Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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Migration

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: June 10, 2022

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

This week:

  • Western Hemisphere leaders at the ninth Summit of the Americas are poised to publish a “Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection.” Provisions will endorse assistance to states managing large arrivals of migrants, legal pathways for migration, “humane” border management, and coordinated emergency response.
  • A large “caravan” of migrants departed the southern Mexico border city of Tapachula on June 6, but is now much reduced. Many migrants are apparently being offered humanitarian visas.
  • Newly revealed emails show that, in 2018, senior DHS officials sought to maximize the number of families being separated by the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy. They complained when criminal prosecutions happened quickly enough to allow parents and children to be reunited.
  • A Supreme Court decision has gutted the ability to sue Border Patrol agents and other federal law enforcement agents who violate constitutional rights.

Migration at the Summit of the Americas

Western Hemisphere leaders gathered for the ninth Summit of the Americas are finalizing the text of the “Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection,” which is to go public on June 10. Previewing the document on June 9, a senior Biden administration official billed it as “a regional partnership to address historic migration flows affecting every country in the region.”

In a framework of “responsibility sharing” at a moment of historically high region-wide migration, the Los Angeles Declaration is to have four “pillars”:

  • Stability and assistance for communities: including assistance to address “root causes” of migration, support for countries hosting large migrant populations, the reintegration of migrants in their communities of origin, and a new package of aid to Haiti.
  • Legal pathways: including commitments to expand temporary-worker efforts like the United States’ H-2A and H-2B visa programs, to expand refugee resettlement, and to improve asylum systems.
  • “Humane border management,” a pillar which includes the role of the region’s border, migration, and law enforcement forces and collaboration on prosecuting human smuggling and trafficking networks. An administration official mentioned “cross-screening people that enter one border, repatriating people that don’t qualify.”
  • “Coordinated emergency response,” a pillar which presumably includes cooperation to manage sudden increases in migration.

“Unlawful migration is not acceptable,” President Joe Biden said in remarks opening the Summit on June 8. “We will enforce our borders through innovative, coordinated action with our regional partners.” The Associated Press noted that this cooperative approach contrasts with that of the Trump administration, “whose unilateral demands for cooperation included a threat to Mexico to close the border and raise tariffs.”

Implementing this declaration may be complicated by the challenges of translating lofty statements and commitments to concrete actions on the ground, and by the absence from the Summit of the presidents of seven of the nine Latin American countries whose citizens were encountered most often at the U.S.-Mexico border in April. The Biden administration did not invite the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua, or Venezuela to the summit. The presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico declined to attend, though they sent foreign ministers or high officials and have likely been engaged with the Biden administration in negotiating the text. 

Vice President Kamala Harris, who is charged with developing the Biden administration’s “root causes” strategy for Central America’s “northern triangle” (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), announced new assistance for those countries. Little if any of it would go to these three countries’ governments, whose presidents all skipped the Summit. The Vice President announced more than $1.9 billion in new commitments from corporations willing to invest there, part of a private-sector “call to action” that, according to the White House, now adds up to over $3.2 billion in new investments. Further efforts include “In Her Hands,” a program that aims to “empower, protect, and train women in Northern Central America,” the creation of a Central American Service Corps for the region’s youth, a food security initiative, a Caribbean climate partnership, and a program to train health workers.

“We’re dealing with a challenge that, for a whole variety of reasons, is beyond anything that anyone has seen before,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN. “Countries are already having to do this,” Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols said to the Associated Press, “so rather than each country trying to sort this out and figure it out for themselves, what we’re doing is saying, ‘Let’s come together in a coherent way and construct a framework so we can all work together to make this situation more humane and more manageable.’”

A June 6 letter from 108 U.S. non-governmental groups, including WOLA,  urged the Biden administration and regional governments to carry out their border and migration policies in coordination with civil society and migrant-led organizations. It offered a series of recommendations for protecting migrant rights, ensuring access to asylum (including ending the Title 42 and “Remain in Mexico” efforts that block asylum access), protecting immigrants in the United States, and expanding legal pathways to migration.

“What we hope to see in the Declaration are commitments more focused on access to protection and other legal avenues for migrants in need of leaving their countries of origin,” WOLA’s vice president for programs, Maureen Meyer, told Venezuela’s Efecto Cocuyo. “It is of concern that so far the main focus of the United States and several countries is migration control at the expense of the rights of migrants and access to protection.”

“Caravan” departs Tapachula

Thousands of migrants departed Mexico’s southern border-zone city of Tapachula, Chiapas, on June 6. This latest attempt to form a “caravan” is already dwindling as Mexico’s government engages in negotiations and prohibits participants from boarding vehicles.

Estimates of this caravan’s size have varied widely. Its principal organizer, Luis García Villagrán of the Mexican NGO Center for Human Dignity, who said it was deliberately timed to coincide with the Summit of the Americas, foresaw 15,000 participants, a number that appeared in widely shared initial reporting. As the group departed Tapachula, Reuters estimated “at least 6,000 people.” By June 7, Villagrán told reporters that numbers had dropped to between 5,000 and 8,000.

According to the Guardian, Villagrán said that 70 percent of caravan participants are women and children. While it’s not clear that this was accurate, a significant portion do appear to be neither male nor adult.

It is widely reported, though, that a majority of participants are from Venezuela—80 percent, estimates veteran Chiapas-based reporter Isaín Mandujano—with Central Americans, Haitians, Cubans, and citizens of African countries making up most of the rest. As they walked up Chiapas’s Pacific coastal highway leading out of Tapachula, some carried Venezuelan flags, sang Venezuela’s national anthem, or chanted insults aimed at the country’s authoritarian leader, Nicolás Maduro.

A large presence of Venezuelans in Tapachula is new. Until recently, Mexico did not require visas of visiting citizens of Venezuela, so most who intended to migrate to the U.S. border flew to Mexico City or Cancún, then traveled by bus with valid visas in their passports. That ended on January 21, when Mexico began requiring visas of visiting Venezuelans, at the strong suggestion of the U.S. government after encounters with Venezuelan citizens at the U.S.-Mexico border increased to over 20,000 per month.

Arrivals of Venezuelan citizens at the U.S. border soon plummeted—U.S. authorities encountered 4,103 in April—but Venezuelans determined to migrate northward have begun traveling by land in greater numbers. In the first five months of 2022, more than half of migrants walking through Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap jungles (16,720 out of 32,797 people) have been Venezuelan. In all of 2021, 2,821 Venezuelans took this route, and just 50 in 2020.

When Venezuelans without visas arrive by land in southern Mexico, they face the same choices as other undocumented migrants, most of whom end up in Tapachula: risk capture, detention, or deportation, or seek asylum in Mexico’s overburdened system. Almost 33,000 people applied for asylum in Tapachula during the first 5 months of 2022, and 89,604 applied in 2021. (Tapachula’s population is about 350,000.)

(While many can claim government persecution, even Venezuelan citizens who do not qualify for asylum are difficult to deport or remove. The U.S. government, which has sought to use Title 42 robustly to expel as many migrants as possible regardless of asylum needs, has expelled 1 percent of the Venezuelan migrants it has encountered, and most of those probably had some legal status that made possible their expulsion to Mexico.)

According to EFE, García Villagrán estimated that 45,000 migrants are currently stuck in Tapachula awaiting resolution of their asylum applications. Normally, Mexico requires asylum applicants to remain in the state where they first applied, though cases can occasionally be transferred to other states.

This is a hardship in Tapachula, an economically struggling city in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state. With COMAR barely able to keep up, the agency’s Tapachula office is now scheduling initial asylum application appointments for August, and deciding cases many months after that. This leaves most migrants with no viable way to support themselves while they await decisions. (In early June, both WOLA and Human Rights Watch published detailed, vividly documented field research reports about the plight of migrants stuck in Tapachula.)

To some extent, the “caravan”—and several that have come before it—is a reaction to that. Though they continue to get a lot of attention in U.S. media, no caravan has arrived intact at the U.S.-Mexico border since late 2018. Mexico and Guatemala have dispersed them shortly after they’ve formed, either by blocking them through at times violent operations, by prohibiting participants from boarding vehicles, or by agreeing to allow marchers to transfer their asylum applications to other Mexican states—usually states with greater employment opportunities but still distant from the U.S. border. A few hundred participants in a late 2021 caravan walked all the way from Tapachula to Mexico City, roughly one third of the distance to the U.S. border, but dispersed after that.

The current caravan seems to be dividing. By June 8 its participants had traveled about 25 miles from Tapachula to the town of Huixtla, Chiapas, where Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) apparently offered to provide documents to those who desist. Mandujano reported that the document on offer is the Humanitarian Visitors Card (Tarjeta de Visitante por Razones Humanitarias, TVRH), which allows migrants to stay in the country for a year and work. Although humanitarian visas should be provided to asylum seekers while their cases are processed,  victims or witnesses of crime in Mexico, children, and for other humanitarian or public interest reasons, the U.S. government has often objected to Mexico’s use of this  visa because many who receive it go directly to the U.S. border.

It is not clear how many TVRHs the Mexican government is issuing to caravan participants. García Villagrán told EFE that “INM Commissioner Francisco Garduño called him and pledged to assist all of the members of the caravan with their immigration proceedings.” Over 2,100 had been issued by June 8.

The offer has apparently split or reduced the caravan. On June 9, about 2,000 migrants, mainly younger males, walked north from Huixtla, according to the Associated Press, “but throngs of families with children decided to wait in Huixtla to see if they could get some sort of temporary exit visa.”

In the United States, some are watching closely. Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols, according to EFE, warned caravan participants that “the U.S. border is not open… what I say to these people is not to risk their lives on a long journey that will not result in entry into the United States.” The caravan has been featured on the social media accounts of immigration and border hardliners like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), and the FOX News cable network.

Emails reveal that family separation was the point of “Zero Tolerance”

2018 email correspondence between Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials, made available via ongoing litigation, reveals that they sought to maximize the number of migrant parents and children being separated by the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy. Officials, some of whom remain in senior positions today, were upset that some parents were being released from the U.S. criminal justice system quickly enough to be reunited with their children.

Starting in late 2017 and intensifying during the spring of 2018, the Trump administration, led by then-attorney general Jeff Sessions, sought the highest possible number of criminal prosecutions of migrants who crossed the border between ports of entry, which is a misdemeanor. Under the “zero tolerance” policy, adult improper border crossers were jailed and made to appear in federal courts, regardless of whether they were seeking asylum. Meanwhile, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) carried out a policy called “metering,” sharply limiting the number of asylum seekers who could approach ports of entry “properly” to ask asylum, making improper crossings the only viable way to seek protection without a very long wait.

If the criminally prosecuted migrants arrived with children, CBP took the children away from parents, on the pretext that children cannot be held in prison, then classified the children as “unaccompanied” and sent them to the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). These separations happened more than 4,000 times until a San Diego federal judge ordered a halt to the “zero tolerance” policy in June 2018. For reasons that remain unexplained, CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) made very little effort to note the connection between jailed parent and separated child. As a result, hundreds of parents were deported without their children, and many remain separated today.

Trump administration officials sought to portray the family separations as an unfortunate byproduct of its “zero tolerance” effort to enforce existing U.S. laws. (“On multiple occasions, high-ranking members of the Trump administration denied developing a family separation policy,” CBS News put it this week.) The trove of emails, first revealed by the Washington Post’s Maria Sacchetti, explodes that claim. They show that the family separations were, in fact, the point: an effort to deter future migration by inflicting suffering on migrants, including asylum seekers.

On May 10, 2018, senior ICE official Matthew Albence sent a memo to top colleagues voicing his concern that, because judges were often sentencing parents to time served and releasing them, parents were returning to DHS custody too quickly, before their children could be classified as “unaccompanied” and taken away from them. According to the Washington Post, “Albence said CBP should work with ICE ‘to prevent this from happening,’ such as by taking the children themselves to ORR ‘at an accelerated pace’ or bringing the adults directly to ICE from criminal court, instead of returning them to their children.” Albence now works in the private sector.

Tae Johnson, a senior ICE official at the time, complained on May 25, 2018 that CBP was “reuniting adults with kids” after prosecution in McAllen. “What a fiasco,” he added. Tae Johnson is now the acting director of ICE, a position he has held since the final days of the Trump administration.

“We can’t have this,” Albence responded to Johnson’s e-mail. “ORR needs arm twisted,” wrote ICE official David Jennings. Albence added on May 26,“This obviously undermines the entire effort and the Dept is going to look completely ridiculous if we go through the effort of prosecuting only to send them to a [Family Residential Center] and out the door.” CBP official Sandi Goldhamer responded by suggesting “that Border Patrol ‘cease the reunification process’ if officials are ‘concerned about appearances.’”

Lawyers representing victims of family separation obtained these emails as part of a lawsuit filed against the U.S. government after settlement negotiations broke down in late 2021. The officials’ words, they say, strengthens the plaintiffs’ case: “in practice, the government implemented a sweeping administrative family separation policy—the exact DHS proposal discussed throughout 2017—under the guise of a prosecution policy, which was merely a pretext for the ultimate goal: separating families to deter immigration.”

Supreme Court decision shields border agents

In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 8 that a U.S. citizen could not sue a Border Patrol agent who assaulted him. The Egbert v. Boule decision will complicate future efforts to hold accountable federal law enforcement agents who violate constitutional rights.

The case stems from a 2014 incident in Washington state, along the U.S.-Canada border, in which Border Patrol agent Erik Egbert shoved and pushed to the ground innkeeper Robert Boule, who accused Egbert of illegally entering his property. The Supreme Court’s majority, in an opinion authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, decided that Boule did not have the right to sue a federal agent without explicit authorization from Congress.

This further weakens a 1971 Supreme Court ruling (Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics) that had allowed federal law enforcement officers to be sued for violating constitutional rights in some instances. The U.S. Constitution includes protections against excessive force or illegal search and seizure, but “it is silent about what the proper remedy is against an officer who violates these limits,” Ian Millhiser explained at Vox. The possibility of lawsuits as a recourse was already weakened by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2020 (Hernandez v. Mesa), which prohibited relatives of a 15-year-old Mexican boy from suing the Border Patrol agent who, while standing on U.S. soil, shot and killed him from across the border.

In a dissenting opinion cited in the Washington Post, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that “the court had ‘absolutely immunized from liability’ thousands of Border Patrol agents ‘no matter how egregious the misconduct or resultant injury.’”

Cecillia Wang, the ACLU’s deputy legal director, told the Los Angeles Times that the Ebert v. Boule decision “leaves victims of police violence by Border Patrol agents without an effective remedy and endangers us all. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is by far the largest federal police agency, and it has an appalling record of injuring and killing people.” Added the Southern Border Communities Coalition, “The decision in the Washington state case is a setback for victims and survivors of Border Patrol agents’ violence. The court found that BP agents cannot be held individually liable for abuse and excessive force used during their work day.”

Links

  • On June 7, WOLA co-hosted with partner organizations the Summit side event “From Deterrence To Integration: Civil Society Voices On Migration Policy Challenges and Good Practices in The Americas.” Video of the event is here.
  • NBC News revealed that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is developing a plan to alleviate overcrowding at the border by transporting asylum-seeking migrants to cities in the U.S. interior after initial processing. A DHS spokesperson said that “no decision has been made” on the proposal. The plan has been in the works for months, a CBP source told Univisión. DHS officials are jokingly referring to it as the “Abbott plan,” citing Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) scheme to send released migrants on buses to Washington, DC.
  • A letter from 104 organizations (including WOLA) urges President Biden to use all available authority, “to the greatest extent permissible under existing court orders—in order to ameliorate the harms caused by Title 42 and ensure access to asylum… This should begin first and foremost with an immediate rulemaking to rescind the CDC’s Title 42 order.”
  • A copy of a Border Patrol Critical Incident Team (CIT) incident report has been shared with the public for the first time. It was obtained by the ACLU, which is litigating the case of Eric Molix, a U.S. citizen who died in an August 2021 high-speed Border Patrol vehicle pursuit in New Mexico. As first revealed by the Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC) last October, CITs are Border Patrol units that often arrive at the scene when agents may have committed wrongdoing, and are accused of altering crime scenes or otherwise seeking to build cases that might exonerate agents. CBP announced in early May that it would phase out CITs by the end of September 2022.
  • Witness at the Border’s latest monthly tracking of ICE flights found that May 2022 saw the second-largest monthly total of migrant removal flights (139) since the organization began tracking in January 2020. The countries now accepting Title 42 expulsion flights, it reports, “made up 95% of all removal flights in May.” Those countries are “Haiti (36), Guatemala (32), Honduras (30), Colombia (21), El Salvador (12), and Brazil (1).”
  • The Biden administration may soon be able to enforce vaccine requirements for federal workers, which could mean disciplinary action, even firing, for possibly thousands of Border Patrol agents who have refused the COVID-19 vaccine, the Washington Examiner reports.
  • A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the U.S. Congress’s investigative arm, looked into oversight and data collection regarding Border Patrol’s 110 interior road checkpoints. It found that Border Patrol’s data on checkpoint drug seizures is reliable, but that the agency keeps poor records on “other checkpoint activity data, including on apprehensions of smuggled people and canine assists with drug seizures.”
  • A heavy presence of border law enforcement and military personnel “ultimately didn’t stop a homegrown shooter from inflicting terror” in Uvalde, Texas on May 24, the Dallas Morning News observed. At Palabra, Michelle García blames the border security apparatus and a “constructed war zone” for encouraging “violence and inhumanity.”
  • 500 Texas National Guardsmen assigned to Gov. Greg Abbott’s “Operation Lone Star” have been sent home during the past two months. This is a slight downsizing: about 6,000 were still stationed along the Texas-Mexico border as of May 27, and 3,700 are assigned elsewhere in Texas, according to Stars and Stripes.
  • In Mexico’s border state of Chihuahua, which includes Ciudad Juárez, kidnappings and disappearances of migrants happen most often in zones controlled by the Juárez Cartel, a regional organized crime structure now allied with the larger Jalisco New Generation Cartel, according to an investigation by the Mexican magazine Proceso.
  • Arizona’s Republican governor and Republican-majority legislature are near a budget deal that would devote $544 million in state funds to border security. “$355 million would be used for fencing,” Axios reports.
  • Mexican media reported on factories seeking to hire Haitian migrants currently stranded in the border cities of Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa, Tamaulipas.
  • The Texas Tribune profiles a Salvadoran family whose unification could be derailed by one of the Texas attorney general’s many lawsuits in the state’s federal courts. This suit would end the Central American Minors Program, which allowed threatened Central American children with family members in the United States to apply for protection at U.S. embassies. The Obama administration began the program in 2014, the Trump administration halted it in 2017, and the Biden administration revived it in 2021.
  • “Across the U.S., a surveillance system tracking the movements of tens of thousands of people seeking refuge or permanent residency in the U.S. is quietly but quickly expanding,” observes an investigation of alternatives-to-detention programs by Erica Hellerstein at Coda. Most are required to use a facial recognition app known as SmartLINK.
  • A New York Times photo essay depicts asylum seekers’ cross-border journeys from shelters on the Mexican side to custody on the U.S. side.

Don’t let the “caravan” in southern Mexico distract you

Media are reporting on a large number of migrants leaving Tapachula, the city near Mexico’s border with Guatemala where tens of thousands are stranded, because Mexico requires them to remain in the state where they first apply for asylum. (See an early June report on Tapachula from some of my colleagues at WOLA.)

Hungry and miserable while waiting for Mexico’s backlogged asylum system to move, many are packing up and leaving. This time, a large number are Venezuelan.

Reuters estimated on June 6 that “at least 6,000” people left Tapachula en masse. Fox News immediately took notice and started piping footage into their viewers’ eyeballs.

Three points about this:

  1. No “migrant caravan” has succeeded in reaching the U.S.-Mexico border since late 2018. Mexican forces routinely break them up. A large one last fall dwindled, with just a few hundred walking all the way to Mexico City (very, very far from the U.S. border), as Mexican forces prohibited caravan participants from boarding vehicles. Caravans have become more of a negotiating tactic for migrants to press for permission to live in parts of Mexico where jobs are while awaiting asylum outcomes. (Tapachula is in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state.)
  2. Even if the caravan did manage to arrive at the U.S. border, we’d hardly notice right now. In late May, Axios reported that “the administration’s internal data now counts about 8,000 people attempting to cross the southwest border each day.” So “at least 6,000” people is less than a day’s worth of migration at the border right now.
  3. Caravans are what migrants attempt when they can’t afford to pay thousands of dollars each to a smuggler to get them across Mexico. They attempt to band together as a form of “safety in numbers.” But as noted, caravans really don’t succeed anymore. Instead, most of those 8,000 people a day arriving at the U.S. border right now are paying smuggling networks. And most of them cross Mexico in a week or two, usually less, in vehicles. U.S. media outlets’ and anti-migrant politicians’ obsession over “caravans” benefits those smuggling networks by making them migrants’ only option.

And it totally lets off the hook the corrupt Mexican migration and security officials who enrich themselves by looking the other way, waving smugglers’ vehicles through their many road checkpoints. The need to pay those officials (and, in northern Mexico, organized crime) is why smugglers’ fees are so high in the first place. But corruption gets like one hundredth the attention that “caravan” footage gets. Stop being distracted by the caravans.

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: June 3, 2022

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

This week:

  • Three more Nicaraguan migrants drowned to death in the Rio Grande. The chief of Border Patrol’s Del Rio, Texas sector reported 10 deaths there in a weekend. 2022 appears likely to be a record year for deaths of migrants on U.S. soil. This is in part because Title 42 has closed ports of entry to asylum seekers, routing many to the treacherous areas in between.
  • Mexico’s asylum system  is on track to experience its second-largest annual number of applicants in 2022. April was Mexico’s fifth-heaviest month ever for apprehensions of migrants. Half of those apprehended were not from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras, which is unprecedented. Many are from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and South America.
  • “Shared responsibility” is a main theme of a regional declaration on migration that the Biden administration hopes to sign with other Latin American and Caribbean heads of state at the June 8-10 Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles.
  • The Uvalde, Texas mass school shooting response has increased attention to BORTAC, Border Patrol’s little-known elite tactical unit, which has performed non-traditional, non-border-specific missions from Portland to Miami to foreign countries.

Still more migrant deaths

Last week’s Update noted that seven citizens of Nicaragua had died crossing the Rio Grande, in five separate incidents over about six days. This week, the grim toll continued to rise.

Three more Nicaraguan citizens perished in the river over the Memorial Day weekend, according to Nicaraguan Texas Community, a non-profit organization. Kelvin Antonio Tórrez Medina’s body was identified in Laredo, Texas, on May 27. The bodies of Alexander Zelaya Espinoza and Iván Ramiro Rivera Velásquez were recovered in Piedras Negras, Mexico, across from Eagle Pass, Texas, on May 28 and 29, respectively.

Between March 4 and May 19, 2022, more than 20 Nicaraguans have perished,” reports Confidencial, an independent Nicaraguan media outlet that persists despite repression from the regime of President Daniel Ortega. “Of these, nine died trying to cross the waters of the Río Bravo [Rio Grande], mainly in the Piedras Negras area.”

Another migrant of unknown nationality drowned on May 31 at California’s Border Field State Park, trying to swim around the border fence that continues for about 100 yards into the Pacific Ocean. CBP meanwhile posted a release about the death of a man who fell from the border wall in Tornillo, Texas on March 27. As documented in recent reports from the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Washington Post, the number of people dead or gravely injured from attempts to climb the border wall has multiplied since the Trump administration installed hundreds of miles of 30-foot fencing.

In mid-Texas’s Del Rio Sector alone, Border Patrol’s sector chief reported 10 deaths in a May 31 “Weekend Rewind” tweet.

In Tijuana, scores of people attended a June 2 funeral for two Haitian migrants: EFE identified them as “Joselyn Anselme, 34, who was killed in an attempted assault, and Caroly Archangel, 30, who died of a heart attack due to alleged medical malpractice.”

Border Patrol found the remains of more than 8,600 migrants on U.S. soil between 1998 and 2021. Humanitarian groups that recover bodies in specific regions routinely find far more than Border Patrol reports.

In a year that may break records for overall migration, it is not surprising that the number of migrants dying may be approaching record numbers. But the problem is exacerbated by the Title 42 pandemic policy’s closure of ports of entry to asylum-seeking migrants. Media reports point to many children and parents among the dead as they attempt to cross between the ports of entry, which used to be rare. Two small children are among the ten Nicaraguans recovered from the river this month.

Border Patrol is slow to report migrant deaths along the entire border: it has still not shared an official figure for 2021. When it does so for 2022, it’s probable that, even amid a rise in migration, the ratio of deaths to overall migrant encounters may be greater than normal.

48,981 people have applied for asylum in Mexico since January

The Mexican government’s Refugee Assistance Commission (COMAR) has published data documenting migrants’ applications for protection in Mexico’s asylum system through May 31. In the first five months of 2022, 48,981 citizens of other countries have filed asylum requests with COMAR.

That is already the third-largest annual total for Mexico, which as recently as 2013 got only 1,296 asylum requests all year. COMAR is on pace to finish 2022 with its second-largest number of asylum requests, after 2021 when a large number of Haitian migrants helped lift the total over 130,000. (However, new asylum applications have declined for the past two months, from 13,238 in March to 9,113 in May.)

This year, Haiti is not the number-one country of origin of Mexico’s asylum applicants. It is third behind Honduras (usually the number-one country) and Cuba, and followed by Venezuela, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Brazil (including many children of Haitian parents), Senegal, and Colombia.

The Mexican Interior Department’s Migratory Statistics Unit has updated data through April. That month saw Mexico’s migration authorities apprehend their fifth-largest monthly number of migrants ever: 30,980 people, which is in fact fewer apprehensions than Mexico measured in August, September, and October of 2021.

Half of migrants apprehended in Mexico in April were not from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. Instead, many are from (in declining order) Cuba, Nicaragua, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Haiti, Chile (mostly children of Haitian parents), and Peru. This is a sharp break with past years, when a quarter or fewer of Mexico’s migrant apprehensions were citizens of these “other” countries.

Mexico’s data also show an increase in the U.S. government’s deportations of Mexicans into Mexico. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 25,966 Mexican citizens in April, the second-highest monthly total (after March) since 2019. (This figure does not include Title 42 expulsions into Mexico, which often happen at the borderline without any Mexican authorities on hand to count them.)

April deportations to the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas (3,804), where organized crime activity and kidnapping are so severe that the State Department has issued a level-four “Do Not Travel” warning, hit their highest level since November 2020.

Migration on the agenda at next week’s Summit of the Americas

Presidents and heads of government from many Latin American and Caribbean countries will be in Los Angeles on June 8, 9, and 10 for the ninth Summit of the Americas, the latest in a series of high-level region-wide meetings that began in 1994. Five issues lead the agenda, White House and State Department officials explained to reporters on June 1: “democratic governance, health and resilience, the clean energy transition, our green future, and digital transformation.”

“On the margins of the summit,” National Security Council Western Hemisphere Director Juan González explained, will be an additional item: “addressing the historic migration crisis.” President Joe Biden is to “join other heads of state to sign a migration declaration, sending a strong signal of unity and resolve to bring the regional migration crisis under control.”

Though the U.S. political debate tends to focus on what happens at the U.S.-Mexico border, much of the hemisphere is also experiencing mass emigration, receiving large-scale immigration, or in some cases both. Over 6 million Venezuelan migrants have relocated to Colombia and elsewhere in South America. Nicaraguans fleeing the Ortega regime have arrived massively in Costa Rica. Mexico’s asylum system, as noted above, is facing unprecedented demand, much of it from Central America, Haiti, and Cuba. Haitians are crossing into the Dominican Republic or attempting dangerous sea voyages. (For more on the hemisphere-wide migration phenomenon, see WOLA’s May 26 commentary “Beyond the U.S.-Mexico Border.”)

Though the content of the Summit’s migration declaration isn’t yet known, U.S. officials are signaling a desire for greater shared responsibility at a time of very high migration throughout the region.

“For the last couple of months the President has and the Secretary of State and Secretary of Homeland Security, the Vice President, and others have been all-hands-on-deck to mobilize leaders around a bold new plan centered on responsibility sharing and economic support for countries that have been most impacted by refugee and migration flows,” González told reporters. “What we are hoping to do is…to look at the regional challenge from the context of responsibility sharing and the need to provide economic support to countries to have been impacted by refugee and migration flows, but also the importance of…in-country processing avenues, expanding refugee protections, and also addressing, I think, some of the core drivers of migration, which are lack of economic opportunities and insecurity.”

Brian Nichols, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, added that the summit’s migration declaration is likely to cover helping and “stabilizing” communities that are hosting migrants; ensuring access to legal documentation and public services; “promoting pathways for legal, orderly migration when appropriate”; ensuring ethical employment practices; “promoting humane migration management; and a shared approach to mitigating and managing irregular migration.”

It’s not clear how officials are squaring these goals and values with the court-ordered persistence of the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy, which has returned nearly 2 million migrants into Mexico, Haiti, or elsewhere, usually with minimal coordination with local authorities and without giving threatened migrants a chance to ask for protection in the United States.

Sixteen members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus sent a letter to President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging them to include a list of commitments in the Summit’s migration declaration. These include, among others, protecting the rights of migrant children and other vulnerable populations; guaranteeing migrants’ access to medical care and legal counsel; ending detention for children and families; upholding the principle of non-refoulement (not sending endangered people back to places where they are threatened); and expanding safe and legal, pathways to migration.

In an essay at Foreign Affairs, Dan Restrepo of the Center for American Progress—who held González’s National Security Council post during Barack Obama’s first term—calls on U.S. policymakers to recognize that high levels of region-wide migration are “not going to stop.” Adjusting to that reality, he argues, will require “a new, hemisphere-wide approach to migration, combined with steps to modernize U.S. laws, policies, and border infrastructure.”

A sustainable migration framework for the Western Hemisphere must help integrate and establish legal status for already dislocated populations, with additional protection measures for the most vulnerable among them. It must provide options for would-be migrants apart from overburdened asylum systems. And it must establish infrastructure to respond to sudden increases in irregular migration. Large numbers of people will be moving throughout the Americas for years to come. It is time the United States coordinated more closely with other countries in the region to make this a manageable trend, rather than a disruptive one.

School-shooting role draws attention to Border Patrol’s elite unit

Investigations at the New York Times and Vice profile BORTAC, Border Patrol’s elite 250-member SWAT-team-like tactical unit, whose personnel killed the gunman in Uvalde Texas’s Robb Elementary School on May 24.

Border Patrol may operate within 100 miles of a land or coastal border, or elsewhere in a declared emergency. As one of the few non-military federal law enforcement bodies with “special operations” capabilities, BORTAC has played numerous non-traditional, non-border-specific roles.

  • On Trump administration orders, its members fought protesters on the streets of Portland, Oregon, in the summer of 2020 following the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis. BORTAC personnel, with no insignia on their uniforms, were filmed grabbing protesters off the street and hustling them into unmarked, rented vans.
  • 66 BORTAC personnel were posted outside George Floyd’s funeral in Texas.
  • Also in 2020, BORTAC raided the desert camp of No More Deaths, an Arizona humanitarian group, on two occasions.
  • Its members carry out numerous overseas training missions, and likely were among personnel revealed to have confronted a January 2020 migration event in Guatemala by forcing Honduran migrants into unmarked rented vans and driving them back to Honduras.
  • In 2000 it was BORTAC personnel who took Cuban child Elián González from distant Miami relatives to return him to his father in Cuba.

Links

  • WOLA released a new report on June 2 based on fieldwork performed in Mexico’s southern-border city of Tapachula. “ Struggling to Survive: the Situation of Asylum Seekers in Tapachula, Mexico” follows the difficult challenges faced by asylum seekers stuck near Mexico’s border with Guatemala. Most are the result of U.S. and Mexican policies that stand in the way of accessing protection. Mexico, for instance, restricts most asylum seekers to the state where they first applied for asylum during the many months that their applications are under review.
  • WOLA will be hosting a side event, in conjunction with partner organizations, at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. Sign up to attend “From Deterrence To Integration: Civil Society Voices On Migration Policy Challenges and Good Practices In The Americas,” virtually on Zoom, Tuesday, June  7 from 5:00-6:30 PM U.S. Pacific Time (8:00-9:30 PM in the eastern United States).
  • Thousands of migrants stuck in Tapachula have been marching in protest, demanding quicker asylum processing or documents allowing them to transit Mexico. In response, the Mexican government is reportedly issuing permits for as many as 11,000 migrants to relocate to other, non-border states like Puebla, Morelos, Oaxaca, Jalisco, Michoacán, and Mexico state.
  • An analysis by Rebecca Beitsch at The Hill explores the Biden administration’s legal options now that a Louisiana federal court is preventing it from lifting the Title 42 pandemic policy, which enables the quick expulsion of asylum seekers at the border. While it challenges the court order, migrants’ rights advocates are encouraging the administration to quickly go through the rule-making and comment process that Judge Robert Summerhays expects it to undergo in order to end the public health policy.
  • Even with Title 42 still in place by court order, “US government protocols include exceptions for asylum seekers at a greater risk, and President Joe Biden has promised US agents will apply them. But border agents have broad discretion to grant or deny exceptions, and there are no clear consequences for agents who fail to do so or checks to ensure that exceptions are being handled properly.” The observation comes from a new Human Rights Watch report on LGBT asylum seekers stranded on the Mexico side of the border.
  • “Among the approximately 25 people with whom we spoke, over half had been waiting in Piedras Negras for a year or more and had close relatives in the United States,” reads a field research report from Refugees International. “Their most common questions were: When is Title 42 going to end? Why are some people able to cross at ports of entry (through exceptions), but not others? And why are some who try to cross the river not expelled but others are, especially Hondurans?”
  • The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) authorized a series of border barrier construction projects in five border sectors, using funds appropriated in 2017, 2018, and 2021, to “address operational impacts, as well as immediate life and safety risks.” Among others, the projects include gates and replacement of the border fence that enters the Pacific Ocean south of San Diego.
  • “Aid workers in Tucson are preparing for the likelihood of handling upwards of a thousand people a day very soon,” notes an NPR report from Arizona. “A good deal of the funding to support the growing humanitarian need in cities near the border like Tucson is coming from the federal government. Much of it is set to run out by the end of the month.”
  • At Reveal News, Aura Bogado discusses the post-government career path of Carla Provost, the Border Patrol’s chief during much of the Trump administration. Provost is a contractor for Endeavors, a non-profit that runs facilities, including emergency shelters, for the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement. Bogado notes that Provost managed the 2,000-bed Pecos Children’s Center in 2021 even though she oversaw Border Patrol during an era of family separations and an elevated number of in-custody deaths of children.
  • In its inaugural meeting on May 31, the Congressional Border Security Technology Caucus heard a presentation from Orbital Insight, a Silicon Valley geospatial analytics company that, according to Border Report, “analyzes satellite, drone, balloon and other unmanned-aerial-vehicle images, including cellphone geolocation data, to study a range of human activity, and provides business and strategic insights from the data.”

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: May 27, 2022

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

This week:

  • As expected, a Louisiana judge has kept in place the Title 42 expulsions policy, which was set to expire on May 23, probably for months or even more than a year. A different federal court’s ruling affords migrant families a hearing if they fear expulsion. The Louisiana decision likely means repeat border crossings will remain very high, asylum seekers will continue to take risky routes, and more migrants will arrive from “difficult-to-expel” countries. Migration at the border is currently exceeding 8,000 people per day, straining shelters, and DHS may ask Congress for more money to manage it.
  • Data obtained by CBS News shows that more than 12,000 children whom CBP encountered as “unaccompanied” in 2021 had already been encountered, and expelled, as members of family units. This means that an alarmingly high number of families decided to “self-separate” after being expelled by Title 42, sending the children back across the border on their own.
  • Nearly 20 Nicaraguan migrants have drowned in the Rio Grande this year, including 7 in the space of a week in mid-May. Migrants also drowned this week off the coast of Mexico and in a river that separates Mexico and Guatemala.
  • The number of Haitian migrants removed by air to Haiti during the Biden administration has just surpassed 25,000.

Title 42 will remain in place for a while

Late in the day on May 20, Lafayette, Louisiana Federal District Court Judge Robert Summerhays issued a preliminary injunction blocking the Biden administration from lifting the “Title 42” pandemic expulsions policy. In the name of preventing the spread of COVID-19, this policy has enabled the rapid removal of migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border more than 1.9 million times since March 2020, without affording the chance to ask for asylum or other protection. The judge’s action makes it likely that this will continue, curtailing the right to seek asylum at the border for months or even years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had determined on April 1 that Title 42 was no longer necessary, setting May 23 as its final day. Twenty-four Republican state attorneys-general filed suit to reverse this rescission, claiming that ending Title 42 would harm their states by enabling an increase in migrants. They elected to file their suit before Judge Summerhays, a Trump appointee in the federal courts’ conservative Fifth Circuit, which encompasses Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

Summerhays’ ruling was unsurprising: he had already prohibited the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from preparing to lift Title 42 while he weighed arguments. Lawyers were unable to persuade the judge to limit his decision just to the states that filed suit, which would have allowed Title 42 to end in the Democratic-run border states of California and New Mexico.

The Department of Justice will appeal Summerhays’ injunction, but the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is likely to uphold it. In the meantime, the Biden administration will comply with the court’s order and continue to expel migrants quickly.

If the administration follows the ruling, its path to ending Title 42 requires the CDC to go through the federal government’s “notice and comment” rule-making procedures. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council explains:

Notice and comment rulemaking can be a lengthy process that will likely take the CDC months to carry out if it seeks to end Title 42 again. It requires the preparation of a formal “notice of proposed rulemaking,” a comment period of 30-60 days, agency review of all comments, the preparation of a final rule, review by the Office of Management and Budget, and then usually the final rule is delayed at least 30 days before going into effect. And even if the CDC were to go through this process, states in opposition to the policy change could simply sue again to block that new rule.

Though Title 42 was an emergency provision put in place rapidly, and although the March 2020 CDC order stated that it could be ended at any time, the Louisiana judge contends that the “emergency” cannot be rescinded without a deliberative process that could take, in Reichlin-Melnick’s estimation, “months, possibly years.”

By the end of May, the Biden administration will almost certainly have hit its 2 millionth expulsion of a migrant at the border under Title 42.

In an analysis published on May 23, WOLA listed three likely consequences of keeping Title 42 in place.

First, the number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border each month is unlikely to decline. It will remain near historic highs. The period since March 2020 has seen a sharp increase in the population of migrants who wish to avoid capture, rather than turn themselves in to seek protection. Encounters with single adults—a demographic that includes many non-asylum seekers—have quintupled from pre-pandemic levels. Repeat encounters have skyrocketed: Title 42 means that migrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras get dropped at the Mexico border without being processed, enabling many to attempt to cross again.

Second, migrants who do seek protection will continue to be forced either to cross improperly, or to wait for many more months in dangerous Mexican border cities. Because land ports of entry remain closed to them, asylum seekers will face strong incentives to risk their lives by climbing the border wall, fording the Rio Grande, and paying organized crime to smuggle them across so that they may turn themselves in to Border Patrol. If they do not wish to do that, migrants will remain stranded in Mexican border towns, where data collected by Human Rights First show at least 10,250 reports of murder, kidnapping, rape, torture and other violent attacks on migrants since January 2021.

Third, more migrants will come from “difficult-to-expel” countries, leaving Title 42 applied to only a minority of migrants. 99 percent of migrants who get expelled come from the four countries whose citizens Mexico allows to be expelled over the land border: Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. (In early May, Mexico agreed to take a limited number of Cuban and Nicaraguan citizens as well. As discussed below, thousands of Haitian migrants also get expelled by air.) Citizens of all other countries face minuscule odds of being expelled if they seek protection in the United States: their countries are too distant, or their governments have poor relations with the United States. These “other countries” made up 46 percent of migrants encountered at the border in April 2022. As a result, the Biden administration did not apply Title 42 to 59 percent of the migrants it encountered that month. That percentage is likely to increase as Title 42 persists.

In April, a remarkable 78 percent of migrants arriving as families came from these “difficult-to-expel” countries. Migrant families who turn themselves in to U.S. authorities to seek protection, however, now have a legal lifeline. A March 2022 District of Columbia appeals court ruling, allowing families to express fear of persecution or torture, went into effect on May 23.

Under the Huisha-Huisha v. Mayorkas decision, CBP officers and Border Patrol agents must give families who show fear of expulsion either an interview with an asylum officer to evaluate the credibility of that fear, or placement in regular asylum proceedings and release into the United States. New guidance issued to CBP and Border Patrol requires officials, as the San Diego Union-Tribune explains,

to watch for “manifestations of fear” that include asylum seekers saying they are afraid of being in that country, asylum seekers saying they have already been harmed or that they will be harmed in that country, as well as asylum seekers showing signs of fear. The documents list “hysteria, trembling, unusual behavior, incoherent speech patterns, self-inflicted harm, panic attacks, or an unusual level of silence” as examples of nonverbal signs of fear.

The guidance does not require U.S. personnel to ask the families if they fear expulsion. The families must speak up themselves, or the U.S. official must detect  the above-mentioned signs of fear.

These new procedures will give families from “easy-to-expel” countries a greater chance of avoiding Title 42 expulsion. An unnamed DHS official told NBC News that this new requirement is “the first nail in the coffin of Title 42.” In April 2022, DHS used Title 42 to expel 13 percent of families it encountered; this percentage is likely to decline still further.

The Biden administration already refuses to apply Title 42 to unaccompanied children. The combination of Summerhays’ ruling and the Huisha-Huisha procedures is likely to turn Title 42 into a policy applied almost entirely to single adults.

However, Lee Gelernt, the ACLU’s lead litigator on the Huisha-Huisha case, warned that some families may still be returned to danger: “We have significant concerns that families who need protection will not be screened because they will be too scared or confused to speak up without prompting and that non-verbal ‘manifestations’ of fear are too difficult to determine,” he told the Union-Tribune.

The Louisiana ruling likely reduces momentum for Republican members of Congress, accompanied by some moderate Democrats, to pass legislation to keep Title 42 in place. A bill introduced by Sens. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) would keep Title 42 until after the government’s COVID emergency declaration is terminated, potentially suspending the right to seek asylum at the border for years. It appeared that this legislation may have had enough support to be attached to a COVID-19 relief bill, but after the Louisiana court ruling some of its Democratic supporters, like Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Arizona), appear less willing to seek to attach it to the COVID measure. Republican senators insist that they still want a vote; the U.S. Congress is in recess until the week of June 6.

Meanwhile, the pandemic measure has not prevented migration at the border from reaching record levels. Internal CBP data reported by the New York Times and Axios point to 8,000 to 8,200 border crossings happening each day right now. About 1,200 adults and 1,300 family members per day are being released into the United States.

Axios revealed DHS documents’ estimate that 40,000 to 50,000 migrants, including over 10,000 Haitians, are now in Mexico awaiting an opportunity to cross. Judge Summerhays’ ruling had cited a figure of “between 30,000 to 60,000.”

At a rate of over 8,000 people per day, the backup inside Mexico is equivalent to just 6 or 7 days of migration. Erika Pinheiro of the Tijuana-San Diego legal aid group Al Otro Lado, which accompanied the mass processing of 20,000 Ukrainian migrants in March and April, told the New Yorker that CBP can handle a flow like this in an orderly way: “They have the capacity for humanitarian processing. If they treat everyone the way they treated the Ukrainians, we’ll clear this backlog in a matter of weeks.”

Between January 2021 and April 2022, about 700,000 undocumented migrants encountered at the border, mostly asylum seekers, were admitted into the United States, according to a New York Times analysis of federal data. Articles this week in the Times and the Dallas Morning News profiled the charity-run shelter networks in U.S. border towns that are endeavoring to receive these released migrants so that CBP doesn’t release them on these towns’ streets. “Attorneys to shelter operators to aid workers are in a constant scramble as ground conditions change and policies are applied to one nationality, such as Ukrainians, but not another,” the Morning News reported.

Pressure on shelters and service providers is mounting in Mexican border towns, too, where the northward flow of migrants is compounded by a steady southward stream of deportations and Title 42 expulsions from the United States (as WOLA discussed in a May 18 report from San Diego and Tijuana). The El Paso Times, La Verdad, and Milenio all reported this week from Ciudad Juárez, where the migrant shelter network is under stress, and where a growing number of Haitian migrants has been arriving.

NBC News reported that DHS is likely to ask Congress for “emergency supplemental” funding for the 2022 budget year to keep up with the cost of processing migrants. The Department claims that it is in danger of running out of money for this purpose before the fiscal year ends on September 30:

Without tapping into key programs, DHS agencies that handle migration would need roughly $1.2 billion in additional funds to cover the cost estimated if border crossings reach 10,000 per day, the document says. The extra costs would be higher if more migrants cross: $1.6 billion for 14,000 crossings a day and $2 billion for 18,000 per day.

Title 42 has caused a very high number of family “self-separations”

At about the same time Judge Summerhays issued his ruling, CBS News reported an alarming statistic that got buried under the Title 42 news. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, CBP informed CBS that, during fiscal year 2021, Border Patrol processed 12,212 unaccompanied children whom it had already processed and expelled, usually as members of family units.

About 33 times per day in 2021, then, an expelled family in Mexico appears to have “self-separated.” Parents made the wrenching choice to send their children back, unaccompanied, across the border, where they might be safer. The U.S. government stopped using Title 42 to expel families after a Washington, DC district court judge halted the practice in November 2020. Expulsions of families have continued at a robust rate, though, creating a perverse incentive for “self-separations.”

An unnamed U.S. official told CBS News that “The Biden administration has been ‘well-aware of this phenomenon’ of self-separations among migrant families and some officials have cited it as a reason to end Title 42.”

Migrants drowning in the Rio Grande and along maritime routes

The independent online media outlet Nicaragua Investiga reports that “At least in 2022, nearly 20 Nicaraguans have died trying to cross the Rio Grande to reach the United States, and another number have perished en route to the U.S. border.”

Among those appear to be 7 Nicaraguan citizens dead or missing after being swept away by the Rio Grande in about a week:

  • Kenneth Blas Cardoza, 27, on May 19
  • Irma Yaritza Huete, 25, on May 18
  • Huete’s 4-year-old daughter
  • Darling Francisca Rosales Ortiz, 32, on May 17
  • Rosales’s son Dominic, 5
  • Keythel Borges Castellón. 20, on May 14
  • Catalina Luna Orozco, 40, on May 14

The non-profit group Texas Nicaraguan Community has been keeping a grim count of the drownings.

Deaths are mounting elsewhere along the migrant route to the United States.

  • As many as seven Honduran migrants drowned when their 25-foot boat sank in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Veracruz, Mexico. Milenio notes that large numbers of migrants have been opting for a short-hop maritime route in this sector, in order to avoid three road checkpoints between Villahermosa, Tabasco and Agua Dulce, Veracruz.
  • The bodies of a drowned 36-year-old Salvadoran migrant and his 7-year-old son were found on May 19 in the Suchiate River, which forms the boundary between Guatemala and Mexico.
  • In Panama, “many of the migrants who enter the inhospitable Darién jungle in search of better living conditions die along the way,” reports the Venezuelan publication Tal Cual, citing Panamanian government data showing nearly 7,000 Venezuelans took this dangerous migration route in the first 4 months of 2022. The report is based on an alarming Twitter thread from Human Rights Watch researcher Juan Pappier, who just returned from a visit to the Darién region.
  • Though not headed to the U.S.-Mexico border, a rapidly growing number of Haitian and Cuban migrants have been taking to the Caribbean and the Florida Straits, often in barely seaworthy craft, in attempts to reach the United States. A vessel carrying Haitian migrants capsized near Puerto Rico on May 12; about 11 drowned. The Associated Press reports that the U.S. Coast Guard has interdicted about 4,500 Haitians at sea since October, more than 3,000 of them since mid-March. A new Migration Policy Institute report on maritime migration notes that early 2,000 Cuban migrants have also been interdicted since October.

Aerial expulsions to Haiti hit 25,000

As noted above, DHS applies the Title 42 expulsions policy almost entirely to migrants from the countries whose citizens Mexico accepts across the land border. Other countries’ citizens tend not to be expelled, with one major exception: Haiti.

Migrants from the island nation, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, are expelled often under a high-tempo aerial removal campaign that intensified in September 2021, when over 10,000 Haitian migrants arrived en masse on the banks of the Rio Grande in Del Rio, Texas. (See WOLA’s analysis published in February, when the Biden administration removed its 20,000th Haitian migrant.) Between September and April, CBP has encountered 39,585 Haitian migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. It has used Title 42 to expel 14,559 of them, or 37 percent. No other country whose citizens are expelled by air comes close to Haiti.

Adding expelled Haitians to deported Haitians yields an even larger number of removals to a country currently experiencing a severe wave of gang violence, kidnappings, and anarchy following the July 2021 assassination of the country’s president.

This week, the Biden administration removed its 25,000th Haitian migrant by air since January 2021, according to a count kept by Tom Cartwright of Witness at the Border, who monitors removal flights and uses International Organization for Migration (IOM) data to make regular small adjustments to his estimates. By Cartwright’s count, the administration hit the 25,000 milestone on May 25.

CBP “migrant encounters” data show a sharp increase in Haitians arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border since February. With that has come a sharp increase in DHS removal flights. 19 planes took migrants back to Haiti during the 7 days between May 20 and May 26, including an unusual 4 flights over the May 21-22 weekend. “522 people were expelled by the Biden admin to Haiti yesterday and today alone,” Guerline Jozef of the Haitian Bridge Alliance told NBC News’s Jacob Soboroff on May 22.

By the morning of May 27, Cartwright’s count had risen to 25,700. Haiti’s population is estimated at 11.4 million, so 1 in every 444 people living in Haiti today was aboard a U.S. removal aircraft during the past 16 months.

Links

  • A new WOLA analysis looks at migration beyond the U.S.-Mexico border, examining recent trends in human mobility and the challenges migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are facing throughout the hemisphere.
  • Bajo la Bota” (Under the Boot) is a new multimedia microsite put together by the Fundación para la Justicia y el Estado Democrático de Derecho (FJEDD) and five other Mexican human rights and migrant rights groups. It documents the increasing use of armed forces to counter migration in Mexico, in parts of Central America, and in the United States. “An iron-fisted wind is blowing in the region to contain the rising human river,” the site warns.
  • In circumstances that remain to be clarified, a Border Patrol agent shot and killed a Mexican migrant in Douglas, Arizona after midnight on May 24. According to the Arizona Republic, the Mexican consulate received an initial report stating that the migrant was taken to a Douglas hospital after being injured climbing the border wall, then “tried to escape and entered into a confrontation with a Border Patrol agent.” The May 24 incident is under FBI investigation, and being reviewed by CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility. This is the second agent-involved shooting near Douglas since February 19, when Agent Kendrek Bybee Staheli shot and killed Mexican migrant Carmelo Cruz-Marcos.
  • CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus said that the agency is developing a new policy for vehicle pursuits. High-speed chases involving Border Patrol agents, some of them in populated areas, have generated increasing controversy. The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and New Mexico, which has been documenting this closely, counted 22 people killed in vehicle pursuits in 2021, up from 14 in 2020 and 2 in 2019.
  • The embattled DHS Inspector-General, Trump-era appointee Joseph Cuffari, sent a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee leaders seeking to defend himself from allegations, first revealed by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), that his office (OIG) has been suppressing, delaying, and watering down information about serious patterns of sexual harassment and domestic abuse within the Department’s law enforcement agencies. Cuffari’s letter blames “senior DHS OIG officials who preceded me,” “the intransigence of some inspectors,” and OIG staff withholding information from him. “This is not the response of someone committed to meeting the statutory mandate for inspectors general,” reads a Twitter thread from POGO’s director of public policy, Liz Hempowicz.
  • A resolution seeking to block the Biden administration’s new asylum rule, which will take effect on May 31, failed by a 46-48 vote on May 26. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) was the only Democrat to vote for it. The White House had signaled its intention to veto it. The asylum rule is facing a legal challenge submitted by the Texas state government before Amarillo federal District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, the same judge who ordered reinstatement of the “Remain in Mexico” policy last August. Kacsmaryk will not issue a ruling before May 31, so the new rule will go into effect. It assigns a greater role to asylum officers in adjudicating cases, and speeds the asylum process in ways that concern immigration advocates.
  • “The government of Texas has been asking us to place barbed wire on the Mexican side of the border,” said the director of Mexico’s migration agency (INM), Francisco Garduño. “The policy of the Mexican government has been ‘no’ to the wall, and we do not believe in, and we do not want, a barbed-wire wall either.”
  • A Catholic priest who ran the Casa del Migrante migrant shelter in the Mexican border town of Tecate, east of Tijuana, was found dead on May 17. His body showed signs of torture.
  • “The Mexican government has a plan, a very good agenda for security along the Isthmus of Tehuantepec,” said U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar, referring to the region of southern Mexico where the country reaches its narrowest point. “There, in the Isthmus, for 300 kilometers, 180 miles, it’s easier to see what is happening in the 180 mile border and not 2,000 miles in the desert, so it is part of the migration solution. It is also part of the security solution.” He continued, “That’s where the keys are to solve the problems we have now regarding the flow of migration to the north.”
  • At the Dallas Morning News, Alfredo Corchado recalls the day, 25 years ago on May 20, when 18-year-old Esequiel Hernández became the first U.S. civilian killed by U.S. soldiers on U.S. soil since the May 1970 Kent State killings. Hernández, who was carrying a .22-caliber rifle while herding goats on his property in Redford, Texas, was shot and killed by a concealed active-duty Marine assigned to the border region on a counter-drug mission.
  • An agent from Border Patrol’s SWAT team, known as BORTAC, fired the shot that killed the gunman at the elementary school in Uvalde, Texas on May 24. Uvalde is about an hour’s drive from the border towns of Del Rio and Eagle Pass.

Three Consequences of Keeping Title 42 in Place at the U.S.-Mexico Border

Here’s another border analysis (the first in, like, 5 days), this one looking into what might happen next now that a Trump-appointed judge has kept the “Title 42” pandemic expulsions policy in place.

Besides “some threatened people may be turned back and die,” the three consequences discussed here are:

  1. The number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border each month is now very unlikely to decline. It will remain near historic highs
  2. Protection-seeking migrants will continue to be forced either to cross improperly, or to wait for many more months in dangerous Mexican border cities
  3. More migrants will come from “difficult-to-expel” countries, leaving Title 42 applied to only a minority of migrants

Read the whole thing here.

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: May 20, 2022

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

This week:

  • The overall number of migrants encountered at the border increased from March to April, but this number declined when paroled Ukrainian migrants are subtracted from the total. It declined further—by 16 percent—when repeat crossers are subtracted. The “Remain in Mexico” program, revived by court order, continues to grow, though more exceptions are being made for migrants with credible fear of being made to wait in Mexican border cities.
  • It is another busy year for migration in Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap, where Doctors Without Borders has already counted 89 cases of sexual violence against migrants.
  • The Title 42 pandemic authority, which has enabled the rapid expulsion of migrants nearly 2 million times and curtailed the right to seek asylum, may expire on May 23, unless a Trump-appointed judge in Louisiana decides otherwise. Legislative efforts to preserve Title 42 are on hold for now. Large numbers of migrants in Mexican border cities are awaiting a chance to ask for protection in the United States, and the main shelter in El Paso is warning of capacity issues.
  • DHS witnesses in a House hearing warned that transshipment of synthetic drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine continue to increase at the border. They noted that nearly all of these seizures occur at ports of entry, not in the areas between where Border Patrol operates, and that there is little overlap between drug and migrant smuggling.

 

Migration declined slightly from March to April

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported data on May 17 about the agency’s encounters with migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border during the month of April 2022. It encountered 157,555 individual migrants on 234,088 occasions, 2 percent fewer individuals than in March. The gap between “encounters” and “individuals” indicates a very large number of repeat crossings, a result of CPB’s rapid expulsions of migrants under the Title 42 pandemic authority, which eases repeat attempts.

Of those 157,555 people, 32,288 reported to the border’s land ports of entry—20,118 of them citizens of Ukraine whom CBP paroled into the United States. Since repeat encounters are rare at ports of entry, subtracting 32,288 from 157,555 leaves a total of about 125,267 individual migrants apprehended by Border Patrol between the ports of entry in April. While high, this “unique Border Patrol apprehensions” number is 16 percent fewer than it was in March, and is 6th for the last 10 months, the period during which CBP has reported unique individual apprehensions.

April brings CBP’s overall “encounters” number to 1,478,977 since fiscal year 2022 began last October. As five months remain to the fiscal year, the agency is likely to break its annual migrant encounter record.

72 percent of migrants encountered at the border so far this year are single adults. Other than the pandemic year of 2020, this is the largest proportion of single adults since 2015. April continued the trend, with 71 percent of the month’s encounters occurring with adults traveling without children.

Adults are more likely than families or children to attempt repeat crossings, so Title 42’s easing of repeat attempts has inflated this number. Should Title 42 end, DHS officials say that they are prepared once again to apply “consequences” like immigration bans and even prison time to repeat crossers. As a result, they expect the number of repeat crossings—and thus the overall “encounters” number—to decrease after Title 42 comes to an eventual end.

Title 42 may or may not end on May 23, as this update discusses below. By that date, it’s somewhat likely that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will have used the authority to expel its 2 millionth migrant. The expulsions total at the U.S.-Mexico border stood at 1,915,848 on April 30.

CBP used Title 42 to expel 41 percent of migrants (and 54 percent of single adult migrants) whom its personnel encountered in April. Another 7 percent were processed under normal immigration law, but then removed from the United States. Of the remainder, 110,207 were released into the United States, in many cases to pursue asylum claims, and 7,782 were handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The 41 percent of migrants expelled under Title 42 is a somewhat smaller proportion than in earlier months, in large part because an ever larger share of migrants are coming from countries whose citizens the U.S. government cannot easily expel, like Cuba, Ukraine, Colombia, Nicaragua, or Venezuela.

In fact, Cuba and Ukraine were the number two and three countries of origin of migrants encountered at the border in April, a circumstance that is unlikely ever to repeat now that Ukrainian citizens have a more formal process to petition for refuge in the United States. The elevated number of Cuban arrivals at the border owes in large part to Nicaragua’s November decision to eliminate visa requirements for visitors from the island, making the journey much shorter.

Until 2018, 95 percent of migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border routinely came from four countries: Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. In 2019, that dropped to 91 percent. In April 2022, those four countries’ share of all migrant encounters declined to 54 percent. Still, the four made up 99 percent of all Title 42 expulsions last month. This is because Mexico accepts Title 42 expulsions over the land border of its own citizens, and of citizens from the three Central American countries (and as of early May, some citizens of Cuba and Nicaragua).

Encounters with migrants traveling as families (parents with children) increased 44 percent from March to April, though they remain significantly fewer than they were in 2019 and during the summer of 2021. A remarkable 72 percent of families encountered in April were not from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. Largely as a result, 13 percent of families were expelled under Title 42, a smaller proportion than in recent months.

Encounters with children traveling unaccompanied dropped 14 percent from March to April. The 12,221 encounters with unaccompanied children in April were significantly fewer than a year ago, even though the Biden administration is not using Title 42 to expel non-Mexican unaccompanied children.

A monthly report from DHS informed that it enrolled 2,005 migrants in April into the “Remain in Mexico” program, revived in December under a Texas federal court order. That is 39 percent more than in March, 124 percent more than in February, and 404 percent more than in January. Of the 5,014 migrants chosen to “remain in Mexico” between December 6, 2021 and April 30, 2022, all have been single adults, 62 percent have been Nicaraguan, 15 percent Cuban, and 7 percent Colombian.

When migrants express fear of being made to remain in Mexico, the Biden administration has taken those claims more seriously than did the Trump administration. 32 percent of those enrolled in the revived program (1,605 of 5,014) have been taken out of it, mostly due to credible claims of fear of harm in Mexican border cities.

Panama’s Darién Gap headed for second-busiest year ever

Panama, meanwhile, has posted data through April 30 about migration through the treacherous, ungoverned Darién Gap jungle region near its border with Colombia. In 2021 an unprecedented 133,726 migrants—101,072 of them Haitians traveling from South America—made the difficult 60-mile journey through the Darién. During the first four months of 2022, Panama has registered 19,092 migrants emerging from the Darién—fewer than last year but still on course to be the second largest annual number ever. This year, Venezuelans are the number-one nationality migrating through the Darién.

Doctors without Borders (MSF), one of few humanitarian groups present in the Darién region, tweeted that on May 16 “the Migrant Reception Station (ERM) in San Vicente, Panama, received 746 migrants in a single day,” far more than the daily average of 300. “In a single day, MSF has treated more than 220 patients for issues such as muscle pain, diarrhea, respiratory diseases, among other ailments.” Still more alarmingly, “over the course of this year we have treated 89 patients for sexual violence.”

Migrants who pass through it routinely say that the Darién is the most frightening part of their entire journey. In an article published this week, a Venezuelan migrant passing through Honduras told Expediente Público that he saw two dead bodies while passing through these jungles. Another said that “he and other migrants had been intercepted by armed individuals, who extorted them, sexually abused the women, and kidnapped the daughters of the people traveling with him.”

 

Title 42 may or may not be in its final days

On April 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determined that the COVID-19 pandemic’s severity no longer warranted maintaining the Title 42 expulsions authority. The CDC set this coming Monday—May 23—as its expiration date. As of May 23, the border will return to the application of normal U.S. immigration law, unless a Louisiana federal court postpones Title 42’s expiration.

“Normal immigration law” means that the right to seek asylum will be restored: migrants who express fear of return to their country will have the credibility of their fear claims evaluated and then have their petitions decided, either by an immigration judge or an asylum officer. It also means that migrants who had sought to avoid apprehension may, if caught, no longer just be quickly expelled: they will face what DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called “enforcement consequences we bring to bear on individuals who don’t qualify” for protection, like expedited removal, several-year bans on future immigration, and even time in federal prison, especially for repeat crossers. “We do intend to bring criminal prosecutions when the facts so warrant, and we will be increasing the number of criminal prosecutions to meet the challenge,” Mayorkas said during a May 17 visit to the border.

These measures will likely bring an increase in asylum-seeking migrants, and a reduction in other migrants. All, though, will need to be processed in some way—not just expelled at the borderline—which will mean more work for U.S. border personnel.

Whether Title 42 ends on May 23 is up to Louisiana District Court Judge Robert Summerhays, a Trump appointee who is considering a suit brought by several Republican state attorneys-general, including border states Texas and Arizona. Summerhays has already issued a temporary restraining order blocking the Biden administration from starting to phase out Title 42, and he is expected—probably on Friday, May 20—to issue a preliminary injunction keeping Title 42 in place.

We won’t know until Summerhays issues his decision how long Title 42 would remain in place, and under what circumstances. Suzanne Monyak at Roll Call pointed out that his order “could apply nationwide, or only to the border states that sued: Arizona and Texas,” allowing Title 42 to be lifted in California and New Mexico, whose Democratic state governors are not party to the lawsuit.

A judicially ordered suspension of Title 42 would probably reduce momentum in Congress to pass legislation to keep the pandemic order in place. Legislation introduced by Sens. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) would keep Title 42 until after the government’s COVID emergency declaration is terminated—potentially suspending the right to seek asylum at the border for years. It has solid support from Republicans and the backing of a few moderate or electorally vulnerable Democrats.

The House of Representatives is adjourning for a two-week Memorial Day recess, and the Senate will take a one-week break on May 27. This means that there is zero possibility of legislative action on Title 42 before at least the week of June 6.

Senate Democrats are weighing a bill to provide supplemental 2022 funding for border security, which Bloomberg Government called “a move that could alleviate concerns within the caucus and defuse a potentially divisive vote attached to a COVID-19 aid package” to prolong Title 42.

Mayorkas and other DHS officials continue to tout their “comprehensive strategy” to ramp up migrant processing and “consequence delivery” should Title 42 end on, or shortly after, May 23. That strategy, laid out in a 20-page late-April document, discusses increasing temporary processing capacity—like tent-based facilities near ports of entry—and personnel surges to manage a post-Title 42 increase in protection-seeking migration at the border. The plan also calls for reimbursements of private charity-run shelters in U.S. border cities, which receive protection-seeking migrants upon their release, provide food and other basic needs, and help with travel arrangements to migrants’ U.S. destinations.

A post-Title 42 increase in asylum seekers is very likely. As reports this week from the New York Times and Fronteras Desk point out, Mexican border cities currently have large populations of migrants waiting for the right to seek asylum to be restored. In the violence-plagued border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros, Mexico, the few existing migrant shelters have seen their capacities far surpassed by an unexpected arrival of thousands of migrants from Haiti, who until recently had rarely arrived at this part of the border, across from south Texas. (DHS is responding to an increase in Haitian migrants with a faster tempo of expulsion and removal flights to Port-au-Prince, which Tom Cartwright of Witness at the Border documents at his Twitter account.)

Many migrants from difficult-to-expel countries are already crossing between ports of entry to ask for protection. In El Paso, Texas at least, this is straining the longstanding network of shelters managed by Annunciation House, whose capacity of about 500 migrants is reduced on weekends when churches are in session. On Sunday May 15, CBP released 119 single adults at the bus station in downtown El Paso, the first such release since late December 2018.

Annunciation House director Rubén García held a press conference on May 18 to warn of the group’s capacity problems and the need for greater cooperation from the local government. Annunciation House received 2,700 migrants the week of May 8, and 1,730 people in just the first three days of the week of May 15. “And it’s only going to continue to increase,” García added. “I have no doubt in fact if Title 42 is lifted on May 23, you are going to see many, many individuals having to be released into the streets.”

The shelter director said he met on May 15 with officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and that 29 FEMA personnel came to Annunciation House’s main shelter on May 17. While this helps, García said, the shelters have been facing a “vast shortage” of volunteers, in large part a result of the pandemic. Another obstacle García identified, according to El Paso Matters, is “the increased vilification of migrants, especially those coming into the United States from the Southwest border. That has turned people away from lending a hand either because of their beliefs or a fear of being targeted for their involvement.”

 

House hearing on opioid smuggling

The House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation, and Operations hosted three DHS officials for a May 18 hearing on the smuggling of fentanyl and other synthetic drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border. As WOLA’s collection of border drug-seizure infographics indicate, fentanyl and methamphetamine continue to cross the border in ever greater amounts, even as seizures of plant-based drugs like heroin, cocaine, and cannabis have remained flat or declined.

“Most illicit drugs, including fentanyl, enter the United States through our Southwest Border POEs [ports of entry],” Pete Flores, the executive assistant commissioner of CBP’s Office of Field Operations, told the subcommittee. “They are brought in by privately owned vehicles, commercial vehicles, and even pedestrians.” 86 percent of fentanyl seized at the border this year has been taken at land ports of entry, while Border Patrol has seized another 6 percent at interior checkpoints, which in nearly all cases means the drugs had recently passed through a port of entry. Only 5 percent of fentanyl seizures take place in the areas between the ports where Border Patrol operates.

“Fentanyl shipments largely originate, and are likely synthesized, in Mexico and are often concealed within larger shipments of other commodities,” Flores explained, adding that CBP calculates that it seized 2.6 billion potential fentanyl doses, and 17 billion potential methamphetamine doses, in 2021.

At ports of entry (including seaports and airports), CBP currently uses 350 large-scale and 4,500 small-scale x-ray and gamma-ray scanners. Right now, CBP has the capacity to scan only 2 percent of “primary passenger vehicles” and 15 percent of “fixed occupant commercial vehicles” crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Flores said the agency expects to increase these “non-intrusive” scans in 2023 to 40 percent of passenger vehicles and 70 percent of commercial vehicles.

DHS Intelligence official Brian Sulc and ICE Homeland Security Investigations official Steve Cagen coincided in telling the subcommittee that there is little overlap between drug trafficking and undocumented migration. “We’ve seen some instances perhaps of migrants and drugs as a mixed event, but they’re still rare,” Sulc said.

DTOs [drug trafficking organizations] and human smuggling organizations are opportunistic and transactional with their operations, and they’re strongly motivated by profits. So combined drugs and migrant smuggling events are not really a routine practice at all. The illicit actors facilitating these movements are likely to keep these entities separate to minimize the risk of losing the potential revenue from the much higher value drugs, such as fentanyl.

“We see that drugs and human smuggling are separate,” Cagen added. “They might use the same routes, but we predominantly see the drugs coming in through the ports of entry.”

 

Links

  • WOLA staff were in San Diego and Tijuana during the first week of May. We held 16 meetings with advocates, shelters, officials, journalists, and experts. We talked about the 300,000+ migrants in transit each year, post-Title 42 challenges, and U.S. border law enforcement accountability issues. On May 18, we published notes about what we learned.
  • A May 18 decision from Mexico’s Supreme Court, based on a legal challenge by the Institute for Women in Mexico (IMUMI) a Mexican NGO, outlawed the government immigration agency’s (INM) use of road checkpoints to detect and detain undocumented migrants, finding that the agency’s racial profiling has harmed indigenous Mexicans.
  • Andrés Ramírez, director of Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR, told Milenio that assistance from UNHCR has helped his agency contract 230 staff members. COMAR received 130,637 requests for asylum in Mexico last year, and 40,954 during the first 4 months of 2022.
  • Expediente Público reported from the Honduras-Nicaragua border zone, where thousands of Cuban, Haitian, African, Venezuelan and other migrants find themselves stranded, forced to pay authorities a $210 per person fee to continue northward, or spend days waiting for a permit. The report adds, “There are allegations of police officers stopping buses, pulling off White people and collecting money from Black people who remain inside.”
  • Irma Yaritza Huete Iglesia, a 25-year-old mother from Nicaragua, was the latest of many migrants to drown in the Rio Grande between Piedras Negras, Mexico and Eagle Pass, Texas. Her 4-year-old daughter remains missing.
  • CBP officers at El Paso’s Bridge of the Americas fired at a southbound vehicle on May 14. “While attempting to inspect a vehicle, a driver made an abrupt movement, at which point the officers perceived a threat to themselves and fired at the driver who fled from the inspection area at a high rate of speed and crossed into Mexico,” a CBP spokesperson e-mailed the El Paso Times.
  • Acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Tae Johnson told House appropriators that his agency needs a larger budget for alternatives-to-detention programs, “a much more humane” and “effective and significantly less costly option” compared to funding detention beds for migrants who pose no threat to the public. This often means the use of ankle monitors and other electronic surveillance devices that have raised human rights and privacy concerns.
  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) continues to send buses of asylum-seeking migrants to Washington, DC, but “as a pressure tactic, it has fizzled,” the Dallas Morning News reported. Between April 13 and May 13, 35 chartered buses carrying 922 migrants had arrived near the Capitol and Union Station. Arizona’s Republican state government has announced its intention to start sending buses to Washington as well.
  • Todd Miller, author of Empire of Borders, published two analyses this week from southern Arizona. At the Nation, Miller discussed the network of surveillance technology, “an increasingly autonomous surveillance apparatus fueled by ‘public-private partnerships,’” that he calls “Biden’s Wall.” A “Reporters Notebook” piece at the Border Chronicle reflected on the recent deaths in southeast Arizona of migrants Griselda Verduzco Armenta (died painfully trying to scale the 30-foot border wall) and Carmelo Cruz-Marcos (killed by a Border Patrol agent).

New brief: Capacity, Security, and Accountability at the U.S.-Mexico Border’s Western Edge

During the first week of May 2022 in San Diego and Tijuana, WOLA staff held 16 meetings and interviews with advocates, shelters, officials, and experts working on border and migration. We talked about the 300,000+ migrants in transit each year, post-Title 42 challenges, and the U.S. border law enforcement accountability issues covered on this site. On May 18, we published notes about what we learned.

We found:

  • In Tijuana, Mexico’s largest border city, the U.S.-Mexico border’s largest and best-established system of humanitarian shelters is holding up, though strained by a large population of migrants in transit, deported, or blocked from seeking asylum in the United States. The city’s security situation is worsening.
  • Advocates generally believe that this part of the border can manage a potential post-“Title 42” increase in migration. CBP’s smooth recent processing of 20,000 Ukrainian migrants showed that capacity to manage large flows of asylum seekers exists, when the will exists.
  • The termination of Border Patrol’s “Critical Incident Teams,” a product of advocacy that began in San Diego, is a step forward for border-wide human rights accountability. However, citizen monitors in San Diego have other human rights concerns regarding U.S. border law enforcement: misuse of force, dangerous vehicle pursuits, threats to civil liberties from surveillance technologies, deliberate misinformation to asylum seekers, and a steep increase in border wall injuries.

Read the whole thing here.

Weekly Border Update: May 13, 2022

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

This week:

  • Facing Republican-led litigation and a mostly Republican-led legislative push, the Title 42 pandemic policy, which denies the right to seek asylum, is unlikely to be lifted by its expected May 23 date. CBP granted an increased number of exceptions to Title 42 for the most vulnerable migrants waiting in Mexico, allowing 1,006 to present themselves at U.S. ports of entry during the week of May 3-9.
  • While CBP has yet to report April data, bits of information point to migration at the border increasing over already high March levels during the first half of April, then declining somewhat. Arrivals per day in early May could be fewer than they were in March.
  • Six migrants died over the May 7-8 weekend in Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, while a government watchdog finds that the agency has been under-reporting migrant deaths.
  • CBP is terminating ​​Border Patrol’s secretive Critical Incident Teams, which stand accused of interfering in investigations of Border Patrol agents’ use of force or other wrongdoing. One of these teams was present after the February 19 Border Patrol shooting of a Mexican man in Arizona, which local authorities just declined to prosecute. Some details of this case are troubling.

Title 42 is likely to remain in place

It now appears certain that the Title 42 pandemic order will remain in place after May 23, the date that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had announced that it would end.

“Title 42” refers to the March 2020 restriction at U.S. borders, continued by the Biden administration, enabling the quick expulsion of all undocumented migrants, even those seeking asylum, for ostensible public health reasons. Mexico agreed to take back citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras expelled by land, and more recently some Cuban and Nicaraguan citizens as well. U.S. authorities have used Title 42 to expel migrants at the border more than 1.8 million times.

Title 42 had to be renewed every 60 days, and the CDC announced on April 1 that the COVID-19 pandemic’s reduced severity warranted its termination on May 23. That decision—essentially, to return to regular immigration law and restore the right to seek asylum—has met stiff resistance. Opposition has come from immigration hardliners who seek to limit access to asylum, and from moderate Democrats worried that lifting Title 42 could cause a jump in already-high levels of migration at the border during a difficult legislative election campaign.

Officials from 21 Republican state governments filed suit in federal court in April to block Title 42’s lifting; the venue they chose is the Lafayette, Louisiana courtroom of District Judge Robert Summerhays, a Trump appointee. Summerhays has already issued and extended a temporary restraining order pausing the Biden administration’s efforts to terminate Title 42. Justice Department lawyers are to present arguments before Summerhays on May 13, after which he is expected to delay the CDC’s April 1 decision and keep Title 42 in place. It is not clear whether his decision will apply border-wide or just to Texas and Arizona, the two border states among the lawsuit’s plaintiffs.

Moves to prevent Title 42’s termination are also afoot in the U.S. Congress. Legislation introduced by Sens. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) would keep Title 42 in place until after the government’s COVID emergency declaration is terminated—potentially suspending the right to seek asylum at the border for years.

Republicans are demanding that the Senate consider this legislation as an amendment to a $10 billion COVID aid bill, as a condition to allow that stalled legislation to move forward. The Democratic majority’s number two and three leaders, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Patty Murray (D-Washington), say they are inclined to allow a vote on the Lankford-Sinema amendment; Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) says he will await the House of Representatives’ passage of a COVID aid bill and decide then. Talking to Politico, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), who supports ending Title 42, “ predicted Democrats would likely lose an immigration vote on the Senate floor.”

“That’s right,” wrote Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent at the Washington Post on May 10. “To deal with an ongoing pandemic that has killed around 1 million Americans, Democrats must deal a blow to the asylum system, keeping the United States’ doors closed to those fleeing oppression and violence.”

While the political wrangling continues, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been gradually expanding exceptions to Title 42, allowing migrants deemed most vulnerable (with input from non-governmental organizations) to approach six ports of entry to seek protection. A May 11 U.S. government filing for the Louisiana litigation reports that CBP processed 1,006 migrants under Title 42 exceptions in the 7 days between May 3 and May 9. These included 487 at the San Ysidro, California port of entry; 220 at El Paso, Texas’s Paso del Norte bridge; 124 in Hidalgo, Texas, across from Reynosa, Mexico; 91 in Nogales, Arizona; 83 in Eagle Pass, Texas; and 1 in Laredo, Texas.

In other Title 42 news:

  • In a May 11 hearing before the House Appropriations Committee, CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus told Republican backers of making Title 42 permanent that the policy has complicated border security efforts, easing repeat attempts to cross the border. “The problem with Title 42 is,” he said, “over and over again, those individuals who get walked back across the line come right back, and we see them over and over again.”
  • “We have always been against Title 42. We have always encouraged the government to eliminate it,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi told TV journalist Jorge Ramos.
  • “I would caution people not to assume that there will suddenly be an overwhelming rush at the border” after Title 42, Alex Mensing of Innovation Law Lab told Mother Jones. “It can be a lot more orderly,” he added, noting that CBP demonstrated the capacity to process up to 1,000 Ukrainian citizens per day in San Diego in April.
  • Title 42 continues to be applied aggressively to citizens of Haiti. As of May 12, Tom Cartwright of Witness at the Border had counted 235 expulsion or deportation flights to Haiti since the Biden administration began, 198 of them since the September 2021 arrival of thousands of Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas. Nicole Phillips of the Haitian Bridge Alliance was on hand for a flight’s arrival in Port-au-Prince on May 10: “Approx 100 ppl, mostly moms & young kids,” she tweeted. “Lots of complaints of ‘abuses’ by ICE. None were screened for asylum or told they were being deported. Chained by their wrists, waist & feet. Not able to shower or brush their teeth for days.”
  • The American Prospect reported that White House Domestic Policy Adviser Susan Rice remains a full-throated proponent of keeping Title 42 in place: “After learning that expulsion flights of migrants were not always full, Rice developed a daily fixation with ensuring full capacity on flights operating under Title 42.”

Migration has dropped slightly since March

While CBP has yet to share data from April, bits of information point to migrant arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border first increasing over the high levels reported in March, then, during the second half of April, declining to below those levels. Some of the indicators include:

  • A May 4 Washington Post citation of “preliminary figures” from CBP indicated that in April, “the number of migrants taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection rose to about 234,000, up from 221,000 in March.” (Two days earlier, Breitbart News, which has many sources within U.S. border agencies, reported much different numbers: a decline from 221,000 in March to “more than 201,000” in April.)
  • Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council, who has seen recent CBP preliminary weekly data, tweeted: “April will set new records for southwest border encounters, in part because of the 13-14,000 Ukrainians processed in at the San Ysidro port of entry, but by mid-April encounters appear to have temporarily peaked and then by last week fallen back to mid-March levels.”
  • According to data accompanying a May 11 U.S. government filing for the Louisiana Title 42 litigation, there is a modest decline in single adult migration as of early May. That document reports 37,021 encounters with single adult migrants in the seven days from May 3 to May 9, 2022. That rate—5,289 single adults per day—is 3 percent fewer than the 5,454 per day CBP reported in March.

The May 3-9 data pointed to decreases in encounters per day, compared to March, with single adult migrants from Colombia (-17%), Guatemala (-12%), Mexico (-10%), Honduras (-4%), and Cuba (-3%). Countries that measured increases in single adult encounters per day, compared to March, included Haiti (+410%), Venezuela (+17%), and Nicaragua (+5%).

Peru appears in the filing as the tenth-largest nation of origin of single adult migrants encountered between May 3 and 9, with 677 encounters in those 7 days. CBP’s monthly public reporting does not even specify migration from Peru, lumping it in an “other countries” category. Like citizens of Colombia, Peruvians may enter Mexico without first obtaining a visa, as part of the Chile-Colombia-Mexico-Peru “Pacific Alliance” arrangement.

Preliminary data indicate that Mexico’s migration agency (INM) apprehended 38,677 migrants in April. That is Mexico’s largest monthly migration total this year, but fewer than levels measured in August through October of 2021; Mexico set its record of 46,370 apprehensions last September. In a single day—May 7—INM reported apprehending 1,608 migrants from 38 countries, a pace that would break the agency’s monthly record if sustained.

As noted in the court filing above, there appears to be a springtime increase in arrivals of Haitian migrants at the border. Many of them are arriving in Mexico’s violence-plagued border state of Tamaulipas, a part of the border that Haitian migrants had avoided until recently. Border Report reported that 3,500 Haitians have arrived since late April in Nuevo Laredo, a city that has seen few asylum-seeking migrants in recent years because of tight control exercised by organized crime. 1,400 of them, mostly men, may have already departed Nuevo Laredo for the city of Monterrey, a few hours to the south. The same article notes, as we have heard elsewhere, that Haitians are also arriving in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, “hoping to migrate should Title 42 be lifted.” Hundreds of miles west of Tamaulipas, in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, La Verdad reported on a church-run program that has given Spanish lessons to 70 Haitian migrants since January.

Migrant deaths continue unabated

Jason Owens, the chief of Border Patrol’s Del Rio, Texas sector, tweeted that his agents had encountered “12 rescues” and “6 deceased persons” over the May 7-8 weekend alone. Six migrant deaths in two days in a single sector is an extreme amount. In all of 2020—the last year for which the agency has publicly reported migrant deaths by sector—Border Patrol reported finding 34 migrants’ remains in Del Rio.

Some, if not all, of the dead found in Del Rio appear to be drownings in the Rio Grande. They included an adult man, and a child from Angola whose sibling is still missing. On May 2, a Nicaraguan man drowned in the swiftly flowing river between Piedras Negras, Coahuila and Eagle Pass, Texas. Texas National Guardsmen told Fox News reporter Bryan Llenas, whose film crew captured the broad-daylight drowning, that they are prohibited from attempting rescues after 22-year-old Guardsman Bishop Evans died while trying to rescue a migrant in Eagle Pass on April 25.

Border Patrol, meanwhile, stands accused of under-reporting migrant deaths border-wide. The agency has counted over 8,600 migrant remains on U.S. soil, mostly of dehydration, exposure, and drowning, since 1998. The actual number is almost certainly greater, though, since over the past 10 years or so Border Patrol has been reporting fewer deaths than do local humanitarian groups or medical examiners, leaving out of its count the remains of migrants found by other entities.

This is the subject of an April 20 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), covered by the Intercept, which found that Border Patrol has been undercounting the actual number of migrant deaths in the U.S.-Mexico border region. For example, GAO found that Border Patrol in Arizona routinely reports finding roughly half as many remains as does the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants.

Border Patrol has yet to share public reporting of migrant deaths in fiscal year 2021, though CNN reported last October that the agency had counted a record 557 remains that year, more than double the 247 found in 2020.

CBP to terminate Border Patrol’s controversial “Critical Incident Teams”

A May 3, 2022 memorandum from CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus, revealed on May 6, terminated Border Patrol’s Critical Incident Teams (CITs), secretive units that often arrive at the scene when agents may have misused force or otherwise behaved in a way that might involve local law enforcement. While Critical Incident Teams may have other roles, they stood accused of altering crime scenes, interfering with law enforcement investigations, and coming up with exculpatory evidence to protect agents. (See the “Critical Incident Teams” tag at WOLA’s new Border Oversight database of border law enforcement conduct.)

No other law enforcement agency has a similar internal exoneration capability, and the CITs’ existence is not specifically authorized by law, according to the Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC), a non-governmental organization that revealed the units’ extent in October and has led efforts to abolish them. CITs have existed in some form since 1987, and include 12 agents per Border Patrol sector, according to a CBP PowerPoint presentation obtained by the SBCC.

“By the end of FY [Fiscal Year] 22,” Magnus’s memorandum reads, “USBP [U.S. Border Patrol] will eliminate all Critical Incident Teams and personnel assigned to USBP will no longer respond to critical incidents for scene processing or evidence collection.” CBP’s internal affairs body, the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), will take “full responsibility for responding to critical incidents” by October 1, 2022. OPR will require “substantial resources” to take on this mission, the memo reads; Magnus’s May 11 testimony to the House Appropriations Committee notes that the 2022 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) budget “included $74 million for 350 new Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) Special Agents.”

The CITs’ termination comes just over six months after the SBCC alerted Congress to their existence. SBCC member Andrea Guerrero, executive director of Alliance San Diego, had learned of the teams’ interference with the investigation of migrant Anastasio Hernández’s 2010 beating death in San Diego. Guerrero and colleagues at SBCC laid out their case in an October 27, 2021 letter to congressional oversight committee chairpeople asking them to investigate the CITs.

In a statement from SBCC, María Puga, Anastasio Hernández’s widow, called the CITs’ termination “an important first step towards addressing the longstanding problem of Border Patrol impunity.” SBCC “commends CBP for taking this action and acknowledges the leadership of Commissioner Magnus,” reads the statement, which calls on Magnus to ensure that all CIT-related records be preserved so that those who “have engaged in criminal acts of obstruction of justice” in the past may be held accountable.

Also present at an SBCC press conference was Marisol García Alcántara, a 37-year-old undocumented Mexican mother of three whom a Border Patrol agent shot in the head in June 2021 while she sat in the backseat of a vehicle in Nogales, Arizona. A CIT was at the scene in the case of García, who was deported to Mexico without ever being questioned about the incident by any U.S. authorities. The BBC published a May 11 profile of Ms. García, who continues to suffer memory loss as a result of her injury, which includes bullet fragments lodged in her brain.

In southeast Arizona, a police report, shared by the Intercept, confirmed that a CIT was involved in the aftermath of the February 19, 2022 shooting death of Carmelo Cruz-Marcos, a 32-year-old migrant from Puebla, Mexico.

Agent Kendrek Bybee Staheli claimed that he shot Cruz-Marcos, who died of four bullet wounds to his head and chest, out of fear for his life when the migrant moved to throw a rock at him at close range. Cruz-Marcos was with several other migrants whom Staheli and Agent Tristan Tang were chasing late at night in the desert; none witnessed the interaction that led to Cruz-Marcos’s death.

The Cochise County Sheriff’s report cites migrant witness Carlos Torres Peralta, who had learned some English while living in Wisconsin for three years:

He said the agent told his companion [Cruz-Marcos], “Stop or I’m going to shoot you. ” He said his companion ran off and when he tried to run he stumbled on rock and the agent caught him. He said the agent told him, “This is America motherf—.” He referred to the agent as Agent Stain. I believe he was referring to Agent Staheli. He said the second agent yelled at Agent Staheli if he was ok and Agent Staheli said he was ok.

…Carlos further added information concerning Agent’s Staheli and Tang. He states to SA Chiriguayo that he believed the agents had moved the decedent’s body, repositioned the body, and he heard them discussing how they should follow up with statements and not say anything to anyone, and that Agent Tang had told Agent Staheli “it would all be ok and that he had his back.” Carlos further said he heard Agent Tang tell Agent Staheli that he should say he was attacked with a rock. Carlos statements would suggest the agents had covered up evidence and would not be truthful with any after action interviews they would have.

In a May 6 letter to the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department, County Attorney Brian McIntyre reported finding insufficient evidence to contradict Agent Staheli’s self-defense claim beyond a reasonable doubt, and declined to prosecute.

Links

  • At the Border Chronicle and the Guardian, Melissa del Bosque reports on Border Patrol’s practice of discarding migrants’ possessions after apprehending them. “Agents in Yuma, according to Customs and Border Protection, require they leave everything behind, except for what they can fit into a small plastic Department of Homeland Security-issued bag.” Discarded items include passports, birth certificates, police reports (evidence for asylum cases), and x-rays.
  • A report from the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology, based on numerous documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, finds that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “now operates as a domestic surveillance agency.” The agency has built up a capacity to pull up information on even most U.S. citizens “by reaching into the digital records of state and local governments and buying databases with billions of data points from private companies.” The report calls it a “dragnet.”
  • Of the 15 years (2007-2021) in which it has worked on disappeared-migrant cases in Mexico, the Jesuit Refugee Service-Mexico’s Disappeared Migrant Search Program took on 53 percent of its 1,280 cases in just three recent years: 2018, 2019, and 2021.
  • With a large migrant encampment cleared on May 2 and existing shelters nearly full, expelled migrants are beginning to gather immediately outside the offices of Mexico’s Migration Institute (INM), at the port of entry in the violent crime-plagued city of Reynosa. Many are Cuban and Nicaraguan.
  • “Say No to the Coyote” is the name of a new digital ad campaign that CBP has launched in Guatemala and Honduras in an attempt to dissuade migration.
  • “There are now at least 22 pending lawsuits in federal courts across the U.S. on behalf of more than 80 parents and children seeking financial compensation for the trauma they endured” after being separated during the Trump administration, CBS News reports. The Biden administration had been negotiating compensation settlements, but pulled out after news of the negotiations generated Republican backlash late last year. Biden administration lawyers now argue that the families are not eligible to sue the federal government.
  • Tamaulipas and Texas state police, along with Texas National Guardsmen, carried out “a binational drill for the detection and containment of migrants” on May 7 at two border bridges between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo.
  • A brief May 9 statement from CBP notes the arrest of a Del Rio Sector Border Patrol agent “on a warrant stemming from an indictment on a charge of Official Oppression in connection with the alleged assault and mistreatment of a juvenile in custody.” No further details appear.

A New Resource About Border Abuse and Accountability

In our work at the U.S.-Mexico border, we regularly hear about abuses or improper law enforcement behavior by U.S. security agencies. But so often, whatever happens gets overtaken by the next events, forgotten.

I wanted to start damming up this steady, alarming stream going by us all the time. So, many months ago, I set up a new WordPress install, and my staff and I started throwing into it everything we’ve seen and heard since 2020 about abuses committed at the border.

The result is a database that we’re hosting at borderoversight.org. It has more than 220 entries so far, fully cited. We’ve captured these events and allegations, and organized them by category, place, agency, victim, and “accountability status.”

I’m not exactly “proud” of what we’ve created here. Actually, trying to read through it is a monstrous experience. There’s only so many use-of-force incidents, high-speed vehicle pursuits, spied-on U.S. citizens, Facebook slurs, non-return of belongings, dangerous deportations, and timid oversight that one can take in a single sitting. The picture is grim.

I don’t want this to be viewed, though, as an attack on the individuals who’ve chosen to build a career as a Border Patrol agent or CBP officer. I have met many agents and officers, and found nearly all to be decent and honorable people. But take CBP and Border Patrol as a whole, and something changes. Organizational cultures are powerful.

Our maintenance of borderoversight.org will be continuous: a database is never “done,” but we’ll use it to spin off a lot of other materials and carry out further work on what’s causing this problem and how to reform it.

I hope you find it useful as we work for greater accountability and cultural change at these agencies.

Here are some resources:

  • We added a page with links to reports about the border: from WOLA, from the U.S. and other governments, from non-governmental colleagues, and from the media. Organized by category. More than 270 of them so far are at borderoversight.org/reports.

And here’s a quick video explaining this work:

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

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

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

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

Weekly Border Update: April 22, 2022

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

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

This week:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political maneuvering around Title 42 continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diplomats go to Panama to talk migration

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

Blinken described a wide-ranging agenda:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Texas governor faces backlash for border tactics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links

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

Weekly Border Update: April 15, 2022

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

This week:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ukrainians keep arriving in Tijuana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other news

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

Weekly Border Update: April 8, 2022

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

This week:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ukrainian migrants are arriving in ever-greater numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other CBP accountability news:

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

Links

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, I believe so.

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

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