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: February 5, 2021

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. This is a “double issue,” longer than normal, as White House actions led to an especially heavy news week. You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list.

White House issues much-anticipated executive orders

President Joe Biden issued three migration-related executive orders on February 2. One issues guidelines for welcoming new legal immigrants. One proposes a framework for addressing Western Hemisphere migration and for the asylum system. And one seeks to reunite families separated by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.

The orders’ issuance coincided with the Senate’s confirmation of Biden’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, by a 56 to 43 vote. Six Republicans voted for Mayorkas: Mitt Romney (Utah), Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Rob Portman (Ohio), Shelley Moore Capito (West Virginia), and Dan Sullivan (Alaska). Portman and Capito are the ranking Republicans, respectively, on the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee and Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.

For the most part, the executive orders neither fully institute new policies nor fully revoke Trump-era policies. Language often calls on executive branch agencies and officials to “consider” taking these moves. There may be legal reasons for wording the orders this way, to blunt potential litigation against them. But the indirect language and lack of timelines has some migrant rights’ advocates concerned.

Measures outlined in the orders include:

  • Establishing a cabinet-level task force to reunify families separated during the entire Trump administration. This task force is asked, among other items, to produce recommendations for “the possible exercise of parole” so that parents in Central America may rejoin children who remain in the United States.
  • Preparing a “Strategy for Addressing the Root Causes of Migration,” which will form the framework of a U.S. diplomatic and assistance package. Unlike past “security-first” aid packages for Latin America, this strategy prioritizes combating corruption, promoting human rights, countering violent crime, combating sexual, gender-based, and domestic violence, and addressing economic challenges.
  • Consulting with a broad range of stakeholders, including the Mexican government, on “collaboratively managing migration.” Measures include helping Mexico improve its own reception of migrants, including growing numbers of asylum seekers, from Central America and elsewhere.
  • Leaving intact for now—but “promptly begin[ning] consultation and planning… to develop policies and procedures” to change—the March 2020 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) order closing the border to asylum seekers due to COVID-19. Under this order, often called “Title 42” for the relevant section of the U.S. Code that underlies it, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) rapidly expelled migrants 393,000 times between March and December. Some of those expelled needed protection from threats to their lives.
  • Leaving intact, but ordering DHS to “promptly review and determine whether to terminate or modify,” the Migrant Protection Protocols or “Remain in Mexico” program, which sent more than 70,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their U.S. hearings in Mexico over the past two years. More than 28,000 still have cases pending, and of those who have been ordered removed, less than 3 percent had legal representation. The February 2 order calls for prompt consideration of “a phased strategy for the safe and orderly entry into the United States” of those with pending cases. On January 20, DHS announced it would stop enrolling new asylum seekers into “Remain in Mexico.” However, right now, under Title 42, most Central Americans are being expelled quickly into Mexico without a “Remain in Mexico” court date—though Mexico may be partially changing that, as discussed below.
  • Ordering the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to “promptly review and determine whether to rescind” so-called Safe Third Country Agreements that the Trump administration signed with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, committing those countries to allow the U.S. government to send them other countries’ asylum seekers. The only one of these agreements that went into operation was Guatemala’s, which sent 945 non-Guatemalan asylum seekers to Guatemala between November 2019 and the programs’ COVID-related suspension in March 2020. None of the 945 received asylum in Guatemala.
  • “Consider[ing] taking all appropriate actions” to reinstate the Central American Minors Program, a small program, terminated by the Trump administration, that allowed some children to apply for protection at U.S. embassies and consulates instead of crossing Mexico alone.
  • Undergoing a 270-day process to promulgate new regulations undoing the Trump administration’s steady narrowing of the definition of who qualifies for asylum.
  • Reviewing, with likely intent to rescind, several restrictive rules associated with Stephen Miller’s attempts to make asylum and other legal immigration statuses harder to obtain.

As most of this language falls short of making firm commitments, “officials have found themselves pleading for patience, saying they are constrained by President Trump’s tangle of executive orders and administrative restrictions on immigration, as well as by public health concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” as the Los Angeles Times’ Molly O’Toole put it. “We want to act swiftly, we want to act promptly, but we also need to make sure we are doing that through a strategic policy process,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. The New Yorker cites the work of a team of students led by Yale and Stanford professor Lucas Guttentag, which identifies 1,058 changes that the Trump administration made to the U.S. immigration system.

Numerous human rights organizations, including WOLA, continue to call on the Biden administration to move more quickly, particularly to end misuse of the Title 42 expulsions of asylum seekers. A long list of public health experts, led by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, sent a January 28 letter raising earlier recommendations for how lifting these measures can be done safely during the pandemic.

Much ire is directed at the persistence of “Remain in Mexico,” which has caused untold misery in Mexican border cities. As Erika Andiola of RAICES Texas told the Texas Tribune, “There’s nothing to ‘review’ about a policy that leads to people getting beaten, tortured and kidnapped regularly, as they wait like sitting ducks on the southern border.” Linda Rivas of the El Paso-based Las Américas Immigrant Advocacy Center told CNN that she “has been trying to console her clients this week, including a Honduran mother who said she had been raped while waiting in Mexico.” Elsewhere in El Paso—where a witness to the 2019 Wal-Mart shooting was swiftly deported this week—Tania Guerrero of CLINIC told the Dallas Morning News, “We need to know what the game plan is. It’s a lot of confusion. And, people are losing hope.”

On February 1 the Biden administration asked the Supreme Court to postpone two cases that were scheduled for arguments later in the month: challenges to “Remain in Mexico” and to President Trump’s use of a national emergency declaration to channel Defense Department budget funds, without congressional approval, into border wall construction. The Court agreed to take the arguments off the calendar. “Had Trump remained in office, it is very likely that the Supreme Court would have upheld both programs,” noted a Vox analysis, citing conservative justices’ unwillingness to halt either, even as lower courts ruled against them.

Mexico stops taking other countries’ expelled families

Note: while this section reproduces what was being reported in major U.S. media as of late on the 4th, some sources at the border—in public and in communications with us—question whether Mexico has, in fact, changed its policy. While it appears that there’s some increase in families being released into the U.S. interior, at least in Texas, Mexican refusals to take expelled Central American families are localized, not nationwide.

As noted above, under the Title 42 pandemic order, CBP expelled migrants into Mexico 393,000 times between March and December. Of those, according to an information request that the online journalism outlet Animal Político sent to the Mexican government, 17,129 of migrants expelled into Mexico through November were Central American. Others may have been from Cuba, Venezuela, or elsewhere. And on February 3, in a highly irregular and still unexplained move, CBP expelled dozens of Haitians into Ciudad Juárez.

On February 3 the Washington Post revealed that, at some border crossings, Mexico has started rejecting expulsions of non-Mexican families. This began before Joe Biden’s inauguration, in response to a November law mandating that Mexico’s immigration detention centers must no longer hold children and families.

This “has prompted U.S. Customs and Border Protection to release more parents and children into the U.S. interior,” five unnamed U.S. officials told the Post. A CBP spokesperson said that some of the agency’s facilities have reached “maximum safe holding capacity. Per longstanding practice, when long-term holding solutions aren’t possible, some migrants will be processed for removal, provided a notice to appear, and released into the U.S. to await a future immigration hearing.” This is happening in the Rio Grande Valley sector of south Texas, but not yet at other border crossings like Nogales, where CBP continues to expel non-Mexican families.

A sudden increase in releases would present “a massive problem,” Rubén García of El Paso’s Annunciation House—one of a small number of charity-run respite centers for asylum-seeking migrants released into border cities—told El Paso Matters. “Right now, we probably could reasonably handle upwards of 300 people” due to social distancing requirements, he said. Without his shelter’s services, “I think that what [Border Patrol] would do is go back to releasing them on the street there by the Greyhound bus station.”

A central reason for the Biden administration’s cautious undoing of the Trump administration’s policies is fear of such a “wave” of migration at the border. A “Central American official who closely monitors migration dynamics” told the Post that migrant smugglers have been intensifying “their marketing efforts” in rural Guatemala. “They’re saying Biden has given the green light” in their sales pitches, the unnamed official said.

Border Patrol agents have begun feeding information to Fox News and similar outlets about “steady increases in apprehensions, especially among Central American families and unaccompanied children in their sectors—specifically the Rio Grande Valley and Tucson, Arizona, sectors. One agent in Texas told Fox News that in three out of the last seven days, there were at least 800 arrests in their sector, up from about 450 a day just a few months ago.”

Mexico arrests police officers for January 22 migrant massacre

On February 2, 11 days after the burned remains of 19 people—most of them migrants—were found along a northern Mexican roadside near the U.S. border—authorities in violence-battered Tamaulipas state made a surprising announcement. The state attorney general ordered the arrest of 12 state police agents on charges of committing the massacre.

So far, only four of the bodies had been identified: two migrants from Guatemala, and two Mexicans “with a history of migrant smuggling.” The remaining victims are believed to be Guatemalan migrants. At least one was probably a man who had lived for 26 years in the United States, been deported, and had hoped to return to his wife and child in Mississippi. DNA test results are still pending.

A motive for the police agents’ crime is unknown. It is all too common in Tamaulipas state, however, for organized crime to infiltrate police forces. Tamaulipas is the site of a heated rivalry between criminal groups that engage in drug trafficking, most prominently the Gulf Cartel and a remnant of the Zetas, the Northeast Cartel.

Some of the 12 arrested officers are members of the GOPES, Special Operations Public Security Group, an elite SWAT-type unit within the Tamaulipas state police force. GOPES was launched in August 2020, replacing a unit accused of serious human rights abuses.

Troublingly, in August 2020, when GOPES launched, a report in the Mexican newspaper Milenio stated that the unit “carried out trainings with U.S. authorities,” along with Mexican Marines. We do not yet know whether this is accurate, and if so what the training involved. U.S. assistance for units with questionable human rights records, like Tamaulipas state police, is rare and tends to focus on issues like human rights, proper use of force, or proper judicial and evidence procedures. But we still don’t know.

Meanwhile, Animal Político published a disturbing revelation about the Mexican government’s response to abuse of migrants. The country’s nominally independent human rights ombudsman’s office, the Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos (CNDH), had collected 32 documents’ worth of accounts of torture, amputations, rapes, and murders of migrants traveling through Mexico—some of them with the participation of security and immigration forces—covering September 2019 through February 2020. But the CNDH, which is supposed to advocate for victims and seek to hold abusers accountable, sat on this information. The failure to inform about these abuses casts further doubt on the independence of CNDH President Rosario Piedra Ibarra, who has been questioned for her closeness to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.


  • The Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is opening an “overflow” shelter to hold up to 700 unaccompanied migrant children at least 13 years of age, in Carrizo Springs, Texas. Normally, children stay in such facilities for days or weeks before being placed with relatives or other sponsors. As of late January, there were 4,730 unaccompanied migrant children in ORR care, less than a third of the agency’s population during the 2019 child and family migration wave.
  • Whistleblowers who formerly had internal affairs roles at DHS accuse top Border Patrol and other DHS officials of obstructing investigations into agents’ notorious killing of Mexican citizen Anastasio Hernández, beaten to death at California’s San Ysidro port of entry in May 2010. Among those named is Rodney Scott, Border Patrol’s current chief. Affidavits filed in a case before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, the Intercept reports, contend that the killing was “emblematic of an entrenched pattern in matters involving the Border Patrol, particularly in cases of lethal force.” 
  • A Border Patrol agent fatally shot a man trying to enter the United States near the Hidalgo Port of Entry in south Texas on January 29. CBP, DHS’s Inspector-General, and the FBI are currently investigating the shooting, the Associated Press reported.
  • Two Arizona humanitarian organizations, No More Deaths and the Coalición de Derechos Humanos, published a report alleging that while Border Patrol has all but monopolized emergency response in the border zone, the agency has a poor record of responding to calls for rescue from lost migrants dying in the desert.
  • Under Title 42 pandemic measures, CBP has been expelling migrants at remote desert border crossings with very few services, and where bilateral agreements normally prohibit the U.S. government from deporting people. This includes crossings like Sonoyta, across from Lukeville Arizona; Sásabe, Arizona-Sonora; and Puerto Palomas, across from Columbus, New Mexico. Mexican government data indicate Sonoyta and Puerto Palomas have been the number two and three points for expulsions of Central Americans. Number one is Reynosa, Tamaulipas, perhaps Mexico’s most violent border city.
  • At the Intercept, Ken Klippenstein details an ugly power struggle within the DHS Inspector General’s Office that crippled the agency’s ability to perform effective oversight of the Trump administration at a crucial moment for human rights.
  • At the Texas Tribune, Julián Águilar warns that the immigration courts’ backlog—1.3 million cases, including 360,000 asylum cases—means years-long waits that could frustrate efforts to undo Trump’s asylum policies. It argues that hiring more judges won’t be enough.

Weekly border update: January 29, 2021

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list.

Bodies of 19 missing migrants found in Tamaulipas, Mexico

Police responding to a call on January 22 made a grisly discovery in a rural zone of Camargo municipality, in Mexico’s violence-torn border state of Tamaulipas, about 45 miles from Texas. A burned-out pickup truck by a dirt road contained the incinerated bodies of 19 people, whom it seems were shot to death elsewhere and incinerated there.

The victims appear to be migrants from Central America who had hoped to reach the United States. Most or all may be from San Marcos, a department of western Guatemala that borders southern Mexico.

Nothing is confirmed until comparisons with relatives’ DNA are complete, a process that might take about two weeks. But just as they were passing through Tamaulipas late last week, a group of migrants from the towns of Comitancillo, Tuilelen, and Sipacapa—where most residents’ first language is Mam, an indigenous dialect—abruptly stopped contacting relatives back home via WhatsApp.

Most of the missing and presumed dead were in their late teens or early 20s. They had paid a smuggler to take them—“$2,100 upfront,” a mother of one of the victims told Vice—but that did not guarantee safety from Mexican organized crime.

“Camargo is near the edge of territory historically controlled by factions of the Gulf cartel and in recent years a remnant of the Zetas known as the Northeast cartel has tried to take over,” the Guardian reported. Camargo residents cited in the Mexican magazine Proceso pointed to the Northeast cartel as the likely killers.

The tragedy illustrates the outrageous degree of liberty with which criminal groups operate in Tamaulipas and other poorly governed, corruption-riven zones of Mexico, and the danger this poses to migrants. Tamaulipas is where the notorious San Fernando massacre of 72 migrants took place in 2010, and alarming crimes have been frequent since then.

“The toleration of these aberrant crimes demonstrates the lack of protection for the migrant population in Mexico,” read a statement from many non-governmental organizations. Rubén Figueroa of the Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano told Vice, “These massacres are continuous. It’s an ongoing massacre. Sometimes they are big like this one. Sometimes it’s just two of three people that are assassinated, disappeared.”

Border wall construction pause goes into effect

One of President Biden’s January 20 proclamations ordered all construction of the Trump administration’s border wall to pause within seven days. Then, for the next sixty days, agencies are to review procedures for “redirecting funding and repurposing contracts.”

For days after January 20, activists at several points along the border denounced that construction crews weren’t stopping. “It’s a lie, I saw huge bulldozers digging up dirt on mountainsides, the crews were carving out new sections in some places and moving steel bollards closer to installation sites in others,” John Kurc, a filmmaker and photographer, told the Guardian. The Sky Island Alliance, an Arizona environmental defense group, set up a crowdsourced page to document continuing activity.

By the 27th, though, it appeared that wall construction had largely stopped. Now, the new administration must set about finding out what is left of:

  • $9.9 billion in Defense Department funds, which were to pay for 466 miles of wall, about 343 of which were completed; and
  • $5.8 billion in congressionally appropriated funds and $0.6 billion in Treasury seized asset forfeiture funds, which were to pay for well over 300 miles (the mileage to be built with 2021 funds is unknown), about 110 miles of which were completed.

By April 22, the Departments of Defense, Treasury, Homeland Security, and Justice, along with the White House Office of Management and Budget and National Security Council, are to come up with a plan for redirecting remaining funds, cancelling contracts, and (presumably) withdrawing eminent domain claims.

Some are suggesting using the money for border security technologies instead of fencing, an option that raises civil liberties and environment concerns. An unnamed “frontline CBP officer” told the Nation “that they had concerns about the growth of this technology, especially with the agency ‘expanding its capabilities and training its armed personnel to act as a federal police.’”

Border advocates are instead calling for investment to mitigate damage that wall-building did to fragile ecosystems and culturally sacred sites. “The right thing to do would be to tear them all down,” Laiken Jordahl of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity told Fronteras Desk. But “of course we have to be realistic with our demands. We certainly want to focus our energy on removing sections of barriers in wildlife corridors, in sacred areas to indigenous nations. In waterways where they’re stopping the flow of water.” Scientific American notes that this remediation is so necessary that “far more sites need restoration than funding would allow.”

Justice Department rescinds the “zero tolerance” rule

Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson has done away with the Justice Department’s notorious April 6, 2018 “zero tolerance” memo. Issued by Jeff Sessions, the attorney general at the time, this order called on the Justice Department to prosecute, in the federal criminal courts, the largest possible number of undocumented migrants who crossed the border between ports of entry, a misdemeanor.

This policy applied equally to asylum seekers, and it led to an outrageous expansion of family separations at the border. In about 3,000 cases, parents went into criminal custody while children got treated as unaccompanied minors. A scathing mid-January Justice Department Inspector General report found that Sessions and other officials knew that mass family separations would result from zero tolerance, and didn’t bother to prepare the responsible agencies ahead of time.

The revocation of “zero tolerance” is largely symbolic: the horrified national outcry forced Donald Trump to order a stop to most family separations in June 2018. And now, under the “Title 42” COVID-19 border policy, nearly all Central American or Mexican parents with children are being swiftly expelled back into Mexico without a proper chance to ask for asylum.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, keeps rolling back Trump-era policies. Next week the White House may release three or more executive orders seeking to:

  • Set up a task force to reunify families separated by zero tolerance;
  • Address “root causes” of migration in Central America;
  • Improve and increase border-zone processing of asylum seekers;
  • End “safe third country” agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras;
  • End a Trump administration rule barring asylum to people who passed through a third country and didn’t seek asylum there first;
  • Reinstate the Central American Minors Program that allows children to apply for protection in their home countries;
  • Help strengthen Mexico’s asylum system; and
  • Increase refugee admissions.

The White House had originally slated these EOs’ publication for January 29, though there was no formal public announcement confirming that. They are being delayed by a few days as “details are still being worked out.”


  • WOLA released statements this week calling on Mexico to do more to protect migrants and punish those who abuse them, following the Tamaulipas massacre; and about the need for Mexico’s government to collaborate with the dismantling of “Remain in Mexico.”
  • A new U.S. Government Accountability Office report finds that, between October 2019 and March 2020, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) put about 5,290 recently apprehended asylum seekers through two ultra-rapid border-zone adjudication programs, HARP and PACR. Of these, only 23 percent passed initial credible fear screenings and were allowed to pursue their claims; before HARP and PACR, “74 percent of people passed their credible fear interview and were allowed to continue to seek asylum,” according to the ACLU. (We understand that the DHS Inspector-General will be releasing its own report on HARP and PACR on January 29.)
  • On January 26 Texas Southern District Judge Drew Tipton, a Trump appointee, slapped a 14-day temporary restraining order on the 100-day deportation moratorium that President Biden had mandated on January 20. The order comes from a lawsuit brought by Texas’s archconservative attorney-general, Ken Paxton, who has made recent headlines by leading lawsuits against Biden’s Electoral College victory and against Obamacare. At Slate, Mark Joseph Stern contends that this order from a judge who “does not appear to have a rudimentary understanding of…immigration law” doesn’t actually compel the Biden administration to deport anyone.
  • “It is more difficult to transit through Mexico to the Mexico-U.S. border. This new phenomenon has been changing Mexico from a transit country to, in some cases, a country in which African migrants are settling temporarily or permanently,” finds a thorough new report from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and the Institute for Women in Migration (IMUMI).
  • At CNN, veteran political analyst Ron Brownstein offers a detailed look at what lies ahead for the Biden administration’s immigration reform push, particularly the prospects for getting enough votes in the Senate.
  • James McHenry, who headed the Justice Department’s immigration court system (EOIR) during the Trump years, is stepping down. McHenry had established decision quotas and other measures that “made judges feel as if they were cogs in a deportation machine,” according to BuzzFeed.
  • The ICE detention facility in El Paso, which is much criticized for miserable conditions, is run by a subsidiary of a company run by members of a native Alaskan nation, who mostly live on an island a few miles from Russia. El Paso Matters tells the story of Bering Straits Native Corporation, which barely responded to its many inquiries.

Weekly border update: January 22, 2021

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

Joe Biden’s first steps

The Biden administration devoted its first hours to a burst of executive orders, proclamations, legislative proposals, and policy changes. Several undo Donald Trump’s border and migration policies, charting a very different course. They include:

  • Ordering a halt, within seven days, to all border wall construction, after which the administration will spend sixty days assessing the wall-building contracts (which they don’t appear to have seen), and developing a plan for ending those contracts and repurposing unspent funds.
    • Biden’s proclamation cancels Trump’s February 2019 “national emergency” declaration that took $9.9 billion from the Defense Department budget to build fencing. The Army Corps of Engineers has ordered contractors to stop work.
    • The proclamation cannot cancel funding ($5.8 billion) that Congress directly appropriated for wall-building between 2017 and 2021. That would require agreement with Congress on reinterpreting past appropriations’ language ordering barrier construction, or on rescinding past years’ funds completely. Failure to do so “would potentially oblige the Biden administration to complete up to 227 additional miles of border wall,” the Washington Post reported.
    • “As of Jan. 15, the government spent $6.1 billion of the $10.8 billion in work it signed contracts to have done,” of a total of $16.45 billion secured for the wall, the Associated Press reported, citing “a Senate Democratic aide with knowledge of the contracts. The full amount under contract would have extended Trump’s wall to 664 miles” from the 455 miles that were completed.
  • Suspending new enrollments in the “Remain in Mexico” (or “Migrant Protection Protocols”) program. For now, though, those already enrolled—more than 28,000 people whose asylum cases are still pending before U.S. immigration courts—must remain in Mexican border towns.
  • Ordering the Homeland Security and Justice Departments to “preserve and fortify” Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA).
  • Ordering a 100-day freeze on most deportations during which the Homeland Security Department will review immigration enforcement practices and policies.
  • Revoking Trump’s ban on visas for citizens from several Muslim-majority and African countries.
  • Revoking a January 2017 executive order cracking down on so-called “sanctuary jurisdictions.”
  • Implementing a “regulatory freeze” that halts hardline immigration restriction rules and regulations issued in the Trump administration’s final months.

The new administration is introducing legislation, the “U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021,” that proposes to:

  • Provide pathways to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants in the United States, with a quicker process for DACA and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients.
  • Increase the integration and admission of refugees, including a restoration of the Central American Minors Program that allowed some threatened children to apply for refugee or asylum status from their home countries.
  • Fund the use of scanning, surveillance, and other technologies along the border.
  • Expand training and continuing education for border agents.
  • Codify a four-year, $4 billion package of assistance to Central America to address migration’s “root causes.”
  • Expand alternatives to detention and reduce immigration court backlogs.

Republican senators have already begun deriding the still un-introduced bill as “total amnesty” and a “non-starter.”

So far, there has been no mention of other measures that the Biden campaign or transition team had been floating:

  • A program or task force to reunify hundreds of migrant families that remain separated by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.
  • Withdrawal from “safe third country” (or “asylum cooperation”) agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
  • Changes to the “Title 42” pandemic rapid-expulsions policy that has blocked migrants from requesting asylum.

Biden officials have indicated that some changes restoring the right to seek asylum at the border will have to wait until processing capacity is in place at or near ports of entry. A transition official told NBC News that would-be asylum seekers “need to understand they’re not going to be able to come into the United States immediately.”

Tent facility for processing migrants being built in Rio Grande Valley

Because it may need to be built quickly, much of that processing capacity will look quite temporary, at least at first. Before the Trump administration’s end, on January 19, CBP began construction of a “soft-sided”—that is, made up of tents—processing facility in Donna, Texas. There, personnel will perform background and health checks and begin paperwork for migrants seeking protection in the United States. The facility will take about 30 days to build.

Donna is in the Rio Grande Valley region of southeast Texas, which is by far the number-one arrival point for Central American asylum seeking migrants. CBP built a more permanent processing facility in the Rio Grande Valley in 2014, the “Ursula Avenue” Central Processing Center in McAllen. That facility, notorious for its stark warehouse-like appearance and chain-link “kids in cages” internal fencing—is now undergoing a year and a half-long renovation.

Contracts for similar “soft-sided” facilities are pending for Laredo and Brownsville, Texas, according to the Rio Grande Valley Monitor.

Guatemalan forces turn back migrant caravan

As discussed in last week’s update, about 7,000 would-be migrants departed from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in the days leading up to January 15, with the intent of forming a “caravan” to the U.S. border.

They didn’t make it. About 25 miles inside Guatemala, in the southeastern department of Chiquimula, a large contingent of Guatemalan soldiers and police (part of a 2,000-person deployment) gathered at a highway chokepoint to impede the migrants’ progress. Video showed helmeted security forces beating migrants with truncheons and deploying tear gas to keep them from passing through the cordon. By January 19, most of the would-be caravan participants had dispersed, presumably returning to Honduras.

Guatemala, which had declared a state of emergency in seven of its eastern departments, cited COVID-19 concerns to justify the use of force. Normally, residents of Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua are free to travel in Guatemala without a passport.

Important population centers in Honduras were devastated by two hurricanes in rapid succession in November. That came on top of the severe public health and economic blows dealt by COVID-19, which in turn were layered over very high rates of violence and extortion—much of it gang-related and worsened by official corruption—that were already forcing large numbers of Hondurans to abandon their country.

Migrants view “caravans” as a way to employ safety in numbers to minimize the dangers of the journey through Mexico, without having to pay thousands of dollars to migrant smugglers. Though only a tiny percentage of migrants who have arrived at the U.S. border travel this way, U.S. anti-immigration activists and politicians are triggered by striking images of thousands of people coming to the border all at once. The Trump administration pressed Mexico’s and Central America’s governments to crack down on “caravans.”

No migrant caravan has gotten past Chiapas, Mexico since January 2019. Security forces have dispersed them in April and October 2019; in January, October, and December 2020; and now in January 2021.


  • Roberta Jacobson, a former ambassador to Mexico and assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, is to be named the White House National Security Council’s coordinator for the southwestern border.
  • DHS Secretary-Designate Alejandro Mayorkas faced some critical questioning from Republicans at his January 19 confirmation hearing, and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) has placed a hold on his nomination, which could delay confirmation for days or weeks.
  • The humanitarian group HIAS, which has worked extensively with “Remain in Mexico” victims in Mexican border towns, has published a detailed guide for how the Biden administration can dismantle the controversial program while observing public health requirements.
  • The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Democrats published a report documenting disastrous consequences of the Trump administration’s safe third country agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. According to the report, titled Cruelty, Coercion, and Legal Contortions, DHS shipped 945 non-Guatemalan migrants to Guatemala to seek asylum there, and none received it.
  • The U.S. immigration court backlog increased from 542,311 pending deportation cases when Donald Trump took office, to at least 1,290,766 cases today, according to TRAC Immigration.
  • In one of its last moves, the outgoing Trump administration granted an 18-month deferral of deportation for more than 145,000 Venezuelans in the United States.
  • Mexican National Guard personnel pulled over a semi truck driver, apparently for not using a seatbelt, on a highway in the southeastern state of Veracruz. After hearing shouts and pounding, they found 128 Central American migrants packed into the truck’s container.

Weekly border update: January 15, 2021

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

You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list.

Trump visits border wall in Texas

The Rio Grande Valley border town of Alamo, Texas, whose municipal officials received no official notice from the White House, hosted an abruptly planned January 12 visit from Donald Trump. It was the outgoing president’s first public appearance since the January 6 riot in the Capitol building. There, before an audience made up mainly of Border Patrol agents and DHS officials, Trump commemorated the construction of 450 miles of border wall during his administration.

“450 miles. Nobody realizes how big this is.… We gave you 100% of what you wanted so now you have no excuses,” he told the laughing crowd of assembled agents. Trump autographed a plaque affixed to the wall, then returned to Washington where, that same evening, the House of Representatives passed a resolution calling on Vice President Mike Pence to use the 25th Amendment to remove him. The next day, the House impeached him for a second time.

The previous week, Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan had told reporters that wall-building contractors were completing between 1.5 and 2 miles of new barrier each day, on pace to complete 475 miles by Trump’s likely final day in office, January 20. A CBP/Army Corps of Engineers update reported that 453 miles had been completed as of January 8. From this and past updates we can conclude that, of those 453:

  • 47 miles were built where no fencing existed before;
  • 158 replaced existing, shorter pedestrian fencing;
  • 193 replaced existing vehicle barrier; and
  • 55 miles are new or replacement secondary fencing.

In all, then, the Trump administration built 240 miles of fencing in places where it had previously been possible to walk across the border. Of the 453 miles, roughly 5% are in Texas, the state that makes up about 64% of the border. The topography of the Rio Grande and the predominance of private landholdings along the border complicate express wall-building in Texas, though the Trump administration has begun dozens of eminent-domain processes to seize border-zone land from Texas property owners.

To date, the administration has directed about $16.3 billion for wall construction; the Washington Post reported in December that at least $3.3 billion will be unused as of January 20. Despite Trump’s repeated pledges, Mexico has not paid for any construction.

CBP’s Morgan said that the administration plans to contract out another 300 miles “probably by January 17, 18, 19.” Those hasty arrangements will almost certainly be canceled once Joe Biden takes office; the President-Elect has said “there will not be another foot” of wall built during his administration. It remains to be seen whether Biden will act immediately to exercise “convenience clauses” to cancel existing contracts with private builders, which would involve paying termination fees-and, if so, whether his administration would go still further, downgrading or disassembling segments of Trump’s wall in environmentally sensitive areas and Native American sacred sites.

Security forces mobilize against possible “caravan” in Central America

Since December, social media messages in Central America, especially Honduras, have been calling for a new “caravan” of migrants. Many indicate an intention to depart from the bus station in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s second-largest city, on January 15.

In recent years, migrants have attempted “caravans”-hundreds or even thousands traveling en masse-as a way to migrate without paying thousands of dollars to a smuggler, while using safety in numbers to avoid the extreme dangers of the migrant trail through Mexico.

Under pressure from the Trump administration, security forces in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras dispersed attempted caravans, long before they came anywhere near the United States, in April and October 2019, and in January, October, and December 2020. It has been more than two years since a significant number of migrants traveling by “caravan” has reached the U.S. border. Migrants who pay steep fees to smugglers-whose business depends on official corruption along the migrant trail-continue to reach the U.S. border.

Whether in caravans or not, officials, advocates, and experts expect a steady increase in migration from Central America this year. COVID-19 and two November hurricanes have left millions in desperate conditions. In Honduras alone (population 9.7 million), 600,000 people have lost their employment since the pandemic began. This is on top of the large number of migrants who, as in past years, have fled Central America due to threats against their lives from criminal organizations and a lack of government protection.

About 250 migrants departed the San Pedro Sula bus station ahead of the scheduled date, on January 13. According to press reports, as of January 14 they were stranded on the city’s outskirts as police in riot gear assembled on the highway. An officer told AP “the intention was to stop the migrants from violating a pandemic-related curfew, check their documents and make sure they weren’t traveling with children that were not their own.”

Caravan participants will face similar blockages further along the route. On January 11 officials from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico met in the Honduran border city of Corinto, near San Pedro Sula and the Caribbean, to discuss migration coordination. While they stated that “migration is a right,” the government representatives said that all travelers will require passports, proof of parentage for any children, and proof of recent negative COVID-19 tests. On January 13 an 11-nation body, the Regional Conference on Migration, issued an “extraordinary declaration” pledging to increase cooperation amid “concern about irregular flows of migrants.”

Authorities in Honduras and Guatemala say they are deploying thousands of military personnel to interdict caravan participants. Guatemala, which even plans to use its Air Force, has declared a 15-day “state of prevention” in seven of its twenty-two departments (provinces) east of the central highlands. There, police and troops may restrict freedom of assembly and limit the population’s movements.


  • Katie Tobin, an official at UNHCR’s Washington office with long experience on asylum, will begin work next week as senior director for transborder security on Joe Biden’s National Security Council.
  • Winding down the “Remain in Mexico” program and treating asylum seekers more humanely “requires the active partnership of the Mexican government,” Leon Krauze points out in the Washington Post. Meanwhile Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden’s choice for National Security Advisor, spoke on January 6 with Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard about “a ‘new approach’ to migration issues that ‘offers alternatives to undertaking the dangerous journey to the United States,'” Reuters reported.
  • Border Patrol agents in Texas’s Del Rio Sector recovered the body of a pregnant 33-year-old Haitian woman from the Rio Grande on January 8. They later determined that Mexican authorities had recovered the body of her husband from the river a few days earlier.
  • The Trump administration has rushed through a host of 11th-hour regulations and immigration court decisions further limiting the right to seek asylum in the United States, which may take the Biden administration months to undo if it so chooses.

In response to a FOIA lawsuit filed by El Paso reporter Robert Moore, who was seeking information about a CBP crowd control exercise and metering of asylum seekers at ports of entry, the agency told a judge that “[t]he earliest it could start producing the requested records was June 30, 2021, and it would take up to six years to complete.”

Weekly border update: January 8, 2021

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S. Mexico border. This edition is a “double issue,” longer than usual. Following a holiday break, it covers events of the past three weeks.

You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list.

2021 budget

On December 27 President Trump signed into law an omnibus appropriations bill to fund the federal budget in 2021. It includes the Homeland Security Department’s appropriation, which was one of the most contentious areas of difference between the Democratic-majority House and the Republican-majority Senate.

The Senate had included $2 billion for further construction of Donald Trump’s border wall. The House’s version of the bill not only offered zero dollars for the wall, it sought to rescind wall-construction money from past bills. When leaders of both houses met to reconcile differences, the Senate got more of what it wanted so that President Trump might sign the bill: $1.375 billion for “the construction of barrier system along the southwest border.”

“We pushed back hard against this funding, and it was one of the last things resolved in our bill,” Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-California), the chair of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, told Border Report. “The White House made clear to leadership, however, that if the omnibus did not include this funding level and reference the ‘construction of border barrier system’ purpose from the FY20 bill, there would be no omnibus. That could have led to a government shutdown right before Christmas and could also have put in jeopardy the coronavirus pandemic funding.”

The question now is whether President-Elect Joe Biden is bound to spend the money on border wall construction, against his stated will. House Democrats say “no”: that the bill language provides wiggle room. “There is no definition of ‘barrier systems’ and, therefore, the Biden administration can use that for so many options,” another top House Democratic appropriator, Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo, Texas, told Border Report. “It could be used for technology, for roads, for lighting along the border, it can replace older existing fencing so therefore we don’t have to go with the new fence. It gives the administration a lot of leeway.” It’s not fully clear, but it may even be possible that “barrier systems” might include downgrading of wall designs in environmentally sensitive areas or Native American sacred sites.

This may all be moot, anyway, now that the Democrats are to assume Senate majority control following Tuesday’s election in Georgia. The new Congress is likely to approve any request from President Biden to rescind the border wall money.

Other border-relevant elements of the 2021 bill include:

  • A 1.4% increase in CBP’s operations budget (to $12,908,923,000, from $12,735,399,000 in 2020);
  • A 2% decrease in ICE’s budget (to $7,875,730,000, from $8,032,801,000 in 2020—the House bill had sought, but did not obtain, a sharp reduction in ICE’s detention capacity);
  • A 7% decrease in the budget of ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations division ($4,118,902,000, from $4,429,033,000 in 2020);
  • “No funding for new Border Patrol Agents or personnel hired above the baseline funded in fiscal year 2020;”
  • A $110 million, or one-third, increase in the budget for alternatives to detention programs; and
  • CBP and ICE reporting requirements to Congress, and in some cases to the public, about border security metrics, its border wall-building expenditure plan, family separation events, numbers of asylum seekers, migrant deaths, alternatives to detention, inspections and due process in detention facilities, unusually long stays in holding facilities, infrastructure needs at ports of entry, assistance provided to other law-enforcement agencies, and a “risk-based” border security improvement plan.

Biden administration won’t dismantle Trump policies on day one

Past updates have laid out some of the hardline Trump administration border and migration restrictions that the Biden administration has indicated it will undo. Transition officials, however, are trying to set expectations. Voicing concerns about a rush to the border and a lack of processing infrastructure, the President-Elect and top advisors warned in pre-Christmas press interactions that the phase-out may be more gradual than migrants rights’ advocates would prefer.

“It will get done and it will get done quickly but it’s not going to be able to be done on Day 1,” Biden said, adding that his administration would need “probably the next six months” to get processing and adjudication infrastructure in place to receive significant numbers of asylum seekers once again. Undoing Trump’s policies without that capacity in place, Biden added, would be “the last thing we need” because the result could be “two million people on our border.”

“Processing power at the border is not like a light that can be turned on and off,” Susan Rice, the Obama administration’s national security advisor, told Spain’s EFE news service in an interview given jointly with Jake Sullivan, Biden’s choice to fill her old position. “Migrants and asylum seekers should not at all believe the people in the region who are selling the idea that the border will suddenly be wide open to process everyone on the first day. It will not be so.”

As as result, the pandemic restrictions currently expelling people with fear of return will persist during the Biden administration’s early weeks. So will Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which has forced about 70,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their immigration hearings in Mexico. Sullivan said, though, that Biden “will work to promptly undo” the “safe third country” agreements signed with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, which would permit the United States to send other countries’ asylum seekers to apply for protection in those countries.

Policymakers are concerned about a “rush” of migrants to the border amid easing COVID travel restrictions and perceptions that a less hardline president is assuming power. Media in Central America are reporting about plans afoot in Honduras to organize a new migrant caravan, to depart on January 15.

CBP releases December border numbers

So far, U.S. government data are showing growing migration at the border, but not a surge. CBP’s numbers for December, released on January 7, showed a 3 percent increase in Border Patrol apprehensions of migrants from November to December.

The overall number—70,630 people apprehended—was very high by the standards of recent years. Of those, however, 60,010 were quickly expelled under pandemic border restrictions. And there was much double-counting, as the rapid expulsions have brought a sharp increase in repeat attempts to migrate.

Monthly migrant apprehensions have been roughly at the same level—the mid-to-high 60,000s—since September. The apprehended population, however, has become slightly less Mexican and more Central American. Apprehensions of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras increased 24 percent from November to December, while apprehensions of Mexican migrants—still the majority—fell by 6 percent. This was the second straight monthly decline in apprehensions of Mexicans, while apprehensions of Central Americans have been increasing steadily since June.

Only 13 percent of apprehended migrants were children or parents with children. That is a sharp reversal from 2019, when children and families were two-thirds of the apprehended population. The main reason is the current impossibility of pursuing asylum at the border, compounded by the controversial “Title 42” pandemic policy of expelling most migrants as quickly as possible, regardless of their fear of return. Border Patrol and CBP expelled migrants 393,807 times between March—when pandemic border measures went into place—and December.

The data points to increases in border-zone seizures of heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, and methamphetamine, starting a few months after the imposition of pandemic border restrictions. Though cartels have nimbly adjusted to the new measures, as Steve Fisher and Kirk Semple reported in a late December New York Times analysis, U.S. border authorities are intercepting a modestly larger share of their product. (No similar trend is evident for marijuana; smuggling from Mexico has plummeted in recent years as many U.S. states have legalized and regulated cannabis.)

Download a packet of WOLA border and migration infographics at

The Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act is now law

On January 1 President Trump signed into law the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act of 2019 (S. 2174), a bill that helps border jurisdictions deal with the tragedy of hundreds of migrants who die of dehydration and exposure in borderland deserts and wilderness areas each year.

S. 2174 originated in the Senate, co-sponsored by Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Kamala Harris (D-California, the Vice President-Elect). It was not a controversial piece of legislation: it passed the Senate under unanimous consent in mid-Novembe, and an identical House version (H.R. 8772), co-sponsored by Reps. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) and Will Hurd (R-Texas), passed quickly in mid-December under suspension of the rules.

The new law authorizes funding for proper care and identification of remains, which will assist their return to citizens of other countries who have often gone years without knowing what happened to their loved ones who migrated. It authorizes funding for 170 solar-powered rescue beacons in the desert so that migrants in distress can call for help.

The bill also includes detailed reporting requirements, since data about the migrant deaths problem have been very spotty. For instance, while Border Patrol listed only 43 migrant remains found in Arizona between January and September 2020, a joint project of the Pima County (Tucson) Medical Examiner’s Office and the NGO Humane Borders reported finding 181 during that period.

In fact, the Pima-Humane Borders effort recorded its highest-ever total of migrant remains in 2020: 227 deaths after the hottest summer in Arizona’s history. This was way up from 144 in 2019 and 128 in 2018. While the heat is a big reason for the increase, so is the pandemic border closure and “expulsions” policy, which eliminated incentives for people who might otherwise seek asylum to turn themselves in to border agents. “They can’t apply for asylum, so their options are considerably cut down and they’re forced into more and more dangerous situations,” Montana Thames, of the Arizona humanitarian group No More Deaths, told Mother Jones. Thames added that “wall construction is happening closer to Nogales and Sasabe, where there are more resources—so because of the wall constitution, they have to go to more dangerous and more remote parts of the desert.”

In most recent years, Arizona’s migrant deaths total had been second to south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. There, in Brooks County about 80 miles north of the border, migrants trying to walk around a Border Patrol highway checkpoint have died in large numbers. In 2020, though, according to the Brooks County sheriff’s office, migrant deaths fell to 34 in 2020, down from 45 in 2019. The problem is worst right now in Arizona as tougher border measures push migrants to some of the most remote deserts.


  • CBP released a “Strategy 2021-2026” document that, at 1,250 words over 32 photo-heavy pages, is more of a brochure than a strategy discussion. It does reveal, though, that the agency has increased Border Patrol agent hiring by 10 percent and CBP officer hiring by 22%, reversing years of decline caused by difficulties in recruitment and bringing the agencies closer to their authorized staffing levels. Notably, except for one photo caption, the document does not discuss the border wall.
  • The DHS Office of Immigration Statistics released its 2020 “Enforcement Lifecycle Report,” which provides data about what happened to migrants after they were apprehended or presented at ports of entry.
  • President Trump pardoned two CBP officers who were convicted in 2006 of beating an apprehended migrant with a shotgun, shooting him, and then attempting to cover up the crime.
  • A joint investigation by Human Rights Watch, Stanford University’s Human Rights in Trauma Mental Health Program, and Willamette University’s Child and Family Advocacy Clinic documents trauma that children and families suffered as a direct result of the Remain in Mexico program.
  • At the Washington Post, Hannah Dreier tells the outrageous and sad story of Kevin Euceda, a Honduran asylum seeker who spent three years in ICE detention, asked to be deported as COVID swept through his detention center, and died—or was killed—shortly after his return.
  • The San Diego Union-Tribune’s Kate Morrissey provides a helpful primer on the U.S. asylum system, its origins, and possible reforms like reducing the court backlog, providing legal aid, sharply reducing detention, and working with other countries.
  • The number of National Guard and other U.S. military personnel deployed to the border has fallen to 3,600—from well over 5,000 in 2018—reports Military Times.
  • The Intercept’s Ryan Devereaux examines the Border Patrol’s hardline, politically active union, which attached itself very closely to Donald Trump and his unsuccessful reelection campaign, and the larger issue of a politicized border security apparatus that is likely to clash with the Biden administration.
  • We salute the memory of two respected Mexican migrant shelter operators who died of COVID-19-related complications since mid-December. Juan Francisco Louriero of the San Juan Bosco shelter in Nogales and Father Pedro Pantoja of the Casa del Migrante de Saltillo were both 76 years old.

Weekly border update: December 18, 2020

There’s so much happening at the U.S.-Mexico border—much of it outrageous, some of it heroic—that it’s hard to keep track. With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments in 900 words or less. We welcome your feedback.

You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list.

2021 spending package probably includes some border wall money

The House and Senate have almost completely agreed on a federal budget for 2021. Its final approval might not come until next week, as negotiations continue over an accompanying COVID-19 relief package.

Border wall and ICE detention money were reportedly two of the sticking points on the 2021 omnibus budget bill. The Republican-majority Senate’s Homeland Security appropriation had sought to devote $1.96 billion to border wall-building next year, while the Democratic-majority House sought to zero out the wall and rescind some past-year money. The House also would have paid for roughly half as many ICE detention beds as the Senate.

The chambers appear to have reached a compromise. “The final disposition of immigrant detention bed capacity and border wall funding wasn’t immediately clear,” Roll Call reported on December 14. “But there was an expectation that the average daily population at ICE facilities would be cut under the tentative agreement in exchange for some wall construction funding.”

Nobody has seen any numbers, and it isn’t clear how the bill’s language might compel President-elect Joe Biden, who has said he would stop wall construction, to spend any new wall-building money.

The Washington Post learned from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that about $3.3 billion in its Defense budget wall construction accounts will be unspent as of January 20. As it might cost $700 million in fees to extricate the Corps from its contracts with construction companies, a halt would bring a net savings of about $2.6 billion.

Meanwhile in Arizona, NPR reported, “contractors have added shifts—they’re working all night long under light towers to meet Trump’s goal of 450 miles of new barriers before his term is over.”

El Salvador “safe third country” agreement is finalized

Chad Wolf, the acting secretary for Homeland Security (depending on whom you ask), visited El Salvador this week. There, he met with President Nayib Bukele and announced implementation accords for a so-called Asylum Cooperative Agreement (ACA, or “safe third country” agreement) that the United States and El Salvador signed in September 2019.

Under this agreement, El Salvador—a country so unsafe that it often tops the list of U.S. asylum seekers’ nationalities—will accept U.S. transfers of other countries’ asylum seekers, who would then need to seek protection in El Salvador.

DHS signed similar agreements with Guatemala and Honduras in 2019. Only the Guatemala agreement entered into force, and the Trump administration sent 939 Salvadoran and Honduran asylum seekers to Guatemala City between October 2019 and March 2020, when pandemic measures suspended the arrangement. Only 20 percent of them decided to apply for asylum in Guatemala; at least some of the rest were assuredly returned to danger. Human Rights Watch and Refugees International performed follow-up fieldwork in Guatemala, and found that of 30 returnees interviewed:

Several said they had no family or support networks in Guatemala and that they feared for their safety in Guatemala. Many indicated they would return to El Salvador and Honduras despite continuing to express a fear of persecution there.

Don’t expect the Biden administration to implement the El Salvador or other Northern Triangle safe third country agreements. A Biden campaign document was unequivocal: “Biden will end these [detrimental asylum] policies, starting with Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols and Safe Third Country Agreements.”

CBP’s November numbers show the expected migrant “wave” flattening out, for now

On December 14 Customs and Border Protection released monthly border statistics, covering November. After six consecutive months of increases in Border Patrol’s apprehensions of undocumented migrants, the new data showed a leveling off last month.

Download a PDF of dozens of border infographics at
  • Apprehensions declined by 0.8 percent, from 67,639 to 67,101, from October to November.
  • This, however, was the largest apprehensions number for a November since November 2005.
  • Note that this number measures “apprehensions” or “encounters,” not “people.” The quick turnaround of CBP’s pandemic-era expulsions is spurring recidivism as migrants turn around and try to cross again. The 67,101 includes much double and triple-counting.
  • Between March and November—with some double-counting—CBP expelled 328,037 apprehended migrants under the “Title 42” CDC pandemic policy, which ejects adult and family asylum seekers without a hearing. That policy faces legal challenges; on whether to lift or alter it, “the incoming administration has been silent,” a New York Times analysis notes.
  • Demographic trends are mixed. Compared to October,        
    • single adults from Mexico declined 2 percent;
    • single adults from the Northern Triangle increased 21 percent;
    • unaccompanied children from Guatemala and El Salvador increased, but children from Honduras and Mexico declined;
    • family unit members from Guatemala and Mexico increased, but those from El Salvador and Honduras declined.
Download a PDF of dozens of border infographics at

As noted in previous updates, officials and press coverage are predicting a migrant “surge” from Central America in early 2021. While that remains likely, November’s apprehension data revealed an unexpected break in momentum. One hypothesis: mobility was curtailed during the first half of November, when Central America was slammed by two major hurricanes.


  • In a Wednesday voice vote, the House of Representatives passed the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act (S. 2174), which addresses the longstanding crisis of hundreds of migrants each year dying in U.S. borderlands of dehydration and exposure. It authorizes spending for rescue beacons, identification of remains, and other priorities, as discussed in last week’s update. Because of some technical changes to the bill’s language, it needs the Senate—which passed the bill in November—to quickly approve it a second time before it goes to the President for signature.
  • A new Human Rights First report counts at least 1,314 attacks, including kidnappings, rapes, and assault, on asylum seekers subject to the “Remain in Mexico” policy in Mexican border cities.
  • Though a Supreme Court decision just preserved the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a big challenge goes before a Texas federal court on Tuesday. A suit led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, now known nationally for leading a multi-state challenge to Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory, is going before Houston District Judge Andrew Hanen, who during the Obama administration ruled against two other deferred-action programs and now may find DACA to be illegal.
  • “Although Biden promised to reverse Trump’s most restrictive immigration policies, he didn’t include immigration among his top four priorities: the coronavirus pandemic, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change. That was intentional,” an unnamed source close to the transition told NPR’s Franco Ordóñez, adding “that the Biden campaign and then the transition team felt that immigration activists had become too adversarial.”

Weekly border update: December 11, 2020

There’s so much happening at the U.S.-Mexico border—much of it outrageous, some of it heroic—that it’s hard to keep track. With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments in 900 words or less. We welcome your feedback.

You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list.

Border wall a key disagreement delaying 2021 appropriations

Today, December 11, is the deadline that Congress had set for passage of a 2021 federal government budget. While the Democratic-majority House and Republican-majority Senate continue talks on a budget that Donald Trump might sign, they’re not finished. The Senate is likely to approve a continuing resolution, which the House passed Wednesday, extending the deadline to December 18 and averting a government shutdown in the midst of a pandemic.

Legislators are “torn on at least a dozen policy issues, particularly related to immigration,” congressional staff told the Washington Post. “The most divisive issues in government spending talks concern funding for President Trump’s border wall with Mexico and detention facilities run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

The two chambers’ versions of the 2021 Homeland Security Appropriations bill could hardly differ more widely on border wall funding. The Senate bill—which the Senate Appropriations Committee revealed in November but never voted on—provides $1.96 billion “for the construction of barrier system” along the U.S.-Mexico border. The House bill—which the House Appropriations Committee passed in July but was never debated on the floor—not only has no money for wall construction, it would rescind $1.38 billion from 2020 and ban future transfers of Defense Department funds for wall-building, as President Trump has done by declaring a “state of emergency.”

“Trump almost certainly won’t sign a package that guts funding for one of his biggest priorities as his administration comes to a close,” notes Politico. Still, with President-elect Biden promising to hold wall construction immediately upon his inauguration, it’s not clear what would happen with any wall-building money in the 2021 bill.

Media continue pointing to increasing migration, “caravan”

CBP has yet to release its November migrant apprehensions numbers. But November is likely to be the seventh consecutive month of increased migration since arrivals hit a pandemic low in April. Reports in major media—some citing CBP officials—are rumbling about an accelerating increase in migration from pandemic and hurricane-hit Central America. A common framing is that it’s an “early test” for the incoming Biden administration.

Officials are reporting increased arrivals of unaccompanied children, who are less subject to immediate expulsion under questionably legal pandemic border measures. Deputy Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz said that the agency is “apprehending an average of 153 young migrants a day at the border since October.” In court filings, CBP has projected “that the flow of unaccompanied children could increase by 50 percent by late March 2021,” the Texas Tribune reports.

Often, Ortiz said, the children and their smugglers are seeking to avoid apprehension—which is a new pattern—and are being kept in “stash houses” in the border zone before being moved further north. For those who are apprehended, the Office of Refugee Resettlement—to which unaccompanied children are transferred—has less shelter space due to COVID-19 distancing restrictions: 7,971 beds, down from the norm of 13,764.

More migration from pandemic and hurricane-battered Central America appears to be a certainty. About 1,000 Honduran people, most of them victims of hurricanes Eta and Iota, departed the bus station in San Pedro Sula on Wednesday night in a “caravan” reportedly organized over social media. These efforts to migrate across Mexico, using “safety in numbers” rather than paying thousands of dollars to smugglers, became a staple of Fox News coverage and Donald Trump messaging in 2018.

Since then, though, almost none have made it through Mexico. A few members of a January 2019 caravan trickled into the United States, but most remained in Mexico. Since then, Mexico has deployed security and migration forces to block attempted caravans in the country’s far south, in April and October 2019, and again in January 2020. In October 2020, a caravan of Hondurans was broken up in Guatemala. And now, Guatemala’s National Police have announced “preventive actions” against new Honduran migration, requiring travelers to have valid passports and COVID-19 tests.

It’s not clear what a migrant wave might mean for the Biden team’s promised dismantling of the Trump administration’s hardline migration measures. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Biden transition team is “trying to decide which policies to change and when, in order to fulfill Mr. Biden’s campaign promises without creating the appearance of leniency.” This may include “temporarily leaving in place Mr. Trump’s pandemic order to return most migrants to Mexico shortly after they cross the border,” despite the illegality of expelling endangered people without giving them a hearing.

In WOLA’s view, dealing with a rising flow of asylum-seeking migrants is an administrative issue that—while difficult because the Trump administration is leaving behind a lack of infrastructure—can be handled with little drama. In a December 9 commentary, WOLA points to short, medium, and long term measures that the Biden administration can implement to handle a “wave” while guaranteeing protection to those who need it.

Hope for passage of missing migrant bill

The remains of about 8,000 migrants, most of whom died painful deaths of dehydration and exposure, have been found on U.S. soil, in border regions, since 1998. Advocates who have spent years trying to prevent these deaths, and to identify the remains, are hopeful that long-awaited legislation might ease their work.

S. 2174, the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act of 2019, co-sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris (D-California), passed the Senate by unanimous consent on November 16. Among other measures, the bill would fund the installation of up to 170 rescue beacons in desert areas, while helping local jurisdictions and non-profits pay for efforts to handle and identify migrant remains.

An identical bill in the House, H.R. 8772, was introduced November 18 by Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) and Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas). It needs to pass by the end of the 2020 congressional session in order to become law, otherwise both chambers need to start over again in 2021.


  • The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) extended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for some citizens of El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan, Honduras, and Nepal until at least October of 2021.
  • The Trump administration is leaving office by promulgating its most restrictive rule yet undoing the right to seek asylum.
  • The New York Times published a wild story, based on a whistleblower complaint and a FOIA request, alleging that border wall contractor SLS and subcontractor Ultimate Concrete had brought Mexican citizens illegally onto their work site, on the U.S. side of the border in California, to work as armed guards. CBP records meanwhile showed that between October 2019 and March 2020, more than 320 breaches of the border wall took place in California and Arizona—nearly 2 per day.
  • Thirty-five Democratic members of the House of Representatives, led by Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), sent a letter to Joe Biden asking him to “immediately” rescind Trump’s emergency declarations, waivers, and private property condemnations enabling wall-building.
  • The El Paso Times ran a 4,000-word account of the journey of a Guatemalan father and his 10-year-old daughter caught in the web of “Remain in Mexico.”

Government reports relevant to Latin America obtained in November

  • Southwest Border: Information on Federal Agencies’ Process for Acquiring Private Land for Barriers (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, November 17, 2020).
    An update on the status of 5,275 acres of eminent domain claims, for which the federal government seeks to seize land from private property owners to build the Trump administration’s border wall.
  • Rule of Law Assistance: State and USAID Could Improve Monitoring Efforts (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, November 9, 2020).
    A look at how the State Department’s Narcotics Bureau and USAID monior the effectiveness of rule of law programs, with Colombia one of the countries most scrutinized.
  • Guyana – Bell 412EPi and 429 Helicopters (Washington: Defense Security Cooperation Agency, October 30, 2020).
    The President must notify Congress of any pending Foreign Military Sale of defense articles or services exceeding $50 million, of design and construction services exceeding $200 million, or any major defense equipment exceeding $14 million.
  • June S. Beittel, Colombia: Background and U.S. Relations (Washington: Congressional Research Service, October 26, 2020).
    A detailed overview of past and current U.S. assistance to Colombia, as well as Colombia’s current political outlook.

Weekly border update: December 4, 2020

There’s so much happening at the U.S.-Mexico border—much of it outrageous, some of it heroic—that it’s hard to keep track. With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments in 900 words or less. We welcome your feedback.

You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list.

Migrant deaths rise in Arizona

An Arizona Republic investigation finds a “dramatic rise in human smuggling activity across southern Arizona over the past year,” much of it a response to COVID-19-related border closures and rapid migrant expulsions.

At the beginning of the 2010s, Arizona was the part of the border where Border Patrol apprehended the most undocumented migrants. But the decade saw steady declines in Arizona. Asylum-seeking child and family migrants, mostly from Central America, became the majority of all apprehended migrants. Kids and families, who generally seek to be apprehended in order to petition for protection, arrived mostly in Texas and California—not Arizona.

Now, though, with the Trump administration closing off access to asylum and using pandemic measures to quickly expel nearly all apprehended migrants, the migrant population has become much more adult, and much more likely to seek to avoid apprehension. That means traveling with smugglers who will take migrants through remote areas where the chances of getting caught are reduced—like Arizona’s vast, treacherous borderland deserts.

“Once again, Arizona is a top corridor for migrants and smugglers making their illegal journey into the United States,” the Republic reports. CBP’s Tucson Sector ranked 2nd, among CBP’s 9 border sectors, in October 2020 migrant apprehensions, with 11,119. That’s up from 8,373 in September and 6,766 in August. In fiscal year 2019, Tucson had been a distant 4th among the 9 sectors.

That means more people are risking death of dehydration or exposure in Arizona’s deserts. “So far in 2020, southern Arizona has recorded the recovery of 205 migrant remains, according to the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner,” the Arizona Republic reported. That already makes 2020 the third-deadliest year since the Pima Medical Examiner started keeping data in 2020. With a month to go, it places this year “within striking distance to exceed 2010’s record of 222 bodies found in a single year.”

Mexico’s migrant apprehensions increase

Unlike U.S. authorities, Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, has continued to allow migrants apprehended near its borders to petition for asylum. COMAR’s updated data show that it received 4,257 asylum requests in November, up from a post-lockdown low of 977 in April. This is only slightly fewer than November 2018 (5,323) and November 2019 (4,548), indicating that migration through Mexico is recovering to pre-pandemic levels. 2020’s asylum requests have come mostly from Hondurans, Haitians, Cubans, Salvadorans, and Venezuelans.

Another indicator is apprehensions. Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) reports capturing 12,145 migrants in October. This is the agency’s largest monthly total since October 2019, with the exception of January 2020 when the INM broke up a “caravan” of Hondurans.

Citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras make up 96 percent of the INM’s October total, another indicator of a return to pre-pandemic migration levels. The recent migrant population, though, is more adult: only 11% of those apprehended in October were children. In October 2019, when Mexico apprehended a similar number, 23% were children.

INM, which apprehends, detains, and deports migrants, came under strong criticism this week from the Mexican government’s human rights ombudsman (CNDH) and non-governmental human rights groups. A statement from CNDH and NGOs warns that under the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, INM’s local delegations are increasingly being headed by individuals with a military background and little migration expertise.

A CNDH report released this week faults INM for a lethal March incident at its migrant detention center in Tenosique, Tabasco, near the Guatemala border. Detainees protesting close-quarters detention during the pandemic set fire to mattresses; the smoke asphyxiated a Guatemalan man while guards barred the migrants’ exit and “laughed.”

The investigative website Animal Político found, meanwhile, that INM has tested only 78 of its detainees for COVID-19, and 52 were positive.

More coverage of obstacles Biden will likely face

A Washington Post series, among other media accounts published this week, point to obstacles that the incoming Biden administration might face in undoing Donald Trump’s hardline border security and migration policies. Among them:

  • A reversal of “Remain in Mexico” and other blocks to asylum seekers could face an imminent wave of migration with insufficient capacity to process it.
  • Biden’s “likely stop-work order” on the border wall will face “‘demobilization’ costs of withdrawing crews and equipment, but the contracts have a termination clause that allows the government to break the deals.” Meanwhile, other immigration priorities are “eclipsing calls to tear down portions of the wall that already exist,” according to The New York Times.
  • Reducing deportations will run up against agencies like ICE and CBP that “are secretive, closely adopted President Trump’s aggressive immigration agenda and can be slow to change. They also have labor unions that endorsed Trump.”
  • In general, untangling the Trump administration’s web of restrictive regulations and policies will be difficult, probably requiring a phaseout that is more gradual than Biden officials would prefer. “People are really overwhelmed trying to figure out the sheer issues, the sheer number of pieces you have to coordinate,” someone CNN identifies as “a source familiar with the transition” said. “This is the genius of Stephen Miller.”


  • An early November court filing reported that investigators had not found parents whom DHS had separated from 666 children in 2017 and 2018. Since then, 38 children’s parents have been located, leaving 628. Lawyers say that DHS has been withholding information necessary to locate parents.
  • As of November 30, 44 detainees at ICE’s El Paso Service Processing Center had tested positive for COVID-19. This is the worst current outbreak at all ICE detention centers. The El Paso facility suffers from a “sustained failure in leadership” by ICE in a city hit hard by the pandemic, Linda Corchado of the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center told El Paso Matters.
  • The FBI released violent crime data for 2019, and—as is consistently the case—nearly all U.S. cities near the Mexico border reported lower violent crime rates than the national average. “Spillover violence” from Mexico is quite rare.

Weekly border update: November 27, 2020

There’s so much happening at the U.S.-Mexico border—much of it outrageous, some of it heroic—that it’s hard to keep track. With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments in 900 words or less. We welcome your feedback.

Hurricanes expected to bring a rise in migration

In the aftermath of Hurricane Eta, which made landfall in Central America on November 3, and Hurricane Iota, which hit in almost the exact spot on November 16, aid workers and community leaders are telling media to expect a new wave of migration as many of the storms’ hardest-hit victims head north.

The hurricanes come on top of a COVID-19-related economic depression, which added to some of the world’s highest levels of criminal violence, in one of the world’s regions most susceptible to the impact of climate change.

Resulting migration “is going to be much bigger than what we have been seeing,” Jenny Arguello, a sociologist who studies migration flows in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, told the AP. “I believe entire communities are going to leave.” Added Mauro Verzeletti, director of the Casa del Migrante in Guatemala City, “They’ve already started to come, it has begun.”

Journalists from Mexico and Honduras wrote in a Washington Post column that the phrase “we’re taking a trip in January” is being heard in northern Honduras neighborhoods hit by the hurricanes. Alberto Pradilla and Jennifer Ávila recommend that President-Elect Joe Biden offer or expand Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to citizens of the affected countries, and end the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” (or Migrant Protection Protocols, MPP) policy, which has sent more than 70,000 asylum-seeking migrants back across the border to await their hearings in Mexico.

Migrants who seek to travel in “caravans” are unlikely to succeed: Mexican and Guatemalan forces have dispersed all attempted caravans since 2019. Those who pay large amounts to migrant smugglers are more likely to make it across Mexico to the U.S. border. But then, it’s not clear how quickly the Biden administration will dismantle MPP or the blanket CDC quarantine order that has quickly expelled most asylum seekers since March.

“If Biden hits reverse too hard, it could cost him politically,” observes Bloomberg Opinion columnist Noah Smith. Already, publications like the archconservative Washington Times have begun using the phrase “Biden surge” to describe increases in undocumented migration that actually began during the summer. CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan alleged that “perceived and or anticipated shifts in policies” once Biden takes office are a factor driving the increase.

Alejandro Mayorkas, DHS secretary nominee, may go slow on border and asylum

The Biden transition announced its choice of Alejandro Mayorkas, the Cuban-born son of Jewish parents who headed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) during the Obama administration, as its nominee for Secretary for Homeland Security. The Washington Post described Mayorkas as “a savvy department veteran” whose choice “thrilled immigrant advocates.”

Mayorkas oversaw the rollout of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, while gaining a reputation for, former acting DHS secretary Rand Beers told The New York Times, balancing “a vigilance of security threats with an interest in helping immigrants in need.”

Bloomberg’s Smith expects a Secretary Mayorkas to take a go-slow approach to dismantling the Trump administration’s curbs on asylum for Central American migrants. “Biden may even negotiate new, though less rigid, agreements to keep some asylum seekers at home as the administration tries to improve living conditions in those countries,” he noted. Much, too, will be up to Biden’s choice to head the Department of Justice, which has jurisdiction over the immigration court system and its interpretation of asylum criteria.

Mayorkas sits on the board of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which has played a central role in the humanitarian and legal response to “Remain in Mexico” in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and elsewhere. Still, observers caution that MPP may not disappear immediately after the inauguration. Fernando García of the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights told NBC that it remains unclear what will happen to those who have been “remaining in Mexico” for many months already, or how it might apply to a new wave of migrants. “To end it doesn’t mean now we have the capacity to bring everyone back right away and I’m very concerned. How are we going to handle it?”

McAllen processing facility closes for renovation

Processing capacity is the most crucial short-term need when a large number of protection-seeking migrants appears at the border. Border authorities need the ability to receive migrants at ports of entry, then quickly take personal and biometric information, scan for health issues, begin asylum paperwork, and enter people into refugee resettlement or alternatives-to-detention programs.

In Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, a warehouse-sized Central Processing Facility (CPC) played that role since the Obama administration’s CBP established it in 2014. Though migrants’ stays there rarely exceeded 72 hours, the facility gained notoriety for dehumanizing images of the cheap chain-link “cages” the facility used to separate groups.

The Washington Post reports that the CPC is to undergo renovation, in part using funds for upgrades in a 2019 emergency supplemental appropriation. This time, the Post notes, the chain link will be replaced “with clear plastic dividers,” with “more recreation and play areas for children, as well as more permanent kitchen, infirmary and shower facilities.”

The renovation will take a year and a half—which means no processing infrastructure will be available in the Rio Grande Valley if there is a wave of protection-seeking migration early in the Biden administration. The most likely solution will be to construct something temporary, like a “soft-sided” or tent-based facility.


  • Laura Weiss at The New Republic and Catherine Rampell at The Washington Post explore transitional justice or other non-repetition guarantees that a Biden administration might pursue to hold Trump officials accountable for “one of the largest-scale, ethnically motivated human rights abuses perpetrated by the U.S. government since Japanese internment.”
  • The latest in a two-year series of quarterly reports on “metering” at border ports of entry, published by the University of Texas’s Strauss Center, finds approximately 15,690 asylum seekers, in 9 Mexican border cities, currently on waitlists to have a chance to ask officials for protection.
  • The Trump administration, reversing itself, agreed to delay the imminent deportation of as many as a dozen women who alleged medical abuse at the Irwin County ICE detention center in Georgia.
  • NBC News reports on 28 migrant children and their asylum-seeking parents who are now facing deportation after months in a family detention center, where they refused an ICE offer to allow the children to stay in the United States, in custody of the office of Refugee Resettlement, if they separated from their parents.
  • A new GAO report on the status of eminent domain cases for wall construction, mostly in South Texas, detailed plans to acquire 1,016 tracts of private land totaling 3,752 acres.
  • The Hill reports on a “coming showdown” between the Trump administration and House Democrats about whether border wall money will be in the 2021 federal budget. Congress needs to pass a budget—or approve a continuing resolution— by December 11 to avoid a “government shutdown”, and the House and Senate bills differ wildly on border wall funding. There is some likelihood, though, that Joe Biden, who has pledged to stop wall construction, would be able to transfer any wall-building funds in the 2021 budget to other priorities.

A few important border graphics

Late Thursday, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released a pile of data about migration and drug seizures at the U.S.-Mexico border in October.

Here are some key trends. Click on any graphic to expand in a new window. You can download a PDF packet of more than 30 of these infographics at

The Trump administration has been around for 46 months (yes I know). Of those 46, October 2020 saw the 7th largest number of undocumented migrants apprehended at the border. And now they can’t blame it on “loopholes” or agents being constrained. They’re implementing some of the hardest-line anti-migration tactics ever, express-expelling most everybody, including asylum seekers, under a March 2020 CDC quarantine order.
Under the CDC border closure, US authorities have now express-expelled undocumented migrants 266,367 times. (The actual number of individual people is fewer, because some have been caught more than once.) At least 13,000 of those expelled were children who arrived unaccompanied, and were pushed back to their home countries unaccompanied.
Border Patrol is apprehending more single adults than at any time in the past decade. While there’s double-counting here because “expelled” migrants often make a second or third attempt quickly, this is a dramatic change in the profile of migrants. Many of them may be deportees seeking to reunite with spouses, children, or other family members. Nearly all seek to avoid apprehension, which means it’s likely that more will die of dehydration or exposure in deserts and other wilderness areas.
For much of the 2010s, a large number—often a majority—of apprehended migrants were children and families, usually seeking to be apprehended in order to petition for asylum or other protection. Draconian Trump policies like “Remain in Mexico” reduced child and family asylum-seeking migration—but it has been slowly recovering in recent months.
Expulsions mean it’s virtually impossible for a parent or child who needs protection to do so by approaching a port of entry (official border crossing).
Mexico’s migrant apprehensions recovered in September to pre-pandemic levels. The overwhelming majority are from Central America.
After a pandemic lull, applications for asylum before Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR recovered to early 2020 levels in October.
Something is up with drug seizures. I had to increase the y-axis on three of these charts because of a big jump from September to October. Nearly all seizures occurred at ports of entry where CBP officers inspect vehicles, not between the ports where Border Patrol operates.

Two interviews from last Thursday

I enjoyed talking about the border for an hour, on DC poet and all-around-brilliant person Ethelbert Miller’s radio show, on November 19.

And later that same day I was pleased that Cuestión de Poder, on the NTN24 cable network, wanted to dig into the COVID-era expansion of Latin America’s militaries’ roles. We’ll be wrestling with this for a while.

Also, the plants in my home office are thriving right now.

Weekly Border Update: November 20, 2020

There’s so much happening at the U.S.-Mexico border—much of it outrageous, some of it heroic—that it’s hard to keep track. With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments in 900 words or less. We welcome your feedback.

October sees another big jump in undocumented migration

CBP reported on November 19 that, during October, Border Patrol apprehended 66,337 undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. (CBP encountered another 2,900 migrants at border ports of entry.) That was the most apprehensions since July 2019. It was the heaviest October since 2005. It was the 7th largest monthly total during the Trump administration’s 46 months.

57,206 of those apprehended, 86%, were single adults: by far the largest monthly single-adult total for the months we have data (since October 2011).

We say “apprehensions,” not “people,” as there may be some double-counting of migrants who were caught more than once. CBP reported a 37% “recidivism rate”—the portion of people caught more than once—between April and September 2020, up from 7 percent in FY 2019.

A key reason for high recidivism is the Trump administration’s pandemic policy, laid out in a March 2020 CDC order, of rapidly expelling nearly all undocumented migrants, with minimal processing. CBP is expelling Mexican and Central Americans back into Mexico, usually in less than 90 minutes, regardless of the migrants’ protection needs. US authorities expelled undocumented migrants 266,367 times between March and October. (See a May 2020 joint statement condemning the expulsion policy.)

As they involve minimal time in detention, and reduce the effort needed to cross again, the rapid expulsions facilitate repeat attempts. Migrant smugglers praised the pandemic policy in interviews with Reuters. They “often attempt to get migrants back across the border the very same day they are deported.” Their fees, “which can be $7,000, or double that,” for Central Americans, usually involve a “package” of two or three attempted border crossings. The border expulsions save smugglers money, as they don’t have to transit their clients all the way across Mexico again. One said the cost of that trip is “at least $800 per migrant paying off drug cartels for the right to transit through their turf,” plus funds for food, shelter, transportation, and bribes to Mexican authorities.

WOLA and others have been warning about a coming wave of migration from Central America and Mexico, due to persistently severe violence, climate-related crop failures, the COVID-19 economic depression, and now two strong hurricanes hitting Central America during the first half of November. That wave now appears to be underway.

A few other notes from the latest CBP data:

  • Apprehensions of children and families rose to their highest level since the pre-pandemic month of December 2019.
  • Mexico’s share of the apprehended population was 63%, up from a low of 13% in May 2019 but down from a high of 81% in May and June 2020.
  • Something is up with drug seizures. CBP seized 101% more heroin, 58% more fentanyl, 57% more cocaine, and 33% more methamphetamine in October than in September. 89% of fentanyl, and more than 90% of the other drugs, were seized at ports of entry.

Download WOLA’s package of border graphics illustrating this data, as a 4.5MB .pdf file, at

Court says unaccompanied children can’t be expelled

Under the March 2020 CDC order, U.S. border authorities have expelled nearly all migrants who would otherwise be petitioning for asylum or other protection in the United States. Those expelled include at least 13,000 children from non-contiguous countries who arrived at the border unaccompanied. Before the pandemic measures, these children would have been automatically placed in custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement and entered into asylum proceedings, as mandated by the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA). Most troublingly, the New York Times reported in October that CBP had expelled some non-Mexican children, unaccompanied, back into Mexico.

On November 18 DC District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan, a Clinton appointee, ordered a stop to the expulsions of unaccompanied children, agreeing with ACLU-represented plaintiffs that the COVID-19 border measures cannot supersede the TVPRA. All other undocumented migrants at the border, however, remain subject to immediate expulsion.

In another victory for migrant children’s rights, Mexico published in its official register a legal change prohibiting its longstanding practice of holding children in its migrant detention centers. Mexico will instead transfer undocumented migrant children to its federal family welfare agency.

Speculation about what Biden might do with the border wall

During the 2020 campaign, President-Elect Joe Biden pledged to stop the Trump administration’s border wall construction. In August, he told reporters, “there will not be another foot of wall constructed on my administration.”

How Biden might do that, and how far he might go, was the topic of analyses published last week by The Arizona Republic, NPR, The Daily Beast, and Arizona NPR’s Fronteras Desk.

Some of the issues these analyses identified:

  • Ending the February 2019 “national emergency” declaration and other measures that Donald Trump has used to transfer approximately $10 billion from the Defense Department’s budget into wall-building. Biden can do this easily by withdrawing Trump’s declaration.
  • Canceling or modifying 27 existing contracts, with 11 different contractors, for border wall construction. While these contracts include clauses allowing a halt to work, which are standard in government procurement procedure, they may involve termination fees, and contractors could bring disputes to the federal government’s Court of Federal Claims.
  • Desisting from eminent-domain lawsuits to seize private property owners’ land for new wall, mainly in Texas: “End. Stop. Done. Over. Not going to do it. Withdraw the lawsuits. We’re out. We’re not going to confiscate the land,” Biden said in August. He can do this easily by pulling the suits.
  • Biden has not specified whether he would dismantle any wall. Advocates are urging the incoming administration to take it down in remote areas where it threatens fragile ecosystems, like Arizona’s Quitobaquito Springs and San Pedro River, along important wildlife migration routes, and at sites sacred to indigenous communities.

Weekly border update: November 13, 2020

Between Labor Day and Election Day, I produced super-brief weekly border and migration updates on a trial basis. We sent them to WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list, but didn’t advertise them widely because we wanted to evaluate how the trial run went. It went well: the “open rates” for the updates were quite high, and it proved to be a good exercise for me to take an hour summarizing, in as few words as possible, what’s been happening at the border.

So here’s a new feature: a weekly border update.

There’s so much happening at the U.S.-Mexico border—much of it outrageous, some of it heroic—that it’s hard to keep track. With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments in 900 words or less. We welcome your feedback.

Biden’s plans for the border and migration

After narrowly taking Arizona, President-Elect Joe Biden became the second Democratic Party presidential candidate to win three border states since 1964. While Donald Trump continues to deny the result, Biden has released lists of “agency review teams” for the transition, including a list for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) heavy with former officials and think-tank experts.

Biden’s team has also telegraphed to media some of the actions it might take in the days after January 20 to undo Trump’s hardline border and migration policies. As no laws were passed (other than appropriations) during the Trump administration, nearly everything can be undone through executive action. Changes include:

  • Reinstating Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which provides work permits and shields from deportation 650,000 undocumented people who were brought to the United States as children. The Obama-era program, which the Supreme Court at least temporarily stopped Trump from ending, can be revived with as little as a presidential memo, and possibly expanded in include more than 400,000 more eligible people who have been unable to apply.
  • Stopping all ongoing border wall construction, which would mean terminating contracts and desisting from eminent-domain property seizures. It is not yet clear whether the Biden administration would dismantle any wall that Trump has built, or whether it would fund remediation in places where wall-building has damaged fragile ecosystems.
  • Ending the Remain in Mexico (“Migrant Protection Protocols” or MPP) program, which has forced about 70,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their hearings in Mexico. Though Biden has pledged to end MPP, it’s still not clear how quickly that would happen, or when those currently waiting in Mexican border cities will be let into the United States. Still, news of Biden’s victory sparked celebrations in a tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, where nearly 1,000 people subject to MPP have been waiting for as much as a year.
  • Withdrawing from “safe third country” agreements committing El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to receiving asylum-seeking citizens from third countries and allowing them to seek protection in their barely existing asylum systems.
  • Probably preserving Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for approximately 300,000 migrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan, Nepal, and Honduras, many of whom have been in the United States for many years. And most likely offering TPS to many Venezuelans currently in the United States.
  • Creating a task force to help locate hundreds of migrant parents separated from their children at the border in 2017 and 2018. The number of kids whose parents can’t be located has risen to 666.
  • Reinstating the Obama-era Central American Minors program, which allowed some documented parents of children in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to bring those children to the United States, in some cases receiving refugee status.
  • Rescinding the “travel ban” on 13 mostly African or majority Muslim countries.
  • Freezing deportations for 100 days while drafting guidance reducing the scope of whom immigration agents may detain.
  • Increasing the annual refugee admissions cap to 125,000, up from the Trump administration’s 2021 target of 15,000 and from 110,000 in the last year of the Obama administration.

The Biden team has not indicated whether it would alter the March 2020 Center for Disease Control (CDC) order mandating rapid expulsion of nearly all migrants apprehended at the border, including unaccompanied children and asylum seekers. CBS News reported that Biden’s campaign promised to “direct the CDC to review the expulsions policy ‘to ensure that people have the ability to submit their asylum claims while ensuring that we are taking the appropriate COVID-19 safety precautions.’”

While all of this can happen through executive action, the new administration may have to go slow with some of these steps, particularly those that were implemented with new regulations, in order to avoid or overcome likely court challenges.

A hurricane could mean more migration from Central America

The end of Trump’s hard line on immigration has triggered speculation about a wave of undocumented migration, much of it protection-seeking, at the border early in Joe Biden’s term. That wave, however, may come before January 20.

Guatemala and Honduras, already battered by gang violence, climate-related reductions in crop yields, and COVID-19, were hit hard by Hurricane Eta during the week of November 1. Eta was the worst natural disaster to hit Central America since Hurricane Mitch, which killed more than 11,000 people in 1998. Central American migration to the United States increased for years after Mitch, and we can expect something similar from the double blow of COVID and Eta.

“A new caravan is already coming together on social media due to the current situation in the country,” Karen Valladares, director of the Honduran migrant rights group FONAMIH, told Univision. Recent attempted “caravans” have been dispersed by security forces in Mexico and Guatemala; migrants are more likely to arrive by paying smugglers to get them across Mexico.

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei said that Guatemala would request that the U.S. government grant TPS to its citizens as a result of the storm, though he held out little hope of Donald Trump assenting.

Other links

  • DHS employees told BuzzFeed that they hope the Biden administration may end years of “chaos” at their department.
  • Vice and BuzzFeed report that women who witnessed or alleged non-consensual gynecological procedures at a Georgia ICE detention center are being deported.
  • The United States has swiftly deported 1,400 unaccompanied minors to Guatemala since March under the CDC order.

WOLA Podcast—“It’s all about the families”: Eddie Canales on preventing deaths and identifying missing migrants in Texas borderlands

Here’s a conversation with someone whom I admire a lot. Eddie Canales was concerned about rising numbers of migrants dying of dehydration and exposure while trying to circumvent Border Patrol highway checkpoints, so he founded and runs the South Texas Human Rights Center in the town of Falfurrias, about 80 miles north of the border. The Center puts out aid stations and assists forensic experts who try to identify remains and notify their loved ones.

Here’s the .mp3 file. Or subscribe to the WOLA Podcast at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you listen—the feed is here.

Here’s the descriptive text, on WOLA’s website, for this episode with Eddie Canales:

A discussion with Eduardo “Eddie” Canales, founder and director of the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias, Texas.

Falfurrias is in Brooks County, an area of ranchland 80 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. It is also one of the deadliest places for migrants. Dozens each year get lost while trying to walk around checkpoints that Border Patrol has placed on highways, and end up dying of dehydration and exposure in the south Texas heat. The South Texas Human Rights Center works to prevent this, putting out dozens of water and aid stations. This involves negotiations and relationship-building with ranchers in an area where most land is private property. It also involves cooperating with efforts to identify the remains and alert relatives in the deceased migrants’ home countries.

Many times a year Eddie, and the technicians with whom he cooperates, help give some closure to parents, spouses, and children who don’t know what happened to a loved one who disappeared after emigrating to the United States. Doing that is expensive—it involves DNA sampling, forensic expertise, and maintenance of databases—and funds are insufficient.

Too often, resource-poor counties like Brooks have had to bear much of the cost. The remains of at least 7,500 people have been found near the border, on U.S. soil, since 2000.

And the crisis may be getting worse. The pandemic economy is leading more single adults to try to cross into the United States. Most of them are seeking to avoid being apprehended. Trying not to be apprehended means going through places like Brooks County, or deserts elsewhere along the border. Just this week, media in Arizona are reporting the largest number of migrant remains since 2013. And the year isn’t over.

The work of humanitarian workers and advocates like Eddie Canales is more important than ever. Join the Beyond the Wall campaign now to learn more.

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