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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Migration

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.”

Migration will increase at the border again. Don’t freak out.

Here’s a new, forward-looking analysis that I wrote with several of my colleagues at WOLA, working on it bit by bit over the past month.

The target audience for this are people who will be in policymaking positions after Election Day, and after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. Most of these people won’t want to keep the cruel and illegal Trump border and migration policies in place. But some of them might be tempted to leave them in place for a while, for fear of facing a “tsunami” of migration at the border.

That’s not necessary, we argue here. Through inexpensive, low-drama strategies that don’t fit on a bumper sticker, the U.S. government can manage migration at its southern border in an orderly, humane way.

It’s about ports of entry and processing, alternatives to detention, functioning immigration courts, rule of law assistance in Central America, and asylum capacity in Mexico.

Read more here. We’ll be slicing-and-dicing these arguments in order to get them in front of audiences that don’t have time to read more than a single page of bullet points.

COVID-19 Border Closure Could Lead to Jump in Migrant Deaths in Summer Months

While going through the latest border numbers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), I found something alarming.

  • Even though the U.S.-Mexico border is effectively closed, with U.S. authorities expelling nearly all Mexicans and Central Americans right back into Mexico, apprehensions of migrants jumped from April to May.
  • The increase in migration is entirely single adults, mostly from Mexico.
  • For the most part, single adults are not seeking asylum. Instead of trying to be apprehended, they’re trying to evade Border Patrol.
  • “Trying to evade” means migrating through some of the most dangerous parts of the border area, where a lot of migrants die of dehydration and exposure.
  • The numbers of single adults are rising just as we hit the hottest and deadliest months of the summer in the borderlands’ deserts.

I wrote this up as a brief, graphical analysis on WOLA’s website. Look at the overlap between the border sectors seeing the most single adult migrants, and the sectors that have been deadliest since 1998. People are going to die.

Read more here.

WOLA Podcast: Practicing Asylum Law in El Paso: “MPP is just—it’s utterly insane”

I enjoyed recording this conversation with someone I admire a lot, El Paso-based asylum attorney Taylor Levy. Here’s the narrative from the WOLA podcast web page:

In mid-2019 the Trump administration ramped up its “Remain in Mexico” program, forcing tens of thousands of non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their hearing dates in Mexican border cities. In order to do her job, Taylor Levy, an asylum attorney in El Paso, Texas, found herself spending most of her time on the other side of the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

This gave Levy a firsthand look at the cruelties of the Trump administration’s war on the right to seek asylum at the border—some of them dramatic and shocking, some of them everyday outrages.

In March 2020, when the spread of COVID-19 made a border closure look more likely, Levy relocated to Ciudad Juárez in order to serve her clients. She remained there until the pandemic forced the hotel where she was staying to close down.

In this podcast, Taylor Levy shares some of her recent experiences and some dire warnings about what is to come. Hers is a gripping testimony about what it is like to be on the ground in the middle of one of the worst human rights crises in recent Latin American history—one created by U.S. policy.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

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.

Government reports relevant to Latin America obtained in April

  • Latest edition of a regular CRS overview of Mexican politics and economics, U.S.-Mexican relations, and assistance. Good U.S. aid numbers.
    Clare Ribando Seelke, Mexico: Background and U.S. Relations (Washington: Congressional Research Service, April 29, 2020) https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R42917.
  • Latest edition of a regular CRS overview of Honduran politics and bilateral relations with the United States.
    Peter J. Meyer, Honduras: Background and U.S. Relations (Washington: Congressional Research Service, April 27, 2020) https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/RL/RL34027.
  • The Government Accountability Office found that Customs and Border Protection wildly overspent on a tent facility to house apprehended migrants during late 2019.
    U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Management of a Temporary Facility in Texas Raised Concerns about Resources Used (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, April 9, 2020) https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-321R.

WOLA comment on the CDC border ban

Under something called an “Interim Final Rule,” the Trump administration has sealed the U.S.-Mexico border since March 20 to all “inessential” travel. This means those without proper travel documents are getting expelled in as little as 90 minutes.

These expulsions are happening even to people asking for asylum or protection in the United States. Right now our government is sending hundreds of people directly back to danger.

This rule comes with a public comment process, and last Thursday was the deadline for getting in comments. With the text linked here and as a PDF here, WOLA was among dozens of organizations to submit comments. While I doubt it will get the Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services to alter the rule, the collection of comments from organizations, taken together, is a remarkable document.

At World Politics Review: Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Crackdown Is Creating New Coronavirus Hotspots

Yesterday World Politics Review—which uses a paywall but I think will let you read it if you give them an e-mail address—ran my column about what’s happening at the border right now. It identifies the four virus hotspot vectors that the Trump administration is creating by insisting on the hardest line approach to migration in response to the pandemic. Those are Mexican border towns where people are being summarily expelled; ICE detention centers; places where ICE deportations are still going on; and the sites where itinerant construction workers are still building the border wall.

Read more here.

For the rest of their lives, these people will think about what they did this week

This is from my weekly e-mail newsletter, in which I vent about how worried I am about COVID-19’s potential to kill a lot of people stuck in ICE’s network of immigrant detention centers.

People are going to die. It is going to be bad. And it’s totally preventable: alternatives to detention programs have good records of keeping people on the outside from slipping through the cracks.

WOLA and other organizations are making a lot of noise. Members of Congress—though no Republicans I’m aware of—are making a lot of noise too. But the top levels at ICE, DHS, and the White House are immovable.

I can’t stop wondering what’s going through the minds of the people directly managing these detention centers right now. Most of them are employees of private corporations like CoreCivic and Geo Group. They’ve got to know what’s about to happen. Many of them were raised to value human life—in their churches, in their upbringings, in their educations.

What are they doing now? If detention centers get hit by a wave of COVID-19 deaths, what will the record show that they were doing—right now, this week—to prevent it? Are they frantically making phone calls, sending e-mails, leaking to reporters, making their CEOs and boards miserable, contacting their local mayors, governors, and congressional representatives?

COVID-19 Reveals the Full Trump Immigration Agenda, and Puts Lives Directly at Risk

Here’s a cross-post of a piece about the border right now that I wrote for Brújula Ciudadana (Citizen Compass), the publication of Mexico’s Iniciativa Ciudadana. They published it yesterday. (Hay también una versión en español.)

COVID-19 Reveals the Full Trump Immigration Agenda, and Puts Lives Directly at Risk

Adam Isacson

Director for Defense Oversight
Washington Office on Latin America

All around the world, leaders are seizing the COVID-19 emergency as an opportunity to grab authoritarian power. In the United States, this is happening in the arena of border and migration policy. The coronavirus crisis is allowing extremists in the Trump White House to make their full agenda a reality, without any discussion, debate, or oversight.

Before, there were some brakes. Congress wouldn’t approve requests to fund wall-building or expanded detention. Courts, at their slow tempo, were halting some excesses. Laws and treaty obligations were still permitting some threatened migrants to enter the country.

Now, the brakes are off. The hardest line is, for now, official policy. Most urgently, some of what is happening threatens to make the coronavirus emergency worse, creating new disease vectors in the United States, Mexico, and Central America.

The list of measures is long and alarming.

First, for the first time since passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, there is no right to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, at least for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. The border’s land ports of entry are closed to all without documents: the practice of “metering” that caused migrants to add their names to waiting lists throughout Mexican border towns is suspended, as zero people per day are now admitted to petition for asylum. Under a secretive policy called “Operation Capio,” border authorities are expelling all apprehended Mexicans, and nearly all Central Americans, back into Mexico in an average of 96 minutes. (Mexico has agreed to take Central Americans on a case-by-case basis, but in practice is accepting nearly all of them.)

These “expelled” migrants do not get a chance to ask for asylum. If one specifically raises the possibility of being tortured if returned-Border Patrol agents aren’t required to ask-then a Border Patrol supervisor, not a trained asylum officer, will decide whether his or her claim is credible. It is still not clear what is happening to the approximately 15 percent of apprehended migrants who are not Mexican or Central American, mainly Cubans, Haitians, Brazilians, Venezuelans, and people from other continents.

Second, even unaccompanied Central American children are being returned, though a 2008 law specifically states that unaccompanied children from non-contiguous countries must be admitted as potential trafficking victims. The Trump administration’s hardliners always detested this law, viewing it and other asylum statutes as “loopholes” for evading immigration restrictions. They have a legal pretext for the actions they are taking now: a law from 1944 that allows U.S. authorities to “suspend the right to introduce” people into the United States “in the interest of public health.” Though nothing in this law places it above the Refugee Act’s requirement to take in asylum seekers with credible fear, that is how the Trump administration is interpreting it: as a law that supersedes all others in the name of the COVID-19 pandemic. Right now, people in real need of protection at the U.S. border, people who could die without asylum, are being summarily expelled.

Third, the asylum hearings of those forced to “Remain in Mexico” have been postponed at least until May. This might make some sense, as courtrooms full of people are nowhere to be during a pandemic. But the result is that families are being forced to report to the border crossings on their assigned dates, only to be handed a piece of paper with a new hearing date far into the future. Their wait, in border cities where crimes against migrants are frequent, is being further prolonged. While they wait, many are packed into substandard housing, in close proximity to people who may be infected with COVID-19. Many are crowded into shelters run by charities, some of which are closing their doors out of health concerns. The worst-off are subsisting in tent cities, like the one in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, where about 2,500 people are awaiting their asylum dates with poor sanitation and little clean water.

Fourth, deportations are continuing in Mexico and Central America, with little reduction. ICE aircraft are arriving in San Salvador, Tegucigalpa, and Guatemala City every day or two, despite these countries’ closure of borders and air traffic to prevent introduction of COVID-19. Some of those aboard these flights are people being quickly expelled from the border. Others were arrested in the interior of the United States and spent time in detention. ICE is not testing deportees for coronavirus infection-the United States lacks testing capability. Agents are merely checking them for high fevers before boarding them on the planes. There is a very high likelihood of sending back people who are infected with COVID-19 but asymptomatic. As of early April, two deportees to Guatemala had tested positive, at a time when the entire country had only detected about sixty cases.

Fifth, migrant detention continues. As of the end of March, the Los Angeles Times reported, 38,058 migrants were detained in ICE’s network of mostly privately run detention centers around the country. Of these, more than 60 percent had nothing on their criminal records, and 6,166 were asylum seekers. Some were elderly, and many had pre-existing medical conditions. Most are living in crowded conditions, unable to practice social distancing. As of early April, 13 ICE detainees had tested positive for coronavirus, and detention center populations fear an explosion of cases. For some detainees, the wait for an asylum decision could become a death sentence.

Sixth, border wall construction has not slowed. Much of what is being built right now is happening in areas of southern Arizona and New Mexico that are biodiverse, environmentally fragile, sacred to indigenous people, and far from most population centers. Because of their remoteness, the private contractors building the wall are imported from elsewhere in the United States. They come to these small desert towns for a few days, where they live and eat together, then return to their home states, only to come back again. The possibility of these workers introducing COVID-19 to these towns, and taking it back to their home states, rises sharply every day that wall-building continues.

Seventh, about 540 new troops, active-duty military personnel, are headed to the border. A U.S. official told Reuters that the troops are needed because “the Trump administration worries the pandemic could further depress Mexico’s already troubled economy and encourage illegal immigration.” The troops will increase an already existing military presence of as many as 5,000 along the border, including about 3,000 National Guardsmen (military forces under command of state governors), who carry out logistical and planning duties, perform some construction (including superficial tasks like painting parts of the border wall), and include a contingent of military police. Maintaining this presence has already cost over $500 million since October 2018. This is very rare for the United States: since the 1878 passage of the Posse Comitatus Act, there are extremely few examples of this many U.S. troops operating for this much time on U.S. soil. Though the Defense Department seeks to minimize the troops’ contact with citizens, this highly politicized deployment sets a troubling precedent for the future of democratic civil-military relations in the United States.

Eighth, the Trump administration continues to encourage Mexico to continue its crackdown on migration, maintaining high levels of apprehensions and people in detention. The May 2019 threat of tariffs, tied to Central American migration through Mexico, continues to weigh heavily over the bilateral relationship. Mexican National Guardsmen continue to line the northern and southern borders. Mexico’s migrant detention centers continue to be about half full nationwide, with migrants unable to isolate, and those near the Guatemala border are likely more crowded than the national average. Since mid-March, migrants confined in these spaces have protested conditions, worried about the likely spread of COVID-19. Guards, including members of the National Guard, have met them with truncheons, tasers, and pepper spray.

This is a very grim list of measures. The COVID-19 emergency response is showing us what the Trump immigration agenda would look like under normal circumstances, if the administration were empowered to carry it out fully. It amounts to one of the gravest human rights crises in the Americas today, and it is mostly happening on U.S. soil.

In the name of human rights, all of these extreme policies need to stop. In the context of a pandemic, though, there are few political, legislative, or judicial tools available to compel Stephen Miller and the Trump administration’s cohort of immigration extremists to stand down.

Still, the danger of spreading the pandemic demands, urgently, that several of these measures stop immediately. Those are the policies that, as of this article’s writing in early April 2020, are actively spreading the coronavirus and threatening the health and safety of people in the United States as well as in Mexico and Central America. They must stop, and the U.S. government needs to implement common-sense alternatives for the duration of the crisis, if not afterward.

First, stop expelling asylum-seekers. Many have nowhere else to go: someone who is threatened in San Pedro Sula or Chilpancingo, then expelled to a Mexican border town, is effectively marooned in that border town and very vulnerable to the virus when it comes. A large majority of asylum seekers have relatives in the United States with whom they could stay and practice safe social distancing. They do not have such support networks in Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, or Nuevo Laredo. Those who have a place to go should be paroled into the United States to await their hearings: it could save their lives.

The same goes for “Remain in Mexico” victims in the borderlands. Those who have family members in the United States who can take them in, and an impending court date, should be allowed in. It is urgent right now to reduce crowding in Mexico’s border cities, especially the tent encampments, before COVID-19 cuts through the asylum-seeking community like a chainsaw.

“But wait,” some might object. “If we parole these people in, we may never see them again. They’ll just join the undocumented population in the United States.” That concern is resolved by expanding alternatives to detention programs: the assignment of case officers who not only check in with them regularly to determine their location, but who ensure that they report to their hearings and are receiving due process in the U.S. immigration court system.

When the U.S. government has tried them, alternatives-to-detention programs have been remarkably successful. A much-cited example, among others, is the ICE Family Case Management Program, which the Obama administration piloted during its second term. The FCMP cost only US$36 per day, and 99 percent of families showed up for their court appearances. Another alternatives-to-detention effort, ICE’s Intensive Supervision Appearance Program, also achieved a 99 percent appearance rate, according to 2013 data, using a combination of telephone check-ups, in-person visits, and GPS monitoring.

Alternatives to detention are the obvious response to mass detention, too, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. All in ICE’s jails who have no serious crimes on their records, and who have a relative or similar contact with whom they may practice shelter-in-place and social distancing, should be paroled into the country with close monitoring from an alternatives to detention program. This especially applies to those over 60 years of age and those with other medical conditions, who face serious probability of death if they contract the coronavirus in a detention center.

Common sense and decency also demand a moratorium on deportations, at least until expanded testing and herd immunity start to bring the COVID-19 situation under control. Sending dozens of people per day to countries with very weak public health systems-people who’ve been at close quarters in detention centers and on aircraft-threatens to create disastrous disease vectors. The deportation flights can be put on hold, as the Guatemalan government has been imploring the United States to do.

And of course, wall construction should stop during this emergency: the barrier’s itinerant construction workers need to stay in one community, practicing social distancing, before they spread the virus any further. Obviously, there are many reasons why wall construction should stop permanently, beyond the pandemic emergency, but that’s a debate that continues in the U.S. Congress and court system.

To allow these extreme policies to continue, even as the United States, Mexico, and Central America continue to climb an exponential growth curve of infection, is an act of gross irresponsibility. The deadly consequences could be something that reverberates throughout the U.S. relationship with Latin America for a generation or more. Rather than cynically seize on a public health emergency to pursue a political agenda that most U.S. citizens do not support, the Trump administration urgently needs to stand down, even temporarily, to avoid large-scale, preventable loss of life.

WOLA Podcast: “This is patently illegal”: The undermining of asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border

I do a lot of work at the border, but the skills I bring are more about the role of security forces like Border Patrol and the military, use of force, human rights, and accountability. I am not an expert in immigration law.

In the past few years, one of the main battlegrounds on border policy—more important even than Trump’s wall—has been on a key aspect of immigration law: the right to seek asylum. Since this isn’t my specialty, I’ve been shocked, and occasionally quite confused, about how the Trump administration has managed to systematically do away with asylum at the border, without changing a word of U.S. law.

I wanted to record a podcast with someone who could explain this clearly, to me and to WOLA’s audience. So I was delighted that Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, an immigration attorney who is the policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, agreed to join me and walk me through the complexity. If you’re on Twitter at all and follow the border or immigration, Aaron’s is probably a familiar avatar.

He explains why a right to ask for asylum exists in U.S. law, and how the asylum system is supposed to work, from arrival at the border through the U.S. immigration court system. He then explains the steps that the Trump administration has taken, at every step of the asylum process, to steadily decimate the right to seek protection at the US-Mexico border.

Aaron does a brilliant job here. As I say in the conversation, teachers should assign this episode in schools. Highly recommended.

Listen up above, or download the .mp3 file.

4 ways border and migration policy risk spreading coronavirus

Here’s a Twitter-length video I made to accompany yesterday’s commentary on the nightmarish situation at the border right now. The ongoing expulsions, deportations, detentions, and wall-building are being carried out in a way that risks creating new vectors for spreading coronavirus. They’re the opposite of social distancing, and they have to stop.

At wola.org: The Trump Administration’s COVID-19 Response at the Border Puts Us All At Risk

So, imagine that Donald Trump were to win re-election in November, and also win supermajorities in the House and Senate. What would U.S. border and migration policy look like?

It would look pretty much like it does today. The White House has seized on the COVID-19 emergency to ram through most of its border-security and immigration agenda by fiat. And it’s doing it in ways that threaten to spread the virus: at home, in Mexican border towns, and in Central America.

Read all about it at WOLA’s website, where a new commentary by me went up today. In a nutshell, the following are all happening, all at once:

  • Border wall construction is still proceeding
  • The Pentagon is sending more troops
  • The end of the right to asylum
  • Turning back unaccompanied children
  • Deportations haven’t stopped
  • Repatriation agreements suspended
  • “Remain in Mexico” hearings delayed
  • Crowded detention centers
  • Mexico’s migration crackdown continues

This is all happening at once. We need to stare it in the face, so we can then make a hell of a lot of noise about it.

Government reports relevant to Latin America obtained in March

  • The State Department’s annual report on other countries’ counter-drug efforts, with some information about U.S. aid.
    2020 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (Washington: Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, March 2, 2020) <PDF from https://www.state.gov/2020-international-narcotics-control-strategy-report/>.
  • Intricately detailed tables of the status of aid to Central America between 2013 and 2018, from a GAO performance audit.
    U.S. Assistance to Central America: Status of Funding (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, March 4, 2020) <PDF at https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-163R>.
  • Two GAO reports about the Homeland Security Department’s processing—and cruel separating—of apprehended migrant families.
    Southwest Border: Actions Needed to Address Fragmentation in DHS’s Processes for Apprehended Family Members (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, March 18, 2020) <PDF at https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-274>.
    Southwest Border: Actions Needed to Improve DHS Processing of Families and Coordination between DHS and HHS (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, March 18, 2020) <PDF at https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-245>.

At wola.org: Key Questions About How the U.S.-Mexico Border Shutdown Will Impact Vulnerable Asylum Seekers and Migrants

Here’s an analysis we posted yesterday in response to the closure of the U.S.-Mexico border to “inessential” travel. As noted in yesterday’s podcast, such travelers apparently include threatened people seeking asylum or protection in the United States, who are being turned away.

The result is a potential death sentence, once COVID-19 really hits, for people confined in crowded shelters, encampments, and substandard housing in Mexican border towns. This could get really ugly.

Read the piece at WOLA’s website.

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