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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U.S.-Mexico border

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.

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.

32,000 Cubans at the border in March

From Christine Armario and Nick Miroff at the Washington Post:

Last month, more than 32,000 Cubans were taken into U.S. custody along the Mexico border, double the number who arrived in February, according to unpublished U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) figures obtained by The Washington Post.

That number will almost certainly make Cuba the number-two country of origin, after Mexico, of migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in March. That’s a position that Cuba has never occupied before.

The increase owes heavily to Nicaragua’s elimination of visa requirements for Cuban visitors last November, which opened up a new route up through Central America and across Mexico.

But it also puts in a difficult spot conservative Republicans currently ginning up “Biden Border Crisis” rhetoric as the November midterm elections draw near. What do they propose be done with these 32,000 people? Do people like Rubio, DeSantis and Scott propose that they be sent back to the regime in Havana?

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