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

Politics and the English language and migration

I pointed this out on Twitter last week, but repeat it here.

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” George Orwell wrote in 1946. “Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

In that amazing essay, “Politics and the English Language” (stop what you’re doing and read it if you never have), Orwell cites examples like “pacification,” “transfer of population,” or “a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition.” Doesn’t that sound nicer than “bombing villages,” “forced displacement,” or “throwing the opposition in jail?”

The essay comes to mind constantly when working on the U.S. border and migration, where:

  • The “Remain in Mexico” program that has forced 60,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers into dangerous Mexican border towns is called Migrant “Protection” Protocols.
  • Rushing Mexicans’ asylum cases with no access to council is called the “Humanitarian” Asylum Review Process.
  • Honduras and Guatemala are called “Safe” Third Countries.
  • Mexico’s migration authorities insist on calling migrant apprehensions “rescues” (rescates). They don’t detain migrants, they “lodge” them (alojar). And deportation is “assisted return” (retorno asistido).

Here we are in 2020, having to repeat lessons about the authoritarian mindset that we should have learned 74 years ago.

WOLA Podcast: A Week on the Border

While in El Paso last week, I recorded a podcast with WOLA’s new director for digital strategy, Lizette Alvarez. (The first time I’ve been the interviewee instead of the interviewer!)

Here, at 6:30am in my hotel room, I talk about what we’d been seeing and hearing in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. You can almost hear the coffee start kicking in as the interview proceeds.

Here’s the descriptive text from WOLA’s podcast page:

The U.S. policy of “Remain in Mexico”, building the border wall, and the overall criminalization of Central American migrants and asylum seekers has produced a number human rights, economic, security, and administrative consequences on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. During the week of January 20th, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) staff and partners visited El Paso and Ciudad Juarez in order to observe and document the state of migration and migrant rights at the border.

This interview was conducted with Adam Isacson, WOLA Director for Defense Oversight, in the early morning hours after a number of visits with U.S. Border Patrol, migrant shelters, and civil society partners who work on behalf of migrant rights.

To learn more about the latest developments on the border and migrant rights, follow us on Twitter and subscribe to our email newsletter.

A few photos from El Paso and Juárez

From Tuesday and Wednesday.

Outside the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso.
Mount Cristo Rey, west of El Paso in the New Mexico desert, viewed at night.

The Rio Grande, seen from the Paso del Norte border bridge.
These tents on the Ciudad Juárez side of the border denote the area where asylum-seeking migrants get returned when subjected to the “Remain in Mexico” program, which requires them to await their hearing dates on Mexican soil. Kidnappers who prey on migrants often operate just outside this tent area, making them very vulnerable here.
Caribe Queen, a Cuban restaurant in downtown Ciudad Juárez, founded within the past year by Cuban asylum seekers forced to “Remain in Mexico” pending their hearing dates in the United States.
Mexican National Guardsmen in a playground along the Rio Grande (the area of green brush behind them). The border fence is in the background, set far back from the actual borderline—the elevated highway is actually in the United States, between the fence and the river.
A Mexican National Guardsman reads his phone near the border fence.
Graffiti on the fence in Anapra, west of Juárez.
Central American children forced to “remain in Mexico” play at the Pan de Vida shelter in western Juárez.
Only five of twelve lanes open at the Paso del Norte port of entry, where the wait to get back into the United States was about 45 minutes.

Trump to Seize More Border Wall Money Through Brute Force

We learned in Monday evening’s Washington Post that our president plans to take another $7.2 billion out of the Defense Department’s budget and put it into the border wall that he couldn’t convince Congress to pay for. If he gets his way, more than three out of every four dollars in border-wall money will have gone without congressional approval.

This sort of rule by decree is what we’ve seen in Latin America when democracies start giving way to dictatorship.

A new commentary at WOLA’s website breaks down what’s happening: the amounts involved, the convoluted way Trump is wresting the money from defense and avoiding Congress’s constitutional checks, and the situation in the courts, where our only hope lies.

Here are two graphics I made for that piece.

Read the whole thing here.

Here’s a big new report about last week’s trip to El Paso and Ciudad Juárez

My visit to the border last week went well: logistics were flawless, the people we encountered were amazing, and we learned a lot. But I came home feeling disturbed. Even more than after my four visits this year to San Diego/Tijuana and to Mexico’s southern border.

Maybe it was the relentlessness of the Trump administration’s non-stop assault on some very weak people. Maybe it was the grinding fatigue that the cities’ activists and service providers exuded. But when I got home late Saturday I was having trouble relating to family and friends. I was only happy with my butt in a chair, typing up my notes and my thoughts about what I’d just seen at this part of the border.

I figured I’d write a memo about my trip. But I typed and typed. There was so much to talk about, as you can see from the table of contents below. I worked a late night Monday night, slept a lot Tuesday night (had to give a talk in Spanish on Wednesday), and last (Wednesday) night, I didn’t sleep at all: I pulled my first true all-nighter, not even a break to lie down, in many, many years.

I just wanted to get it done. So much that I saw and heard was so out of balance and awful, the holidays are nearly here, and the writing became like a form of therapy.

12,000 words, some graphics and several photos later, I posted this memo to WOLA’s website late today. It’s sprawling, and honestly I’m in no condition to judge whether it’s easy to follow. But I feel at least somewhat better for having written it.

I hope it helps you to understand what’s going on at the U.S.-Mexico border after a very trying year, and what is at stake there in the next year, for all of us whether we live at the border or not.

Hope you get something out of it too. The memo is here.

“I Can’t Believe What’s Happening—What We’re Becoming”: A memo from El Paso and Ciudad Juárez

  • The big 2019 Increase and Decline in Family Asylum Seekers
  • Box: a Terrible 2019 in el Paso and Ciudad Juárez
  • The Decimation of the U.S. Asylum System
    • Remain in Mexico
    • Metering
    • Conditions during the wait in Juárez
    • Conditions for Cubans
    • The July 16 asylum ban
    • GACA: Sending people to Guatemala
    • “PACR” and “HARP”
  • Rights Issues
    • Processing
    • Migrant deaths
    • Use of force and community relations
  • Wall Construction
  • Security in Ciudad Juárez
  • The Helpers are Exhausted

Big new report: “The ‘Wall’ Before the Wall: Mexico’s Crackdown on Migration at its Southern Border”

This map of the Mexico-Guatemala border region displays all locations mentioned in the report. We were present at those in blue during our August 2019 field research visit.

It’s always nice to finish something. Here’s an in-depth account of the situation at Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, where I joined colleagues for a 400-mile research trip in August. The result is this report, released today.

It’s 15,000 words, is stuffed with photos, and covers the ground outlined below. So pour a beverage and join us on this journey from Tapachula to Tenosique. And here’s the PDF version, which looks nicer.

Mexico Proposes a New Approach to Migration—Then Reverses Itself under U.S. Pressure

* Apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico Border
* U.S.-Mexico Agreement to Curb Migration Flows
* Apprehension Numbers at Mexico’s Southern Border
Mexico’s Security and Migration Deployment in the Border Zone
Migration Patterns and Smuggling

* Shifts in Apprehension and Deportation Trends
* Extra-Continental Migrants
* Shifts in Migration Routes
* Trends in Corridors
The Human Rights Impact of Mexico’s Crackdown
* Detention Facilities
* Crimes against Migrants
* Migrants and the Local Population
Asylum and Detention
* Why Migrants are Fleeing
* Mexico’s Asylum System
* COMAR on the Brink
* Exit visas
* Buses from the Northern Border
Official Corruption in the Border Zone
U.S. Assistance in the Border Region

Twitter thread of border and migration graphics

I updated my collection of data about security and migration at the border to reflect some new data releases from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and from Mexico’s Migration Policy Unit. From those, I have a collection of charts and graphics whose most current version is always downloadable as a PDF file at

I just posted a Twitter thread explaining the latest trends. Here it is embedded in one place.

Back at the border

CBP officers “metering” border-crossers last night outside the San Ysidro port of entry.
The San Diego River, very early this morning.

I’m here at the U.S.-Mexico border again. This is my fourth visit to San Diego and Tijuana this year. I’m spending most of this visit at a gathering of migration attorneys and experts from the United States, Mexico, and Central America. The situation is grim right now, but there’s a lot of talk of solutions.

At What’s at Stake in the Battle Over U.S. Homeland Security Funding

With a November 21 budget deadline looming, the Democratic-majority House of Representatives and Republican-majority Senate (and the Republican White House) seem far from agreement on how to fund the Department of Homeland Security in 2020. They’re either going to have to seek another extension to keep the government open, or undergo at least a partial government shutdown.

As happened last year, much of the discord surrounds border security, especially Trump’s border wall.

Here, at WOLA’s website, is a new analysis of six of the most contentious issues in the 2020 budget bill, and where we stand on each.

  1. The Wall
  2. ICE detention of migrants
  3. “Remain in Mexico”
  4. CBP and Border Patrol staffing
  5. “Metering”
  6. Alternatives to Detention

The 26 Republicans who’ve voted against Trump’s border wall “emergency”

Last week, with a 53-36 vote (59.6 percent), the U.S. Senate failed to get the two-thirds necessary to override President Trump’s veto of a resolution reversing his February 15 “national emergency” declaration. That declaration, coming after Trump failed to force Congress to pay billions for his “border wall” demands, would take more than $6 billion from the Defense Department budget and Treasury seized-asset funds, and plow it into border wall construction.

A quick rundown:

  • 2019 started with much of the U.S. government “shut down” because Congress would not pass a budget giving Trump the $5.7 billion he wanted for his border wall.
  • Finally, after a 35-day shutdown, Trump caved and signed a budget with far less wall funding.
  • On February 15, using power he claimed that the 1976 National Emergencies Act gives him, Trump declared an “emergency” at the border requiring him to move money out of defense accounts and into wall-building.
  • Court challenges to this emergency declaration are ongoing. In July, the Supreme Court allowed wall-building to proceed while judicial deliberations continue. In mid-October, though, a federal judge in El Paso froze much of the Defense Department money.

The National Emergencies Act gives Congress the ability to challenge the emergency declaration every six months, by passing a joint resolution. A 1983 Supreme Court decision allows the President to veto this resolution; the emergency declaration would then remain in place unless two thirds of both houses of Congress vote to override the presidential veto.

Twice now—in February-March and September-October—Congress has passed joint resolutions to take down Trump’s emergency declaration. Both times, Trump has vetoed the resolutions. Both times, a strong majority, but not the necessary two-thirds, has voted to override the veto.

There have now been six votes on passage and override of these joint resolutions: three in the House and three in the Senate. Not a single Democrat has voted “no” against these resolutions. Any two-thirds override vote, though, also requires a significant number of Republican votes.

Even in this polarized time, some Republicans have defied the president and voted to undo the emergency declaration. To be exact, 14 in the House and 12 in the Senate. That’s 7 percent of House Republicans, and 23 percent of Senate Republicans.

The rest of the Republican Party’s congressional delegation seems to be unconcerned about the constitutional ramifications of a president unilaterally acting in direct opposition to the clearly expressed will of a Congress that, supposedly, has “the power of the purse.”

Here are the GOP legislators who have voted to undo this authoritarian and wasteful measure. In the Senate, half are members of the Appropriations Committee, whose power to assign funds is directly challenged by the emergency declaration. Many are among the party’s few remaining moderates. Most of their votes are more about preserving Congress’s constitutional power to appropriate funds than about the wisdom of building a border wall. That’s still a principled position, and I wish more GOP legislators would take it.


  • Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee, voted “yes” twice, did not vote once): member of Appropriations; said “I cannot support this national emergency declaration and be faithful to my oath to support the Constitution at the same time”
  • Roy Blunt (R-Missouri, voted “yes” three times): member of Appropriations; said “Those decisions should not be made without congressional action.”
  • Susan Collins (R-Maine, voted “yes” three times): member of Appropriations; said “while there is some discretion that he has to move money around, I think that his executive order exceeds his discretion”
  • Mike Lee (R-Utah, voted “yes” three times): concerned about ceding congressional power
  • Jerry Moran (R-Kansas, voted “yes” twice, did not vote once): member of Appropriations; said “The declaration of an emergency under these circumstances is a violation of the U.S. Constitution”
  • Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska, voted “yes” three times): member of Appropriations, said “This is about the administration overstepping Constitutional authority, forcing Congress to relinquish power that is fundamentally ours”
  • Rand Paul (R-Kentucky, voted “yes” three times): a libertarian; said “I can’t vote to give extra-Constitutional powers to the president”
  • Rob Portman (R-Ohio, voted “yes” three times): a relative moderate, said “the emergency declaration circumvented Congress and set a ‘dangerous new precedent’”
  • Mitt Romney (R-Utah, voted “yes” three times): a frequent Trump critic, concerned about ceding congressional power
  • Marco Rubio (R-Florida, voted “yes” twice, did not vote once): member of Appropriations, said “We have a crisis at our southern border, but no crisis justifies violating the Constitution”
  • Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania, voted “yes” three times): said he supports the wall, but “the emergency declaration undermines the constitutional responsibility of Congress to approve how money is spent”
  • Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi, voted “yes” three times): said he supports the wall, but “I have serious reservations as to what the Emergency Declaration might do to the Constitutional principle of checks and balances.” (Fun fact: as a member of the House in 2000, Wicker was one of few Republicans to oppose the mostly military aid package known as “Plan Colombia.”)


  • Justin Amash (I-Michigan, voted “yes” twice, then left the Republican Party): said “I think the President is violating our constitutional system”
  • Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania, voted “yes” three times): said “I think this decision should be made by Congress”
  • Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin, voted “yes” three times): said “we can’t continue to expand executive authority just because our party now controls the White House”
  • Jamie Herrera Beutler (R-Washington, voted “yes” three times): member of Appropriations; said “He [Trump] literally contradicted the Constitution to use this money for something other than which it was intended”
  • Will Hurd (R-Texas, voted “yes” twice, did not vote once): member of Appropriations; represents a border district and has been a consistent border wall critic
  • Dusty Johnson (R-South Dakota, voted “yes” three times): said “I spent eight years under President Obama fighting ever-expanding executive authority. I remain committed to that principle”
  • John Katko (R-New York, voted “yes” twice, did not vote once): said “Presidents, from either party, should not legislate from the executive branch”
  • Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky, voted “yes” three times): said “The appropriations process belongs within Congress according to the Constitution”
  • Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington, voted “yes” three times): said “Article I of the Constitution gives the legislative branch the exclusive power to make laws and set funding priorities”
  • Francis Rooney (R-Florida, voted “yes” three times): said “My vote to override a veto of the resolution to rescind the national emergency declaration was based on the U.S. Constitution and had nothing to do with President Trump.” Recently made headlines by saying he is “open” to impeaching Trump
  • Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin, voted “yes” three times): said “It is imperative that no administration, Republican or Democratic, circumvent the will of Congress”
  • Elise Stefanik (R-New York, voted “yes” three times): said “No matter what Party is represented in the White House, I will stand up against executive action that circumvents Congress”
  • Fred Upton (R-Michigan, voted “yes” three times): said “declaring a national emergency and reprogramming already appropriated funds without the approval of Congress is a violation of the Constitution”
  • Greg Walden (R-Oregon, voted “yes” three times): said the “Constitution grants Congress the power of the purse, not the President”

Here are the votes:

No, Mexico isn’t providing housing

At times, the judge seemed ill-informed about how MPP works. At one point, she turned to the government prosecutors in the room and asked whether the Mexican government was providing the migrants housing. One of the attorneys said he did not know. (The answer, generally, is no).

The quote is from Gus Bova’s coverage of the new “tent courts” the Homeland Security Department (DHS) has set up next to the border-crossing bridge in Laredo, Texas. (The exchange with Immigration Judge Yvonne Gonzalez also appears in AP’s report.)

There, by video, immigration judges based elsewhere are hearing the asylum cases of asylum-seeking migrants. U.S. authorities have taken these migrants back into the United States for their “video hearings,” which they’ve awaited for months in dangerous northern Mexican border towns under the “Remain in Mexico” policy.

This policy, which DHS calls “Migrant Protection Protocols” in nakedly Orwellian fashion, has sent over 42,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers into Mexico to await their U.S. hearings since it started last December. Court challenges to the policy are ongoing, but judges have let it proceed for now.

To the judge’s question: No, the Mexican government isn’t providing housing. How could it, with at least 4,000 people per week being sent back over the border right now? The only exception is one government-run shelter in Ciudad Juárez that lets a couple of hundred families stay for three or four weeks, even though “Remain in Mexico” victims must wait for months. Another federal shelter may soon open in Tijuana.

Anyone even passingly familiar with Remain in Mexico would know that. Remain in Mexico has received an ocean of media coverage—at least print media coverage, much of it horrifying—since its rollout last December.

Given the high profile and very controversial nature of Remain in Mexico, the judge’s question is shocking. So was her later suggestion that homeless migrants ask cash-strapped pro-bono lawyers for help paying for their housing in Mexico.

Doesn’t Judge Gonzalez—who had 52 Remain in Mexico cases on her docket yesterday—know that every day, DHS is taking hundreds of people, many of them with children, many of them with strong asylum claims, and sending them homeless and income-less into Mexican border towns with high crime rates? Yes, that’s what’s happening, and at least the judges assigned to these Remain in Mexico cases should be aware of that.

Thread: new border and migration data graphics

Yesterday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released its August data about migration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Using that, along with data from Mexico’s government and recent non-governmental studies, I posted a 9-tweet thread to Twitter last night, with 17 graphics. Here is that thread, deconstructed.

(1/9) Let’s post a bunch of migration data using CBP and Mexico government numbers.

With 800,000+ apprehended in 11 months, this is the largest apprehensions total since 2007. But unlike 2007, 2 out of 3 are children and parents. In fact, single adults are still trending down.

(2/9) Trump’s June tariff threat caused Mexico to increase its own apprehensions, leading to a drop in US apprehensions at the border. But we’ve seen this before: there were drops after crackdowns and disruptions in 2014 and 2017, and migration recovered after a few months.

(3/9) The crackdown has further increased demand on Mexico’s overwhelmed, underfunded asylum system.

(4/9) After the crackdown, migration from Guatemala dropped more sharply than migration from Honduras. Honduras is now the number-one origin country for migrants apprehended at the US-Mexico border, followed by Guatemala then Mexico.

(5/9) Add people on waitlists at ports of entry plus “Remain in Mexico” victims, and there were at least 52,000 asylum seekers stuck in Mexican border towns by the end of July. It’s probably somewhere around 65,000-70,000 now: a nightmare scenario.

(6/9) CBP seems to have eased “metering” ever-so-slightly in August. (6/9)

(7/9) 11 months into fiscal 2019, seizures of cocaine, meth, and fentanyl already exceed fiscal 2018. As usual, most seizures happen at ports of entry, not the areas in between where some would build more walls. Heroin is flat, perhaps because demand for fentanyl is greater.

(8/9) Marijuana seizures continue to decline sharply at the border, a likely outcome of states’ legalizations, and port-of-entry seizures are suddenly the majority.

(9/9) Download these graphics and more as a big PDF at

Some Mexico-Guatemala Border Crossings

I’m back, as of a few hours ago, from a week along Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. There’s a lot to talk about – but for now, some photos of border crossings.

Talisman, Chiapas, Mexico – El Carmen, San Marcos, Guatemala.
Talisman, Chiapas, Mexico – El Carmen, San Marcos, Guatemala.
Army wearing armbands of Mexico’s new National Guard at Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas, Mexico – Tecún Umán, San Marcos, Guatemala.
Mexico is cracking down (under U.S. pressure) at Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas, Mexico – Tecún Umán, San Marcos, Guatemala. Fewer rafts are crossing.
Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, Chiapas, Mexico – La Mesilla, Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, Chiapas, Mexico – La Mesilla, Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
Lago Internacional between Chiapas, Mexico and Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
Lago Internacional between Chiapas, Mexico and Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
Nuevo Orizaba, Chiapas, Mexico – Ixcán, Quiché, Guatemala.
Nuevo Orizaba, Chiapas, Mexico – Ixcán, Quiché, Guatemala.

More processing capacity, now, would make a big difference at the border

This is a personal view. I’m not an expert on immigration policy or asylum law, nor do I plan to be. But I’ve done lots of work on border security, and this is my strong impression after having lots of conversations, visiting a few processing facilities, and volunteering in a respite center. Am I missing something? Comments are open.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is saying that 4,500 people per day, most of them children and parents, are arriving at the border right now. Most are released shortly afterward, with a date to appear before an asylum officer. 

Before that happens, they spend a few days or more packed into small, austere holding facilities designed for what until recently was the profile of nearly all migrants at the border: single males. A Homeland Security Department Inspector-General alert published May 30 shows horrific photos of adults packed into the small holding facility next to the Paso del Norte bridge in El Paso, the bridge under which CBP held hundreds of Central American families behind a fence for four days in March. (I’ve been to that facility twice, it has less than a dozen holding spaces, each about the size of an above-average office.) The report shows dozens of children and parents continuing to be held outdoors in the Paso del Norte facility’s parking lot.

From the Homeland Security Inspector-General’s May 30 alert.

This is unacceptable and heartbreaking. But it’s not a national-security threat, and it’s fixable. Ultimately, it’s an administrative issue: a big and complex one, but nothing the U.S. government can’t handle. Any short-term solution depends on short-term processing capacity.

I know, that sounds boring and bureaucratic. I know, it involves giving resources to CBP, an agency with big problems. And I now, it’s only a small component of a larger solution that must run from Central American neighborhoods to U.S. immigration courts. (See the five-part proposal that WOLA colleagues and I wrote up in early April.)

But I insist: the most pressing need right now is for more short-term processing capacity. Even countries with the world’s most generous asylum systems need to receive and process people when they arrive asking for protection. During processing, officials determine whether arriving individuals have communicable diseases or otherwise need medical attention. They verify family relationships. They do criminal background checks. For those who express fear of return, they start the asylum paperwork and schedule their first appearance before an asylum officer or a court.

During this time, officials must also give the arrivals access to bathing and clothing, a dignified place to sleep, food, hydration, medicine, and childcare.

CBP’s processing facilities are meant to be temporary way stations where migrants spend two or three days, and they should stay that way. But they are severely inadequate for attending to the new profile of migrant—kids and parents—whose numbers began to increase back in 2012-13. This year so far, 66 percent of apprehended migrants are children and families. We are now in the third, and largest, big wave of children and families fleeing Central America since 2014. This is normal now. Numbers may decline during the hot summer months, but they’ll go up again.

Current facilities include holding cells in Border Patrol stations, a warehouse-sized building in McAllen, Texas (and another to be built soon in El Paso), small numbers of cells at ports of entry, and right now, some temporary structures where migrants are kept in tents. They are staffed almost entirely by CBP officers and Border Patrol agents, and the agencies complain that they’re losing large percentages of staff time to asylum paperwork, changing diapers, feeding people, and similar non-law enforcement tasks.

Amid the current wave, short-term holding and processing capacity is beyond overwhelmed. It’s overcrowded because of the large number of arrivals, and staffing challenges mean processing times are routinely exceeding two or three days.

Here’s what has to happen:

  1. There’s an urgent need for more space to accommodate and process people upon arrival. Every one of CBP’s border sectors needs a large, permanent short-term processing facility. I say “permanent” because large-scale, protection-seeking migration is very likely to continue, in ebbs and flows, in coming years.
  2. The facilities need to be far less austere than what exists today. The warehouse-sized McAllen “central processing facility,” built to deal with the 2014 child migrant wave, became famous during last year’s family separation crisis as the site of the “cages”: the media and visiting members of Congress discovered that children were being kept in chain-link fence enclosures, with mylar blankets to keep warm. The same conditions prevailed during the Obama administration. Less austere conditions cost money, and the 2019 Homeland Security budget appropriation includes some funds for that. Though it’s probably impossible to provide individual quarters to thousands of arriving families per day, the short-term processing experience needs to be more dignified than it has been.
  3. The additional short-term capacity should be linked to ports of entry. The goal should be for CBP to have enough space and personnel to ensure that everyone who presents themselves and requests asylum at official land ports of entry can quickly be taken to a processing center. Right now, claiming a lack of holding space and personnel, CBP is “metering” arrivals at the official border crossings. This has forced nearly 19,000 people onto precarious waitlists in Mexican border towns. It has caused many times more people to jump the fence or cross the Rio Grande to await Border Patrol apprehension, which guarantees them immediate processing even though it’s technically against the law. With sufficient processing capacity, none of this would be necessary: asylum-seekers could present themselves to CBP officers at the ports of entry, express fear of return, and be taken to the nearest processing facility that same day. It would be orderly.
  4. The additional short-term capacity need not be staffed with armed, uniformed CBP and Border Patrol agents. Most tasks in the short-term processing facilities do not require agents’ law-enforcement training and could be contracted out. Many of those contract employees should be civilians experienced in working with children, and with survivors of trauma.
  5. After a maximum of 72 hours in a processing facility, asylum-seekers, including most adults, could be released with a requirement to appear before an immigration judge, as families are now. Assistance could go to non-profit respite centers that place migrants in contact with relatives and arrange transportation to their destination cities.
  6. Complaints about people failing to show up for court dates could be assuaged by expanded family case management programs. These, which have undergone very successful pilot testing, involve frequent check-ins and monitoring with caseworkers who ensure attendance at immigration hearings. They cost a fraction of what detention costs.
  7. Also necessary would be to increase the number of immigration judges beyond the current 400 or so, in order to reduce asylum case backlogs. The goal should be to have the capacity to adjudicate asylum cases within a year or so—not the three or four years, with minimal monitoring, that it’s taking now. The chance of being adjudicated and sent back within a year, with regular check-ins with caseworkers, would likely convince those with less-solid asylum cases not to bother selling their belongings and paying many thousands of dollars to smugglers. (Though this isn’t a short-term response, these expanded immigration courts should also be moved out of the executive branch—they’re part of the Justice Department right now. The American Bar Association has proposed making them independent “Article 1” courts, part of the legislative branch.)

In meetings this year with people on both sides of the issue, I haven’t received much pushback when I bring up the need for more short-term processing capacity. The details probably would complicate things, and this would carry a price tag over $1 billion (though far below what a border wall and expanded detentions would cost). But right now, very little seems to be happening on the “short-term processing” front despite the evident overwhelm.

In early May, the Trump administration sent Congress a request for an additional $4.5 billion to deal with the spike in migrant arrivals. That request included some “poison pills” that would never get through the Democratic-majority House of Representatives, like funding for additional ICE detention, the National Guard deployment at the border, and more money for criminal prosecutions of migrants. It does, however, include $530 million for additional short-term processing capacity. 

The description in the request hints at somewhat better conditions—blankets, showers, meals. But it relies on “tent cities”—it calls them “soft-sided facilities”—rather than a more permanent solution. While it includes money for non-law enforcement personnel to staff the facilities, they would be employees of other federal agencies on temporary duty. While that may be the only way to build capacity right now, this summer, it also tells us that DHS still assumes that the asylum-seeker flow is a temporary problem that might go away. The experience since 2014 indicates otherwise.

While the $530 million plan may cover some temporary processing needs for the next few months, the border needs a short-term processing-space and personnel solution that is more permanent. Congress must ask CBP what it would cost to build permanent short-term processing facilities in each border sector—with enough capacity to make it possible for asylum-seekers just to show up at ports of entry, and be taken there. That cost estimate should include paying non-law enforcement personnel to handle processing and care while the asylum-seekers are in this short-term custody. It should also include the cost of treating arriving people with human dignity during their time in processing. Congress should then fund the amount that CBP comes up with.

Graphics: border numbers through May

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) just released new border migration numbers through May. Border Patrol apprehended more migrants in May 2019 than in any month since March 2006 (monthly data here).But back then, something like 95% of migrants were single adults. In May, only 27% were single adults.

In what is becoming a monthly ritual, here are the numbers in graphical form. You can download an updated PDF with these and other graphics at the easy-to-remember URL

Two-thirds of migrants apprehended this year are kids or parents. That is unprecedented, and was absolutely unimaginable only a few years ago.
In May, 73 percent of all migrants apprehended at the border were children or parents. Nearly three out of four.
Apprehensions of single adults are up, but not even as high as they were in 2014 and earlier years. Child and family migration accounts for nearly all of the current increase.
It’s not just the United States. #Mexico is on the way to another vertiginous increase in asylum-seekers this year. In 5 months, Mexico has almost equaled its 2018 applicants figure, which was a huge increase at the time.
Assuming maybe 8,000 single adults, about 1 out of every 205 people in Honduras was apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in May alone. Honduras saw the biggest child and parent apprehensions increase over October-May ’18: 433%.
About 1 in 350 Guatemalans was apprehended at the border in May. Guatemala is the number-one nationality of migrants apprehended at the border. Followed by Honduras, and then Mexico—the actual bordering country.
El Salvador is in third place in border apprehensions among the Central American “Northern Triangle” countries, but its growth rate is not far behind Honduras.
Border apprehensions of children and families from outside the Northern Triangle and Mexico are also way up. Are they Cuban? Venezuelan? Nicaraguan? From Asia or Africa? Probably all of the above, but CBP doesn’t report other nationalities monthly.
Look at this increase in Cubans arriving at border ports of entry. The January 2017 drop was the Obama administration’s revocation of the “wet foot dry foot” policy granting admittance to any Cuban who could touch U.S. soil. Numbers are recovering fast.
At ports of entry, CBP’s “metering” practice continues to restrict, severely, the number of people who can ask for asylum. All of the growth in child-family migration is happening between ports of entry. This means smugglers get more money, and Border Patrol gets nearly all processing duty.
Here’s the above “metering” graph, zoomed in and just showing kids and families. They’re about 4,500 per month, rarely over.

Finally, some charts showing border drug seizures through May. Note how nearly all drugs are overwhelmingly seized at the official land ports of entry. The action is not in the areas between the ports, where Border Patrol operates.

Border marijuana seizures have dropped precipitously since several US states legalized/regulated cannabis.

You can download an updated PDF with these and other graphics at the easy-to-remember URL

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