee discovered that for most involved, consequences were light: they “had their discipline significantly reduced and continued to work with migrants.”

In July 2019, ProPublica revealed the existence of “I’m 10-15,” a Facebook group with about 9,500 members, many or most of them CBP and Border Patrol personnel. (“I’m 10-15” means “I have migrants in custody.”) ProPublica, and later the Intercept, posted screenshots of content replete with sexual imagery, threats of violence, racist sentiments toward migrants, and disparagement (or worse) of left-of-center political figures.

“CBP knew about Border Patrol agents’ inappropriate posts on ‘I’m 10-15’ since 2016, three years before it was reported publicly,” the House Committee found. Among the Facebook group’s members were Border Patrol’s last two chiefs, Carla Provost (2018-2020) and Rodney Scott (2020-August 2021). Both indicated that they followed the group in order to monitor agents’ attitudes and complaints. After ProPublica revealed the page’s existence, Provost had said “these posts are completely inappropriate” and that agents “will be held accountable.”

Investigators had a hard time finding out whether anyone was indeed being held accountable. Facebook refused to provide content from the page to investigators from CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), forcing them to rely on screenshots obtained by media outlets. During the Trump administration, CBP refused to hand over disciplinary records to the House Oversight and Reform Committee, even after the committee issued a November 2020 subpoena. The records were turned over in February, after Donald Trump left office.

The Committee found “significant shortcomings in CBP’s approach to disciplining and training employees on social media misconduct.” CBP OPR opened 135 investigations into allegations related to “I’m 10-15” and other unnamed secret Facebook groups. A chief patrol agent, in the role of “deciding official,” made all disciplinary decisions.

This individual decided that 60 of the 135 CBP employees committed misconduct. In the end, the Committee found, “Almost all received significantly lighter final penalties than proposed by CBP’s Discipline Review Board.”

In the end:

  • 2 were fired; CBP’s Discipline Review Board had recommended 24 removals. Both had published sexualized and in some cases violent images of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), among other disturbing content.
  • 43 were suspended without pay, most for five days or fewer; the Discipline Review Board had recommended 60 suspensions. Those suspended were “then permitted to return to work in positions of power over migrants,” the Committee’s report notes.
  • 12 received letters of reprimand, 3 received “alternate disciplinary actions” like suspension with pay, 11 received “corrective or non-disciplinary actions,” and 10 took retirement before disciplinary action was taken. Twelve appealed their punishments.

“The CBP discipline system is broken,” a report from an independent DHS panel had flatly stated in 2016. “No one official and no single office of CBP is actually responsible for assuring timeliness for all phases of the discipline process,” it notes, while “responsibility for investigating an allegation of misconduct is fragmented.” Improving human rights oversight was not a priority during the Trump administration, so no notable accountability progress was made since that report’s publication.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee report describes the byzantine accountability process:

OPR investigates the conduct, and CBP’s Discipline Review Board proposes discipline. A deciding official then makes a discipline determination. In some cases, when CBP substantiates allegations of misconduct, employees may be able to appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB); file a grievance with a CBP employee union such as the National Border Patrol Council, which may invoke arbitration on behalf of the employee; or, if they believe the action was discriminatory, file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

This description leaves out the DHS Office of Inspector General and Office on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which may play at least tangential roles.

“CBP’s failure to prevent these violent and offensive statements by its own agents or impose adequate discipline creates a serious risk that this behavior will continue,” reads a press statement from the committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York). “As we saw with the mistreatment of migrants by Border Patrol agents in Del Rio, Texas last month, systemic behavior problems within CBP persist. CBP must take immediate steps to reform its disciplinary processes, strengthen social media policies and training, and address longstanding issues of poor morale within its ranks.”

Texas update

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), an archconservative critic of the Biden administration’s border and migration policies, has added $300 million to his state’s National Guard budget to pay for a deployment to the border, part of what he calls “Operation Lone Star.” At the same time, however, “Texas has slashed its tuition assistance budget by more than half” for its National Guardsmen, Army Times reports.

Gov. Abbott is also using state funds to build barriers along segments of Texas’s border with Mexico. Among the five companies under consideration to build this fencing is Fisher Sand and Gravel, a North Dakota company that got billions in Trump administration wall-building contracts, and also built private barriers for “We Build the Wall,” a non-profit whose founder is under indictment for fraud and tax evasion.

Gov. Abbott has instructed state police and guardsmen to arrest migrants on state charges of “trespassing.” Since June, Texas has confined at least 1,300 migrants in two state jails. A report from CNN shows that some of these migrants, including many asylum seekers, have been held for weeks or months without being charged with a crime, and without access to counsel. Some haven’t even been able to make phone calls to loved ones for weeks at a time. In some cases, body camera footage shows, Texas police encountered migrants in areas where they were not trespassing, then marched them onto private property in order to arrest them. Judges have ended up releasing many migrants without charges—at times into the U.S. interior.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) this week turned down a request from Gov. Abbott for reimbursement of what he regarded to be “emergency” border spending.

Links

  • The Southern Border Communities Coalition has sent a letter to congressional leadership urging a hearing into Border Patrol’s “Critical Incident Teams,” secretive units whose purpose is “to seek to exonerate agents. They act as cover-up units, protecting agents, rather than the public, and they answer to no one except the Border Patrol chiefs.” The SBCC notes that no other law enforcement agency has anything similar.
  • Though DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas promised that an investigation would be complete in “days, not weeks,” the Border Patrol agents captured in photos and video charging on horseback at Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas in September have not yet been questioned about their actions, a source tells ABC News. Apparently, action is first required from the Justice Department. The agents in question have been assigned to administrative duties in the meantime.
  • Rights organizations and advocates (including WOLA) called for an end to Title 42 expulsions and other denials of the right to seek protection during a virtual  hearing about “Protection of persons in human mobility in the United States, Mexico, and Northern Central America,” part of the 181st sessions of the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. . U.S. and regional organizations also presented at a hearing on the “Human rights situation of migrants and refugees in the United States,” with the participation of several U.S. officials from the Departments of State and Homeland Security. 
  • Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights is honoring Guerline Jozef, director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, with its 2021 Human Rights Award. Jozef has led efforts to obtain Temporary Protected Status for Haitians, and to oppose Title 42 aerial expulsions of Haitian migrants to a country that has suffered, since July, a presidential assassination, an earthquake, and generalized gang violence including what may be the world’s worst kidnapping rate. “Despite these dangerous conditions, the Biden administration has continued to make use of Title 42, a racist and draconian Trump-era policy, to forcibly deport over 8,000 asylum-seekers, putting their lives at risk,” reads a statement from RFK Human Rights.
  • In 2020, despite a sharp nationwide increase, “violent crime rates in 11 of the largest communities along the U.S.-Mexico border stayed below the national average,” Axios reports based on FBI and census data.
  • DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas issued a new guidance expanding the list of domestic locations that are off-limits to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. In addition to schools and hospitals, the “protected areas” list now includes COVID vaccination locations, places of worship, places where children gather, social services establishments, disaster or emergency response centers, religious or civil ceremonies, and public demonstrations, parades, or protests.
  • Reports in Honduras’s media cover Haitian migrants’ entry into the country from Nicaragua via informal rural border crossings, and a greatly increased presence of Haitian migrants near the bus station in the capital, Tegucigalpa.
  • Two Haitian women were found dead on Monday and Tuesday along the Mexico-Guatemala border near Tapachula. One was apparently strangled, while authorities say the other died of cardiac arrest.
  • The Biden administration is in talks to offer immigrant families that were separated during the Trump administration around $450,000 a person in compensation,” the Wall Street Journal reported on October 28. That’s “close to $1 million a family, though the final numbers could shift.” On Fox News, former vice president Mike Pence called the idea “incomprehensibly stupid.”
  • Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) introduced legislation, the “Reimagining Asylum Processing Act,” which would make a series of humanitarian, capacity, and efficiency improvements to processing of asylum seekers, which is currently a weak point at the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • The Mexican border city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas endured an alarming night of shootouts and road blockades as organized crime gangs fought authorities on October 22. Four people were killed. Just across the river, in Brownsville, Texas, the Biden administration is building a “tent court” facility for asylum seekers whom a revived Remain in Mexico program may force to wait for months in Matamoros.
  • The city of Tijuana is building a fence around the encampment of migrants, many of them expelled by U.S. authorities under “Title 42,” that has sprung up this year next to the San Ysidro-Chaparral port of entry.

This is happening in Texas in 2021

A CNN story published yesterday sounds like something a high school student would learn about in a U.S. history unit about Jim Crow in the 1950s or labor crackdowns in the 1880s. But it’s apparently business as usual in Texas in the 2020s.

Seven months ago Gov. Greg Abbott (R) inaugurated “Operation Lone Star,” a $3 billion crackdown at the Texas-Mexico border that he portrayed as a response to Joe Biden’s non-continuation of some of Donald Trump’s hardline border policies. Since then, Texas state police and National Guardsmen have built fences, patrolled border towns, and arrested at least 1,300 migrants.

States can’t enforce federal immigration law, so Abbott has sent cops out to arrest migrants for trespassing on private property: a crime that, in the border counties where he has declared a “state of emergency,” is punishable by months in prison. Abbott ordered the conversion of two border-zone prisons to hold migrants.

Once thrown in jail, though, some migrants are practically disappearing. In a blatant violation of the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. constitution, hundreds are going weeks or months without being charged and without any access to attorneys.

The examples CNN cites are horrifying.

The man was held in jail for 52 days before he was charged with the misdemeanor offense of criminal trespass, his attorney says. For 43 of those days — more than six weeks — he had no access to a lawyer, he told CNN. And the man said there were long gaps, sometimes two weeks, when he was not allowed to make any phone call to tell his wife how he was.

…two migrants who talked to CNN last week said they knew several men in their jail pods who had been waiting up to three months to talk to a lawyer.
One said the unrepresented men begged the others to raise their cases.
“‘Ask about us. Tell them we have 90 days, 80 days and we haven’t seen an attorney. We don’t know anything and here we are,'” he says he is told.
CNN raised the concerns with the TIDC [Texas Indigent Defense Commission]. The commission said it then located at least one person arrested in May and held in jail who did not have a lawyer. That person was assigned counsel Thursday night.

Some of those being arrested for trespassing weren’t even on private property until Texas state police forced them to step on private property.

He replays the video that, Martinez [David Martinez, the Val Verde County Attorney in charge of prosecuting misdemeanors] says, appears to show a Texas state trooper directing the migrants onto the private property before arresting one of them for trespass.
Martinez said he rejected the case.
Martinez has more. He pulls a file he says contains the cases of 11 other migrants who alleged that law enforcement zip-tied them in pairs, walked them about 20 minutes and made them scale a 10-foot fence. They were later arrested by state troopers for criminal trespassing, documents show.

Many of those being arrested and jailed are asylum seekers. Right now, because the Biden administration continues to use the pandemic to justify maintaining Steven Miller’s policy (“Title 42”) of expelling migrants who come to ports of entry seeking asylum, the only way to ask for asylum is to cross the border between the ports of entry—which according to Gov. Abbott is an act deserving of months in prison.

Many are actually asylum seekers, according to an attorney whose legal aid group represents more than 500 of the total 1,300 people reported arrested on suspicion of criminal trespass by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
“Many of them are here seeking asylum. They are educated. I have had a constitutional law professor from Venezuela. I’ve had a professional baseball player from Venezuela. We have journalists, political activists, [and] university students,” Kristin Etter of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid told a Texas legislative committee this month.

In the end, a large number of Gov. Abbott’s prisoners are being let go with charges dropped. In many cases, because by the time they’re let go they’re no longer recent border crossers, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) doesn’t take them into custody, they just get released into Texas.

Many cases are not being prosecuted. David Martinez, the Val Verde County Attorney in charge of prosecuting misdemeanors, says from June to September he rejected or dismissed about 40% of Operation Lone Star cases.
In about 70% of those cases, he did so because the migrants were seeking asylum. In other cases, he has been troubled by the circumstances of the arrests themselves.

This is outrageous and disgusting, and the U.S. Justice Department must get involved.

But even beyond that, it‘s dismaying that this treatment of human beings—of people in a position of weakness—is something that Greg Abbott calculates will help him win re-election in the 2022 Texas governor’s race. The idea behind this is that Texans crave this kind of barbarity, and it’s a political winner for Abbott.

Texas is a conservative state (though seemingly less so every year). Still, I can’t help but think that these mass imprisonings-disappearances wouldn’t have happened under governors George W. Bush or even Rick Perry. It feels like lights keep going out in many parts of the United States right now.

Weekly Border Update: October 22, 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.

Border migrant encounters appear to fall in September, capping off a fiscal year of very high levels

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has not yet released its count of undocumented migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border in September—and thus in all of fiscal year 2021, which ended September 30. Nonetheless, the agency shared some numbers with the Washington Post’s Nick Miroff, and later with NBC News, showing what could be the largest number of migrant encounters ever recorded in a single year.

During fiscal 2021, CBP encountered 1.7 million migrants, 1.66 million of them between the land ports of entry (Border Patrol) and about 40,000 at the ports of entry (CBP’s Office of Field Operations). The 1.66 million exceeds the prior record of 1.64 million apprehensions Border Patrol reported in 2000, and 1.62 million in 1986.

The 2021 figure includes a lot of double and triple-counting. Due to the controversial “Title 42” pandemic policy, under which CBP rapidly expels most Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran migrants into Mexico regardless of protection needs, 2021 saw a large number of repeat crossers. For many migrants, Title 42 means spending an hour or two in Border Patrol custody, then being delivered back into Mexico—a process that has incentivized repeat attempts. In recent months, the Post recalls, “recidivist” migrants have made up more than 25 percent of those CBP has encountered.

As a result, the actual number of people apprehended in 2021 is assuredly lower than 1.7 million. At the end of August, when CBP reported 1.54 million “encounters” border-wide, the agency noted that this represented “1,002,722 unique individuals”—in other words, about one and a half encounters per person. The agency doesn’t report (or didn’t keep) recidivism data from before 2005, but repeat crossings were also probably quite frequent during the previous record-breaking years (2000 and 1986), a time of few border barriers, heavy use of voluntary returns, and a mostly adult Mexican migrant population.

NBC’s Julia Ainsley reported that CBP encountered 192,316 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border during September. If that figure incorporates both Border Patrol and ports of entry, it would be an 8 percent reduction from August and a 10 percent reduction from July. Data about arrivals of unaccompanied children at the border also indicate a notable decline since the summer.

Of the 1.66 million Border Patrol encounters in fiscal 2021, Miroff reports, “more than 608,000” were from Mexico, 309,000 from Honduras (a country whose entire population is just below 10 million), 279,000 from Guatemala, 96,000 from El Salvador, and 367,000 from other countries.

Of the nine sectors into which Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico border, the most migrants were encountered in southeast Texas’s Rio Grande Valley (549,000), which has been in first place every year since 2013. In second place, for the first time ever, is south-central Texas’s rural Del Rio sector (259,000), which was sixth in 2019 and 2020. Del Rio is where about 15,000 mostly Haitian migrants arrived en masse in mid-September.

Reports point to a culture of inhumane behavior at U.S. border agencies

This week saw a few NGO and media reports pointing to an everyday pattern of cruelty toward migrants among CBP and Border Patrol personnel, ranging from petty insults to acts of violence.

On October 21 Human Rights Watch published findings from documents obtained via a years-long Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit. “They Treat You Like You Are Worthless” is based on over 160 accounts of “misconduct and abuse of asylum applicants at the hands of officers within several DHS [Department of Homeland Security] components, particularly CBP officers and Border Patrol agents.” These were compiled by asylum officers from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, another DHS component) during interviews with protection-seeing migrants.

Allegations of agents’ and officers’ abuse include “assault, sexual abuse, due process violations, denial of medical care, harsh detention conditions, and dehumanizing treatment at the border.” Among many alarming examples the report brings to light are these in its opening summary:

In 2017, a US Border Patrol agent kneed a woman in the lower pelvis, leaving bruises and pain days later, according to her statement to a government official screening her asylum claim. In a separate incident that year, a Border Patrol agent or Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer forced a girl to undress and then inappropriately touched her. In 2018, a CBP officer hit another asylum applicant so hard he was knocked unconscious and suffered brain swelling. That same year, an officer wearing a green uniform, consistent with those of the Border Patrol, asked an asylum applicant to give him oral sex in exchange for being released from custody. Another asylum applicant was bitten in the testicle by a Border Patrol service dog and denied medical treatment for about one month and ultimately had to have his testicle surgically removed. In 2019, CBP officials appeared to withhold food from a man in a freezing cold holding facility until he agreed to sign a paper that he did not understand.

The FOIA revelations, Human Rights Watch concludes, show a deeply embedded culture in CBP and Border Patrol that views migrants as adversaries deserving of punishment or suffering, and that assumes its personnel will not be held accountable.

A 2019 report from the DHS Office of Inspector General found that 47 percent of CBP employees surveyed did not believe officials at all levels were held accountable for their conduct. In a 2018 affidavit, CBP’s former deputy assistant commissioner for internal affairs, James Wong, described CBP leadership as “reluctant to hold agents and others within the agency accountable for their actions, including if they were involved in criminal activity.” …The FOIA documents paint a picture of DHS as an agency that appears to have normalized shocking abuses at the US border.

“The documents make clear that reports of grievous CBP abuses—physical and sexual assaults, abusive detention conditions and violations of due process—are an open secret within DHS,” Clara Long, the Human Rights Watch report’s principal author, told the New York Times. 

The report calls for fundamental changes in migrant reception and processing practices, as well as for far greater oversight and accountability of these agencies, both within DHS and by other federal investigative bodies, including Congress. A DHS spokeswoman told the Times that Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who took over in February, has ordered internal reviews of policies and training, and that the Department has beefed up its Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL), which has a lackluster record of following up on complaints.

Also on October 21, Human Rights First published the latest in a series of very grim updates about the Title 42 policy and its impact on the rights and well-being of asylum seekers. “The suffering of families, adults, and children subjected to this policy continues to mount, with at least 7,647 kidnappings and other attacks on people blocked or expelled under Title 42 since President Biden took office,” it reads.

Like the Human Rights Watch document, the Human Rights First report, “Illegal and Inhumane,” details numerous recent examples of cruel and callous treatment of asylum seekers at the hands of CBP and Border Patrol. Among them:

  • “In October 2021 DHS agents repeatedly told an asylum-seeking Honduran family to ‘shut up’ and refused to answer their questions as they transferred the family by plane from McAllen, Texas, where they had crossed the border to seek asylum, to Arizona for expulsion into Nogales, Mexico. According to Kino Border Initiative, an agent attempted to seize the family’s documents related to their asylum claim.”
  • “A Haitian mother expelled in late September 2021 begged U.S. officers to remove her handcuffs to enable her to comfort her crying young daughter on the plane ride, according to Blaine Bookey from UC Hastings Center for Gender and Refugee Studies.”
  • “Belone Mpembele, an asylum seeker from Angola, was expelled to Haiti by the United States… in its rush to expel Haitians in September 2021.”
  • “DHS continues to carry out some Title 42 expulsions to dangerous Mexican border cities in the middle of the night, when businesses are closed and humanitarian services are unavailable, increasing the risk that expelled individuals will be attacked. For example, Border Patrol agents expelled more than 20 people through the DeConcini port of entry to Nogales, Mexico around 2:00 a.m. in late August 2021, leaving them stranded.”
  • “In August 2021, DHS subjected three Nicaraguan political dissidents to a lateral expulsion flight after they sought protection near McAllen, Texas. DHS officers verbally abused them, threatening to release dogs to attack them. The officers woke the men at 1:00 am, handcuffed them, and forced them to stand for more than two hours before the expulsion flight. The officers lied to the men telling them that they would be sent to California and permitted to pursue their asylum cases, but instead expelled them to Tijuana.”

Numerous migrants’ rights and advocacy groups submitted comments this week on proposed Justice Department and DHS asylum regulations (as did former Trump advisor Stephen Miller’s “America First Legal” group). A comment submitted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas calls for clearly removing CBP from the asylum process due to its adversarial posture toward asylum seekers.

The ACLU document notes that “CBP personnel regularly fail to ask required questions” of apprehended migrants regarding whether they fear persecution and return to their home country, “even in the presence of independent observers.” The comment cites several examples of CBP personnel falsely recording in their paperwork that asylum seekers did not express fear of return. The agency’s jail-like holding facilities, it continues, are no place to expect people to prepare for a high-stakes credible fear interview to evaluate their pleas for protection.

Further troubling information about CBP and Border Patrol treatment of migrants comes from a leaked January 2021 CRCL document obtained by BuzzFeed’s Hamed Aleaziz. The report documents agents’ and officers’ zeal to send asylum-seeking migrants back into treacherous Mexican border cities to await their U.S. hearings, under the Trump administration’s controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy (also known as “Migrant Protection Protocols” or MPP, and discussed further below), regardless of their disabilities or medical conditions.

“The report offers a rare window into the behind-the-scenes dysfunction and confusion surrounding the Migration Protection Protocols,” Aleaziz notes. It documents a dozen cases in which U.S. personnel found that migrants were “amenable” to being forced to remain in Mexico despite “circumstances such as cognitive disability, glaucoma, epilepsy, cervical metaplasia, uterine cancer, heart conditions, ‘crippled’ legs, chicken pox, AIDS, and diabetes.” BuzzFeed continues:

In one case, investigators looked into an allegation that a 6-year-old girl from Honduras was returned to Mexico despite having advanced cerebral palsy. The CBP records the investigators reviewed indicated that she, her parents, and brother were placed into MPP on May 20, 2019. A DHS form the investigators reviewed indicated “CRIPPLED LEG, LEFT” and “CRIPPLED LEG, RIGHT” under a section reserved for “scars, marks, and tattoos.”

There were no other records relating to her health.

In 2019 CBP sent back into Mexico an 11-year-old boy who “had severe epilepsy, with convulsions leading to loss of memory and vomiting.” Personnel also sent into Mexico “a 4-year-old child in MPP who had been found to have chicken pox and his young sister who had been sexually assaulted.” Other asylum seekers relegated to Mexican border towns included “a 34-year-old woman who had a pituitary tumor that pressed against her brain, a 13-year-old child with only one functioning lung, and an 8-year-old boy who had a urethral malformation that required surgery.”

The CRCL report also confirmed that it is standard Border Patrol practice to separate families who were forced to remain in Mexico: “In emails provided to CRCL by CBP, CBP personnel state that it is USBP procedure to separate one parent from the rest of the family and only maintain family unity for the other parent and children.”

“I once asked CBP why a 13-yr-old boy who lost his left leg in Mexico was placed in MPP,” tweeted BuzzFeed reporter Adolfo Flores, “despite the agency’s guiding principals [sic] saying immigrants with ‘known physical/mental health issues’ should not be placed in the program.” CBP’s response read, “Creating a categorical exclusion for a specific medical condition could have a chilling effect on amenability determinations for MPP. Amputation in and of itself in an otherwise healthy individual is not considered a medical condition that would inhibit enrollment in MPP.

Humanitarian and human rights groups protest Remain in Mexico restart

As detailed in last week’s update, the Biden administration continues to move toward complying with a Texas judge’s order to restart the Trump administration’s Remain in Mexico program, which President Biden had halted on Inauguration Day and formally terminated on June 1.

Although Mexico has not yet agreed to receive non-Mexican asylum seekers under a renewed MPP, “tent courts” are once again under construction next to ports of entry in Laredo and Brownsville, Texas. DHS expects to have those facilities ready by mid-November, at a cost of $14.1 million. There, asylum-seeking migrants forced to Remain in Mexico will once again be brought to appear before immigration judges—most of them based in San Antonio—via videoconference.

“The court facilities will be located on the same spots where they previously were built in 2019 under then-President Donald Trump, and will be the go-to location for all asylum hearings once MPP is restarted,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who represents Laredo, told Border Report. “They’re going to set it up the way it was prior to this administration. They’re going to do the same thing in Brownsville. It’s the same contractor from New York,” Cuellar said.

Amarillo, Texas District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk is requiring the Biden administration to file updates on its “good-faith efforts” to restart a program it opposes. The latest filing, from October 15, details some of the Mexican government’s objections to a restarted program. “The GOM [government of Mexico] made clear that enhancing opportunities for MPP enrollees to secure adequate access to counsel is a critical issue that needs to be addressed before it could decide to accept MPP enrollees into Mexico,” that document reads.

“Adequate access to counsel” would require the cooperation of pro-bono attorneys and other service providers, many of whom sought to represent vulnerable asylum seekers in Mexican border towns, often at great personal risk, during the Trump administration. Livid at the prospect of the revival of a program that puts asylum seekers in danger and inherently interferes with due process, and angry at the Biden administration for not taking steps to challenge Judge Kacsmaryk’s order, these attorneys and service providers are refusing to participate in the program—in the strongest possible terms.

On October 16, border-area attorneys and advocates “walked out” of a virtual off-the-record “stakeholder meeting” with Biden administration officials, inserting words of protest into their Zoom backgrounds and exiting after about eight minutes.

“We can no longer come into these conversations in good conscience when the Biden administration continues to perpetuate illegal and inhumane Trump-era immigration policies such as Title 42, and now MPP,” read a prepared statement from the groups in attendance. “Advocates engaged with many of you during the transition and the beginning of the administration. We even provided the administration with a road map that included solutions on how to restore the asylum system. You continue to play politics with human lives. Your policies are sending people to their deaths.”

“We have to proceed in good faith or be held in contempt of court, and as a government, we cannot do that,” Esther Olavarria of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council told the advocates.

Groups have been calling on the Biden administration to issue a new memo “re-terminating” Remain in Mexico, noting that the federal courts’ rulings found that the original June 1 memo insufficiently explained the reasons for termination. A new memo, advocates say, should make clear the administration’s view that MPP violated U.S. immigration law and international human rights commitments, and thus cannot be restarted.

The administration is in the process of preparing a new “re-termination” memo. Advocates have been critical of the lack of urgency with which they are producing the memo, but as an official told reporters in an October 14 call, their view is that “the memo can’t go into effect until the injunction in the federal cases is lifted,” which Judge Kacsmaryk, a Trump appointee, is unlikely to do. Advocates, too, are unclear about whether a new “re-termination” memo would be enough to halt the program without violating the judicial order.

On October 19, 73 legal service providers sent a letter to President Biden and other top officials reinforcing their refusal to participate in or enable Remain in Mexico.

“[T]here is no way to make this program safe, humane, or lawful,” it reads.

No measure of involvement from civil societies will mitigate the harms of this horrific, racist, and unlawful program. Nor is it just for this administration to continue to force U.S. lawyers and humanitarian staff to risk their safety due to the failure of this administration to take swift action to uphold U.S. refugee laws and treaties. We refuse to be complicit in a program that facilitates the rape, torture, death, and family separations of people seeking protection by committing to provide legal services.

Representing people returned under MPP or expelled to Mexico under the illegal Title 42 policy has also endangered attorneys and humanitarian groups, including staff of some of the undersigned organizations. In fact, during the two years it was operated under the Trump administration, U.S. based attorneys were threatened with kidnapping and violence in connection with their representation of people in MPP.

“We stand ready to offer legal services to asylum seekers, were your administration to follow U.S. and international law,” the letter concludes. “But there is no protection in the Migrant Protection Protocols.”

This position makes it unlikely that Biden administration negotiators will be able to satisfy the Mexican government’s concerns about access to counsel for migrants subjected to a renewed Remain in Mexico program. Meanwhile, though, construction crews continue to build the “tent courts” in Brownsville and Laredo.

Senate publicizes its 2022 Homeland Security appropriations bill

On October 18 the Senate Appropriations Committee revealed its draft text of nine bills necessary to fund the U.S. government in 2022, including the Department of Homeland Security appropriation. The Committee published the text, the explanatory statement, and a summary of its version of the 2022 Homeland Security Appropriations Act.

The House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee approved its version of the 2022 Homeland Security bill, along with an explanatory statement, on July 1. It has not yet passed the full House. Our July 9 update provided an overview of that version of the bill.

Some highlights of the Senate bill:

  • Rescinds $1,893,662,867 in prior years’ appropriations for border wall construction. The House bill would rescind $2.06 billion.
  • Devotes that rescinded border-wall money to:        
    • CBP salaries and retirement funds ($416 million);
    • New migrant processing facilities ($130 million);
    • New border security technologies ($144 million, compared to $132 million in the House bill), including body-worn cameras;
    • Detection and inspection equipment for ports of entry ($68 million);
    • A transfer to the Interior Department to mitigate the environmental harms done by border wall construction ($50 million, compared to $100 million in the House bill);
    • Training and childcare services for CBP personnel ($41 million);
    • IT modernization, especially for migrant processing ($40 million);
    • Child welfare professionals for CBP facilities ($15 million);
    • Efforts to identify cargo produced by forced labor ($10 million); and
    • “a range of other investments including life-saving search and rescue capabilities, medical support at CBP facilities, and modernizing land ports of entry.”
  • Provides $14.5 billion to fund CBP. That’s $80 million below the Biden administration’s request, and $501 million below the 2021 level. (The House bill would provide even less: $14.11 billion.)
  • Provides $7.88 billion for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), $58 million below the Biden administration’s request and $40 million below the 2021 level. (The House bill would provide slightly more: $7.97 billion.) This includes:        
    • $3.93 billion for ICE “enforcement, detention, and removal operations, including transportation of unaccompanied children,” about $194 million below 2021 levels. (The House bill provides $3.79 billion.)
    • $2.63 billion for ICE custody operations, $143 million below the Biden administration’s request and $202 million below the 2021 level. (The House bill provides $2.46 billion.) “The bill cuts funding for an average daily population of detention beds by 5,500,” reads the Senate appropriators’ summary of the bill.
    • $2.23 billion for ICE’s investigative arm, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), $59 million above the Biden administration’s request and $88 million above the 2021 level. (The House bill provides $2.26 billion.)
  • Repurposing unspent funds previously appropriated to ICE, directing them instead to the Biden administration’s Family Reunification Task Force “to help support the reunification of children who were traumatically separated from their parents and legal guardians at the southern border during the last Administration.”

The Senate bill will probably not go through the evenly divided (15 Democrats, 15 Republicans) Appropriations Committee, where measures like the border wall funding rescission could come under attack. House and Senate leaderships will probably reconcile differences and roll their versions of the bill into an “omnibus” appropriation, combining bills funding much of the federal government. This should happen before the next deadline for approving a 2022 budget (December 3, according to the most recent “continuing resolution” that is currently keeping the government funded at 2021 levels).

Links

  • A New York Times scoop finds that during the spring of 2020, Donald Trump’s White House advisor Stephen Miller sought to send 250,000 troops—more than half of the active-duty U.S. Army—to the border with Mexico. Trump even “pressed his top aides to send forces into Mexico itself to hunt drug cartels.” The proposal was relayed directly from the Department of Homeland Security to the U.S. Northern Command, bypassing the office of Defense Secretary Mark Esper who, “alarmed,” quashed it.
  • According to ABC News, CBP reported “over 470 deaths” of migrants on U.S. soil during fiscal 2021. This is a very large number: the agency’s records since 1998 show a high of 492 in 2005 followed by 471 in 2012, and its count is much lower than those of local organizations dealing with migrant deaths. A likely explanation for the increase in deaths is more migrants traveling in hazardous areas in an effort to evade Title 42 expulsion. The Guardian profiles Lenilda dos Santos, a nurse from Brazil’s impoverished north who perished of dehydration in the desert near Deming, New Mexico in September. It was her second attempt to reach the United States after being detained and deported in April.
  • At his confirmation hearing, the Biden administration’s nominee for CBP commissioner, Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus, voiced support for maintaining Title 42 and for some additional border barrier construction, citing “some gaps where that could make sense.” On questions of CBP’s troubled organizational culture, he said, “I have a long history of transparency and sharing things with the public, whatever the outcome may be, because I think this is how you sustain and build trust.” Magnus refused to go along with Republican senators’ efforts to get him to call the situation at the border a “crisis.” He is expected to be confirmed with few or no Republican senators’ votes.
  • The attorneys-general of Texas and Missouri, who already sued (so far successfully) to reinstate the Remain in Mexico program, have filed suit in federal court again, this time seeking a preliminary injunction to force the Biden administration to spend appropriated money to build Donald Trump’s planned border wall. This suit would presumably be rendered irrelevant if Congress rescinds past-year border wall funds, as discussed above.
  • NBC News and EFE reported that mostly Haitian and Central American migrants stranded in Mexico’s southern border-zone city of Tapachula, Chiapas are holding vigils and planning a “caravan” across Mexico, which would leave on Saturday the 23rd. Activists working with the migrants state that the caravan will head to Mexico City, seeking legal permission for migrants to move about within Mexican territory, rather than being confined to Tapachula. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) issued protection measures requesting state and federal authorities to respect the migrants’ rights during their journey. This news also provoked concerns over a possible surge in migrant arrivals at the U.S. border. No migrant caravan has succeeded in getting beyond Chiapas since late 2018, however, as Mexican security forces have stopped or dispersed them, at times brutally. There is little reason to believe that this caravan’s outcome would be much different. The caravan announcement is one of a series of actions by migrants seeking for COMAR, Mexico’s refugee agency, to speed the resolution of their asylum requests.
  • At TruthOut, Sandra Cuffe reports from El Ceibo, the tiny border town in Petén, Guatemala that has received more than 14,000 expelled Central American migrants and asylum seekers—many or most of them flown from the United States to southern Mexico—in the past two months.
  • In Corinto, Honduras, just over the border from Guatemala, Honduras’s Criterio and Contra Corriente relate tragic stories of migrants who made it all the way to the U.S. border only to be expelled to Mexico, then expelled by Mexico to Corinto. Often, as happened with 11 busloads of people on October 14, the expelled migrants arrive in Corinto during pre-dawn hours when no officials are there to receive them. Most did not realize, and weren’t told, that they were being sent back to the country they had fled. Mexico has returned 8,000 Hondurans to Corinto in the past month (some of whom were apprehended in Mexico, not the United States).
  • Mexico’s migration agency (INM)—whose monthly record of migrant apprehensions, set in June 2019, is 31,396, or about 1,000/day—reported “identifying” 1,957 undocumented migrants in a single day on October 15.
  • NPR reports on how social media and smartphones have changed the face of northbound migration. “In Facebook, they mostly use groups, finding information about the route, about if someone died or sharing U.S. news, like if Biden said something about the border, about if it’s open or if it’s closed or if they’re taking in families,” says reporter Luis Chaparro.
  • Panama’s foreign minister tells Spain’s El País that 105,000 people have passed through her country so far this year, most of them through the hazardous jungles of the Darién Gap, a region once thought to be impenetrable. By the end of the year, she adds, “we believe we’re going to exceed 150,000, which is a really troubling number.” That’s up from 20,000 in 2019 and 8,000 in 2020.
  • Colombia’s migration authority reports encountering 90,610 undocumented migrants passing through its territory so far this year, up from 3,922 in the pandemic border-closures year of 2020.
  • A data-heavy update from the International Organization for Migration finds that 10,831 people were expelled or repatriated back to Haiti between September 19 and October 19. The United States expelled 7,915, followed by Cuba (1,194), the Bahamas (1,031), Mexico (248) and Coast Guards’ maritime interdictions (406).

Weekly border update: October 15, 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.

Biden administration, complying with court order, will soon restart “Remain in Mexico”

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D), who represents Laredo, Texas, said October 13 that the Biden administration would roll out a revived “Remain in Mexico” program, as ordered by a Texas judge, “within the next month or so.” According to CQ/RollCall’s Suzanne Monyak, Cuellar said “That means that you’ll see the tents in the Laredo area be expanded.” By “tents,” the congressman was referring to temporary facilities by the port of entry where, during the Trump administration, asylum seekers forced to remain in Mexico attended their immigration hearings via videoconference.

The term “Remain in Mexico” refers to the so-called “Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP),” a program begun by the Trump administration in late 2018 and early 2019. It sought to deter and discourage would-be asylum seekers by forcing more than 71,000 of them to await their U.S. hearing dates on Mexican soil, where many were subjected to kidnapping, assault, and other crimes. Candidate Joe Biden criticized this program, and his administration quickly terminated it. On August 13, though, Amarillo, Texas District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk (a Trump appointee), responding to a suit brought by the Republican attorneys-general of Texas and Missouri, ordered the Biden administration to restart Remain in Mexico. The Supreme Court upheld this order while lower-court appeals continue.

At midnight on October 15, the Biden administration submitted its latest monthly filing, required by Judge Kacsmaryk, on the steps it has taken to restart the controversial program. The document reports that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been “recreating the administrative, personnel, physical, and policy framework necessary to operate MPP and are prepared to re-implement MPP in mid-November, subject to Mexico’s decision to accept those that the U.S. seeks to return.” It adds that “multiple discussions” have taken place with Mexican authorities, who would have to receive the asylum-seekers, about a re-start. Further, the filing notes that construction of Remain in Mexico hearing facilities has begun in Laredo and Brownsville, Texas, as Rep. Cuellar had partially indicated, at a cost of $14.1 million.

Mexico has not yet agreed to take back migrants subject to the Remain in Mexico program. It has not refused, either. A brief October 15 statement from Mexico’s Foreign Ministry expresses “concerns” about the program and about how the United States has implemented Title 42 pandemic-related migrant expulsions (discussed below), but notes that “Mexico will continue the dialogue.”

If the Biden administration finds itself implementing both Remain in Mexico and Title 42 at the same time, a possible result might be a two-tier system in which Mexico’s border towns receive two classes of non-Mexican migrants. The first class would be citizens of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, who might be expelled under the public health authority without even a chance to seek asylum. The second would be Spanish or Portuguese-speaking residents of the “other” countries, many of whom have been arriving in greater numbers lately, as discussed in a section below: Brazilians, Colombians, Cubans, Ecuadorians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans. Right now, Mexico does not accept citizens of these countries as Title 42 expulsions—but under a revived “Remain in Mexico” program, Mexico might receive them as people with pending asylum cases. Those from Mexico and the northern triangle would not have pending asylum cases due to Title 42.

U.S. asylum advocates have issued scathing responses, arguing that the Biden administration has had other options to keep from complying with the court order to re-start Remain in Mexico, such as more swiftly issuing a new memo to “re-terminate” the program with clearer wording about its decisionmaking process.

  • “Trump 2.0 policies at the border are a recipe for continued cruelty, disorder, and violations of refugee law,” Eleanor Acer of Human Rights First told The Hill. “The Biden administration must honor its promise to terminate this horrific program.”
  • “The Biden administration has had nearly two months to issue a new memo that addresses the district court’s concerns and formally terminate the MPP program for good,” said Jorge Loweree of the American Immigration Council. “The fact that it has not done so and is instead moving forward with plans to restart the program in November is a betrayal of the president’s campaign promises.”
  • “There is no humane way to implement a program that was intended by [Trump advisor] Stephen Miller as a way to torture asylum seekers as deterrence model after the national outcry to family separation,” tweeted advocate Alida García, who spent a short stint this year as a White House senior advisor for migration.

Official border crossings to reopen to vaccinated travelers, but “Title 42” persists

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced on October 12 that next month, after 19 months of pandemic-related closures, the United States’ land borders will once again open to documented foreign travelers coming for “non-essential” reasons—as long as they have proof of COVID-19 vaccination. Starting in early November, tourists or people visiting family members will once again be able to enter the United States from Mexico and Canada.

Those who enter will need to present paper or digital proof of having received a full dose of a vaccine approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization. Unlike those who arrive by air, those entering by land will not have to provide proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test.

The pandemic travel restrictions had reduced documented border crossings significantly. 92 million people or cargo vehicles crossed into the United States from Mexico during the first 6 months of 2021, a one-third reduction from 136 million in the first 6 months of 2019.

As it ends pandemic restrictions on documented border crossers, DHS is keeping in place the so-called “Title 42” policy of swiftly expelling undocumented border crossers, including people seeking asylum. A Biden administration official told CBS News that “the policy considerations are different because migrants are generally held in Border Patrol facilities where social distancing can’t be enforced.”

Between February and August 2021, the Biden administration’s DHS expelled undocumented migrants 704,019 times at the U.S.-Mexico border. 92,676 of them were traveling as families (parents and children). Mexicans and many citizens of Central America’s “northern triangle” countries were pushed back across the border into Mexico. Others, like nearly 8,000 Haitians since September 19, have been flown back to their countries, often in shackles or occasionally worse.

New data obtained by CBS News show that while DHS has carried out more than 1,163,582 expulsions since the Trump administration imposed Title 42 in March 2020, the agency has permitted only 3,217 asylum seekers to petition for protection in the United States, using the higher evidentiary standards of the UN Convention Against Torture. Of these, only 8 percent (272) passed their interviews.

“It’s a heartbreaking thing to see” the expulsions of “individuals who are seeking a better life,” Mayorkas told a conference in Qatar this week. But he insisted that “the Title 42 authority is a public health authority. And it is not an immigration policy. It is not an immigration policy that we in this administration would embrace. But we view it as a public health imperative as the Centers for Disease Control has so ordered.”

Public health experts dispute that. “It’s clearly something that is politically expedient and I think that’s dangerous,” Michele Heisler, the medical director at Physicians for Human Rights, told the American Prospect. Added Paul Spiegel of the Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health, “This is not a public-health issue, it’s a lack of immigration policy and I think we know that, and we can’t let them keep on.”

Harold Hongju Koh, a senior adviser on the State Department’s legal team, shared this assessment. A former dean of Yale University’s Law School and former assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Koh resigned his post on October 4, two days after issuing a memo calling the Title 42 policy “illegal and inhumane,” concluding, “It simply is not worthy of this Administration that I so strongly support.”

Yale Law School’s Lowenstein Project, together with 13 non-governmental organizations, submitted an emergency petition to the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) seeking precautionary protection measures for 31 asylum seekers subject to Title 42. “These expulsions,” it reads, “mark persons returned to Mexico as migrants trapped in Mexico, rendering them particularly vulnerable to this rampant violence, including kidnapping, sexual assault, extortion, and other forms of abuse at the hands of organized criminal groups and corrupt authorities.” Lee Gelernt, the ACLU attorney leading one of the main legal challenges to Title 42 in U.S. federal court, noted in the American Prospect that “evidence the organization submitted in trial court indicated that 20 percent to 40 percent of families [expelled under Title 42] are kidnapped by cartels.”

Aftermath of the Biden administration’s mass expulsion of Haitians

As covered at length in our September 27 update, for several days in mid-September a remote sector of the U.S.-Mexico border in Del Rio, Texas saw the sudden arrival of nearly 15,000 mostly Haitian migrants, nearly all of them seeking to turn themselves in to U.S. authorities and request asylum. The Biden administration dealt with the influx by applying Title 42, expelling most of those who did not return to Mexico.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) paid GEO Group, a controversial private prison and immigrant detention center operator, over $15 million to operate a swift tempo of flights expelling migrants back to Port-au-Prince and Cap Haïtien, Haiti. Most of those expelled via air had not lived in Haiti in a long time: they had fled to South America in the years after a devastating 2010 earthquake, living and working in Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere until the pandemic caused employment to dry up. They then braved the dangers of the multi-country journey northward—including Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap jungles—only to be shackled, placed on aircraft, and returned without any chance to ask for protection in the United States.

The expulsion flights began on September 19. Since then—according to Tom Cartwright, who monitors flights for Witness at the Border—there have been 74 flights expelling about 7,900 people to Haiti. The pace appears to be slowing as the number of Haitians in custody has no doubt declined. By comparison, Cartwright points out, the United States repatriated just 5,659 Haitians over the 40 months between January 2018 and April 2021. Counting people sent to Haiti from Mexico, Cuba, the Bahamas, and intercepted at sea, the International Organization for Migration counts 10,218 expulsions and returns since September 19.

It remains unclear how such a large number of Haitians made it all the way across Mexico virtually undetected in mid-September, just weeks after Mexican security and immigration forces harshly blocked four mass attempts to leave the southern state of Chiapas. Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News looked into it and found “a well-organized effort by human smuggling organizations facilitated through social media, and by Mexican authorities who either looked the other way or were simply overwhelmed.” Ruben Figueroa of the Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano told Corchado of Haitians suddenly being allowed to board vehicles in the southern border-zone city of Tapachula, Chiapas, where Mexican forces had earlier been confining them. “This just doesn’t happen without the complicity of government authorities,” Figueroa said.

Tens of thousands of migrants from Haiti and other countries remain in Tapachula. There since late September, Mexico’s overwhelmed refugee agency (COMAR) has been attempting to process roughly 2,000 asylum seekers per day at the city’s soccer stadium.

Further south, the number of mostly Haitian refugees waiting in Colombia’s Caribbean coast town of Necoclí to board ferries to Panama’s dangerous Darién Gap region has risen to 22,000, up from the 17,000 to 19,000 noted in our October 4 update. Colombian migration authorities report at least 82,000 arrivals in Necoclí since January. Panama’s National Migration Service counted 88,514 emerging through the Darién as of late September, according to Reuters. Of those, 19,000 were minors, perhaps half of them under the age of 5, according to UNICEF.

Journalists continue to document the extreme dangers of the 60-mile pedestrian journey through the Darién, which was once regarded as nearly impenetrable. NPR’s John Otis accompanied a lone Cuban migrant for the start of the trip, before he crossed into Panama, in an audio report posted October 11.

In Colombia, where Secretary of State Antony Blinken is to visit next week for a “high level dialogue,” President Iván Duque said he plans to ask the Biden administration to send messages to Haitian migrants that would “minimize expectations” of being granted protection in the United States.

More scrutiny of migrants from beyond Mexico and the Northern Triangle

In August 2021, 29 percent of migrants U.S. authorities encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border were from countries other than Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. That, to the best of our knowledge, is the first time this has happened before.

The Haitians discussed above are part of this population, but so are migrants from South America who have been flying into Mexico—which since 2018 has not required visas for several South American countries—then traveling to the U.S. border, crossing, and requesting asylum. During the first 11 months of fiscal 2021 (October-August), CBP reports encountering 46,410 migrants from Brazil, 88,786 from Ecuador, and 37,859 from Venezuela. In most cases, U.S. authorities do not expel citizens of these countries under Title 42: Mexico has not agreed to take them, and long flights would be expensive. A Wall Street Journal article portrayed these new arrivals as “middle-class migrants.” Reporter Alicia Caldwell spoke to a dozen Venezuelans who arrived together near Yuma, who said that their entire journey took about two days.

Reuters reported on Brazilian authorities’ June arrest of a businessman accused of charging would-be migrants nearly $20,000 each to be smuggled into the United States via Mexico. “To pull it off, [Chelbe] Moraes has constructed an international network that includes corrupt cops and officials as well as U.S-based family members,” allegedly coaching clients to pose as tourists in Mexico,” the report reads.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) raised eyebrows by telling Fox News that, on a recent trip to Yuma, he had seen Brazilian migrants “headed for Connecticut wearing designer clothes and Gucci bags.” Attempting to clarify his comments to the Washington Post, Graham said, “Usually when you go to the border, you see people who are dressed really haggardly and who look like they’ve been through hell. This time at Yuma, there were dozens that looked like they were checking into a hotel — and smartly dressed.”

At the United States’s behest, Mexico is now tightening visa requirements for citizens of Brazil and Ecuador. Guatemala, too, has begun requiring visas of Ecuadorians.

Links

  • At ProPublica, Dara Lind reports on a new DHS Inspector-General report about a CBP intelligence unit that targeted U.S. citizen activists and journalists it suspected of association with migrant “caravans” in 2018 and 2019. “[A]t least 51 U.S. citizens were flagged for interrogation—often based on evidence as flimsy as once having ridden in a car across the border with someone suspected of aiding the caravan.” As its name indicates, CBP’s “Tactical Terrorism Response Team” was created to respond to terrorist threats, not migration events.
  • The Senate Finance Committee will meet October 19 for the nomination hearing of Tucson, Arizona police chief Chris Magnus, the Biden administration’s choice to be CBP commissioner. Magnus’s nomination has been delayed by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), who was demanding that CBP first provide more information about role the agency played in combating protesters in Portland in 2020, during the Trump administration.
  • Mexico captured 652 migrants at a military checkpoint in southern Tamaulipas state on October 7. 101 of them were unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, whom Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM, the government’s immigration authority) expelled days later.
  • Border Report cites rumors of a “mother of all caravans” being organized by unnamed “activists” for October 23 in Chiapas, southern Mexico. We have seen no other source corroborating this rumor, and colleagues in southern Mexico say they haven’t heard anything.
  • “There is a growing gulf between the progressive immigration values President Joe Biden professes and the enforcement policies he’s implementing at the border,” reads an analysis by Vox immigration reporter Nicole Narea, “and it’s led to confusion among immigration officials, uncertainty for migrants, and questions about whether the president has a coherent strategy on immigration at all.”
  • “To be a Haitian asylum-seeker knocking at the door of the U.S. is to stand at perhaps the most visible convergence of race and empire imaginable in this hemisphere,” writes Miriam Pensack at The New Republic.
  • A retired rear admiral is replacing a retired army general as the head of Mexico’s INM in the northern border state of Chihuahua.

Weekly Border Update: October 1, 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. Due to staff travel, there will be no update next week; we will return on October 15.

Haitian migrants: Biden administration carries out an aerial expulsion campaign of historic proportions

By September 24, U.S. authorities had cleared the large encampment of mostly Haitian migrants near the Rio Grande in Del Rio, south-central Texas. Between September 9 and then, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) told Border Report, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Border Patrol had encountered 30,000 migrants in CBP’s once-quiet Del Rio Sector, most of them from Haiti.

According to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, 8,000 of these 30,000 crossed back into Mexico. About 13,000 were processed into the United States: about 3,000 sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers, and about 10,000—presumably mostly families with children—released into the U.S. interior to pursue asylum claims in the U.S. immigration system. As of the middle of this week, about 4,000 were still in DHS custody being processed, at which point officials would determine whether migrants get released, detained, or expelled, under the “Title 42” pandemic authority, back to Haiti without a chance to seek asylum.

It is not clear how DHS is determining which migrants get released, detained, or expelled. “Officials have said families with vulnerabilities could be exempted from Title 42 (pregnancy, medical issues),” tweeted Camilo Montoya-Galvez of CBS News. Another factor in favor of release, the New York Times indicated, is the ability to “produce evidence of a friend or relative who could help provide a foothold.”

The Biden administration’s effort to expel as many Haitians as possible has been massive. By the end of September 30, the U.S. government had expelled 6,131 Haitians on 57 flights to Port-au-Prince or the northern city of Cap-Haïtien, Haiti over 12 days. Seven flights landed on September 30 alone, discharging 773 expelled Haitians. Of the first 50 flights, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported, 32 had gone to the capital and 18 to Cap-Haïtien. About 44 percent of those expelled were women and children.

In the 12 months before September, ICE ran 57 removal flights to Haiti, according to the count kept by Witness at the Border. We have now seen 57 flights in 12 days.

More than 210 of the children expelled with their Haitian parents were born in Chile, Brazil, Venezuela, or Panama. Nearly all of the Haitians who arrived in Del Rio had not lived in Haiti in a long time: they had migrated to South America in the years after a 2010 earthquake devastated their home country. Many found Brazil and Chile, in particular, to be inhospitable, with legal status difficult to obtain or maintain. (Anti-migrant sentiment, in this case against Venezuelans, erupted in Chile’s northern city of Iquique on September 25. A march against migrants grew violent as protesters built a bonfire of homeless Venezuelans’ belongings.)

The journey from South America leads up through Panama’s Darién Gap jungles, Central America, and Mexico. Analysts and local officials voiced surprise that such a large number of migrants could cross Mexico, and arrive in the small city of Ciudad Acuña across from Del Rio, in such a short time. What we know is that the migrants crossed Mexico in small groups, often taking public transportation and paying a premium in artificially high fares, and in bribes at Mexican authorities’ road checkpoints. Writing for Politico, Jack Herrera reports that a rumor spread among Haitians that U.S. authorities were allowing crossings in Calexico, California, and Del Rio, and that September 16—Mexico’s bicentennial independence day, when authorities might be distracted—would be a good time to travel.

Giuseppe Loprete, the head of the IOM mission in Haiti, noted Haitians’ extreme anguish upon return to a country that most had fled years earlier. “They’re very distressed,” he told CBS. “They start crying the moment they arrive. I’ve seen young, strong guys—some freak out. Women cry. Kids cry because they see the women crying.” IOM is distributing meals, toiletries and a roughly $100 per person stipend to returned Haitians, and is testing them for COVID-19, which the U.S. government does not do. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) “said it is providing $5.5 million to IOM so it can serve deported Haitians,” according to CBS.

Ultimately, though, Haitians arriving in Port-au-Prince are being ushered out of the airport into what the Associated Press calls “an archipelago of gang-controlled islands in a sea of despair.” A strong statement from IOM and three UN agencies paints a very grim picture of an already-struggling country, the hemisphere’s poorest, that since July has seen its president assassinated, a devastating earthquake, and a tropical storm:

Haiti continues to face an escalation in violence and insecurity, with at least 19,000 people internally displaced in the capital Port-au-Prince in the summer of 2021 alone. Well over 20 per cent of girls and boys have been victims of sexual violence. In addition, nearly 24 per cent of the population, including 12.9 percent who are children, live below the extreme poverty line of US$1.23 per day. Some 4.4 million people, or nearly 46 per cent of the population, face acute food insecurity.

IOM, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) called “on states to refrain from expelling Haitians without proper assessment of their individual protection needs,” recalling that “International law prohibits collective expulsions and requires that each case be examined individually to identify protection needs under international human rights and refugee law.” That is the opposite of how Title 42, which affords no opportunity to ask for asylum, is operating.

Reuters reports that IOM asked Brazil to receive some Haitians who have Brazilian-citizen children, or who passed through Brazil on their way north through South America. Two sources “said the first request was more likely to be approved.” A DHS statement notes that the agency is engaging with Brazil and Chile “to ensure they too are doing their part to offer protection for vulnerable populations and receive individuals who had legal status there.”

That statement adds that DHS Secretary Mayorkas met on September 28 with Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond. Mayorkas thanked Haiti’s government “for supporting the safe return and re-integration of Haitian nationals.” He added that investigations of mistreatment of Haitian migrants “is ongoing”; Edmond had raised the shocking and widely shared photos and videos of mounted Border Patrol agents running down migrants on the banks of the Rio Grande in Del Rio.

No State Department official of similar rank was present at the Haitian ambassadorial meeting, but the newly confirmed Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Brian Nichols, traveled to Port-au-Prince September 30 with the National Security Council’s director for the hemisphere, Juan González. The visit appeared mostly focused on Haiti’s political impasse; the Miami Herald reported that “the duo said they had no agenda other than to listen to Haitians.”

Haitians in Mexico

Mexico’s government carried out its first removal flight to Haiti in some time, flying 70 Haitian migrants, including 13 minors, to Port-au-Prince on September 29. Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) called this an “assisted voluntary return” of Haitians who desired to go back to their country, or who at least had not voiced a desire to seek asylum in Mexico. It referred to those aboard as “the first group,” but it is not clear how frequently the INM plans to run these flights. Mexico reported deporting 223 Haitians in the first 8 months of 2021, 138 of them in August.

This flight occurred after a September 23-24 visit of Haitian authorities to Mexico’s southern border zone, where they toured INM installations and agreed to re-activate aerial removals. Those aboard the September 29 flight had been living in the southern border state of Tabasco, or in central Mexico. They had not been to the U.S. border, and had not been living in the southern border-zone city of Tapachula, where most Haitians in Mexico are currently stranded as they await decisions from the country’s backlogged asylum system.

Mexico’s foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, told a committee of the country’s senate that his government plans to provide refuge to about 13,255 Haitian citizens. “What will Mexico’s position be? That those who want refugee status will be granted it. Mexico is one of the countries that least rejects refugee status,” Ebrard said. The chief diplomat condemned excessive use of force by INM agents and National Guard personnel in the southern state of Chiapas in early September.

As noted in our September 3 and 10 updates, photo and video evidence showed Mexican personnel kicking, beating, and aggressively chasing Haitian migrants who had sought to walk northward from Tapachula, a city of 350,000 that offers them few income opportunities while they await asylum decisions from COMAR, Mexico’s refugee agency. The OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights added its condemnation, and urged Mexico to hold responsible personnel accountable, in a September 27 statement.

COMAR is taking steps to speed asylum processing in Tapachula, where 55,000 people had requested asylum between January and August. For the next four weeks, COMAR is managing a reception center outside Tapachula’s soccer stadium, where it plans to process 2,000 people per day, using about 200 staff, many seconded over from other agencies.

In August, Chiapas Paralelo estimated that as many as 30,000 Haitians were stranded near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, especially in the city of Tapachula. After so many fled to Del Rio, it’s not clear how many remain in Tapachula awaiting COMAR’s response; the agency is requiring all to check in at the stadium in order to remove inactive cases from its giant backlog.

On October 1 Andrés Ramírez, COMAR’s coordinator, tweeted that 90,314 people had requested asylum in Mexico between January and September, shattering the country’s previous full-year record of 70,423 set in 2019. At this pace, Ramírez pointed out, Mexico will receive 120,000 asylum requests by the end of 2021. More than one-third of Mexico’s asylum seekers so far this year are Honduran (31,884), followed by Haiti (26,007), Cuba (7,683), El Salvador (5,170), and Venezuela (4,670). COMAR also shows 3,591 Chileans and 1,691 Brazilians: many of these are probably children born in those countries to Haitian parents.

Haitians who remain in and around Ciudad Acuña, across from Del Rio, are under strong pressure from Mexican authorities to relocate or return to Tapachula, to await COMAR’s decisions on their status. INM has arranged transport for many to return to the southern city. Reuters notes that a growing number of Haitians are arriving elsewhere at Mexico’s northern border: in Tijuana, where a few thousand of their fellow citizens settled after a 2016 migration event. This population is generally doing well economically, but “most are wary of going public about their achievements lest it cause them problems with migration authorities or attract the attention of organized crime.”

Elsewhere in northern Mexico, in Tampico, Tamaulipas, some Haitian migrants protested outside the local INM office demanding that they be granted some legal status, without which the city’s hotels are prohibited from even renting them rooms.

The Darién Gap

Further south along the migration route, perhaps 17,000 to 19,000 people, mostly Haitians, remain crowded into the small Caribbean coast city of Necoclí, Colombia. For migrants who wish to pass through Panama and northward, Necoclí is where the road ends. Migrants must take a ferry across northwestern Colombia’s Gulf of Urabá, then cross into eastern Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap jungles.

Our September 10 update noted that 11,400 migrants were in Necoclí, with the town’s mayor predicting that “by the end of September we’re going to have more than 25,000 migrants.” That prediction wasn’t far off.

An agreement between Colombia and Panama is allowing ferries to take 500 people per day to Panama—but estimates of the number of people newly arriving in Necoclí range from 1,000 to 1,200 to 1,500, so the population in Necoclí keeps growing as the wait time for a ferry passage stretches through the end of October. That means a month camped on the town’s beach or paying $10 a night for a shared room, as townspeople charge migrants high prices for food, water, restroom access, and supplies for the journey through Panama. Some migrants are paying smugglers to take them across the Gulf clandestinely.

A handful of Haitians—perhaps 250, according to Colombia’s human rights ombudsman’s office—have decided to abandon their journey after seeing the Biden administration’s big expulsion flight push.

“So far this year,” Reuters reports, “88,514 migrants have entered Panama through the Darien jungle, according to figures from the National Migration Service, and Panama went from receiving an average of 800 migrants in January to 30,000 in August.” About 70 percent of them have been Haitian.

The idea of this many people passing through the Darién Gap is unheard of. This Connecticut-sized jungle zone, where the Pan-American highway ends and government presence is nearly zero, is notorious for the dangers it poses—both natural and criminal—to those who attempt the 60-mile, several-day walk. For a harrowing account of this region’s dangers, see “When Can We Really Rest,” an April 2020 report in California Sunday that won Canadian journalist Nadja Drost the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for feature-writing.

The Darién provincial prosecutor’s office has recorded the bodies of 41 migrants found along the region’s rivers so far this year. The Wall Street Journal, citing Doctors Without Borders and other sources, documented an epidemic of rapes of migrant women at the hands of criminals who operate freely in the zone. Still, as nearly a third of migrants U.S. authorities now encounter at the U.S.-Mexico border are coming from places other than Mexico or Central America’s northern triangle, we can expect even greater numbers of migrants from Haiti and elsewhere to attempt the journey through the Darién.

“Remain in Mexico” and Title 42 in the courts

On September 29 DHS announced its intention to issue a new memo terminating the Migrant Protection Protocols, or “Remain in Mexico” (RMX) program. RMX was a Trump administration initiative that forced over 71,000 non-Mexican asylum-seeking migrants to await their immigration hearings while living in Mexican border towns for months or years. The Biden administration terminated RMX on inauguration day, and formally terminated it in a June 1 memo. However, a lawsuit from the Republican attorneys-general of Texas and Missouri convinced a Texas district judge to force the Biden administration to restart the program, and the Supreme Court left that order in place pending appeals. (See our August 27 update for the full story.)

The ruling left the Biden administration compelled to implement a policy it bitterly opposes. Opponents of RMX, who cite at least 1,500 attacks and kidnappings suffered by migrants forced to remain in Mexican border cities, have contended that the administration might satisfy the courts’ conditions by issuing a new memo terminating the program, one that does more to explain its legal reasoning. That is the step that DHS announced this week.

The “re-termination” memo won’t necessarily stop the reimplementation of RMX for the time being, however. “A new memorandum terminating MPP will not take effect until the current injunction is lifted by court order,” the September 29 DHS statement explains. In the meantime, the Department must continue to show the Texas court that it is working “in good faith” to restart the program. That means ongoing diplomatic talks with Mexico about accepting other countries’ asylum seekers again, and building up staffing and “tent court” infrastructure near border crossings to handle cases.

Speculation continues that these “good faith” efforts could lead to some sort of “Remain in Mexico lite” that forces a smaller number of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico, but with “better living conditions and access to attorneys,” as Politico put it.

Even with RMX on hold, the “Title 42” pandemic expulsions policy continues to send large numbers of would-be asylum seekers either to their home countries (like expelled Mexicans, or the massive Haiti flights) or to Mexico in the case of citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. As noted in our September 17 update, on the 16th, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled that Title 42 could not be used to expel asylum-seeking families.

This victory for migrant rights groups has been followed by disappointment. Judge Sullivan delayed his ruling’s implementation for two weeks, to give the Biden administration—which used Title 42 to expel more than 92,676 family unit members between January and August—a chance to respond. On September 30, just as Sullivan’s ruling was to go into effect, a panel of three Washington, DC Circuit Court judges (appointees of Clinton, Obama, and Trump) stayed its implementation pending the outcome of the Biden administration’s appeal. As oral arguments on the appeal are scheduled for January, the Biden administration is free to expel asylum-seeking families well into 2022.

The Trump administration developed the Title 42 expulsions policy at the pandemic’s outset in March 2020, and the Biden administration has maintained it, although it no longer applies it to unaccompanied children. The policy has been roundly condemned by human rights and migrant rights groups, medical experts, and the UNHCR. Human Rights First has tracked “at least 6,356 kidnappings, sexual assaults, and other violent attacks against people blocked at ports of entry or expelled to Mexico by DHS since President Biden took office.” The ACLU led the litigation to stop its application to families, leading to Judge Sullivan’s September 16 ruling.

Officials like DHS Secretary Mayorkas insist that Title 42—which allows quick expulsions and thus less contact with possibly infected migrants—remains necessary due to COVID-19’s continued prevalence. “The pandemic is not behind us. Title 42 is a public health policy, not an immigration policy,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press on September 26. Mayorkas told a September 27 Migration Policy Institute conference that the migrant population has had “a rate of illness of approximately 20 percent.”

Mayorkas has publicly insisted that Title 42 is a public health measure and not an “immigration policy.” CBS News notes, though, that “in a court filing Monday [September 27] defending the continued enforcement of Title 42, Justice Department lawyers called the expulsion policy ‘a significant deterrent to the entry of family units.’” On a call this week with senior DHS officials, NBC News reports, Mayorkas also speculated that a termination of Title 42 for families could lead to “a worst-case scenario in which 350,000 to 400,000 migrants cross the border in October,” roughly double the high migration totals of July and August.

In a filing, several children’s and migrants’ rights groups urged the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to lift the court order forcing the Biden administration to reinstate RMX, citing the number of children that the program had subjected to “gang violence, attempted kidnappings and unsanitary conditions.” A September 28 Noticias Telemundo report published horrific accounts of torture, rape, and kidnapping suffered by more than 30 migrants expelled into Mexico between 2019 and 2021. Expulsions have also led to the death of asylum seekers who see no choice but to re-enter the United States. “Maria Eugenia Chavez, a Mexican national who twice crossed the border and asked the Border Patrol to file an asylum claim only to be returned to Mexico under Title 42, drowned off the coast of San Diego when the boat she was on fell apart on her third attempt to cross the border,” reads a September 28 tweet from the Immigrant Defenders Law Center.

The ACLU vows to continue pushing the Title 42 case. “I think litigation is as important in holding the feet to the fire of our quote ‘allies’ [in the Biden administration] as it is about fighting the foes of civil liberties and civil rights, because that is what creates the political will,” Executive Director Anthony Romero told the Associated Press. “The policies that they [Biden administration officials] are actively pursuing are very different than the ones they promised,” added Todd Schulte of FWD.us. “The policies they are actively pursuing are failing. Yet the continued direction is in the wrong direction.”

Texas’s crackdown overwhelms its courts

In Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has loudly criticized the Biden administration’s border and migration policy from the right, the state government continues its own crackdown on migration. Abbott will double the Texas National Guard presence along the border, using state funds, to about 2,500 guardsmen by the end of October. Even after the Del Rio migrant camp was cleared, the Texas National Guard left 70 Humvees “prepositioned in the area in case a similar situation arises,” Stars and Stripes reported.

The guardsmen are in addition to a federal force of 3,500 National Guardsmen deployed along the entire border since 2018 to support CBP. The Texas Military Department posted a request for volunteers on social media, offering guardsmen who join the effort lodging and a $55 daily per diem. The Texas force will be building border barriers—a 10-foot chain link fence—mainly on private land with border landowners’ permission. About three miles of fence have been built so far. This is all part of a $2 billion program of enhanced border security measures that Abbott, who is up for re-election in 2022, calls “Operation Lone Star.”

As part of that operation, National Guard troops—who are rarely given arrest authority on U.S. soil—arrested more than 2,000 undocumented border crossers, and reported seeing another 200 turn back into Mexico, in just the past week, a Texas official said on September 30. While Texas cannot charge its detainees with violating federal immigration law, it has jailed at least 1,000 single men since June for state crimes, nearly always trespassing. Detained migrants are being held in two prisons in central and south Texas (Dilley and Edinburg). As of September 27, the state prisons were holding more than 900.

This has not been an orderly process. On September 28 the state was forced to release 243 jailed migrants because they had not been formally charged with any crime within the 15-day deadline state law requires. The delay usually owes to the Texas state police force’s (Department of Public Safety) inability to produce arrest reports without long delays.

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid came to an agreement with counties’ prosecutors to release the migrants, 168 of whom had been held without charges for more than 30 days. Most don’t speak English and have “spent weeks or months with little to no legal help, few opportunities to talk to their families and often fewer chances to find out what is happening to them or how long they will be imprisoned,” the Texas Tribune reported.

Once Texas releases migrants—whether because they were uncharged, or because they have finished serving their jail time—they don’t necessarily end up in ICE custody; some may be released into the U.S. interior. “It is not clear how many people Immigration and Customs Enforcement might choose to take into custody, and the agency did not immediately clarify,” the Washington Post reported.

On another legal front, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody filed a lawsuit September 28 seeking for the Biden administration to stop the practice of releasing migrants with pending cases, including asylum seekers, into the U.S. interior. This suit would seem to contradict laws giving DHS discretion about whom to detain, and legal precedents (like the 1997 Flores settlement agreement) limiting child and family detention. But the U.S. legal system has issued some surprising rulings on immigration lately, so it’s impossible to say with certainty that this legal challenge won’t move forward.

Links

  • For the second time, the Senate’s Parliamentarian has dealt a blow to Democrats’ efforts to use budget legislation to allow about 8 million undocumented immigrants in the United States to apply for legal status. This proposal, Elizabeth MacDonough ruled, was not sufficiently budget-related. As a result, under Senate rules, the immigration legislation would need 60 votes to stop debate and move to a vote—that is, to block a Republican “filibuster.” Democrats hold 50 seats in the 100-seat Senate. Senate Democratic leaders are weighing next steps.
  • Citing Freedom of Information Act documents that he had to fight to obtain, Bob Moore of El Paso Matters found that CBP often turned away asylum seekers at the El Paso port of entry in 2018, claiming they were “at capacity” even when the port had plenty of available space to hold them. “We knew, we knew, we knew (that the capacity explanation was untrue), and there was nothing that we could do about it,” said Ruben Garcia of El Paso’s Annunciation House shelter.
  • “Migrant deaths from border wall falls have increased from four in 2020 to 12 this year as replacement border wall barriers increased in size under former President Donald Trump, according to the Southern Border Communities Coalition statistics,” writes Pedro Rios of the American Friends Services Committee. “There have also been hundreds of injuries, according to the Mexican Consulate. In a meeting between local San Diego advocates and then-Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott in June 2018, which I attended, Scott shared that the Border Patrol purposely chose the height of new replacement border wall after it conducted psychological tests to establish at what height an average person becomes so disoriented that he or she would stop climbing a wall—30 feet.”
  • A letter to Justice Department leadership and the DHS Inspector-General from Alliance San Diego alleges that former Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott, who left his post in August, is violating the Ethics in Government Act. Scott established a consulting firm in July, while still working for Border Patrol, and issued a Facebook request for CBP and ICE personnel to provide information, possibly including restricted information, “to counter the lies and misinformation that the DHS Secretary and Biden officials spew.”
  • “Today, while asking me about who I was visiting on my trip, a Border Patrol agent said I was being ‘coy’ with my answers and suggested that it would be possible that I am friends with—I kid you not—Osama Bin Laden,” tweeted Abdallah Fayyad, a member of the Boston Globe’s editorial board.
  • “For the past decade,” writes Border Patrol critic Garrett Graff at the Washington Post, the agency’s “heavily armed and kitted-out agents have primarily faced a much different challenge that it’s proved itself repeatedly poorly equipped to handle,” that of processing protection-seeking migrants.
  • Mexico’s chief prosecutor, Alejandro Gertz Manero, met with U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland in Washington. “The two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to work closely on criminal investigations and prosecutions of cross-border crime,” reads a Justice Department statement, “including with regard to narcotics and firearms trafficking, human smuggling and trafficking, and illicit finance and money laundering.”
  • Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) has lifted his hold on the nomination of Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus to be the next commissioner of CBP. The nomination will begin advancing through the Senate Finance Committee (“Finance” because of CBP’s “Customs” role). Wyden had been demanding that CBP first provide information about the Trump administration’s violent deployment of border personnel to Portland, Oregon to confront protesters in 2020.
  • “Relentless in its border crisis coverage, Fox News has influenced how other cable networks, such as CNN and MSNBC, talk about the border,” Sergio Muñoz of Media Matters for America said in an excellent narrative analysis by Melissa del Bosque at the Border Chronicle. “Major news outlets characterize the border as in crisis, playing into the right-wing narrative that it is a dangerous place and under constant assault, and that Trump’s policies, which effectively ended asylum, should remain in place.”
  • A new Biden Administration initiative is providing government-funded attorneys to unaccompanied children facing deportation proceedings in eight U.S. cities.
  • Once released from Office of Refugee Resettlement custody to family members or sponsors in the United States, many unaccompanied children face years in “a purgatory of insecurity and, on occasion, exploitation” as they wait years for their cases to be decided, writes immigration scholar Diana Gordon at the New York Review of Books.
  • Expelled migrants, among them would-be asylum seekers, held a protest south of the borderline in Nogales, Mexico, on September 25. When a few participants in the protest tried to approach the U.S. port of entry to petition for asylum, CBP shut the automatic gates, sealing off the port.
  • Two Mexican military vehicles carrying 14 soldiers crossed an international bridge into El Paso after midnight on September 25. CBP detained the soldiers, processed them, and sent them back to Mexico within hours. One was found to be possessing a small amount of marijuana. “The CBP (agents) yelled at the soldiers to put their hands up and drop their weapons immediately,” a witness told Reuters.
  • “Just 35% of Americans approve of [Joe] Biden’s handling of immigration, down from 43% in April, when it was already one of Biden’s worst issues,” according to a new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.
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