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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Unaccompanied Children at the Border: Update through September 7

New arrivals of unaccompanied children are trending steadily downward at the US-Mexico border, after rising in July.

The population of unaccompanied children in Border Patrol custody is way down, below 500 for the first time in 4 months.

The number in the Health and Human Services Department’s (HHS) network of shelters, awaiting placement with US-based relatives or sponsors, remains stubbornly over 14,000.

HHS hasn’t increased the pace at which it discharges children since early May.

The data comes from 116 daily reports saved in a zipfile (13.5 MB) at http://bit.ly/uac_daily.

Remain in Mexico plus Title 42 would mean a vicious two-tiered system of asylum denial at the U.S.-Mexico border

With Trump-appointed judges and the Supreme court forcing the Biden administration to re-start the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, or “Remain in Mexico”) program at the border, watch what happens to migrants according to their nationality.

If Remain in Mexico gets implemented at even some of the intensity that it was during the Trump years, and if the Biden administration at the same time continues expelling many migrants—including asylum seekers—under the Title 42 pandemic authority, then something ugly might happen.

Basically, we can group affected migrants into three types of nationalities.

First, citizens of Mexico have always had a hard time making asylum cases in the United States. They weren’t subject to “Remain in Mexico” but were massively expelled back to Mexico after the pandemic measures went into effect in March 2020. Here’s all Mexican citizens encountered at the border, and then those traveling as families (parents with children):

Second, citizens of the “Northern Triangle” countries—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—were massively placed into “Remain in Mexico.” Then, after March 2020—because Mexico agreed to take most of them—they’ve been massively expelled under Title 42, also. No matter what happens, they’ve had a slim chance at due process when they ask for protection in the United States.

Attorneys who work with expelled migrants tell me that they hear constant horror stories from parents with kids stuck in Mexican border cities about what happens to them at the hands of criminal groups after they’re expelled.

Third, citizens of several other Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries were subject to “Remain in Mexico,” and many ended up in Mexican border towns. But they haven’t been expelled in large numbers under Title 42 for logistical or consular reasons.

Mexico won’t take them as expulsions across the land border. It’s expensive to fly them back to their countries of origin, and some of their governments (Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela) have poor relations with the United States.

They’re not as much part of this story, but it’s worth mentioning that there are a few other countries, particularly Haiti, whose citizens didn’t have to remain in Mexico, but in some cases have been expelled by air.

In July, 23 percent of migrants—and 31 percent of families—encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border were from countries whose citizens weren’t being massively expelled, but would have had to “remain in Mexico” when Trump was president. Right now, few are being expelled.

72 percent of migrants—63 percent of families—were from Mexico and Central America, and still often subject to expulsion under the Title 42 pandemic order.

If they get carried out together right now, Remain in Mexico combined with Title 42 would create a very ugly two-tiered system.

Keep in mind that Title 42 is even worse than Remain in Mexico because it doesn’t even give asylum seekers a court date in the United States. So if the courts force a true restart of Remain in Mexico, nearly one-third of families might get shoved into Mexico with a court date, while most of the rest wouldn’t even get that. That’s a new level of malice.

Unaccompanied children at the border: update through August 30

Here’s some updated data on unaccompanied migrant children.

New arrivals of kids at the US-Mexico border have declined somewhat after sharp growth in July. But more are arriving than were in May-June.

The number of kids in Border Patrol’s child-inadequate holding facilities jumped up in August, but now is back below 1,000.

After a bump in August, the number of kids in the Health and Human Services Department’s network of shelters, awaiting placement with US-based relatives or sponsors, is similar to late June. The population stubbornly remains between 14,000 and 15,000 kids.

Last week, HHS discharged more children per day from its shelters, on average, than in any prior week. 594 per day.

Subtract the number of kids discharged by HHS, from the number of unaccompanied kids newly apprehended by Border Patrol, and last week was the third straight week when the population in US government custody declined. That’s good.

Download a 12-megabyte zipfile of all 111 daily reports used to make these graphics, from http://bit.ly/uac_daily. Like this one:

Very bad year for border deaths

“Through July,” Simon Romero reports at the New York Times,” Border Patrol officials found 383 dead migrants, the highest toll in nearly a decade, and one already far surpassing 253 recovered in the previous fiscal year.”

Here’s that number in the context of the past 24 years:

Migrants trying to avoid apprehension die in shockingly high numbers, usually of dehydration or exposure, on U.S. soil. Local NGOs usually find much higher numbers of remains than Border Patrol does in the areas where they operate.

This is an especially bad year. It’s been a summer of record-high heat. The pandemic “Title 42” policy, which instantly expels most apprehended migrants—even many asylum-seekers—gives some migrants an extra incentive to avoid apprehension, but also eases repeat attempts to cross.

It’s so bizarre how little attention this gets. Somebody dies a painful death on U.S. soil every day—yet stories like Romero’s Times piece today are remarkably rare.

Unaccompanied migrant children at the border appear to be declining again. Who knows why.

You may recall that in March, in its early months, the Biden administration was hit by a large increase in unaccompanied migrant children, mostly from Central America, being apprehended at the border. Numbers of children began dropping in April and May, only to rise again in June and July. Now, they’re dropping again.

As a result, the number of kids stuck in Border Patrol’s child-inappropriate holding facilities, which had been rising alarmingly a couple of weeks ago, has dropped again.

By law Border Patrol must, as fast as possible, release unaccompanied children to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which manages a network of shelters around the country. Currently, a few thousand children are in short-term emergency shelters where conditions are austere and grim. Health and Human Services must discharge children to relatives or other sponsors in the United States, with whom they stay while their asylum or protection cases are adjudicated.

Health and Human Services increased the pace of its discharges to U.S. sponsors in the weeks after the initial “wave” of children. Since then, though, the pace of discharges flattened out.

As a result, the full population of kids in U.S. government custody—17,174 on August 18—has barely budged: it hasn’t been below 15,000 in a long time. The last two weeks, at least, appear to have seen net decreases.

I made these charts using a collection of (as of today) 103 daily reports on unaccompanied children, issued by Customs and Border Protection and Health and Human Services. You can download those as a big (11MB) zipfile at bit.ly/uac_daily.

Since mid-July, a really big jump in migration

Valerie González at Texas’ Rio Grande Valley Monitor has a big scoop this afternoon:

Title 42, a federal public health code used to expel a large portion of migrants seeking asylum, is as of late this week no longer in effect for migrant families across the country, according to a federal Mexican source, and the implications of which may have already been seen in the Rio Grande Valley.

According to the source, they were made aware of the changes since Wednesday, but said no official communication had been released by Mexico’s office of Foreign Relations and the National Institute of Immigration, also known as SRE and INM. 

…By the end of the week, the practice was no longer applied to migrant families when Mexico began to decline accepting them. 

Since the pandemic hit in March 2020, the Trump and Biden administrations have sought to expel as many migrants as possible shortly after encountering them at the U.S.-Mexico border, without affording them a chance to petition for asylum. The Biden administration hasn’t applied this “Title 42” expulsions policy to unaccompanied children, but it expelled 65,920 family members between February and June. WOLA and a host of other organizations have bitterly opposed Title 42.

Mexico was made to agree to accept expelled families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. It started making exceptions to that in late January, refusing expulsions of non-Mexican families with small children to the state of Tamaulipas, which is across from the U.S. Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector in south Texas:

That is the sector where most Central American families arrive. As a result of the Tamaulipas limitation, Border Patrol has expelled families much less often from the Rio Grande Valley sector than elsewhere. See the rightmost set of columns here:

Now, Mexico’s ban on using Title 42 to expel non-Mexican families appears to be in place border-wide, even if the Mexican government hasn’t acknowledged it. (Why don’t they acknowledge these things? It’s not as though U.S. border authorities wouldn’t find out immediately.)

This is happening amid a jump in migration that appeared to start sometime after the July 4 holiday. González, who has been doing some excellent reporting from the Rio Grande Valley, has documented steady increases in the past two and a half weeks in the number of migrants—families, adults, unaccompanied children—stuck unprocessed in Border Patrol custody, just in this sector alone:

  • July 14: 3,500 in custody
  • July 19: 5,000 in custody
  • July 25: 7,000 in custody
  • July 31 (this morning): 10,000 in custody

Border Patrol’s rustic, jail-like Rio Grande Valley facilities have a capacity of only about 3,000.

You can see the post-July 4 increase in migration by charting out numbers of unaccompanied children whom Border Patrol is encountering at the border. Since their numbers jumped to record levels in March, the government has been providing daily (weekday, non-holiday) reports. (Get them all in a zipfile at bit.ly/uac_daily.) Here’s what that looks like:

You can see that on an average day, roughly 100 or more kids are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border unaccompanied now than were in late June and early July. If adults and families are following a similar pattern, we’re seeing an unprecedented July increase over already very high levels of undocumented migration. And as COVID travel restrictions ease worldwide, the numbers are likely to grow further.

The likely impact of Mexico’s shutdown of Title 42 family expulsions will be an increase in arrivals of families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras at the border. This may not be a tremendous increase, since—as the first chart above shows—70 percent of families from those countries arriving in the Rio Grande Valley were already being processed in the United States instead of expelled. But still, an increase is most likely.

If families face no danger of expulsion, though, we may see a decrease in arrivals of unaccompanied children. In a painfully large but unknown number of cases, families have been separating on the Mexican side of the border, with parents sending children across unaccompanied because they won’t be expelled. Without Title 42, families can attempt to petition for asylum while staying intact.

However, families who don’t ask “correctly,” or who fail “credible fear” interviews, may be flown home under the “expedited removal” policy that the Biden administration revived this week. Those deportation flights back to Central America restarted a couple of days ago.

Families that get expelled, or not, at the border

Here’s a chart showing, by nationality, whether Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been deciding to process migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, or whether it has been deciding to expel those families under the “Title 42” pandemic order.

When the Trump administration promulgated Title 42 in March 2020, Mexico agreed to take back many expelled migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, as well as others who have Mexican visas.

The Biden administration is expelling fewer families, but your chances of getting an opportunity to seek asylum remain reduced if your family is from Mexico or Central America’s Northern Triangle.

A few important border graphics

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

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

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

ICE’s Removals of Cubans and Venezuelans Have Spiked Under Trump

This week DHS released its latest Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, offering data through 2019. It includes a table (Table 41, use the Excel version to get all years) of how many citizens ICE sent back to each country.

Look what happened to removals of Cubans and Venezuelans since Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant administration took office in 2017. Note that this doesn’t count Venezuelans whom the administration, we’ve now learned, has been stealthily sending back to Caracas via third countries.

Recall that despite this, fuzzy initial data show Trump beating Joe Biden among Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American early voters in Miami-Dade, Florida, where much of this community lives.

Why? Because in a dirty social-media-heavy campaign reminiscent of Colombia’s 2016 peace plebiscite, the Trump campaign and its surrogates have successfully implanted the idea that Joe Biden is a communist who would support the regimes that they fled. It’s amazing that they’ve gotten away with this while spiking deportations back to those same regimes.

Your chances of getting asylum vary by an absurdly wide margin across immigration courts

Syracuse University’s TRAC Immigration project, which obtains and presents official data, just posted information about asylum decisions in U.S. immigration courts in 2020. They found that the courts granted asylum or other relief in only 28.4 percent of cases during the 2020 fiscal year, down from 45.4 percent in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration.

Also remarkable, when you dig into their database, is the disparity among immigration courts. Though judges are following the same laws and guidelines, they’re many, many times more willing to grant asylum in New York or San Francisco than they are in Houston or Atlanta. Nobody has a great explanation for why that is.

Find this chart, and a few dozen other border and migration data visualizations, at bit.ly/wola_border, a continually updated PDF document.

Official June data from the border: single adults are migrating in the desert heat

U.S. Customs and Border Protection did its monthly data dump yesterday, reporting on how many people the agency, which includes Border Patrol, apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border last month. As the Washington Post noted, the most notable trend was a 40% increase, over May, in the number of undocumented migrants that Border Patrol encountered—even as the border is mostly shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A year ago, the big story at the border was children and families from Central America seeking asylum. The Trump administration has illegally ended asylum at the border for nearly everyone, so numbers of kids and parents have dropped sharply.

Instead, graphing the data out shows that all of the increase is in single adults, mainly from Mexico. Adults are blue in the charts below.

Keep in mind that adults are less likely to be seeking asylum. This means they’re probably trying to avoid being apprehended by Border Patrol. That in turn means many are probably migrating through some of the remotest, most treacherous parts of the border—at the very height of summer, when the desert heat is at its worst. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, there may be a spike in migrant deaths on U.S. soil, from dehydration and exposure, as a result of the COVID-19 border crackdown. Already, official Border Patrol Twitter feeds are full of accounts of rescues.

These graphics, and a few dozen others, are always available as a big PDF file at http://bit.ly/wola_border. Also of interest there are the ones showing a pretty big June jump in drug seizures, again “despite the pandemic.”

What a dramatic geographic difference over 2 months

Of the top 20 states for new COVID-19 cases, 9 weren’t on the list 2 months ago, and 6 more have moved sharply up the list.

For decades, people will be studying the decisions the United States made right now and wondering why we acted the way we did.

It’s not about “those red states.” It’s just unspeakably sad.

A few April border charts

U.S. Customs and Border Protection released data on migrant apprehensions and drug seizures during April, the first month during which the U.S.-Mexico border spent entirely under near-closure quarantine.

As expected, the number of undocumented migrants apprehended at the border declined, as did seizures of nearly all drugs. However, April was not the month of least migration in recent memory, as I’d expected. Despite a lockdown of the border and immediate, legally dubious “expulsions” of most border-crossers, the 15,862 people apprehended by Border Patrol last month was still a higher monthly total than February through April of 2017, when migration plummeted following Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Here’s what monthly drug seizures at the border look like. Though they are down, you don’t see a sharp break in March and April. It may be that traffickers are still trying to cross with the same amount of product as always, despite the stricter border measures. Or it may be that CBP, with a lot less traffic to inspect, is seizing a larger percentage of a smaller overall quantity of smuggled drugs. No idea.

I’ve got a bunch more infographics to update, but as you can see from all the other things I’m putting on this site this evening, it’s been a long and full day, even my late-afternoon coffee is wearing off, and I’m likely to make mistakes. So more tomorrow.

U.S. COVID-19 cases in the past week

When I get anxious about something, I may make a spreadsheet about it to try to understand it better. (Doesn’t everyone?) So I made these using the New York Times case data at Github, and the COVID Tracking Project Google Docs.

In the end, I don’t know what this all means—this is far from my specialty. But what I think it means is:

  • Northeastern states still have some of the fastest growth in coronavirus cases, but this may also be a measure of more aggressive testing. As a percentage of population, New York has done five times more testing than Texas.
  • The South is showing up a lot more, more than when I ran these numbers last week.
  • Some states (California, Minnesota) have low testing, but also may genuinely have slow growth because they’ve been strict about social distancing. Others (Texas, Georgia, Iowa) have low testing, and may be missing a lot of what’s happening.
  • Virginia and Alabama are among states with the highest percentage growth in cases despite being in the bottom 15 for testing. That seems alarming.

Past week’s growth in U.S. coronavirus cases

Using the New York Times database on GitHub, I wanted to see which U.S. states had seen the greatest growth in COVID-19 cases over the past seven days (April 2-9).

It’s all here in the northeast and mid-Atlantic, or at least this is where more people are able to take tests that turn out positive. Here are the states that rank in the top 20 on at least two of the three categories below.

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