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 update

Weekly Border Update: September 17, 2021

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

Judge orders halt to family expulsions

A September 16 ruling from Washington DC District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan blocks the Biden administration from using the “Title 42” pandemic expulsions policy to expel members of migrant families encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border. Judge Sullivan stayed his decision for 14 days in order to give the administration a chance to appeal or to adjust the way it implements Title 42. If his ruling stands, undocumented migrant parents arriving at the border with children must once again be processed under regular immigration law, which means if they ask for protection in the United States, they must be allowed to seek asylum.

“Title 42” refers to an old, little-used quarantine authority that the Trump administration implemented in March 2020, along with COVID-19-related border shutdowns, and the Biden administration has kept in place. In the name of preventing disease spread, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) uses Title 42 to expel—eject from the United States with minimal processing, often in a matter of hours—as many apprehended migrants as possible, usually without even offering an opportunity to ask for asylum or protection. Mexico accepts many expulsions of migrants at the border from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, along with citizens of other countries who have any visas or migratory status in Mexico.

Between March 2020 and August 2021, CBP has used Title 42 to expel 1,163,582 people, including 1,027,506 single adults, 118,466 family unit members, and 15,915 unaccompanied children.

Most of these expulsions happened during the Biden administration. Since February 2021—Joe Biden’s first full month in office—CBP has used Title 42 to expel 704,009 people, including 610,249 single adults, 92,676 family unit members (the expulsions that Judge Sullivan’s decision would stop), and 32 unaccompanied children.

In November 2020, ruling on an earlier challenge to Title 42, Judge Sullivan had halted all expulsions of unaccompanied children. This ruling was overturned on appeal in late January 2021, but the Biden administration refused to resume expelling children, alone, to their home countries. (Unaccompanied Mexican children are still deported alone.)

Judge Sullivan’s latest decision comes after a month (August 2021) that saw CBP expel the largest number of family members (16,240) since April: 20 percent of those encountered were expelled last month, the largest percentage since May. Most families who are not expelled are admitted into the United States to await adjudication of their asylum claims, a process that often takes years due to immigration court backlogs.

Under Judge Sullivan’s ruling, the blue part of this chart would shrink to zero.

The ban on family expulsions is a victory for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the other organizations involved in litigation dating back to the final month of the Trump administration. The Biden administration and ACLU had put this case on hold until August 2, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—citing the persistence of COVID-19 and its Delta variant—abandoned plans to phase out family expulsions, leading the organizations to resume litigation.

“We hope the Biden administration has no plans to appeal and continue to place families in grave danger,” Lee Gelernt, the ACLU’s lead lawyer in the Title 42 families challenge, had told CBS News on September 16. Nonetheless, on September 17 the administration moved to appeal Judge Sullivan’s ruling.

This is not completely surprising: the Wall Street Journal pointed out that DHS’s assistant secretary for border and immigration policy had defended Title 42’s implementation in an August 2 court declaration. That official, former Democratic Senate Judiciary staffer David Shahoulian, resigned his post this week, citing personal reasons.

Single adults, for now, can still be expelled under Title 42; CBP expelled 77 percent of single adults it encountered in August 2021.

Migration “levels off” in August

That August 2021 number comes from a September 15 CBP release and data update pointing to a 2 percent drop, from July, in the agency’s “encounters” with undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. CBP reported 208,887 encounters with 156,641 individual migrants during August, the second-largest total (after July) in 2021 and one of the largest monthly totals this century.

Several trends stood out in our analysis of this data.

  • Measured by individual migrants, not encounters, the first 11 months of fiscal year 2021 are about 18 percent ahead of the pace set in 2019, which at the time was the busiest year for migration at the border since 2007.
  • Encounters with single adults declined for the third straight month. Single adults are now down 15 percent from May, though their numbers remain far higher than in the decade before the pandemic. Numbers of single adults shot upward after March 2020, in part because rapid Title 42 expulsions trigger repeat attempts by adult migrants who wish to avoid being caught. Of the migrants the agency encountered in August, CBP had already encountered 25 percent at least once already this year. (CBP’s September 15 statement mentions a “Repeat Offender Initiative,” begun in July, that seeks to prosecute more repeat border crossers.)
  • Encounters with family unit members grew by 3.6 percent over July.
  • Encounters with unaccompanied children stayed near July’s record levels, dropping by just 0.6 percent—though, as noted below, new arrivals of unaccompanied children have declined in late August and so far in September.
  • 47 percent of those encountered by Border Patrol were expelled in August, the same proportion as July.
  • As noted above, Title 42 expulsions of family unit members increased from July to August. “The number of encounters with family unit individuals so far this fiscal year (415,185),” CBP reports, “remains below the number of encounters at the same point in Fiscal Year 2019 (505,102).”
  • Migrants from Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador declined somewhat from July to August (red arrows in the graphic below). All other nationalities with over 100 monthly encounters increased. The largest proportional increases were migrants from Colombia and Haiti.
  • There is remarkable variation, by country, in which nationalities are expelled most often under Title 42.
  • Fully 30 percent of encountered migrants—and 39 percent of family unit members—are from countries other than Mexico or Central America’s “Northern Triangle.” We have seen no record of that ever happening before this year.
  • Daily reports from CBP (collected here as a large zipfile) point to declining arrivals of unaccompanied children since mid-August, to their lowest numbers in three months.

Data as of September 10 viewed by NBC News point to an overall decline in migration at the border over the prior three weeks: “the 21-day average of immigrants stopped crossing the U.S.-Mexico border by Customs and Border Protection was 6,177 per day, down from 7,275 in mid-August.” The daily number of Title 42 expulsions, however, increased over the past month—from 2,550 per day on August 11 to 2,733 per day on September 10.

This recent decline in migration at the border, however modest, means that “pressure on DHS from the White House to get a handle on migration across the southern border has cooled over the past two weeks,” a “source directly involved with internal discussions” told NBC. The source said that this has allowed DHS to devote more bandwidth to processing Afghan evacuees.

As thousands of mostly Haitian migrants arrive in rural Del Rio, Texas state government escalates crackdown

As of mid-September, migration is clearly not declining in at least one part of the border. The border sector centered on the town of Del Rio, Texas (population 40,000, across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila), is where CBP encountered 69 percent of Haitian migrants in August, along with 55 percent of Cubans and 64 percent of Venezuelans. The flow to Del Rio—which migrants and smugglers often view as a safer, if very remote, route—is pronounced: while nearly 20,000 Haitians came to Del Rio between October and August, only 12 (twelve) came to south Texas’s very busy Rio Grande Valley sector.

This week, Del Rio has seen a further increase in migrant arrivals, overwhelming CBP’s local processing capacity. As of the evening of September 16, the town’s mayor, Bruno “Ralphy” Lozano, was tweeting that 10,503 migrants—perhaps 70 percent Haitian, but also many Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans—were waiting under the Del Rio-Acuña border bridge for Border Patrol to process them. That number, the mayor said, was up from 8,200 that same morning. This is up from 2,500 on September 11, the sheriff of surrounding Val Verde county told the Texas Tribune.

The migrants’ wait to turn themselves in—in most cases, to apply for asylum—may take up to five days, several told Reuters. U.S. border agents are giving each person or family unit a ticket with a number that they will eventually call.

Once processed with an asylum claim, the majority will probably be allowed to remain in the United States to await that claim’s adjudication. Logistical and consular issues make it difficult for CBP to expel migrants to Port-au-Prince, Havana, Managua, or Caracas. However, on September 15 DHS sent a deportation flight to Haiti for the first time since August 14, when a 7.2 magnitude earthquake caused widespread devastation in the Caribbean nation.

The migrants in Del Rio are being concentrated outdoors where heat is in the high 90s; water, food, and sanitary facilities are scarce; and social distancing is difficult. Migrants with CBP’s “tickets” have been wading the knee-deep river back to Acuña to buy food, water, and other provisions on the Mexican side. “CBP is scrambling to send additional agents to Del Rio to help process the migrants,” the Washington Post reports. Pictures and footage from the area are striking.

Mayor Lozano told the Post that the migrants have been arriving on buses from elsewhere in Mexico to Ciudad Acuña. “It just sounds like there’s an off-grid bus system that’s not registered with the Mexican government that are driving these individuals north,” he observed.

The situation in Del Rio has drawn the attention of conservative media (Fox News battled CBP for the right to shoot drone footage) and figures like former Trump advisor Stephen Miller.

One of the most vocal proponents of a hardline approach to asylum-seeking migration, Texas governor Greg Abbott (R), announced on September 16 that he had directed state police and guardsmen “to surge personnel and vehicles to shut down six points of entry along the southern border to stop these [migrant] caravans from overrunning our state.” Abbott added that “The border crisis is so dire that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection is requesting our help as their agents are overwhelmed by the chaos.”

It wasn’t clear what Gov. Abbott was talking about: state law enforcement agencies do not have the authority to shut down border ports of entry, which are run by the federal government. CBP spokespeople said they had made no requests to Texas for help, and had no plans to shut down ports of entry. Later on the 16th, Abbott reversed himself, claiming that the Biden administration “has now flip-flopped to a different strategy that abandons border security.”

Abbott, meanwhile, has plans to divert more than $2 billion into border security efforts over the next year, expanding a package of crackdowns, begun in March, that he calls “Operation Lone Star.” He has deployed Texas state police and National Guard personnel to the border zone, giving soldiers a rare power to arrest people. He plans to use state funds to build border fencing where landowners allow it, and the Texas Facilities Commission just signed an $11 million contract with two firms charged with planning and design of barriers.

In a program first rolled out near Del Rio, Abbott ordered police and guardsmen to arrest migrants found on state and private land, so that they may be charged with, and jailed for, the crime of trespassing. Hundreds of migrants—including some who turned themselves in with the expectation of asking for asylum—have been jailed at a facility in Dilley, Texas, and now at a second prison in Edinburg.

Migrants initially jailed in July are now being released, often with dropped charges. It is unclear what happens to them next: because they haven’t committed violent offenses, they are not a priority for ICE, and because they’ve been in the country for a while, they are not a priority for CBP. Texas authorities have started releasing formerly jailed migrants at a gas station bus stop in Del Rio. Under a new process agreed last week, CBP will process migrants released from Texas jails. Some who have entered this process so far have been deported, but roughly half have been released from CBP custody to await adjudication of their asylum cases within the United States.

In south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region, local station KRGV reports, “Operation Lone Star” has meant a sharp increase in often frivolous traffic stops as state police crowd local roads. Citations for “having anything on the car’s windshield,” among other examples, are up 1,060 percent. KRGV cites a 2014 study by the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights, which found that during past deployments to the Rio Grande Valley border region, Texas state police oversaw a 127 percent increase in traffic citations for Hispanic drivers—and a 40 percent drop in citations for White drivers.

Links

  • As required by the judge in the case, the Biden administration has submitted its first monthly report documenting its “good faith efforts” to restart the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, or “Remain in Mexico,” program.        
    • The report explains that while Remain in Mexico hasn’t restarted yet, an “interagency task force” is “meeting regularly to quickly and efficiently rebuild the infrastructure and reapportion the staffing required.”
    • Rebuilding facilities to hold immigration hearings at ports of entry “will cost approximately $14.1 million to construct and $10.5 million per month to operate.”
    • Mexico, the report notes, hasn’t agreed yet to take back any migrants. Discussions between the United States and Mexico must determine where returns could happen, how many people could be returned, demographic questions (like whether Mexico would take families or would limit ages of children sent back), and how Mexico would support those made to remain in the country for months or years to await their U.S. hearing dates.
  • 68 organizations, including WOLA, sent a letter to President Biden and DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas urging a series of policy changes and measures to reduce extreme heat-related deaths of migrants on U.S. soil, which have totaled more than one per day so far this year.
  • Mexican migration authorities apprehended 150 Haitian migrants near the Guatemala border-zone city of Tapachula, Chiapas on September 11, then expelled them into Guatemala.
  • As Mexican immigration agents and National Guard personnel continue to block asylum-seeking migrants from leaving Tapachula, Chiapas Parelelo notes migrants’ increasing use of northward routes through central Chiapas, like the Angostura Reservoir region.
  • “Women and children seeking refuge instead find themselves incarcerated in detention centers or prisons for migrants that are paid for with our tax dollars, whether in Tapachula (the prison-city as those womean call it) or in Iztapalapa or Tijuana,” reads a letter from dozens of women’s rights groups and activists from Mexico and several other countries.
  • The coordinator of Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR, which as of August had already broken its single-year record for asylum requests, pleads for a budget increase in an interview with Mexico’s El Universal.
  • An Alabama National Guard soldier assigned to the border security mission was arrested near McAllen, Texas, while transporting about a kilogram of cocaine in a Border Patrol vehicle.
  • At least 600 migrants per day are passing from Colombia through Panama’s dangerous, ungoverned Darién Gap region right now, and about a quarter of them are children, the Associated Press reports.
  • Ciudad Juárez has reappointed a former municipal police chief, César Omar Muñoz, who had led the force from 2013 to 2016. Human rights groups accuse Muñoz of ordering human rights violations and defense officials have alleged that he has organized crime ties, Vice reports.
  • “It hurts my heart” to see the effects in Mexico of cross-border arms trafficking from the United States, where weapons are easy to obtain, said Ken Salazar, the new U.S. ambassador to Mexico. The Ambassador added that there is a need for “a new bilateral migration model,” though he did not offer specifics.
  • The New York Times looks at residents’ disagreements about border wall construction in the Rio Grande Valley border town of Los Ebanos, Texas.
  • A New York Times essay by journalist Lauren Markham recalls that past U.S. experiments with “alternatives to detention” programs for asylum seekers, including social work support, have achieved near 100 percent appearance at court dates.
  • “The Central American migrants crossing Mexico have undoubtedly been subjects from whom everyone has taken everything they can,” author and journalist Óscar Martínez tells Mexico’s SinEmbargo. “Both the state and organized crime, the small gangs of assailants who kill and rape. The passage through Mexico is a kind of enormous toll where the decision to seek a better life has to be paid with much suffering.”
  • “Few people will throw stones at a tree planting program, but Guatemalans aren’t going to stop leaving home because they got temporary work planting trees,” writes former WOLA executive director Joy Olson at Reforma’s Mexico Today. “The tree program is about Mexico looking like it is responding to a migration crisis without actually doing much. The US needs to provide serious numbers of work visas to Central America, and Mexico should push them to do it.”

Weekly Border Update: September 10, 2021

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

Mexico solidifies role as bulwark against U.S.-bound migration

On September 5, for the fourth time in about a week, Mexican immigration agents and militarized National Guard personnel broke up a “caravan” of migrants in Chiapas, near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala.

Perhaps 800 people, mostly from Haiti, Central America, Cuba, and Venezuela, many of them parents with children, sought to leave en masse from the southern border-zone city of Tapachula on September 4. They got about 30 miles up Chiapas’s Pacific coastal highway to the town of Huixtla, where most bedded down at a basketball court.

There, before dawn on the 5th, about 200 agents and guardsmen descended on the migrants. The Mexican forces spent the next eight hours chasing people through Huixtla and its environs, capturing many and hauling them away in vehicles. An unknown number escaped.

We saw many people injured and wounded, in states of shock and fear,” reported Isaín Mandujano at Chiapas Paralelo. “Many people stated that the INM [Mexico’s National Migration Institute] took their documents and belongings during the operation.” Human rights defenders alleged that agents deliberately separated families “as a coercion strategy” to get people to turn themselves in. “They began to hit me all over,” a woman told the Associated Press “amid tears, alleging that police also beat her husband and pulled one of her daughters from her arms.” A Honduran man told Chiapas Paralelo that a National Guardsman threw him to the ground and hit him with his rifle butt. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Mexico office noted, INM and National Guard personnel also acted aggressively toward human rights defenders and journalists present in Huixtla, interfering with their ability to monitor the situation.

“So far the strategy of the authorities is to allow the migrants to walk, let them get tired, and then launch operations to detain them and return them to Tapachula,” observed reporter Alberto Pradilla at Animal Político. Some, however, are being expelled into Guatemala, even if they have documentation indicating that their asylum cases are pending.

While they await decisions on their petitions, Mexico requires asylum seekers to remain in the state where they filed their requests. For most, that means Chiapas: the country’s poorest state. Of the 77,599 people who have requested asylum in Mexico this year through August—a number that already breaks Mexico’s full-year record for asylum requests—55,005 applied in the Tapachula office of Mexico’s beleaguered refugee agency, COMAR. The agency is so badly backlogged that asylum case decisions—which used to come within 45 working days, before pandemic-related measures removed the deadline—are taking many months: a migrant who starts the asylum process in Tapachula today might receive an interview appointment date for January or February.

For tens of thousands of migrants from Haiti, Central America, and elsewhere, this means many months confined to Tapachula, a city of 350,000, with almost no ability to earn an income. With shelters long since filled, migrants are sleeping in slum housing, parks, and streets throughout what Pradilla and Chiapas Paralelo’s Ángeles Mariscal are calling a “city-jail.” Many of the caravan participants claim they are seeking simply to relocate to other parts of Mexico where they might find employment while they wait for COMAR to consider their petitions.

“What is collapsing us in Tapachula is the unusual arrival of Haitians who are not refugees,” COMAR’s coordinator, Andrés Ramírez, alleged in Animal Político. “They do not come from Haiti, they come from Brazil and Chile, but due to the lack of migratory alternatives they come to make their request with COMAR, oversaturating our asylum system and placing us in a very complicated situation to the detriment of those who really need protection.” Enrique Vidal of the Tapachula-based Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center responded that the Haitians are, in fact, “de facto asylum seekers” because they’ve begun the procedure and deserve due process—or some other form of international protection inside Mexico, because their lives and integrity may be at risk if they are deported.

If its just-released 2022 budget request is any indication, Mexico’s federal government does not plan to expand COMAR’s capacity to consider asylum requests. Adjusting for inflation, the request for 45.7 million pesos (US$2.3 million) would represent a 0.58 percent reduction in COMAR’s budget from 2021 to 2022. (The INM’s budget would increase by 0.29 percent.)

Haitian and Honduran migrants interviewed by Chiapas Paralelo allege corruption at both the INM and COMAR. “It takes more than 8 months to get a humanitarian visa, but if you have 4,000 dollars, or 5,000 dollars, it will be granted,” said a man whom the publication identified as a leader of the failed fourth caravan. “They tell us that the [COMAR asylum application] process is free, but there are people who ask us for money to enter, there are people who tell us that we have to hire a lawyer,” said a Haitian migrant. Others contend that middlemen offer to quickly secure humanitarian visas for US$1,300 or refugee status cards for US$4,000 to US$5,000. COMAR insists that it does not tolerate any corrupt behavior.

Human rights defenders and migration experts are raising the volume on their calls for Mexico to change course. “We call on the Executive Branch, the Ministry of the Interior, the National Migration Institute and the National Guard to put an end to the repression, detention, and violence against forcibly displaced persons, and to provide real strategies to solve the root causes of this displacement,” reads a statement from numerous Mexican human rights groups.

Emilio Álvarez Icaza, a former Executive Secretary of the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and now an independent senator, held a press conference to demand that top officials testify about the numerous abuse allegations coming out of Chiapas. The National Guard and INM are “out of control,” the senator said. “What Mexico is doing is the dirty work of the United States, first Trump and now Biden. We did not create the National Guard to chase migrants, but to fight crime.”

Tonatiuh Guillén, a longtime migration expert who headed the INM during the first six months of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s term, told Spain’s El País that the images of abuse in Chiapas “portray a profound regression of this government’s migration policy, which I believe had started out with a very different scenario, one of respect for human rights. We’re on the other side now.” This, Guillén added, is a result of Mexico’s “institutional internalization of the containment agreements established with the Trump Administration.” Now, “it is in line with militarization. The INM and the Guard are acting as though they’re confronting an enemy.”

WOLA’s Mexico and Migrant Rights Program Director Stephanie Brewer published a commentary calling on the Biden administration to “cease pressuring Mexico to act as an externalized U.S. border that blocks, contains, or deports as many migrants as possible, a bilateral focus that has led to a series of rights-violating practices. Current policies are producing outcomes as dangerous as they are absurd.”

“We don’t accept pressure from any government,” said President López Obrador in one of a few daily press conferences at which the migration issue came up this week. “Yes, we have this situation that concerns us and that we are dealing with, but it’s not because we’re puppets of the U.S. government, it’s because we’re putting things in order and helping, protecting.” López Obrador alleged that a “disinformation campaign” by his political adversaries is behind many of the allegations of human rights abuse and corruption.

“We do this,” the president said, “because we have to care for the migrants, though it seems paradoxical. If we allowed them to cross to the north of the country to cross the border, we would be running risks, many risks. We just rescued a very large group of migrants in the north who were practically kidnapped.” (Anarticle at the Mexican publication Lado B explores how Mexican migration authorities favor such euphemisms to describe their work: “rescues” instead of “apprehensions,” “repatriation” instead of “deportation,” “migratory stations” instead of “detention centers.”)

López Obrador mentioned that two INM agents had been fired for kicking a migrant on video during an attempted caravan the previous week. Francisco Garduño, the INM’s commissioner, told reporters that “more will also have to be fired,” but did not know how many more agents face abuse allegations. Asked about videos showing personnel beating migrants, the National Guard’s commander, retired Gen. Luis Rodríguez Bucio, responded only, “Todo tranquilo, estamos trabajando”—“don’t worry, we’re working on it.”

The Mexican president called on the United States to accept more migrants in order to face its labor shortages, and to provide more assistance to Central America. “That is what is going to be raised again today with the U.S. government, that work be done immediately in Central America because there has been nothing for years.”

By “today,” López Obrador was referring to a September 9 “High Level Economic Dialogue” meeting in Washington, inaugurated by Vice President Kamala Harris. That dialogue’s agenda has four “pillars” of which “pillar two” is “Promising sustainable economic and social development in southern Mexico and Central America,” something Mexico’s president has been advocating for years. López Obrador has particularly sought U.S. support for a program that would pay Central Americans to plant trees; the Biden administration has not yet committed to that. At the September 9 meeting, Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard gave his counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a letter from López Obrador with a proposal for creating employment opportunities in Central America.

Migration via South America hits record highs

Hundreds of miles to the south, the number of migrants whose northward journeys might lead them to Chiapas keeps growing. In Colombia, according to the government’s human rights ombudsman (Defensoría), 11,400 people, most of them Haitian, are stranded in the Caribbean town of Necoclí. This is the last stop before ferries to the Panama border for migrants who mostly entered Colombia via Ecuador, 700 miles further south.

This is the second time in two months that the number of people waiting in Necoclí has reached 10,000 (see our August 6 update). They have filled hotels and private homes, and many are sleeping on the beach. Mayor Jorge Tobónsays that 1,000 people are arriving in Necoclí each day right now, but the ferries are only talking 500 per day—the result of an agreement between Colombia and Panama to limit the flow into Panama. As a result, “if this trend continues, by the end of September we’re going to have more than 25,000 migrants in Necoclí,” the mayor says.

Panama claims that Colombia is in fact permitting more than 500 migrants per day to depart. “Right now we have 6,500 more people than we would have if the accord had been complied with,” said the director of Panama’s National Migration Service. The country’s security ministersaid that a remarkable 70,000 migrants have arrived in Panama so far this year, way up from 7,000 in the same period of 2020 and 17,000 in the same period of 2019. The Associated Press reported a still-high figure of 50,000, of whom about 16 percent are children.

The most worrying aspect of this sharply increased migration is that this route requires people to cross through Panama’s roadless, ungoverned Darién Gap wilderness. Migrants who travel through South and Central America routinely say that the Darién is the most dangerous part of their journey. As a Pulitzer-winning April 2020 report from Nadja Drost vividly documents, migrants in the Darién are routinely robbed and see dead bodies in a forest dominated by criminal bands and armed groups. The Wall Street Journal reported that Doctors Without Borders began providing medical care in May to migrants exiting the jungle from the Darién Gap. Since then, the group has documented 180 cases of rape. 70 percent of the time, the migrants were raped on Panamanian territory. “The group believes the true number of victims is likely far higher since many migrants don’t report the attacks.”

Further south, Ecuador has suddenly become the fourth-largest nationality of migrants whom U.S. authorities encounter at the U.S.-Mexico border. This owes heavily to Mexico’s 2018 decision to lift visa requirements for visiting Ecuadorians. Many who could afford a plane ticket have been flying to Mexico, traveling north, and crossing the land border into the United States. There, most have avoided expulsion under the “Title 42” pandemic policy, since deportation flight capacity to Quito is limited.

Ecuador’s government says 88,696 of its citizens traveled to Mexico from January to July 2021, and only 34,331 have returned. During those seven months, U.S. border agencies encountered citizens of Ecuador 62,494 times.

In response, very likely at the strong suggestion of the U.S. government, Mexico has reinstated its visa requirement for Ecuadorian citizens. This may mean a brief reduction in migration from Ecuador, but experts interviewed by the Guayaquil daily El Universo expect that migration routes will adjust. Even if the route becomes more dangerous, the state of the country’s COVID-battered economy may still lead many Ecuadorians to risk the journey.

Biden administration weighs “Remain in Mexico Lite,” feeds into Mexico’s southern-border “chain expulsions”

The Biden administration continues to consider how it will revive the Migrant Protection Protocols or “Remain in Mexico,” a policy that it bitterly opposes and sought to shut down. As detailed in our August 27 update, the Supreme Court refused to suspend a Texas judge’s order, still under appeal, forcing the Biden administration to make a “good faith effort” to revive the program, which Donald Trump’s administration launched at the end of 2018.

“Remain in Mexico” sent over 71,000 non-Mexican asylum-seekers back into Mexican border towns, penniless, homeless, and vulnerable to crime, to await eventual immigration hearing dates in the United States. Over 1,500 suffered assault, kidnapping, or other abuse, and less than 2 percent of those who were present for all of their hearings were granted asylum. President Joe Biden suspended Remain in Mexico the moment he was sworn in, in January 2021, and officially ended it on June 1.

Now, though, the court is ordering a restart, and on September 15 the administration must provide Amarillo, Texas District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk its first monthly report on the progress of its “good faith efforts.” What those next steps might look like isn’t clear, but reporting is pointing to some sort of limited “Remain in Mexico ‘Lite.’”

Homeland Security Department (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas repeated his opposition to Remain in Mexico in an interview with CBS news, but acknowledged that “We’re planning to implement the program while we litigate the ruling.” CBS revealed that “the department’s policy office has been working on logistical plans to facilitate its ‘expeditious reimplementation,’ including cost estimates, according to an internal memo.” Mexico, too, will have to give at least an informal green light; it is not clear where talks about this currently stand.

“Some Biden officials were already talking about reviving Mr. Trump’s policy in a limited way to deter migration,” unnamed officials told the New York Times. They say the Supreme Court’s ruling gives them a chance to “come up with a more humane version of Mr. Trump’s policy.” A proposal under consideration, three sources told Politico, “would require a small number of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their cases to be processed but give them better living conditions and access to attorneys.”

Asylum advocates reject the idea that a “lite” version of the program can exist.

  • “There’s no lite MPP just as there’s no lite police brutality or lite torture,” tweeted Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council.
  • “The answer is not to simply find a gentler, kinder MPP 2.0. That completely flies in the face of his [President Biden’s] promise” to end the program, said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of National Immigration Law Center.
  • “There’s no way to implement it in a way that will satisfy actual due process or keep people safe, because it’s impossible to keep migrants safe in Mexico,” said Taylor Levy, an attorney who represented many victims of Remain in Mexico.
  • “The reinstatement of MPP will place thousands of asylum seekers in harm’s way and deny them the right to a fair hearing of their claims,” said asylum officers’ union leader Michael Knowles.
  • “I rejoiced when you declared an end to this immoral policy on your first days in office, and despaired when the Supreme Court required your administration to implement it once again,” reads a letter to President Biden, published in the Washington Post, from Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs Catholic Charities of Rio Grande Valley’s large migrant respite center in McAllen, Texas. “We must not make children live for months in rain-logged tents. We cannot abandon them to communities where their mothers are afraid to let them use the bathroom at night for fear they might encounter a gang member or be assaulted.”

Instead, advocates are calling on the administration to meet the court’s requirements by “re-terminating” the program. That would mean issuing a memo, as it did when it formally shut down the program in June, addressing Judge Kacsmaryk’s and the Fifth Circuit of Appeals’ concerns that the administration didn’t consider the “benefits” of Remain in Mexico when it decided to close down the program.

A letter from 31 Democratic congressional representatives and senators, led by Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), proposes exactly that. “The court orders leave ample room for your administration to ensure MPP never again puts another person in harm’s way,” it explains:

The decisions suggest that the potential perceived problem with your administration’s termination of MPP was that it did not say enough to demonstrate that it had sufficiently weighed the potential consequences of its decision to terminate. The court did not endorse the states’ claims that the government is actually required to return people to Mexico under the immigration statutes. As amicus briefs explained, those claims were egregiously wrong. Thus, we believe your administration can and should re-terminate MPP with a fuller explanation in order to address any perceived procedural defect of the termination.

While the Biden administration continues to deliberate over what to do about a program that sent 71,000 people to Mexico, though, it continues to carry out a program that, to date, has sent people—including asylum seekers—back to Mexico more than a million times since March 2020. “Title 42,” the pandemic policy permitting rapid expulsions of migrants, without regard to asylum or protection needs, remains in place. Mexico continues to receive expulsions of its own citizens and those of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Expelled migrants filling a plaza in Reynosa, Mexico are living in even worse conditions than Remain in Mexico victims who had inhabited an encampment in the nearby, and similarly crime-plagued, city of Matamoros, the Los Angeles Times reported. “There’s less potable water, fewer bathrooms, showers and other sanitation that U.S.-based nonprofits spent months installing in Matamoros. Mexican soldiers circle in trucks with guns mounted on top. Migrants face not only cartel extortion and kidnapping, but also COVID-19 outbreaks and pressure to leave from Mexican authorities.” Reynosa’s critical security situation scares off U.S. volunteers and attorneys. The L.A. Times estimates that 2,000 people are currently inhabiting the plaza. Sister Pimentel’s letter notes, “Recently we estimated that there are close to 5,000 migrants in Reynosa.”

Another encampment with a large number of expelled migrants persists at the other end of the border, right outside the main pedestrian border crossing in Tijuana. There, on September 3, migrants were gathering for vaccinations when word quickly spread—inaccurately—that U.S. authorities had opened the border. Hundreds of people rushed to the line, only to find a phalanx of riot gear-clad CBP officers.

Expulsions don’t just happen at Mexico’s northern border. Since early August, DHS has put expelled Central American migrants, including many families with children, on planes destined for Mexico’s far south: the cities of Villahermosa, Tabasco and Tapachula, Chiapas. Once those planes land, Mexico’s INM has gathered the expelled migrants onto buses and driven them to southern border crossings, instructing them to exit into Guatemala. At no moment do the expelled people have any migratory status in Mexico, much less any opportunity to ask for asylum or protection.

“These expulsions ridicule public health and human rights by crowding people into planes and buses and preventing legal access to asylum in violation of domestic and international law,” reads a report and list of recommendations for the U.S. and Mexican governments produced by several organizations, including WOLA. This document, based on Witness on the Border’s monitoring of deportation and expulsion flights, counted 34 planeloads of migrants to Villahermosa and Tapachula—about one every weekday—between August 5 and August 31.

There is no official count of the number of people who have been subject to these “chain expulsions.” Animal Político, citing Guatemala’s migration authority, reports that 4,243 people were expelled between August 22 and September 6. Many were pushed across the line into the very remote village of El Ceibo, a village of a few hundred people in Guatemala’s sparsely populated frontier department of El Petén, on the edge of the Lacandón jungle a few hours’ drive from Villahermosa.

The 4,243 are not all migrants from the U.S. government’s long-distance expulsion flights. The number includes some migrants whom Mexico’s INM apprehended in southern Mexico. Unnamed official sources tell Animal Político that the number of people expelled by the United States “could be around 3,500”: 2,000 whom Mexico went on to expel in El Ceibo, and 1,500 at the Talismán border crossing near Tapachula.

“While the majority are Central American, the expulsion of Venezuelans, Cubans, and even a Senegalese person was recorded.” One may have been a U.S. citizen, Reuters reports. Animal Político has seen evidence that southern Chiapas municipal police captured Haitian families in mid-August, then handed them over to INM, which expelled them into Guatemala.

“Upon their arrival,” migrants expelled at El Ceibo and Talismán “don’t have a peso or a quetzal in their pockets,” Mexico’s La Jornada puts it. At times, the expulsion buses have dropped people in El Ceibo in the middle of the night. “Mexican immigration authorities have not coordinated these expulsions with the Guatemalan government; nor notified the Guatemalan, Honduran, or Salvadoran consulates; nor arranged for onward transport,” reads a briefreport from Human Rights Watch. “Many of those expelled have been forced to sleep on the street upon arrival in El Ceibo.” Some of those expelled, HRW reveals, had pending asylum applications in Mexico.

On September 2, Guatemala’s foreign minister announced an agreement with the U.S. government to send expulsion flights to the airport in Guatemala City instead of to southern Mexico. That agreement, though, will not go into effect until the end of the month—and it of course maintains Title 42’s refusal to consider migrants’ asylum or protection needs.

Links

  • While border-zone migrant deaths from dehydration, exposure, or similar causes are horrifyingly common, most victims have been single adults: migrant parents and children have been rare. That seems to be changing.        
    • A 21-year-old Ecuadorian woman died of dehydration on August 28 after attempting to migrate with her 2-year-old daughter in the desert of Sonora, Mexico, near the U.S. border. Jazmín Lema left her country, likely fleeing domestic violence, on August 21, flying to Mexico and taking buses north until stopped at a migration checkpoint. The child survived.
    • Another Ecuadorian woman, traveling with children aged seven and one, was rescued in the Arizona desert near Yuma after calling 911.
    • These events come just days after the death from dehydration, near Yuma, of a Colombian woman and her oldest child, while her toddler survived.
  • Also near Yuma, a Mexican man died after falling from a 30-foot-high section of border wall. He fell on the Mexican side, requiring rescuers to open a gate in the wall that was not wide enough for an ambulance, then carry him for a mile before he passed away.
  • Texas’s state Facilities Commission has recommended that a joint venture of two companies, Michael Baker International and Huitt-Zollars, get a contract to build fence or wall, using state funds, along parts of the state’s 1,200-mile border with Mexico. Texas’s state budget for 2022 includes $750 million to build barriers. If built at the per-mile cost of the Trump administration’s border wall, this money would build about 30-35 miles of barrier.
  • Writing at the Border Chronicle, a new journalistic newsletter, Todd Miller narrates the rapid growth of a bipartisan “border security industrial complex” made up of well-connected technology, detention, and munitions companies that have been awarded large CBP contracts. These companies’ technologies, Miller warns, are often invasive and threaten civil liberties.
  • At the Intercept, Melissa del Bosque reveals the vast expansion in CBP’s Tactical Terrorism Response Teams since their inception in 2015, finding that the secretive units detained and interrogated more than 600,000 travelers at airports and border crossings between 2017 and 2019, about a third of them U.S. citizens. The databases the teams use to flag suspected travelers rely on what is “essentially a black box algorithm,” as an ACLU attorney put it.
  • A third whistleblower has come forward with allegations of abuse of unaccompanied migrant children held at a giant emergency shelter at Fort Bliss, Texas, run by contractors of the Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Valerie González at the Rio Grande Valley, Texas Monitor rebuts alarmist claims by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) by sharing recent data pointing to reduced migration to the busy Rio Grande Valley region during August.
  • About 1,500 people from Michoacán, Mexico have arrived in the border city of Tijuana, displaced by warring organized crime groups who often give them hours to leave their homes.
  • A Georgia National Guard soldier, assigned to the border security mission that Donald Trump launched in 2018, died in a drunk driving incident in McAllen, Texas. The Guard immediately imposed an alcohol ban and curfew on all 3,000-plus personnel assigned to the mission.
  • “Not a single terrorist has illegally crossed the Mexican border and then committed an attack on U.S. soil,” writes the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh in a scathing book review, citing numerous statistics, at Reason.

Weekly Border Update: September 3, 2021

Cross-posted from wola.org. 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

Mexico pushes back asylum seekers attempting to leave its southern border zone

Several hundred migrants from Haiti and other countries sought to leave Mexico’s border zone with Guatemala, where many are confined while awaiting outcomes of their asylum cases. Three times in the past week, their northward progress was blocked—at times brutally and on camera—by personnel from Mexico’s migration agency (National Migration Institute, INM) and its National Guard (a militarized police force, created in 2019, under Army control).

Each time, authorities allowed small “caravans” to walk several dozen miles up the highway that follows the Pacific coast west and north, away from the Guatemala border, through Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas. Each time, authorities then swept in and apprehended migrants as they rested, or sought to block them further up the highway. No significantly sized group of migrants managed to make it more than about 110 kilometers into Mexico. (Despite several attempts, no “caravan” of migrants has succeeded in traveling through Mexico’s southern border zone since January 2019.)

The migrants are chiefly from Haiti, but were joined by Central Americans, Cubans, Venezuelans, and other countries—even apparently some from Equatorial Guinea. Many are parents with children; some are unaccompanied children. Most have traveled through many countries, including all of Central America, only to have Mexico block their progress near its southern border.

The groups sought to leave Tapachula, a city of about 350,000 people near the Guatemala border in Chiapas’s Pacific lowlands. There, thousands have applied for asylum in Mexico with COMAR, the Mexican government’s refugee commission, whose Tapachula office is its busiest in the country by far. Through July, COMAR had received 64,378 asylum requests throughout Mexico; of those, 45,072 were filed in Tapachula. (COMAR’s year-to-date asylum request total jumped to 77,559 through August, the agency’s director, Andrés Ramírez, just revealed. That’s a new record: eight months into 2021, Mexico has now received more asylum requests than in any full year.)

Though Mexican law requires COMAR to issue an asylum decision within 45 working days, a pandemic emergency measure has waived this deadline. The badly backlogged agency now takes many months to decide cases. “Currently, if someone wants to apply for asylum, they receive an appointment for the month of January,” reports Alberto Pradilla of the online news outlet Animal Político. “There’s a historic arrival of migrants to Mexico as a result of the systemic crises in their countries of origin, and the Mexican government has not strengthened the migration system in terms of budget and personnel,” Enrique Vidal of the Tapachula-based Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center (recipient of WOLA’s 2020 Human Rights Award) told Chiapas Paralelo.

While awaiting a decision on their asylum applications, migrants receive a document that allows them to be present only in the state where they submitted their claim. . This is a difficult part of Mexico in which to be confined: Chiapas is the poorest of Mexico’s 32 states, with three-quarters of its population living below the poverty line. Few opportunities exist for migrants to generate an income while they remain there. Chiapas Paralelo estimates that 5,000 Haitians, and 3,000 Central Americans and Cubans, currently find themselves in this position in Tapachula. This number vastly overwhelms shelter space, and many are living in severely substandard conditions.

Many of the migrants trapped in Tapachula say they aren’t necessarily seeking to enter the United States: they would be content to settle in Mexico, but in a part of the country—like the more economically dynamic north—where employment opportunities exist. “The important thing we need is to leave Chiapas, because in Chiapas there is no work,” a migrant told veteran Chiapas-based journalist Ángeles Mariscal. “In Chiapas there is no way to live, the people are treating us like animals.”

The Haitian and other migrants marooned in Tapachula have begun gathering, usually near COMAR’s offices, to protest their situation. The protests became larger in size during the last week of August. Then, on the morning of August 28, a group of several hundred left the city on foot, walking up the Pacific coastal highway that leads into Oaxaca and the rest of Mexico.

This group walked about 42 kilometers, getting as far as the town of Huixtla, Chiapas before being captured and broken up. On the road, INM agents backed up by riot gear-clad National Guard personnel surrounded and blocked the migrants’ passage. Their methods were often brutal: mobile phone videos showed a Haitian man being pushed to the ground by guardsmen’s riot shields as he held his two-year-old baby, and an INM agent kicking another man in the head as others restrained him on the ground. It appears that one of the individuals restraining the man was Jorge Alejandro Palau, the director of Tapachula’s Siglo XXI facility, often described as the largest migrant detention center in Latin America.

A second group of migrants got through authorities’ roadblocks and made it to the town of Mapastepec, Chiapas, 107 kilometers from Tapachula. On the morning of September 1, as the migrants sought to rest in the town’s central square, INM and National Guard personnel surrounded and arrested them, chasing many throughout the town.

A third group left Tapachula on September 1, only to be detained and dispersed, in Mapastepec and other towns, within about 24 hours. INM agents raided hotels in towns along the migrant route, and pursued them through rural-dwellers’ fields and yards. A few migrants confronted the agents, throwing stones. Journalists and human rights defenders in Mapastepec reported “aggressions” at the hands of authorities; National Guard personnel used their shields to block reporters’ attempts to record video of what was happening.

Mexican authorities have not revealed what happened to the migrants captured in these operations. Haitians and others may have been “brought to Tapachula and left on the street in the middle of the night,” the Associated Press reported. Many captured Central American migrants were deported into Guatemala.

Video images of Mexican authorities beating and roughing up migrants generated outrage all week. “These painful images confirm the Mexican government’s turn into full-on immigration deterrence at the behest of the U.S. government,” columnist Leon Krauze wrote at the Washington Post. At VICE, Emily Green noted the contrast between the Mexican government’s high-profile reception of over 100 refugees from Afghanistan, and its treatment of other asylum seekers—more than 75 percent of whom had been granted refugee status by COMAR through July of this year.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador addressed the issue at a September 1 press conference. “The human rights of migrants haven’t been violated,” López Obrador insisted. “The exceptional case of a few days ago, in which two immigration officers kicked a Haitian citizen, was dealt with that same day. They were dismissed and placed at the disposal of the corresponding internal control body.”

Three UN agencies issued a statement on August 31 calling the video images “profoundly concerning,” noting threats to human rights defenders in the context of the Chiapas operations, and calling on Mexico to hold accountable all who committed abuses. “What happened in Chiapas last weekend is yet another example of the need to strengthen COMAR’s capacity for asylum processes, and to establish migratory alternatives that guarantee the human rights of migrants,” reads the document from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In a separate statement, the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission (CIDH) called out Mexican forces’ excessive use of force and cautioned against cracking down every time migrants travel as a group.

President López Obrador upheld the policy of containing migrants “as far as possible in the south, southeast of the country. Because allowing them to enter the territory completely, to cross our country, means many risks of human rights violations, especially on the northern border.” The Mexican president repeated his call on the United States to collaborate on a strategy that addresses the root causes of why people are migrating, declaring his intention to send a letter next week to U.S. President Joe Biden laying out a proposal.

Mexico’s Interior Department, which includes the INM, indicated that it is communicating with UNHCR and Mexico’s Bishops’ Conference regarding plans “to establish a humanitarian encampment in the state of Chiapas, where attention would be offered to the migrant population of Haitian origin.” The Bishops’ Conference put out a statement clarifying that it received an “encampment” proposal but has not necessarily agreed to support it. UNHCR stated that this Mexican government proposal was one of several issues that they discussed with regard to attending to the Haitian population. 

The pushback operations in Chiapas drew fresh attention to the role of Mexico’s military in the effort to keep migrants from reaching the United States. The recently created National Guard is currently made up of more than 75 percent active-duty military personnel; while he originally billed it as a civilian force, President López Obrador announced plans in June to make it a branch of the Army.

On August 27, the day before alarming videos of migrant abuse would be recorded in Chiapas, Mexico’s defense secretary, Gen. Luis Cresencio Sandoval, told reporters that “detaining all migration” is now the armed forces’ principal mission in Mexico’s border zones. Documents accompanying President López Obrador’s annual September 1 “state of the union” presentation reveal that, as of June, Mexico had deployed 6,244 troops and 1,449 guardsmen to its southern border states on migration control missions. The document claims that military and National Guard personnel captured 134,932 migrants. Mexico’s migration agency, the INM, reports capturing 157,919 during the 12 months ending in July 2021—so either there is a lot of double-counting, or the armed forces have been involved in the vast majority of Mexico’s recent nationwide migrant apprehensions  The Iberoamerican University found, based on information requests, that 78 percent of migrant detentions between June 2019 and December 2020 were at the hands of soldiers or members of the National Guard. 

Remain in Mexico’s “awkward” restart

The Biden administration continues to reckon with how to comply with a Texas judge’s order—upheld, for now, by the Supreme Court on August 24—that it reinstate a policy that it bitterly opposes. In response to a lawsuit filed by the Republican attorneys general of Texas and Missouri, Texas District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk has forced the Biden administration to carry out “good faith efforts” to revive the Migrant Protection Protocols or “Remain in Mexico” program. Launched by the Trump administration in December 2018, this program forced more than 71,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their hearings in Mexican border towns, where many were left homeless, without income, and preyed upon by criminals.

As a candidate, Joe Biden had pledged to undo the controversial policy, and he issued an order suspending it on Inauguration Day 2021. Now that his Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must reinstate it, next steps are not clear, a Washington Post analysis finds. “Early indications suggest the controversial Trump-era policy may not return on a large scale,” report Nick Miroff and Mary Beth Sheridan. Judge Kacsmaryk has required the Biden administration to file monthly reports, with the first one due September 15, on its “good-faith efforts” to restart the program.

“I have talked to DHS and of course digesting this Supreme Court decision, my understanding is that they will have to start implementing it,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), whose district includes a busy section of the Texas-Mexico border, told reporters. “They are waiting on those instructions as they are working in the D.C. headquarters on that as I talked to the judges that will have to be involved with this, and they are also getting ready to start getting this and coordinating with DHS.”

Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, an ardent proponent of Remain in Mexico, accused the Biden administration of “slow-playing” the program’s re-establishment. On a visit to the Rio Grande Valley sector of the border zone, Cruz recounted a meeting with local Border Patrol leadership. “We asked what have you done to comply with the order? They said, ‘nothing.’ They said they were instructed to do nothing. Their political leadership instructed them to do nothing.”

Whether, and at what scale, Remain in Mexico might restart depends on the government of Mexico, which would once again have to agree to receive a large population of non-Mexican citizens. Two Mexican officials interviewed by the Washington Post signaled willingness to cooperate with the U.S. government on managing migration and the border, including “technical talks” about a Remain in Mexico restart. However, these officials noted that “their capacity to take back more U.S. asylum seekers and migrants remains limited… and they regard other enforcement tools and policies to be more effective.”

The López Obrador government’s first ambassador to the United States, Martha Bárcena—who retired earlier this year—speculated that a revived Remain in Mexico would be smaller. “Mexico does not have the resources to take in asylum seekers on an indefinite basis, as it did last time,” she told the Post, adding, “the lesson from the last time was that the U.S. doesn’t keep its promise to rapidly process their cases.”

Though he “has not engaged in any conversations with Mexican counterparts on the topic,” Sen. Cruz called on the Biden administration to bully Mexico into agreeing to a robust restart of Remain in Mexico. “In particular, President Trump threatened to impose 25 percent tariffs, which would have a massive economic impact on Mexico. That threat got their attention. Absent that threat, there’s no way they would have agreed to it.”

Between February and the Supreme Court’s upholding of Judge Kacsmaryk’s decision, the Biden administration worked with UNHCR to parole into the United States 13,256 migrants with pending asylum applications who had been forced to remain in Mexico, the Arizona Republic reported. Another 3,500 migrants had registered with UNHCR, 2,000 of whom were still having their eligibility verified and 1,500 of whom were approved and awaiting their dates to enter the United States. Because of the courts’ decision, these 3,500 people must now remain in Mexico.

In California, the local ACLU filed to revive a January 2020 preliminary injunction that had required guaranteed access to counsel for migrants subject to Remain in Mexico in immigration courts within the jurisdiction of the federal courts’ Ninth Circuit (California and Arizona). The courts had vacated this injunction in June, when the Biden administration had formally ended Remain in Mexico.

“Of all the draconian measures instituted by former President Donald Trump, this was among the worst—right up there with separating kids from their parents,” reads a strong editorial in the San Antonio Express-News. “Immigration advocates are urging the administration to appeal the ruling, but since the high court deemed the suspension of the policy ‘capricious,’ the Department of Homeland Security may be able to solve the problem by fashioning a clearer statement about its intentions.”

A troubling report documents CBP abuses in Arizona

A report from two Catholic human rights advocacy groups details 35 troubling cases indicating “a pattern of abuse by Customs and Border Protection (CBP)” in the Arizona section of the U.S.-Mexico border. Due Process Denied, produced by the Washington-based NETWORK and the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Arizona-Sonora (KBI, recipient of WOLA’s 2017 human rights award), finds a “systemic culture of abuse of migrants.”

KBI operates a shelter and kitchen in Nogales, Mexico near Arizona’s busiest border crossing, about an hour and a half south of Tucson. Many of the migrants in their care have just been released from CBP’s custody, or otherwise interacted with the U.S. border agency after being deported, expelled under the Title 42 pandemic measure, forced to “remain in Mexico,” or prevented from asking for asylum at a port of entry.

When these migrants describe suffering abuse at the hands of U.S. personnel, KBI documents it, and often files complaints with CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility or DHS’s office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. KBI stands out among border groups for the extent and detail of its abuse documentation.

The Due Process Denied report highlights 35 cases in Nogales from October 2020 to mid-August 2021. “The abuses range from migrants being denied due process, such as not given an opportunity to seek asylum or destruction of documentation, to outright physical violence.” NETWORK and KBI divide them into five categories: “1. Immigrant claims of credible fear dismissed; 2. Immigrants being forced to sign documentation and then expelled; 3. Theft of documentation; 4. Medical negligence; and 5. Physical abuse.”

For the most part, the 35 incidents the report documents are not spectacular, headline-grabbing events like shootings or severe beatings. Instead, they point to an insidious pattern of “everyday” abuse that, because it is so frequent, appears to be embedded into the agency’s culture.

A few examples from the report:

  • “A Salvadoran woman, her 10-year-old daughter, 1-year-old son, brother, cousin, and cousin’s daughter, entered the United States on April 17, 2021. They saw a Border Patrol truck arriving and waited for it to arrive so they could ask for asylum. The Border Patrol agent who got out of the truck was enraged. He pulled a gun on the mother and family. He berated them, calling them ‘damned criminals,’ ‘rats,’ ‘terrorists,’ and ‘criminals,’ as they cried and asked for asylum.”
  • “At the Tucson border facility, the [Guatemalan] woman approached an agent asking how they should apply for asylum and informing him that her son has a medical condition and needs medical care. She showed him the documents (a diagnosis, x-rays, etc.) to prove that her son was in need and that he needed surgery within the next two months. The agent took the documents and threw them in the thrash. When she went to retrieve them from the trash, he took them again and told her ‘they belong in the trash.’”
  • “Everyone was asked to walk across the border to Mexico. He [a Guatemalan man] asked the agents why he was being sent to Mexico when he was Guatemalan. An agent hit him with a baton on the knee and threatened to hit him on the head.”
  • “At the Tucson facility, she [a Guatemalan woman] told an agent she was afraid to return to Guatemala and she tried to show documentation of violence, the death certificates of her family members killed by organized crime. The CBP agent told her that her documents were likely fake because she comes from a ‘corrupt’ country.”
  • “The border patrol agents who arrested them were driving a four-wheeler. They drove really fast, right towards the immigrants. The immigrants had to jump out of the way to avoid being run over.”

Though KBI is meticulous about documenting testimonies and filing complaints, the organization sees almost no evidence that CBP and DHS internal affairs or disciplinary mechanisms are functioning. Impunity for these “everyday” abuses is near total:

“Of the thirty-five complaints in this report, none of them resulted in a response to KBI or the complainant about disciplinary action taken against the perpetrators of these abuses. This means agents who attack migrants may still be on the job, repeating these same violations.

Links

  • San Diego-based 9th Circuit Judge Cynthia Bashant ruled September 2 that CBP’s practice of “metering” is unconstitutional. The term refers to posting officers on the borderline to turn back asylum seekers and limit the daily number who may approach a port of entry. The ruling against metering is the result of a suit brought four years ago by Al Otro Lado, a San Diego and Tijuana-based legal services organization (for which WOLA is among several groups that provided declarations). The decision came despite Biden Justice Department lawyers arguing for the ability to keep metering as a policy option, even as they said that the administration was reviewing its use. “The judge said she would issue her decision and then ask for more briefings on how to move forward based on that decision,” the San Diego Union-Tribune had reported. It’s not clear what will change right away, since the Title 42 pandemic policy continues to expel a large number of asylum seekers.
  • Claudia Marcela Peña, a mother from Boyacá, Colombia, flew to Mexico with her two children in late August with the intent of crossing the border to reunite with her husband in the United States. Their smuggler apparently abandoned them in Arizona. Ms. Peña and her oldest child died, most likely of heat exposure. Only her two-year-old child was alive when border agents found them.
  • As growing numbers of Brazilian citizens have been flying to Mexico then being apprehended by Border Patrol, Mexico has started denying entry at its airports to Brazilians whose passports lack a U.S. tourist visa, even when the Brazilians intend to visit Mexico. Researcher Charles Pontes Gomes reports that this is happening about 600 times per month on average.
  • Texas’s state legislature approved $1.8 billion in new spending for National Guard troops, construction of fencing, and stepped-up arrests and imprisonment of undocumented migrants charged with trespassing. “The money is in addition to the $1 billion for border security initiatives approved by lawmakers during this year’s regular legislative session and $250 million in state funding Abbott used to kick-start construction of his border barrier,” reported the Austin American-Statesman. Taken together, that’s about $105 from each of the 29.2 million people residing in Texas. Some Democratic state legislators from south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region voted for the money, which funds projects started by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. “I have talked to many of my constituents in Cameron and Hidalgo County… and I can tell you the vast majority of those people want border security and want the wall, believe it or not,” Brownsville State Sen. Eddie Lucio (D) told the Texas Tribune.
  • 344 organizations, including WOLA, signed a letter to President Biden and other top officials calling for a halt to deportation flights to Haiti, which since July has endured a presidential assassination, an earthquake, and a tropical storm. In the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, the Defense Ministry reported apprehending and deporting 178,000 Haitian citizens in the past 12 months.
  • During a visit to Mexico, UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, Gillian Triggs, voiced concern about three U.S. policies: Title 42 expulsions, flights expelling non-Mexicans to southern Mexico, and the court-ordered revival of Remain in Mexico, a program she called “a threat to the asylum system.”

Weekly Border Update: August 27, 2021

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

Supreme Court fails to block judge’s demand to reinstate “Remain in Mexico”

A Supreme Court decision issued the evening of August 24 leaves in effect a district court order for the Biden administration to reinstate the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), or “Remain in Mexico,” program. Between its December 2018 inception and January 2021, whenever asylum seekers from several Spanish or Portuguese-speaking countries arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, this program forced them to spend months or years in Mexican border towns—with no guarantees of housing, sustenance, or security—to await their hearings in U.S. immigration courts. (Read WOLA’s statement warning of this potential “return to an inhumane and unlawful policy.”)

Remain in Mexico forced 71,038 asylum seekers back across the border. Mexico’s government, under intense pressure from the Trump administration, went along with the program, including a sharp mid-2019 expansion.

Remain in Mexico spurred the creation of unsanitary and unsafe encampments in Mexican border cities. Human Rights First documented at least 1,544 cases of rape, kidnapping, torture, and other crimes against those subject to the program inside Mexico. If their cases even reached U.S. immigration court, difficult access to counsel and rushed, often virtual procedures made asylum all but impossible to obtain. Of the more than 15,000 closed cases for which asylum seekers attended all their hearings while remaining in Mexico, only 720—4.7 percent—were granted any form of relief from deportation.

“Donald Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy is dangerous, inhumane, and goes against everything we stand for as a nation of immigrants,” then-candidate Joe Biden tweeted in March 2020. “My administration will end it.” The Biden administration suspended Remain in Mexico with an order on January 20, 2021, and then formally terminated it on June 1. Now, though, federal courts are ordering “a good-faith effort” to restart the controversial program, at least while appeals proceed.

The action stems from a lawsuit filed by the Republican attorneys-general of Texas and Missouri, who alleged that the Biden administration failed to “consider all relevant factors” in terminating Remain in Mexico. They link the program’s end to an increase in migration this year, which they claim has increased financial costs for both states.

On August 13, Amarillo, Texas District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk agreed with the attorneys-general and ordered the Biden administration to restart Remain in Mexico, giving it a week to do so. Kacsmaryk is a Trump appointee. (Ian Milhiser reports at Vox that “Before Trump made Kacsmaryk a judge, Kacsmaryk worked at a religious-right law firm. He’s previously written that being transgender is a ‘mental disorder’ and that gay people are ‘disordered.’”)

His opinion claimed that a 1996 immigration law only gives “the government two options vis-à-vis aliens seeking asylum: (1) mandatory detention; or (2) return to a contiguous territory.” This is flatly incorrect: immigration law offers federal officials other options including parole, release on bond, and alternatives to detention.

Kacsmaryk, Milhiser observes, also effectively claimed that the 1996 law “required the federal government to implement the Remain in Mexico policy permanently. That policy didn’t even exist until 2019, so the upshot of Kacsmaryk’s opinion is that the government violated the law for nearly a quarter-century and no one noticed.”

The Department of Justice (DOJ) asked for a stay of Kacsmaryk’s decision while appeals proceed. A panel of three Trump-appointed judges from the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit denied that request on August 19. DOJ then went to the Supreme Court, which suspended the Remain in Mexico reinstatement until August 24.

That evening, with its three liberal-leaning judges dissenting, the Supreme Court refused to suspend Kacsmaryk’s decision while litigation continues. (While it didn’t offer a reason for its refusal, the Court cited a 5-4 decision in 2020 that blocked then-president Donald Trump’s repeal of the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) program.) Remain in Mexico—or, at least, good-faith efforts to reinstate it—have thus officially gone back into effect as of 12:01 a.m. August 25.

After suspending it, the Biden administration had endeavored to admit many of those subject to the program into the United States to await their immigration court proceedings. About 13,000 of the 71,000 Remain in Mexico victims entered through a process managed with cooperation from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)  and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). That process has now been suspended—those awaiting their turn to enter the United States must now stay in Mexico—and the website for new registrations has been shut down.

What happens now isn’t entirely clear. The district court’s ruling requires the Biden administration to make a “good faith effort” to restart Remain in Mexico, but neither it nor the Supreme Court define what that means. While expressing “respectful disagreement” with the courts’ decisions and pressing its appeals, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stated that it “will comply with the order in good faith,” adding that it “has begun to engage with the Government of Mexico in diplomatic discussions.” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki reiterated that on August 25.

While the administration “vigorously” pursues its appeals, one possible next step would be for DHS to “re-terminate” the program with a fuller explanation of the reasoning behind its decision to do so. That is a step that the ACLU recommends. “In theory, that’s a solvable problem,” Milhiser writes. “Except that the Supreme Court does not even offer a hint as to why it deemed the Biden administration’s original explanation insufficient.”

There is also concern that the administration might seek to create a “lite” version of Remain in Mexico. The administration “could reimplement it on a very small scale for families who meet certain criteria from very specific nationalities,” Jessica Bolter of the Migration Policy Institute suggested to the Associated Press. “Shockingly,” reads a statement from Human Rights First, “the administration is reportedly considering launching a ‘gentler’ version of the inherently unfixable policy—an exercise doomed to fail given the policy’s illegality and pervasive violence against asylum seekers in Mexico.”

Even that, though, depends on concurrence from the government of Mexico, which must consent to the possible introduction of tens of thousands more non-Mexican asylum-seekers on its soil. Remain in Mexico would not begin again if Mexico were to say “no.” An August 23 letter to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador from more than 74 international NGOs, including WOLA, calls on him to do just that. “As a sovereign nation, Mexico has the right to reject the reinstatement of MPP or any future iteration of this policy that aims to externalize the U.S. border into Mexican territory. It is impossible to re-implement MPP in a way that upholds human rights and due process, and Mexico has the responsibility to block this detrimental policy.”

So far, Mexico hasn’t clearly indicated how it will respond. Roberto Velasco, the director for North American affairs in Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department, made clear that the U.S. courts’ rulings don’t compel Mexico to do anything. He added, though, that “the Mexican government will start technical discussions with the U.S. government to evaluate how to handle safe, orderly and regulated immigration on the border.” At his morning press conference on August 26, President López Obrador said Mexico wants to “help,” but sought to shift the conversation to efforts to address the economic causes of Central American migration. The president rejected as “conservative” those who argue that such “root-causes” strategies are long-term in nature, and don’t address the present suffering of migrants stranded in Mexico’s border cities.

Title 42 expulsions continue, including flights to southern Mexico

Regardless of next steps for Remain in Mexico, we should recall that the Trump administration did not employ the program heavily after March 2020, when pandemic border restrictions went into effect. Of the 71,000 people enrolled in the program, only 6,153 were added between April 2020 and January 2021.

That is mainly because after March 2020, the Trump and Biden administrations had a new way to expel non-Mexican migrants into Mexico. Since COVID-19 pandemic border restrictions began, authorities have employed a public health provision called “Title 42” to expel migrants rapidly, usually without an opportunity to ask for asylum or protection in the United States. Mexico takes back its own citizens and citizens of other countries with some migratory status inside Mexico, and agreed in March 2020 to accept expelled citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Between March 2020 and July 2021, U.S. authorities have used Title 42 to expel migrants at the southern border 1,069,777 times. 431,662 of those times, the expelled migrants were not Mexican. (Several thousand of this number were expelled by air to their home countries, not by land into Mexico.) These numbers dwarf the 71,000 who were subjected to Remain in Mexico.

With Title 42 allowing it to expel them into Mexico, the Trump administration almost completely stopped applying “Remain in Mexico” to Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans. The 6,153 people enrolled in the program during the Trump administration’s last 10 months were almost entirely citizens of 6 Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries to which expulsions are difficult: Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

Even as it ended Remain in Mexico, the Biden administration has energetically continued to expel people under Title 42: 610,208 expulsions, including 76,384 parents and children, between February and July. Because it is hard to expel them, though, the Biden administration has processed into the United States many citizens of the six countries that were subject to Remain in Mexico during the Trump administration’s pandemic tenure.

A two-tier system has resulted. Between February and July:

  • Citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were expelled, under Title 42, 54 percent of the time. If traveling as families, they were expelled 34 percent of the time.
  • Citizens of Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela were expelled 22 percent of the time. If traveling as families, they were expelled 4 percent of the time.

Citizens of most of these six countries have been arriving in greater numbers since February. By July, increases in citizens of Ecuador and Nicaragua had pushed El Salvador into sixth place among arriving migrants. This was quite possibly the first time El Salvador has ranked so low, even though arrivals of its citizens did increase from June to July.

Each column ranks all countries that had at least 100 migrants encountered by CBP at the U.S.-Mexico border in at least one of the last two months. Red arrows indicate decreases in the number of encounters; grey arrows represent increases.

If Remain in Mexico is reinstated, citizens of the six countries might find themselves pushed back into Mexican border towns again. However,  they would at least have hearing dates in U.S. immigration courts, while Title 42 persists they would still be better off than the Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans being expelled without even a chance to ask for asylum.

On August 25 Human Rights First published a major update of its running series of reports documenting abuses committed against migrants after their expulsion into Mexican border towns. By gathering information from interviews and local organizations’ surveys and databases, the group has now “tracked at least 6,356 kidnappings, sexual assaults, and other violent attacks against people blocked at ports of entry or expelled to Mexico”—just in the months since President Biden took office. Of migrants participating in the surveys who identified as LGBTQ, a stunning 89 percent reported suffering recent attacks or threats while in northern Mexico.

Two encampments made up of expelled or blocked migrants continue to grow. One is in a public square near the border crossing in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, a city plagued by violence. Recent press estimates of the population subsisting there range from “more than 2,000” to “at least 2,500” to “over 5,000.” A similarly sized encampment sits outside the Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana.

The New York Times describes the Reynosa camp as “filthy and foul-smelling, lacking the health and sanitation infrastructure that nonprofit groups had spent months installing” in an earlier, now-demolished camp for Remain in Mexico victims in the nearby border city of Matamoros. “Assaults and kidnappings for ransom are commonplace.” Several people interviewed there “said that they had tried to make a case for asylum to U.S. Border Patrol agents, but that the agents would not listen. They were told, they said, to just answer questions and follow directions,” and were bused back to Mexico.

Several non-governmental groups are seeking to raise money for a facility to shelter roughly 400 COVID-positive migrants so that they might at least be able to leave the camp while they recover. Meanwhile, Reynosa’s municipal government—which recently sought to close down the city’s largest church-run migrant shelter—ordered the confiscation of gas cylinders that migrants in the camp were using to cook food, citing safety concerns. The migrants now depend more heavily on charitable food donations.

The U.S. government is offering no support. To the contrary: unnamed sources told Reuters that U.S. officials are urging Mexico to clear the encampments, “in part because the sheer volume of people in them could jeopardize security if they made a sudden rush for the border.”

In some cases, the U.S. government is seeking to move migrants even further from the border: since sometime in early August, DHS began expelling some Central American migrants via aircraft to two cities in southern Mexico—Tapachula, Chiapas, and Villahermosa, Tabasco—a relatively short drive from the Guatemalan border. From those cities’ airports, Mexican authorities have been busing migrants to border crossings and escorting them into Guatemala. The migrants are given no opportunity to ask for asylum in either country.

Guatemala has voiced particular concern about expulsions into the tiny border town of El Ceibo, in the country’s remote, sparsely populated, and organized crime-influenced northern department of Petén, which borders Tabasco, Mexico. Guatemala only authorizes, and has facilities to handle, deportees at one border crossing site hundreds of miles away, in the Pacific-zone border town of Tecún Umán. Very few services exist in El Ceibo, where Guatemala’s Migration Institute (IGM) on August 24 estimated that Mexico had dropped off 500 Central American migrants in the previous 3 days.

August migration may be declining somewhat

In July 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported taking 154,288 migrants into custody at the U.S.-Mexico border through 212,672 separate “encounters,” a term that includes many repeat crossings. This was the largest number all year, and one of the largest monthly totals in this century.

Some indicators, however, point to at least a modestly lighter flow of migrant arrivals in August. Daily reports (available here as a 12MB zipfile) show a decline over the month of August in arrivals of unaccompanied migrant children at the border, after a sharp increase in July. During the last two weeks of July, an average of more than 500 children per day were entering CBP custody at the border, and more than 600 per day the first week of August. This has dropped to 424 per day during the week of August 15 and 469 per day so far this week.

In Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, the sector that receives by far the largest number of migrants, especially children and families from Central America, numbers also appear to be dropping. myRGV.com reports:

Assistant City Manager Jeff Johnston reported that the numbers were down significantly last week.

“Back on Aug. 9, we reported an all-time high of 11,026 immigrants dropped off by Customs and Border Protection that week here in McAllen. That was an average of about 1,575 per day,” Johnston told city commissioners during Monday’s meeting. “This last week, our numbers were down quite a bit from that, in fact down by over 40%. We had 6,320 drop-offs this last week for an average of about 900 per day.”

COVID-19 positivity rates among asylum seekers in the Rio Grande Valley were also down “from about 15 percent two weeks ago to approximately 12 percent this week.”

Links

  • During Fiscal Year 2021 so far (October through July), Border Patrol has found the remains of 383 migrants on U.S. soil near the U.S.-Mexico border, the New York Times reports. Most died of dehydration, exposure, or drowning. That is more remains than Border Patrol has found in any full year since 2013 (451); with two months to go, 2021 is already the sixth-worst year since 1998, when Border Patrol’s records begin. CBP reports finding more than 100 remains of migrants just in the Rio Grande Valley sector, “on rugged ranch lands in south Texas,” adding, “Last week alone, 10 decedents were discovered on the ranch lands. This month, more than 20 people have lost their lives during smuggling attempts.”
  • Mexican officials assert that seven out of every ten Ecuadorians traveling to Mexico in recent months have ended up apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol near the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexico is tightening visa requirements for Ecuador’s citizens, after easing them in 2018.
  • Because it wants cooperation on limiting migration, the Biden administration has not been following up officials’ tough anti-corruption talk with action against Central American government officials, a New York Times analysis asserts. The piece leads with the scoop that shortly before being fired and forced into exile, Guatemala’s top anti-corruption prosecutor had a witness tell him of going to President Alejandro Giammattei’s home and delivering “a rolled-up carpet stuffed with cash.”
  • As environmental advocates had warned would happen, monsoon rains in Arizona’s desert caused flash flooding that blew recently built border wall segments’ gates right off of their hinges.
  • Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) has now sent about 1,000 National Guardsmen to the border with Mexico, with more than 60 of them tasked with building “temporary barriers in key areas.” These state-funded troops are in addition to about 3,800 soldiers and guardsmen whom the Trump administration sent to the border to support CBP, a deployment that the Biden administration has continued. Abbott’s move has pulled National Guard personnel away from the role they were playing in manning El Paso’s only food bank during the pandemic, forcing it to close most of its locations, at least temporarily. The governor has charged police and guardsmen with arresting undocumented migrants near the border on state charges, nearly always trespassing. As of August 25 Texas was holding 486 migrants in a prison in the town of Dilley, and is considering using a second facility in Edinburg, in the Rio Grande Valley. By a 14-8 vote, the Texas House’s Appropriations Committee approved $2 billion on August 24 to pay for Abbott’s crackdown.
  • “Most public-health experts say it isn’t likely that migrants are contributing significantly to [COVID-19] transmissions within the U.S., since nearly all are tested and quarantined before release, and because the Delta variant is already widespread,” reads a Wall Street Journal analysis. “Think about an entire city on fire and I was to walk in and drop a match,” said one epidemiologist.
  • Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and other voices on the U.S. right are alleging that the rapid Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, which included a mass prison release, may lead to terrorists seeking to enter the United States via the border with Mexico.
  • Large numbers of Haitian migrants are stuck in Mexico’s border zone near Guatemala, where they must await decisions from Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, on their asylum cases. They are urging COMAR to adjudicate more quickly. Activists tell Chiapas Paralelo that their numbers in the border zone could be as high as 30,000, with another 15,000 en route, currently in Colombia and Panama. (The actual number may be smaller.)
  • Intense fighting between the Jalisco cartel and local organized-crime groups, with almost no government intervention, has displaced thousands from the town of Aguililla, in Mexico’s Pacific state of Michoacán. Many families are trying to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, Vice reports.
  • August 24 marked the 11th anniversary of an infamous massacre of 72 migrants from at least 6 countries in San Fernando, near the Texas border in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Nobody has ever been sentenced for the crime.

Weekly Border Update: August 6, 2021

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

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

Preliminary data point to 210,000 migrant encounters in July

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

Some highlights:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northbound migration becomes more visible in Colombia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 developments last week affecting asylum seekers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links

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

Weekly Border Update: July 30, 2021

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

July migration appears to be exceeding June

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Title 42 is not being lifted for families

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Texas governor’s crackdown threatens to snare humanitarian workers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links

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

Weekly Border Update: July 23, 2021

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

Key trends from June migration data

On July 16, just after we posted last week’s update, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) published statistics detailing its encounters with migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border during the month of June 2021. The agency reported a 4.5 percent increase in migrant “encounters” from May to June. As we noted last week, this is only the third time this century that migration in the scorching-hot month of June has increased over May.

In all, 188,829 migrants were “encountered” in June: 10,413 at the official land ports of entry, and 178,416 between the ports of entry where Border Patrol operates. This would appear to be the fifth-largest monthly total this century, and the most since 2000.

However, pandemic border measures in effect since the Trump administration have complicated comparisons. The “Title 42” policy, under which most undocumented migrants are swiftly expelled, usually into Mexico (104,907 times in June), has greatly eased repeat attempts to cross the border, so there is a lot of double, triple, and quadruple-counting. “Being expelled carries no legal consequences, so many people try to cross multiple times,” the Associated Press explains.

A large number of “encountered” migrants—34 percent of them in June—are so-called “recidivists”: individuals whom CBP has already encountered in fiscal 2021. (This is a very high recidivism rate: according to CBP’s 2022 budget request, this rate was 12 percent in 2016, 11 percent in 2017 and 2018, 7 percent in 2019, then jumped to 26 percent in 2020.)

With so many repeat crossers, the actual number of people crossing the border is far smaller—in fact, much smaller than we had expected. CBP’s release accompanying the June migration numbers explains, “The number of unique new encounters in June 2021 was 123,838. [That is far less than 188,829.] The number of unique individuals encountered to date during the fiscal year is 454,944 compared to 489,760 during the same time period in 2019.”

If that last sentence is truly accurate, then the number of individual migrants so far this year is less than half the number of encounters (1,119,204), and fewer than it was at this point in 2019. Here is that remarkable data point expressed as a graphic:

When Border Patrol encountered migrants between the ports of entry, it used Title 42 authority to expel them 58 percent of the time, the lowest percentage since the pandemic measures went into place.

When those migrants were single adults, Title 42 expulsions happened 84 percent of the time, down from over 90 percent during the Trump years. As most “recidivist” border crossers are single adults, this population has grown nearly fivefold since Title 42 went into place. June 2021 was, however, the first time since the pandemic began that the monthly number of single adult encounters declined.

After two months of declines in April and May, the number of encounters with families and unaccompanied children increased in June, though not to the high levels experienced in March. The Biden administration is not expelling children who arrive unaccompanied, and has gradually reduced expulsions of the number of family members: 16 percent of encountered family members were expelled in June, down from 40 percent in March.

Some of the reduction in expulsions may have to do with migrants’ unusual nationalities. Recent months have seen notable increases in migrants from neither Mexico nor the Northern Triangle: 26 percent of all Border Patrol encounters in June, and 44 percent of encounters with families, were with citizens of these “other” countries. For the second straight month, Ecuador was the number-four country of origin of migrants encountered at the border, edging out El Salvador. Migration from Nicaragua and Haiti continued to increase rapidly in June, while Mexico declined.

Migrants continued to arrive in greater numbers in unusual, remote sectors of the U.S.-Mexico border. Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, a very rural area that is roughly the geographic center of Texas’s border with Mexico, was the June destination for more than half of Cubans, more than two-thirds of Haitians, about a fifth of Hondurans, and two-thirds of Venezuelans. The Yuma sector, in southwest Arizona, was the June destination of three in five Brazilians and a third of Cubans.

In these remote sectors and elsewhere, Border Patrol continued to report encountering large groups of migrants during the past week. About 300-400 migrants, mostly Haitian citizens, arrived at a gate in the border wall near Del Rio, Texas on July 19. These are not people fleeing Haiti after the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse: sources tell us that most are Haitians who emigrated some time ago to South America, where the pandemic has caused employment opportunities to dry up.

Unaccompanied child arrivals are increasing again

CBP’s June data showed an 8 percent increase in arrivals of unaccompanied migrant children at the border from May to June, from 13,892 to 15,018—which is still significantly less than the 18,723 kids encountered in March. But the upward trend of unaccompanied child encounters is continuing—and perhaps accelerating—into July.

The “Unaccompanied Children Daily Reports” produced each weekday by CBP and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) showed an average of 480 children newly arriving each day during the week of July 11, the highest weekly average since the week of April 18. The first four weekdays of this week (of July 18) have averaged 552 new children per day, which if sustained would be the largest weekly average since late March, when CBP and HHS began furnishing daily records.

Once in CBP custody, the children are processed and handed over as quickly as possible to the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement, which manages a shelter network around the country that is currently augmented with some rustic emergency facilities. As of June 30, CBP reports, children were being handed off to HHS within 28 hours. Once in HHS shelters, children are to be placed with relatives or other sponsors residing in the United States, with whom they will stay while their asylum or protection cases are adjudicated.

HHS has had difficulty in 2021 discharging children fast enough to keep up with arrivals of new children. As of July 21, 14,278 children were in its shelter network, nearly identical to the 14,661 in HHS custody on June 21. The agency has not been able to increase the pace of its discharges since late May.

As a result, comparing weekly averages using available CBP and HHS reports, it appears that, since the week of July 11, the population of children in U.S. government custody has begun to grow again, after 11 weeks of consecutive decreases.

Pandemic border controls remain in place

July 21 was the latest monthly deadline for the Department of Homeland Security to decide whether to extend restrictions on “non-essential” travel at the United States’ land borders with Mexico and Canada. That day, a Federal Register notice informed that U.S. ports of entry will remain closed to most travel and traffic for a 17th straight month, through August 21. U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents will be able to enter the United States from Mexico, but Mexican citizens—including those with tourist visas—remain prohibited (unless they arrive via air).

The decision comes despite frequent negotiations between the U.S. and neighboring governments, and pleas from border-area political leaders. It is based largely on concerns about spread of the COVID-19 delta variant, which has caused a sharp increase in U.S. coronavirus cases, mainly among the unvaccinated population. “Officials on both sides have talked about the importance of bringing vaccination rates into parity,” the El Paso Times reported. According to Border Report, “The U.S. is reportedly demanding at least a 75-percent vaccination rate in Mexican border cities such as Tijuana. There are also reports the U.S. will not allow people from Mexico who have been vaccinated with the Chinese or Russian versions of the vaccine.”

Media reporting, noted in earlier updates, had indicated that the Biden administration might begin lifting some Title 42 restrictions, perhaps ending expulsions of asylum-seeking families, by the end of July. This is not happening: due to concerns about COVID-19 variants, plans to end expulsions are “in flux.” Although the administration faces ACLU-led litigation to halt expulsions of asylum-seeking families, and although the UNHCR has publicly criticized the practice, and despite a July 21 Capitol press event at which Democratic House members called for its end, Title 42 will remain in place, even for families.

DHS remains uncommunicative about plans for the future of the expulsions policy. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who represents a Texas border district, told the New York Times that “he had called the C.D.C. [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] about it, and the agency told him he should call the Department of Homeland Security, which then sent him back to the C.D.C. He said he recently spoke with agents on the border, and they said they still had not heard anything about when the rule will be lifted.”

Some political speculation contends that the Biden administration, despite strong denials insisting that Title 42 is a public health measure, is maintaining the policy in order to avert the political fallout of an even greater increase in migration. An unnamed “former U.S. official who worked on Biden’s transition team” told the Washington Post that President Joe Biden himself is “‘super concerned’ about the political ramifications of the tumult at the border. ‘He knows the damage this can do and what a gift this is to Republicans.’”

Texas is now arresting migrants on its own

In Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has declared a state of emergency citing increased migrant arrivals, state law enforcement agencies have begun arresting migrants. While state police cannot enforce federal immigration law, Texas’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) and some county sheriff’s offices have started to arrest and jail migrants on charges of “trespassing” or “criminal mischief,” misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in prison in Texas.

In Val Verde County, the border county that includes Del Rio, police arrested three migrants for trespassing on July 20. They were sent to the Briscoe Unit state jail in Dilley, a town between San Antonio and Laredo where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) established a family detention facility during the Obama administration. “The number of detainees is expected to grow rapidly,” the Texas Tribune reports. “The Val Verde county attorney predicted about 50 arrests of immigrants a day, ramping up to as many as 200 daily by August.”

The use of trespassing charges is complicated, the Wall Street Journal explains: “District attorneys and county lawyers in border counties said trespass arrests must be based on complaints from landowners and must be arraigned by local judges and justices of the peace, who typically release the arrestee on a personal-recognizance bond.” Nonetheless, Texas has set up a tent facility at the Val Verde county fairgrounds, where officials plan to process the migrants whom they arrest. Val Verde County Attorney David Martínez told the Texas Tribune that he would seek a “time served” sentence for most of those arrested, probably after each spends about 10 days in the Dilley jail awaiting trial.

Migrants would then be handed off to ICE, which would deport or expel them. It is not clear whether this process would afford arrested migrants any opportunity to ask for asylum or protection in the United States.

Texas counties that see large amounts of migration, like El Paso and those in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region, are not participating in Gov. Abbott’s emergency plan. Local leaders say that they have seen similar recent increases in migration, for instance in 2014, 2018, and 2019, and that they do not regard the current increase to be an emergency.

Nonetheless, Gov. Abbott has sent about 1,000 Texas DPS personnel—about a quarter of all state police—to the border. He has also ordered construction of a state “border wall.” Fox News reported on the first 1.5 mile stretch of “wall,” built near the Rio Grande in Del Rio; it is an eight-foot chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.

“Unless this chain link fence is built exactly along the US-Mexico boundary, it is highly likely that it stands feet, yards or even miles away from the border,” tweeted Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who represents El Paso. “If that’s the case then migrants arriving at the fence are already on American soil and have the right to request asylum.”

Links

  • Federal district court judge Andrew Hanen ruled that then-president Barack Obama exceeded his authority with a 2012 executive action that created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA halts deportation and provides work authorization for undocumented young people who were brought to the United States as children. The decision by Hanen, a George W. Bush appointee, does not change the status of 800,000 current DACA beneficiaries, pending the Biden administration’s appeals to higher courts—for now at least—but it halts all new DACA applications. It is the outcome of a lawsuit brought by Texas’s Republican Attorney-General. “Unless Congress steps in with a legislative remedy, the ultimate legality of DACA is almost certain to be decided by the Supreme Court,” according to the New York Times.
  • The mayor of border town Reynosa, in Mexico’s Tamaulipas state, has given the town’s largest migrant shelter, the evangelical-run Senda de Vida, until the weekend of July 24 to shut down. The municipal government says it is complying with an order from the binational International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), which has found that the shelter, after 14 years of existence, is built too close to the Rio Grande. The immediate deadline for the shelter’s demolition comes from the mayor’s office. If it is met, the fate of 600 migrants—most of them expelled by Title 42—is far from clear.
  • “We identified one case in which the medical unit examined a sick detainee but did not send the detainee to the hospital for urgent medical treatment, and the detainee died,” reads an alarming DHS Inspector-General report about an unannounced inspection visit to ICE’s Adams detention facility in Natchez, Mississippi.
  • Maritime migration from Cuba mysteriously stopped after the historic protests that began on the island on July 11, Coast Guard and other federal sources tell the Miami Herald.
  • Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is holding up the confirmation hearing for Chris Magnus, the Biden administration’s nominee to be CBP commissioner. Wyden is demanding that DHS first provide detailed information about the Trump administration’s controversial deployment of border and other federal personnel to Portland, Oregon to put down protests in mid-2020.
  • The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its contractors began “remediation” or cleanup work at Trump-era border wall construction sites in Arizona. This work did not involve the addition of any new fencing. Workers “would instead focus on activities such as filling open trenches, cleaning up debris, grading unfinished maintenance roads and cutting and capping conduit,” the Arizona Republic reported.
  • A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that ICE “arrested 674, detained 121, and removed 70 potential U.S. citizens from fiscal year 2015 through the second quarter of fiscal year 2020.”
  • Long read: Bloomberg’s Simon Van Zuylen-Wood meets Tommy Fisher, the North Dakota-based builder whose company received several of the Trump administration’s border wall construction contracts. Fisher spent $30 million building a private 3-mile stretch of fencing on the bank of the Rio Grande in south Texas, hoping to sell it to a federal government that, since Joe Biden’s inauguration, is not interested in buying it.
  • Long read: “Migration—including the record number of unaccompanied children—is on the rise in rural areas, as an increasing portion of the country’s land and population faces the fallout from climate change,” reports Sabrina Rodríguez from Guatemala in Politico.
  • President Biden at a July 21 CNN “Town Hall” meeting, apparently conflating asylum with refugee admissions: “What we’re trying to set up is, in the countries like in—and particularly in the Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, et cetera—we are setting up in those countries: If you seek asylum in the United States, you can seek it from the country, from your—in place. You can seek it from an American embassy. You can go in and seek and see whether or not you qualify. We’ve significantly increased the number of officers who can hear cases as to whether or not you qualify under the law for being here as a refugee.”

Weekly Border Update: July 16, 2021

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

In U.S. borderlands, 2021 may be the most lethal year for migrants in nearly a decade

A San Antonio television station obtained from Border Patrol the agency’s most recent count of migrant remains encountered on U.S. soil. Since 1998, Border Patrol has found the bodies of 8,258 individuals who perished of dehydration, exposure, drownings, animal attacks, and other causes while traveling through wilderness areas in an effort to avoid being apprehended. It is an enormous death toll for a phenomenon that receives such scarce attention.

So far in fiscal year 2021 (October 2020 through May 2021), Border Patrol reported finding 203 bodies. This is quite high given that the hottest and deadliest months of the year—June through September—remain to be counted, and that the U.S. southwest has been recording higher-than-normal temperatures. By the time fiscal 2021 ends, on September 30, this could end up being the deadliest year in Border Patrol’s data since at least 2013.

Since 1998, the sectors where Border Patrol has found the most remains have shifted geographically, from California to Arizona to southeast Texas, and now, increasingly, to south-central Texas. So far this year, Border Patrol has found the most bodies in its Del Rio sector, a vast unpopulated region between Big Bend National Park and Laredo. Border Patrol’s record for migrant apprehensions in Del Rio is 157,178, set in 2000. With four months left to report for fiscal 2021, the agency has already apprehended 118,314, including more than 20,000 each in March, April, and May. Many are from “unusual” countries like Venezuela, Haiti, Ecuador, and Cuba.

Border Patrol is the only entity keeping a national count of migrant deaths, but it “only counts those it handles in the course of its work,” the Guardian explains. Local organizations tend to find much larger numbers of dead in their home regions.

The Arizona-based group Humane Borders, mapping data from the Pima County medical examiner’s office, reported 43 bodies found in the state’s deserts in June. Not all necessarily died in June, “but at least 16 had been dead for just a day and another 13 for less than a week when they were found,” Humane Borders’ mapping coordinator, Mike Kreyche, told the Associated Press. During the first half of the 2021 calendar year, Humane Borders reports 127 sets of remains, way up from 96 during the first half of 2020. By contrast, Border Patrol reports finding only 22 remains in its Arizona sectors (Tucson and Yuma) since October 2020.

In Brooks County, Texas, about 80 miles north of where Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region borders Mexico, large numbers of migrants die while trying to circumvent a longstanding Border Patrol highway checkpoint. There, the county sheriff reports finding 50 bodies in calendar year 2021, more than in any full year since 2017. (Border Patrol reports finding 37 in the entire Rio Grande Valley sector since October 2020.) The Sheriff’s Office found 16 just in June, making this the worst June in Brooks County since 2012.

“We’re constantly having people dying,” Sheriff Benny Martinez told San Antonio’s KENS 5 TV station. “Do I sound a bit frustrated? Absolutely. Because I go through this all the time, every day, and people don’t seem to understand what’s occurring and it’s happening.”

A State Department spokesperson told CNN that the U.S. government is now running more than 30,000 radio advertisements per month in Central America, in Spanish and five Indigenous languages, in an effort to dissuade people from making the journey to the United States. This is up from 28,000 ads per month in the spring. The campaign is costing about $600,000 per month.

June border numbers increase over May

As of the morning of July 16, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has not yet reported its encounters with migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border during the month of June. This is many days later than usual. However, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official shared some numbers with CNN’s Geneva Sands.

They show a modest overall increase over May in the agency’s encounters with undocumented migrants at the border. That is unusual: migration usually drops off a bit in June, the first of the peak hot summer months. In fact, migrant encounters have only increased from May to June twice before in this century: in 2017, as numbers recovered from a sharp drop after Donald Trump’s inauguration; and in 2020 after the initial shock of March 2020 COVID border closures.

According to CNN:

  • CBP’s encounters with migrants at the border—combining those apprehended by Border Patrol and the much smaller number who showed up at ports of entry—increased overall from 180,034 in May to 188,800 in June.
  • Family members increased from 44,639 in May to 55,805 in June.
  • Unaccompanied children increased from 14,158 in May to 15,253 in June.
  • Single adults decreased, from 121,237 in May to 117,742 in June.

These numbers represent encounters—the number of times U.S. border authorities came across an undocumented migrant—and not people. 34 percent of those apprehended in June had already been encountered once before during fiscal 2021, CNN reports. So the actual number of people apprehended in June was roughly one third lower than the “encounters” number would indicate.

This 34 percent “recidivism rate” shot upward during the pandemic, as the Trump and Biden administrations began using an old public health law to expel hundreds of thousands of migrants very quickly, with minimal processing (including asylum processing). While this “Title 42” policy has been a great hardship for asylum seekers, it has eased the process for those who seek to avoid being apprehended, as they can try to cross again quickly after being expelled.

Numbers of children and family members had been dropping in April and May, but now are up slightly. On July 13, Border Patrol reported apprehending 672 unaccompanied children—far higher than the previous 30 days’ average (436). As the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) has failed to increase the pace of its placements of children with relatives or sponsors in the United States, the population in the agency’s shelters has begun to grow again, exceeding 15,000 this week for the first time since mid-June.

In south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley (RGV) region, which is first in migrant “encounters” among Border Patrol’s nine sectors, numbers are increasing, the RGV Monitor reports:

The number of migrant families dropped off at the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Respite Center, located in McAllen, is reaching record highs.

“The numbers have been up, they’ve been a little higher,” said McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos.

City records indicate the number of migrants released at the shelter is exceeding the capacity of 600 more consistently since the end of May.

During the week of June 24 through June 30, U.S. Border Patrol dropped off a record number of 6,238 individuals seeking asylum at the respite center.

On June 25, alone, Border Patrol dropped off 1,202 people at the center.

McAllen, Texas officials cited in the article voiced concern about whether U.S. authorities and the region’s shelters are prepared for an increase in asylum-seeking migrants that may result from an imminent lifting of the “Title 42” pandemic expulsions policy. As reported in last week’s update, the Biden administration may soon stop expelling asylum-seeking families. “If they just come drop off individuals there and the respite center can’t take care of them, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Mayor Villalobos told the Monitor. “I think it’s going to be chaotic and I think we’re going to start having issues with people in the downtown area.”

(Image from the Rio Grande Valley Monitor)

The Catholic Charities shelter continues to test all migrants for COVID, which CBP does not do before dropping them off. Those who test positive are placed in 10-day quarantine in area hotels. “Over 900 migrants were placed in quarantine at area hotels on July 5,” the Monitor reported. Sr. Norma Pimentel, who manages the Catholic Charities shelter, said that the positive test rate among migrants has crept up from 4 percent to “maybe 6 percent or 7 percent.”

Despite the low positivity rate and the quarantines policy, in very controversial July 14 comments Sen. Ted Cruz (R) blamed migrants for rising positivity rates in south Texas. (The state abandoned mask mandates and other distancing measures a long time ago, and more than half of its population remains unvaccinated.)

Sen. Cruz was one of 28 Republican senators who sent President Joe Biden a July 14 letter asking him to keep the Title 42 policy in place until “the threat of COVID-19 variants is significantly reduced,” the administration has consulted with local authorities, and “policies have been implemented to bring the situation along the southwest land border under control.” The letter was led by Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso (R).

All Cubans and Haitians at sea will be turned back

“Allow me to be clear: if you take to the sea, you will not come to the United States,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a July 13 warning to Cuban and Haitian people considering fleeing both countries’ political turmoil. The Secretary, who was born in Cuba and brought to the United States as an infant when his family fled the island in 1960, gave comments at U.S. Coast Guard headquarters in Washington.

Migrants normally must be on U.S. soil to request asylum, and the Biden administration, like its predecessors during past so-called “rafter” events, is determined to deny those interdicted at sea the chance to do so. Even those who do get an initial asylum screening—which in the past has occurred after being brought to an offshore location like the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba—will be “referred to third countries for resettlement.” Historically, CBS News reported, asylum seekers who have passed this credible fear screening “have been referred for resettlement in third countries like Australia.”

“It is disappointing to hear this from @SecMayorkas,” tweeted Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Asylum is asylum is asylum. Anyone who faces persecution should be allowed to apply for asylum in the United States.”

Since October, the U.S. Coast Guard has encountered 470 Cuban and 313 Haitian migrants at sea, Mayorkas said. In all of 2020, the Coast Guard encountered 49 Cubans and 430 Haitians.

Republican governors’ border deployments continue

In a series of small deployments discussed in last week’s update, at least seven Republican governors are sending National Guard or law enforcement personnel to Texas and Arizona border zones, at those Republican governors’ request.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) said on July 12 that 29 state troopers had arrived in Del Rio, Texas “a couple of days ago” and would remain for 16 days. “State officials have shared few details about the deployment, citing safety concerns,” the Des Moines Register reported. Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst (R) told reporters that Gov. Reynolds should provide information about what the troopers are doing. “I do support the governor’s efforts there, but since our taxpayer dollars are being spent on that, yes, we should have some accountability.”

Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R) held a roundtable with state law enforcement leaders “to discuss Idaho’s growing drug threat and the connection to the United States-Mexico border.” Little had sent five Idaho State Police investigators to Arizona in early July. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) visited Texas to meet National Guard troops from his state stationed there, mainly for a federal deployment that began in 2018.

At The Atlantic, Eric Schnurer worries that South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s use of a private donor’s money to pay for her state’s National Guard border deployment is a glimpse into “America’s future” of increasingly privatized security.

Twelve Texas county sheriffs met with Texas Governor Greg Abbott on July 10. Sheriff Ray Del Bosque of Zapata County, which borders Mexico just west of the Rio Grande Valley region, said his department needs state resources as migrant numbers increase. Meanwhile, Gov. Abbott has transferred 1,000 inmates out of a South Texas prison so he can convert it “into a state-run jail for immigrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally,” the Texas Tribune reports.

While the National Guard has been sent to the border before, “their troops have essentially done busy work,” writes Jack Herrera at Politico. “In 2018, Arizona National Guard members deployed on the border were literally tasked with mucking out manure from the stables that held Border Patrol’s horses.” Syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrete, Jr. observes, “In 30 years of writing about immigration, I’ve interviewed many of these [Border Patrol] agents firsthand. Not once have I heard any of them ask for backup from state troopers or the National Guard.”

Links

  • The full House Appropriations Committee approved its 2022 Homeland Security budget appropriation by a party-line 33-24 vote. Last week’s update summarized what is in the bill, which reflects Democratic Party priorities.
  • More than 10,000 people requested asylum in Mexico in June. Six months into calendar year 2021, this is already Mexico’s second-largest year ever for asylum applications. In its largest year, 2019, Mexico had 31,481 asylum requests through June. This year it is already up to 51,654. At Telemundo, Albinson Linares talks to the director of Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR, who notes that current law forces most asylum applicants to await the backlogged system’s decisions in the southern state of Chiapas, one of Mexico’s poorest.
  • Texas-based Border Patrol agent Rodney Tolson Jr. signed a plea deal admitting that he took $400-per-person bribes to allow smugglers to bring undocumented migrants into the United States. Tolson would advise those who paid “which lane and time window to use for crossing through the checkpoint” in Laredo.
  • “Nearly everyone interviewed by the San Diego Union-Tribune shortly after being expelled to Tijuana said that they had tried crossing the border three or more times in recent weeks in hopes of getting in,” writes reporter Kate Morrissey. “One man, who declined to be identified, said he’d lost count of how many times he tried. He tossed out a guess—30.” (See the discussion above of how the Title 42 policy eases repeat crossings.)  The Pew Research Center meanwhile reported findings that between 2013 and 2018, the late-2000s trend of more Mexican migrants leaving than entering the United States had already begun to reverse: “An estimated 870,000 Mexican migrants came to the U.S. between 2013 and 2018, while an estimated 710,000 left the U.S. for Mexico.”
  • The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff revealed that the Trump administration had actually started separating migrant families during its first months in office, many months before previously known. A secret CBP program began prosecuting asylum-seeking parents and taking their children from them in Arizona’s Yuma sector, starting in July 2017. “Some of the parents separated under the Yuma program still remain apart from their children four years later.”
  • The Biden administration is allowing a handful of the 945 asylum-seekers who got sent to Guatemala to seek asylum there, under the Trump administration’s now-defunct “safe third country” agreement with Guatemala, to apply for protection within the United States.
  • A JAMA Network Open (Journal of the American Medical Association-affiliated) analysis finds that “death investigation records identified violations of ICE’s [Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s] internal standards for delivery of health care in most of” 55 cases of detainees’ deaths in ICE custody between 2011 and 2018. “Unlike the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which received a federal allocation of vaccines, ICE has relied on states to provide doses to its network of more than 200 detention facilities,” reports Camilo Montoya-Galvez at CBS News. “Since each state sets distinct allocation priorities, the vaccination of ICE detainees has been inconsistent across the country.”
  • At Slate, Felipe de la Hoz characterizes the Biden administration’s immigration policy as a “dual approach of liberalizing the asylum system at home while making it more difficult for anyone to actually enter it.” This “reflects the longtime moderate Democratic id on immigration, which views humanitarian migration as a problem that can be solved humanely, but a problem nonetheless.”

Weekly Border Update: July 9, 2021

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

Biden administration extends military deployment into 2022

The Department of Defense has approved a request from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to keep military personnel deployed along the U.S.-Mexico border during the 2022 fiscal year (October 1, 2021-September 30, 2022). With this decision, the Biden administration continues a military mission that was part of Donald Trump’s approach to the border.

In April 2018, in response to media reports of a “migrant caravan” making its way through Mexico, Donald Trump ordered National Guard troops to the border. It was the fourth time since 2002 that a president had ordered the National Guard to support Customs and Border Protection (CBP). In October of that year, as a new caravan formed in the run-up to midterm legislative elections, Trump augmented that with a highly unusual deployment of active-duty army and marine personnel, a rarity on U.S. soil. At its height in November 2018, up to 2,579 National Guardsmen and 5,815 active-duty troops were involved.

4,000 troops, a mix of National Guardsmen and active-duty military, were approved to serve at the border during fiscal 2021. Right now, according to Stars and Stripes, 3,800 are there. (A June 24 Defense Department release cites “more than 2,600.”)

Their duties are mostly helping to maintain CBP equipment and watching over segments of the border and alerting Border Patrol if they see illicit crossings. Between April 2018 and May 2020, the Defense Department obligated at least $841 million to pay for this deployment, according to a February U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report covered in a past weekly update.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin approved the DHS request to extend the military mission on June 23, but reduced the troop strength to 3,000. As before, most personnel will be National Guard members from several states, under federal command.

“Invasion” narrative making a dent in U.S. public opinion

Right now, about 23 states contribute National Guard personnel to the Defense Department’s border mission. Troops usually rotate to the border on two-week tours of duty. States that recently announced new deployments for this federal mission through 2022 include Kentucky, North Dakota, South Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Other states, though, are sending police and some troops for a different mission, called by the Republican governors of Arizona and Texas. Those governors are invoking the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, a 1996 agreement in which states may assist each other in emergencies, usually with the requesting state reimbursing the costs.

Greg Abbott (R-Texas) and Doug Ducey (R-Arizona) have asked states to contribute security personnel, with a preference for civilian law enforcement personnel who may be empowered to arrest people for crimes like trespassing (not specifically to enforce federal immigration law). Abbott sent Texas police and military forces to the border in March, calling it “Operation Lone Star.”

The list of states responding to Abbott and Ducey includes the following so far. All have Republican governors.

  • Arkansas is sending 40 National Guard troops for about 90 days; they will mostly perform vehicle maintenance and repairs.
  • Florida is sending over 50 law enforcement officers for 16-day deployments.
  • Iowa has not confirmed a number, but may be sending 25-30 Iowa State Patrol troopers between July 8 and 23.
  • Nebraska will send “more than two dozen” State Patrol officers for about 16 days.
  • Ohio is sending 14 Ohio State Highway Patrol officers.
  • South Dakota is sending up to 50 National Guard troops for one or two months.
  • Wyoming is in negotiations about what assets to send. It had offered aerial coverage, but “it was determined that these particular assets may not precisely match the needs of the requested border mission.”

In an unusual move that raises strong civil-military relations concerns, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) is using an approximately $1 million donation from a Tennessee billionaire to cover the cost of her state’s National Guard response to Abbott and Ducey’s call. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson (R) called this a “bad precedent.” (During the George W. Bush administration, Hutchinson headed the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and served as the first DHS assistant secretary for Border and Transportation Security.)

This state deployment has “been criticized as political theater,” Stars and Stripes notes, as Abbott and Ducey seek to portray the Biden administration as leaving them vulnerable to an “invasion” of migrants. “Carnage is being caused by the people coming across the border,” Abbott told a press conference. “Homes are being invaded. Neighborhoods are dangerous, and people are being threatened on a daily basis with guns.” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick added, “This is a fight for our survival.”

Reality doesn’t match this rhetoric. An Austin American-Statesman fact check found that it is exceedingly rare for undocumented migrants to carry out violent crimes as they pass through border counties. Reported offenses tend to be nuisance crimes and petty theft, like cutting farms’ fences and water supply hoses, stealing clothes, food, and other travel needs, or setting fires. In fact, instead of killing, migrants are dying—in alarmingly high numbers this year—of dehydration and exposure as they get lost in border-area wilderness zones.

Still, the “invasion” narrative seems to be impacting U.S. public opinion, as U.S. authorities encounter large numbers of migrants at the border this year. Though it gives President Joe Biden a 50 percent approval rating, a Washington Post-ABC News poll released July 4 finds only 33 percent of U.S. respondents approving of his handling of immigration at the border; 51 percent disapprove. A mid-June Harvard CAPS/Harris poll gives Biden a 59 percent overall approval rating, but only 36 percent say Biden should continue his current border security policies and 64 percent want him to pursue a stricter approach. A Republican-commissioned poll cited in Politico finds that “53 percent of voters say they are less likely to support Democrats for Congress because of the increase in migrants at the border.”

Opinion articles by former Bush White House official Karl Rove and former El Paso Representative and Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, two individuals who share very few views, coincide in noting an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment among Latino residents of Texas border counties. This voting bloc has long gone Democratic but gave Biden a narrower victory margin in 2020. Rove sees these voters shifting Republican “because their border communities are the first to bear the costs of rising illegal immigration.” O’Rourke says his get-out-the-vote organization’s “deep canvassing efforts” in border areas “reveal that fears of immigrants bringing crime over the border rank as a top concern for residents.”

House Subcommittee Passes Homeland Security Appropriations Bill

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security met on June 30 to mark up (amend and approve) its draft of the 2022 DHS appropriations bill. The Subcommittee approved the draft by a voice vote. The bill, which funds the DHS budget for fiscal 2022, now goes on to the full Appropriations Committee, which is to mark up the bill on July 13. It then goes to the full House of Representatives, likely before the August congressional recess.

The bill reflects the priorities of the House’s Democratic majority. Though the Senate has a bare Democratic majority, we can expect that chamber’s Appropriations Committee—which is split between 15 Democrats and 15 Republicans—to come up with a more conservative bill when it meets, probably in September.

The House bill provides DHS with $52.81 billion in funding for fiscal 2022, a $934 million increase over 2021:

  • CBP would get $14.11 billion in net discretionary appropriations. This would be a cut: “$927 million below the fiscal year 2021 enacted level and $456 million below the [Biden administration’s] request.”
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would get $7.97 billion in discretionary appropriations, almost identical to 2021 and to the administration’s request. However, ICE would see its detention and deportation budget (Civil Immigration Enforcement Operations) cut by $331.6 million from 2021 levels, to $3.79 billion. ICE’s investigative arm, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), would increase $124.2 million over 2021, to $2.26 billion.

Some of the most significant adjustments in the House appropriators’ bill include the following.

  • Border wall: the bill provides no funding for additional border barriers. It would rescind $2.06 billion from prior years’ appropriations for wall-building. It authorizes up to $100 million of prior years’ money for environmental mitigation activities, authorizing their transfer to the Department of Interior for that purpose.
  • CBP’s technology budget would increase by $132 million, with emphases on “non-intrusive imaging technology,” “border technology,” “innovative technology,” “port of entry technology,” body-worn cameras, and video recording tech inside Border Patrol stations.
  • Ports of entry: $655 million would go for “construction and modernization of land port of entry facilities.”
  • No money would go toward increasing Border Patrol’s authorized staffing level.
  • ICE detention: The bill would give ICE enough funding ($2.46 billion) to detain an average of 28,500 single adults per day. ICE’s current population is 27,000. It would require DHS “to provide detained migrants access to legal counsel, including prospective pro bono counsel.”
  • Alternatives to detention (ATD) are a big focus of the bill. Subcommittee Chair Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-California) cites “a commitment to the humane treatment of migrants through increased funding for Alternatives to Detention with case management services and reduced lengths of stay in detention for asylum seekers who don’t pose a flight risk and are not a threat to public safety or national security.” ICE’s ATD budget would increase by $34.5 million, to $475 million. The bill would increase, from $5 million to $15 million, an Alternatives to Detention Case Management Pilot Program managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
  • Processing of newly arrived migrants is also a big priority. “I continue to have serious concerns regarding the physical and mental wellbeing of individuals, particularly children, at border facilities,” reads a quote from Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut). “I am proud that this bill respects their dignity by improving conditions in CPB [sic.] short-term holding facilities, investing in alternatives to detention, making processing quicker and more efficient, and reducing backlogs of immigration, refugee, and asylum applications.” The bill would allocate $170 million to build Integrated Migrant Processing Centers at the border, and would give ICE $100 million, to be administered by FEMA, for “a non-custodial, community-based shelter grant program for immigration processing, ATD enrollment, and provision of case management services for migrants.”
  • Internal controls of border and migration enforcement agencies would be strengthened by a one-quarter increase over 2021 levels, to $42.2 million, in the budget of DHS’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL). The Immigration Detention Ombudsman’s Office would get a $304,000 increase over 2021, to $20.3 million.
  • The bill authorizes the use of CBP and ICE funds to support reunification of migrant families separated during the Trump administration. It would prohibit funding to detain or remove an undocumented person, usually a relative, applying to sponsor a child who arrived at the border unaccompanied.

Links

  • Human Rights First and the El Paso-based Hope Border Institute collaborated on a report about the Biden administration’s use of the “Title 42” pandemic border closure and rapid migrant expulsion policy, in place since March 2020, in the El Paso area. It finds that expelled asylum seekers have been exposed to danger on the Mexican side of the border, and that recent humanitarian exceptions for some of the most vulnerable asylum seekers do “not comply with U.S. asylum law or treaty obligations.” These exceptions appear to favor migrants who are Spanish-speaking and are neither Black nor Indigenous. “Faith-led organizations, humanitarian groups, legal services organizations, and other volunteers stand ready in the El Paso region to welcome these asylum seekers and help them reach their destinations in the United States,” the report concludes.
  • Reuters, CNN, and Politico covered the Title 42 policy’s likely imminent end. The pandemic provision got used to expel undocumented migrants at the border over 900,000 times since March 2020, over 500,000 of those times during Joe Biden’s presidency. The Biden administration may soon stop applying Title 42 to asylum-seeking families. “It doesn’t make sense to keep it in place if it’s not actually deterring migration,” Andrew Selee of the Migration Policy Institute told Reuters. “My hope was that they would buy some time to build a real functioning system at the border. But that didn’t quite happen.” Officials at Customs and Border Protection (CBP) told CNN that they “are bracing for the eventual lifting of border restrictions” and “some are concerned about staffing and whether there are enough agents and officers to process an increased number of individuals.” Politico warns that “Republicans plan to highlight any increase in migrants or delays in processing them in campaign ads, mailers and debates in races all over the country as part of a long-planned strategy to use immigration to try to retake Congress in the midterm elections next year.”
  • At Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers, where the agency and its contractors have given at least one vaccine dose to only 20 percent of detainees, the New York Times reports “major surges in coronavirus infections.”
  • As migrants from countries other than Mexico and Central America arrive at the border in greater numbers (as noted in two of our last three updates), a Washington Post visualization shows the different parts of the border where different nationalities are tending to arrive. The concentration of people from different countries in different regions is “a migration pattern that U.S. officials say they have never seen to this degree.”
  • The Supreme Court agreed with a Biden administration request to vacate previous district and circuit court decisions in favor of the Sierra Club and Southern Border Communities Coalition, which had sued to challenge the Trump administration’s 2019 border wall “emergency” declaration. The Biden administration asked that the Supreme Court not hear the challenge due to “changed circumstances,” and the case now goes back to district court.
  • “My message to the Biden administration is this,” writes former WOLA director Joy Olson, who is just back from a trip to sites along the Texas-Mexico border. “Stop pretending that you control things that you don’t and start opening more legal pathways for migration and protection that you do control.”

Weekly Border Update: July 2, 2021

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

Title 42, which may be in its last days, exacts a humanitarian toll

Between March 2020 and May 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) expelled 867,673 migrants whom the agency encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border. Often, this has meant sending them back to Mexico within an hour or two, even if they are not Mexican, with little or no opportunity to ask for asylum or protection in the United States.

This is due to a Trump-era order citing the COVID-19 pandemic as justification to expel migrants with minimal processing. The process is called “Title 42” after the section of the U.S. Code containing an old border quarantine authority. The Biden administration has kept Title 42 in place, though it has not expelled unaccompanied children and it has expelled a declining number of migrants who arrive as family units. (8,986 family members expelled in May, down from 17,795 in April and 21,423 in March.)

Citing “administration officials and others familiar with the discussions,” the Wall Street Journal got further confirmation that the Biden administration is moving toward lifting Title 42. Families requesting asylum at the border may be able to do so without expulsion by the end of July. Title 42 will continue, however, to expel single adults “for the next few months.” (This was first reported by Axios and the New York Times during the week of June 20.) The Journal notes that the change “is expected to come in conjunction with a phased reopening this summer of nonessential travel at ports of entry along the Mexican and Canadian borders.”

Some officials are concerned that lifting Title 42 will lead to a sharp increase in arrivals of migrant families at the border; the Journal reports that the administration is considering options to speed migrants’ asylum processes in order to minimize the length of their stay in the United States pending decisions. Measures may include allowing asylum officers—not just immigration judges—to rule on cases, and allowing asylum seekers to make appointments at border ports of entry using a CBP app.

Large numbers of expelled migrants, meanwhile, continue to accumulate in Mexican border cities, often in strikingly miserable conditions. In Tijuana, 2,000 mostly Mexican, Central American, and Haitian migrants are encamped outside the Chaparral pedestrian port of entry into the United States. (Many there were not expelled under Title 42, but believe they need to be near the border crossing before it reopens.) Mexico’s government human rights ombudsman (CNDH) is warning of numerous health risks at a site that lacks basic sanitation, and city authorities say they plan to clear the encampment soon.

Across from south Texas, in the notoriously organized crime-ridden city of Reynosa, over 1,000 asylum seekers are encamped at a plaza not far from the port of entry. Humanitarian workers from the Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers told Border Report of an outbreak of COVID-19 among those in the plaza. Those who test positive for the coronavirus are being quarantined in one part of the park, while workers are racing to move many of those who test negative to an expanded area of Senda de Vida, an evangelical-run shelter not far from the port of entry.

More migrants arriving from “other” countries

As a recent weekly update noted, a sharply rising portion of migrants encountered at the U.S-Mexico border are neither from Mexico nor from Central America. Citizens of these “other” countries made up 23 percent of Border Patrol’s encounters with undocumented migrants in May, and 45 percent of Border Patrol’s encounters with migrant family members. The “other” countries whose citizens were most frequently encountered were Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, Nicaragua, Haiti, Cuba, and Romania.

The Associated Press reported on June 28 from Del Rio, Texas, a small border town that has seen a jump in arrivals of migrants from Venezuela. Though about 5.4 million Venezuelans have fled their country in recent years, very few have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico land border until recently. 7,484 were apprehended or showed up at ports of entry in May. That monthly number is nearly triple the 2,787 Venezuelans apprehended in all of 2020 and more than triple the 2,202 apprehended in all of 2019. Of those 7,484, 5,465 (73 percent) showed up in Del Rio. Nearly all are turning themselves in and seeking asylum in the United States.

The AP notes that the Venezuelans wading across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, to Del Rio tend to be more highly educated (“bankers, doctors, and engineers”), and many had first emigrated to elsewhere in South America, where they were living and working until COVID-19 collapsed the region’s economies. Most fly to Mexico City or Cancún, then contract with smugglers who take them to Ciudad Acuña. Their trip takes “as little as four days.”

The sharply increasing numbers of migrants from Venezuela and other unusual countries at the border, the AP notes, are “a harbinger of a new type of migration that has caught the Biden administration off guard: pandemic refugees.”

Republican politicians focus on the border

Five days after Vice President Kamala Harris’s quick June 25 visit to El Paso, former President Donald Trump was in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region for a meeting with border authorities, a speech, and a Fox News “town hall” event. The visit was one of several ongoing efforts by Republican political leaders to challenge the Biden administration on border security and rising migration numbers.

From a lectern placed at a point where a section of border wall ends, Trump attacked Joe Biden for undoing his policies. “Biden is destroying our country,” he told the assembled crowd, which included former officials from his Department of Homeland Security (DHS), from Texas’s Department of Public Security (DPS), Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R), and 31 Republican members of Congress.

“I used to go around in speeches and say, two things that will never get old are a wheel and a wall… The wall worked, really worked,” Trump said. “Within two months everything could have been completed. It would have been painted.”

Valerie González of the Rio Grande Valley Monitor noted that of 28 officials participating in a briefing with the former president, only three  were from the local area: “Javier Villalobos, McAllen mayor; Benny Martinez, Brooks County sheriff; and Paul Perez, president of the National Border Patrol Council RGV 3307.” The only one who spoke was Martínez, whose county hosts a Border Patrol highway checkpoint around which migrants walk. A large number get lost in the surrounding ranch land and die of dehydration or exposure. The Sheriff said that this year has seen a 185 percent increase in migrant apprehensions in Brooks County, and a 490 percent increase in 911 emergency calls.

Brooks is one of about 28 Texas counties that agreed to be included in a disaster declaration that Gov. Abbott issued in late May to respond to a “border emergency.” The original declaration covered 34 border-area counties, but several—including those in the majority-Democratic Rio Grande Valley area—objected, citing a lack of evidence. On April 26, Abbott had sent letters to all 254 of Texas’s counties requesting estimates of their financial needs resulting from the border “disaster.” Only eight counties had responded as of June 18, the Monitor reported, and only two had provided monetary amounts, which totaled less than $25,000.

In Brooks County, Martínez said the disaster declaration would help authorities deal with grass fires set by lost migrants seeking to alert rescuers. In Culberson County, in west Texas near the border, Sheriff Oscar Carrillo told the Dallas Morning News’s Alfredo Corchado that authorities had signed the disaster declaration, “but not for political reasons. I’m just practical. We need to be reimbursed for the $30,000 we spent on the migrants who’ve died so far.”

Sheriff Carrillo called “just a show” another of Gov. Abbott’s initiatives: a request, issued with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) for other state governors to send law enforcement personnel to help secure the border. Abbott’s request appears to have attracted short-term visits of small contingents of state police or National Guardsmen from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Tennessee. All of these states have Republican governors.

“It’s unclear what these out-of-state forces will be empowered to do, and some states aren’t offering much detail,” a PolitiFact investigation finds. “Based on what we’ve gathered, they will be limited to investigative work and backing up highway patrols.” Lt. Col (Ret.) Geoffrey Corn, a professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston, told the New York Times that National Guard troops’ role would be largely “ceremonial duties, though they will have the authority to make citizens’ arrests.”

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) said it would cost his state $575,000 to send 30 guardsmen for 90 days. Idaho said its deployment would cost about $53,000.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) would not divulge how much it would cost to send 50 of her state’s 3,100 National Guard members to the border for 30 to 60 days—her office cited “security reasons” for the silence—but she came up with a controversial way to pay for it. The deployment’s price tag will be paid by a private donor: Willis Johnson, the Tennessee-based billionaire chairman of Copart, an automobile auction company, who describes himself as a “hardcore Republican.”

While the governor’s office insists that paying soldiers with private funds is legal in South Dakota while the guardsmen remain under the governor’s command, the New York Times described it as “a fuzzy area of the law that officials in the state said had never before been contemplated.” Roger Tellinghuisen, a former Republican attorney-general of South Dakota, told the Times, “I don’t have a clue if it’s legal. It’s a question in my own mind.”

“The military is supposed to be used to further our national security interests and ensure the safety of all citizens, not just the whims of a few private individuals with the means to pay for its services,” Dan Grazier, a military fellow at the Center for Defense Information’s Straus Military Reform Project, told the Guardian. “It’s basically money laundering, and it’s turning the state National Guard into a mercenary force,” Rachel VanLandingham, a former Air Force lawyer who teaches at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, told the New York Times.

Beyond hosting Trump, declaring a disaster, and inviting other states’ law enforcement, Texas Gov. Abbott—who is up for re-election in 2022 and may be eyeing a 2024 presidential bid—is active on other fronts. He continues to move toward stripping licenses for Texas childcare facilities that are housing migrant children who arrive unaccompanied. This would force the Biden administration to scramble to find shelter space for these kids, who have been arriving in record numbers since March.

Five Texas sheriff’s departments, meanwhile, have sued Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), citing a Biden policy that requires the agency to take into custody only migrants considered national security or public safety threats, when they are released from criminal custody. Nationally, ICE’s detained migrant population has risen this year from 14,000 to nearly 27,000; 80 percent of those adding to the population are single adults apprehended at the border, BuzzFeed notes. 4,000 of those in custody are asylum seekers who, for some reason, ICE has determined to be flight risks and required to be detained.

Republicans’ efforts to raise the border and migration and issue do not appear to be resonating beyond the party’s base, according to a June 11-17 Reuters/Ipsos poll. Just 10 percent of 4,420 adult respondents ranked immigration as the United States’ top priority, down from 15 percent in April. Republicans who ranked immigration number one totaled 19 percent, down 10 points from April. President Biden, though, maintains a low approval rating for his handling of immigration: 40 percent of Reuters/Ipsos respondents approved and 47 percent disapproved.

Links

  • The Biden administration is formalizing a process to allow U.S. resident military veterans who were later deported, often because they committed minor crimes, to return to the United States.
  • In rural Culberson county, between El Paso and Texas’s Big Bend region, the sheriff’s office has already handled 13 migrant deaths so far in 2021, reports Alfredo Corchado at the Dallas Morning News.
  • Between now and August 2, the Biden administration will be closing six of the large emergency shelter facilities it has set up to house migrant children who arrive at the border unaccompanied. Children stay in the austere shelters while awaiting placement with relatives or sponsors in the United States, with whom they stay while immigration courts rule on their protection needs. Facilities set to close include one at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas; a former oil worker camp in Midland, Texas; tent-based facilities in Carrizo Springs and Donna, Texas; and convention centers in Long Beach and San Diego, California. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra said that the population of children at the largest and most notorious of these shelters, Fort Bliss, Texas, has dropped to 790 from around 4,800 two months ago. An average of 401 unaccompanied children arrived at the border every day in June. As of July 1, 14,416 were in shelters, approximately 6,100 of them temporary emergency shelters.
  • At a July 1 hearing before the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, 32 organizations and the Mexico office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights argued that Mexico’s use of security forces for migration enforcement, including “pushbacks” of migrants, has exacerbated illegitimate use of force against migrants.
  • Mexico’s human rights ombudsman (CNDH) found migrants being held in crowded conditions at a detention center run by the country’s National Migration Institute (INM) in the remote border town of Piedras Negras, across from Eagle Pass, Texas. About 13 more migrants were being held in the Piedras Negras municipal jail in very unsanitary conditions, while unable to contact relatives, the CNDH reported. A coalition of mostly southern Mexican human rights groups (Colectivo de Observación y Monitoreo de Derechos Humanos en el Sureste Mexicano, Comdhse) denounced cases of torture by immigration and National Guard personnel in INM’s migrant detention centers nationwide, including “violence, beatings, threats, lack of food or rotten food.” The worst situation, the group claims, is at Siglo XXI, the INM’s largest detention facility, in Mexico’s southern border-zone city of Tapachula.

Weekly Border Update: June 25, 2021

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

Vice President Harris visits El Paso

Vice President Kamala Harris paid an approximately four-hour visit to the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas. She traveled with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), and El Paso’s House representative, Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas).

She toured Border Patrol’s “central processing center” for apprehended migrants, attended an operational briefing with border agencies, and met with representatives of several El Paso non-governmental service providers and humanitarian organizations. (The list included Las Américas Immigrant Advocacy Center, Annunciation House, Border Network for Human Rights, and Hope Border Institute. WOLA published a June 24 memo laying out some key issues for the trip, along with a Twitter thread suggesting effective organizations, including all of these, with whom the Vice President could meet.)

At a mid-day press conference before departing for California, the Vice President said that her encounters with migrant children were a reminder “of the fact that this issue cannot be reduced to a political issue.”

President Joe Biden has given Harris a lead role in engaging with Mexico and Central America on efforts to address migration’s “root causes.” Harris has sought to deflect the perception—which shows up often in Republican statements—that her role includes border security or that she is some sort of “border czar.”

Her El Paso visit comes after weeks of calls from Republican legislators (and a few border Democrats) that she visit the border to view firsthand what they call a “crisis” caused by increased migration. The announcement of her visit, issued June 23, came a few days after ex-president Donald Trump accepted an invitation from Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) to visit the border. Trump, who will visit south Texas’s Hidalgo County on June 30, responded, “If Governor Abbott and I weren’t going there next week, she would have never gone!”

The White House denies any relation. “The reason why it’s important that she go down: She’s now set up the criteria, having spoken with the President of Mexico and Guatemala, visited the region to know what we need to do,” President Biden said on June 24. Vice-Presidential spokesperson Symone Sanders said it was important for Harris first to visit Guatemala and Mexico, which she did in early June, as part of a “cause and effect” strategy.

Sanders said Harris chose to visit the border at El Paso because it was the “birthplace” of Donald Trump’s family separation policy—it was first rolled out there in late 2017. Republicans attacked the choice because El Paso, though busy right now, is seeing a less-heavy flow of migrants compared to border sectors further east in Texas and west in Arizona.

Alarming glimpses into conditions at Fort Bliss child shelter

Harris’s agenda did not include a visit to the massive emergency shelter for unaccompanied migrant children, currently operated by the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) via a contractor at Fort Bliss, a giant army base adjacent to El Paso’s airport.

This facility, known as an Emergency Intake Site (EIS), was thrown together in March when Border Patrol processing centers were jammed with several thousand migrant children, mostly from Central America, who had arrived at the border unaccompanied. HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is meant to take custody of these children while arranging to have them stay with relatives or other sponsors in the United States while their protection needs are evaluated. ORR quickly ran out of space, however, leading to the establishment of several large, austere facilities at convention centers and similar spaces around the country.

The Fort Bliss space—a series of giant climate-controlled tents—is the largest. It can hold up to 10,000 children, and reached 5,000 in April. By mid-June, that number had dropped to 2,300. About 14,500 children remain in ORR’s shelters nationwide. 

Emergency facilities like Fort Bliss continue to lack enough caseworkers to locate children’s families and sponsors. This has forced some children to stay at the facilities, essentially warehoused with little to do, for long periods. The average nationwide stay is 37 days. At Fort Bliss, government data shared with CBS News indicate that more than 100 children have been on base for more than 60 days, 16 of them since the site opened on March 30.

Though access to Fort Bliss is restricted, very troubling accounts have emerged about conditions. Information comes from Rep. Escobar, shelter workers who have spoken to press, and from a federal filing from lawyers who visited to monitor compliance with the 1997 Flores judicial agreement setting standards for migrant childcare.

“Children at the Fort Bliss EIS sleep in rows of bunk cots in giant tents with hundreds of other children, enjoy no privacy, receive almost no structured education, have little to do during the day, and lack adequate mental health care to address children’s severe anxiety and distress surrounding their prolonged detention,” reads a filing from the attorneys.

CBS News had further alarming revelations:

  • Some children have required one-on-one, 24-hour supervision “to ensure they don’t hurt themselves.”
  • Some children are refusing food or spending most of their days sleeping in their bunk-bed cots.
  • Self-cutting appears common. The shelter has “banned pencils, pens, scissors, nail clippers and regular toothbrushes inside tents,” and is even removing metal nose clips from N95 face masks. A 13-year-old Honduran girl told the attorneys “some teens used their identification cards to cut themselves.”

BBC reported accounts of substandard food, including uncooked meat, and children unwilling to shower for many days at a time for lack of clean clothes to change into. Far more seriously, shelter employees shared sexual abuse allegations with BBC, including a possible rape and a contractor “caught in a boy’s tent, you know, doing things with him.”

On June 25 HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra promised a “thorough investigation” of allegations at Fort Bliss. Tyler Moran, who covers immigration at the White House Domestic Policy council, told reporters on June 22 that efforts are underway to add 50 mental health professionals and more caseworkers, as recommended in a June 24 memo from the ACLU of Texas.

“Remain in Mexico” dismantlement expands, Title 42 phaseout may accelerate

One of the Biden administration’s first actions at the border was to end the “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP), also known as “Remain in Mexico.” This was a Trump-era program that forced 71,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their U.S. hearing dates on the other side of the border, in Mexico. While waiting in dangerous border towns for months or years, at least 1,544 migrants subjected to MPP suffered rape, murder, kidnapping, assault, or other serious attacks, according to a count kept by Human Rights First.

In February, the Biden administration began admitting into the United States those “remaining” in Mexico who still had pending court dates. By the end of May, 10,375 people with active asylum cases had re-entered the United States, according to TRAC Immigration, to await their hearings north of the border, usually with U.S. resident relatives.

It was unclear, though, whether there would be any redress for people in MPP who had their cases terminated while they were subjected to the program. According to TRAC’s data, 30,705 people had their asylum applications denied “in absentia,” meaning they failed to show up for their scheduled hearings.

This week, DHS announced that this asylum-seeking population will get another chance. “Beginning June 23, 2021, DHS will include MPP enrollees who had their cases terminated or were ordered removed in absentia (i.e., individuals ordered removed while not present at their hearings),” reads a memo to Congress obtained by BuzzFeed.

DHS Secretary Mayorkas had expressed doubt about whether the Remain in Mexico program was giving asylum seekers “adequate opportunity” to appear in court, the Los Angeles Times reports, “and whether conditions faced by some MPP enrollees in Mexico, including the lack of stable access to housing, income, and safety, resulted in the abandonment of potentially meritorious protection claims.” In some cases, migrants missed their MPP hearings because they had been kidnapped in Mexico and were in the custody of criminal groups.

It’s not clear how many of these 30,705 people would actually show up and avail themselves of the opportunity to seek asylum in the United States. Michele Klein Solomon, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) director for North America, Central America and the Caribbean, told the Associated Press that she expected at least 10,000 people—one-third of the “denied in absentia” population—to appear.

While dismantling MPP, the Biden administration has mostly kept in place another Trump blockage of the right to seek asylum: the “Title 42” pandemic policy mandating that undocumented migrants be rapidly expelled—and that migrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle be expelled into Mexico.

Between February and May, the Biden administration used Title 42 to expel migrants 408,000 times, including more than 58,000 members of families—with little or no opportunity to ask for asylum or protection. A June 22 report from Human Rights First counted “3,250 kidnappings and other attacks, including rape, human trafficking, and violent armed assaults, against asylum seekers and migrants expelled to or blocked at the U.S.-Mexico border since President Biden took office in January 2021.” HRF found that DHS aggravates the situation by expelling many migrants late at night, “placing expelled people at increased risk of kidnapping and other harm.”

For families at least, that may end soon. Axios reported on June 20 that “The White House is considering ending—as early as July 31—the use of” Title 42 expulsions of family unit members. “President Biden has been briefed on a plan for stopping family expulsions by the end of July, as well as the option of letting a court end it.” The White House seems to be favoring calling an end to the policy rather than keep defending it in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU.

On June 24 the New York Times confirmed the Axios reporting: “It is possible that in the coming weeks, border officials could start allowing migrant families back into the country, with an eye toward lifting the rule for single adults this summer.” The most likely plan would be to place families asking for asylum into alternatives-to-detention programs in the United States—probably involving GPS ankle monitors—until their court dates in a badly backlogged immigration court system.

Under this plan, single adults would still be expelled for a while. “Lifting the public health rule for single adults is likely to come later, according to the most recent discussions, possibly by the end of the summer,” the Times reports. Single adults are the vast majority of those who are expelled, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been expelling 86 percent of those whom it encounters at the border. NBC News reported that the agency is even resuming “lateral expulsion” flights for single adults, taking some from the busy border sectors where they are apprehended, then expelling them back into Mexico in sectors that are seeing a less heavy flow of migrants, like El Paso and San Diego.

The Times expects that lifting Title 42 for asylum-seeking families by the end of July “is likely to sharply increase the flow of migrants, at least in the short term.” That may be, for families. For migrants who wish to avoid being apprehended, though—like single adults who don’t seek asylum—it’s possible that lifting Title 42 could lead to fewer encounters at the border. The pandemic period, since mid-2020, saw a very sharp increase in Border Patrol encounters with single adults seeking to avoid apprehension. This was in large part because being rapidly expelled, and not detained or charged, made it easier to cross back into the United States and try again. Without Title 42 easing repeat attempts, that sharp increase in single adult migration could fade.

Border Patrol Chief exits

In a message to his personal Facebook account, Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott made known that the Biden administration had given him a “three R letter,” meaning “resign, retire, or relocate.” Chief Scott, who had been on the job for 17 months, will stay on for up to 60 days before leaving the force.

Scott, who served most of his tenure as chief during Donald Trump’s final year in office, appeared to be supportive of the former president. “Scott appeared several times alongside Trump, eagerly defending his hard-line policies, leading some colleagues to privately express concern that Scott’s enthusiasm occasionally veered into partisanship,” the Washington Post’s Nick Miroff noted this week. As a result, “several of his current and former colleagues [were] surprised he remained in the post” as long as he did, even as he and other senior officials “chafed at Biden’s reversal of Trump policies they viewed as effective,” like Remain in Mexico. His exit was “completely driven by politics,” an unnamed source told the Washington Examiner’s Anna Giaritelli.

Scott’s successor will be his deputy, Raúl Ortiz, according to a statement from acting CBP Commissioner Troy Miller. (The Post had earlier reported that Ortiz would serve “on an interim basis,” but that is not clear.) Like Scott, Ortiz has been on the force for 29 years. He was a featured guest during Donald Trump’s February 2020 State of the Union speech. The Examiner reports that his most likely successor as deputy chief will be either San Diego Sector Chief Aaron Heitke, Rio Grande Valley Sector Chief Brian Hastings, or El Paso Sector Chief Gloria Chavez.

CBP, Border Patrol’s parent agency, continues without a confirmed commissioner to fill the role Miller is playing on an acting basis. The Biden administration named Tucson, Arizona Police Chief Chris Magnus in April, but like many Senate nominations, it is moving very slowly through the chamber.

Links

  • The Republican governors of Florida, Idaho, Iowa, and Nebraska have responded to a call from the Republican governors of Arizona and Texas, Doug Ducey and Greg Abbott, to send law-enforcement personnel to the border. Iowa and Nebraska will each send about two dozen uniformed officers to Texas and/or Arizona for a couple of weeks. Gov. Abbott set up a website for private donations for the state government to build its own border wall; it received $459,000 in about a week. While that sounds like a lot, at the going rate of about $26 million per mile in Texas, it would only build 0.02 miles of wall. The Texas governor’s portrayal of the area as a danger zone is hurting tourism and other business in the border region, local leaders say.
  • In the dangerous Mexican border city of Reynosa, where U.S. agencies have expelled thousands of non-Mexican asylum seekers and families under Title 42, June 19 was a day of citywide attacks and firefights between three factions of the Gulf drug cartel and law enforcement, killing 19 people. Of the dead, 15 appeared to be innocent bystanders, the Associated Press reports. The surrounding Mexican state of Tamaulipas has long been under the influence of the Gulf and Zetas cartels, but those groups have fragmented. Now, the Mexican daily Milenio cites government intelligence reports mapping territorial disputes between six groups. The United States’ Title 42 expulsions into Tamaulipas “continue to endanger the migrant population” while “organized crime groups are taking advantage of the situation,” according to a new report by Global Response Management, a humanitarian organization that has assisted asylum seekers stranded in Tamaulipas by “Remain in Mexico” and Title 42 expulsions.
  • Touring the border in the Rio Grande Valley, Border Report finds a profusion of makeshift wooden and rope ladders being used to scale the border wall. “When agents find the ladders, they pile them up just north of the wall. Once a week, a truck is sent down the dirt trail road that lines the border wall to gather and haul them all away.” The climbs are dangerous: “Almost daily, we receive two to three calls of individuals getting hurt,” a Border Patrol agent says. “Some more serious than others — fractured bones protruding from skin that will need medical attention. Other times, it’s just a sprain.”
  • Just over the state line from El Paso, in New Mexico, “Five times in the past four weeks, Sunland Park police or firefighters have assisted U.S. Border Patrol agents at places where migrants died of heat exhaustion or from falls” from the wall, Border Report notes.
  • A 51-year-old Bahamian man died of a heart attack last December when staff at a Natchez, Mississippi ICE detention center failed to provide an adequate medical response, according to a draft DHS Inspector-General report obtained by BuzzFeed. The detention center is run by CoreCivic, a Tennessee-based for-profit contractor.
  • Reps. Filemon Vela (D-Texas) and Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who represent border districts, and Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico) voiced support for vaccinating migrants, like asylum seekers, who are allowed to cross into the United States.
  • Together with the country’s National Guard, Mexico’s migration authority, the National Migration Institute (INM), ran two deportation flights to Caribbean nations this week. It sent 89 Cuban migrants to Havana and 97 Haitian migrants to Port-au-Prince. INM also detained 241 Central American migrants at a warehouse in Puebla and 116 at a residence in Tamaulipas.

Weekly Border Update: June 18, 2021

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

CBP data points to a rise in migrants from “other” countries

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported on June 9 that in May, its agents encountered 180,034 undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. 8,023 of these “encounters” took place at official border ports of entry. 172,011 happened in the spaces between the ports of entry, where Border Patrol operates.

The Border Patrol number is a very slight reduction from April, when the agency encountered 173,686 undocumented migrants between ports of entry. Encounters with unaccompanied children dropped by 18 percent from April to May, and encounters with members of families dropped by 16 percent. Single adults increased 8 percent.

Download a PDF of border graphics from bit.ly/wola_border.

The May “encounters” number appeared to be the largest since April 2000, when Border Patrol apprehended 180,050 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. However, there is some double-counting. 38 percent of the agency’s May encounters were with people whom it had already encountered at least once in the previous 12 months.

Of May’s 172,011 encounters, then, only about 107,000 were “new” people. That is still a very high monthly number by the standards of the past 15 years at the border, but it means that the number of newly encountered people in May 2021 was significantly smaller than in May 2019 (which was perhaps 124,000 people, at that year’s recidivism rate). “The trend of border apprehensions in May is a reduction of individuals (unique encounters) and families below the peak in 2019,” reads a White House release.

A 38 percent “recidivism rate” is probably unprecedented. That number averaged 15 percent of Border Patrol’s “encountered” migrants between 2014 and 2019, and it rose to 26 percent in 2020. The reason for the increase is the pandemic response. Under a COVID-19 border measure known as “Title 42,” Border Patrol is rapidly expelling most migrants it finds, sending Mexicans and residents of some other countries back across into Mexico without detaining them. The quick procedure makes it relatively easy for migrants to attempt to cross again.

Of Border Patrol’s 897,213 “encounters” with migrants between ports of entry since October, 137,176—15 percent—were not from Mexico or from Central America’s Northern Triangle countries. That’s up from 11 percent from “other countries” in 2020, and 9 percent in 2019. In May, the “other countries” share was even larger: 23 percent of Border Patrol’s encounters. Last month, the agency encountered more citizens of Ecuador (11,655) than El Salvador (10,011).

In May, the non-Mexican, non-Northern Triangle countries whose citizens Border Patrol “encountered” most were Ecuador (11,655 May encounters, up 110% since March); Venezuela (7,371, up 213%); Brazil (7,366, up 85%); Nicaragua (4,354, up 126%); Haiti (2,704, down 12%); Cuba (2,611, down 54%); and Romania (1,203, up 214%). The Romanians are mainly members of the oft-persecuted Roma ethnic group, as Reuters reported in late May.

The 2020-21 year-on-year nationality numbers are also striking. They show great variation in the parts of the U.S.-Mexico border where migrants of different nationalities tend to arrive. Central Americans and Ecuadorians tend to arrive in south Texas and the El Paso-New Mexico area. Brazilians and Indians arrive overwhelmingly in the westernmost border sectors. Cubans and Venezuelans are arriving in sparsely populated areas: west Texas’s Del Rio sector and western Arizona’s Yuma sector (many Venezuelans are also arriving in central Arizona). The Del Rio sector has seen the largest percentage increase in migration from 2020 to 2021.

Download a PDF of border graphics from bit.ly/wola_border.
Download a PDF of border graphics from bit.ly/wola_border.

A few other facts about May, from CBP and from Mexico’s migration authorities:

  • As in March (63%) and April (64%), Border Patrol expelled 64 percent of migrants it encountered, under the “Title 42” pandemic authority.
  • Virtually no unaccompanied children were expelled, as has been the case since mid-November.
  • Border Patrol expelled 22 percent of apprehended family unit members, down from 37 percent in April and 40 percent in March. The number of family members allowed into the United States, in most cases to begin asylum proceedings, has stayed very steady since March: 31,973 in March, 30,502 in April, and 31,722 in May.
  • As in March (88%) and April (86%), Border Patrol expelled 86 percent of single adults it encountered.
  • 68 percent of encountered migrants were single adults. This is vastly different from May 2019, when only 28 percent were single adults. (This includes some double counting due to recidivism.)
  • Between January and May, Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR had received 41,195 requests for asylum in Mexico. That five-month total exceeds COMAR’s asylum requests in all of 2020 (41,179). 46 percent of requesters were from Honduras, followed by Haiti (17%) and Cuba (9%).
  • In April, the latest available month, Mexican authorities apprehended 18,709 migrants, the most since July 2019.

Biden administration loosens two Trump-era restrictions on asylum

The Department of Justice this week reversed a Trump administration restriction on eligibility for asylum, while the Departments of State and Homeland Security reinstated a program extending protection to some Central American children.

On June 16 Attorney-General Merrick Garland reversed decisions from his Trump-era predecessors, Jeff Sessions and William Barr, that severely restricted asylum for victims of domestic abuse and gang violence. In the U.S. system, immigration courts are part of the executive-branch Department of Justice. This makes the attorney-general the maximum “judge” setting guidelines for immigration judges to follow.

In 2018, in a case called “the matter of A-B,” Sessions had overruled a prior decision granting asylum to a Salvadoran woman who had fled domestic violence. In 2019, in the “L-E-A” case, Barr determined that relatives of a Mexican man targeted by a criminal organization (in this case, the hyper-violent Familia Michoacana cartel) did not qualify as members of a “particular social group” eligible for asylum.

These two decisions had severely restricted possibilities of gaining U.S. asylum for tens of thousands of migrants, especially Central Americans, who had come to the United States fleeing abusive partners or violent gangs. “In the year after his [Sessions’s] decision,” the New York Times noted, “rates of asylum granted to people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras plunged 38 percent.” Attorney-General Garland’s decision, a response to an executive order from the first days of Joe Biden’s presidency, restores asylum eligibility to what it was before the Trump administration.

Meanwhile, on June 15 the Departments of State and Homeland Security announced an expansion of the recently restored Central American Minors (CAM) Program, allows parents living legally in the United States to petition to have their children in Central America reunited with them. A few thousand children gained admittance to the United States through the CAM during the last years of the Obama administration, but the Trump administration shut down the program in 2018.

President Biden had ordered the program’s reinstatement shortly after taking office. The June 15 announcement expands the CAM, adding new categories of adults who may petition for their children to join them. Now, legal guardians and parents who are still awaiting decisions on their status, including asylum-seekers, may also apply. An unnamed official told the Los Angeles Times that as many as 100,000 petitioners may now be eligible.

Once the parents apply, the CAM program interviews the children in Central America to determine whether they qualify for refugee resettlement status. If they do not qualify, they may still be granted humanitarian parole—a temporary residency status that does not place the children on a path to citizenship, CBS News explains.

Texas’s governor wants to build a wall

At a June 16 press conference in Austin, Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) announced that “In the Biden Administration’s absence, Texas is stepping up to get the job done by building the border wall.” Abbott asked his state’s Facilities Commission to hire a program manager to oversee border wall construction.

Abbott’s administration said it would transfer $250 million from the prison system’s budget to a “down payment” on a state border wall. (Texas already spends $1.1 billion in state funds on what it categorizes as “border security.”)

It cost the Trump administration about $26.5 million per mile to build border wall in Texas; at that rate, Abbott’s “down payment” would be enough to build 9 1/2 miles of wall. At least 1,100 miles of Texas’s border is unfenced. “My guess is that if Texas has the willingness to go through multiple years of litigation, it will be able to build a smattering of wall sections,” former Bush administration DHS official Stewart Verdery told the Washington Examiner.

In Texas, most border land is privately owned. Abbott’s “program manager” will have to “identify state land and land that private landowners and local governments can volunteer for the wall,” the governor’s office’s release reads. The state land commissioner, George P. Bush, said he would grant emergency authorization to build wall on state-owned lands.

While costly private land seizures through the eminent domain process are certain to slow the Governor’s plans, he is also seeking donations of land and money, including through a website. In 2011, Arizona’s state government set up a similar wall-building donation website with a goal of raising $50 million. It ultimately collected $270,000.

While states are not empowered to enforce immigration law, Abbott signaled that he would have state police arrest migrants on charges like trespassing or smuggling, regardless of their intention to seek asylum, and to hold them in newly built jails near the border. Imprisoning parents who arrive with children would cause a new wave of family separations. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) announced that it is considering filing an injunction against Abbott’s “abuse of power and using refugee children as political piñatas.”

“We are being invaded,” Lieutenant-Governor Dan Patrick said at the Governor’s press conference. “That term has been used in the past, but it has never been more true.” He added that a 14-year-old Central American boy who arrives that the border would probably turn into a criminal: “You can’t put a 14-year-old in a fifth grade class. What is his future? Crime, low wages. No future.” Migrant advocates reacted sharply to this “invasion” rhetoric, similar to that used by a mass shooter who killed 23 people at an El Paso Wal-Mart in August 2019. “If people die again, blood will be on your hands,” tweeted El Paso Rep. Veronica Escobar (D).

As he eyes a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, Abbott is already trying to revoke licenses for federally funded shelters housing unaccompanied migrant children in Texas. He has also invited former president Donald Trump to come to the border; a visit is likely on June 30.

Together with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), he has called on “fellow governors” to send law-enforcement personnel to the Texas border. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) answered this call on June 16, announcing that state police and some county officers—mainly from the state’s western panhandle region—would head to the Texas border. “It isn’t clear what exactly the Florida officers will be doing at the border or how the mutual aid agreement will work out legally, logistically or strategically,” the Pensacola News Journal reported. DeSantis cited a jump in methamphetamine availability in Florida. About 90 percent of methamphetamine detected at the border, however, is found at official ports of entry, not the spaces in between where Florida law enforcement personnel would presumably be deployed.

GAO issues three reports and decisions about the border

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), a U.S. Congress agency that carries out rigorous audits and evaluations, issued three documents related to the U.S.-Mexico border this week. Two covered the border wall.

On June 15, GAO responded to 122 House and Senate Republicans’ request for a ruling on the legality of President Biden January 20 order pausing border wall construction. Appropriations law requires that Biden spend money specifically assigned for border barrier construction, and the Impoundment Control Act of 1974 requires the President to spend appropriations as directed by Congress.

GAO determined that Biden has not broken the law by pausing wall construction: what has happened so far are “programmatic delays, not impoundments,” and he does not have to spend the money immediately, or could alter how it is spent while still meeting the “border barrier” definition. (The White House’s 2022 budget request goes further, asking Congress to cancel these previous unspent appropriations.) Unlike former president Trump’s refusal to provide assistance to Ukraine—part of his 2019 impeachment—“the delay here is precipitated by legal requirements,” GAO concluded.

A June 17 report looks into the money that President Trump, using an emergency declaration, wrested from the Defense Department’s budget in 2019 and 2020 to build border walls as quickly as possible. GAO found that in response to the Trump administration’s demands, the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversaw wall construction, obligated $10.6 billion for construction contracts. $4.3 billion of that was for “noncompetitive contracts,” which are usually more expensive. 88 percent of the $10.6 billion went to four contractors and two of their subsidiaries.

In the end, by the time President Biden called a halt to wall construction on January 20, the Trump administration had built a full “border wall system”—with electrical hookups, access roads, and similar components—on only 69 miles of the border. The approximately 400 miles of other new and replacement wall was primarily fencing panels without the accompanying components. “While the wall panels are typically the most costly part of border barrier construction, the full wall system remains incomplete,” GAO found.

On June 11, the Biden administration had returned $2 billion of this “emergency” funding back to the Defense Department, where it will be used for military construction programs that were delayed in 2019 and 2020.

The House of Representatives had challenged the Trump administration’s 2019 emergency declaration, alleging that the president had made an end-run around a Congress that refused to approve wall funding. That case is before the Supreme Court, but the Biden administration has asked that it be dropped because the executive branch opposes the precedent of one house of Congress being able to take spending disputes to court.

On June 14, GAO issued a report about how CBP responded to, and was affected by, the COVID-19 pandemic. It found that through February 2021, more than 7,000 of CBP’s 54,500 employees had contracted COVID-19, and 24 died. “Employee absences didn’t generally have a significant impact at air, land, or sea ports, which saw declining traffic, officials told” GAO.

Border Patrol responded to the pandemic, GAO found, by deploying agents closer to the borderline, moving away from interior checkpoints and “nonessential activities” further into the U.S. interior. It also responded with the Title 42 expulsions policy. By rapidly sending most migrants back across the border into Mexico, GAO found, agents reduced their exposure to COVID-19 but also lost opportunities to gain intelligence by interviewing migrants about smugglers and other illegal activity at the border.

Links

  • Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas visited Mexico on June 14-15, his first international trip as secretary. He met with several cabinet members. “We have challenged one another with respect to what more can each of us do to address the level of irregular migration that has persisted for several months,” Mayorkas told reporters, as he echoed Vice President Kamala Harris’s “do not come” message to would-be migrants. Mayorkas discussed with Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard the possibility of phasing out pandemic restrictions on cross-border trade and travel, though no details emerged. Ebrard also raised the issue of southbound flows of weapons purchased in the United States.
  • USAID Administrator Samantha Power also paid a five-day visit to Central America from June 13 to 17, which included several meetings with prominent civil-society figures.
  • Experts from WOLA’s Mexico and Central America/Citizen Security programs published an analysis of U.S. officials’ visits, with a series of recommendations for addressing migration’s “root causes,” engaging with Mexico, and collaborating on a rights-respecting approach to migration.
  • Secretary Mayorkas testified in the House Homeland Security Committee on June 17 about his department’s 2022 budget request. The hearing was notable mainly for several testy exchanges with Republican members.
  • The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post published reports about families separating on the Mexican side of the border, usually after U.S. authorities expel them under the Title 42 “public health” order. The parents are forced to send their kids across to the United States alone, as unaccompanied children do not get expelled.
  • Janine Bouey, a former LAPD officer and veteran, filed a complaint against Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and DHS alleging that CBP agents sexually assaulted her at San Diego’s Otay Mesa port of entry. She got no result after filing an earlier complaint; this one, filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act, has an assist from Alliance San Diego.
  • Two soldiers based at Fort Hood, Texas were arrested at a Border Patrol checkpoint as they drove a civilian vehicle, in uniform, with two undocumented Mexican migrants aboard.
  • A 7,000-word Rolling Stone chronicle by Seth Harp finds that Mexico’s Gulf Cartel has come to dominate the migrant smuggling business along the easternmost 250 miles of Mexico’s side of the border, in Tamaulipas. (In fact, Harp explains, coyotes are independent, but have to pay the cartel a fee.)
  • The Associated Press reported on the psychological trauma suffered by unaccompanied migrant children held at the massive emergency shelter at Fort Bliss, Texas, while they wait for caseworkers to connect them with relatives or sponsors inside the United States. “Some had marks on their arms indicating self-harm, and federal volunteers were ordered to keep out scissors, pencils or even toothbrushes that could be used as a weapon. While girls made origami and braided friendship bracelets, a large number of the children spent the day sleeping, the volunteer [AP’s source] said. Some had been there nearly two months.”
  • The House Appropriations Committee will mark up (amend and approve drafts of) the 2022 Homeland Security appropriations budget legislation: in its Homeland Security Subcommittee on June 30 and in the full Appropriations Committee on July 13.

Weekly border update: June 4, 2021

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

(Due to staff absence, there will be no border update next week. We will report again on June 18.)

Preparations for vice-presidential visit to Mexico and Central America

Vice President Kamala Harris departs for Guatemala late on June 6 for her first foreign trip since taking office. She will spend June 7 in Guatemala and June 8 in Mexico. The trip is part of her designated role as the White House’s point person for partnering with Mexico and Central America on the “root causes” of migration.

Harris and her staff have resisted Republican and some media portrayals of her role as involving the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border. It does not: the vice president is focusing on diplomatic efforts with Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. At a June 1 briefing for reporters, vice presidential staff said “she will focus on economic development, climate and food insecurity, and women and young people,” CNN reported.

In past months, Harris has held virtual meetings with Presidents Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala and Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico. She has met with experts, former officials, and reform advocates from the region and from the United States. The Biden administration has announced $310 million in emergency assistance for the Central American “Northern Triangle” countries. The foreign aid appropriation request that the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) sent to Congress on May 28 asks for $832.6 million in new assistance to Central America for 2022. On May 27 Harris announced that 12 U.S. companies and organizations, including MasterCard, Microsoft, and Nestlé Nespresso, would be increasing their investments in the region.


2022 Foreign Aid Request by Country

  • Belize $250,000
  • Costa Rica $725,000
  • El Salvador $95,800,000
  • Guatemala $127,450,000
  • Honduras $95,800,000
  • Nicaragua $15,000,000
  • Panama $725,000
  • Central America regional funds $496,850,000

Total $832,600,000

2022 Foreign Aid Request by Account

  • USAID Global Health Programs $13,000,000
  • State Department Global Health Programs $43,600,000
  • Development Assistance $391,735,000
  • Economic Support Fund $131,000,000
  • International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement $219,665,000
  • NADR – Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction $2,000,000
  • International Military Education and Training $4,100,000
  • Foreign Military Financing $27,500,000

Total $832,600,000

This request would increase Foreign Military Financing (FMF), the State Department’s main non-drug military aid program, by a surprising $15.1 million over 2020 levels. That year, the seven Central American countries got a combined $12.4 million, of which only $1.9 million went to the Northern Triangle (El Salvador). In 2021, Congress banned FMF for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras completely. (See Section 7045(a)(2)(D) of Division K here).

We are working to find out which countries would get the expanded FMF in 2022, and for what. The budget request only says: “In Central America, FMF will support the Administration’s Root Causes Strategy by addressing gaps in maritime interdiction and domain awareness capabilities to improve security.”


In her meeting with the president of Guatemala, CBS News reports, Harris “is expected to focus on the administration’s concerns with deep-rooted government corruption, threats to the country’s judicial independence and long-running U.S.-Guatemalan missions to target drug traffickers and the Guatemalan government’s desire for more economic aid, especially in the form of private sector investment.” Harris will also meet “Guatemalan community leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs,” Mazin Alfaqih, the vice president’s special adviser for the Northern Triangle, told reporters.

Concerns about corruption and impunity in Guatemala are growing, as explained in a June 2 statement from the Washington Office on Latin America, the Latin America Working Group, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the Due Process of Law Foundation, and the Center for Justice and International Law. “In Guatemala, the rule of law has continued to deteriorate rapidly since the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala was shut down in 2019,” it reads. Recent alarming examples include a refusal to allow anti-corruption judge Gloria Porras to take her Constitutional Court seat, legal actions against prosecutors and judges who have led past anti-corruption efforts, and the impending enactment of a law that would allow the government to dissolve non-governmental organizations.

The leaders will also discuss measures to reduce asylum-seeking migration from Guatemala, whose citizens were “encountered” by U.S. border agents 128,441 times between October and April. The agenda with Guatemala includes increasing “the number of border security personnel,” CNN reports. “The US will also increase the number of its own security forces on the ground to provide training, Alfaqih said.” The White House is also working with Guatemala on the opening of the first of what will be several “migrant resource centers… that would offer assistance to would-be migrants in their home countries.”

In Mexico, beyond her meeting with López Obrador, Vice President Harris will meet with female entrepreneurs and labor leaders, said Hillary Quam, Harris’s special adviser for the Western Hemisphere. The statement from WOLA and colleagues points out serious concerns about “security, the rule of law, judicial independence, human rights violations, and the role of the military” in Mexico. President López Obrador has given the armed forces a host of new internal roles without making the institution more accountable for human rights abuses or corruption. He “has also repeatedly sought to discredit civil society organizations and journalists that he perceives as critical of his government,” including recent demands that USAID stop funding press freedom and transparency organizations in Mexico.

That Harris is visiting Guatemala but not El Salvador and Honduras points to the fraught state of the Biden administration’s relations with the Central American countries whose citizens migrate most to the United States. In all three, the Biden administration plans to provide little government-to-government assistance in its proposed 2022-2025 $4 billion aid package, for which the $832 million request for 2022 is a first tranche.

Giammattei, CBS News observes, “is seen as leading a more stable government than Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras, whose brother was indicted in the U.S. for drug possession last year and Nayib Bukele of El Salvador, whose party now has total control of the country’s government and has moved in recent weeks to strip the nation’s judicial sector of many of its rights.” The vice president has not had conversations with Hernández or Bukele; “her staff is finding the best way to engage,” reports the Los Angeles Times’ Tracey Wilkinson.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Costa Rica on June 1 and 2 engaging with some of those other governments. At a meeting with the region’s foreign ministers and Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, Blinken planned to have “a very frank and honest” exchange of views, Julie Chung, the acting assistant secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, told Wilkinson. Blinken had separate one-on-one meetings with Ebrard and with the ministers of each Northern Triangle country.

In remarks while in Costa Rica, Blinken warned would-be migrants against taking “a very dangerous journey north,” adding, “People die along the way. They experience violence, and those who do make it to our border are turned around, because the border is not open.”

Some analysts worry that administration officials’ desire to stem migration in the short term could move them in a transactional direction, easing pressure on issues like corruption and democracy when leaders do more to stop migrants. In Honduras, where serious allegations beset President Juan Orlando Hernández, “the Biden administration refuses to denounce him,” writes journalist James Fredrick in a June 3 Washington Post opinion piece. “In fact, Biden administration officials are working with Hernández to try to prevent Hondurans from fleeing.”

The June 2 statement from WOLA and partner organizations voices concern “that in the name of reaching immigration enforcement agreements to limit the number of arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Biden administration will overlook pressing human rights, rule of law, and governance issues that should be addressed with the governments of Mexico and Guatemala.”

While Mexico and Guatemala have embraced immigration enforcement, partly as a result of U.S. pressure, this neither represents an effective and holistic response to migration, nor should it be a pretext to avoid conversations about corruption, insecurity, judicial independence, and attacks against civil society organizations, journalists and justice officials.

In the midst of these concerning human rights trends, Biden administration officials have praised the Mexican and Guatemalan governments for militarized crackdowns on migrants—actions that provoke further human rights violations. In the April meeting between Guatemalan President Giammattei and Vice President Harris, the governments announced an agreement for the United States to train members of a Guatemalan task force charged with border security and immigration enforcement. Media reports leading up to Harris’s May meeting with López Obrador revealed that U.S. officials are discussing proposals for additional enforcement actions, including asking Mexico to increase detentions and deportations of migrants.

A June 4 letter to Vice President Harris from 17 organizations, including WOLA, similarly calls to ensure “that combating corruption, advancing the rule of law, and promoting respect for human rights will be central to the U.S. approach” toward the region. “At the same time,” it continues, “we are concerned by the continued focus on expanding migration enforcement in the region instead of increasing access to protection for refugees.”

Vice presidential spokespeople would not say whether conversations would cover another area where Mexico has been accommodating: the continued use of the “Title 42” pandemic authority at the border. The United States has employed Title 42 since March 2020 to expel over 200,000 non-Mexican migrants back across the border into Mexico.

Other recent moves have been less transactional. Vice President Harris met recently with four former Guatemalan prosecutors and judges who led anti-corruption efforts. USAID suspended assistance to Salvadoran security and justice institutions whose independence is now deeply in question after President Bukele and his congressional majority fired top judges and the chief prosecutor and redirected the aid to civil society and human rights organizations. In Costa Rica, Blinken said that “we’re meeting at a moment when democracy and human rights are being undermined in many parts of the region,” citing moves against judicial independence, the free press, NGOs, and opposition parties.

“Remain in Mexico” comes to a formal end as administration plans changes to asylum

With a June 1 memorandum, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas brought a formal end to the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols policy (MPP, also known as “Remain in Mexico”). In 2019 and 2020, MPP forced 71,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their court hearing dates in the United States, which for many families meant months or years stranded in dangerous Mexican border cities. Human Rights First documented at least 1,544 cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violent assaults committed against those whom the Trump administration forced to “Remain in Mexico.”

On January 20, the new Biden administration paused new referrals into MPP. On February 2, a White House executive order called on agencies to review the program and decide whether to terminate it. Mayorkas’s June 1 memo finalizing the end of “Remain in Mexico” signals the end of that review.

Starting on February 19, the administration started letting into the United States asylum-seekers who had been in Mexico awaiting their court dates. The Los Angeles Times reported on June 1 that 11,200 people with active cases have since been brought onto U.S. soil to await their hearings with relatives or other contacts.

Many more—probably about 15,000—still have pending cases. They are either waiting their turn to be allowed into the United States, in a process managed in cooperation with Mexican authorities, UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration, and NGOs, or their whereabouts are unknown. In addition, tens of thousands more had their asylum cases terminated, usually because they failed to show up on their appointed hearing dates. In at least a few cases, migrants missed those dates because they were actually being held by kidnappers in Mexico. The Biden administration has not decided whether a process will be in place to reconsider their cases.

Meanwhile the Biden administration, with a slowly growing number of exceptions, continues to maintain the “Title 42” pandemic policy. As discussed above, Title 42 has sent well over 200,000 Central American migrants back across the border into Mexico, without a chance to ask for asylum, since March 2020. Administration officials continue to offer no timeline for the policy’s lifting, even as new COVID-19 cases ebb and restrictions ease across the United States.

The result has been a confusing “lottery,” as NBC News puts it, for migrant families. In April, 35 percent of non-Mexican families (16,100 out of 46,499) whom Border Patrol apprehended were expelled under Title 42. The rest, however, got to stay in the United States to pursue their petitions for protection. In the same part of the border at different times, a family with small children can be expelled and a single adult can be allowed in.

The main reason for the inconsistency, Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol Sector Chief Brian Hastings told NBC, “is that some enter on days when Mexico cannot take them back…  ‘When they run out of shelter space a lot of times they were telling different Border Patrol sectors, ‘No, we can no longer take any additional people because we don’t have additional housing or we don’t have additional space in a lot of our facilities.’’”

Meanwhile, BuzzFeed revealed that the Biden administration is planning a significant change to the U.S. asylum system designed to ease immigration courts’ backlog of more than 1.3 million cases for just over 500 judges. It would allow asylum officers—employees of DHS’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)—to decide most asylum cases instead of immigration court judges.

Right now, asylum officers have this power in the cases of asylum-seekers who are already in the United States. For those recently apprehended at the border, though, asylum officers’ role is usually limited to performing initial “credible fear” screenings. Those whose cases meet that standard then move on into the clogged court system.

Instead, many asylum cases would end with the asylum officer’s decision, which could be appealed to the courts. This greater role for asylum officers was a key recommendation developed by the Migration Policy Institute in an October 2020 brief. “DHS officials have estimated that officers could end up adjudicating upward of 300,000 cases a year,” BuzzFeed reports.

More single adult migrants may mean more dehydration and exposure deaths on U.S. soil

The Washington Post and NBC News reported new information raising alarms that 2021 could be a record-breaking year for deaths of migrants on the U.S. side of the U.S.-Mexico border zone. Between 1998 and 2019, Border Patrol reports finding the remains of 7,805 migrants who perished of dehydration, hypothermia, animal attacks, drowning, or similar causes while seeking to avoid apprehension in very remote areas. Advocates insist the real number is much higher.

Between a pandemic-caused economic depression and because Title 42 expulsions make it easy for expelled migrants to cross again, Border Patrol is encountering more single adult migrants in fiscal 2021 than it has since the mid-2000s. The agency encountered adults 108,301 times in April, and Reuters and the Post say preliminary figures point to a further increase in May. Unlike families and children, who are mostly seeking asylum and want to be apprehended, most of this larger number of single adults instead seeks to avoid apprehension. This means they are walking long distances in sparsely populated areas, usually deserts, where the chances of being detected are smaller.

Numbers are up in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector, where for years migrants have perished as they sought to walk around a Border Patrol highway checkpoint in Brooks County, about 80 miles north of the border. Border Patrol Agent Brandon Copp, lead coordinator for CBP’s Missing Migrants Program, told NBC that this spring, even before the weather gets truly hot, he “is already responding to one to two reports of dead bodies found in the Rio Grande Valley sector each week. He said rescues of migrants in distress are up 150 percent year to year, while deaths are up 58 percent.”

Brooks County Sheriff’s Deputy Don White told the Washington Post’s Nick Miroff, “It’s going to be a brutal summer… I’ve never seen so many people coming through, it’s just crazy right now.” The county has already recovered 34 bodies and remains so far this year.

In southern Arizona, where the Pima County (Tucson) Medical Examiner’s office found more remains in 2020 (220) than it had in a decade, “2021 looks like it will be pretty significant as well,” Medical Examiner Greg Hess told the Post. Miroff cites authorities who say “dangerous crossings have also increased” in the mountains of California between San Diego and the Imperial Valley.

Border-wide, Border Patrol “is on pace to make more than 10,000 rescues during fiscal 2021, twice the number recorded in 2019 and 2020,” the Post reveals. A CBP Air and Marine Operations official noted that many of these are happening in “mountain regions, which used to be exclusively narcotics traffic.”

Border Patrol is adding 15 rescue beacons in the Rio Grande Valley so that lost or struggling migrants can more easily call for help, NBC reports. Legislation passed in December 2020 authorizes the addition of up to 170 more rescue beacons border-wide.

The Post notes that the Trump administration’s border wall construction, much of it in Arizona and New Mexico deserts, hasn’t kept migrants from crossing in dangerous areas. “Officials say the barriers have made little difference in terms of where they are encountering bodies or human remains.”

Links

  • WOLA held an event May 27 with partners along the Mexico-Guatemala border to discuss the impact of migrant enforcement policies there. We posted video this week. At Border Report, reporter Julian Resendiz noted panelists’ observations about how corruption enables smuggling in Mexico: “buses or trailers carrying migrants often pass right through some checkpoints after paying a $100 per-head fee.”
  • A June 3 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Inspector-General’s Office (OIG) “has not adhered to a number of professional standards for federal OIGs and key practices for effective management.” As a result, oversight of DHS was weakened during the Trump administration, a moment when it was badly needed. During those years, the Department’s leadership was mostly “acting,” and its personnel became involved in controversial missions ranging from family separations to combating protesters in Portland, Oregon and elsewhere.
  • Amid pandemic border closures, drug traffickers have depended more heavily on U.S. citizens to bring their product in from Mexico, the Associated Press reports. “U.S. citizens were apprehended nearly seven times more often than Mexican citizens between October 2020 and March 31 for trying to smuggle drugs in vehicles,” according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data AP cites. This is a big jump over “roughly twice as often” in 2018 and 2019. “The use of American citizens kind of ebbs and flows. Drug organizations… are much more adept at changing than the government is,” former Border Patrol sector chief Victor Manjarrez told AP.
  • The Biden administration announced a new plan to speed asylum decisions for migrants recently apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, by placing them in a separate immigration docket with the goal of handing down a decision within 300 days. However, “immigrant advocacy groups say that prioritizing speed comes at the cost of due process,” Rolling Stone reported. CBS News points out that during past so-called “rocket docket” experiences, the faster timeframe made it harder for asylum seeking families to secure legal representation. The plan will be rolled out at immigration courts in 10 cities.
  • Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R), who is running for re-election this year, issued a disaster declaration for 34 border counties, citing an “ongoing surge” of migrants and accusing the Biden administration of inaction. Rep. Henry Cuéllar, a conservative Democrat who represents a large swath of borderland, called Abbott’s move “a state version of [former President Donald Trump] declaring a border emergency.”
  • Part of Abbott’s order would end licenses for 52 Texas childcare facilities contracted by the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to house children who arrived unaccompanied at the border. These facilities were housing 4,223 unaccompanied children as of May 19, the Dallas Morning News reports. (Temporary emergency facilities housing children, like Fort Bliss, Texas, are not licensed and would be unaffected by Abbott’s order.) An HHS spokesperson told the DMN that staff are “assessing” the disaster declaration “and do not intend to close any facilities as a result of the order.”
  • Sen. Rick Scott (R-Florida) announced that he is using procedural mechanisms to slow approvals of the Biden administration’s Homeland Security nominees until the President visits the U.S.-Mexico border. Those whose approvals could be delayed include nominees John Tien for deputy secretary, Jonathan Meyer for general counsel, and Robert Silvers as undersecretary for strategy, policy and plans. It is not clear whether nominees to head CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would be affected.
  • Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) jointly toured Border Patrol facilities, including migrant shelters and “soft-sided” (tent-based) processing centers for apprehended migrants, in both of their states on June 1 and 2. The senators are co-sponsors of the “Bipartisan Border Solutions Act,” discussed in our April 30 update. The legislation would increase processing capacity and access to legal services at the border, but advocates have criticized provisions that would seek to hand down asylum decisions within as little as 72 hours, raising due process concerns.
  • Reps. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), Adriano Espaillat (D-New York), and Sylvia García (D-Texas) reintroduced the “Homeland Security Improvement Act” (H.R. 3557), legislation that passed the House in 2019. It seeks to improve internal controls, training, use of force policies, and other aspects of human rights and effectiveness at CBP and elsewhere within DHS.
  • As we await official statistics on migrants apprehended during the month of May, USA Today reports that the number of asylum-seeking family members may be reduced in Texas’s busy Rio Grande Valley. The Catholic Charities respite center, which receives nearly all families let out of Border Patrol custody, was receiving about 800 people a day in April, but “as of May, the organization had seen a decrease to 200 to 300 people daily.” In the USA Today article, local Rio Grande Valley officials and volunteers say that the Biden administration has been “slow” and is not coordinating with them enough on migrant reception.
  • Mexican asylum seekers “are the invisible refugees, a group that has historically been excluded from the U.S. asylum system and rarely featured in the media or even academic research,” in part due to “the uncomfortable and inconvenient political truths that recognizing them would pose for U.S.-Mexico relations,” a team of six U.S. and Mexican researchers writes at NACLA.
  • At Florida Public Radio’s WRLN, Tim Padgett reports on a big recent increase in asylum-seeking migrants from Venezuela at the U.S.-Mexico border, especially in the remote crossing between Ciudad Acuña, Mexico and Del Rio, Texas. Many arrived in Mexico by flying there: reporter Dudley Althaus said “they were sort of what we call business-class border migrants. More professionals and fewer laborers than you see among the Central Americans.”

Weekly Border Update: May 28, 2021

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

Reports, media coverage describe humanitarian emergency at  the border as a result of Title 42

In a column at the Los Angeles Times, three medical providers from the Refugee Health Alliance discussed what they’ve seen at the tent encampment that has sprung up around the Chaparral port of entry, on the Mexican side of the main pedestrian border crossing between Tijuana and San Diego. There, about 2,000 asylum seekers from several countries are waiting for a chance to present to U.S. officials and ask for protection in the United States.

Some are recent arrivals; many are people, including families, whom U.S. border authorities apprehended, then rapidly expelled without a chance to ask for protection. Since March 2020, the expulsions have taken place under a pandemic public health order, known as “Title 42,” that the Trump administration began and the Biden administration has continued.

“We’ve seen how this expulsion policy has caused a humanitarian emergency in northern Mexico,” write Psyche Calderon, Hannah Janeway, and Ronica Mukerjee. “We have seen increasing dehydration, malnutrition and infectious diseases associated with overcrowding. At an encampment in Tijuana that shelters some 2,000 asylum seekers, there are no formal sanitation facilities; gastrointestinal illnesses are causing severe illness in newborns and young children.”

The op-ed highlights other recent striking statistics from the border, including research that found “More than 80% of LGBTQ refugees in Baja California [the state of which Tijuana is the capital] reported surviving an assault in Mexico from mid-February to March.” 

In another recent report, Julia Neusner of Human Rights First interviewed more than 110 asylum seekers waiting in Tijuana, both at the encampment and elsewhere in the city. She found that many are threatened: “The U.S. government is delivering those expelled under Title 42 straight into the hands of criminal organizations, who extort their family members in the United States for ransom. Nearly a quarter of the fifty families I interviewed who had been expelled under Title 42 had been kidnapped in Mexico.” The report notes that Human Rights First has documented  “more than 492 public reports of assaults, rapes, kidnappings, and other violent attacks against asylum seekers impacted by Title 42 since the Biden administration took office.”

As noted in recent weekly updates, a similar encampment of asylum seeking migrants, mostly made up of people expelled under Title 42, has also sprung up on the eastern end of the border, in Reynosa, Tamaulipas.

(Encampments at the border also came up during a May 26 congressional hearing, when the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia), asked Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas about “tent cities that have been set up on the northern border of Mexico, I’m assuming, I think those for set up for the adults that are waiting for this Title 42 authority to go.” (This is incorrect, the ‘tent cities’ include many families.) In his response, Mayorkas made no mention of the encampments in Tijuana and Reynosa. He centered his answer on an earlier encampment, in the city of Matamoros, where those subject to the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy had been living until the Biden administration terminated the policy earlier this year.)

Pressure on Biden to end Title 42

As a May 24 New York Times analysis indicates, the humanitarian effect of expulsions, ongoing litigation to stop them, and expressions like the UNHCR’s call to end Title 42 discussed in last week’s update, are putting great pressure on the Biden administration to end the policy.

Times reporter Zolan Kanno-Youngs notes that Vice President Kamala Harris, who as a senator signed a letter opposing Title 42, “has changed her view on the policy.” Kanno-Youngs tweeted on May 26, “In a private call yesterday for advocates, a White House official, Alida Garcia, was asked about the rule. She called it ‘a tool for the pandemic.’ Did not give timeline.” 

Administration officials insist that they are working hard to build capacity to receive and process asylum seekers at the border. “Building asylum back better,” Mayorkas put it during the May 26 hearing. Part of that is the construction of a second Customs and Border Protection (CBP) “Central Processing Center” in El Paso, supplementing one built in early 2020, that may be large enough “to accommodate 965 detainees and a staff of 200 for the processing and temporary holding of migrants who have crossed into the U.S.,” the El Paso Times reported. Plans for the new processing center actually began under the Trump administration, using funds Congress assigned in a mid-2019 emergency supplemental appropriation.

Part of the gradual opening of asylum capacity and gradual closure of Title 42 is the deal between ACLU lawsuit plaintiffs and DHS, reported in last week’s update, to allow 250 families or individuals to enter the United States each day to begin their asylum claims. Now, at the Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana, KPBS reports, “Every morning and afternoon, Customs and Border Protection agents call out names.” It adds,

Deciding who ends up on the list that gets sent to the U.S. government is up to these service providers on the ground in Tijuana. Groups including Al Otro Lado and Casa del Migrante have been working with migrants in the camp and nearby shelters to help identify some of those 250 individuals. It’s based not on their claims of asylum from their home countries, but how much danger they face in Mexico.

“However,” the above-cited medical providers say in their May 27 LA Times op-ed, “this is nowhere near sufficient to address the widespread human rights violations and humanitarian crisis we see every day in Tijuana.”

In a whistleblower complaint, two subject-matter experts who do work for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) denounced the harms of family detention and found that Title 42 is causing the “de facto separation of children from their families, just on the Mexican side of the border.” The complaint is managed by the Government Accountability Project and was shared by the New York Times.

“There is even less of a public health justification now, when, more than a year later, arriving asylum seekers could be easily screened and tested, and currently those over 16 vaccinated, in a way that protects the public health,” the medical experts wrote.

Mayorkas testimony on eve of budget submission

The Biden administration is to submit its detailed DHS 2022 budget request (along with the rest of the federal budget) on May 28. As of this writing on the morning of the 28th, it has not appeared yet. As noted above, DHS Secretary Mayorkas testified before Senate appropriators about the funding request on May 26.

On April 9, the White House had submitted an overview document, called the “skinny budget,” that provided a few top-line numbers:

  • $52 billion for DHS overall (Mayorkas said $52.2 billion on the 26th), “approximately equal to the 2021 enacted level.”
  • $1.2 billion for border infrastructure: for ports of entry, technology, and custody of migrants, but none of it for border wall-building. Prior years’ border wall appropriations would be canceled.
  • Big increases in budget for the offices of professional responsibility (internal affairs) at CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and for DHS’s office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which receives complaints.

Sen. Capito criticized the budget request’s lack of an increase for DHS over 2021 levels: “Despite every other agency receiving substantial increases in funding, the Department of Homeland Security stands alone as the only department held virtually flat from last year.” However, the $52 billion in 2021 and 2022 is $10 billion more than 2017, $5 billion more than 2018, $3 billion more than 2019, and nearly $2 billion more than 2020.

Mayorkas told The Washington Post that DHS does not plan any 2022 cuts to staffing or detention capacity at ICE. He promised the subcommittee that the Biden administration would notify the appropriators if dealing with the 2021 increase in migration makes it necessary to reprogram or transfer funds from other DHS accounts. “I would anticipate that we will indeed seek a reprogramming, but that’s something that we are assessing right now.”

The stop to border wall funding and the overall leveling-off of the budget could make the Homeland Security bill’s passage contentious in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Though it is chaired by Democrats in the 50-50 Senate, the Committee has 15 Democrats and 15 Republicans, leaving little room for maneuver to full committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Homeland Security Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut).

Unaccompanied children updates

During three of the past four weeks, the daily number of non-Mexican migrant children arriving unaccompanied at the U.S.-Mexico border has stayed within a daily average of 360 to 390 per day. (During the other week, the number was even lower.) This rate of arrivals points to about 11,500 non-Mexican unaccompanied children (plus perhaps 2,000 Mexican children who are quickly deported) during the month of May—a significant drop from 16,500 non-Mexican kids in March and 14,700 in April.

The population of children in Border Patrol’s inadequate holding facilities, awaiting handoffs to the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s (ORR) network of short-term shelters, has leveled off in the 600s. Handoffs from Border Patrol to ORR are mostly happening within 24 hours—not more than a week, as was happening in late March and early April.

The number of children in ORR custody, including 13 large and increasingly controversial temporary emergency shelters, remains over 18,000, though this population is at its lowest level in about six weeks. During three of the past four weeks, ORR has discharged an average of more than 500 kids per day to relatives or sponsors in the United States, with whom they will live while their protection claims are adjudicated. With about 360-390 children being newly apprehended and over 500 discharged each day, the population of unaccompanied kids in U.S. government custody is gradually but steadily decreasing.

Press reports are uncovering troubling details about life in ORR’s emergency shelters. While the agency prohibits nearly all access to the facilities and requires employees to sign non-disclosure agreements, reporters have talked to some discharged children and to some unidentified employees about what’s going on inside.

A 16-year-old who spent several days at Border Patrol’s tent-based processing facility in Donna, Texas told the BBC “there were 80 girls in her cubicle and that she and most of the children were wet under their blankets, due to dripping pipes. ‘We all woke up wet,’ she said. ‘We slept on our sides, all hugged, so we stayed warm.’” Other children at Donna told of being given expired, rotten, or uncooked food. Some went many days at a time without being able to shower, and contracted lice. A 10-year-old girl told BBC “the guards threatened the children if they did not keep their cramped quarters clean. ‘Sometimes they would tell us that if we were doing a lot of mess, they were going to punish us by leaving us there more days.’”

At the Dallas convention center where ORR is keeping hundreds of kids who need to be placed with relatives or sponsors, “The children always complain about not having enough, not eating enough,” a staff member told BBC, adding that the site is cold, the boys each have one thin blanket, they are forced to spend most of their time by their cots in the main convention hall, and are given only 30 minutes of indoor recreation twice per week.

4,500 children are currently at an emergency shelter site at Fort Bliss, a large Army base outside El Paso, Texas, a site that can hold up to 10,000. There, a source told BBC, “hundreds of children are in Covid isolation, and there are designated tents at the site now for scabies and lice, of which there are also outbreaks. Sources say the living conditions are unsanitary, and that there has been at least one report of sexual abuse in the girls’ tent.”

A 16-year-old Guatemalan boy who spent 25 days at Fort Bliss told CBS, “We were trapped. We would only go to the bathroom and return to the cots.” Even though his mother was in the United States and willing to sponsor him, he did not get to talk to a case manager for three weeks.

Of the 4,500 unaccompanied kids at Fort Bliss as of May 14, government data seen by CBS andVice show, nearly 600 had been there for at least 40 days. 1,675 had been there for at least 30 days.

Vice reports that the contractor hired to set up and administer the Fort Bliss site, Alabama-based Rapid Deployment Inc., has received $614.3 million for its services; the contracts expire May 30 but could be extended through October. Rapid Deployment has built emergency shelters for natural disaster victims, but is not experienced in childcare.

The Health and Human Services Department (HHS), which oversees ORR, has abandoned plans to use the Fort Bliss facility to shelter “tender age” children (under 12 years old), CBS reports. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who represents El Paso, toured the Fort Bliss site on May 21 and told Vice that she “left convinced that ‘mega sites’ are a bad idea.’” She continued, “We need to break down these big sites. I find them depressing and disheartening. The bigger the bureaucracy, the bigger the facility, the bigger the problem. I’ve made that very clear.”

Links

  • A DHS Office of Inspector General report dated May 18 found that between July 2017 and July 2018, “ICE removed at least 348 parents separated from their children without documenting that those parents wanted to leave their children in the United States. In fact, ICE removed some parents without their children despite having evidence the parents wanted to bring their children back to their home country.” This comes after a scathing mid-January Justice Department Inspector General report, which found that then-attorney general Jeff Sessions and other officials knew that mass family separations would result from their policies, and didn’t bother to prepare the responsible agencies ahead of time.
  • In two separate incidents this week, medical personnel in Sunland Park, New Mexico, just west of El Paso, had to medically evacuate people who fell from the border wall. One was a 39-year-old Mexican woman who “suffered serious head injuries.” Sunland Park’s fire chief told Newsweek, “There are rope ladders and other tools to help migrants climb up on the Mexico side but nothing to assist them on the U.S. side, so scaling down the steel bars is a dangerous feat.” In fact, this week on the Mexican side across from Sunland Park, in western Ciudad Juárez, immigration authorities recovered two more people who suffered injuries after falling from the wall. 
  • Those who perform initial “credible fear” interviews of asylum seekers “are not trained psychologists, therapists, or social workers,” writes attorney Elizabeth Silver at the Los Angeles Review of Books. “In many cases, they are not even trained asylum officers; in fact, they are often Customs and Border Protection officers with limited training in the interview process and an entire background based in law enforcement.”
  • The Associated Press details how two immigration judges were responsible for many of 5,600 “Remain in Mexico” cases that got dismissed in San Diego during the Trump administration. In some cases, due process for asylum seekers was likely violated. At times, so that Mexico would take them back, CBP sent them across the border with “tear sheets” showing court dates that were, in fact, fake.
  • A delegation of 12 Republican members of the House Border Security Caucus was “physically restricted” from visiting the Drug Enforcement Administration’s El Paso Intelligence Center (DEA EPIC), Fox News reported. In past years, WOLA has also been refused permission to visit the secretive facility, located on the grounds of Fort Bliss.
  • “Border Patrol agents have apprehended 2,217 Romanians so far in fiscal year 2021, more than the 266 caught in fiscal 2020 and the 289 in fiscal 2019,” Reuters reports, noting that they are mostly members of the frequently persecuted Roma ethnic group.
  • Several ICE detention centers around the United States are experiencing spikes in COVID-19 cases. The agency blames newly arrived immigrants, while critics say it is failing to systematically administer vaccines to detainees, according to the Arizona Republic and the American South. The mid-May population in ICE detention centers (19,041) is much lower than pre-pandemic levels, but 34 percent greater than at the end of the Trump administration. This is in large part due to more adults apprehended at the border and not expelled under Title 42.
  • The New Yorker features a short film by Erin Semine Kokdil, “Since You Arrived, My Heart Stopped Belonging to Me,” telling the story of Central American mothers searching in Mexico for migrant children who disappeared there.
  • Using some remarkable e-mail communications obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Bob Moore at El Paso Matters reconstructs Border Patrol’s plan to carry out a “shock and awe” crowd control exercise in the city on Election Day 2018. The plan was abandoned at the last minute. “Not sure it’s going to deter anyone at this point in their journey but it sure will rile up the local advocacy groups,” a Border Patrol agent in charge wrote in one of several memorable e-mails.

Weekly Border Update: May 21, 2021

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

Title 42’s gradual loosening continues

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, issued an unusually direct statement on May 20 voicing alarm about a major state’s treatment of protection-seeking migrants. Grandi called on the U.S. government “to swiftly lift” the pandemic measure known as “Title 42,” for the part of the U.S. Code that allows border closures during quarantines. Since March 2020, Title 42 has swiftly expelled more than 750,000 undocumented migrants apprehended at the border back to Mexico or their countries of origin—including nearly all migrants who would seek asylum or other protection.

The Trump administration justified the mass expulsions in the name of public health, though later reporting revealed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not view it as necessary to expel asylum seekers. Still, the Biden administration has maintained the expulsions order, with no timetable for lifting it.

“The use of Title 42 is not a source of pleasure, but rather frankly, a source of pain,” Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said on April 30, adding “the timeline is as quickly as possible.” Todd Miller, the official performing the duties of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) commissioner, told the House Appropriations Committee on May 19 that his agency is “preparing for the eventuality of Title 42 to be lifted.”

The UNHCR statement calls on the United States “to restore access to asylum for the people whose lives depend on it, in line with international legal and human rights obligations.” Grandi acknowledges that in its first four months, the Biden administration has been building capacity—CBP’s Miller mentioned five “soft-sided,” or tent-based, processing facilities coming online near ports of entry—and is now allowing a few vulnerable asylum-seekers to present in the United States. “A system which allows a small number of asylum seekers to be admitted daily, however, carries with it a number of risks, and is not an adequate response.”

As noted in last week’s update, DHS has stopped a program of daily flights that were transporting asylum-seeking Central American families from parts of the border where Mexico was not allowing expulsions with young children, to other parts of the border where Mexico does allow such expulsions. That update also noted an agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has been in negotiations with the Biden administration over a lawsuit challenging Title 42 expulsions of families, to allow 35 of the most vulnerable expelled family members to re-enter the United States to pursue their protection claims on U.S. soil.

That number expanded this week. The ACLU told CBS News on May 18 that DHS has agreed to allow up to 250 of the most vulnerable asylum seekers to present inside the United States each day. “So far, 2,000 asylum-seekers have been admitted into the U.S. through the ACLU’s negotiations with the Biden administration,” the ACLU’s Lee Gelernt told CBS.

The modest increase in access to asylum is a stopgap measure. The 250 would be identified by advocacy groups. This “puts the burden of deciding who gets access on NGOs, which is really not our role,” Tracey Horan of the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Arizona told Public Radio International (PRI). The loosening of Title 42 is no substitute for the ACLU lawsuit, Gelernt told PRI. “We are troubled, to say the least, that the Biden administration has chosen to keep a Trump administration policy that was always a sham, was never justified by public health.”

Meanwhile, about 700 expelled asylum seekers remain stranded in the dangerous border city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico. A tent encampment in the Plaza de la República  near the port of entry is to be moved about a mile west to a space next to Reynosa’s church-run Senda de Vida shelter.

Remain in Mexico continues to unwind

The Biden administration meanwhile continues a slow but steady unwinding of the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, or “Remain in Mexico,” policy, which in 2019 and 2020 sent more than 71,000 asylum-seeking migrants from Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries back across the border into Mexico to await their U.S. hearings. After canceling Remain in Mexico on January 20, the administration has been working with UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies to bring asylum seekers into the United States to pursue their claims.

As of the end of April, Syracuse University’s TRAC Immigration data project reports, 8,387 asylum seekers had been brought into the United States under the Remain in Mexico unwinding. Another 18,087 people with open cases remained in Mexico. By May 14, the number permitted to enter the United States had risen to 10,707, a UN official told Border Report. “They’re extremely happy to be back. The program is unwinding extremely well. It was well thought out, well planned,” added Ruben Garcia of El Paso’s Annunciation House shelter.

Beyond the approximately 26,500 who still had open cases when the Biden administration took over, many migrants subject to “Remain in Mexico” had missed their court dates in the United States due to security reasons or other obstacles to showing up at a Mexican border city’s port of entry at the appointed time. Some were even being held by kidnappers when they were supposed to appear in court. As a result, U.S. immigration courts threw out their asylum claims because they were no-shows. BuzzFeed reported this week that DHS officials “have agreed that those ordered deported in absentia should have their cases reopened.”

One migrant subject to “Remain in Mexico” who will never get the chance to pursue his asylum case in the United States is Cristian San Martín Estrada, a citizen of Cuba. Estrada had been waiting in Mexico since 2019, when he was returned as an 18-year-old asylum seeker. He was scheduled to re-enter the United States “in the coming days,” according to a tweet from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Cristian San Martín Estrada was shot to death in Ciudad Juárez on the evening of May 17.

Documents reveal a CBP counter-terror unit’s focus on asylum lawyers

The Santa Fe Dreamers Project, a public interest law firm, shared with ProPublica’s Dara Lind some documents obtained from CBP through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. They reveal that U.S. asylum lawyers were flagged and interrogated by a secretive CBP unit, its “Tactical Terrorism Response Team,” apparently based on questionable and politicized intelligence.

El Paso-based asylum lawyer Taylor Levy (interviewed about her work in a May 2020 WOLA podcast) tells ProPublica that CBP held her for hours at the port of entry in January 2019, when she returned from dinner with friends in Ciudad Juárez. ProPublica reports, “She didn’t know why she was being questioned by an agent who’d introduced himself as a counterterrorism specialist,” along with attorney Héctor Ruiz.

The documents revealed that the Tactical Terrorism Response Team was acting on incorrect intelligence alleging that Levy had met with members of a October 2018 migrant “caravan.”

These “caravans”—migrants who, seeking to avoid having to pay a smuggler, attempted to cross Mexico in large groups for safety in numbers—never added up to more than a single-digit percentage of migration from Central America to the United States. Today, Mexican or Guatemalan forces tend to disperse caravans long before they get anywhere near the U.S. border.

Nonetheless, the caravan phenomenon had alarmed the Trump administration and conservative media outlets, leading the president to send active-duty troops to the border, where some remain today. Now we know that the Trump administration also devoted CBP’s counter-terrorism resources to caravan-related missions, and that it cast its net so widely as to include asylum lawyers.

Among the documents newly released to the Santa Fe Dreamers Project is a remarkable mid-2019 Border Patrol intelligence report from El Paso, which reads more like a Breitbart editorial than the work of intelligence professionals:

Mass migration from South America into the United States is said to be coordinated at some level by non profit organizations who wish to line their pockets with proceeds deriving from migrants transportation fees up to the U.S Mexico border, and ultimately proceeds deriving from the migrants paying for their asylum case lawyers once they have arrived to the United States.

The report, ProPublica states, “goes on to associate this effort with ‘other groups such as Antifa,’” which is not in fact a “group.”

Taylor Levy’s colleagues recall that she was critical of the migrant caravan tactic, and had not met with its members, nearly all of whom went to Tijuana, not Ciudad Juárez. Ruiz, the other lawyer, had spoken to an assembly of caravan participants when they passed through Mexico City, advising them about the stringency of U.S. asylum law and the low probability that those with unclear claims would be allowed to stay.

Levy and Ruiz “also recall being asked about their beliefs,” ProPublica continues. “Levy remembers an agent asking her why she worked for a Catholic aid organization if she didn’t believe in God, while Ruiz told ProPublica they were asked about their opinions of the Trump administration and the economy.”

A modest increase in unaccompanied children, amid concerns about emergency shelters

After weeks of steady decline, including a sharp drop during May 9-13, Border Patrol encountered a larger number of non-Mexican unaccompanied migrant children during May 16-19. The agency averaged 393 encounters with unaccompanied kids so far this week, similar to the 387 daily encounters two weeks ago but up sharply from last week’s 268.

This may just be a normal fluctuation, while arrivals of unaccompanied kids remain over 100 per day fewer than they were  in late March and early April. Other possible explanations could be seasonal variation, as May is often the heaviest month of the year for migration; smugglers adjusting to Mexico’s increased migrant interdiction efforts; more parents expelled under Title 42 making the gut-wrenching decision to separate and send their children across the border alone; or an increase in children from one or two particular countries.

The number of “encountered” children in Border Patrol’s holding facilities remains a tiny fraction of what it was, an average of 736 per day this week, compared to more than 5,000 at the end of March. This means that the agency remains able to hand unaccompanied kids over quickly to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). A 2008 law requires that ORR shelter non-Mexican children while seeking to place them with relatives or other sponsors in the United States, with whom they stay while the immigration court system considers their asylum or protection needs. (Most Mexican children are quickly deported, as the law allows, regardless of their protection needs.)

As of May 19, ORR had 19,344 unaccompanied migrant children in its shelter system. The agency expanded its capacity by hastily opening up 13 emergency facilities around the country, at sites like convention centers, tent camps, and a U.S. Army base, Fort Bliss, in El Paso.

Unlike ORR’s normal shelters, these emergency facilities are not licensed childcare facilities: instead, they more closely resemble shelters for hurricane evacuees, with rows of cots in giant rooms and few activities to pass the time. On May 14 HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra visited one such site, at the Long Beach, California convention center. He acknowledged that conditions at the various emergency facilities vary “site by site.”

Child welfare advocates have voiced alarm. Lawyers permitted to visit facilities under the 1997 Flores settlement agreement described to CBS News “limited access to showers, soiled clothes and undercooked food” and children feeling “sad and desperate,” even suicidal.

“As of late April,” CBS notes, “more than 300 migrant boys had spent over 50 days at a Dallas convention center” with no ability to go outside. At Fort Bliss, “multiple white tents…each house about 900 children, who sleep on bunk cots.” About 4,400 children are currently at the army base, and the number could grow to 10,000 as the pandemic’s ebbing causes other facilities, like convention centers, to revert to their original purposes.

“I know the administration wants to take a victory lap for moving children out of Border Patrol stations—and they deserve credit for doing that,” Leecia Welch of the National Center for Youth Law, one of the lawyers permitted to tour some facilities, told the New York Times. “But the truth is, thousands of traumatized children are still lingering in massive detention sites on military bases or convention centers, and many have been relegated to unsafe and unsanitary conditions.”

Under great pressure to do so, ORR has been working to speed its discharges of children from shelters to families and sponsors. The agency has discharged an average of 481 children per day this week, down slightly from over 500 during the previous two weeks. An HHS official told CBS News that children are spending an average of 29 days in its shelters, down from 42 days in late January. Obstacles to faster discharges include a shortage of case officers and the time-consuming nature of vetting relatives and sponsors, including background checks, to ensure that children will be safe with them.

Links

  • The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is closing two ICE detention centers where alleged abuses of inmates had been widespread. The Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia gained notoriety last September when women detained there said they had been subject to non-consensual hysterectomies and other surgeries. Also closing is the C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts.
  • On May 12, DHS requested that the Defense Department extend the Trump administration’s National Guard deployment at the border beyond September 30, when fiscal year 2021 ends. “The Department is currently considering that request,” Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell said on May 18. Defense Department press secretary John Kirby would not confirm whether a post-September border presence would include active duty troops in addition to National Guardsmen, an unusual deployment that Trump launched in 2018. About 4,000 guardsmen remain at the border.
  • The number of internal affairs officers at CBP—professionals who investigate claims of corruption, human rights abuse, or other malfeasance—increased from 174 in 2015 to 252 in 2019. The agency would need about 750, the Cato Institute reports, to have a ratio of agents to internal affairs officers comparable to that of the New York Police Department.
  • Lawyers working with the Biden administration have located 54 more parents whom the Trump administration separated from their children in 2017 and 2018. “Now the parents of 391 children have yet to be reached, down from 445 in April,” NBC reported. Roughly 1,000 families remain separated overall. Meanwhile, as BuzzFeed reminds, it is still CBP policy to separate asylum-seeking children traveling with non-immediate relatives, like aunts or uncles.
  • The latest Metering Update from the University of Texas Strauss Center finds 18,700 names of asylum seekers waiting their turn to approach still-closed ports of entry in eight Mexican border cities—a 15 percent increase from February. The authors warn that border cities’ waitlists have become an inexact indicator of trends: many on the lists have since sought to cross between ports of entry, returned or been deported to their countries of origin, or moved elsewhere in Mexico, while new asylum seekers continue to arrive and don’t always sign on.
  • “Rather than attempting to drive down migration through more-stringent enforcement, Biden officials in recent weeks have been seeking to change the perception that high border numbers equate with a crisis, a failure, or even something manifestly negative,” reports Nick Miroff at the Washington Post.
  • January 23 was the date that Tamaulipas, Mexico stopped taking back expelled non-Mexican families with children under age 7, according to House Appropriations testimony from Todd Miller of CBP. After Mexico and Central America’s “Northern Triangle” countries, Miller revealed, the next six countries whose citizens Border Patrol is currently apprehending at the border are Ecuador, Cuba, Brazil, Venezuela, Haiti, and Nicaragua. More Brazilians are arriving “on the western flank” of the border.
  • On May 27 at 11am ET WOLA is hosting with a webinar with the  Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center, La 72 Migrant Shelter, and the Jesuit Migration Network-Guatemala about the impact of migration enforcement policies in Mexico and Guatemala. You can register for the event here.
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