Adam Isacson

Defense, security, borders, migration, and human rights in Latin America and the United States. May not reflect my employer’s consensus view.

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U.S. Policy

Senate Border Deal Language Incoming

Going to be a busy weekend for border and migration policy.

After more than two months of internal discussions, we’re about to see the text of the “asylum restrictions for Ukraine aid” deal that Senate Democratic and Republican negotiators have drawn up.

From Majority Leader Chuck Schumer:

Next, as I said, discussions are going well, so I want members to be aware that we plan to post the full text of the national security supplemental as early as tomorrow, no later than Sunday.

That will give members plenty of time to read the bill before voting on it.

As for the timing of the vote, I plan to file cloture on the motion to proceed to the vehicle on Monday, leading to the first vote on the national security supplemental no later than Wednesday.

At WOLA: Five Questions and Answers About the Senate Border Deal

Last October, the Biden administration asked Congress for a package of funding for Ukraine, Israel, border security, and other priorities. In the Democratic-majority Senate, where it takes 60 votes to move legislation forward, Republicans refused to support this request unless it included changes to U.S. law that would restrict the right to asylum, and perhaps other migration pathways, at the U.S.-Mexico border.

A small group of senators has been negotiating those changes since November. A bill may now be forthcoming.

At WOLA’s website, we’ve just posted a quick (less than 1,200 word) explainer looking at:

  1. What do we know about what’s in the deal?
  2. What is the human cost of this bill’s provisions?
  3. Would this actually deter migration?
  4. Republican hard-liners are opposing this agreement, saying it doesn’t go far enough to restrict migration. What do they want?
  5. What would a better policy look like?

Read it here.

Video: Migration Dynamics: Trends, Challenges, and Opportunities in the Northern Triangle

(Not sure why I’m making that facial expression.)

Many thanks to New York-based Network 20/20, an organization “that bridges the gap between the private sector and foreign policy worlds,” for inviting me to participate in a virtual panel last Thursday. With Elizabeth Oglesby of the University of Arizona and Diego de Sola of Glasswing International, we talked about the causes of migration away from Central America, and the good and bad of U.S. policies, past and present.

Countries’ Options for Migrants Passing Through

I like this Washington Post editorial (not only because I’m mentioned) because it wrestles with one of the thorniest questions facing Latin America.

When large numbers of migrants are passing through your territory, how do you manage it in a way that’s not so “zero tolerance” that it strands thousands and creates a bonanza for organized crime, but that’s not so tolerant that the U.S. government comes down hard on you for “green-lighting” migrants passing through?

I struggled with those options a bit in a post here a couple of months ago, and it makes up much of the “recommendations” section of a report I’m writing right now about my recent research trip to Colombia (first draft complete this weekend even if it kills me). I appreciate the way the Post editorial lays out these lousy choices and what countries can do (integration of migrants, coordination with each other) to “make the U.S. government OK with it” if they legalize and manage in-transit migration instead of pushing it into the shadows.

At WOLA: U.S. Congress Must Not Gut the Right to Asylum at a Time of Historic Need

Republican legislators have dug in and have given the Biden administration a list of demands. Aid for Ukraine and other items in the White House’s supplemental budget request will not get their approval, they say, unless the law is changed in ways that all but eliminate the right to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Here, at WOLA’s site, is an analysis of this proposal and the unspeakable harm that it would do. We urge the administration and congressional Democrats to stand strong and reject it.

From the conclusion:

If the Senate Republicans’ November 6 proposal were to become law, it would deny asylum to almost all protection-seeking migrants, unless:

  • That migrant sought asylum and received rejections in every country through which they passed en route to the United States.
  • That migrant presented at a land-border port of entry (official border crossing), even though CBP strictly limits asylum seekers’ access to these facilities.
  • The U.S. government could not send that migrant to a third country to seek asylum there.
  • In an initial “credible fear” interview within days of apprehension, that migrant met a higher screening standard.

If an asylum seeker clears those hurdles, the Republican proposal would require them to await their court hearings in ICE detention—even if they are a parent with children—or while “remaining in Mexico.”

This proposal is extraordinarily radical. Congressional Republicans’ demands to attach it to 2024 spending put the Biden administration in a tough position. It is a terrible choice to have to secure funding for Ukraine and other priorities by ending the United States’ historic role as a country of refuge, breaking international commitments dating back to the years after World War II.

Read the whole thing here.

One Out of Four Is a Lot

This can’t be the point Sen. Graham wanted to make, but:

Immigration judges, after rigorous procedures, are finding that 1 out of 4 people coming to the U.S.-Mexico border would be likely to die or be imprisoned if deported.

That’s a high likelihood of sending people back to severe harm if we deny them due process. It’s a strong argument for giving asylum seekers in the United States a fair hearing and to invest heavily in our asylum system.

Hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee, November 8, 2023
(https://bit.ly/3FTZvC8)

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina): You're the head of DHS and you can't tell me how many asylum claims are approved versus denied.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas: Generally, generally speaking across the board on a macro basis, it's approximately 75% [denied asylum].

Graham: Okay.

At WOLA: Migration Can’t and Shouldn’t Be Blocked. But it Can be Managed.

Here’s an 1,100-word statement recalling and highlighting some of the basic principles underlying our border and migration work. Backed up with lots of numbers and data, of course.

The main points:

  1. Most migrants arriving in the United States are exercising their right to seek asylum
  2. The United States needs to invest in managing, in a humane and timely manner, migrants and asylum seekers—NOT in more border security
  3. Legislative proposals from “border hawks,” like the “Secure the Border Act” (H.R2), would endanger thousands of lives

Read it here. It comes with an embedded video:

17,000 Deportations of Non-Mexicans Into Mexico Since Title 42 Ended

In a conversation with reporters whose transcript has not yet been posted online, Blas Nuñez-Neto, the Department of Homeland Security’s assistant secretary for border and immigration policy, dropped an important and rarely publicized statistic.

Since the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy ended in May, Mexico has accepted the U.S. deportation into its territory of 17,000 citizens of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. These are people denied access to asylum under the Biden administration’s “transit ban” rule.

17,000 over nearly 5 months is far fewer than the rate of Title 42 expulsions during the pandemic, when Mexico agreed to accept nearly a million land-border expulsions of citizens of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Today, Mexico just accepts citizens of the latter four countries. But 17,000 is still a lot of people, some with protection needs denied because, under the “transit ban” rule, they crossed the border improperly.

The last time we saw this number reported was July 27, when Nuñez-Neto mentioned 4,000 deportations of those countries’ citizens into Mexico. So there have been another 13,000 in the succeeding 10 weeks, or nearly 200 deportations into Mexico each day.

Why isn’t this statistic shared more often, for instance in CBP’s monthly data updates? My guess is that Mexico doesn’t like to see it publicized, and the U.S. government respects those sensibilities. (DHS would probably be happy to share news about its deportations into Mexico, out of a belief that it might discourage some migrants.)

What a Difference 15 Days Make

September 20, 2023

Extraordinary and temporary conditions continue to prevent Venezuelan nationals from returning in safety. …Venezuela continues to face a severe humanitarian emergency due to a political and economic crisis, as well as human rights violations and abuses and high levels of crime and violence, that impacts access to food, medicine, healthcare, water, electricity, and fuel, and has led to high levels of poverty.

October 5, 2023

The United States is announcing today that it will resume direct repatriations of Venezuelan nationals who cross our border unlawfully and do not establish a legal basis to remain. This announcement follows a decision by authorities from Venezuela to accept the return of Venezuelan nationals.

From CRS: U.S. Assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean FY1946-FY2021

Chart entitled "U.S. Assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean: FY1946-FY2021."

Includes aid obligations from all U.S. government agencies, adjusted for inflation. Comprehensive data for
FY2022 and FY2023 are not yet available.

Shows peaks in the 1960s (Alliance for Progress, the largest peak), the Reagan 1980s, Plan Colombia 2000, the Mérida Initiative and Haiti earthquake 2010, and launch of the Central America engagement strategy 2015-16. The current moment is about average, perhaps below average, a bit over $3 billion adjusted for inflation. The 1960s peak is about $7.5 billion.

This chart comes from a September 27 Congressional Research Service report, by Peter Meyer, about U.S. aid to Latin America and the Caribbean, going through the 2024 appropriations request (which Congress hasn’t funded yet).

When you adjust for inflation, nothing comes close to the amount of U.S. assistance the region received in the 1960s, during the Alliance for Progress, an aid program the Kennedy Administration launched in large part to prevent other countries from turning to Communist revolution like Cuba did.

The next biggest peaks are the 2010 response to Haiti’s earthquake just as the Mérida Initiative aid package was getting underway in Mexico; the Reagan administration’s Cold-War funding of civil wars in Central America; the Plan Colombia years of the 2000s; the Central America strategy that the Obama administration started (and Trump did not continue) after a 2014 wave of child and family migration; and the onset of the Drug War in the late 1980s.

My own career started during that deep trough of assistance during the post-Cold War Clinton 1990s. (I graduated college in 1992 and grad school in 1994.) Ironically, it was right at the absolute nadir that I co-founded a project to monitor U.S. security assistance in the Americas. (The data from that project, going back to 1996, is still part of the Center for International Policy’s Security Assistance Monitor.)

The Dangerous Wait for a CBP One Appointment in Tamaulipas, Mexico

An investigation by four veteran Reuters reporters finds a link between the Biden administration’s use of an app that makes asylum seekers wait for weeks in Mexico, and an increase in attacks on migrants, especially rapes of migrant women, in Mexico’s organized crime-dominated northern border state of Tamaulipas.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration in May moved to a new system that required migrants to secure an appointment—via an app known as CBP One—to present themselves at a legal border crossing to enter the United States.

Nine experts, including lawyers, medical professionals, and aid workers, told Reuters the new system has had unintended consequences in the two cities, contributing to a spike in violence.

The high risk of kidnapping and sexual assault in Reynosa and Matamoros is one of the factors pushing migrants to cross illegally, four advocates said. Crossings border-wide surged in September.

Tamaulipas border cities like Matamoros and Reynosa have been notoriously dangerous for years. They’re home to the decades-old Gulf Cartel, the Northeast Cartel (an heir of the Zetas), and other splinter groups that compete violently.

Map showing Tamaulipas' location along the eastern segment of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Tamaulipas, from WikiMedia Commons

These regional cartels have less-solid control of their territory than do larger national cartels like Sinaloa. This makes them more prone to use violence against newcomers and outsiders—including U.S. citizens, four of whom were kidnapped, two killed, in March when they came to Matamoros for a cosmetic surgery procedure. These criminal groups also make somewhat less money from the drug trade than the larger cartels; such “poorer” criminal groups are more likely to fund themselves by preying on vulnerable people, including migrants.

The Mexican state, especially the hyper-corrupt local government in Tamaulipas, is no protection. Officials often collude with organized crime.

So in recent months, when an asylum seeker uses CBP One, they can travel from elsewhere in Mexico to the border and show up at a U.S. port of entry at their appointed time. They do not need to hire a smuggler. That’s great.

What’s less great is that, when the port of entry is in south Texas (Laredo, McAllen-Hidalgo, and Brownsville, which make up 42 percent of CBP One appointments border-wide—605 out of 1,450 daily spots), the asylum seeker must travel through Tamaulipas territory under organized crime control. In order to be sure not to miss their appointment, they may even stay in this territory, near the port of entry, for days or weeks.

When they do that, the cartels—whose eyes and ears in the region are thorough enough to rival Cold-War East Germany—often find them and demand money. Reuters explains:

[C]riminal groups are still demanding these migrants pay to enter their territory, the experts said.

“Rape is part of the torture process to get the money,” said Bertha Bermúdez Tapia, a sociologist at New Mexico State University researching the impacts of Biden’s policy on migrants in Tamaulipas.

Looks Like the Buoys Didn’t Work

Still from a video published to the NY Times site, with the caption "About 2,500 migrants crossed into Eagle Pass, Texas, from Mexico on a single day."
From the New York Times.

The New York Times reported Wednesday:

The mayor of Eagle Pass said 2,500 migrants arrived in one day, part of a recent surge in crossings along the border that has taxed local, state and federal resources.

The border city of Eagle Pass, Texas is where Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has deployed a world-famous “wall of buoys” in the Rio Grande, about 90 miles of rolls of razor-sharp concertina wire that injured 133 people statewide in July and August, and a huge contingent of state police and National Guard.

Who could possibly have foreseen that so much security theater wouldn’t deter people who are desperate enough to leave their homes, uproot their lives, travel across a continent, and turn themselves in to uniformed U.S. border agents?

The answer, of course is “everyone who’s paying attention.” We all could have guessed that this would happen, and will keep happening. Deterrence at the border is cruel—but it also doesn’t work.

2 Percent of Venezuelans Now Qualify for TPS in the United States (But More Than 25 Percent Have Migrated)

Before it collapsed into authoritarianism, poverty, and criminality, Venezuela had 30 million people.

7.71 million have left since the mid-2010s: more than a quarter of the original population.

And now, as of yesterday, more than 2% of them (714,700 people) qualify for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in the United States, as they absolutely should. From DHS:

There are currently approximately 242,700 TPS beneficiaries under Venezuela’s existing TPS designation. There are an additional approximately 472,000 nationals of Venezuela who may be eligible under the redesignation of Venezuela.

Under U.S. asylum law, as amended in 1996, applicants for asylum in the United States cannot obtain a work authorization until their application is six months old. Asylum seekers want to work, and TPS is a way to get around this unhelpful 27-year-old law to enable that.

The Darién Gap Underscores Just How Lousy Governments’ Options Are For Managing In-Transit Migration

One of many reasons—but a big one—why U.S.-bound migration has hit record levels, and may break records again this fall, is that the Darién Gap jungle region straddling Colombia and Panama is no longer an impenetrable barrier.

In fact, the Darién Gap has been crossed over 330,000 times so far this year, including 82,000 crossings in August, according to the latest in a very good series of reports from New York Times correspondent Julie Turkewitz and photographer Federico Ríos.

Federico Ríos photo from the September 14, 2023 New York Times. Caption: “The journey into the jungle begins, led by a guide from the New Light Darién Foundation.”

It’s not really clear what Colombia and Panama can do about it. The options are really lousy:

  • Try to block migrants? Good luck with that. The Darién Gap is dense, roadless jungle (at least for now). If security forces focus on one pathway, another will open up. And what if Colombia and Panama somehow succeed in blocking migrants? What do they then do with hundreds of thousands of stranded people from all over the world? Fly them back to China, India, Afghanistan, Cameroon, and dozens of other destinations, at huge expense and at huge risk to the returnees? Bus them back to threats and penury in Venezuela and Ecuador?
  • Create a safe movement corridor? Channeling migrants through a route that is government-controlled territory—or, better yet, avoids the environmentally fragile forest entirely—would cut organized crime out of the picture. It would reduce many of the alarming security risks that migrants now face. Governments would have biometric records and other data about everyone attempting to pass through. By registering most migrants and permitting them to transit their territory on buses, Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras are already doing this. But the political obstacles to “safe passage” approaches are beyond daunting: the U.S. government (or at least, key officials and members of Congress) would condemn and seek to punish Colombia and Panama for waving everyone northward. U.S. officials would fear that the promise of safe passage would attract still more migrants.
  • ”Soft blocking” of migrants? That more or less describes the situation today in the Darién region (and Mexico, Guatemala, and some South American countries). The official position is that migration is an administrative offense, and migrant smuggling is illegal. A handful get detained or deported, and some (usually very low-level) smugglers get arrested. But either security forces view their checkpoints and patrols as opportunities to shake migrants down for bribes, or organized crime takes over routes. Usually both. Migrants get assaulted, robbed, or worse. Some may spend time in state detention. But if they can run that gauntlet and remain alive—and most do, obviously—very few end up discouraged from proceeding northward.

None of these options is promising: some violate the most basic human rights, some assist organized crime, some are simply impossible, and the least-bad choice would hit a political brick wall.

Faced with these very poor choices, it’s not surprising that leaders like Colombia’s Gustavo Petro are reluctant to make in-transit migration a priority. According to the Times:

Colombia’s president, Gustavo Petro, acknowledged in an interview that the national government had little control over the region, but added that it was not his goal to stop migration through the Darién anyway — despite the agreement his government signed with the United States.

After all, he argued, the roots of this migration were “the product of poorly taken measures against Latin American peoples,” particularly by the United States, pointing to Washington’s sanctions against Venezuela.

He said he had no intention of sending “horses and whips” to the border to solve a problem that wasn’t of his country’s making.

That last bit is a veiled reference to a September 2021 incident in Del Rio, Texas, where Border Patrol agents on horseback were caught on camera charging at Haitian migrants on the bank of the Rio Grande. The Times continues:

just like the people running the migration business, he [President Petro] presented his hands-off approach to migration as a humanitarian one.

The answer to this crisis, he said, was not to go “chasing migrants” at the border or to force them into “concentration camps” that blocked them from trying to reach the United States.

“I would say yes, I’ll help, but not like you think,” Mr. Petro said of the agreement with the Biden administration, which was big on ambition but thin on details. He said any solution to the issue had to focus on “solving migrants’ social problems, which do not come from Colombia.”

He expects half a million people to cross the Darién this year, he said, and then a million next year.

He may be right.

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