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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3 devastating reports in 11 days

In case you missed it, three shocking reports released between September 14 and September 24 document abuse, neglect, and dehumanization in ICE’s network of mostly privately run migrant detention centers.

  • September 14: a whistleblower at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, run by LaSalle Corrections, filed a complaint alleging inadequate medical care, poor COVID-19 protections, and—most shockingly, though not as clearly documented—hysterectomies or other non-consensual medical procedures performed on women. Project South, an advocacy group, compiled and submitted the complaint from Dawn Wooten, a nurse who worked at the facility.
  • September 21: The House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee published a staff report based on visits to eight ICE facilities and interviews with 400 detainees over a year. It finds deficient medical care, abuse of solitary confinement as a form of retaliation, difficulty accessing legal and translation services, and unsanitary conditions.
  • September 24: The House of Representatives’ Oversight and Reform Committee published a staff report based on a 14-month investigation of for-profit contractors operating ICE detention centers. Among its horrifying findings: “several detainees died after receiving inadequate medical care, including issues that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and detention contractors had previously identified.”

Though activists will tell you “it’s always been like this,” these reports reinforce the sense that our country is slipping into a new age of barbarism. Thanks to these official and non-governmental investigators for their unflinching look into ICE’s opaque and mostly unnecessary network of privatized human suffering.

In Latin America, COVID-19 Risks Permanently Disturbing Civil-Military Relations

“Across Latin America, the COVID-19 pandemic is embedding the armed forces more deeply into citizens’ daily lives,” reads an analysis from me that was just posted to WOLA’s website. “At a time when it’s more important than ever to rethink the role of policing and the accountability of public security forces to the people they protect, this militarization of public security is greatly concerning because it will be difficult to reverse.”

In many Latin American democracies that have spent decades trying to leave military dictatorships behind, COVID-19 has put soldiers back on the streets playing roles ranging from handing out food to enforcing curfews. Once this is over, will the region be able to put this toothpaste back into the tube? Read on.

In the meantime, here’s a text box that appears in the piece that I think even non-Latin Americanists will find useful.

Key differences between militaries and police forces

Though exceptions exist, with several listed below, some of the characteristics that distinguish military and police forces include the following.

Police seek to de-escalate situations, using force—especially lethal force—only as a last resort. Combat demands that militaries escalate quickly and use overwhelming force to defeat an enemy.

Police tend to carry much lighter weaponry than military forces.

Police tend to live among the population, and constant interaction with them is central to their work. Military personnel tend to live in barracks and bases or otherwise separate from society as a whole. In countries that maintain a sharp division between military and police roles, citizens rarely come across armed, uniformed soldiers.

Police are expected to respond quickly to citizens’ calls for assistance, often through emergency call centers. Armed forces may respond to some calls for help, but do not maintain this response capacity.

Police forces include detectives and other specialists in investigating crimes after the fact, and all are trained in preserving crime scenes, respecting rules of evidence, and otherwise coordinating with the criminal justice system. Military forces have little or no criminal investigative capacity.

Police who commit human rights abuses tend to be tried in the regular criminal justice system. Military personnel who commit international humanitarian law violations tend to be tried in a separate military justice system. In countries that employ militaries for public security, how to investigate and prosecute military personnel who violate fellow citizens’ rights is nearly always a controversial topic.

Police tend to operate at or near capacity, immersed in daily duties with little opportunity or capacity for planning. When not at war, militaries maintain much excess capacity, with soldiers trained and equipment maintained to a state of “readiness” while officers draw up contingency plans.

Exceptions to these distinctions exist, and many of them have emerged or evolved in the past 50 or 60 years. Many of them blur the lines dangerously between military and policing missions. They include:

  • Military police, peacekeeping, or national guard units that, while military, keep order in emergencies or in overseas territorial occupations.
  • Special Operations Forces, or military personnel who may be trained to relate to populations or “win hearts and minds” while seeking to stabilize territory or carry out “operations other than war.”
  • Police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) or commando units that use escalated force and heavy weapons against lawbreakers believed to be heavily armed.
  • Gendarmeries, constabularies, or border guards that tend to be more mobile, more heavily armed, and more hierarchically organized than police, and are often expected to operate in sparsely populated and lightly governed rural areas.

For more, see WOLA’s 2010 report Preach What You Practice: The Separation of Police and Military Roles in the Americas.

What a dramatic geographic difference over 2 months

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

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

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

A few April border charts

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

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

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

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

WOLA Podcast: COVID-19, Anti-Democratic Trends, and Human Rights Concerns

Podcasts are coming back after a two-week break. There’ll be a few over the coming week.

For this one, I wrangled together four of my WOLA colleagues to take the temperature of politics and human rights in the region a month and a half into the COVID-19 lockdown. It’s really grim, and challenging to end on an optimistic note. But listen to it and you will learn a lot. Here’s the description from WOLA’s website:

COVID-19 threatens to take many lives in Latin America. It also threatens to leave behind a less democratic, less rights-respecting, more unequal, and more violent region.

An April 13 WOLA commentary laid out many of these concerns. If anything, they’ve grown more urgent since then. Here, five WOLA program directors gather for a discussion of where things stand in several countries in the region.

  • Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson talks about El Salvador.
  • Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli discusses Colombia, Brazil, and Haiti.
  • Director for Venezuela Geoff Ramsey covers Venezuela.
  • Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights Maureen Meyer provides an update about Mexico and the border.
  • Director for Drug Policy and the Andes John Walsh explains drug trafficking trends and the situation in Bolivia.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

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

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

Read more here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam Isacson

Director for Defense Oversight
Washington Office on Latin America

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

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

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

The list of measures is long and alarming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WOLA Podcast: COVID-19, Communities, and Human Rights in Colombia

(Photo from Colombia Army Twitter account)

As of early April 2020, Colombia has documented a relatively low number of coronavirus cases, and in cities at least, the country has taken on strict social distancing measures.

This has not meant that Colombia’s embattled social leaders and human rights defenders are any safer. WOLA’s latest urgent action memo, released on April 10, finds that “killings and attacks on social leaders and armed confrontations continue and have become more targeted. We are particularly concerned about how the pandemic will affect already marginalized Afro-Colombian and indigenous minorities in rural and urban settings.”

In this edition of the WOLA Podcast, that memo’s author, Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, explains the danger to social leaders, the shifting security situation, the ceasefire declared by the ELN guerrillas, the persistence of U.S.-backed coca eradication operations, and how communities are organizing to respond to all of this.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file here.

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

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

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

4 ways border and migration policy risk spreading coronavirus

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

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.