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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Weekly Border Update: February 26, 2021

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

Unaccompanied child arrivals, influx center feed both “surge” and “kids in cages” narratives

While we try to keep these updates brief, this topic has to start with several bullets of context, which has been absent from some recent media coverage, feeding misunderstandings about unaccompanied children currently arriving at the border. If you’re familiar with the context, skip past these bullets.

  • By law, children from non-contiguous countries (neither Canada nor Mexico) who are apprehended without adult accompaniment at the border are not deported immediately. They are placed into asylum proceedings. This is meant to be a protection against child trafficking. The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 requires that after apprehending an underage migrant from a non-contiguous country who arrives unaccompanied, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has 72 hours to transfer that child to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR, part of the Department of Health and Human Services). ORR maintains a network of shelters for unaccompanied minors from other countries.
  • The 72-hour handoff from CBP to ORR custody is important. CBP’s holding facilities for apprehended migrants—mainly, Border Patrol stations—are designed to hold single adults for a few hours.
  • ORR’s shelters are not “kids in cages.” Under normal circumstances, they are state-licensed childcare facilities run by contractors, where kids stay while awaiting placement with relatives or sponsors. An exception, discussed below, are temporary “influx” facilities thrown together when child arrivals increase, where conditions may be more austere.
  • ORR must seek to place children in its shelters with family members or sponsors in the United States to await their hearings in U.S. immigration courts. This process can take days or weeks. It involves background checks of the relatives or sponsors who come to pick them up, in order to avoid inadvertently handing children over to human traffickers. Often, the relatives who take custody are undocumented. For a time during the Trump administration, ORR was sharing information about these relatives with ICE, which made them reluctant to appear and take children, causing ORR’s shelter population to balloon. The Trump administration ultimately had to back off that policy.
  • Unaccompanied children, mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, arrived at the border in large numbers during mid-2014, mid-2015, late 2016, and between mid-2018 and mid-2019. These increases in unaccompanied child migration tended to correspond with increases in family (parent and child) migration. 
  • When COVID-19 border measures went into place in March 2020, the Trump administration began expelling unaccompanied children as quickly as possible, along with nearly all other apprehended migrants, including would-be asylum seekers. As a pretext for overriding the 2008 Wilberforce anti-trafficking law, it cited an obscure public health quarantine provision in Title 42 of the U.S. code. While Mexico agreed to take expelled adults and families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, it did not agree to receive non-Mexican unaccompanied children, whom ICE expelled via aircraft back to their home countries. (Nonetheless, and horrifyingly, the New York Times revealed in October 2020 that CBP had indeed expelled some Central American children, alone, into Mexico.)
  • In November 2020, a U.S. district judge blocked the Trump administration from expelling unaccompanied children apprehended at the border. CBP resumed placing them in ORR shelters, which were close to empty at the time.
  • Joe Biden was inaugurated in January, but his administration has not revoked the Title 42 expulsions policy: would-be asylum seekers are still being expelled. Officials say they need time to build up the necessary infrastructure to process asylum seekers during a pandemic, since the Trump administration left little capacity behind.
  • Shortly after inauguration, an appeals court panel of three Trump-appointed judges overruled the November 2020 block on expelling unaccompanied minors. The new Biden administration, however, refused to resume expelling apprehended children—even as it continues to expel adults, and adult parents with children.

Before the pandemic, Border Patrol was apprehending roughly 3,000 unaccompanied children each month. That dropped sharply after March 2020, when borders closed throughout the Americas. Numbers of apprehended children steadily increased through 2020, though, reaching the pre-pandemic level of 3,000 in August, surpassing 4,000 in October, and reaching 5,707 in January 2021. The pace is increasing: during the week of February 14-20, CBS News reports, Border Patrol apprehended “more than 1,500 migrant children” and “on Sunday [February 21], an additional 300 minors were taken into custody.”

The increase owes in part to the Trump expulsions policy causing “a backlog of minors waiting to seek asylum,” as CBS News put it, citing a shelter official who noted that “it created a bubble that is bursting because now they can get in.” It also owes to parents stuck in Mexican border cities making a heartbreaking choice: attempt to cross the border with children and be expelled, wait indefinitely in Mexico, or send their children across alone, where they might be apprehended and reunited with relatives in the United States.

The increase in unaccompanied child arrivals has caused the ORR shelter population to grow rapidly: the count on February 22, according to CBS, was 7,100. That leaves “fewer than 900 empty beds” because COVID-19 measures have compelled ORR to reduce its 13,200-bed capacity to 8,000. This comes with an increase in the population of children in Border Patrol’s holding cells, where they can legally be for no longer than 72 hours: “roughly 750” as of February 19. In January, 179 children exceeded the 72-hour limit because of capacity issues.

With only five weeks in office, the Biden administration has recurred to a controversial measure: temporary “influx facilities” to handle the overflow of unaccompanied children. ORR has set up a 66-acre, 700-child capacity tent facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, to hold children aged 13 to 17. The agency’s stated goal is that children at the facility, managed by nonprofit BCFS Health and Human Services, stay there no longer than about 30 days, following two weeks of quarantine at other ORR shelters.

As they sit on federally owned land, influx facilities like Carrizo, and a possible second site south of Miami in Homestead, Florida, are not subject to state licensing like other ORR child shelters. During the Trump administration, the Homestead site, run by a for-profit corporation with former Homeland Security secretary John Kelly on its board, came under heavy fire for living conditions, cost, and lack of transparency, as did a tent facility in Tornillo, Texas. While access to these remotely located sites is restricted in the name of protecting children from traffickers, the lack of visibility over what happens inside worries child advocates.

Some Democrats, like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Julián Castro, and Jamaal Bowman, were quick to criticize the Carrizo Springs shelter’s opening. “We should not go in this direction again,” Castro tweeted. “HHS-ORR should place these children in a home more quickly. Invest in personnel and policy to speed up placement. It’s safer, cheaper, and is in the children’s best interest.” Social media commentators on the left invoked a return to “kids in cages,” while some even conflated it with the Trump administration’s family separations.

On the right, commentators—also reviving the “kids in cages” slogan—claimed that the Biden administration’s use of an austere facility to house increased numbers of unaccompanied children vindicated the Trump approach of rapidly expelling them. Former Trump advisor Stephen Miller is urging members of Congress and conservative media to seize on a “Biden migrant surge” narrative to mobilize voters against Biden’s immigration reform legislation, and against Democratic candidates in the 2022 midterm legislative elections.

“It’s a temporary reopening during COVID-19,” White House Press Secretary Psaki said of the Carrizo Springs facility, adding, “This is not kids being kept in cages.” While certainly not “cages,” it is hard to argue that tent and shipping-container sites like Carrizo Springs are in children’s best interest. While recognizing that the Biden administration has not had time to develop a new approach—it hasn’t even nominated a CBP commissioner yet—advocacy groups are urging a quick phaseout of unlicensed “influx” shelters.

“Remain in Mexico” starts winding down

The Biden administration’s dismantling of Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy became reality on February 19, as 25 asylum-seeking migrants who had been awaiting their U.S. immigration court date since 2019 crossed from Tijuana, Mexico, into San Diego County. (“Remain in Mexico,” also known as “Migrant Protection Protocols” or MPP, was a Trump initiative that forced about 71,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their U.S. hearing dates on Mexican soil.)

The process at San Diego’s San Ysidro port of entry “was orderly, safe and efficient,” read a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statement. “After CBP and ICE processing was complete, facilitating organizations helped coordinate travel arrangements as needed.” On February 22, another 25 asylum seekers entered at San Ysidro. The goal is to increase the number who can be processed to about 200-300 per day.

In Mexico, the entry process for Remain in Mexico subjects takes place with assistance from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), UNICEF, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and other international and non-governmental organizations. Those with active MPP cases register at a website that went live on February 19; despite initial hiccups, 12,000 people signed up within the site’s first three days. The next step is COVID-19 testing performed by IOM while UNICEF ensures “humane treatment of children and their families,” a UNHCR release reads. “So far, no cases of COVID-19 have been detected,” the UN reported on February 25.

At the other end of the border, the Remain in Mexico wind-down began on February 25 between Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas. Twenty-seven people crossed the Gateway International Bridge and were taken to the bus station to move on to destinations where most have relatives. “Smiles hidden under face masks were hard to see, but undeniably present” on their faces, the Rio Grande Valley Monitor reported. “For me it was an affirmation, it was a triumph of life, of humanity,” said Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director at Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, who for years has run a respite center for released migrants in McAllen.

Most of the first to arrive from Matamoros will be residents of a notorious tent camp where about 750 Remain in Mexico subjects have been forced to live since 2019. The expectation is to increase daily arrivals at Brownsville to about 200 per day, including many asylum seekers in Matamoros—a dangerous longtime stronghold of Mexico’s Gulf Cartel—who did not stay in the encampment.

As we write this on February 26, we’re hearing that 25 Remain in Mexico subjects were just allowed to cross from Ciudad Juárez into El Paso.

GAO reports on U.S. military border deployment

The Defense Department has spent about a billion dollars since 2018 to support the Trump administration’s National Guard and active-duty military deployments at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released on February 23. The 90-page document, submitted in response to a request from Democrats on the House and Senate Armed Services, Homeland Security, and Judiciary committees, contains much previously undisclosed information about the military mission.

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 CBP. In October of that year, as a new caravan formed in the runup 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.

About 3,600 active-duty troops remain available to support CBP, though many may be physically located at bases elsewhere in the United States. The mission is to extend at least through the fiscal year’s end on September 30, 2021. While the GAO report notes that DHS expects to continue requesting support from the Defense Department for three to five years, it’s not yet clear whether that will happen under the Biden administration.

Among the report’s notable findings:

  • The Defense Department obligated at least $841 million between April 2018 and May 2020, and a table elsewhere in the report cites a figure of $1.001 billion. This is significantly more than what had been previously reported to Congress.
  • Some of that reporting to Congress has been very late, and the Defense Department never even turned in a required report on expenditures for fiscal 2019, which was due on March 31, 2020.
  • The Defense Department failed to reckon with the deployments’ potential costs, and with their effects on military readiness.
  • The Defense Department received 33 different assistance and extension requests from DHS between April 2018 and March 2020.
  • Missions included air support (helicopters), basic reconnaissance, construction of items like concertina wire along the border wall, detention support at holding facilities, logistical support, and driving and maintaining vehicles.
  • DHS sought to have active-duty military personnel in roles that would involve direct contact with foreign nationals. The Defense Department resisted that, and such duties fell to National Guard personnel. 

The report seems to indicate that the Defense Department regarded the border mission as a lower-priority role and a drag on readiness for higher-priority military missions. Commanders, as Stars and Stripes summarizes it, “shared experiences of missed training and the strain of rotating troops to the border every 30 days.” In a response to GAO, the Department sought to avoid recommending policy changes that would “create an impression that DOD has a border security mission.”


  • 61 Democratic members of Congress signed a letter calling on the Biden administration to end Title 42 expulsions of asylum-seeking migrants.
  • #WeCanWelcome Asylum Seekers is a new campaign from Refugees International, with a petition to the Biden administration, videos, a social media “toolkit,” and other informational resources about the United States’ “responsibility to welcome people seeking protection from persecution.”
  • An eight-year-old Honduran boy and a Venezuelan woman drowned trying to swim across a frigid Rio Grande between Piedras Negras, Mexico and Eagle Pass, Texas on February 17. The boy’s parents and sister apparently made it across, only to be expelled back to Mexico.
  • Investigative journalist Alberto Pradilla revealed at Mexico’s Animal Político that the Mexican government’s “Fondo México,” ostensibly established to fund social programs in Central America to address migration’s root causes, has ended up paying only for the detention of migrants inside Mexico, and for buses to bring them back to Central America.
  • The Central American Commission of Migration Directors (OCAM), made up of authorities from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, and Nicaragua, agreed on a vaguely worded three-point “action plan” to halt flows of extra-continental migrants (Haitians, Cubans, Asians, Africans) stranded in South America.
  • Attorneys are still working to locate the deported parents of 506 children who were separated during the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. This represents progress: the number was 611 a month ago, CNN reports.
  • Vice tells the story of 49-year-old Guatemalan migrant Édgar López, who had lived and worked for 22 years, and had a wife and kids, in Carthage, Mississippi—the town where ICE carried out a massive raid of chicken-plant workers in 2019. He was deported back to Guatemala. Édgar López’s effort to be reunited with his family ended on January 22, when he was one of 19 migrants massacred in northern Mexico, not far from the border, apparently by an elite Mexican state police unit.
  • A 4th Circuit federal appeals judge has delayed the deportation of a former MS-13 gang member to El Salvador, ruling that former gang membership counts as a distinct social group, potentially eligible for asylum. 
  • The Biden administration announced that it is instructing ICE agents to prioritize for arrest “those suspected of being a national security threat, recent border crossers, and those who are considered a public safety threat,” and to seek pre-approval from local superiors before arresting people who don’t fit those priorities.

Weekly Border Update: February 19, 2021

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

U.S. Citizenship Act introduced

We’ve known the name and general outlines of the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 since the Biden administration’s first moments. On February 18, the actual 353-page text of the Democrats’ flagship immigration reform bill went public in the House and Senate. The bill’s principal sponsors, who coordinated closely with the administration, are Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-California), who introduced it with a press conference.

This is the most comprehensive legislative attempt at immigration reform since a 2013 bill that passed the Democratic-majority Senate, with many concessions to Republicans, only to fail in a Republican-majority House. It would provide a path to citizenship for most currently undocumented people in the United States, resolve the situation of “Dreamers” and TPS holders, overhaul asylum and refugee law, and much else.

The bill’s passage is far from assured. It would need unanimous Democratic support in the Senate, and while the filibuster remains in place, at least 10 Republican votes. The administration has indicated it is open to the idea of breaking the bill up into pieces.

The U.S. Citizenship Act’s U.S.-Mexico border-related provisions include:

  • Providing Central America with $1 billion per year in assistance each year from 2022 through 2025 to address the “root causes” of migration. The “Strategy for Engagement with Central America” focuses on reforms and improvements, placing anti-corruption and rule of law first, followed by anti-violence and anti-poverty efforts. Security aid appears to be mostly non-lethal, with an emphasis on investigative techniques. Aid is conditioned on progress along 11 measures.
  • Helping other countries in the region expand their own refugee and asylum systems, while creating U.S. refugee processing centers in Central America and reviving the Central America Minors Program that Donald Trump terminated in 2017.
  • Establishing a Central American Family Reunification Parole Program for victims of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.
  • Building up technology on the border. This includes scanners and infrastructure at aging ports of entry, and “smart technology” elsewhere at the border with “independent oversight on privacy rights,” a significant concern of border communities. The bill seeks to reduce migrant deaths in the desert by deploying rescue beacons.
  • Expanding “officer safety and professionalism”—not quite a cultural overhaul—at Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Border Patrol, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel. This means training and continuing education covering community policing, cultural awareness, interaction with vulnerable populations, and similar needs. It also means setting up a “Border Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee,” new use of force policies, and a ratio of one internal affairs employee for every 30 CBP officers.
  • Improving humanitarian and medical standards for migrants during time spent in CBP custody, including adopting child welfare standards and hiring trained personnel.
  • Expanding the Justice Department’s investigations of migrant smugglers, and expanding FBI-DEA Transnational Anti-Gang Task Forces in Central America.
  • After asylum seekers are paroled at the border, keeping them “in the system” by expanding alternatives to detention programs, reducing immigration courts’ backlogs by building up adjudication capacity, and allowing court-appointed counsel for unaccompanied children and especially vulnerable migrants. The bill makes numerous other adjustments to the asylum process.

Rep. Sanchez has filed the bill in the House, and Sen. Menendez will do so next week, when the Senate comes back in session.

Remain in Mexico admissions to start February 19

The new administration’s most visible change to the immigration system gets underway at the border on February 19. The process of winding down the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy, known formally as Migration Protection Protocols (MPP), is to begin at the San Ysidro port of entry south of San Diego.

With the Mexican government’s acquiescence, since January 2019 MPP forced over 70,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their U.S. hearing dates on Mexican soil. This often meant waiting in border towns, under impoverished and unsafe conditions. About 25,000 people still have open cases; many have been waiting since 2019. In January the Biden administration halted new admissions into MPP (though ports of entry remain closed to asylum seekers and most apprehended migrants are still expelled under pandemic measures), and began setting up a procedure for MPP subjects to finish the asylum process while living in the United States with relatives or sponsors.

That process will involve online registration at a site (not active yet) run by the UN Refugee Agency  and other international organizations. Asylum seekers will be prioritized according to how long they’ve been waiting or other “acute vulnerabilities.” When CBP is able to process them, they will be called to a staging area near one of three ports of entry (San Ysidro/San Diego, California; El Paso, Texas; or Brownsville, Texas) where the International Organization for Migration will test them for COVID-19 while still in Mexico. Processing will involve transferring asylum seekers’ cases to courts in interior U.S. cities where they plan to stay. Homeland Security Secretary Ali Mayorkas says that the plan is to scale up to processing about 300 people per day at each port. (WOLA this week offered a list of recommendations for the U.S. and Mexican governments to guarantee a fair and safe process.)

The record cold that blacked out most of Texas took a toll on those “remaining in Mexico.” At a makeshift camp across from Brownsville in Matamoros, “tents made out of blue tarp have iced over” and “water used for cooking and bathing has also frozen,” ABC News reported. “There is a real concern for frostbite, hypothermia,” nurse practitioner Andrea Leiner of Global Response, which has been attending to people at the camp, told the Dallas Morning News. “People don’t want to move to a shelter with a roof. They are afraid they will lose their spot in the MPP line.”

The “Remain in Mexico” wind-down has its critics. Though Arizona’s ports of entry are not involved, Governor Doug Ducey, a Republican, wrote to Mayorkas complaining of “the hasty announcement” and “the lack of details provided to stakeholders in a border state.” Alan Bersin, a top Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official during the Clinton and Obama administrations, told the Associated Press that the move—which he said owes to “such a pressing sense in the advocate community that is controlling the Biden immigration agenda”—will draw more migrants to the border.

Some Democratic members of Congress, Politico reported, also worry about triggering a spike in migration by going too fast on immigration reform and dismantling Trump’s measures. Though he says he backs reforms, Rep. Vicente González (D-Texas), whose district borders Mexico, told the publication, “The way we’re doing it right now is catastrophic and is a recipe for disaster in the middle of a pandemic… Biden is going to be dealing with a minority in Congress if he continues down some of these paths.”

Migration through Mexico is increasing

Most Trump-era restrictions on new asylum seekers, including pandemic “expulsions,” remain in place. Nonetheless, reports point to a recent jump in northbound migration through Mexico. This owes to perceptions, fed by smugglers, that the Biden administration will go easier on migrants. It also owes to a loosening of countries’ pandemic travel restrictions, and grave security and economic conditions worsened by COVID-19 and two severe November hurricanes in Central America.

The Mexican government’s National Migration Institute (INM) reported collaborating with military, police, and National Guard agents, on more than 50 raids since January 25 on the “La Bestia” cargo trains that often carry migrants, apprehending 1,189 people, 30 percent of them minors. Authorities apprehended hundreds of migrants at a time in the cargo containers of tractor-trailers on highways in Chiapas, Veracruz and Nuevo León. Associated Press interviews with migrant shelter and legal aid personnel in the southern Mexican cities of Tenosique, Palenque, and Tapachula found all experiencing a sharp increase in demand over 2020; the “La 72” shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco, “has hosted nearly 1,500 migrants” so far in 2021, “compared to 3,000 all of last year.” Further south, AP notes, Panama’s January reopening of its border with South America has led to “some 1,500 migrants spread across various camps.”

At the U.S. border, Border Patrol agents in the Yuma sector of Arizona and California have apprehended 28 migrant children under 13 years of age since January 1, more than twice the number for the same period in the record-breaking year of 2019. The Wall Street Journal reported that DHS dropped off 341 migrant family members—many of them Cuban, Haitian, or Venezuelan—during the last week of January at a migrant shelter in remote Del Rio, Texas, and that in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, “an IOM-sponsored hotel housing migrants during the pandemic has been at capacity for the past few weeks.”

The statement from Mexico’s INM sees the change in U.S. administration as a key factor behind the increase: “In interviews with the Institute, the people who travel on these trains have stated that, given the change in immigration policy by the new U.S. government, they feel encouraged to reach northern Mexico by various routes.”


  • The Dallas Morning News and El Paso Matters report on an Ecuadorian man and a Guatemalan man who recently fell from a new 30-foot section of border wall near El Paso: one broke both ankles and the other broke his back and pelvis. Border Patrol agents drove them 90 miles to a remote border crossing and expelled them, under Title 42, without medical attention, forcing them to walk across into Mexico.
  • The San Diego Union-Tribune profiles Jenn Budd, a former Border Patrol agent who underwent abuse and trauma during her time in the force, and who now, accompanied by the Southern Border Communities Coalition, is one of its most outspoken critics. In late January, Border Patrol launched what it calls the “Fearless Five” campaign to commemorate the 5 percent of agents who are women, with a video comparing female agents to diamonds forged by extreme pressure.
  • The latest in a nearly two-and-a-half-year series of updates from the University of Texas’s Strauss Center finds 16,250 asylum seekers on “metering” waitlists in nine Mexican border cities, up from 15,690 in November.
  • A DHS memo obtained by BuzzFeed plans to direct officials to refrain from using words like “alien” and “illegal alien.”
  • A report from the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute finds that “Thirteen border security companies’ executives and top employees contributed three times more to Joe Biden ($5,364,994) than to Donald Trump ($1,730,435)” during the 2020 campaign.
  • Mexico’s government had promised to help “Remain in Mexico” subjects find employment while they awaited their hearing dates on Mexican soil, citing at least 3,700 jobs in border towns. In the end, Animal Político’s Alberto Pradilla revealed, only 64 people found work through the Mexican Labor Department’s efforts. Meanwhile, the same journalist reported, Mexican government programs to assist Central American communities, in order to address migration’s causes, only reached 6 percent of their originally planned population.

Weekly border update: February 12, 2021

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. This is a “double issue,” longer than normal, as big policy changes led to an especially heavy news week.

A “crisis,” or a modest increase?

The Biden administration spent its third week chipping away at Trump-era border and migration restrictions. Media narratives suggested a new “wave” or “surge” of migrant arrivals at the border posed a “challenge” or “test for Biden.” Though it only covers the new administration’s first 12 days, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) release of January statistics does not align with that crisis narrative.

“President Biden’s more-welcoming message to immigrants is facing an immediate challenge along the Mexican border,” the Washington Post warned, “where Central American families and children have been crossing in numbers that point to a building crisis.” “The surge poses the first major test of Mr. Biden’s pledge to adopt a more compassionate policy along America’s border with Mexico” and “could create a strong public backlash,” added the New York Times. In the Associated Press’s view, “Warning signs are emerging of the border crises that marked former President Donald Trump’s term.”

The size and nature of this “challenge” is unclear. January numbers that CBP released late on February 10 showed the agency “encountering” 75,198 undocumented migrants crossing the border, and 3,125 more at ports of entry. That total of 78,323 (2,526 encounters per day) is up 6 percent from December (73,923), which was little changed since before the 2020 election—both October and November were over 70,000. But Deputy Border Patrol Chief Raúl Ortiz said that the agency has “averaged more than 3,000 daily apprehensions” so far in February, and a letter from 52 Republican House members—citing non-public data that CBP or Border Patrol personnel shared with them—cites “more than 3,500” per day, with the number of unaccompanied children “closing in on 300 per day.”

America’s Voice and other non-governmental migrants’ rights advocates have criticized the media’s rush to adopt the “surge” and “crisis” narrative. CBP’s numbers through January, at least, do not sustain that narrative. They tell us:

  • The agency’s January “encounters” were 83 percent single adults, a much different population than the child and family “waves” of 2014, 2016, and 2019. Unless they are seeking asylum, the Biden administration has proposed no changes in policy toward single adult migrants at the border.
  • 64,136 of encountered migrants—82 percent—were instantly expelled from the United States under the “Title 42” pandemic measures in place since March. CBP has expelled migrants 459,264 times since March, though this figure includes double-counting because expelled migrants often try to cross again.
  • CBP provides some sense of the nationalities of the 75,198 migrants whom Border Patrol encountered between ports of entry. The results are surprising: most of the January increase was from countries other than Mexico and Central America. There were 4,151 more encounters in January than December. Only 1,542 of that increase was from Mexico or the “Northern Triangle” countries—that’s 2 percent more than December from those countries. Citizens of other countries (2,609) increased by 47 percent over December. We don’t know what countries are most represented, though Cuba, Haiti, and Venezuela are good guesses.
  • While this isn’t from CBP numbers, it’s worth noting that Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, saw a 36 percent one-month increase in its own asylum applications from December to January.
Download a packet of graphics as a PDF at 
Download a packet of graphics as a PDF at 

Media coverage indicates that CBP is paroling more asylum-seeking migrant families into the United States, for lack of space in its facilities due to COVID-19 measures. The numbers are fuzzy, though.

The New York Times, citing “border activists,” reported that “at least 1,000 migrants have been allowed to cross into Texas in recent days,” and 200 in California during the first five days of February. Attorney Taylor Levy told Buzzfeed that mid- and south Texas, the busiest part of the border, was seeing “approximately 50 people per day being released.” The Dallas Morning News cited “about 50 persons daily” in Brownsville, south Texas. In McAllen, Sister Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities told Reuters “the Border Patrol has sent around 50 to 80 families to her shelter daily since Jan. 27, rising to 150 families on Wednesday [February 3].”

About 1,000 family members paroled into the United States in a week is not a “crisis” number. Since 2014, CBP has consistently taken in well over 2,000 family members and unaccompanied children—most of them asylum seekers—in an average week. Non-Mexican children have gone into Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) custody, and many, if not most, of the families have been paroled into the United States to await their hearings—at least, until the mid-2019 expansion of the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) or “Remain in Mexico” program.

Download a packet of graphics as a PDF at 

As discussed above, the nationalities of those being encountered is unclear. Undocumented migrants from different countries face vastly different policies right now.

Mexico (52 percent of January Border Patrol encounters): under Title 42 pandemic measures, virtually all Mexican citizens are rapidly expelled back into Mexico without the opportunity to ask for protection in the United States.

El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (37 percent of January Border Patrol encounters): 

  • Mexico has agreed to take adults, and adults with children, expelled under Title 42 without a chance to ask for asylum.
  • The Biden administration is taking in unaccompanied children, just as a November court order (reversed in late January) had compelled the Trump administration to do.
  • Some of the “hundreds” of families paroled into the United States in late January and early February may have been Central American, because at some border crossings, Mexico appears to have made “adjustments” to its reception of families, perhaps due to new reforms to its laws on migration and refugees  prohibiting detention of all migrant children. But Mexican officials insist that Mexico still accepts Central Americans expelled under Title 42 “on the same terms.”

Other countries (11 percent of January Border Patrol encounters):        

  • Other Spanish-speaking countries and Brazil
    • Many adults, or adults with children, are turned over to ICE for Title 42 expulsion via flights to their home countries.
    • Flights are limited, so adults are often put in ICE detention, while some adults with children, and all unaccompanied children, are paroled into the United States to begin their asylum processes.
    • The Trump administration had been sending nearly all asylum-seekers from these countries—most often Cuba, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Nicaragua—to await their U.S. hearings in Mexican territory, under “Remain in Mexico.” The Biden administration suspended that on January 20.
  • Other non-Spanish-speaking countries:
    • Unaccompanied children are admitted into ORR custody.
    • ICE seeks to expel adults and families back to their home countries, by air, under Title 42. Expulsions of migrants from Haiti have accelerated during the Biden administration’s first weeks, as discussed below.
    • If asylum seekers are from countries to which it is difficult to fly people back, ICE detains most adults, and paroles most families into the U.S. interior.

For all of these cases, the only changes from the Trump era so far have been Biden’s suspension of “Remain in Mexico” enrollments for those who can’t be expelled under Title 42, plus whatever “adjustments” Mexico made that resulted in its refusal to admit some Central American families expelled from the United States. If CBP has begun releasing hundreds of migrant families into U.S. border towns, they are either the small number of Central Americans whom Mexico is not accepting, or the increased number of non-Mexican, non-Central American arrivals.

News of even these few releases has caused consternation among asylum attorneys with clients who have spent a year or more in “Remain in Mexico,” only to see a few hundred families who just showed up given the chance to await their hearings on U.S. soil. There is also strong reason for concern that migrant smugglers will use these reports to entice would-be asylum seekers into paying them to cross from Mexican border towns into the United States.

Title 42, “Remain in Mexico,” and other restrictions on the ability to seek asylum at the border are keeping numbers down for now—but they violate U.S. refugee law and are causing suffering among migrant populations expelled to, or waiting in, Mexico and elsewhere. “As the administration reviews these policies, each day counts,” urges a February 9 letter from 94 organizations (including WOLA).

Though the Biden administration plans to undo the restrictive Trump-era policies, it is concerned about contending with a large increase in asylum-seeking migrants during a pandemic, before it has in place the necessary infrastructure and staffing for processing arrivals and placing them in alternatives to detention. “Now is not the time to come,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on February 10. “The vast majority of people will be turned away. Asylum processes at the border will not occur immediately; it will take time to implement.”

A big part of the needed infrastructure is physical facilities at which to process migrants: for background checks, asylum paperwork, health checks, referrals to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and other procedures that should take less than 72 hours while migrants remain in CBP custody. Ports of entry are small, though, so other facilities are needed. The largest—the McAllen, Texas Central Processing Center known for its chain-link cages and austere conditions—is undergoing renovation. In its place, CBP is opening up a 160,000 square foot “soft sided” (tent-based) processing facility in Donna, Texas, near McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley region.

There is a lot going on here. WOLA’s Adam Isacson unpacks much of it in a podcast interview at World Politics Review.

Biden administration to wind down “Remain in Mexico”

As of January, Syracuse University’s TRAC Immigration database reports, the Trump administration had subjected 71,036 migrants to the “Remain in Mexico” program, requiring them to await their U.S. hearing dates inside Mexican territory. Of those, 29,148 still have asylum cases pending in the U.S. immigration system. (A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statement says “approximately 25,000.”) Many have been waiting—often in shelters, crowded substandard housing, or even tent camps in Mexican border towns—since mid-2019. At least 1,314 are known to have suffered attacks.

While the Biden administration suspended new enrollments into “Remain in Mexico,” it had said little more than “please be patient” to the population already forced to wait for their U.S. court dates in Mexican border cities. However, on February 11 the administration began to reveal the outlines of its plan to dismantle the program and bring those with pending cases into the United States.

As of this writing (early February 12), most of what we know is in a report published on the afternoon of February 11 by BuzzFeed’s Hamed Aleaziz, who had access to an administration document laying out the plan. That article is short and quite readable, but here are key points:

  • The wind-down will be rolled out within the next two weeks. (DHS’s announcement says “phase one” will begin February 19.)
  • It will start slowly at three ports of entry: probably Matamoros-Brownsville, Ciudad Juárez-El Paso, and Tijuana-San Diego.
  • Those “remaining in Mexico” with pending cases will be able to register with an online portal, then receive instructions and a date to appear at a staging area inside Mexico. UNCHR will be involved at this stage. Once at the border, they will get COVID-19 tests, and medical screening. Those who test positive will have to stay in Mexico until they’re negative.
  • CBP will take in a certain number of people each day. “Officials believe they can process up to 300 people a day within the first few weeks at two of the ports of entry for the initial phase.”
  • Those subject to MPP the longest will get first priority, though there will be exceptions for the most vulnerable.
  • Those subject to MPP who have already been refused asylum, or who had their proceedings terminated, are not eligible during this phase.
  • Once processed, MPP subjects will be able to await their U.S. hearing dates in the United States, without being detained, “unless they have a serious criminal record.” They will be released to shelters and made part of an ICE “alternative to detention” check-in program in which “they could also be forced to wear ankle bracelets,” BuzzFeed reports.

This information applies only to unwinding “Remain in Mexico” A February 2 White House executive order also declares a general intention to start unwinding the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy, but no information is yet available about that.

Deportations to Haiti continue amid severe political unrest

A big jump in deportations of Haitian citizens is causing an outcry, as the Black-majority Caribbean nation is in a severe political crisis, with months of violent protests causing a breakdown of security and many basic services. “A plane arrived from the United States on Monday. But instead of help or hope, it carried several dozen Haitians, including a 2-month-old and 21 other children, deported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE],” reads a strong February 10 New York Times editorial.

Haitian officials have been told to expect 14 ICE deportation flights during the first half of February, some as frequent as twice per day, a far faster than normal pace, the Miami Herald reports. Most deportees are being expelled under Title 42. Tom Cartwright at Witness at the Border, who closely tracks ICE deportation flights, noted at least one flight to Port-au-Prince every day this week.

On January 20 President Biden had ordered a 100-day moratorium on most deportations, but a federal judge in Texas blocked it shortly afterward. ICE continued deportations, but on February 5 it appeared that activists, and some members of Congress, had compelled ICE to suspend flights to Haiti. They had not. “I don’t know what’s going on between ICE and the Biden administration, but we know what needs to be done: the deportations must stop,” Guerline Jozef, executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, told the Guardian. “It’s as if there is a house burning, and instead of taking people out for their own safety the United States is sending defenseless babies into the burning house.”

“We are gravely concerned that ICE is disparately targeting Black asylum seekers and immigrants for detention, torture, and deportation,” added a February 8 letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas from 12 members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Removals of Haitians aren’t just happening via air. The Miami Herald reported on a strange recent expulsion of “over 100 Haitian asylum seekers… carrying little more than the clothes on their backs” over the land border into Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. “Nobody was at the bridge to receive them,” Tania Guerrero of CLINIC told the Herald. “They were just dropped there.” Title 42 expulsions often happen via this sort of contactless borderline dropoff, but Mexico has agreed to receive only expelled Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans. “A large number of people were taken to the middle of the bridge by CBP and were told to walk south. That’s it. There was zero interaction from any state or federal Mexican authorities,” attorney Taylor Levy described the process to BuzzFeed.


  • WOLA published an in-depth commentary laying out what is happening with Donald Trump’s border wall: how much got built, how much it cost, and what will be involved in stopping construction and taking at least the most harmful parts down. On February 10 President Biden notified Congress that he had terminated the “national emergency” Trump declared in order to wrest wall-building funds from the Defense budget without congressional consent.
  • New details emerged about past U.S. training of 3 of the 12 members of a Mexican state police unit arrested for the January 22 massacre of 19 people, including at least 14 Guatemalan migrants, near the U.S. border in Tamaulipas. Mexico’s El Economista learned from the U.S. embassy that the three had received State Department-funded “basic skills and/or first line supervisor training” in 2016 and 2017, after being vetted for past human rights allegations. “So fearsome is the unit’s reputation that the U.S. government, which trained a few of its individual members, has sought to distance itself from” the Tamaulipas State Police Special Operations Group (GOPES), the AP reports.
  • As indicated in a February 2 White House executive order, the State Department has suspended and terminated so-called “Asylum Cooperative” or “safe third country” agreements that the Trump administration signed with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. These allowed the United States to send apprehended migrants from other countries to apply for asylum in the Central American nations’ barely existent asylum systems. The agreement with Guatemala was the only one that was being implemented before the pandemic; it was paused in mid-March 2020.
  • While hailing the termination of the Safe Third Country Agreements, a UNHCR release “welcomed” Guatemala’s establishment of a new asylum unit. “In 2020, a total of 487 people applied for refugee status in the country, an 85 percent increase from 2018.”
  • “DHS has only provided definitive responses to 14 of 73 complaints” formally filed in cases of CBP or Border Patrol abuse of migrants, “revealing an overall structural deficiency in the investigative process,” reads a letter to DHS Secretary Ali Mayorkas from the Nogales-based Kino Border Initiative.
  • “A culture of racism within the Border Patrol has persisted throughout its history,” reads a new report from the American Immigration Council.
  • NBC News reports that the White House is poised to name Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights and justice programs at the Women’s Refugee Commission, to head the task force charged with reuniting more than 600 migrant families who remain separated by the Trump-era “zero tolerance” policy.
  • Border Patrol is taking down the six Army surplus “tethered aerostats”—sensor- and camera-equipped blimps on cables—that it has maintained in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region for about seven years. According to Rep. Henry Cuéllar (D-Texas), the move is a “self-imposed rule by Border Patrol” because the agency has been paying $5 million per balloon per year to a private contractor, Peraton, whose personnel merely “check the weather and physically raise and lower the blimps to various altitudes,” according to Border Report.
  • Mark Morgan, a career FBI agent whom Barack Obama named Border Patrol chief and who then headed CBP during the Trump administration, is joining the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a hardline immigration restrictionist organization.

WPR Podcast: Biden Confronts Trump’s Disastrous Legacy on Immigration

I joined World Politics Review’s Elliot Waldman on Monday (February 8) to talk about the Biden administration’s plans for undoing the damage that the Trump administration did to the border and to the U.S. asylum system. The challenges are complicated, the situation in Central America is dire, migration is increasing—but it is absolutely imperative that the promise of last week’s executive orders be fulfilled.

We talk about all of that here. Many thanks to Elliot and World Politics Review for having me on the show, and for turning it around so quickly—this is a fast-moving story right now.

Note to self for future recordings: don’t have a big glass of orange juice just before recording. I sound a bit froggy at times here, and was muting myself to clear my throat when Elliot asked me questions. That was dumb.

Weekly Border Update: February 5, 2021

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

White House issues much-anticipated executive orders

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

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

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

Measures outlined in the orders include:

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

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

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

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

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

Mexico stops taking other countries’ expelled families

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mexico arrests police officers for January 22 migrant massacre

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Weekly border update: January 29, 2021

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

Bodies of 19 missing migrants found in Tamaulipas, Mexico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Border wall construction pause goes into effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justice Department rescinds the “zero tolerance” rule

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Weekly border update: January 22, 2021

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

Joe Biden’s first steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tent facility for processing migrants being built in Rio Grande Valley

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

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

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

Guatemalan forces turn back migrant caravan

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Weekly border update: January 15, 2021

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

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

Trump visits border wall in Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Security forces mobilize against possible “caravan” in Central America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Weekly border update: January 8, 2021

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

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

2021 budget

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

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

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

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

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

Other border-relevant elements of the 2021 bill include:

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

Biden administration won’t dismantle Trump policies on day one

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

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

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

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

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

CBP releases December border numbers

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

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

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

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

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

Download a packet of WOLA border and migration infographics at

The Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act is now law

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Weekly border update: December 18, 2020

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

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

2021 spending package probably includes some border wall money

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

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

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

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

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

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

El Salvador “safe third country” agreement is finalized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Weekly border update: December 11, 2020

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

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

Border wall a key disagreement delaying 2021 appropriations

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

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

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

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

Media continue pointing to increasing migration, “caravan”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope for passage of missing migrant bill

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

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

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


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

Weekly border update: December 4, 2020

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

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

Migrant deaths rise in Arizona

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

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

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

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

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

Mexico’s migrant apprehensions increase

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

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

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

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

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

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

More coverage of obstacles Biden will likely face

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

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


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

Weekly border update: November 27, 2020

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

Hurricanes expected to bring a rise in migration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McAllen processing facility closes for renovation

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

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

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

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


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

WOLA Podcast: The Transition: A Rational, Region-Wide Approach to Migration

Here’s a second WOLA podcast in which, as the United States pivots between two very different administrations, we step back and take stock of things. In this one, Maureen Meyer and I talk about a huge topic: migration. In particular, how to adapt to the “new normal” and respond humanely.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page.

The United States is in the transition period between the Biden and Trump administrations. For U.S.-Latin American relations, this will mean a sharp shift between two very different visions of how Washington should work with the hemisphere.

Nowhere is this shift likely to be as sharp as on migration policy, with Trump’s hardline giving way to what promises to be a more humane and managerial approach under Biden. How profound that change will be remains unclear, though, as the United States and the rest of the hemisphere adjust to a reality of high levels of migration, and as the drivers of migration region-wide continue to accelerate.

Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson and Vice-President for Programs Maureen Meyer have collaborated for nine years on WOLA’s border security and migration efforts. Here, they take stock of the region’s “new normal” of heavy migration flows, and the administrative and policy shifts that the Biden administration—and governments and international organizations regionwide—must undergo in order to adapt.

This is the second of a series of discussions in which the podcast will talk about the transition. Last week, we covered U.S. credibility and the tone of relations. In coming weeks we plan to cover anti-corruption, then the state of human rights and democracy.

A few important border graphics

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

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

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

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