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

#SafeNotStranded: “Remain in Mexico” before the Supreme Court today

Here’s Guerline Jozef of the Haitian Bridge Alliance giving great remarks at today’s #SafeNotStranded rally, in front of a Supreme Court that’s hearing arguments about the “Remain in Mexico” policy right now.

It was great to see so many colleagues at this event—both Washington-based and visiting from the border—in actual 3-D, after dozens and dozens of Zoom meetings since 2020.

May the justices make the right choice and allow the Biden administration to end the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico”: for humanitarian reasons, but also for “not forcing presidents to carry out their predecessors’ bad policies” reasons. The latter seems like an especially important constitutional principle.

Weekly Border Update: April 22, 2022

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

Due to staff travel, there will be no Border Updates for the next two weeks. We will resume publication on May 13.

This week:

  • U.S. authorities encountered migrants 221,303 times at the U.S.-Mexico border in March, the most since March 2000. As Title 42 expulsions led to a very large number of repeat attempts, the number of actual individual migrants was 159,900. 50 percent were expelled under Title 42. 77 percent—a larger proportion than in recent years—were single adults. 40 percent were from countries other than Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. Cubans rose to the number-two spot, and Ukrainians increased by 1,103 percent.
  • Political maneuvering around the scheduled May 23 end of Title 42 continues. Moderate Democrats, claiming worry about the lack of a clear plan to process a likely post-May 23 increase in migration, are clamoring for a clearer plan. Sources are telling media outlets that White House and DHS leadership are also concerned.
  • The secretaries of State and Homeland Security were in Panama this week to meet with foreign ministers from around Latin America in preparation for the June Summit of the Americas. Cooperation to manage the region-wide increase in migration led the agenda in Panama. Mayorkas visited Panama’s Darién Gap region, which has seen a sharp increase in migrants coming across from South America despite very dangerous conditions.
  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) lifted onerous cargo vehicle restrictions that had strangled trade with Mexico for days, potentially costing the U.S. economy $9 billion. Abbott’s busing of migrants to Washington continues, but has been getting little notice, while questions about the efficacy of his “Operation Lone Star” continue to mount.

CBP reports one of its highest-ever migration totals in March

On April 18 U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced that it “encountered” undocumented migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border 221,303 times in March, 33 percent more than in February. The 209,906 times that Border Patrol encountered migrants between the official land ports of entry was the most the agency had recorded in any month since March 2000.

This pushed CBP’s “migrant encounters” total for fiscal year 2022, which began last October, over 1 million in 6 months. 63 percent of migrants so far this year have come from countries other than Mexico.

50 percent of March’s encounters ended with the migrant’s rapid expulsion, even if the migrant intended to ask U.S. authorities for asylum or other protection. The Trump and Biden administrations have used Title 42, the controversial pandemic authority allowing these expulsions, 1,817,278 times since COVID-19 first forced border closures.

For migrants who want to avoid being apprehended, Title 42’s quick expulsions have eased repeat attempts to cross the border. In March, 28 percent of people CBP encountered had already been in the agency’s custody at least once in the past 12 months, double the 2014-2019 average (14 percent). That means the actual number of people encountered was significantly lower: 159,900.

Though exceptions abound, single adults are more likely to attempt to avoid capture, while children and families are more likely to turn themselves in to seek asylum. The large number of repeat crossings contributed to the reporting of the most single adult migrant encounters—162,030—at least since October 2011, when the agency started providing public data about adult, child, and family migrants.

77 percent of migrants reported in March were adults, an unusually high proportion. Unaccompanied children (7 percent) and “family units” (parents with children, 16 percent) both increased from February to March, but were in fact fewer than in March 2021.

Until 2020 (when it was 88 percent), more than 90 percent of CBP’s migrant encounters were with citizens of four countries: Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. In March, those countries accounted for just 60 percent of migrant encounters. 88,110 were with migrants from somewhere else, which is certainly a record.

Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are the four countries whose citizens Mexico accepts as Title 42 expulsions across the land border. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must expel all other countries’ citizens by air, which is costly or, in some cases, diplomatically complicated. As a result, 99 percent of March’s 109,549 Title 42 expulsions were applied to citizens of these four countries only.

Of the other countries accounting for border arrivals, Cuba was in second place in March, with 32,141 of its citizens (about one in every 353 Cubans) encountered at the border last month. Cubans appear to be migrating in rapidly increasing numbers via Nicaragua, which lifted visa requirements for Cubans last November, enabling air travel. Cuban migrants’ numbers doubled from February to March, and tripled from January. Nearly all Cubans turn themselves in to U.S. authorities; if they remain in the United States for a year, the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 makes them eligible to apply for permanent residency.

Cuba has not accepted expulsion or other removal flights from the United States since February 2020, before the pandemic. The United States has meanwhile maintained almost no consular staff since the still-unresolved “Havana Syndrome” health incidents caused the U.S. government, in 2017, to reduce its diplomatic presence and close its consulate in Havana. On April 21, diplomats from the United States and Cuba met to discuss migration cooperation for the first time since July 2018, reviving what had been biannual talks.

Migrant encounters increased from February to March at the border for every nationality except Brazil, which declined slightly. In addition to Cuba (+231 percent), the countries whose citizens have seen the greatest increases are Romania (+141 percent), Turkey (+167 percent), Colombia (+287 percent), and Ukraine (+1,220 percent).

3,274 citizens of Ukraine, fleeing the Russian invasion that began on February 24, were encountered at the border in March, nearly all of them at ports of entry because the Biden administration encouraged CBP agents not to expel them under Title 42. Most have appeared at ports of entry between Tijuana and San Diego. As of April 21, the Washington Post reported, about 15,000 Ukrainian citizens had arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border. “Every day, 500 to 800 Ukrainians arrive in Tijuana,” the Wall Street Journal noted.

On April 21 the Biden administration announced a new program, calling it “Uniting for Ukraine,” allowing up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees to receive two years of humanitarian parole in the United States, applying from outside the United States with help from U.S.-based sponsors. This will apparently mean a closure of the Mexico route which, because the U.S. government had lacked a process, was the simplest way for Ukrainians to reach the United States. Mexico’s Foreign Ministry warned Ukrainians against attempting to enter the United States through its territory after April 24, when CBP plans once again to employ Title 42 to prevent Ukrainian citizens from accessing border ports of entry.

The sharp increase in arrivals of citizens from Colombia appears to be a result of Colombian citizens flying to Mexico, which does not require them to have a valid visa, then traveling to the U.S. border—70 percent of the time, to Yuma, Arizona—to turn themselves in to authorities. While the United States accelerated Title 42 expulsion and ICE removal flights to Bogotá in March, CBP’s data show Title 42 being applied to 303 out of 15,144 apprehended Colombians last month.

The past year had seen similar sharp increases in migrants from countries from which Mexico did not require visas: Ecuador, Brazil, and Venezuela. When Mexico reinstated visa requirements—most recently for Venezuelans, on January 21, 2022—encounters with migrants from these countries dropped rapidly.

Despite likely entreaties from the Biden administration, Mexico may not be as quick to reinstate visa requirements for Colombians. Under the Pacific Alliance framework, which incorporates Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, member countries have a Schengen-style arrangement allowing visa-free travel.

Political maneuvering around Title 42 continues

The Biden administration officially remains firm in following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) decision, discussed in our April 1 update, to end the Title 42 expulsions policy by May 23. However, though the Biden administration has had more than a year to prepare for a likely post-Title-42 increase in migration at the U.S.-Mexico border, officials are privately voicing worry that DHS is not ready to process the increased number of arrivals in an orderly way.

Sources told Axios that “President Biden’s inner circle has been discussing delaying the repeal of Title 42 border restrictions.” A source “close to the White House” told CNN of a “high level of apprehension” in the West Wing, where staff “watch the border numbers every day.”

Axios reported that DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas “has privately told members of Congress he’s concerned with the Biden administration’s handling of its plans to lift Title 42 on May 23,” though Mayorkas’s public stance is that DHS will defer to the CDC. “Mayorkas has also indicated a level of frustration and unease with the repeal rollout.” A delay of the May 23 date is more likely than a full reversal of the decision to end Title 42, which “would effectively force the White House to overrule the CDC,” Axios adds.

Either way, there is some possibility that a Louisiana federal judge could strike down or suspend the CDC order before May 23. More than 20 states’ Republican attorneys-general have filed suit to block the end of Title 42, and the district judge hearing the case, Robert Summerhays, is a Trump appointee.

Some Democrats, worried about chaotic images from the border affecting their already grim midterm legislative election prospects, have been calling on the Biden administration to be more transparent about its plans for managing large numbers of protection-seeking migrants after Title 42 is lifted.

Mayorkas has resisted doing so publicly, telling CNN, “I think we have to be very mindful of the fact that we are addressing enemies, and those enemies are the cartels and the smugglers, and I will not provide our plans to them. We are going to proceed with our execution, carefully, methodically, in anticipating different scenarios.” Democratic legislators and staffers, Axios reports, say that “after Mayorkas walked them through the DHS’ preparations for the potential border surge, they did not feel the administration had reached the level of preparedness needed to carry out the operation successfully by May 23.”

Among the skeptics is Gary Peters (D-Michigan), the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, who said he would “still want to hear more.” While indicating he will defer judgment until he sees the full plan, Peters, according to The Hill, sees Title 42’s repeal as “something that should be revisited and perhaps delayed” until he sees what he regards to be “a well thought out plan.”

The Title 42 debate generated much political commentary over the past week:

  • Frank Sharry of the pro-immigration group America’s Voice told The Hill, “All of a sudden, all these candidates are saying the same thing [Peters] is saying, so clearly it’s coordinated. And they’re basically saying, ‘we can’t trust this administration to defend its plan or to implement it competently. And so we’re gonna need to distance ourselves from the administration on this, because we can’t count on them. That is a real indictment of a failed political strategy, as well as a lack of confidence in their ability to operationalize policy.’”
  • Felipe de la Hoz at the New Republic: “Since taking over, the Biden administration has been extremely skittish about perceptions of chaos at the border, and political opponents are practically salivating at the prospect of long lines or a disorderly-looking processing, which can be shot, edited, and packaged just in time for use in midterm election campaigns.”
  • Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum, at the Daily Beast: “The Biden administration has utterly failed in terms of laying out a clear vision on immigration policy. Right-wing Republicans who seek a return to the Trump/Miller approach have filled the vacuum, leading a growing number of Democrats and reform-minded Republicans to call for Title 42 to remain in place.”
  • Jorge Ramos at Univision: “This enormous immigration wave will create powerful tensions on both sides of the border. We have been warned. I just hope we rise to the challenge and treat the new arrivals with patience, generosity and solidarity.”

Diplomats go to Panama to talk migration

Though it is one of many agenda topics, the high current levels of region-wide migration are likely to be the principal issue discussed when U.S., Canadian, and Latin American leaders convene for the Ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles on June 6-10. This week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken led a U.S. delegation to Panama for a preparatory meeting with 21 foreign ministers from around the region. Blinken and DHS Secretary Mayorkas also held bilateral meetings with officials from Panama, which has seen record levels of migrants passing through its territory.

Blinken described a wide-ranging agenda:

Here in Panama, we talked about some of the most urgent aspects of this issue, including helping stabilize and strengthen communities that are hosting migrants and refugees; creating more legal pathways to reinforce safe, orderly, and humane migration; dealing with the root causes of irregular migration by growing economic opportunity, fighting corruption, increasing citizen security, combating the climate crisis, improving democratic governance that’s responsive to people’s needs.

Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols told reporters that the Summit of the Americas will likely produce a declaration on “migrant protection,” though it is not clear how detailed its commitments will be, the Miami Herald reported. Several U.S. and Latin American organizations, including WOLA, issued a statement calling on governments to develop their regional approach to migration “in consultation with civil society,” prioritizing “respect for migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees through increased protection and complementary legal pathways, humanitarian assistance, and access to justice.”

The White House meanwhile issued a status report this week on its strategy to address the “root causes” of migration in Central America. Among efforts it notes are the encouragement of $1.2 billion in new private investment to create jobs, and the training of more than 5,000 Central America civilian police in calendar year 2021 “on topics such as community policing, investigations, and human rights.”

In Panama City, U.S. and Panamanian officials signed an arrangement to increase cooperation on migration, similar to one signed months ago with Costa Rica. It commits Washington to providing Panama with more resources to provide shelter to migrants arriving from South America, most of them headed toward the U.S. border.

Eastern Panama, near the Colombia border, is sparsely populated and roadless; the treacherous Darién Gap jungles used to be a natural barrier to migration. That is no longer the case: Panamanian migration authorities counted 133,726 migrants making the 60-mile walk through the Darién in 2021, up from a 2010-2019 average of 10,929 per year (and well under 1,000 at the beginning of the decade). Another 13,425 migrants exited the Darién Gap in the first 3 months of 2022. In 2021, a majority of these migrants were Haitian; so far in 2022, Venezuela is the most frequent country of citizenship.

Migrants often report passing through the barely governed Darién as the most harrowing part of their journey to the United States. Assaults, including sexual assaults, are frequent, and many speak of seeing dead bodies along the path.

Secretary Mayorkas paid a visit to the Darién region with Panama’s public security minister, Juan Pino. The Minister, EFE reported, said he explained Panama’s migrant processing procedures: they are “taken to migratory reception stations (ERM), where their biometric data is taken and they are provided with health care and food.” Pino added that “‘Panama is the only country that carries out verifications’ of migrants, which has produced ‘biometric alerts of terrorism and organized crime’” shared with DHS.

Texas governor faces backlash for border tactics

On April 15 the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott (R), lifted onerous cargo vehicle inspections imposed at the state’s border crossings, which had halted most trade between Texas and Mexico for several days. Abbott, a critic of the Biden administration’s border policies, had imposed the stoppage— covered in last week’s Border Update—in response to the imminent lifting of Title 42.

He did so after inking brief agreements with the governors of the four Mexican states that border Texas, who committed to increasing security efforts on their side of the border. Tamaulipas, for instance, agreed to carry out “special operations” along 10 migrant smuggling routes identified by U.S. authorities. Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, reacted strongly to Abbott’s tactics on April 18: “Legally they can do it, but it’s a very despicable way to act… I would say it’s chicanadas (half-baked) antics from the state government.”

Gov. Abbott’s blockade generated a backlash, as it caused financial losses for industries dependent on trade with Mexico. The Texas-based Perryman Group estimated $8.97 billion in losses to the U.S. economy between April 6 and 15, $4.23 billion of it hitting Texas’s gross state product.

Abbott also continued sporadic departures of half-filled buses of asylum-seeking migrants to Washington. These received little notice in the city’s busy downtown, while volunteers helped migrants arrange travel to their final east coast destinations. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who represents El Paso and opposes Abbott’s policies, ironically thanked him in a tweet: “Bussing migrants to D.C. helps get them closer to their final destination and saves their sponsors travel costs. This is one of the most humanitarian policies [Abbott] has ever enacted. I’ll take the poetic justice while we wait for real justice.”

Abbott and other Republican governors remain determined to make border and migration issues a central theme for the 2022 campaign (congressional elections, plus Abbott’s bid for re-election to the Texas governorship). Analysts note that Abbott may have his eye on a 2024 presidential run, which would mean that the intended audience for his recent tactics is Republican primary voters nationwide. “This is all really about 2024. Abbott is worried about being outflanked by DeSantis,” Republican fundraiser Dan Eberhart, who backs Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), told the Washington Post. “Abbott needs to be focused on introducing himself to 2024 primary donors and staying relevant in the party nationally. Picking a fight on immigration keeps him on the news.”

Republican figures have been kicking around the idea of invoking the U.S. Constitution’s “invasion clause” to justify using law enforcement personnel and National Guard troops to block migrants, including asylum seekers. It remains far from clear that governors, rather than the federal government, would have the authority to determine whether migrants constitute an “invasion.” Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) also issued an April 19 press release announcing an “American Governors’ Border Strike Force,” along with 24 other Republican-led non-border states, that would contribute personnel to state border security efforts.

The largest state-government border security campaign has been Abbott’s “Operation Lone Star,” which has spent over $3 billion to build fencing, jail migrants on state trespassing charges, and deploy up to 10,000 National Guardsmen to the border. This operation continues to be troubled:

  • A Houston Chronicle investigation found that Abbott’s “disaster” declaration at the border, which he renews every month, has allowed the state to engage in contracts without a formal solicitation process, which “critics say drive[s] up costs and promote[s] cronyism.”
  • The Texas National Guard has replaced its third top general associated with “Operation Lone Star” since mid-March: “Brig. Gen. Monie Ulis relinquished command of the task force controlling the mission,” Military Times and the Texas Tribune reported.
  • A new analysis by Propublica, the Texas Tribune, and the Marshall Project looked back on 17 years of Texas governors’ border security operations, usually launched in the run-up to elections, none of which appears to have had any lasting impact on security or reduced migration.

Links

  • The latest DHS “Cohort Report” for the revived Remain in Mexico program finds that the agency enrolled 1,444 asylum-seeking migrants into the program in March, up from 896 in February, and returned 900 of them to Mexico, up from 487 in February. Asylum-seekers from Nicaragua have made up 73 percent of all 3,012 “Remain in Mexico” enrollments between December 6 and March 31, followed by Venezuelans (8 percent) and Cubans (7 percent).
  • The Supreme Court will hear arguments on April 26 as the Biden administration challenges a Texas district court judge’s August 2021 ruling ordering it to restart the Trump-era Remain in Mexico program.
  • DHS Secretary Mayorkas will be testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on April 28. Expect many concerned and contentious questions about the end of Title 42 and other border issues.
  • A new report from Human Rights First describes dehumanizing conditions suffered by tens of thousands of asylum seekers who were sent to ICE detention centers during the Biden administration, most of them after turning themselves in to U.S. authorities at the U.S.-Mexico border. “Government data reveals that asylum seekers in ICE detention who established a fear of persecution have been jailed for an average of 10.75 months (326.8 days), as of late-March 2022,” the report reads.
  • According to Mexican government data cited in Milenio, between 2019 and 2021 “1,478 Mexicans died trying to reach the United States in an irregular manner, 308 of them between the ages of 0 and 17.”
  • A Border Patrol vehicle pursuit near Edinburg, Texas, reaching speeds of 100 miles per hour, ended with the death of two people after the driver being pursued lost control and the car rolled over. As our January 15 update noted, Border Patrol stands accused of carrying out high-speed vehicle pursuits with less regard for safety than most other law enforcement agencies.
  • For March, CBP reported month-on-month declines in border-zone seizures of cocaine (-11 percent) and methamphetamine (-22 percent), and increased seizures of heroin (+7 percent) and fentanyl (+55 percent).
  • “Anxiety attacks happen frequently. And nonprofit medical clinics are swamped, attending to broken limbs, pregnancies, rashes and mental trauma,” reports Dianne Solis of the Dallas Morning News from the increasingly crowded and unsafe migrant encampment near the border bridge in the high-crime city of Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas. A quickly-built shelter just opened in Reynosa that can accommodate about 250 parents and children, the Rio Grande Valley Monitor reports. That’s probably only enough to accommodate about a tenth of the people currently packed into the Reynosa square, awaiting Title 42’s end and a chance to request asylum at the port of entry.

Weekly Border Update: April 15, 2022

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

This week:

  • Texas’s Republican governor, an immigration policy hardliner, responded to Title 42’s imminent lifting by imposing onerous cargo inspections at border crossings, snarling trade between Texas and Mexico and causing a supply-chain crisis. Greg Abbott also began sending busloads of released asylum-seeking migrants to Washington, an attempt to use migrants as political props that, in fact, covers the transportation costs—at Texas taxpayers’ expense—of people who intend to pursue their asylum cases in the U.S. east coast.
  • Customs and Border Protection data show the agency processed nearly 10,000 Ukrainian migrants between February 1 and April 6. Because of dysfunction in the U.S. immigration system, the fastest way for Ukrainians to take advantage of the Biden administration’s offer of protection is to arrive in Mexico first and apply for asylum at the U.S. border, mainly San Diego. Several hundred Ukrainians are now taking this route every day, causing a growing backlog in Tijuana.

Texas governor blocks trade, offers free voluntary transport to asylum seekers

The Republican governor of Texas, a critic of the Biden administration’s border and migration policies, put in place two measures at Texas’s border with Mexico that may be generating political blowback for him. In response to the announced May 23 end of the Title 42 pandemic policy—which has expelled migrants, including asylum seekers, from the United States over over 1.7 million times since March 2020—Greg Abbott (R) sent police to impose stringent vehicle inspections on all cargo entering Texas, and sent busloads of asylum-seeking migrants to Washington.

The vehicle inspections have snarled trade along the 13 ports of entry used to ship cargo between 4 Mexican border states and Texas. Calling it one of several “aggressive actions by the State of Texas to secure the border in the wake of President Biden’s decision to end Title 42 expulsions,” Abbott ordered the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) to conduct “safety inspections” of all cargo vehicles. State police installed checkpoints just beyond the ports of entry, where Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel already carry out inspections of entering cargo traffic, forcing Mexican trucks to undergo two separate procedures.

The Texas police have been taking more than 45 minutes to inspect each truck; as of April 13 they had turned nearly a quarter of them back to Mexico, citing defective headlights or taillights, brakes, or tires. The operation “hasn’t intercepted any drugs or immigrants,” DPS Director Steven McCraw said to the Wall Street Journal.

“I know in advance this is going to dramatically slow traffic from Mexico into Texas,” Gov. Abbott said before the operation began. The resulting slowdown has been dramatic, backing thousands of trucks as much as eight miles into Mexico from some ports of entry. The “safety inspections” forced some truckers to wait more than 36 hours to cross, often while carrying perishable products.

Abbott is seeking re-election in November. His Democratic opponent, former congressman Beto O’Rourke, took advantage of the cargo chaos with an event and messaging blaming the Governor for worsening already strained supply chains and contributing to inflation.

The outcry, though, has also come from quarters that rarely criticize tough border policies. A CBP statement made clear that “the longer than average wait times—and the subsequent supply chain disruptions—are unrelated to CBP screening activities and are due to additional and unnecessary inspections being conducted by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) at the order of the Governor of Texas.” Business leaders voiced increasing concern as losses mounted over the week. Texas’s Republican Agriculture Commissioner issued a statement accusing the Governor of “turning a crisis into a catastrophe,” warning that it could “quickly lead to $2.00 lemons, $5.00 avocados and worse.” The governors of Mexico’s four states bordering Texas (Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas) sent Abbott a letter noting, “political points have never been a good recipe to address common challenges or threats.” Texas state legislators representing border districts sent a letter criticizing Abbott for failing to consult local officials.

Cargo traffic came to a total halt early in the week at busy bridges between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, and between Reynosa and Pharr, as Mexican truckers staged protests that blocked vehicle lanes. The Pharr bridge is the busiest cargo crossing in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region, with about 3,000 trucks on a normal day, and the United States’ busiest land port for produce.

Both trucker protests stood down by April 13. That day, organized crime operatives in Reynosa set fire to trucks in an apparent effort to force an end to the protests. All illegal drugs except marijuana cross into the United States mostly through ports of entry, and the blockages were apparently hurting criminal business, too.

On April 13 Abbott held a press conference with the governor of Nuevo León, a Mexican state that shares 9 miles of Mexico’s 1,254-mile border with Texas, including one port of entry. In what appeared to be a face-saving deal, Gov. Samuel Alejandro García agreed to step up security on his state’s side of the border, and Abbott responded by lifting vehicle inspections at Nuevo León’s port of entry. Similar deals were reached with governors of Chihuahua and Coahuila states on April 14. It is not clear how greatly the Mexican governors’ new measures will depart from current practices. As of April 14, no agreement was in place with the government of Tamaulipas, and Abbott’s vehicle inspections continue in southeast Texas’s busy Rio Grande Valley region.

Imports from Mexico to Texas totaled $104 billion—$284 million per day—in the pre-pandemic year of 2019, so the cost of Abbott’s slowdowns has been significant. CBP and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that commercial traffic into Texas dropped by 60 percent. “Just-in-time” supply chains for household goods and car parts have been disrupted, and produce is in danger of spoiling. The inspections have cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to Texas-based Little Bear Produce, a company official told the Washington Post. “It’s at crisis level now,” the president of the Texas International Produce Association told the New York Times.

The other new measure Abbott adopted this week was also of unclear political benefit to the governor. Arguing that Washington should deal with asylum-seeking migrants who get released into the United States, he ordered Texas officials to send some of them on buses to the District of Columbia. At least two buses arrived near the Capitol starting on April 13, dropping off a few dozen migrants outside the building that houses Fox News studios.

The bus trips are voluntary, and many migrants wish to live with relatives or sponsors on the U.S. east coast while pursuing their asylum cases. So in staging a political stunt using migrants as props, Abbott was also doing them a favor, saving them or their relatives hundreds of dollars in transportation fares by having Texas taxpayers foot the bill.

On the morning of April 13, the first bus dropped off 24 migrants from Colombia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, the endpoint of a 30-hour trip from Del Rio, Texas. Many went to nearby Union Station to arrange transportation to other eastern U.S. destinations. “We are very thankful for all the help that has been given to us,” a Venezuelan mother of two told a reporter from the Texas Tribune. “Frankly, we did not have the money to get here otherwise, so we are very thankful for the help.” The White House’s Psaki told reporters, “These are all migrants who have been processed by CBP and are free to travel, so it’s nice the state of Texas is helping them get to their final destination as they await the outcome of their immigration proceedings, and they’re all in immigration proceedings.”

Sister Sharlet Wagner, of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, was on hand to receive the bus; she told CBS news that the migrants’ journey was only sort of voluntary: “they felt it was the only way to get out of Texas. I don’t know how much choice they were given.” Gov. Abbott said the buses, and perhaps charter planes, would continue to arrive in Washington.

This is the latest in a series of hardline border policies that Greg Abbott has imposed. The Governor has spent over $3 billion in Texas funds on fence construction, a National Guard deployment, and an effort to imprison migrants on state trespassing charges. This week’s measures are harder to understand from a purely political point of view. Causing large money-losing delays and giving free rides to asylum seekers may not be going down well with Abbott’s pro-business, anti-immigrant political base as re-election nears.

Ukrainians keep arriving in Tijuana

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data obtained by CBS News show that U.S. border officials processed 9,926 undocumented Ukrainian migrants between February 1 and April 6. (The Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24.) On April 6 alone, CBP processed 767 Ukrainian migrants.

The vast majority have come to ports of entry, rather than trying to cross the Rio Grande or climb the border wall. The 9,926 probably includes many who arrived at airports. In February, only 272 out of the 1,147 undocumented Ukrainians CBP encountered “nationwide” were at the Mexico border, and 17 at the Canadian border.

The same set of statistics obtained by CBS shows 5,207 Russian migrants processed between February 1 and April 6.

Most Ukrainians are arriving in Tijuana. The Biden administration has announced an intention to receive up to 100,000 refugees from Ukraine, often through offers of “humanitarian parole.” So far, though, the most common process by which Ukrainians have been able to take advantage of this offer has been by arriving in Mexico—which does not require visas of visiting Ukrainians—and traveling to the U.S. border. The most established migration route goes to Tijuana and San Diego.

That the Mexico border route is the best approach for Ukrainians seeking refuge in the United States indicates the dysfunction of the backlogged U.S. immigration system. In March, just 12 Ukrainian refugees were resettled in the United States—all of them “likely in the resettlement pipeline before the Russian invasion,” CBS News notes.

The backlog at U.S. ports of entry has caused a backlog of Ukrainian citizens in Tijuana—a city where the Title 42 policy has already contributed to a burgeoning population of protection-seeking migrants from many other countries. “As of a few days ago,” National Public Radio reported on April 13, the main Tijuana shelter set up for Ukrainians awaiting their turn to present at the port of entry “had registered about 10,000 people.”

CBP has effectively given Ukrainians a “fast lane” at the San Ysidro port of entry between Tijuana and San Diego. This has shown a greater ability to process large numbers of migrants than has been common in the past. It has also been controversially selective, surpassing migrants from all other nationalities, who have been waiting weeks or months in Tijuana for a chance to present before authorities. Several hundred Ukrainians are now arriving in Tijuana each day, overwhelming even the increased CBP capacity at the port of entry. What had been a two to three day wait for Ukrainians in Tijuana is beginning to lengthen further.

Other news

  • Republican officials in 21 states have signed on to a lawsuit seeking to block the Biden administration’s plan to end the Title 42 pandemic restriction on asylum seekers at the border.
  • The New York Times published one of the most thorough accounts of the Biden administration’s infighting around border and migration policy, with the President reportedly demanding in March 2021, “Who do I need to fire to fix this?” Disagreements led to delays in developing new rules and procedures to speed asylum processing, which won’t be in place during the anticipated mid-2022 jump in migration at the border.
  • A 32-year-old Mexican woman died painfully, hanging upside down, while attempting to rappel down the border wall near Douglas, Arizona on April 11. Mexican authorities recovered the body of a 52-year-old Nicaraguan man who drowned in the Rio Grande along with his adult son. Luis Alberto Jiménez and his son “are added to about 10 Nicaraguans who have perished in the Rio Grande’s waters during the first three months of 2022,” reports Nicaragua Investiga.
  • Agence France Presse profiled a swim instructor in Estelí, Nicaragua who is giving free lessons to people planning to migrate, so that they might avoid drowning in the Rio Grande. Most of his pupils are single mothers planning to flee with their children.
  • Since Nicaragua dropped visa requirements for migrants from Cuba last November, “The minimum price of a flight to Nicaragua from Cuba is $3,000” and “at least five airplanes a day leave Cuban passengers in Managua, and not infrequently they return empty,” reports the Central American investigative website Expediente Publico.
  • The family of Carmelo Cruz Marcos, a migrant from Puebla, Mexico who was shot to death by a Border Patrol agent, is pushing for an investigation of what happened on the night of February 19 outside Douglas, Arizona. The Border Patrol agent involved said that Cruz, seeking to avoid capture, was about to throw a rock at close range; the agent fired his weapon repeatedly, hitting Cruz four times. Cruz’s family is contemplating a lawsuit, the Tucson Sentinel reports, noting that a Border Patrol Critical Incident Team—a secretive and controversial unit accused of interfering with investigations of agents when alleged abuses occur—was on the scene.
  • Yahoo News obtained a March 16 CBP intelligence document indicating that Border Patrol officials in the Del Rio, Texas sector had reached out to Mexican counterparts for help to “deter migrant traffic,” including asylum seekers, “away from the sector’s overwhelmed ports of entry.” Officials in Coahuila state agreed to set up four “tactical checkpoints” manned by state police. (Coahuila’s state force, known as Fuerza Coahuila, has a troubled human rights record.)
  • Forced displacement is on the rise in Mexico, as fighting between organized crime groups comes to resemble wars, Mary Beth Sheridan reports at the Washington Post. About 20,000 people have fled Michoacán state in the past year, and “thousands more have abandoned their homes in other states like Zacatecas and Guerrero.” Some may seek refuge in the United States after Title 42 is lifted.
  • Longtime Tijuana shelter operator José María García told local media he expects “a new migrant caravan” after Title 42 comes to an end on May 23. He is concerned because shelters “are at 90 percent capacity” already. In Guatemala on April 11, government authorities met to plan responses to a possible post-Title 42 “caravan.”
  • Tijuana is in the midst of a wave of violence with five armed attacks taking place in a 12-hour period on April 9. Meanwhile, KPBS reports that asylum-seeking migrants ejected in February from a tent encampment near the main Tijuana-San Diego port of entry “have been pushed out to dangerous neighborhoods in the outskirts of Tijuana, where they have limited access to jobs, social services and stable housing options.”
  • At the Border Chronicle, Melissa del Bosque accuses Border Patrol union leaders of “echoing the ‘great replacement theory,’ a white-supremacist belief with roots in the French nationalist movement of the early 20th century,” in their media statements.

Weekly Border Update: April 8, 2022

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

This week:

  • The CDC’s April 1 decision to end its “Title 42” pandemic order, which would reopen the border once again to asylum-seeking migrants after May 23, was a hotly debated issue in Washington this week. Most Democrats—including those at an April 6 House hearing—hailed the decision. Conservative Democrats, and those facing stiff re-election challenges seven months from now, criticized the Biden administration for a lack of clear planning to manage a likely increase in protection-seeking migrants at the border. A legislative push to prolong Title 42 could complicate big COVID relief legislation moving through Congress.
  • DHS has exempted Ukrainian citizens—and only Ukrainian citizens—from Title 42, allowing them to cross in steadily growing numbers at ports of entry, especially in Tijuana where at least 2,800 are now waiting for a chance to cross to San Diego.
  • The non-governmental watchdog POGO revealed documents pointing to timid oversight at the DHS Inspector-General’s office, even in the face of very grave findings about sexual harassment and domestic abuse among the workforce of the Department’s troubled law-enforcement agencies.

Amid concerns about capacity, Title 42’s end faces political blowback

One of the thorniest political issues in Washington this week surrounded the April 1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) decision to terminate “Title 42,” the pandemic authority allowing even asylum-seeking migrants to be quickly expelled from the U.S.-Mexico border. (See last week’s Border Update for details about that decision.)

Migrants’ rights advocates and progressive Democrats applauded the decision to return to the regular asylum system laid out in U.S. law, after more than two years and 1.7 million expulsions, though some lamented the CDC’s decision to delay Title 42’s end until May 23. Republicans, conservative Democrats, and a few Democratic legislators from conservative states criticized the decision to end the public-health authority. Democratic critics argue that the Biden administration has not yet put in place the planning and processing capacity necessary to avoid forcing migrants into overcrowded and ill-equipped facilities, along with images of politically damaging chaos, once—as most expect—Title 42’s lifting causes a sharp rise in migration.

Even with Title 42 in place, migration numbers are already high; Border Patrol is reporting several daily apprehensions of groups exceeding 100 people at a time. Migrants from countries whose citizens are difficult or costly to expel have hit historic highs. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) apprehended more than 32,000 Cuban citizens in March, according to unpublished figures revealed by the Washington Post. That will almost certainly make Cuba the number-two nationality, after Mexico, of migrants encountered at the border last month. (The sharp increase in Cuban migration owes largely to Nicaragua’s November 2021 decision to suspend visa requirements for Cuban visitors.)

Ricardo Zúniga, the State Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, told the Los Angeles Times to expect an initial decrease in migrant arrivals at the border, as single adults will likely no longer attempt repeat crossings. (WOLA echoed this analysis in a March 31 Q&A document.) After that, though, Zúniga expects numbers to increase, as asylum seekers—especially families—from Mexico and Central America take advantage of the renewed opportunity to ask U.S. officials for protection in the United States.

While there could “very well” be a spike in arrivals at the border after May 23, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told CBS News that the Department is planning and preparing for “different contingencies.” As last week’s Border Update discussed, DHS has formed a “Southwest Border Coordinating Center,” headed by a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) official, to coordinate inter-agency responses. “Having DHS physically in the room with other agencies makes a huge difference,” former Biden immigration adviser Tyler Moran told Vox.

A 16-page March 28 “Southwest Border Strategic Concept of Operations” document signals an intention to increase CBP holding capacity to as much as 25,000-30,000 migrants awaiting processing, nearly double current space. Managing this sort of flow would call for an additional 1,500-2,500 law enforcement officers, the document adds, requiring CBP to borrow personnel from other agencies. “600 additional Border Patrol agents have been deployed and a senior DHS official said the department is prepared to mobilize other officers,” notes an April 1 DHS statement. The Defense Department has agreed to a DHS request to provide additional assistance for at least 90 days, including buses to transport migrants, contracted medical personnel, and perhaps space on military installations to hold and process recently arrived migrants.

An April 4 document from CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus includes a bulleted list of additional steps the agency is taking to prepare for a post-May 23 spike in migrants requiring orderly processing, but as Reuters notes, the list lacks “details about the number of agents being deployed or specific locations for deployments.”

Critics worry that these plans are insufficient, or not specific enough, to handle a big increase in migration. Those outside the government, like humanitarian NGOs and members of Congress, say they’ve received little detailed information about what the plan is, though WOLA is hearing that DHS has begun to reach out to border-area NGOs. “The most important thing will be to know the method for receiving asylum applications once Title 42 is eliminated,” said the official in charge of migrant response for Tijuana’s municipal government, Enrique Lucero. “Let’s hope that this announcement is very clear to see the methodology, because if it must happen in person, it will be chaos at the border, inevitably. But if they do it online, upload their application and they are given their appointment, that will make our job easier, because they would no longer have to travel to the border.”

Citing the lack of a plan, a small but significant number of Democratic legislators has called not for getting CBP to hurry up and install capacity by May 23, but instead for prolonging Title 42, despite the suffering that would cause for asylum seekers. These include conservative Democrats (Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, Rep. Henry Cuéllar of south Texas) and moderate Democrats from conservative states whose vulnerable seats are up for re-election this year (Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona, Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Rep. Vicente González of south Texas).

Five Democratic senators joined six Republicans in sponsoring a bill that would block the CDC from lifting Title 42 until 60 days after the end of the U.S. government’s declared COVID-19 emergency. During those 60 days, DHS would have to submit a plan to address increased migrant arrivals; if it failed to do so, Title 42 would remain in place for 30 more days.

This bill would not be a standalone piece of legislation: the senators expect to attach it to a $10 billion COVID relief package currently on a fast track for congressional approval. While this amendment might have the necessary votes in the 50-50 Senate, its approval in the Democratic-majority House is less certain. Most House Democrats, like those who led the House Homeland Security Committee’s first-ever hearing on Title 42, on April 6, have strongly supported terminating the pandemic expulsions provision and restoring asylum.

Already, Senate Republicans blocked an effort to push through the COVID relief bill before this weekend, when Congress begins a 2-week recess—an express step that would have required all 100 senators’ consent—by demanding that the process include amendments, including one to preserve Title 42.

Republicans are gearing up to make post-Title 42 migration a top issue in their campaigning for 2022 elections. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a fierce Biden critic who is up for re-election this year, held an April 6 news conference announcing a further hardening of state-government border measures in response to the CDC announcement. Abbott plans to step up “safety inspections” of cargo coming across the border from Mexico, even though it would “ dramatically slow” vehicle traffic coming from border ports of entry.

The governor also announced an intention to put asylum-seeking migrants, upon their release from CBP custody, on buses going directly to Washington, DC. As that would technically constitute kidnapping across state lines, the governor’s office revised this proposal to clarify that it is “voluntary.” If this proposal goes forward, Gov. Abbott would ironically be doing a favor for migrants whose relatives, support networks, and immigration court dates are on the U.S. east coast: by paying their way to Washington, Texas taxpayers would be saving migrants and their families hundreds of dollars in transportation costs that they would otherwise have to pay themselves. “I think that would be good if they ask the migrants, ‘are you going to the East Coast? So, yes? Great!’” said Sr. Norma Pimentel of Rio Grande Valley Catholic Charities.

Gov. Abbott has used state funds to deploy about 10,000 Texas state National Guardsmen to respond to increased migration, about 6,500 of them physically at the border. The governor announced plans to send riot gear and concertina wire, and to have guardsmen hold “mass migration rehearsals,” in preparation for a foreseen post-Title 42 migration increase.

Meanwhile, though, Abbott’s military deployment is running out of money. Stars and Stripes reported that the Governor’s $3.9 billion “Operation Lone Star” state border security effort, which includes the National Guard presence, will be out of funding by May 1. “The Guard would need about $531 million to maintain its current force at the border through the end of the fiscal year in Texas, which is Aug. 31,” Texas State Adjutant General Thomas Suelzer told a Texas State Senate committee. Gen. Suelzer expects to begin reducing the troop footprint soon.

Ukrainian migrants are arriving in ever-greater numbers

The Biden administration announced in March that the U.S. government would accept 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion “through the full range of legal pathways.” It has not, however, revealed details about how this will work. Mexico, meanwhile, does not require visas of Ukrainian tourists—they can legally remain in the country for 180 days—so thousands have been arriving by air. They then seek to cross into the United States, where DHS appears to be granting humanitarian parole to most of them.

CBP is processing Ukrainians at ports of entry, but has not built capacity to handle more than a few hundred per day. As a result, the Ukrainian population in Mexico’s border cities is growing fast. This is especially the case in Tijuana, where most are arriving, though we are now hearing about arrivals in Ciudad Juárez and, anecdotally, in Reynosa.

“More than 2,000 Ukrainians have made their way to the U.S. border from Mexico over the past 10 days,” up from 50 a week earlier, the New York Times reported on April 6. Local media reported 2,800 in Tijuana alone on April 8.

At first, Ukrainians in Tijuana gathered near a small bus stop by the San Ysidro port of entry leading to San Diego, the border’s busiest official crossing, as they waited a turn to petition CBP personnel for protection. Tijuana’s municipal government opened up a nearby athletic facility, which about 1,800 are now using as a shelter. (It is the same facility where participants in a highly publicized “migrant caravan” first gathered in late 2018.)

CBP has slowly but steadily increased its capacity to receive and process the arriving Ukrainians. Earlier this week, the port of entry was only taking about 200 people per day; the number now able to cross, according to local authorities, is about 400-600 per day. In a scene familiar to those who’ve worked with asylum-seeking migrants in Tijuana in the past, migrants organized their own “waitlist” to approach the port of entry, using a yellow legal pad. (Volunteers assisting the migrants have since computerized this waitlist.)

The Ukrainians’ ability to approach the port of entry is a giant exception to Title 42, which has closed the ports to all other nations’ undocumented, protection-seeking migrants. Cities like Tijuana are full of migrants from numerous countries—including Russia—waiting for Title 42 to end so that they, too, might approach the port and ask for asylum or other protection.

Many of those blocked migrants are seriously threatened, but the vast majority are non-European, a fact that gives rise to allegations of racism. While she applauds the decision to welcome Ukrainian refugees, Blaine Bookey of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at University of California Hastings, who has been assisting Ukrainians in Tijuana, told the New York Times, “There is no way to look at what’s happening at the southern border other than along racial lines.”

DHS Inspector-General suppressed information about sexual harassment and domestic violence in the workforce

The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) obtained documents from the DHS Office of Inspector-General (OIG) indicating that the agency’s independent watchdog has been suppressing, delaying, and watering down information about serious patterns of sexual harassment and domestic abuse within the Department’s law enforcement agencies.

Past weekly Border Updates have recorded numerous allegations of improper use of force, racist messaging, mistreatment of migrants, and other indicators of serious organizational culture issues within agencies like CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). These concerns call for strong internal oversight controls—but POGO’s findings indicate that those controls, at least at the OIG, are weak.

The POGO report, “Protecting the Predators at DHS,” is a worthwhile read with some shocking findings, as is the New York Times’s April 7 coverage of the report. Some key points include:

  • A 2018 OIG survey found that more than 10,000 CBP, ICE, Secret Service, and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees had experienced sexual harassment or sexual misconduct at work. That is more than a third of the 28,000 survey respondents. Of these, 78 percent said they did not report the incident, often out of a belief that doing so would derail their careers. Examples included “surreptitious videotaping in bathrooms, unwelcome sexual advances and inappropriate sexual comments.” The survey was part of an OIG report for which fieldwork ended two and a half years ago, in October 2019—but the report has still not seen the light of day.
  • Of 1,800 sexual harassment cases within the Department, 445 were at ICE and 382 were at CBP.
  • The unpublished OIG report found that DHS agencies paid 21 employees nearly $1 million in settlements from sexual harassment-related complaints over six years, but there are few records of any investigations or disciplinary actions against the aggressors. One victim received a $255,000 payout. Senior officials at the OIG objected to mentioning these settlements in the as-yet unpublished report.
  • The unpublished OIG report notes that “women made up only 5 percent of CBP’s Border Patrol workforce,” well below the federal law enforcement average of 15 percent.
  • Another OIG report, published in 2020, covered DHS law-enforcement personnel found to have committed domestic violence when off duty. Inspector-General Joseph Cuffari and his staff pushed to withhold many key findings that had appeared in this report’s earlier drafts. Initially, the report found that agents who committed domestic abuse received “little to no discipline.” In an internal memo, Cuffari ordered that removed, calling it “second-guessing D.H.S. disciplinary decisions without full facts.” This language is troubling, as second-guessing disciplinary decisions is something that inspectors-general are often compelled to do.
  • Employing law enforcement personnel with a demonstrated propensity for abusing domestic partners and family members places at risk the other populations these personnel might encounter, like migrants. “It raises questions about someone’s fitness for the job if they abuse someone they have committed their life to,” James Wong, a former CBP deputy assistant commissioner for internal affairs, told POGO. “How are they going to treat a total stranger they have no relationship with? Who’s going to stop them?” The OIG report’s draft had raised concerns that allowing these agents to keep their weapons “put[s] victims and the public at risk of further violence,” but Cuffari ordered that language removed for risk of “appearing biased.”

POGO, a non-governmental watchdog group, has published past reports and allegations critical of Cuffari, whom Donald Trump named to the DHS Inspector-General post in 2019. “The suppressed DHS watchdog reports on sexual misconduct and domestic violence are part of a pattern where Cuffari has appeared unwilling to oversee his department as an independent watchdog,” POGO’s report contends. “Sadly, Cuffari himself has an undeniable pattern of removing significant facts and evidence from major reports. As a result of this pattern, his independence and impartiality are in question.”

In other CBP accountability news:

  • NBC reported an October 2021 letter from a National Archives and Records Administration official voicing strong concern about Border Patrol agents’ and CBP officers’ use of Wickr, an Amazon-owned encrypted messaging app that automatically deletes messages. CBP has spent more than $1.6 million on Wickr subscriptions for its personnel since 2020. “This has had real consequences for accountability by impeding investigations and oversight of the agency’s activities,” said Nikhel Sus of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which has filed a lawsuit against CBP to obtain records about the agency’s implementation of Wickr.
  • On April 4, border-district Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona) and Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) sent a letter to CBP Commissioner Magnus “urging him to implement measures that would increase accountability and transparency within the agency.” Four other House Democrats, including two whose districts touch the border, joined the letter, which includes a long list of issues and steps that the agency should address in order to treat “migrants, border community residents, and all others who encounter CBP with dignity and respect.”

Links

  • WOLA published two resources this week. Adam Isacson of the Defense Oversight program reflected, based on recent fieldwork in Tamaulipas, Mexico, on how current policies directly benefit Mexican organized crime. Kristen Martínez-Gugerli of the Venezuela program gave an overview of recent Venezuelan migration, including Mexico’s recent reinstatement of visa requirements and increasing travel through Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap.
  • Colombian authorities told Camilo Montoya-Galvez of CBS News that the United States has expelled or removed 1,800 Colombian migrants by air since a flight program intensified in early March. The latest monthly flight-monitoring report from Witness at the Border counted 10 U.S. expulsion or removal flights to Bogotá during March—up from 2 in February—with 9 of them occurring between March 11 and 31.
  • Citing UN Migration Agency data, Montoya-Galvez also found that U.S. authorities had sent 1,958 asylum seekers across the border into Mexico under the “Remain in Mexico” program, which restarted under a Texas federal court’s order in early December. (That number, up from less than 900 at the end of February, could be too high, as it may double-count those who return to Mexico after their initial U.S. hearings.) “A senior DHS official said the US will enroll more migrants in the program once Title 42 is lifted,” Montoya-Galvez added.
  • As of April 3, CBP had apprehended an average of 346 unaccompanied children per day at the U.S.-Mexico border during the previous 30 days, and was holding 436 in short-term custody. Another 10,326 children were in shelters managed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). While a historically high number, this is much fewer unaccompanied kids than a year ago. On April 2, 2021, the 30-day average was 505 apprehensions, 5,381 children were in CBP custody, and 13,359 were in ORR shelters.
  • At Texas Monthly, James Dobbins profiles “Patriots for America,” a heavily armed far-right militia group that has been patrolling the border with the support, or at least the toleration, of authorities in Kinney County, Texas.
  • The Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and State held a “Smuggling Roundtable” in Mexico on April 4-5, with counterparts from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. A Justice Department release offers little detail about what the event achieved. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meanwhile, will visit Panama within two and a half weeks for a meeting with regional foreign ministers to discuss migration.
  • 72 Ecuadorian migrants have disappeared in Mexico or the United States during their northward journeys between 2019 and 2021, according to a BBC report. The actual number is likely greater: 72 is only the number of disappearances reported to Ecuadorian authorities.
  • Expediente Publico counts 284,000 Nicaraguans—about 4 percent of the country’s population—who have fled to other countries since a vicious government crackdown on protesters in 2018. The main destinations are the United States and Costa Rica, with others going to Spain, Panama, and Mexico.
  • Ursula Roldán, a migration expert at Guatemala’s Rafael Landivar University, told Reuters that U.S. deportations of Guatemalans have dropped even as Guatemalan emigration continues at high levels. “It’s not that people aren’t trying to leave Guatemala. It’s that the containment is in Mexico, at the southern and northern borders. That’s where the problem is building.”
  • Mexican migration agents and National Guard personnel confronted, then broke up a migrant caravan in the southern state of Chiapas, apprehending 701 people including 126 women and 75 children. The group included citizens of Haiti, Venezuela, Cuba, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Brazil, Chile, Dominican Republic, Senegal, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Argentina, Uruguay, Bangladesh, Peru, and Mauritania. This caravan was the latest edition of the “Migrant Via Crucis,” an annual event begun by Mexico-Guatemala border zone advocacy groups to draw attention to migrants’ plight in the weeks before Easter. The 2018 Migrant Via Crucis became a fixture on Fox News and an obsession of then-president Donald Trump.

Another rough year for humanitarian work in Brooks County, near the border in south Texas

“Last year there were 119 skeletal remains and bodies recovered in Brooks County. This year we’re already up to 20, and spring has just started. We haven’t even hit summer yet.”

That’s Eddie Canales, founder of the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias, Texas, interviewed by Melissa del Bosque at the Border Chronicle. (Hear a podcast I recorded with Eddie back in 2020.) Falfurrias, about 80 miles north of McAllen and the border, is where Border Patrol has a highway checkpoint. Migrants are instructed to get out of their vehicles and walk around the checkpoint, miles through the dry, flat ranchland of Brooks County (population 7,000). Every year, dozens die of dehydration and exposure.

Canales and his staff of mostly volunteers put out water stations and work with Texas State University forensic experts to help identify bodies. Since most land in south Texas is in private hands, he has to negotiate with ranchers to place the water stations—barrels full of water jugs. He tells Del Bosque where stations are needed, and names the Big Bend region, 500 miles to the west—a very remote area that, until very very recently, saw very few migrants.

Right now, we’ve got about 175 water stations, and we need a lot more. I’d like to set up more on the east side of Brooks County if I can get ranchers to agree to it. I’d also like to set up water stations in the Big Bend sector, where a lot of migration has shifted. The cartels have warehouses of people in Ojinaga, [a border town in Mexico near Big Bend] and are trying to get people through.

Del Bosque asks Canales about some ranchers’ argument that the water stations draw migrants to cross. He responds:

I don’t think that that bears out. The trail is created by the guides and coyotes. The water ends up being for stragglers, for people who are ill or who have gotten lost. Groups get chased and scattered by Border Patrol when they’re trying to apprehend them. Many get lost that way and die. I think it’s not a question of attracting more. It comes down to a question of trying to save lives and mitigating the suffering. It’s not aiding and abetting. It’s humanitarian aid.

In some recent years, Brooks County has led all other parts of the border in recovered human remains—and it’s more than an hour’s drive from the border. Eddie Canales sounds frustrated about the system that keeps sending migrants to their deaths, and pessimistic about what is to come.

As long as people already in this country are saying there’s plenty of work, people are going to keep coming. And, you know, decision makers could create more temporary work visas and other programs to regularize migration, but I think they’ll just keep the conditions that exist. And, you know, let people try to get through as best they can. And let the Border Patrol try to catch them, and then yell and scream that the border is unprotected.

[Del Bosque:] Does that mean that the deaths are going to go up in Brooks County?

Yes, I believe so.

It’s a great interview and a worthy newsletter. Read it here.

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: April 1, 2022

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

Title 42 may end in late May

Every 60 days, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) must decide whether to renew or terminate the “Title 42” pandemic border provision, which has allowed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to expel undocumented migrants quickly from the U.S.-Mexico border without affording them a chance to seek asylum.

The most recent 60-day period expired on Wednesday, March 30. At mid-day on April 1, the CDC published its order. Title 42 is to be terminated and phased out by May 23.

This decision is unsurprising in the face of public health data pointing to a waning pandemic, including very low positivity rates for migrants currently arriving at the border and in 91 percent of U.S. border counties, making the pandemic authority’s continued use difficult to justify. A blistering March 23 article in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded, “The rationale behind the Title 42 order not only is unsupported by evidence but also, in some respects, is blatantly false.” Biden administration officials continue to indicate that they will abide by whatever the CDC decides.

WOLA published a March 31 overview of what might happen after Title 42’s late-May repeal. “This return to normal U.S. asylum law will bring an end to a policy that has placed tens of thousands of people in harm’s way in Mexican border cities,” it finds—but DHS will need to adjust nimbly and surge resources to the border in order to avoid chaos and overcrowding. WOLA’s analysis expects already-high levels of migration to increase further in the weeks or months up to and after Title 42’s lifting: though arrivals of single adults may decline, families’ numbers will increase, especially those from the four countries subject to 98 percent of today’s Title 42 expulsions: Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. WOLA’s overview voices concern that DHS preparations so far are insufficient to process a large flow of protection-seeking migrants in an orderly way.

As usually happens in spring—and especially during a worldwide increase in pandemic-spurred migration—arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border are already heavy. Border Patrol Chief Raúl Ortiz told this week’s “Border Security Expo” convention that March migrant encounters are likely to reach 200,000, a monthly threshold crossed only a few times in this century. In a March 29 call with reporters, unnamed DHS officials said that personnel are currently encountering about 7,101 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border each day, up from 5,900 per day in February. Facilities in Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector, which straddles the Arizona-California border and has been a major destination for non-Mexican and non-Central American migrants, are at nearly 300 percent of capacity, and the Del Rio, Texas Sector is also “maxed out,” the Washington Post reported.

When Title 42 ceases, officials expect migration to increase still further. DHS personnel on the March 29 press call said they are preparing for scenarios of 12,000 migrants per day and 18,000 migrants per day. That latter figure adds up to 540,000 per month, nearly 2 1/2 times the largest monthly number Border Patrol has ever publicly reported. Officials caution that these are planning scenarios, not projections or predictions.

A DHS official told reporters that 30,000 to 60,000 migrants currently in northern Mexico are in “wait and see” mode, and “could seek entry within hours” of a Title 42 repeal, CNN reported. An “official familiar with the planning” told the New York Times that a post-Title 42 jump in border crossings “would likely last a few weeks.”

Chaos and overcrowding at U.S. border facilities would not only create a humanitarian crisis, but would create images that immigration hardliners who are skeptical of asylum would use as political fodder to attack the Biden administration in the runup to November’s hotly contested congressional elections. Officials have laid out a series of steps they are taking, or plan to take, ahead of Title 42’s likely late-May lifting. It remains to be seen whether these steps will be enough. They include the following.

Physical infrastructure to receive protection-seeking migrants: “CBP’s [U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s] processing capacity will be determinative,” a recent Migration Policy Institute report points out. “Officials will need to be able to quickly transport migrants to Border Patrol stations or processing centers and efficiently register migrants’ information and move them along, while maintaining safe and humane conditions.” That has been a problem in the past: recent years’ mass arrivals at the border have come with disturbing imagery of families and children packed for days or weeks in overcrowded Border Patrol facilities, or even under bridges near border crossings.

Right now, CBS News reports, CBP’s short-term processing facilities can hold about 16,000 migrants at a time. “But the government would need to expand CBP’s holding capacity to accommodate between 25,000 and 30,000 migrants in U.S. custody on any given day if the worst case scenarios materialize,” according to a DHS “Southwest Border Strategic Concept of Operations” document.

The planned DHS response is to expand capacity at “soft-sided” migrant processing facilities (the term means “comprised of big tents”) in Yuma, Del Rio, and Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. A longer-term plan, using 2022 appropriations, would build more permanent multi-agency “joint processing centers” for this purpose, but those won’t be online in the immediate post-Title 42 period.

DHS is also reportedly signing contracts for transportation of migrants needing processing, which could double the current capacity of about 5,000 migrants by land and 350 by air each day.

Personnel to staff these facilities: The processing of protection-seeking migrants continues to rely heavily on armed, uniformed Border Patrol agents. A big jump in migration will create an urgent need for additional personnel. Border Patrol has “detailed 350 additional Border Patrol agents to assist at the U.S. southern border and another 150 agents are helping with processing remotely,” according to CNN. A DHS strategic planning scenario cited by CBS News foresees augmenting that with “up to 2,500 law enforcement officers, 2,750 support staff and more than 1,000 medical personnel to the U.S.-Mexico border.”

Involving FEMA and setting up a coordination center: DHS has set up a “Southwest Border Coordination Center (SBCC)” that, a March 30 Department fact sheet notes, will “coordinate planning, operations, engagement, and interagency support” during a post-Title 42 increase in migration. On March 18 DHS named a senior official of its Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), MaryAnn Tierney, to head the SBCC. FEMA “is currently providing ‘technical assistance’ to border authorities, but has not deployed personnel to the southern border,” CBS News reported.

Vaccinating migrants in custody: On March 28 DHS began offering COVID-19 vaccines to migrants in custody who cannot show proof of vaccination. CBP plans cited by CBS news call for expanding vaccinations from a current rate of 2,700 daily doses to 6,000 per day by the end of May. Asylum seekers who refuse vaccines and cannot be detained will be released with monitoring devices and “stringent conditions” on their movements, the New York Times reported. The Times added that “President Biden’s domestic policy adviser, Susan Rice, has privately raised concerns that it would provide an incentive for more undocumented migrants to try to cross the border,” an argument that has lost relevance as U.S. vaccination rates have slipped below those of many Latin American countries.

New asylum rules: Regulations published March 29, to begin taking effect around May 28, will seek to speed up asylum adjudication by giving asylum officers the ability to decide claims, and by reducing timeframes at key steps in the process. Advocates like the American Immigration Council voice concerns that the sped-up procedures could harm asylum seekers’ due process and ability to obtain legal representation. Either way, the new rules will be rolled out slowly and may have little impact on the ability to process a post-Title 42 wave of asylum seekers.

The Migration Policy Institute, which developed a proposal on which the new rules are based, notes that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which employs asylum officers, would also have to expand dramatically: “As of March 2021, USCIS employed 785 asylum officers; the new rule predicts the agency will need to hire between 794 and 4,647 new officers and staff to process between 75,000 and 300,000 cases annually.”

Budget needs: In order to meet post-Title 42 asylum processing and adjudication needs, the Biden administration may need more money. The 2022 Homeland Security appropriation, signed into law as part of the federal budget on March 15, “would not be sufficient to fund the potential resource requirements associated with the current increase in migrant flows,” the DHS fact sheet warns. The Department says it will need to reallocate and reprioritize funds, and perhaps resort to “engaging with Congress on any potential need for supplemental appropriations.”

With Title 42 set to end in as little as seven weeks, it’s not clear whether these announced preparations will come in time, or be sufficient, to avoid disorder and overcrowding at the border. “There have been no major changes to how migrants are processed at the U.S.-Mexico border and no increase in holding facilities for them,” the Associated Press warns. “The immigration court backlog continues to soar to more than 1.7 million cases.”

The Biden administration’s conservative critics foresee a mess at the border. Noting that processing can take hours per person, the head of the Border Patrol employees’ union, Brandon Judd, told the New York Times, “There’s no way we’re prepared to deal with what’s coming. We’re going to see complete chaos.” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters, “Border Patrol agents told me they expect a tsunami of humans to come across the border and the Border Patrol has said they will lose control entirely.”

Most congressional Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, have been calling for Title 42’s end for a while. However, a handful of centrist and conservative Democrats, arguing that DHS is not ready to deal with an increased migration flow, have joined Republican calls to keep Title 42 in place for now. These include Texas border-district Reps. Vicente González and Henry Cuéllar, who signed a letter, along with all Republican members of Texas’s congressional delegation, calling to keep Title 42 in place because “DHS appears unprepared to handle a likely unprecedented increase in apprehensions along the southwest border.” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) sent a letter to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky warning, “now is not the time to throw caution to the wind.” The Senator later told CNN, “Oh my goodness. Just watch the news y’all put out every day, what’s coming across.”

Arizona’s two moderate Democratic senators, Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, wrote a March 24 letter making similar arguments to keep Title 42 in place until DHS is “completely ready to implement and coordinate a comprehensive plan.” Two prominent Arizona-based legal and humanitarian organizations, the Kino Border Initiative and the Florence Project, responded in a March 25 letter: “We agree with Senators Sinema and Kelly that the Biden administration should have an ascertainable plan to end Title 42 safely and humanely and should have begun coordinating with service providers months ago. However, there is little to be gained by continuing this policy to put a plan in place when federal agencies have already had over two years to plan for an end to what was supposed to be a short-term emergency measure.”

Many groups defending migrants’ rights are unhappy with Title 42 remaining in force until May 23, arguing that it should end immediately. “We have clients in crisis right now seeking asylum at the border who are sick or who have already been kidnapped and tortured in Mexico,” Jessica Riley of the south Texas-based Project Corazón told the New York Times.

Mexican border cities remain hazardous for those made to “Remain in Mexico”

Two reports BuzzFeed published this week point to dangerous and inhumane conditions suffered by asylum-seeking migrants who have been sent into Mexican border cities to await their U.S. asylum hearings, under the court-ordered revival of the “Remain in Mexico” program. Many are in substandard shelters, some have disappeared, and insecurity has forced DHS to suspend Remain in Mexico enrollments in one border city.

Between December and February, the Biden administration had complied with a Texas court’s order by sending nearly 900 single adults across into Mexico with orders to report at U.S. border crossings for asylum hearings. Unlike the Remain in Mexico program pioneered by the Trump administration, this iteration is meant to come with assistance for Mexican migrant shelters accommodating migrants made to “remain.” That aid is administered by the State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees, and Migration.

Despite that promised improvement, BuzzFeed found that conditions in these shelters fall short of the “safe and secure” standard foreseen in the Remain in Mexico program’s reboot, and in fact make it difficult for asylum seekers to obtain counsel and prepare their U.S. immigration court cases.

BuzzFeed reporters Adolfo Flores and Hamed Aleaziz cite letters from two legal aid organizations that have been trying to work with migrants enrolled in Remain in Mexico, the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) and the Vera Institute of Justice. Both organizations found their ability to communicate with clients restricted by “perceived threats from the shelter staff, safety concerns, lack of or limited availability of Wi-Fi connections, and restricted access to personal phones.” In San Diego, immigrants told Vera that when they go to attend their U.S. hearings, their shelter space “is not guaranteed upon return.”

Security concerns abound as well. In Ciudad Juarez, many migrants subject to Remain in Mexico  are staying in a large shelter run by Mexico’s federal government. There, a man who had been expelled under Title 42 was found dead on March 7, but his death had gone “unnoticed anywhere from more than 24 hours to up to three days.” ProBAR cites a shelter from which three migrants under Remain in Mexico left on an errand, were kidnapped, and have since missed their U.S. hearings. Two women disappeared from another shelter after leaving to purchase medicine on February 24; when migrants asked shelter operators to call police, “the staff refused, saying they didn’t trust authorities.” (A San Antonio television station this week profiled a gay Ecuadorian asylum seeker, enrolled in the Trump-era Remain in Mexico, whose case remains in limbo because he missed his U.S. court date while kidnapped.)

“Perhaps both governments created too high expectations when announcing MPP 2.0 and how it would work because these are civil society shelters and they struggle a lot,” James MaGillivray of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Mexico office told BuzzFeed. “Even if they receive support from us and other NGOs and US agencies, at the end of the day… they’re going to keep struggling.”

BuzzFeed also obtained a March 18 email from a State Department official strongly advising DHS to pause Remain in Mexico enrollments in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, across from Laredo, Texas. There, as WOLA’s March 18 Border Update noted, Mexican authorities arrested and extradited the city’s maximum organized crime figure, Juan Gerardo Treviño, alias “El Huevo” (“The Egg”), on March 14. The arrest triggered days of violence around the city, including cartel gunmen firing on, and lobbing grenades at, the U.S. Consulate. Migrants enrolled in Remain in Mexico from Laredo have the option of being transported to the somewhat safer city of Monterrey, a few hours south of Nuevo Laredo. Even that is currently unsafe, the State Department email finds, as “immigrants escorted in the area under the protection of the Mexican National Guard were attracting a lot of attention, which could put them in the crosshairs of criminal networks angry with the government,” BuzzFeed reported.

2023 budget request is out

On March 28, less than two weeks after the 2022 federal budget finally became law, the White House sent to Congress its budget request for fiscal 2023. This includes $56.7 billion in discretionary funding for the Department of Homeland Security next year, up $2.9 billion from 2022.

Key documents include the White House’s overall budget proposal and Appendix for Homeland Security, and the lengthy “Budget Justification” documents for each individual DHS agency.

While WOLA staff have not yet been able to do a “deep dive” into these documents, the following border-related elements stand out to us.

  • CBP’s budget would be $17.45 billion, up from $15.95 billion in 2022. That would be enough to fund 65,621 positions.
  • No new money would go to border barrier construction. However, “CBP is moving forward with some activities necessary to address life, safety, environmental, and remediation requirements, and is conducting robust planning (including environmental planning) and stakeholder engagement related to future/ongoing border wall projects.”
  • Over $1 billion would go to new border security technologies.
  • CBP would receive funding to hire 300 new Border Patrol agents and 300 new Border Patrol Processing Coordinators—non-law-enforcement personnel who assist with processing recently arrived migrants, particularly asylum seekers.
  • The proposal calls for $765 million for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), up from $250 million in 2022, to help the agency, among other purposes, “efficiently process increasing asylum caseloads.”
  • $375 million would go to implementing the Biden administration’s new asylum rule.
  • $494 million would go to “processing and care costs” for migrants apprehended at the border.
  • The DHS Inspector-General would see a budget increase from $220 million in 2022 to $233 million in 2023.
  • $20 million would go to the Family Reunification Task Force, which continues to seek to locate parents of children separated by the Trump administration’s so-called “Zero Tolerance” policy.
  • Holding adult migrants in detention centers will cost Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) $148.62 per day per detention bed, with a request to fund 9,000 fewer beds than in 2022.
  • The Justice Department request asks for $1.4 billion for the immigration court system, up $621 million from 2021, to address the system’s giant backlog of 1.7 million cases. This includes funds to hire 100 new immigration judges. On March 25, Justice announced the hiring of 25 new immigration judges. As of January, the system had 578 judges.

The CBP Budget Justification also includes some notable statistics among its performance measures.

  • CBP reports that 26.6 percent of migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2021 were “encountered multiple times.” That is up from less than 11 percent in the years just before the pandemic. The average number of repeat encounters was 3.14.
  • Border Patrol estimates that it apprehended 82.6 percent of all migrants who attempted to cross undocumented into the United States. That is the second-highest “interdiction effectiveness rate” reported in the five-year 2017-2021 period.
  • Joint operations conducted “by Border Patrol agents and Mexican law enforcement partners” declined to 22 in 2021, from 43 in 2018.

Links

  • “For many years, Cubans began their journey to the U.S. border in South America,” notes a new WOLA commentary on migration from Cuba. “Things changed in November 2021, when Nicaragua lifted visa requirements for Cuban nationals, opening a new, and shorter, path to reach the U.S.”
  • Beyond the Bridge,” a new report by Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and the Haitian Bridge Alliance, documents examples of U.S. and Mexican personnel abusing and mistreating Haitian migrants during and after a large-scale migration event in Del Rio, Texas last September.
  • The U.S. government had used Title 42 to expel 600 Colombian migrants on 6 flights to Colombia during the first 4 weeks of March, CBS News reporter Camilo Montoya-Gálveztweeted, citing the head of Colombia’s migration agency.
  • In early February, Tijuana authorities evacuated and bulldozed a year-old tent encampment by the port of entry to San Diego, at which several hundred migrants had been living as they awaited a post-Title 42 opportunity to seek asylum. (See WOLA’s February 11 Border Update.) Almost two months later, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported, the people who lived in the encampment “have scattered.” Some are in shelters, some are living elsewhere in the city, some have crossed irregularly into the United States, and some are still living in tents.
  • In Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas, the busiest Mexico-Guatemala border crossing (near Tapachula), migrants continue to protest the slow pace of immigration officials’ processing of their status requests. Milenio notes that the Suchiate River, which separates Mexico from Guatemala here, is currently only two feet (60cm) deep at its deepest point.
  • At VICE, Nathaniel Janowitz reports on the proliferation of .50-caliber sniper rifles in Mexico, smuggled across the border after being purchased at U.S. gun shops. No U.S. federal law expressly prohibits trafficking in firearms.
  • VICE also reported about a “secret deal with Mexican officials” that allowed 35 Russian asylum seekers to cross from Tijuana to San Diego “under cover of night” at “a checkpoint that has been closed to the public for several months.” This allowed the Russian individuals to cross ahead of migrants from other nationalities who have been waiting for the chance to ask for asylum at the U.S. port of entry, which remains closed to asylum seekers, with rare exceptions, due to Title 42.
  • Bethesda Magazine published an interesting feature about Central American children who arrived at the border unaccompanied and are now trying to adjust to life and school in Montgomery County, in suburban Washington, DC, which  has one of the United States’ largest numbers of unaccompanied minors who have been released to sponsors.
  • In a new book Will Hurd, who represented a west Texas border district in Congress, tells of taking other Republican representatives to visit the border: “Some were nervous when I took them into Mexico. Many were expecting the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, with shootouts in the streets like Black Hawk Down.”

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: March 25, 2022

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

The spring migration increase is underway

Weekly Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data shared with the Washington Post point to the agency being on pace to encounter undocumented migrants more than 200,000 times at the U.S.-Mexico border by the end of March. That is a threshold that CBP crossed in July (213,593) and August (209,840) of 2021. Arrivals dropped moderately after that, reaching 154,745 in January. March 2021, Joe Biden’s second full month in office, saw 173,277 migrant encounters.

“An internal email sent to senior ICE officials in recent days warned that authorities are bracing for a ‘mass migration event,'” the Post reported, “and urged closer coordination with charities and nongovernmental groups that can help shelter and transport migrants after they are released.”

As in recent months, many migrants are arriving in Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, in rural mid-Texas. Del Rio was number one in migrant encounters among the agency’s nine U.S.-Mexico border sectors in January, and second in February. As of late 2020, there were 1,504 Border Patrol agents stationed in Del Rio, 6th among the 9 sectors. Border Patrol has just one temporary place-a tent compound in Eagle Pass, Texas-to hold and process apprehended migrants in Del Rio, other than its stations’ small holding cells.

“6 days in a row, DRT [Del Rio sector] agents are faced with large groups turning themselves in, over 700 migrants,” tweeted Border Patrol Chief Raúl Ortiz. “These type of encounters are exhausting our resources & manpower.” The sector chief reported 2,565 migrant encounters over the March 19-20 weekend, including four large groups turning themselves in to agents on March 18, 20, and 21.

Those four groups, totaling 485 people, were notable for their nationalities. Smugglers grouped together migrants from 17 countries, but only 2 out of the 485 individuals were from Mexico or Central America’s “Northern Triangle” (Honduras, in this case)-the countries that made up more than 90 percent of all apprehended migrants as recently as 2019 (and more than 95 percent in the years just before that). The rest were from countries, from Colombia to Cuba to Venezuela to several African nations, to which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cannot easily expel migrants using the Title 42 pandemic authority, due to distance or poor diplomatic relations.

The Washington Post reported that CBP is currently holding more than 15,000 migrants per day in short-term custody, up from fewer than 7,500 per day in February. Even after more than a year of consistently high migration numbers, the agency has permanent and temporary facilities able to hold and process only 5,200 migrants, plus the small holding cells at Border Patrol stations. Those processing facilities, mostly tents, are in Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley, Del Rio, El Paso, Tucson and Yuma sectors.

The capacity to process protection-seeking migrants-checking backgrounds and health status, gathering biometric data, starting asylum processes-is essential, especially if the COVID pandemic’s ebb brings an end to Title 42 expulsions. The 2022 Homeland Security appropriation, which finally became law on March 15, includes $200 million to build two permanent processing facilities, which Border Report calls “European-style ‘one-stop’ centers” incorporating several agencies under one roof.

A permanent processing facility was just renovated in McAllen, Texas, and another is nearing construction in El Paso using $192 million appropriated in February 2019. As of December, DHS was still seeking to purchase land for the El Paso site. The Department has 90 days to report to Congress its plans for the new $200 million outlay.

Title 42 may (or may not) be entering its last week

Processing capacity will be essential if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) decides that reduced COVID indicators warrant a lifting of Title 42 restrictions. The policy comes up for a 60-day renewal-or termination-on March 30.

Since March 2020, the Trump and Biden administrations have depended on this provision to expel migrants quickly, without affording a chance to ask for asylum, more than 1.7 million times. If Title 42 goes away, then migrants must be processed under regular immigration law (including a small but growing portion of asylum seekers subjected to the “Remain in Mexico” program).

White House and DHS leadership say that the decision is up to the CDC. “They’re going to make the decision that they make within the parameters of their authority,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told the Washington Post. “It’s a public health authority, not an immigration policy. And so they’ll make their decision and then we will proceed accordingly.” The Washington Examiner reported that “multiple government officials,” including a “senior CBP official,” are expecting the CDC to end Title 42 by April. It is still possible, though, that the CDC could cite the coronavirus’s emerging BA.2 variant as a reason to continue the border expulsions policy.

Though DHS has set up a “command post,” among other steps, to deal with a potential post-Title 42 overwhelm, CBP’s processing capacity (discussed above) remains insufficient. A March 24 letter to President Biden from Arizona’s two moderate Democratic senators, Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, worries that DHS has not created a “comprehensive plan” for “a secure, orderly, and humane process at the border” after Title 42, despite the senators having requested one of Secretary Mayorkas last June. For that reason, Kelly and Sinema ask that Title 42 remain in place-even without a public health justification-until a plan exists and DHS is ready to carry it out.

Title 42’s use meanwhile continues to expand. Following discussions with the Government of Colombia, earlier this month DHS began using Title 42 to expel hundreds of Colombian migrants back to Bogotá by air, CBS News revealed. A credible source tells WOLA that many Colombian migrant families were held in cells for as much as 20 days in Border Patrol’s Yuma sector stations, only to be expelled. The expulsions policy was meant to be a public health measure to avoid exactly this sort of practice: holding people for long periods in cramped CPB spaces where the virus could spread.

Title 42 continues to close ports of entry (official border crossings) to asylum seekers. At the line between Tijuana and San Diego, that has meant CBP officers turning away Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion, and Russians fleeing the Putin government’s repression. U.S. authorities have begun admitting Ukrainians, offering them humanitarian parole. CBS News’s Camilo Montoya-Gálvez tweeted that between February 23 and March 23, 168 Ukrainians had requested parole.

Russians are among the many other nationalities whose asylum seekers remain in limbo in Tijuana. Blocked by Title 42, some Russian families have been camped out on the sidewalk outside the San Ysidro port of entry leading to San Diego. Nationals from other countries, from Central America to Africa, continue to be unable to access protection at the port. “The racism is blatant at this point,” Hollie Webb, an attorney with the Tijuana-San Diego legal services organization Al Otro Lado, told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Mexico’s foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, said on March 21 that 1,300 Russian and Ukrainian citizens have gathered at the U.S. border. They appear to be concentrated mostly in the western part of the border: officials in Ciudad Juárez say they have seen “few if any” Ukrainians. In Baja California, the Mexican state whose largest city is Tijuana, education officials said that they had enrolled 15 Russian and Ukrainian children in the state’s schools.

“Operation Lone Star” faces serious questions

It has been just over a year since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a fierce critic of the Biden administration’s border policies, launched “Operation Lone Star,” a big state-funded security deployment along Texas’s border with Mexico. Abbott has increased the state’s border security budget to more than $3 billion through 2023. These funds have paid for miles of fencing on state-owned and some private land, along with the reconditioning of two jails to hold migrants arrested on state trespassing charges.

Operation Lone Star has sent about 10,000 Texas National Guardsmen and state police to the border. “To pull this off,” the Texas Observer noted this week, “the state ordered Guard members, under threat of possible arrest, to separate from families and civilian jobs, sometimes with just days’ notice, for an assignment set to last a year.”

As past WOLA Border Updates have reported, Abbott’s military deployment has been seriously troubled. “Troops have dealt with late paychecks, limited access to necessary equipment and cramped living conditions for a mission that some soldiers have said lacks purpose,” Stars and Stripes put it this week. Several soldiers have committed, or attempted, suicide.

The deployment’s problems have brought some unusual mid-course leadership changes. This week, the Texas National Guard abruptly replaced the commander of its 36th Infantry Division, which comprises 16,000 of Texas’s 23,200 National Guard troops. Gen. Charles Aris is the second Texas general to be replaced in two weeks: Gov. Abbott pushed out Gen. Tracy Norris as adjutant-general of the Texas Military Department on March 14. “Transitions for both command positions are typically announced in advance and include a formal public ceremony,” Stars and Stripes reported. “The announcements made last week were effective immediately and officials said ‘appropriate’ ceremonies are in the planning stages.”

At a March 10 event in the Rio Grande Valley, Gov. Abbott had commemorated Operation Lone Star’s one-year anniversary, claiming many criminal arrests, drug seizures, and migrant apprehensions. A big March 21 investigation by the Marshall Project, ProPublica, and the Texas Tribune cast serious doubt on these claims of success. The journalistic organizations found that among the Operation’s purported results, Texas authorities had been counting arrests and drug seizures that took place far from the border, involving police units unaffiliated with “Lone Star,” and in some cases taking place before the deployment even began. They note that “Abbott, DPS [Texas Department of Public Safety] and the Texas Military Department have fought two dozen public records requests from the news organizations that would provide a clearer picture of the operation’s accomplishments.”

Operation Lone Star’s arrests and jailings of migrants continue to be very controversial. A new filing by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, in a lawsuit challenging the mass arrests’ constitutionality, finds that migrants continue to be locked up for as much as five months before having access to an attorney or having misdemeanor charges filed against them. Texas law requires that defendants be assigned a lawyer within three days of asking for one, and prohibits jailing misdemeanor defendants without charges for more than 30 days.

On March 22 the Texas Observer profiled one of Operation Lone Star’s most outspoken critics, Sgt. Jason Featherston, who until late 2021 was the command sergeant major of the Texas Army National Guard. Guardsmen are part-time volunteer soldiers with civilian careers and families; Abbott gave most just a week or two to get their affairs in order and report to an unclear border mission. “Many requested exemption from deployment and were denied,” the Observer reports. “Among them were hospital staff combatting COVID-19 surges in their local communities; police officers in understaffed departments; a federal agent who helps protect the country’s nuclear weapons; and Texans helping tend to ailing relatives.” In Sgt. Featherston’s view, “Texas was trying to get a number to go to the border; they didn’t care how they got it.”

Links

  • WOLA published a photo essay recounting an early March trip to the Del Rio, Laredo, and Rio Grande Valley sectors of the U.S.-Mexico border, including four Mexican border cities.
  • The Biden administration has published new regulations to govern the process by which migrants seek asylum. They empower asylum officers at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to issue decisions, among other efforts to “streamline” the overloaded adjudication system. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council summarizes the new rules’ 512 pages in a Twitter thread. He warns that the streamlined timelines, aiming to process cases within about 90 days, “are punishing, brutal, and will almost certainly prevent the vast majority of asylum seekers going through this system from being able to obtain lawyers.” The new rules will begin their phase-in in a little more than two months.
  • A letter from 22 House Democrats to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, led by Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-El Paso, Texas) calls for in-country asylum processing programs, so that protection-seeking migrants might avoid “harsh terrain, threats of violence, harassment from local authorities, and even exploitation by smugglers and cartels” in the journey across Mexico.
  • The more than 2,000 migrants packed under tents and tarps in a plaza in the high-crime border city of Reynosa, bottled up there by Title 42, are to be moved soon to a safer site at a converted baseball field. That project, though, is running far behind schedule, Border Report’s Sandra Sánchez finds, and Reynosa municipal authorities want the migrants out of the square.
  • Nuevo Laredo continues to experience a convulsion of violence in the wake of the March 14 arrest and extradition of the town’s maximum organized-crime boss, Juan Gerardo “El Huevo” Treviño. Mexico’s federal government deployed 250 elite special forces troops to the city.
  • Staff from the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) spoke to EFE about a recent visit to Panama’s migrant reception centers at the end of the treacherous Darién Gap jungle route. CEJIL’s director for Central America and Mexico, former Guatemalan attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz, said that “more and more women, and with minors” are crossing the Darién, “and the main consequence is an increase in sexual violence suffered during transit.” Panamanian government statistics indicate that 30 percent of migrants who passed through the Darién during the first two months of 2022 were Venezuelan-more than double the second-place country, Haiti.
  • Nicaragua’s November 2021 lifting of visa requirements for visiting Cubans has created a new migration route through Central America and Mexico to the U.S. border, BBC Mundo reports. Cuba was the number-three country of citizenship of migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border in February. Florida International University expert Jorge Duany calls the Nicaragua route a “silent Mariel,” referring to a historic 1980 mass migration event. The entire trip, including exorbitant airfare, smugglers’ fees, and bribes to officials, costs about $10,000 per person.
  • Nicaraguans, too, are fleeing to the United States in increasing numbers. “The historic destination had been Costa Rica, but the course changed,” Divergentes reports. “Nicaragua is going to empty out like Venezuela,” a migrant said.
  • “Returns to Haiti are life-threatening now, and will continue to be so, until security conditions in Haiti improve,” reads a new report from Human Rights Watch calling on the United States to suspend expulsions and other removals.
  • Daily protests by migrants stranded in the Mexico-Guatemala border zone city of Tapachula, Chiapas have become violent at times, Lillian Perlmutter reports at the Los Angeles Times. “Frustration rises to a boil, and people begin throwing things.”
  • Protesting migrants reportedly blocked a road less than an hour’s drive south of the U.S. border in Allende, Coahuila, site of a notorious 2011 massacre abetted by a DEA trained and vetted federal police unit. The migrants claim that their documents are in order, but Mexican forces are blocking them from traveling further north to the border (Del Rio sector).
  • CBP documents and situation reports that The Intercept obtained via the Freedom of Information Act reveal extreme steps the agency, along with Mexican authorities, took to block “migrant caravan” participants’ attempt to seek asylum in early 2019. Mexican forces confined nearly 2,000 migrants to a former body-bag factory in Piedras Negras, and blocked others from accessing the port of entry across the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, Texas. “Some of the Mexican officials watching over the migrants were part of Fuerza Coahuila, a body within the Coahuila State Police that has faced hundreds of complaints of human rights abuses, including forced disappearances.”
  • CBP has published a plan and a “stakeholder feedback report” outlining proposed efforts to “remediate” border barriers in the agency’s Tucson, Arizona sector.
  • The Border Chronicle reveals that “Veterans on Patrol,” a militia that espouses QAnon conspiracies, is intercepting unaccompanied minors near the border wall in Arizona. “They take the phone numbers of the children’s sponsors and, in some cases, confront the sponsors at their homes in the United States.” Local Border Patrol agents appear to be aware of and cooperating with them.
  • While a Border Patrol agent was apprehending a group of migrants near the border wall in Santa Teresa, New Mexico earlier this month, an individual came across from Mexico, hurled a rock through the windshield of the agent’s parked SUV, and crossed back into Mexico.

Weekly Border Update: March 18, 2022

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

Will Title 42 end? What might happen next?

“Title 42,” the pandemic emergency provision the Trump and Biden administrations have used to rapidly expel migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border region more than 1.7 million times, may be nearing an end as U.S. COVID case rates and restrictions fall. The provision, which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has used to expel even migrants claiming fear for their lives if removed, is up for renewal at the end of March or beginning of April, and it’s not clear whether it will be prolonged or allowed to lapse.

Late on March 11, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) altered its March 2020 order, exempting unaccompanied children. In practice, no non-Mexican unaccompanied children had been expelled since November 2020, when a Washington, DC District Court judge halted such expulsions. In January 2021, though, that judge was overruled by a DC Circuit Court panel-but the new Biden administration refused to expel unaccompanied children. On March 4 a District Court judge in Texas went further, seeking to compel the administration to resume expelling unaccompanied children; the response was the March 11 CDC modification to its Title 42 order.

A CDC document accompanying that modification noted that the next 60-day renewal of Title 42 is imminent. The deadline is either March 30 or “early April.” Whether the public health agency will renew it is not clear. “We continue to defer to the CDC on the use of Title 42 and how long it might remain in effect,” a White House official told Axios.

On a March 17 call with reporters, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the CDC’s decision will depend on “where we are in the arc of the COVID-19 pandemic,” noting that new coronavirus variants have emerged. “If BA.2 variant drives up cases,” the Washington Post’s Nick Miroff tweeted, “it wouldn’t be the first time DHS preparations for ending T42 are stalled by covid resurgence, giving Biden admin public health rationale for extending it.”

Several events in the past week have increased pressure on the Biden administration to do away with Title 42 once and for all.

  • Outrage followed Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers’ use of Title 42 authority to turn away Ukrainian asylum seekers at the main Tijuana-San Diego port of entry. The first Ukrainians arrived on March 7, and U.S. lawyers in Tijuana had to fight hard to get CBP to admit the families, part of a flow of refugees from the Russian invasion who had flown to Mexico with the intent of seeking asylum in the United States. By March 17, Mayorkas said, DHS had issued guidance to CBP officers stationed at the borderline to consider using the discretion that Title 42 gives them to make exceptions. A separate DHS policy is offering Ukrainians a one-year grant of humanitarian parole in the United States-not asylum, which must be granted in immigration court-on a case-by-case basis.
  • “Advocates for migrants said the DHS guidance for Ukrainians showed unequal and discriminatory treatment of asylum-seekers based on their countries of origin, which is barred under international refugee law,” CBS News reported. Among the many nationalities whose asylum seekers remain frozen out of U.S. ports of entry by Title 42 are Russians fleeing persecution from the Putin regime. Tijuana municipal authorities even issued Russians a letter in their native language warning them to vacate the vicinity of the port of entry.
  • In a new quarterly report, Human Rights First revealed that it has tracked “at least 9,886 kidnappings, torture, rape, and other violent attacks on people blocked in or expelled to Mexico due to the Title 42 policy under the Biden administration.”
  • This week the Biden administration’s 209th removal flight departed for Haiti; about two-thirds of the 20,700 Haitians aboard these planes have been Title 42 expulsions. “Stop deporting and expelling people to Haiti. Now,” read a letter to Mayorkas and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky from Reps. Mondaire Jones (D-New York) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts), whose districts have large Haitian-American populations.
  • The Senate’s majority leader, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York), was among four Democratic senators whose March 12 statement read, “We are deeply disappointed in the Biden Administration’s decision to maintain Title 42. While we recognize that the Administration made the right choice to prevent unaccompanied children from being expelled, it is wrong that they made the decision to continue sending families with minor children back to persecution and torture.” Talking to reporters during the week of March 7, Schumer added, “it’s unacceptable that this policy continues to be used indiscriminately to remove migrants with valid refugee claims from our southern border.”
  • “Enough is enough,” read a March 12 statement from Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Rep. Raúl Ruiz (D-California). “It is long overdue to completely end the Trump-initiated Title 42 policy and stop using the pandemic as an excuse to keep it going.”

Should Title 42 end in about two weeks, many asylum-seeking migrants may seize the long-delayed opportunity to present at, or between, ports of entry to turn themselves in to U.S. authorities. It is not clear that DHS has been putting in place the infrastructure and personnel necessary to process that massive protection demand in an orderly way. Though images of a chaotic rush to the border could create political problems for the Biden administration as midterm legislative elections approach, preparations at the border appear to be incipient.

Secretary Mayorkas told reporters that DHS is “operationalizing preparations for different possibilities.” Axios reports that “U.S. intelligence officials are privately bracing for a massive influx of more than 170,000 migrants at the Mexico border.”

Axios reporters Jonathan Swan and Stef Kight note that the Biden administration is putting together a Southwest Border Coordination Center (SBCC), based in Washington and headed by Border Patrol official Matthew Hudak. This SBCC, which is still forming, will be “essentially a war room to coordinate an interagency response,” incorporating personnel from the Departments of Homeland Security, State, Justice, Defense, and Health and Human Services (HHS). Other preparations underway, according to Swan and Kight, include:

  • Meetings among officials from different agencies to draw up a “Southwest Border Mass Irregular Migration Contingency Plan.”
  • A March 16 call on DHS employees “to consider stepping forward to support the DHS Volunteer Force” to help process large numbers of migrants at the border.
  • The possibility of surging “hundreds or thousands” of additional personnel from DHS’s component agencies and from HHS.
  • Possible requests to the U.S. Marshals Service and Defense Department for air and ground transportation to transfer migrants.
  • Possible requests for “dozens of buses from the Bureau of Prisons to transport migrants between DHS facilities.”
  • Possible expansion or construction of tent-based facilities for short-term processing and sheltering of “up to 2,000 migrants apiece.”

As these preparations are all in their early stages, there is a strong likelihood that CBP’s existing processing capacity might be overwhelmed if Title 42 abruptly terminates at the end of March. Border-zone nonprofits and service providers, like the San Diego and Tijuana-based Al Otro Lado, note that they could play a big role in helping to make the flow more orderly, but that they have received no response from the U.S. government.

Preparations for a post-Title 42 reality have included diplomatic efforts. BuzzFeed reported that DHS officials have been planning to tell Mexican counterparts that Title 42 “may come to an end as soon as April, which could lead to an increase of immigrants coming to the border and a strain on resources.” DHS Secretary Mayorkas was in Mexico City on March 14, his fourth visit to Mexico, where he discussed migration with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and other top officials. The next day Mayorkas was in Costa Rica, where he signed a migration cooperation arrangement with authorities in San José. In February Costa Rica started requiring visas for Venezuelans and Cubans.

More Colombians and Cubans, fewer Venezuelans and families, encountered in February

CBP released its latest update of data about migration at the U.S.-Mexico border, covering February. It found a slight increase in migrant arrivals over January, led by single adults and unaccompanied children. Arrivals of families fell, as did migrants from Venezuela. Here are some highlights:

CBP has encountered migrants at the border 838,685 times in the first five months of fiscal year 2022. During the first five months of fiscal 2021, the agency had 397,549 encounters. At the current rate, migrant encounters would exceed 2 million for the first time ever.

The 164,973 migrant encounters in February were the most in a month of February since 2000. This represented a 7 percent increase over January, which is usually a less-busy month. Numbers are likely to increase throughout the spring even if Title 42 remains in place.

“Encounters” include a lot of repeat crossers, especially now that Title 42’s rapid expulsions facilitate numerous attempts. CBP reported encountering 116,678 actual individual migrants in February, a 5 percent increase over January’s reported number (though CBP’s release calls it a 2 percent increase). 30 percent of encounters were with migrants whom the agency had already apprehended at least once. (The “re-encounter rate” was just 14 percent between 2014 and 2019.)

February saw the largest number of people expelled under Title 42 since October: 91,513, or 55 percent of all encounters. As of February 28, CBP had expelled migrants on 1,706,076 occasions.

Arrivals of family units (parents with children) continued a long decline. 26,811 family-unit members were encountered in February, down 69 percent from August (87,054). Of those, less than 19,000 avoided expulsion under Title 42. Only about 3,000 of these non-expelled families came from Mexico or from Central America’s “northern triangle” countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras).

After dipping in January, encounters with unaccompanied children increased 37 percent in February, to 12,011. On an average day in February, CBP had 520 unaccompanied kids in short-term custody, up from 295 in January.

Encounters with single adults, meanwhile, hit their highest monthly total since CBP started publicly breaking down data by demographic group in October 2011. 126,151 of February’s encounters-76 percent of the total-were with single adults.

The countries that saw the most notable increases in migration in February were Colombia (up 135 percent since December), Cuba (up 107 percent), and Mexico (up 38 percent). Cuba was the number-three country of citizenship of migrants encountered at the border last month. Colombia was sixth, for the first time ever. Mexico does not require visas of arriving Colombians, so-as has happened in the past year with Brazilians, Ecuadorians, and Venezuelans-many appear to be arriving by air in Mexico and arriving at the U.S. border. Nicaragua removed visa requirements for Cubans in November, and more appear to be taking a route from Managua through Central America and Mexico.

The countries that saw the most notable decreases in migration are Venezuela (down 88 percent since December), Brazil (down 83 percent), and Haiti (down 75 percent). Venezuela was the number-two country of citizenship of migrants encountered at the border in November, December, and January; on January 21, however, Mexico (at strong U.S. urging) reinstated visa requirements for Venezuelans. Encounters with Venezuelans fell from 22,779 in January to 3,072 in February.

Four countries made up 98 percent of all Title 42 expulsions in February: Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Under an arrangement made in March 2020, Mexico accepts expulsions of all four nationalities’ citizens across its land border with the United States. Adding two more countries whose citizens get expelled by air, Haiti and Brazil, brings a total of 99.6 percent of Title 42 expulsions being applied to the citizens of six countries.

Those countries account, though, for only 69 percent of all migrants encountered in February. The remaining 31 percent comprised the other 0.4 percent of February’s Title 42 expulsions. Of those non-expelled migrants, 45 percent came from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Another 13 percent came from Colombia. As noted below, these are the top four countries of citizenship of migrants placed into the revived “Remain in Mexico” program.

Two until-recently quiet, remote border areas, Border Patrol’s sectors in Del Rio (Texas) and Yuma (Arizona-California), continue to see an outsized proportion of migrants from these “hard-to-expel” countries. Due to a decline in Venezuelan and Haitian arrivals, Del Rio fell out of first place among Border Patrol’s nine U.S.-Mexico border sectors-a position it occupied for the first time ever in January. Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector, the busiest since mid-2013, regained that position.

At least through February, arrivals of migrants from the Ukraine and Russia were relatively few. Most migrants from those countries, as noted above, have been arriving in the San Diego sector.

2022 budget becomes law

Five and a half months into the 2022 fiscal year, Congress has sent President Biden legislation to fund the U.S. government, which he signed on March 15. Of the budget bill’s components, one section (“Division F”) funds the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The full bill’s text is here, and the explanatory statement for Division F is here.

The House of Representatives’ version of the DHS appropriation had reflected priorities of progressive Democrats. In the Senate, which is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, a draft bill that never made it through committee hewed closer to the status quo. High-level negotiations between both houses’ leaderships resulted in Senate priorities winning out more often, as Republicans dug in on some key issues.

Most prominent of these was funding to build border wall segments. About $1.9 billion in funding appropriated in 2018 and 2019 for wall construction remained unspent. Though both houses’ draft bills sought to rescind (cancel) that wall-building money, the final budget law keeps it in place. As the law stands right now, the Biden administration is compelled to use this money to build barriers, a use of funds that DHS leadership claims to oppose. CBP has laid out plans to build about 86 miles of new border barrier and related elements in south Texas’s Starr, Hidalgo, and Cameron counties.

The bill provides $100 million “for Border Patrol hiring and contractors, retention and relocation incentives and contract support.” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who represents a border district and is the number-two member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, said that the money could go to hire 800 new Border Patrol personnel, bringing the agency’s workforce up to 19,555 agents. (A January DHS Inspector-General report found that Border Patrol had 19,513 agents in October, so either there has since been a lot of attrition, or Rep. Cuellar’s numbers are a bit off.)

The Washington Post reports that $21 million in funding, and perhaps a portion of a larger $276 million outlay for “border security technologies,” would expand a program of solar-powered “autonomous surveillance towers.” These mobile bundles of cameras and sensors run artificial-intelligence code produced by Anduril, a company founded by virtual-reality entrepreneur Palmer Luckey, that can apparently determine whether a moving object is an animal or a person. About 175 of these towers are currently deployed along the border, and the new appropriation could bring the total to 204. These and other gadgets are the focus of a newly founded Border Security Technology Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, founded by two Republican and two centrist Democratic members of Congress.

The bill also includes an additional $130.5 million, above existing appropriations, to build two new “joint processing centers” for arriving migrants at the border.

Rough week for security in Mexico border zone

On the evening of March 13 Mexico’s Army detained one of the country’s most powerful organized crime bosses, Juan Gerardo Treviño, alias “El Huevo” (“The Egg”), in the violent border city of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, across from Laredo, Texas. The city erupted in violence overnight, which persisted throughout the week, as Treviño’s men set fire to vehicles, attacked military posts, and even fired on, and threw a grenade at, the U.S. Consulate.

Treviño is the nephew of Miguel Ángel Treviño, alias “Z-40,” who led the Zetas cartel about a decade ago when it was one of Mexico’s bloodiest and most feared organizations. “Huevo’s” remnant of that group, referred to as the “Northeast Cartel,” has tightly controlled Nuevo Laredo, which bestrides the busiest land cargo border crossing in North America. On a March 9 visit to Nuevo Laredo (coincidentally five days before Treviño’s capture), WOLA’s Adam Isacson heard unanimous testimony that the Northeast Cartel not only controls the drug trade through the city, but dominates migrant smuggling and kidnapping of migrants for ransom. “Huevo’s” organization was viewed as untouchable because of its deep inroads into all local government and security institutions.

Amid the mayhem, the State Department has closed the U.S. consulate in Nuevo Laredo. “U.S. government employees have been instructed to avoid the area and shelter in place until further notice,” reads a statement from U.S. Ambassador Ken Salazar. “U.S. citizens should avoid the affected areas near the Consulate and should notify their loved ones of their well-being.” CBP briefly closed two of the border bridges’ southbound lanes between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo.

Juan Gerardo Treviño was swiftly extradited to the United States via Tijuana. He faces 11 counts related to drug trafficking and weapons possession.

Nuevo Laredo is the westernmost city in Mexico’s border state of Tamaulipas, which stretches to the Gulf of Mexico. Of Mexico’s six border states, Tamaulipas is the only one to have a level-four “Do Not Travel” warning from the U.S. State Department. Despite that, CBP has expelled 138,807 migrants into Tamaulipas from its Laredo and Rio Grande Valley sectors since October 2021, and Mexico has received another 7,411 of its deported citizens in Tamaulipas between October and January.

Further east in Tamaulipas, tense security conditions caused the exit from the U.S. consulate in Matamoros of all non-essential personnel. Matamoros is largely controlled by the Gulf Cartel, a rival of Treviño’s Northeast Cartel. Throughout the state, InsightCrime warns, a weakened Northeast Cartel could provide an entry to the hyper-violent and rapidly expanding Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which would further worsen already high violence levels.

On the other end of the border, in Tijuana, Mexico’s Army sent an additional 400 Army troops in an effort to reduce very high levels of homicides. The new personnel include “infantry, paratroopers, and special forces,” reports the Tijuana daily El Imparcial.

“Remain in Mexico” numbers

Between December 6 and March 17, 1,217 asylum seekers had been sent to Mexico under the court-ordered revival of the “Remain in Mexico” (RMX) program, CBS News’s Camilo Montoya-Galvez reported: 520 from El Paso into Ciudad Juárez; 345 from Brownsville into Matamoros and Monterrey; 296 from San Diego into Tijuana; and 57 from Laredo to Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey.

A new monthly Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “Cohort Report” table indicates that the number of asylum-seeking migrants newly enrolled into RMX more than doubled from January to February, increasing from 273 in December to 399 in January, and to 897 in February.

Many migrants initially enrolled in RMX avoid being sent back to Mexico because they demonstrated reasonable fear of harm, or due to other vulnerabilities. Those who were actually sent to Mexico and remained there, as of February 28, also more than doubled from January to February (December 209, January 253, February 551).

Nicaragua dominates among countries of citizenship of those initially enrolled into RMX.

  • Nicaragua 1,111
  • Venezuela 189
  • Cuba 124
  • Colombia 73
  • Ecuador 40
  • Peru 27
  • Dominican Republic 3
  • Costa Rica 1
  • Guatemala 1

Those are initial enrollments; the DHS report does not provide the nationalities of those who remained in Mexico awaiting hearing dates.

As of February 28 all enrolled migrants had been adults, 92 percent of them male. 86 percent expressed fear of returning to Mexico. Of those who expressed fear, 18 percent received a “positive fear” determination and did not get sent back to Mexico, and another 12 percent had their cases closed.

The Biden administration continues to challenge the August order, from a Texas district court judge, requiring it to reinstate RMX, a program begun by the Trump administration. The Supreme Court will hear arguments on April 26th, and the Biden administration filed a brief this week.

Links

  • The Texas Tribune found that some National Guardsmen deployed to the border by Gov. Greg Abbott (R) have been ordered to station themselves outside some of the wealthiest private ranches in south Texas. “Troops rarely saw migrants from their posts nearly 80 miles away from the border and were unable to give chase because they were not authorized to enter the private ranches.” The Texas Tribune and Army Times, which have reported extensively on this very troubled deployment of military personnel on U.S. soil, noted that-in a tacit acknowledgement that the mission has been a debacle-Abbot abruptly replaced the leader of the Texas Military Department on March 14.
  • A new DHS report on domestic violent extremism within the Department’s workforce, produced at the initiative of Secretary Mayorkas, “found very few instances of the DHS workforce having been engaged in domestic violent extremism.” It warned, however, that DHS-which includes CBP, Border Patrol, and ICE-“has significant gaps that have impeded its ability to comprehensively prevent, detect, and respond to potential threats related to domestic violent extremism within DHS.”
  • The director of Mexico’s migration agency, the National Migration Institute (INM), said that 1,800 of its agents have been fired during the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, which began in December 2018, “for different causes, such as corruption, dishonesty or absenteeism.” In 2019 the Mexican government reported that the INM employed 4,133 agents, so 1,800 firings would represent 44 percent of the force.
  • The Houston Chronicle published a lengthy and graphically vivid feature recounting Haitian migrants’ long journey from Chile to the Texas border.
  • A vessel carrying 123 Haitians who had left that country five days earlier ran aground in the Florida Keys on March 14. All aboard made it to shore and are now in ICE custody.
  • Border Patrol found the body of a four-year-old Nicaraguan girl whose mother lost her in the river’s current while crossing on March 4 between Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila and Del Rio, Texas.
  • An annual report from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) found that the agency deported 59,011 people in fiscal 2021, “an historical low” according to CBS News. (As CBP expelled 1,071,075 people at the border under Title 42 in fiscal 2021, the overall number of people removed from the United States was historically high.)
  • Hundreds of migrants unable to register themselves in Mexico’s southern border-zone city of Tapachula went to Ciudad Hidalgo, the town directly on Mexico’s border with Guatemala about 20 miles away, to try to register at INM’s facility at the port of entry. Local media said the migrants, most of them from Cuba and Venezuela, “violently broke into the customs facilities and access to the international bridge.” Personnel from Mexico’s INM and militarized National Guard then carried out a series of raids and roundups of migrants in Ciudad Hidalgo, whom the agencies placed in detention.
  • “I tried twice to go to the United States, but it didn’t go well and I said: ‘If I survived in Honduras, why can’t I survive here in Tapachula? Here it’s quiet, you walk everywhere and we haven’t had any problems,'” Honduran migrant Carol Castro told the Border Hub project. Castro, who has founded a “pole dance” school in Tapachula, is among a growing number of Hondurans settling there.
  • “Biden’s team is betting, it seems, that it can keep the worst of the immigration crisis confined to Mexico and that the U.S. public will continue to ignore the problem, as it long has,” reads a Foreign Affairs analysis by Ana Raquel Minian of Stanford University, who contends that this is a longstanding U.S. practice.

Weekly Border Update: March 4, 2022

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

Due to staff travel, there will be no border update on March 11. The next edition will appear on March 18.

Developing: as this update goes up mid-day on March 4, a District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals has just issued a ruling placing some limits on Title 42 expulsions of asylum-seeking families. It appears to uphold the practice of rapidly expelling asylum-seekers for public health reasons, but it also requires the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to avoid expelling people to places where they might be in danger of persecution or torture. This may require DHS to carry out reasonable fear interviews of all who express fear of expulsion.

House holds hearing on “Remain in Mexico”

The House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation, and Operations held a March 2 hearing to examine the Biden administration’s court-ordered resumption of the “Remain in Mexico” policy. This is the controversial program that the Trump administration employed between January 2019 and January 2021 to send over 71,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their U.S. hearings inside Mexico, usually in Mexican border cities with some of the world’s highest violent crime rates. The Biden administration terminated the program during its first months, only to have a Texas district court judge order its reinstatement in August 2021.

In written testimony, the acting assistant DHS  secretary for border and immigration, Blas Nuñez-Neto, offered some statistics about the renewed Remain in Mexico program, which sent its first asylum seekers to Mexico on December 8. As of February 28:

  • 1,602 people had been enrolled in the program.
  • Of those, 893 had been returned to Mexico. 181 were still being processed. The rest were exempted due to vulnerabilities or because of a “reasonable possibility” of persecution and torture in Mexico.
  • One was “a family unit individual,” who was later removed from the program.
  • All had been Spanish speakers, “primarily from Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, and Ecuador.”
  • Of the 1,602, 1,313 (82 percent) had claimed a fear of harm in Mexico. Of those, 225 (17 percent) received a “positive determination” and were removed from Remain in Mexico. Another 12 percent had their cases administratively closed.
  • During their non-refoulement interviews (to determine fear of return to Mexico), 2 percent had legal representation.

“As of this week,” Nuñez-Neto said, Remain in Mexico returns “are now occurring in four locations across the entire Southwest border.” Those are El Paso-Ciudad Juárez; San Diego-Tijuana; Brownsville-Matamoros; and, as of this week, Laredo-Nuevo Laredo. Those being returned to the especially high-crime cities of Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo are given the option of transportation further south to the city of Monterrey. The first two migrants were returned to Nuevo Laredo on Thursday, March 3, and opted to go to Monterrey. The Mexican daily El Financiero reportedthat the UN-affiliated International Organization for Migration (IOM) “committed to transport them whenever they are called upon to continue their legal process” in the United States.

Immigration court facilities for those with Remain in Mexico hearing dates are now operating in El Paso, San Diego, and Brownsville. In Brownsville on February 15, the Biden administration reopened makeshift “tent courts” where asylum seekers will argue their cases with remote judges over video. Laredo’s tent court hearings will begin on or about March 28.

The 100-minute, 2-panel hearing was attended mostly by members of the Republican minority. The subcommittee’s chairwoman, Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-California), opened by noting her disappointment in the renewed Remain in Mexico program after a visit to San Diego and Tijuana. “I argue that more work needs to be done,” she said, pointing out that some relatives who don’t meet the definition of a nuclear family continue to be separated, that some people must plead their cases in non-refoulement interviews while under the influence of COVID vaccine side effects, and that most migrants are unable to secure legal representation.

Higgins and the ranking Republican on the full Homeland Security Committee, Rep. John Katko (R-New York), complained that “only 13” people per day are currently being made to remain in Mexico. “That’s only a quarter of one percent of those caught. That is not right,” Katko said. The Republican members argue that this does not constitute the “good faith effort” to reinstate Remain in Mexico that Amarillo, Texas Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ordered in August 2021.

Republicans offered other critiques of the Biden administration’s management of the revived program. Rep. Dan Bishop (R-North Carolina) speculated about lawyers “coaching” asylum seekers “to say that they’re depressed or have anxiety” in order to avoid being returned to Mexico. Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Georgia) complained about “tax dollars” being used to transport migrants to their hearings and to pay for items like wi-fi access in shelters so that they can communicate with counsel. “You know, I wish we treated our United States citizens that well.”

A Republican witness, Arizona state Department of Homeland Security Director Tim Roemer, incorrectly said “yes” when asked, “there should be no reason that an illegal or that an immigrant who wants to come here under a case of asylum couldn’t go to a legal port of entry, is that correct?” (Ports of entry have been closed to asylum seekers and other undocumented migrants since at least March 2020.)

Writing from Ciudad Juarez for The Intercept, John Washington spoke to Remain in Mexico-enrolled migrants who have been staying in a giant shelter operated by Mexico’s federal government. In addition to dangers from corrupt police and national guardsmen tied to kidnappers, Washington described

prison-like conditions, bad and insufficient food, filthy bathrooms, excessive cold, and lack of Covid precautions, including not quarantining people who were infected and guards not using masks. One of the guards, Mateo [a migrant afraid to use his real name] said to me, has repeatedly told some of the migrants, “You don’t belong here. You’re worth s—.” Another guard with a reputation for being a martinet told a Venezuelan man enrolled in MPP that he would disappear him if he didn’t comply with the rules.

Organized crime flares up in Tamaulipas, Mexico

On the eastern end of the U.S.-Mexico border is the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which extends from Nuevo Laredo to the Gulf of Mexico. This is one of five of Mexico’s thirty-two states—and the only border state—to which the State Department has assigned its highest level of warning: “do not travel,” due to “crime and kidnapping.” The Remain in Mexico program is now operating across from two Tamaulipas cities, Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo, though migrants have the option of transportation a few hours further south to the city of Monterrey, in the state of Nuevo León.

Tamaulipas’s border municipalities endured a spike in organized crime violence beginning around February 24. Mexican newspapers—often relying on social media reports because press reporting on organized crime activity is dangerous— described days of running gun battles, police pursuits, destruction of police surveillance cameras, and criminals hijacking trucks and buses in order to park them across main thoroughfares, blockading all traffic. Incidents were reported in and around the border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros, and elsewhere along the Ribereña highway that parallels the Rio Grande along Mexico’s side of the border.

Mexico’s Elefante Blanco news site pointed out that “the entire danger zone is coincidentally controlled by the Gulf Cartel, according to Mexican government reports.” The site adds, citing “Tamaulipas government sources,” that a triggering event may have been the February 24 arrest in the border town of Díaz Ordaz west of Reynosa, of Obed “P”, a U.S. citizen facing charges of homicide in the United States.

On the front lines of the flareup was the Tamaulipas state police force’s Special Operations Group (GOPES), a unit that has received some U.S. assistance. GOPES is controversial because of members’ alleged involvement in serious human rights abuses, including a September 2019 massacre in Nuevo Laredo and a January 2021 massacre near the border town of Camargo of 19 people, 17 of them Central American migrants.

Following violence on February 24, as they often do, criminal groups hung banners with messages seeking to justify their violence. Some accused the GOPES unit of “wanting to sow terror” in Tamaulipas. In the first two months of 2022, the daily Milenio reported, GOPES has been attacked thirteen times while patrolling near the border, often with Mexican Army soldiers.

State of the Union reactions

President Biden included a brief mention of the U.S.-Mexico border and migration policy in his March 1 State of the Union address:

[I]f we are to advance liberty and justice, we need to secure the Border and fix the immigration system. We can do both.

At our border, we’ve installed new technology like cutting-edge scanners to better detect drug smuggling. We’ve set up joint patrols with Mexico and Guatemala to catch more human traffickers. We’re putting in place dedicated immigration judges so families fleeing persecution and violence can have their cases heard faster. We’re securing commitments and supporting partners in South and Central America to host more refugees and secure their own borders.

We can do all this while keeping lit the torch of liberty that has led generations of immigrants to this land—my forefathers and so many of yours.

Provide a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, those on temporary status, farm workers, and essential workers. Revise our laws so businesses have the workers they need and families don’t wait decades to reunite.

It’s not only the right thing to do—it’s the economically smart thing to do. That’s why immigration reform is supported by everyone from labor unions to religious leaders to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Let’s get it done once and for all.

Some immigration advocates found Biden’s security-forward presentation to be unsatisfying or concerning. “We are disappointed in @POTUS claims to fund the police, and increase border funding to a border already well funded,” tweeted RAICES Texas. “Biden has promised to make the US welcoming, and he must end Title 42 end MPP and restore asylum today,” tweeted Amnesty International USA. “The president’s hawkish talk in his State of the Union speech feels like a gut punch,” wrote Arizona Republic editorial writer Elvia Díaz, who noted the persistence of Title 42 expulsions and the President’s stalled immigration reform effort. She called Biden’s reference to a pathway to citizenship “a line, almost as an afterthought,” lamenting that the President’s border rhetoric has hardened as the Democrats appear more vulnerable in November’s midterm congressional elections. 

On the other side of the debate (in addition to some Republican representatives who yelled “build the wall” inside the chamber) were unnamed Border Patrol agents cited by Fox News. “‘F—ing pandering 101, full of sh—,’ one agent told Fox News. ‘I laughed,’ said another.” Another agent decided to level their attack on the asylum system:

“Immigration judges usually tend to follow the tendencies or intentions of their appointing administration, that means I and many other agents have little faith in them to actually follow immigration law,” they said. “The vast majority of these illegal aliens have no legitimate claims to asylum but administration-picked and taxpayer-funded lawyers will argue otherwise. Unemployment, inability to buy groceries, domestic violence, bad schools and bad weather are not legitimate claims, period.”

Links

  • Mexico’s refugee agency (COMAR) reported that 16,309 people applied for asylum in Mexico in January and February 2022. That is, by a margin of nearly 3,000, the largest January-February total COMAR has ever received. 63 percent of applications were filed at COMAR’s office in Tapachula, Chiapas. Applicants came predominantly from Haiti (4,189), Honduras (3,675), Cuba (2,004), Venezuela (1,957), and Nicaragua (800).
  • Citing documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the Washington Post’s Nick Miroff found that recently built segments of border fence were been sawed through 3,272 times during the 2019 through 2021 fiscal years—three times per day—causing damage that cost $2.6 million ($800 per incident) to repair. More than half of breaches occurred in southeast California’s El Centro sector.
  • “The idea started as a joke, but now we have a real opportunity to make the lives of soldiers better,” a specialist medic who is leading a drive to unionize National Guardsmen assigned to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) border deployment told Military Times. According to a January Justice Department court filing, laws forbidding troops from unionizing do not apply to Guardsmen on state orders.
  • After a renovation that began in November 2020, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has reopened its Central Processing Center (also known as the “Ursula Avenue facility”) in McAllen, Texas. The warehouse-sized site, first used in 2014, can keep up to 1,200 people apprehended at the border in short-term custody while processing them for asylum, detention, removal, or other outcomes. Before its renovations, the Center was known for its “cages”: indoor pens separated by chain link fencing. For the time being, Border Patrol is also keeping in place a tent-based processing facility in nearby Donna, Texas.
  • Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz told the Rio Grande Valley Monitor’s Valerie Gonzalez that the agency plans to increase processing capacity in its Del Rio (Texas) and Yuma (Arizona-California) sectors, which have seen rapid growth in migration. “What I don’t want to do is process these individuals in tents, which I’m doing quite a bit across the entire southwest border. We recognize that migration is going to continue, and we have to start planning for this being an enduring issue and be able to prepare for it accordingly.”
  • Border Patrol’s El Centro Sector leadership went on a horseback ride with municipal security officials from the border city of Mexicali, Baja California. A delegation from the Colombian Foreign Ministry’s migration agency visited CBP headquarters in Washington “to discuss irregular migration mitigation efforts at the Southwest border and throughout the Latin American region.”
  • Press coverage and expressions of concern continue to follow a February 2 article from the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate touting “robot dog” ground-based drones that the Directorate hopes to deploy along the border. The latest message is a letter from three Democratic House members, reported by Axios, citing “the threat the robots pose to migrants arriving at our southern border and the part they play in a long history of surveillance and privacy violations in our border communities.”
  • A Mexican bus driver claims he was bitten by an actual Border Patrol canine during a February 2020 stop at the Kingsville, Texas Border Patrol station. Roberto De Leon says the injuries to his left hand took two surgeries to repair, and he is suing for $1 million.

Weekly Border Update: February 25, 2022

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

Led by sharp “Northern Triangle” reductions, migration declined at the border in January

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released data on February 18 (moments after we posted last week’s update) about its January 2022 encounters with undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. The agency reported a 14 percent decline in migration from December to January, the first month-to-month drop since October.

The 153,941 migrants encountered was the lowest monthly amount CBP has reported since February 2021. CBP had encountered 26 percent of those migrants at least once in the past 12 months, which means the agency actually took in 111,437 “unique individuals” in January, 18 percent fewer than in December.

The January decline raised some expectations that the jump in migration that greeted the Biden administration in 2021 may be leveling off. The seasonal norm, though, is for migration to jump in spring. Washington Post reporter Nick Miroff, who has seen CBP’s preliminary weekly data, tweeted that migration numbers “have rebounded since mid-Jan. Have remained high in Feb.”

73 percent of January’s migrant encounters were with single adults, a greater proportion than in 2021 (64 percent) and than the average since October (68 percent). This owes to a 26 percent one-month drop in arrivals of unaccompanied children—CBP averaged 295 kids in custody per day, compared to 704 per day in December—and to a 39 percent drop in migrants arriving as families. “Family unit” members totaled just 31,795 in January, down from 86,631 five months earlier, in August.

Arrivals of migrants from Central America’s “Northern Triangle” countries, who had accounted for a large portion of families at the border several months ago, have dropped sharply. 31,414 migrants came from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in January, down from over 87,000 in August. Only 6,819 family members from those countries came to the border last month, down a remarkable 86 percent from August (50,107 family members).

Of those 6,819 Salvadoran, Guatemalan, or Honduran family members, all but 2,130 (69 percent) were expelled under the “Title 42” pandemic authority. Overall, CBP used Title 42 to expel, without an opportunity to request asylum, 51 percent of all encountered migrants in January.

The share of migrants being expelled has been gradually dropping—not because of a renewed Biden administration commitment to asylum, but because migrants are increasingly coming from countries to which expulsion is difficult for reasons of distance or poor diplomatic relations. For the third straight month, Venezuela was the second-largest country of origin of migrants apprehended at the border, a reality that was unprecedented before November 2021. In fact, of all non-expelled migrants in January, a remarkable 58 percent came from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, three countries governed by authoritarian regimes with which the U.S. government has very poor relations.

Similar to past months, 97 percent of all migrants expelled under Title 42 came from 5 countries: Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, and Honduras. Those 5 countries made up 61 percent of all migrants apprehended in January; the other 39 percent came from countries whose citizens rarely have Title 42 applied to them, though last month did see more flights expelling citizens to Brazil.

As in the recent past, this historically high population of non-Mexican, non-“Northern Triangle” migrants is arriving in two rural sectors of the U.S.-Mexico border that were quiet in the 2000s and 2010s: Del Rio, Texas, and Yuma, Arizona/California. Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico border into nine sectors; in January, Del Rio became the number-one sector for CBP migrant encounters. South Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector, which had held the number one spot since March 2013, fell to number two. Yuma was third.

CBP reported month-on-month declines in seizures of most drugs in January (cocaine -69 percent, methamphetamine -45 percent, heroin -85 percent). However, seizures of fentanyl increased 57 percent over an unusually low December. Fentanyl seizures at the border, which almost never reached 300 pounds per month before the pandemic, have, since June 2020, nearly always exceeded 500 pounds, and in some months exceeded 1,000 pounds. During that period, 89 percent of fentanyl seizures have taken place at ports of entry, where CBP’s Office of Field Operations operates—not in the areas in between where Border Patrol operates. In January, 92 percent of fentanyl was seized at ports of entry.

A Mexican citizen dies in an Arizona use of force incident

News reporting datelined February 20 and 21 pointed to Border Patrol personnel shooting a migrant in an incident on the night of February 19, on a desert trail about 30 miles northeast of Douglas, Arizona. In a February 23 statement, CBP confirmed that as two Border Patrol agents were intercepting a group of migrants, one of the agents followed one who attempted to escape and, “while taking him into custody discharged his firearm fatally wounding the migrant, tentatively identified as a citizen of Mexico.”

On the evening of February 24, the Cochise County, Arizona Sheriff’s Department posted a statement conveying the agent’s claims that 32-year-old Carmelo Cruz-Marcos, of Puebla, Mexico, had resisted capture, “then ran approximately six feet away before picking up a large rock and turning back towards the agent making a throwing motion with the hand that held the rock.” The agent then “fired his weapon an unknown number of times as he was in fear for his life and safety.”

The agents requested medical assistance and Cruz-Marcos’s body was airlifted out the next day. The Cochise County Sheriff is investigating the shooting, as is the Pima County (Tucson area) Medical Examiner’s Office. The Medical Examiner determined that Cruz-Marcos died of multiple gunshot wounds. CBP notified the Mexican consulate, which confirmed that the decedent was a Mexican citizen.

CBP reports that its Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) is also reviewing the incident, as will CBP’s National Use of Force Review Board.

Investigators must determine whether the shooting was truly an act of self-defense or otherwise fell within CBP’s use of force guidelines, which prohibit using firearms “in response to thrown or launched projectiles unless the officer/agent has a reasonable belief, based on the totality of circumstances, that the subject of such force poses an imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death.” If investigators find that the actions violated those guidelines, then the next steps would involve holding personnel administratively and judicially accountable.

“There are multiple red flags in this investigation” so far, a February 23 statement from the Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC) contended. It notes that the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) disclosed on February 19 that Border Patrol had killed a migrant, then “removed that statement in subsequent press releases.” SBCC adds:

Instead of the CCSO processing the scene immediately, they waited a day. Even though the other migrants in the area were taken by agents to a Border Patrol station right away, CCSO did not recover the body of the deceased migrant until the following day. The CCSO does not appear to have collected any forensic evidence at all until the next day, including from the agent involved (clothing, fingerprints, ballistics or any other relevant evidence). Instead, they ceded the incident area to border agents who could have tampered with the scene.

SBCC has spearheaded an effort to shed light on Border Patrol’s Critical Incident Teams (BPCITs), secretive units that often arrive quickly at scenes of possible use-of-force violations like this one. The teams allegedly have a record of interfering with investigations and seeking to build narratives that might exonerate the Border Patrol agents involved. While it’s not clear whether a Critical Incident Team is involved in the Arizona incident, SBCC argues, “There can be no independent investigation of border agents with the involvement of the agency that employs them, especially if BPCITs are involved, as they usually are.”

Group documents troubling CBP abuses in El Paso region

The Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR), a 22-year-old grassroots advocacy group based in El Paso, released the latest of a series of “abuse documentation” reports with troubling findings about the behavior of some U.S. border law enforcement personnel, especially CBP officers working at ports of entry.

The BNHR periodically activates its members for “Abuse Documentation Campaigns,” in which trained volunteers posted in “high traffic areas like churches, shopping centers, and international bridges” hold in-person interviews with people who claim to have suffered abuse in their interactions with local and federal law enforcement. The group takes this information as the basis for filing complaints and for what it calls its “El Paso model” of sustained dialogue with local CBP and Border Patrol leadership.

The BNHR’s most recent campaign took place from October 9 to November 9, 2021. Volunteers documented 25 cases that, the organization believes, “reflect the systemic pattern of impunity under which law enforcement agencies interact with border residents.” Sixteen of the twenty-five cases involved abuse by federal border or immigration agencies. Of these, the majority took place at ports of entry: the border bridges between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, or land crossings between New Mexico and Mexico.

Some of the complaints about Border Patrol allege racial profiling. The most serious allegations, though, involve CBP officers at the ports. BNHR found “a very troubling pattern of body and cavity searches on women,” recounting some painful testimonies. The group notes an “evident pattern” of frequent secondary inspection of border crossers, including many “false positive[s], meaning that there is a practice and potential out-of-policy daily quota to send border residents and citizens of the United States to secondary detention [inspection].” It found examples of verbal and psychological abuse by CBP officers, including insults, intimidation, and threats.

A 71-year-old dual citizen said that a CBP officer pushed him to the floor after he accidentally showed a Mexican identity document instead of his U.S. passport. A woman with DACA status says she was threatened with deportation for being “married to an illegal.” A few women recount having their genitals groped during searches.

The BNHR recommends that CBP’s Office of Field Operations set clear, written limits and standards for secondary inspection at its ports of entry, including limiting the time spent in secondary and its application to vulnerable populations. The report calls for CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility and the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General to investigate the cases it details. And it calls on the Biden administration to end Title 42 and to “unwind and discontinue” the court-ordered Remain in Mexico policy.

In an email to Border Report about the BNHR findings, a CBP spokesperson responded, “It is important to understand that the agency cannot act upon any perceived issues or allegations unless they are brought to our attention through formal channels.”

  • The latest Metering Update from the University of Texas Strauss Center—a resource produced every quarter since June 2018—found its highest-ever number of asylum seekers waiting for an opportunity to present to U.S. border personnel. The report “documents approximately 28,995 asylum seekers on waitlists in eight Mexican border cities. This is an approximately 9 percent increase from November 2021.” Waitlists, a way to determine who gets to approach U.S. ports of entry first, are currently open to new entrants only in Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, as the Trump and Biden administrations’ Title 42 pandemic restrictions have closed ports of entry to virtually all asylum seekers.
  • As of February 22, U.S. authorities had returned 758 asylum-seeking migrants to Mexico under the Remain in Mexico program since the program’s early December court-ordered revival, CBS News’ Camilo Montoya-Galvez tweeted, citing UN migration agency data. Of that total, 386 had been sent from El Paso into Ciudad Juárez, 195 from San Diego to Tijuana, and 177 from Brownsville to Matamoros and Monterrey. The Biden administration, which sought to end the Trump-era Remain in Mexico program, is appealing an August Texas district court ruling mandating the program’s restart. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments in April, Montoya-Galvez reported.
  • In Tapachula, Chiapas, near Mexico’s border with Guatemala, members of Mexico’s militarized National Guard clashed with about 100 mostly Cuban, Haitian, and African migrants who allegedly tried to “jump the queue for permits to allow them to continue their journey north.” About 20 people were reported injured. Like many migrant protesters in Tapachula over the past year, they are demanding faster processing of their asylum claims, or at least the ability to leave Tapachula—a city in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state—and await their case decisions elsewhere in Mexico. A statement from Mexico’s migration authority (INM) criticized “a contradiction and senselessness in the recent vandalism, because there is no inattention nor can it be a pretext for closing or blocking roads or for threatening with caravans, marches or physical self-harm.”
  • Mexico deployed dozens of National Guard troops along the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juárez to prevent migrants from crossing, after about 500 crossed and turned themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol on February 18. Throughout Mexico, the INM reported apprehending 5,020 migrants, including 793 minors, during the week of February 13.
  • Chris Magnus, who was sworn in as CBP commissioner in December, faces challenges ranging from “discontent among the ranks” to “persistent allegations that his agency is mistreating migrants, failing to recruit more women and is at the mercy of a broken asylum system,” according to an Associated Press analysis and interview.
  • Arizona’s Republican-majority state Senate voted to allocate $700 million to construct “a physical border fence” on state-owned land, or on land agreed with private owners. The state House of Representatives voted for $150 million. As mentioned in our February 11 update’s links, Arizona’s attorney-general and Republican Senate candidate Mark Brnovich issued a legal opinion calling undocumented migration at the border an “invasion” potentially requiring a National Guard response. At the Intercept, Ryan Deveraux looks at the story behind this maneuver.
  • President Biden “promised while he campaigned that there would ‘not be another foot,’ but his government has been adding new barriers as it shores up 13 miles of flood levees along the Rio Grande and fixes other segments left in a precarious state by the contractors rushing to build right up to Biden’s inauguration,” writes Nick Miroff at the Washington Post.
  • About 250 National Guard soldiers participating in Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) large “Operation Lone Star” deployment responded to a survey obtained by the Texas Tribune and Military Times. The poll found severe morale problems among the guardsmen who, though considered soldiers, are civilians with regular careers and families when they are not called on to serve. “I’m wasting time watching the grass grow at my [observation] point [along the border], while my civilian job is dying on the vine,” one guardsman said.
  • The commander of U.S. Northern Command meanwhile paid a visit to troops deployed to a federal border mission in support of CBP, which Donald Trump launched in 2018 and Joe Biden has continued.
  • “Many analysts both on and off the island have interpreted Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s unexpected announcement on November 22, 2021 to authorize free visas to Cuban citizens wishing to travel to Nicaragua as a political favor to Cuba,” an anonymous Cuban author writes at Global Voices. “It is seen as a ploy to lessen the internal pressure Cuba has faced since the protests of July 11, 2021, and to encourage those likely to be involved in new social protests to leave the country.” The writer cites a second objective: “to use Nicaragua as a springboard and generate a new migration crisis for the U.S. on its border with Mexico.” (Just to the south, Costa Rica recently instituted a visa requirement for Cuban citizens, making access to Nicaragua by land more difficult.)
  • The New York Times reports that Latino voters in a rural Texas border town are switching party affiliation from Democrat to Republican, due to social conservatism and to “the sharp increase in the number of people crossing the border from Mexico.”

Weekly Border Update: February 18, 2022

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

The Biden administration removes its 20,000th Haitian by air, and legislators call for a halt

Early on February 17, a plane operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) departed Laredo, Texas for Port-au-Prince, Haiti, dropping its passengers at the city’s airport. It was ICE’s 198th deportation or expulsion flight since Joe Biden’s January 2021 inauguration. According to Tom Cartwright of Witness at the Border, who monitors removal flights, aboard this flight was the 20,000th Haitian to be removed by air during the Biden administration.

Of those 198 flights, 161 have departed in the 5 months since over 10,000 mostly Haitian migrants arrived en masse in Del Rio, a small border city in rural south-central Texas. Of the 20,000, just over two thirds (13,783 as of the end of December) were rapidly expelled without getting a chance to ask for asylum or other protection. The rest were most likely undocumented Haitians arrested by ICE in the U.S. interior, or otherwise processed under regular immigration law. (Read a brief analysis WOLA published on February 17.)

The expulsions are enabled by the “Title 42” pandemic authority that the Trump administration invoked in March 2020, and that the Biden administration has since maintained. Title 42 has been used more than 1.5 million times to expel migrants. Most of those 1.5 million expulsions have sent migrants across the land border into Mexico, which agreed during the pandemic to take back citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in addition to Mexicans.

Citizens of Haiti have been the fifth most frequently expelled, after those four countries. Unlike those countries, nearly all expulsions take place by air. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has expelled 23 percent of all Haitians whom U.S. authorities have encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border. This is a vastly higher percentage than that of any other country whose citizens are primarily expelled using aircraft, which is a costly practice. Just over half of expelled Haitians have been families with children.

According to Witness at the Border’s monthly breakdown, 36 removal flights went to either Port-au-Prince (32) or Cap-Haïtien (4), Haiti in January, more than any other foreign ICE destination last month. Other January removal flights went to Honduras (27); Guatemala City, Guatemala (23); San Salvador, El Salvador (12); Brazil (6); Ecuador (5); Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (2); Managua, Nicaragua (2); Bogotá, Colombia (2); and Kingston, Jamaica (1).

The 20,000 Haitian citizens—about 1 in every 575 people living in the country today—had mostly been living outside Haiti for many years, having emigrated first to South America following a historic 2010 earthquake. As WOLA’s commentary notes, ICE is sending them to a country barely able to absorb them.

“Gang-related kidnappings and shootings have prevented aid groups from visiting parts of the capital, Port-au-Prince,” the Associated Press reported in December. “A severe shortage of fuel also has kept agencies from operating at full capacity.” A State Department “level 4” warning reads, “Do not travel to Haiti due to kidnapping, crime, civil unrest, and COVID-19.”… Haiti’s president was assassinated last July, and it now lacks a government that can be considered truly legitimate. The country was then hit by an earthquake and a tropical storm. COVID-19 vaccination rates (about 1 percent in January) are among the world’s lowest.

“Haiti simply cannot safely accept the repatriation of its nationals, which is why we are so deeply concerned with the large-scale removals and expulsions of individuals back to Haiti,” reads a February 16 letter to President Biden from over 100 Democratic Party senators and representatives. The document, drafted by Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Rep. Cori Bush (D-Missouri), has Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) among its signers. It calls for an end to the use of Title 42, which “is depriving legitimate asylum seekers the opportunity to pursue their claims, contrary to our obligations under international and domestic law.”

The letter cites data pointing to disproportionate harm done to Black migrants in the U.S. immigration system. The signers demand a thorough review of migration enforcement and immigration court records to assess discriminatory treatment of Black migrants.

Two days earlier, on February 14, 33 Democratic Party representatives sent a letter to Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky calling for an end to the Title 42 expulsions policy, which will hit its second anniversary in just over a month. Led by Reps. Judy Chu (D-California), Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts), and Nydia Velázquez (D-New York), the letter demands to know CDC’s justification “for treating asylum seekers as a unique public health threat” at a late stage in the pandemic when new case numbers are dropping.

Report points to a “lite” version of Remain in Mexico 2.0, for now

Between December 8 and February 15, DHS had returned 572 migrants to Mexico under the Biden administration’s court-ordered revival of the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy, which makes some asylum seekers await their U.S. hearings outside the United States. The second edition of a monthly report from DHS, presenting an unaccustomed level of statistical data, points to a program that, at least so far, has avoided—to a greater extent than the Trump-era program—sending back to Mexico migrants who are especially vulnerable or who have faced credible threats there.

That report covers December and January. As of January 31, DHS had chosen 673 asylum seekers to participate in Remain in Mexico, 400 of them in January. Of those 673 people, all of them adults:

  • Their countries of citizenship were Nicaragua (400, 59%); Venezuela (153, 23%); Cuba (66, 10%); Colombia (27, 4%); Ecuador (17, 3%); Peru (8, 1%); Costa Rica (1, 0%); and the Dominican Republic (1, 0%). 92 percent, then, came from Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba, widely considered to be the three most authoritarian states in Latin America today. Expulsions to those countries are complicated by flight costs and poor consular relations.
  • 404 were enrolled in El Paso, Texas (60%), 142 in San Diego, California (21%), and 127 in Brownsville, Texas (19%).
  • DHS administered 519 COVID vaccines for those enrolled.
  • 81 were taken out of the program after they expressed fear of returning to Mexico and passed fear screenings. That is 14 percent of all migrants who voiced fear of return to Mexico. (595 of 673 migrants—88 percent—had expressed fear of being made to wait in Mexico.)
  • 68 were taken out of the program for “case closure” reasons, which largely means they fit one of the categories of especially vulnerable migrants. (These categories, agreed with Mexico’s government, include mental or physical disabilities; advanced age; or sexual orientation or gender identity.)
  • After returning to the United States for their initial immigration court hearings, asylum seekers are asked whether they fear returning to Mexico to await their subsequent court dates. Of 185 people who had hearings by the end of January, 152 (82 percent) said they feared return to Mexico. Of those, 31 (20 percent) passed their fear screenings and were removed from “Remain in Mexico.” Another 25 had their cases closed during their U.S. hearings, and were removed from “Remain in Mexico,” for other reasons.

In all, that adds up to 205 out of 673 migrants (30 percent) being removed from “Remain in Mexico” during the program’s first two months due to threats, vulnerabilities, or other reasons. That, as the American Immigration Council’s Aaron Reichlin-Melnick noted, is greater than the 13 percent exemption rate granted during the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico 1.0” between January 2019 and January 2021. Still, in WOLA’s view, the process does not sufficiently address the risks that anyone under the program might face in Mexico.

A figure of 673 people in two months, with a greater exemption rate, points to a smaller program than the Trump-era version of Remain in Mexico, which sent back more than 71,000 asylum seekers over two years. This may not be surprising, since the Biden administration claims to oppose this program. Its restart is the result of a lawsuit brought by two Republican state attorneys general before a Republican-appointed federal judge in Texas.

There is no certainty, though, that Remain in Mexico won’t grow from its current size. The Trump administration also rolled the program out slowly in early 2019. For now, the renewed program is operating at just three of seven planned ports of entry. It has not yet been applied to families. And its use may become more vigorous as migrant arrivals climb in the spring.

Yael Schacher, the deputy director for the Americas and Europe at Refugees International, published a report this week about her observations of Remain in Mexico proceedings at El Paso’s immigration court in early January. (Listen to an April 2021 WOLA podcast interview with Schacher.) “Essentially, the Biden administration’s position is that ‘we know this is going to go badly and would rather not do it, but we are not doing anything legally wrong,'” Schacher wrote. “This matters little to the small number of asylum seekers placed in a program with a Kafkaesque quality. Many of the asylum seekers I saw seemed bewildered and without any sense of how to deal with the socio-bureaucratic absurdity.” About 140 adult men were slated to attend their initial hearings during Schacher’s four days in El Paso. Court dockets showed that only eight had attorneys.

Migration dropped in January; Mexico’s visa demands for Venezuelans could be a reason

While Customs and Border Protection (CBP) hasn’t yet released data about migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border in January, a monthly filing to the judge in the “Remain in Mexico” case, first shared by CBS News, includes some preliminary numbers. They show a 14 percent drop in migrant encounters at the border from December and January.

The 153,941 migrants CBP recorded last month, down from 178,840 in December, is the smallest monthly total CBP has measured since February 2021 (101,099). It is the largest total recorded in a month of January since 2000, however.

Some notable points in this preliminary data:

  • January 2022 was the first month since February 2013 during which south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector was not number one, among Border Patrol’s nine border sectors, in migrant encounters. The agency detained more migrants in south-central Texas’s rural Del Rio sector (30,773) than it did in the Rio Grande Valley (30,180).
  • Another rural, previously quiet sector was in third place last month: Yuma, which straddles southwest Arizona and southeast California, recorded 23,489 migrant encounters.
  • Del Rio and Yuma have been receiving large numbers of migrants from countries beyond Mexico and Central America’s “northern triangle.” In December, these two sectors combined for 71 percent of all border-wide encounters with migrants from Brazil, 79 percent of Colombians, 84 percent of Cubans, 59 percent of Haitians, 73 percent of Indians, and 84 percent of Venezuelans.
  • Because (with the exception of Haitians) the U.S. government rarely goes through the expense of using Title 42 to expel these countries’ citizens by air, these sectors see relatively infrequent use of Title 42 on encountered migrants. In Yuma, 11 percent of encountered migrants were expelled. In Del Rio, it was 36 percent. (By contrast, just east of Yuma, in the Tucson sector, CBP expelled 87 percent.)
  • Border-wide, DHS expelled 51 percent of all encountered migrants.
  • Of those not expelled border-wide, CBP released 46,186 migrants into the United States, in most cases to pursue asylum claims.

While CBP hasn’t yet released country-by-country data about what happened in January, an important reason for last month’s drop in migrant arrivals could be a sharp decline in citizens of Venezuela.

In December, for the first time ever, Venezuelans were the number-two category of citizens (after Mexicans) encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border; CBP took in nearly 25,000. Many had arrived by air to Mexico, which had not been requiring visas of visiting Venezuelans. Under pressure from the U.S. government, as of January 21 Mexico began requiring that Venezuelan visitors first obtain visas, as it did for Brazilians and Ecuadorians in 2021 after arrivals of those countries’ citizens increased at the U.S. border.

This has almost certainly slowed arrivals of Venezuelans. The American Immigration Council’s Reichlin-Melnick tweeted that, at a conference, he asked Border Patrol official Tony Barker for “a preview of the effect of Mexico’s visa requirements for Venezuelans and he said it’s been an 86% drop so far.”

Closure of the air route to Mexico, and Costa Rica’s announcement that it will start demanding visas on February 21, likely mean that more Venezuelans will attempt to migrate via dangerous land routes. Panama’s government reported a fivefold increase from December to January in Venezuelan migrants passing through the highly treacherous jungles of the Darién Gap, leading from the Colombian border. January was the first month ever in which Venezuelans were the number-one country of citizenship of migrants whom Panama registered. A turn to land routes may also owe to the expense of air travel and the extreme difficulty of obtaining a passport within Venezuela.

The U.S. government does not run expulsion or removal flights to Caracas, nor does it recognize as legitimate the ruling regime of Nicolás Maduro. Still, as a Noticias Telemundo investigation revealed, ICE deported 176 Venezuelans back to Venezuela via third countries, like the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago, in 2021. In February 11 follow-up coverage, reporters Damià Bonmatí and Belisa Morillo profiled Venezuelan asylum seekers who, after being returned on these in-transit flights, suffered violent abuse at the hands of Venezuelan officials from the moment they arrived in Caracas’s Maiquetía airport.

  • Taking advantage of a Justice Department filing that offers National Guard troops on state missions the right to form and join unions, troops assigned to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) controversial “Operation Lone Star” deployment are beginning to organize, reports Davis Winkie at Army Times. Winkie has filed several reports since December about miserable conditions and low morale for the nearly 10,000 guardsmen assigned to long tours of duty at the border with Mexico.
  • In south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, local TV station KENS looks at whether ongoing barrier construction along the Rio Grande is “levees” or “walls.” The Texas Tribune finds that Gov. Abbott is building a state border fence using surplus materials left over after Joe Biden halted construction of Donald Trump’s border wall. The federal government gave Texas 1,700 unused “surplus” border-barrier panels for free.
  • Over a dozen U.S. Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton, California have been court-martialed for smuggling undocumented migrants beginning in 2019, Emily Green reported at Vice. “At their peak, according to court records, they were going on multiple runs a week, coordinating among themselves to see who was free to go, and making excuses to get out of training exercises in order to make a few hundred dollars.” According to Green’s findings, fees that migrants pay to smugglers have continued rising: “Today, adults coming from Central America pay smugglers between $11,000 and $14,000, roughly twice as much as just five years ago, and a fortune compared to the $2,000 fee in the early 2000s.”
  • The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, visited the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border. In Tijuana, he toured the area outside of the main pedestrian crossing to San Diego, which until a February 6 eviction operation (discussed in last week’s update) had hosted an encampment of stranded migrants for more than a year. Further east, Amb. Salazar met with the governors of Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas, reaching agreements to build new border bridges or widen existing ones.
  • The Washington Post reports that CBP plans to roll out non-intrusive scanners—“multi-energy portals”—at ports of entry to help detect shipments of fentanyl, a very small-dose, low volume synthetic opioid, inside vehicles.
  • Last year more than 94,000 asylum-seeking migrants encountered at the border were released into the United States with instructions “to register with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement [ICE] within 60 days to complete the process the border officials started. But in some parts of the country, local ICE offices were overwhelmed and unable to give them appointments,” the New York Times found. As of the end of January, nearly 33,000 had not checked in with ICE.
  • Reuters reports that a subsidiary of Geo Group, a for-profit detention center and prison operator that has been embroiled in past controversies, will manage a “house arrest” alternative-to-detention program for asylum-seeking migrants. As discussed in last week’s update, the Biden Administration will launch this program shortly, on a pilot basis, in Houston and Baltimore.
  • A government Integrity Committee is investigating DHS’s Inspector General, Joseph Cuffari, who heads one of two main bodies that oversee the activities of CBP, including allegations of abuse or corruption. Cuffari is accused of ordering a “retaliatory” investigation of subordinates who have criticized his management of the DHS Inspector-General Office. Cuffari, a Trump appointee, had worked for the last two Republican governors of Arizona. The Project on Government Oversight reported about the crisis in this vital oversight agency.
  • Though it would invest very heavily in border security, a bill introduced by first-term Florida Republican Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar has generated strong pushback from her fellow Republican House members, Rafael Bernal and Mike Lillis write at The Hill, because it countenances a possible pathway to citizenship for some undocumented migrants.
  • “The government created illegal immigration among Cubans and Haitians by blocking their legal paths to enter,” reads a report from the Cato Institute’s David Bier. “It has a duty to correct this mistake. It should immediately reopen parole and begin the orderly immigration process that was available to them prior to 2017.”

Weekly Border Update: February 11, 2022

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

Tijuana clears migrant encampment

At about 4:00 AM on February 6, authorities in Tijuana, Mexico cleared out a year-old migrant encampment outside the city’s main pedestrian border crossing to San Diego. “While children and families were sleeping in their tents, authorities accompanied by riot police and the National Guard arrived unannounced at the ‘El Chaparral’ encampment in Tijuana to carry out a total eviction,” read a statement from the “Chaparral Humanitarian Alliance,” a group of San Diego and Tijuana-based advocates and service providers.

Authorities took 382 migrants, with what personal items they could carry, on buses to three local shelters: the Migrant Integration Center shelter, the Salesian project and the Migrant Sanctuary. The Tijuana mayor’s office called it “a relocation protocol for 382 occupants… to spaces that allow greater security,” adding that the operation occurred “without any complication.” Of the 382 people, 86 were members of family units (parents with children), 33 were single men, 4 were single women, 2 were disabled, and 2 were LGBTI.

By mid-morning, a small square by the El Chaparral (PedWest) border crossing had been cleared of people who had been living there for months in tents, fenced off and depending on makeshift sanitary facilities. Excavators were bulldozing tents and belongings as workers hosed down the square.

The El Chaparral camp formed shortly after Joe Biden’s January 2021 inauguration, when misinformed migrants gathered with the expectation that the U.S. government would soon reopen the adjacent San Ysidro port of entry to asylum seekers. They were mistaken: a year later, the “Title 42” pandemic authority remains in place, and the port of entry is closed to all without documentation. Title 42 authorizes expelling Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Hondurans to Mexico, and others to their home countries, regardless of asylum needs.

U.S. law holds that all who reach U.S. soil have the right to petition for asylum at a port of entry. Even before Title 42 made quick expulsions the norm, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had begun posting guards on the borderline to prevent undocumented migrants from accessing the U.S. side of the line. A San Diego Union Tribune investigation found that an increasing number of asylum seekers, especially citizens of Russia, have been boarding often rented vehicles and seeking to reach the U.S. side at the San Ysidro port of entry’s vehicle entrances. (Asylum-seeking citizens of distant countries like Russia stand a very small chance of being expelled under Title 42 due to logistical and diplomatic challenges. Many Russian migrants arriving in San Diego are members of the Tatar ethnic group, which suffers persecution.) On December 12, a CBP officer fired his weapon four times at a vehicle carrying Russian asylum seekers as it drove over the borderline through a San Ysidro vehicle lane. Nobody was hurt.

This port of entry, meanwhile, is one of three so far that is part of the Biden administration’s rollout of the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which it is reviving under court order. Citing the UN migration agency, Camilo Montoya-Gálvez of CBS News tweeted that between December 8 and the morning of February 9, CBP had sent 480 asylum seekers back to Mexico to await their hearing dates: 313 to Ciudad Juárez from El Paso, 129 to Tijuana from San Diego, and 38 to Matamoros from Brownsville.

“As mayor of Tijuana I must make firm decisions,” said Mayor Montserrat Caballero Ramírez of the February 6 eviction. “As a government we are not looking to put an end to the dreams of those who come to this border, on the contrary, we will seek to provide them with the necessary tools to fulfill them, placing them in a safe and dignified place.”

“The way in which this eviction was carried out caused chaos, psychological and emotional trauma, loss of belongings, and widespread unnecessary fear among the migrant population; furthermore, it fosters xenophobia in the region,” the Chaparral Humanitarian Alliance’s statement responded. While the Associated Press reported that the eviction involved “about a hundred members of the police, National Guard and army,” the Alliance mentioned “150 elements of the municipal police and 200 elements of the National Guard” in addition to municipal officers.

“Testimony of the destruction of important documents, food, water, clothing, children’s toys, tents, blankets, grills, pots, etc. was observed and documented. Several migrants said authorities initially told them to bring a few changes of clothes and a backpack,” the Alliance’s statement reads. This group voiced fear that those transported to shelters might find their stays limited to just a few days. “Several people requested clarity on the length of stay in the shelters and the authorities mentioned that it would be for an indefinite period of time, with no limit. It is essential that this be done.”

Biden administration piloting “house arrest” for asylum seekers

Axios and Reuters reported that the Biden administration will soon launch a 120-day pilot of a more restrictive “alternatives to detention” program for asylum seekers who have been released into the United States to await hearings in badly backlogged immigration courts. The rollout of what Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is calling “home curfew” will occur in Houston and Baltimore, involving 100-200 single adults in each city, according to ICE documents reviewed by both news agencies.

The program is being tried out as an alternative to holding people in ICE’s network of detention centers, which costs about $142 per day per inmate. Instead, it will cost “$6-8 per day per enrollee,” according to Reuters, which adds that each “will generally be required to remain at home from 8 p.m. until 8 a.m., with exceptions for job schedules for those with work authorization or extraordinary circumstances.”

This is more restrictive than current alternatives-to-detention programs, which usually involve GPS monitoring with ankle bracelets or cellphone apps, and/or regular check-ins with case officers, but not requirements to remain confined to home. Officials indicated to Axios that there will be case-by-case variations on each migrant’s movement restrictions.

Following the pilot, “a nationwide program is expected later this year,” Axios reported. It could encompass 350,000 (according to Axios) or 400,000 people (according to Reuters) by the end of this year or next year. That number only includes heads of households: including children and other dependents, the number of migrants covered by the new program could be significantly higher.

About 164,000 (Reuters) or “just under 179,000” (Axios) migrants are currently in ICE-managed alternatives-to-detention programs. This is “roughly double the total on Sept. 30, 2020, before Biden took office,” Reuters reported, and doesn’t include dependents.

Citing a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official, Axios notes that during the past three weeks, about half of single adults encountered at the border have been “released with ankle bracelets or other tracking mechanisms.” (The other half were presumably expelled under Title 42 or placed in regular detention.) Single adult migrants “had typically been locked up.” A possible reason for the increased releases could be the rapid spread of the COVID-19 omicron variant in ICE detention facilities.

Several migrant rights advocacy groups quickly issued a statement criticizing the proposal. “Though framed as an ‘alternative-to-detention,’ we have no reason to believe this harsh ‘e-incarceration’ program would decrease the number of detention centers or the number of people detained in them. In fact, it would newly place hundreds of thousands of people under ICE’s control,” reads the document posted to Human Rights First’s website.

Axios’s coverage noted that “the administration has already stopped keeping migrant families in detention centers.” While two large facilities in Texas are no longer in use for that purpose, some family detention is in fact restarting. During the week of January 31, ICE resumed detaining migrant families at the Berks County Residential Center, a facility in Pennsylvania. The facility may currently be holding about 65 women and girls.

National Guard at the border

The use of National Guard troops for border security missions continued to draw media scrutiny last week. In the U.S. system, National Guardsmen are fully trained soldiers who normally live as civilians, in the civilian workforce. They can be called up by state governors, who command them, or occasionally for federal government duty.

Then-president Donald Trump launched a federal National Guard mission at the border in 2018, which continues today. Starting in March 2021, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) called up a separate state National Guard border mission, “Operation Lone Star,” which involves between 6,500 and 10,000 troops at a cost of about $3 billion.

As we have noted in recent weekly updates, these missions are not going well.

  • A soldier died in Brackettville, Texas on February 7 in an accidental shooting with his personal weapon. Spc. Dajuan Lester Townes is the sixth soldier linked to Operation Lone Star to have died during the deployment. Two of the deceased were victims of accidental shootings, and four died by suicide.
  • At CNN, “Multiple members of the Guard who are deployed as part of Operation Lone Star” told of “long hours with little to do, poor planning, and a lack of mission—all of which, they say, are contributing to low morale among soldiers.”
  • At Stars and Stripes, Rose Thayer reviews constitutional challenges to Gov. Abbott’s deployment, including the Governor’s use of soldiers to detain migrants—a very unusual authority for military personnel to be given, with no imminent end date, on U.S. soil. Guardsmen and Texas state police have arrested 10,400 migrants on state trespassing charges since mid-2021.
  • At the New Republic, Felipe de la Hoz links Gov. Abbott’s “drawing on armed state power to stage muscular showdowns with the feds” with many state governments’ adoption of voter suppression legislation and challenges to election results.
  • Arizona Attorney-General Mark Brnovich (R), meanwhile, drafted a lengthy request for a legal opinion on whether the state has been “invaded” by hostile non-state actors, which in his view would justify the state defending itself with its militia (the Arizona National Guard).
  • Mexico reported apprehending 307,679 undocumented migrants in 2021, leaving far behind its 2015 record of 198,141 apprehensions. This number is similar to U.S. border authorities’ annual apprehension totals a decade ago. Mexican authorities deported one in three (114,366) last year, while 131,448 sought asylum. The main countries of origin of those apprehended were Honduras (41%), Guatemala (26%), El Salvador (8%), Haiti (6%), Brazil (5%), Nicaragua (5%), Cuba (2%), and Venezuela (1%). Monthly apprehensions jumped from 9,564 in January to a peak of 46,370 in September, before dropping to 18,291 by December. Deportations actually dropped because of new laws protecting children, the number of asylum cases, and the difficulty of deporting a growing number of migrants from more distant countries.
  • In the southern Mexican border-zone city of Tapachula, where tens of thousands of migrants have arrived and most are awaiting asylum decisions, authorities carried out raids of hotels and the immediate vicinity of shelters, capturing dozens of undocumented migrants. Asylum-seeking migrants demanding visas allowing them to live in parts of Mexico with more opportunities than Tapachula held protests by the city’s giant migrant detention center, wearing chains. Some went on a hunger strike.
  • In a report jointly published by El Paso Matters and ProPublica, Bob Moore reveals an unpublished DHS Inspector General report with new findings about the May 2019 in-custody death of Carlos Gregorio Hernández Vásquez, a 16-year-old unaccompanied Guatemalan migrant. Hernández “died of the flu after writing on the floor of his cell” in the Weslaco, Texas Border Patrol station, according to the report, even as agents falsely logged regular “welfare checks” on his condition.
  • In a new leak to conservative media, “Border Patrol agents broke protocol to claim in interviews with the Washington Examiner that their jobs have been remade since President Joe Biden took office a year ago. They say that they have been redirected from fulfilling a law enforcement and national security role to working as though they were in an Ellis Island-style welcome center.” The article makes no mention of agents’ ability to expel undocumented migrants, under Title 42, 1.05 million times during the Biden administration’s first 11 full months—56 percent of all migrant encounters in that period.
  • Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) tweeted that he will introduce legislation to back up “disappointed and demoralized” Border Patrol agents by creating a “Border Patrol Reserve,” while increasing the force’s size and salaries. Sen. Portman is retiring at the end of this year.
  • Homicides in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico dropped in January to their lowest monthly total since February 2019, El Paso Matters reported. Of 83 people killed last month, 12 were women, a higher-than-normal percentage.
  • The travails of the National Butterfly Center, a private nature reserve along the Rio Grande in Mission, Texas, were the subject of features in the Rio Grande Valley Monitor, the Guardian, Politico, and the Border Chronicle. The facility’s management has long opposed efforts to build a border wall on or near its property, which led to litigation against the Trump administration and against a private wall-building effort that is now facing fraud charges (which the Center also sued for defamation). This has made the Butterfly Center a recipient of violence threats from far-right actors, forcing it to close “for the immediate future.”
  • The DHS Inspector General issued a report on August 2021 visits to CBP and Border Patrol facilities in the San Diego Sector. The oversight agency found that CBP and Border Patrol were “in general compliance with” standards for transportation, escort, detention, and search of apprehended migrants. A key factor was southern California’s relatively modest number of migrant arrivals at the time. Shaw Drake, an attorney at ACLU Texas who had filed complaints about detention conditions in the sector in 2020, called the IG report “irresponsible.”
  • Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, a first-term Republican from Miami, introduced legislation that would create a conditional pathway to citizenship for some undocumented migrants, in exchange for a major investment in Border Patrol, border law enforcement, and wall-building. The bill is unlikely to move ahead in the face of opposition on the right and left, but it received note because of the rarity of a House Republican proposing even a limited “pathway to citizenship.”
  • “Instead of creating a humane immigration system that might begin to address the reality of migration, the Biden administration is continuing a bipartisan legacy of throwing insane amounts of money at military-style border technology,” reads a Los Angeles Times column by Jean Guerrero.
  • “If his [Donald Trump’s] $15 billion, 455-mile border wall can be defeated by any small gap anywhere in it, it just goes to show the absurdity of the whole project because gaps can and are being made on a near-daily basis,” reads an analysis of the border wall’s failure to deter migration, by David Bier at the Cato Institute.

Weekly Border Update: February 4, 2022

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

U.S. is expelling some Venezuelan asylum seekers to Colombia

CNN revealed on January 31 that the Biden administration has quietly begun expelling to Colombia some Venezuelan migrants whom U.S. authorities encounter at the Mexico border. If the migrants, like many who have fled Venezuela, had previously resided in Colombia, they may now be placed on planes to Bogotá.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) flew the first two Venezuelan individuals to Colombia on a commercial flight on January 27. Colombian migratory authorities say the two men would be allowed to remain in Colombia, but are electing to go back to Venezuela shortly.

They were expelled under the “Title 42” pandemic authority, which the Trump administration began using in March 2020 to reject even migrants who seek protection in the United States. The Biden administration has kept Title 42 in place, and renewed it this week for another 60 days.

Of the more than 1.5 million times that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) used Title 42 to expel migrants between March 2020 and December 2021, it applied it 94 percent of the time to citizens of five countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Haiti. In December 2021, these five countries made up 99 percent of expulsions. Mexico’s government accepts expelled citizens from the first four countries, who mostly get sent back across the land border under Title 42. Haitian citizens encountered at the border have been subject to a historically large airlift of expulsion flights back to their country: 191 flights expelling 19,400 Haitians since Joe Biden’s January 2021 inauguration, according to the count kept by Tom Cartwright of Witness at the Border.

All other countries make up the remaining 6 percent of U.S. expulsions—which fell to 1 percent in December, when they made up 40 percent of all encountered migrants. As last week’s update noted, 48 percent of migrants whom U.S. authorities did not expel in December 2020 were citizens of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. For the first time ever in a month, Venezuela was the number-two country of citizenship, after Mexico, of migrants whom CBP encountered at the border. Expulsion to these and other distant countries is difficult because of the cost of air expulsions and, at times, difficult diplomatic and consular relations.

Because they cannot expel the growing number of Venezuelans to Caracas, whose ruling regime the U.S. government does not recognize, U.S. authorities approached Colombia in December with a request to send more Venezuelans there. More than 6 million Venezuelans have left their country (original population about 30 million) since the mid-2010s, as the economy fell into a deep depression and a dictatorship consolidated. Of these 5 million, about 1.8 million are in Colombia. In April 2021, Colombian President Iván Duque granted a 10-year residency status to Venezuelan migrants who register.

“Flights to Colombia with Venezuelan nationals who previously resided in Colombia are expected to take place on a regular basis,” read a DHS statement. It is not clear whether “previously resided” means “registered for the Colombian government’s residency status program” or “passed through Colombia en route to another country,” which most Venezuelans who travel by land have to do. President Duque said that the two men expelled on January 27 did not have Colombian residency permits.

“Of course, that requires agreement with the government” of Colombia, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on February 1. Marta Lucía Ramírez, who serves both as Colombia’s vice president and foreign minister, told local media that in a December 2021 meeting, Colombia had not agreed to a blanket deal to accept expelled Venezuelans: “We will have to analyze on a case-by-case basis those who are sent for deportation.”

Condemnation of the new Biden administration policy was swift.

  • Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called these and other third-country deportations of Venezuelans “extremely disturbing. By continuing to use a page from Trump’s immigration enforcement playbook, this administration is turning its back on the immigrants who need our protection the most.”
  • Sen. Rick Scott (R-Florida), a backer of the Trump administration’s policies who also regularly calls for tough measures against President Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela, sounded a bit conflicted, telling the Voice of America, “I will get to the bottom of the issue to find out exactly what the Biden Administration is doing, because I want to do everything I can to help Venezuelans,” while also noting that he wants “a secure border.”
  • The Venezuelan “interim government” headed by Juan Guaidó, which the U.S. and many other governments recognize diplomatically, asked the Biden administration to “allow Venezuelan migrants to present their asylum requests.”
  • 106 U.S. organizations, including WOLA, signed a letter urging the Biden administration “to abandon efforts to prevent people from seeking asylum through externalized migration controls in the region and to undermine the right of people to seek protection in the United States.”
  • Tamara Taraciuk Broner of Human Rights Watch pointed out to the Associated Press the Biden administration’s “remarkable inconsistency in expelling Venezuelans, when less than a year ago it granted Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans in the United States, based precisely on the devastating conditions in the country that forced them to flee.”

The number of Venezuelan migrants encountered at the U.S. border is likely to drop from the nearly 25,000 CBP counted in December, because on January 21 Mexico began demanding visas of Venezuelans arriving in its territory. It is probably no coincidence that the number of Venezuelans traveling by land, through Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap jungles, increased nearly fivefold from December (542 Venezuelans registered in the Darién) to January, when the Associated Press reported that “more than half of the 4,702 migrants who crossed into Darién were Venezuelan,” making Venezuela for the first time the number-one nationality of migrants encountered there.

Noticias Telemundo meanwhile reported that the Biden administration has continued the Trump administration’s policy of deporting Venezuelans back to Caracas through third countries. In fiscal year 2020, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 193 Venezuelans through third countries, mainly Trinidad and Tobago; in 2021, ICE deported 176. Telemundo’s coverage profiles a Venezuelan man who was returned via the Dominican Republic as a “transit country” en route back to Venezuela.

Remain in Mexico hearings begin in San Diego

As of January 30, DHS had placed 410 asylum-seeking migrants into “Remain in Mexico” (RMX), a Trump-era program revived by order of a U.S. district court in Texas. Since the program’s reinstatement, 288 people were sent from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez to await their U.S. immigration court hearings, along with 109 from San Diego to Tijuana, and 13 from Brownsville to Matamoros.

The current iteration of RMX began on December 8, 2021 in El Paso. The Trump administration’s rollout of the program had occurred at a similar low-hundreds-per-month pace in the first months of 2019. (69 days in, on April 8, 2019, 1,105 asylum seekers had been sent back: 16 per day.) By the time the new Biden administration suspended it in January 2021, more than 71,000 asylum seekers had been sent back into Mexico.

Hearings have been underway for RMX subjects in El Paso, and on February 1 they began in a San Diego immigration court. Five of six asylum seekers who were scheduled for hearings that day managed to appear, including the two Colombian men who were the first to be returned to Tijuana in early January. (The California Welcoming Task Force noted that the two men have been living in a shelter that “has not received the support necessary to guarantee access to clean water.”) “The sixth person, because of a document mixup, was not able to cross in time for court,” reads a detailed account in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

They reported to a pickup point at 7:30, from where they received transportation to the border arranged by the International Organization for Migration. Guards—described by San Diego-based attorney Monika Langarica as “DHS contracted ‘detention officers’ who wear tactical looking green suits and vests”—took them to a courtroom in the San Diego federal building.

There, they appeared via videoconference before a judge located two courtrooms away, for COVID social-distancing reasons. Judge Guy Grande’s staff “struggled to set up a Webex videoconference between the two rooms, delaying the hearings’ start by nearly half an hour,” the Union-Tribune reported. The audio remained glitchy throughout the proceedings.

Grande asked one of the asylum-seekers, a woman, if she wanted more time to find an attorney, the Union-Tribune reported.

She told him no, that she had tried and she didn’t want to prolong her case. She didn’t have money to pay for a lawyer, she told him. She didn’t even have enough money to use her phone to make more calls to try to find one to help her for free.

He then asked the woman if she had a mailing address in Mexico.

The woman told him that she’d been staying in a shelter but that the shelter had told her that her stay expired that day.

“So you’re not going to have a place to stay?” the judge asked, a little concern audible in his voice. He then asked court staff to give the woman a blue document to write her new address and send to the court once she knew it.

All five migrants expressed fear of returning to Mexico, which gave them the right to a “non-refoulement interview” with an asylum officer. We have not heard if these fear claims led any of the five to be removed from RMX.

“The Biden administration’s attempts to increase humanitarian support and access to counsel under Remain in Mexico are not only insufficient and failing,” the California Welcoming Task Force wrote, “they are futile due to the very essence of a policy that removes people seeking asylum from the United States where they are seeking refuge.”

“Operation Lone Star” updates

The Texas state government’s security crackdown at the border, which includes fence-building, a National Guard deployment, and a wave of migrant arrests on “trespassing” charges, continued to generate media attention during the week. Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who is up for re-election this year, calls it “Operation Lone Star” and will spend over $2 billion on it this year.

The Intercept published a thorough overview of the operation, by longtime Mexico and border reporter Ryan Deveraux. He notes that of migrants arrested in rural south Texas, “the majority of the state’s cases have been dismissed” by counties’ overwhelmed courts, often after migrants spend weeks or months in jails awaiting trial. In January, a state judge in Austin ruled that the program violated a migrant’s constitutional rights, opening the door to a Texas RioGrande Legal Aid class-action suit on behalf of 400 jailed migrants.

Operation Lone Star’s 6,500 to 10,000-soldier National Guard deployment gets deep scrutiny in an analysis co-published by Military Times and the Texas Tribune. Reporter Davis Winkie of Military Times has published a series of articles since early December revealing deep problems with Gov. Abbott’s hastily thrown-together mission: soldiers going without pay, sudden call-ups, equipment shortages, miserable living conditions, little to do, morale problems, and suicides. Co-author James Barragán had added important reporting for the Tribune.

Troops assigned to Operation Lone Star are likely to be at the border for an entire year. National Guardsmen are civilians with families and jobs, but many got only a few days’ notice that their lives were about to be upended for a year. This is highly unusual, and unprecedented for a non-federal mission, Winkie and Barragán point out:

Usually, long-term Guard deployments come from the federal government, with nearly a year’s notice… But Operation Lone Star is different.

…Never before has Texas-or any other state-involuntarily activated so many troops under state active duty authority for such a long-term mission. Nor has it been done so quickly.

Some troops, speaking on conditions of anonymity, told Winkie and Barragán that they have little to do at the border. “Some say they feel underutilized and rarely see migrants while working isolated observation posts that in some cases lacked portable toilets for months.” In an angrily worded reply citing “scurrilous accusations by seemingly reputable media sources,” Texas Military Department Col. Rita Holton counted 100,000 migrants apprehended, or referred to law enforcement, by troops participating in the mission. Winkie and Barragán recall, though, that “many of the apprehensions are migrants surrendering to the first person in uniform they see in order to begin the asylum request process.”

A junior soldier assigned to a post along Falcon Lake near Zapata said he and his peers spend their days “staring” at the lake. Does he ever see migrants? “Nope, not even once,” he said. “Just people fishing.”

Operation Lone Star appears to be leading to retention problems as guardsmen decide not to re-enlist when their tours end, Winkie and Barragán report.

The law enforcement surge has not made conditions safer for the National Butterfly Center, a 100-acre private preserve along the Rio Grande in Mission, Texas. This facility took the Trump administration to court to prevent it from building a wall through its property, and has tangled legally with a private far-right wall-building organization, “We Build the Wall,” which built a stretch of wall along the riverbank near the Butterfly Center’s property. Trump associates Steve Bannon and Brian Kolfage have faced wire fraud and money laundering charges in connection with We Build the Wall, and Kolfage (whose Twitter account has been suspended) tweeted false allegations of “sex trade” and “death bodies” on the Butterfly Center’s property.

This has made the Center and its director, Marianna Treviño-Wright, targets of far-right individuals. As dozens of activists converged on nearby McAllen for a January 28-30 rally, the Butterfly Center received threats, including a visit from a Virginia congressional candidate who, Treviño-Wright says, pushed her to the ground and nearly ran over her son with her car. Faced with threats and harassment, on February 1 the National Butterfly Center announced that it would be closing its doors until further notice.

Though sharply divided along partisan lines, 52 percent of Texans in a new Dallas Morning News poll approved of Gov. Abbott’s border policies, up from 49 percent in November and 47 percent in September. Of Latino registered voters surveyed, “45% gave Abbott an approval rating on his handling of immigration issues, but only 37% gave Biden a thumbs up on immigration,” the Morning News found.

Of the 1,082 Texan registered voters polled, 54 percent approved of using state funds to deploy the National Guard and Texas state police to patrol the border. That is down from 59 percent in November. 36 percent “say it is reasonable to spend $20 million per mile in state funds to extend the border wall with Mexico, while 27% say it is wasteful” and 25 percent would prefer spending the money on technology at the border. 35 percent of Latinos polled agreed with building a wall, with 47 percent opposed. “The more the wall’s publicized, the worse he’s [Abbot is] going to get among Latino voters,” Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones told the Morning News.

  • DHS plans to release a memo tightening oversight of Border Patrol’s “Critical Incident Teams.” These secretive units’ existence has caused an outcry among human rights advocates and some members of Congress, who allege that they exist to carry out parallel investigations that shield Border Patrol agents from abuse allegations. (See coverage in last week’s update.) The proposed changes appear aimed not at disbanding the Critical Incident Teams, but giving Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Office of Professional Responsibility clearer authority over incident investigations.
  • A report from the Instituto para las Mujeres en la Migración (IMUMI) and the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) covers the impact of U.S. and Mexican migration policies on women seeking protection. Both countries’ policies, it finds, placed women and children at greater danger of harm, including sexual violence, during 2021.
  • The DHS Inspector-General reported on a July 2021 visit to holding facilities of Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector in South Texas. The oversight agency found Border Patrol struggling to keep up with large numbers of people in custody awaiting processing. “However, except for one facility, at the time of our site visit, we did not observe cells so overcrowded that detainees were not able to sit or lie down.” It noted that Border Patrol’s Temporary Outdoor Processing Site (TOPS) under the Anzalduas Bridge in Mission, Texas did not meet detention standards “but lessened overcrowding and health risks for detainees.” Though the ACLU reported about troubling conditions at TOPS in August 2021, the Inspector-General found that “water, snacks, and food for babies and children were readily available.”
  • A release from the DHS Science and Technology Directorate touts the agency’s plan to use sensor-laden Automated Ground Surveillance Vehicles, or “robot dogs”—a fleet of ground drones to augment Border Patrol.
  • A post from the American Immigration Council addresses the non-story circulating in right-wing media about “secret flights” transporting migrants into communities around the country. These much-repeated stories are merely documenting movements of a small number of asylum-seeking families to venues where they will appear in immigration court, or of unaccompanied migrant children within the shelter system run by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. This practice has been routine for decades. One of the most vocal purveyors of the “secret flights” trope has been Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a BuzzFeed story documents.
  • Guatemala quickly passed legislation increasing prison sentences for migrant smugglers to up to 30 years, following local authorities’ arrests of 10 people allegedly involved in smuggling Guatemalan migrants who ended up massacred on a roadside in Tamaulipas, Mexico in January 2021.
  • At the New Yorker, Jonathan Blitzer profiles Andrea Flores, who had worked from the White House to lead the Biden administration’s early effort to undo “Remain in Mexico.” She is one of several immigration reform advocates who have left the administration after being outmaneuvered by more political, centrist officials. Superiors, Blitzer reports, told her “that she was ‘too intense’ or ‘too close to the issues.'”
  • Linda Rivas, the executive director of El Paso’s Las Américas Immigrant Advocacy Center and a prominent advocate of the right to seek asylum in the United States, is stepping down after seven years.

Weekly Border Update: January 28, 2022

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

December’s migration data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mayorkas visits Border Patrol, hears griping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next step came with two letters on January 24:

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

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

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

Links

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