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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How Colombia’s lopsided approach to security makes Colombians less safe

Here’s the original English of an article I wrote for the Colombian analysis website Razón Pública, which they published on September 19. They had asked me to explain why Colombia faces persistently high levels of violence and insecurity, despite maintaining some of the region’s largest security forces and outspending their neighbors on security.

The answer, I argue, lies mainly in Colombia’s unbalanced approach: if you envision an entire “security sector,” Colombia has really only developed a part of it: the part that carries guns and wears uniforms.

Here’s the text:

Colombia invests robustly in its military, police, and intelligence forces. But it doesn’t invest enough in the security of its citizens. The distinction is important, because the results are tragically evident.

Colombia’s 2023 budget will include about 48 trillion pesos for its Defense Ministry. That’s about 12 percent of the General Budget of the Republic, and just a bit less than 4 percent of Colombia’s gross domestic product.

That is a lot of money. This World Bank page sorts 165 countries in the world for which data exists by percentage of GDP spent on “gasto militar,” from most to least. Scroll down from the top, and Colombia (3.38 percent in 2020) is the first country in the Americas to appear on the list. After the United States, Colombia has the largest Army and the second-largest armed forces in the Western Hemisphere.

Despite that, Colombia is no more secure than its neighbors. According to the annual “round-up” of homicide rates compiled by InsightCrime, Colombia had the Americas’ sixth-highest rate in 2021 (26.8 per 100,000 inhabitants; 27.7 according to the Defense Ministry), similar to that of Mexico, significantly higher than Brazil, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and far higher than Chile or Peru. If Colombia were a major city in the United States—a country with its own violent crime crisis—the entire country would be approximately in tenth place, well ahead of Chicago or Washington.

The government of Iván Duque left security trends moving in the wrong direction. It put most of its energy into taking down “high value targets” or cabecillas of armed groups, and killed or captured many. But between 2017 and 2021, homicides increased 15 percent, massacres and massacre victims more than doubled, and victims of mass internal displacements increased 322 percent. Colombia remains the world’s most dangerous country in which to be a human rights or environmental defender. The first six weeks of Gustavo Petro’s government has been similarly dire, with 18 massacres and the senseless killing of 8 police officers in San Luis, Huila.

What explains this mismatch between robust security expenditure and rampant insecurity? The answer lies in the lopsided and unbalanced nature of Colombia’s security investments. This expresses itself in two broad ways.

First, too much remains undone in addressing the Colombian state’s remarkable weakness in much of national territory, from the agricultural frontier to poor urban neighborhoods. The problem of state absence and territorial abandonment is historic, chronic, and covered well elsewhere. But efforts to address it remain slow and underfunded.

Six years ago, the FARC-government peace accord included an ambitious plan to address the state’s historic absence and begin providing public goods where almost none exist. Chapter 1 of this document (“comprehensive rural reform”) sought to increase state presence in neglected rural areas through Territorially Focused Development Programs (PDETs), sectoral investment plans, a multipurpose cadaster, a Lands Fund, and other initiatives.

Frustratingly, implementation of this chapter is running badly behind. The July report by a group of legislators monitoring accord implementation found that the Duque government met just 1.2 percent of what should be done each year to meet commitments for land distribution through the Lands Fund, 13.1 percent of yearly targets for land formalization, 51.7 percent of targets for the cadaster, and—most troublingly—only 37.3 percent of resources needed to implement the PDETs and stabilize state presence in territory.

The Petro government’s pledges to revive peace accord implementation are encouraging, and the ongoing regional dialogues are a step in the right direction. But much remains to be done to build state presence in ungoverned areas, as the situation has improved little in the six years since the FARC left the scene.

Second, Colombia has focused heavily on strengthening its security forces, but insufficiently on strengthening its security sector. If one regards “security” as just soldiers, police, and intelligence services, one will fail, ultimately, to enforce laws and protect citizens. What must be built up is a larger sector that requires resources, skilled personnel, independence, protection, and political backing.

Think of this “security sector” as a Parthenon-like building with many pillars, or perhaps as a shape made up of concentric layers.

The innermost layer is what most people think about when they envision “security”: highly trained people who are the only individuals in society authorized to use force or—with judicial authorization—to infringe civil liberties. They include soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, special operations forces, police, detectives, spies, and similar.

This is the part of its security sector on which Colombia has invested the most: the uniformed part of its Defense Ministry. Even here, though, there are serious unmet needs, like rural policing, rapid response capacity, de-escalatory crowd control, and other aspects of citizen protection. These get de-proritized in favor of forced coca eradication, “high-value targeting,” aerial bombardments, and other actions emblematic of the previous government’s focus on what it called “símbolos del mal.”

The next layer out consists of civilians charged with day-to-day management of these institutions. These are officials in the defense and public security ministries, ideally a solid core of people who understand threat analysis, planning, defense budget management, rules of evidence and police procedure, human rights, and similar. These institutions also include independent inspectors-general, who handle internal affairs and charges of misconduct, and who alert and accompany judicial authorities when personnel violate laws, engage in corruption, or abuse human rights.

Colombia has had civilian defense ministers for more than 30 years, and mayors share command over police, though in a sometimes confusing fashion. Still, it is hard to argue that Colombia has installed strong capacity and expertise within the civilian part of the state to manage defense issues, which remain largely left up to men (specifically, men) in uniform. Inspectors-general have faced intense institutional pressure during the times when they have truly sought to fulfill their offices’ mission.

The next layer out is another branch of government: judicial authorities, who are there to hold the security forces criminally accountable when necessary, but are especially central to investigating and punishing all criminal activity that threatens’ citizens’ safety. They include prosecutors, judges, investigators and detectives, and the prison system (or, where appropriate, those administering non-carceral alternatives).

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: September 30, 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:

  • Migration of Venezuelan citizens, which broke monthly records at the border in August, continues at very high levels this month, as evidenced by reports from Panama’s Darién Gap, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, and the border. New York is planning to build giant tents to provide short-term shelter to migrants, bused by Republican border-state governors, who have nowhere else to go.
  • Advocates have now documented hundreds of cases of CBP and ICE personnel entering false addresses on asylum-seekers’ paperwork, usually those of random charities in U.S. cities far from the border which are finding  perplexed migrants arriving unexpectedly at their facilities.
  • The White House hosted a meeting with representatives of many Western Hemisphere countries to follow up on migration management and protection commitments made at the June Summit of the Americas.
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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: September 23, 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:

  • CBP’s migrant encounters hit 2 million during the first 11 months of the 2022 fiscal year. While this is a record, it includes an unusually high number of repeat crossers and migrants expelled under Title 42. August was the 9th busiest month at the border, of the Biden administration’s 19 full months. Led by a sharp increase in overland migration from Venezuela, migration from countries other than Mexico and Central America’s “northern triangle” for the first time exceeded migration from those countries.
  • New details about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s operation to send 48 mostly Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard—some of them in the text of a class-action lawsuit—point to the Governor’s operatives deliberately lying to the migrants about what was being done to them.
  • A letter from a Senate Intelligence Committee member and an article about artificial intelligence-enabled sensor towers raised concerns about privacy and civil liberties at the border.

Two million migrant encounters in eleven months

With a September 19 release of data covering August, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported that, for the first time in a single fiscal year (October-September), its personnel had taken migrants into custody 2 million times at the U.S.-Mexico border.

CBP encountered migrants 203,597 times during August: 22,437 at land border ports of entry, and 181,160 in the areas between the ports of entry where CBP’s Border Patrol component operates. The Border Patrol apprehensions number was the smallest since February 2022, ranking 9th of the 19 full months since Joe Biden took office.

Title 42 exceptions at the ports of entry

The port-of-entry number was the second-largest monthly total in the nearly 11 years of records that WOLA has available (since October 2011), exceeded only by April 2022 when the ports processed over 20,000 people fleeing Ukraine. It indicates that CBP’s Office of Field Operations was allowing an increased number of exemptions to the Title 42 pandemic policy, for asylum-seeking migrants deemed most vulnerable.

In August, CBP admitted and processed 15,906 asylum seekers at ports of entry under this system of Title 42 exemptions, a 37 percent increase over July. These have been happening at six ports: Hidalgo (Rio Grande Valley, Texas, 5,446 in August); San Ysidro (San Diego, California, 4,403); Laredo (Laredo, Texas, 2,847); Eagle Pass (Del Rio, Texas, 1,646); Paso del Norte (El Paso, Texas, 1,218); and Nogales (Tucson, Arizona, 346).

During the week of September 12, though, CBP abruptly suspended Title 42 exemptions at several ports of entry, including Hidalgo, the busiest. “The decision came after reports of Haitian asylum-seekers protesting at shelters in Reynosa, Mexico, and growing repeatedly angry after their names were not called for admittance,” according to Border Report. The migrant population currently waiting for a chance to seek asylum in Reynosa, across from Hidalgo and McAllen, Texas, is 85 percent Haitian, totaling about 7,000 Haitian citizens, according to Sr. Norma Pimentel of Rio Grande Valley Catholic Charities. As of September 19, Title 42 exemptions were resuming at Hidalgo but remained suspended in Laredo, according to Border Report.

Expulsions

Under Title 42, a policy prolonged by federal court order in May, CBP seeks to expel migrants from the United States, in the name of public health, very quickly and without affording them a chance to ask for asylum. Even as the pandemic shows strong signs of easing, CBP expelled 36 percent of migrants it encountered in August, including 48 percent of single adults and 12 percent of families. The number of migrants encountered by Border Patrol and actually processed under regular U.S. immigration law was 1,020,233, a number that Border Patrol has in fact exceeded in 19 previous fiscal years, though not since 2006.

Including both expelled and processed migrants, the August numbers pushed overall CBP encounters to 2,150,639 for the 11 months between October 2021 and August 2022: 1,997,769 taken into custody by Border Patrol and 152,870 at ports of entry. All three numbers set full-fiscal-year records.

Adding expulsions to those deported under regular immigration law, CBP reported removing people encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border 1,300,467 times in 2022. That would leave about 850,000 of 2022’s migrants still in the United States facing immigration proceedings: some in custody and most released into the U.S. interior. Since Joe Biden’s January 2021 inauguration, the New York Times reported that “more than one million undocumented immigrants have been allowed into the United States temporarily after crossing the border.”

“Encounters” versus “individual people”

Title 42’s rapid expulsions tend to facilitate repeated attempts to cross the border, and 22 percent of CBP’s August encounters were with migrants who had already been taken into custody at least once in the previous 12 months. The agency actually encountered 157,921 individual people in August, of whom about 135,000 were encountered by Border Patrol. That was Border Patrol’s smallest “individuals” number since April.

CBP’s encounters with unaccompanied children fell to 11,365 in August, the fewest since January and 17th of the Biden administration’s 19 full months in office. The agency had a daily average of 422 unaccompanied kids in custody in August, down from 562 in July.

Migrants’ nationalities, especially Venezuela

The most notable aspect of August’s border migrant encounters was the migrants’ countries of origin. The number from Mexico and Central America’s “northern triangle” (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) was smaller (49 percent) than the number of migrants from the rest of the world. This was assuredly the first time this has ever happened: migrants from these four countries consistently comprised over 90 percent of the total as recently as 2019 (and 89 percent in 2020). Now, the lines on this chart have crossed for the first time:

Mexico and the Northern Triangle are the four countries whose citizens Mexico allows CBP to expel across the land border under Title 42, and they make up over 99 percent of Title 42 expulsions. August’s encounters with citizens of those countries were the fewest since January, ranking 17th of the Biden administration’s 19 full months, and one-third fewer than August 2021.

Because of Title 42’s rapid expulsions and ease of re-entry, CBP often encounters citizens of these four nationalities more than once. The agency took into custody 56,979 individual Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans in August, just 36 percent of that month’s “unique individuals” total and 43 percent fewer than a year before.

Of countries whose citizens were encountered over 5,000 times at the US-Mexico border in August, those that saw the most robust increases were Venezuela (up 92 percent from June to August), Haiti (up 61 percent, nearly all of them arriving at ports of entry as Title 42 exemptions), and Brazil (up 43 percent).

Citizens of Venezuela (August’s number-two country), Cuba (number three), and Nicaragua (number seven) made up 35 percent of CBP’s “unique individuals” last month, up 175 percent over August 2021.

As discussed in WOLA’s September 16 Border Update, arrivals from Venezuela have been increasing since March, as migrants from that country began arriving over long land routes from South America. (This was after Mexico’s January decision, at strong U.S. suggestion, to begin requiring visas of visiting Venezuelans.)

CBP’s September 19 release blamed “failing communist regimes in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba” for “driving a new wave of migration across the Western Hemisphere,” including the increase at the border. While these regimes repress their populations amid plummeting living standards, another factor underlying the migration increase is the impossibility of expelling or deporting migrants to Caracas, Havana, or Managua after they reach U.S. soil.

The overland journey

Venezuelans’ overland journey requires passage through the roadless, dangerous Darién Gap jungle of northwest Colombia and eastern Panama. Over 31,000 migrants—1,000 per day—passed through this ungoverned region in August; 22,500 were Venezuelan. Of the 102,000 migrants who came through the Darién during 2022’s first 8 months (68,000 of them Venezuelan), 24 percent were female, and 14,571 were children.

“There is much corruption and evil things” in the Darién, Venezuelan migrant Reina Gil told Border Report in El Paso. “We saw dead people. A river nearly drowned us. We were robbed. We heard of rapes and many ugly things. I am telling you this so that people will know it is not easy to get here.” A migrant named Gerardo added, “When you come out, people cry, they embrace each other. You have mixed feelings because you accomplish something that not everyone can. You see people dehydrate, starving, unable to walk because their feet get swollen. People just leave them there.” The migrants also told Border Report of “having to constantly pay off ‘transportation people’ (smugglers)” to get across Mexico, and having to dismount repeatedly from vehicles and walk around Mexican authorities’ road checkpoints.

El Paso

The rapidly growing Venezuelan migrant population had been arriving principally in Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, in mid-Texas. There, many migrants have died by drowning in the swollen Rio Grande. In response, smugglers have begun routing migrants far upstream to El Paso, Texas, where the river is far shallower.

As WOLA’s September 16 update noted, that has strained CBP’s processing capacity in the sector, as well as the capacity of El Paso’s community of short-term shelters for asylum-seeking migrants released from custody. Border Patrol has managed to “de-compress” its El Paso facilities, avoiding chaos and backlogs in migrant processing by employing “processing buses” and transferring some migrants to other sectors. Shelters, though, are struggling to keep up, and local media report that migrants are still sleeping outside downtown El Paso’s Greyhound bus station. The city prohibits camping on sidewalks, Border Report explained: “the migrants, instead, are sleeping on flattened tents.”

September migrant arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border appear to be increasing over August as temperatures cool. “Over the past few days, there have been about 8,700 crossings a day, which is historically high,” according to the New York Times. NBC News notes that “White House officials have previously set 9,000 per day as an internal trigger to begin what they refer to as ‘interior processing,’ where migrants are flown or bused from the border to interior cities where shelters can take care of them” as they await immigration proceedings and find places to live, often with relatives or other U.S.-based contacts.

Troubling aspects of the Florida governor’s Martha’s Vineyard stunt

While the federal government has not yet begun transporting asylum seekers to the U.S. interior, Republican governors have been using their states’ funds to send migrants, on an apparently voluntary basis, to U.S. jurisdictions governed by Democrats. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has attracted much attention in conservative media by sending busloads of asylum-seeking migrants to Washington and New York after their release in Texas. Two such buses arrived outside the official residence of Vice President Kamala Harris in the pre-dawn hours of September 15.

The migrant-removal stunt that has received the strongest blitz of media attention is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) contracting of planes that took 48 mostly Venezuelan asylum seekers from San Antonio, Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, a Massachusetts resort island, on September 14. The planes arrived without any prior notice to local authorities, abandoning the confused migrants at the airport (along with a videographer who provided footage to Fox News and other outlets).

Serious questions surround the legality of DeSantis’s stunt, as testimonies point to the migrants being deceived and misinformed about where they were going, casting doubt on whether their participation was truly voluntary. The sheriff of Bexar County, Texas, which includes San Antonio, launched a criminal investigation on September 20, contending that the migrants had been “lured” away from a service provider in the city “under false pretenses.” Sheriff Javier Salazar said he is prepared to work with federal authorities should they launch their own investigation, as California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and other Democrats have called on the Justice Department to do.

“It seems like there were clear elements of deception in this particular case. It seems like there was fraud in terms of their transport and what was represented to them,” Julie Dahlstrom, of Boston University Law School’s Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking Program, told CBS News. She added, though, that whether the evidence points clearly to a violation of the law is a “difficult legal question.”

Also on September 20, advocacy groups Alianza Americas and Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a class-action lawsuit on the Venezuelan migrants’ behalf in Massachusetts federal court. “In or around September 2022, Defendants and their unidentified accomplices designed and executed a premeditated, fraudulent, and illegal scheme centered on exploiting [migrants’] vulnerability for the sole purpose of advancing their own personal, financial and political interests,” it reads. The suit seeks a minimum of $75,000 per migrant as compensation for having “suffered economic, emotional, and constitutional harms as a result of Defendants’ intentional, reckless, and negligent conduct.”

The suit, which draws from some of the 48 migrants’ accounts of what happened to them, offers troubling details about Gov. DeSantis’s stunt, as have other media reports filed in the days since the planes landed at Martha’s Vineyard.

  • Many accounts tell of the central role that a woman named “Perla” played in recruiting the migrants, “trolling streets outside of a migrant shelter in Texas and other similar locales.” Migrants described her as tall, blond, and driving a white SUV. She gave one a mobile phone number typical of the Del Rio area, less than three hours’ drive from San Antonio. Nobody answered this number after the migrants were dumped in Martha’s Vineyard.
  • “Emmanuel,” a 27-year-old Venezuelan migrant, told San Antonio Report that “Perla” gave him “$200 in cash to recruit people from outside San Antonio’s migrant resource center” for the Martha’s Vineyard flight. He said she “told him she wanted to send migrants to ‘sanctuary states’ where the government has more resources to help them.”
  • “Perla” and possibly others told the migrants that if they “were willing to board airplanes to other states, they would receive employment, housing, educational opportunities, and other like assistance upon their arrival,” reads the lawsuit. They told the migrants they would be going to Boston.
  • Iván Espinoza-Madrigal of Lawyers for Civil Rights told the New York Times that, according to “dozens” of the migrants, “they only had been informed midair” that their true destination was Martha’s Vineyard, a ferry ride and two-plus-hour drive away from Boston.
  • “Perla,” and perhaps other recruiters, enticed the migrants to talk to them in San Antonio by giving them $10 McDonald’s gift certificates, the lawsuit narrates.
  • The recruiters paid to host the migrants in San Antonio hotel rooms “while they gathered enough of them to fill two planes and carry out their scheme,” according to the lawsuit. Their recruitment efforts “took days of work.” The hotel stays allowed the recruiters to “sequester” the migrants so that “any true Good Samaritans” would not earn of their plan, the suit reads, and so that they would be unlikely to change their minds.
  • The lawsuit relates that before the planes landed, Gov. DeSantis’s operatives “provided the individual Plaintiffs each with a shiny, red folder that included other official-looking materials,” among them a custom-made brochure entitled “Massachusetts Refugee Benefits,” The document provided to the migrants made several false claims, including that “During the first 90 days after a refugee’s arrival in Massachusetts, resettlement agencies provide basic needs support including…assistance with housing…furnishings, food, and other basic necessities…clothing, and transportation to job interviews and job training…assistance in applying for Social Security cards…registering children for school” and “up to 8 months of cash assistance for income-eligible refugees without dependent children, who reside in Massachusetts.”
  • After abandoning the migrants at the Martha’s Vineyard airport, the lawsuit reads, DeSantis’s operatives “disappeared and did not answer alarmed calls from the class members to get information about what had gone wrong after they landed. But nothing had ‘gone wrong.’ Instead, the scheme worked exactly as the Defendants intended.”
  • Gov. DeSantis’s office has sought to deflect accusations that the migrants were deceived, pointing to consent forms that each voluntarily signed. According to testimonies, “Perla” provided the migrants with a McDonald’s gift card only if they agreed to sign the forms. “She did not explain what the document stated, and it was not completely translated to Spanish: an entire paragraph about liability and transport was not translated at all, and language specifying that the journey would take place from Texas to Massachusetts was not translated at all either,” reads the lawsuit.
  • “DeSantis’s staff apparently supplied exclusive video of these heroics to Fox: It shows the migrants, some children, disembarking from planes, and then walking along a street, all in quiet, orderly fashion,” wrote Greg Sargent at the Washington Post.
  • Florida’s state government paid $615,000 ($12,300 per passenger) for the use of two private chartered planes, the lawsuit and media reports allege. The contractor, Vertol Systems, is a generous donor to Florida Republicans, the Intercept reported.
  • Observers detected a flight plan filed for a September 20 charter from San Antonio to a small airport near Joe Biden’s summer home in coastal Delaware. That flight never happened. The Miami Herald reported that migrants had been recruited, perhaps by “Perla,” for this flight as well. After that trip’s abrupt cancellation, some of those migrants were left stranded at the hotel where DeSantis’s operatives had put them up, about 10 miles from San Antonio’s migrant resource center.

Border technology and civil liberties concerns

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, sent a September 15 letter to CBP voicing serious concerns about the electronic privacy of travelers who pass through U.S. ports of entry, including land border crossings and airports. Sen. Wyden accused CBP of “pressuring travelers to unlock their electronic devices without adequately informing them of their rights” and “downloading the contents of Americans’ phones into a central database, where this data is saved and searchable for 15 years by thousands of Department of Homeland Security employees, with minimal protections against abuse.”

The Washington Post and Gizmodo reported on the letter, and on CBP’s apparent power to carry out “advanced searches” of travelers’ phones—including those of U.S. citizens—if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that the individual is breaking the law or poses a “national security concern.”

Even without such suspicion, CBP claims the power to access travelers’ electronic devices, looking at “anything that ‘would ordinarily be visible by scrolling through the phone manually,’ including contact lists, calendar entries, messages, photos and videos,” the Washington Post explained citing a 2018 CBP filing. With the “reasonable suspicion” standard, CBP can copy the entire contents of the phone or device. “That data is then stored in the Automated Targeting System database, which CBP officials can search at any time.”

CBP is collecting data from as many as 10,000 border-crossers’ devices each year. The agency then retains the copied data for 15 years. Sources told the Washington Post that about 2,700 or 3,000 CBP personnel have access to this collected data, all without a warrant.

Other civil liberties concerns emerged in a September 16 Guardian article about 189 sensor towers being built along the border on a CBP contract with Anduril, a technology company founded by Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey. Anduril is backed by Peter Thiel, a PayPal co-founder who has funded Donald Trump and far-right U.S. political candidates like Senate hopefuls Blake Masters in Arizona and J.D. Vance in Ohio. Anduril’s towers use an artificial intelligence system, “Lattice,” that identifies and tracks people and vehicles autonomously.

Other news

  • Mexico’s increasing reliance on its military to control migration, including a new law placing its National Guard police under permanent military command, “increases the risks of human rights violations, in many cases serious, to which migrants are subjected throughout the entire migration process,” migration expert Álvaro Botero, one of a panel of speakers, said at a September 20 event sponsored by WOLA and partner organizations.
  • Of asylum seekers interviewed after being forced to await proceedings in Mexican border cities during 2022’s court-ordered renewal of the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” program (now being terminated), 1,109 reported suffering violent attacks while in Mexico, including 401 kidnappings. In 399 cases of violent attacks, respondents implicated Mexican officials. These results are documented in a new report from Human Rights First.
  • “The Biden administration has deployed more than 1,300 law enforcement agents and officers to Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras in an effort to counter the smuggling operations,” the New York Times reported. “One of the administration officials speaking on background on Monday said officials believed this had stopped 57,000 immigrants a month from getting to the southwestern border. Mr. Biden announced the counter-smuggling campaign in June.”
  • The U.S. embassy in Cuba will resume processing immigrant visas for the first time since the Trump administration suspended the service in 2017, forcing Cubans to travel to Guyana for their interviews. The resumption of visa processing may mean Cuba will once again allow more U.S. deportation flights to land in Havana.
  • The Washington DC City Council voted September 20 to create an Office of Migrant Services, with a $10 million budget, to provide temporary assistance, mainly to migrants sent to the capital by Republican governors.
  • “The Biden administration’s unwillingness to apply more pressure on increasingly autocratic governments is in part driven by a desire to preserve support for its migration and security policies in Central America,” reads a lengthy New York Times analysis citing “former U.S. officials and civil society leaders.”
  • Tijuana’s Juventud 2000 migrant shelter—which appears often in news outlets’ stock photos because of its use of tents to house migrants in its indoor space—is so full that it may begin housing migrants’ tents outdoors near its location, in northern Tijuana near the port of entry to San Diego.
  • Activists, joined by former U.S. envoy to Haiti Dan Foote, held a demonstration outside the White House to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the mass arrival of Haitian migrants, and hostile Border Patrol response, that made worldwide news for days in Del Rio, Texas.
  • Following a shootout between Mexican criminal groups near the border in eastern Tijuana, Border Patrol encountered three men with bullet wounds on the U.S. side, in the Otay Mesa area southeast of San Diego.
  • Border and migration issues may be giving Republican candidates a few percentage points of momentum in polls for some U.S. Senate races, and for the Texas gubernatorial race, ahead of November 8 elections, report ABC News and the Dallas Morning News.

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: September 16, 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:

  • Even as it opposes a court order to keep implementing the Title 42 expulsions policy, the Biden administration is reportedly asking Mexico to accept expelled migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.
  • El Paso is experiencing a sudden increase in asylum-seeking migration from Venezuela, which has exceeded short-term shelter capacity and led to over 900 releases of migrants onto the city’s streets.
  • Reports from Panama’s treacherous Darién region, from Ecuador’s northern border, and from Costa Rica all point to further increases in U.S.-bound migration of Venezuelan asylum seekers.

Biden administration may be seeking to expand Title 42 expulsions into Mexico

Reuters reported on September 14 that the Biden administration is “quietly pressing” Mexico to allow U.S. border authorities to expel more asylum-seeking migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela under the Title 42 pandemic authority.

When the Trump administration developed this policy in March 2020—which denies the right to request asylum in the name of public health—Mexico’s government agreed to take back expulsions of its own citizens, and those of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Since then, U.S. authorities have expelled citizens of those four countries across the land border into Mexico more than 2 million times.

Citizens of most other countries, whose expulsions would happen by air at some cost, usually avoid Title 42 expulsion and, as a result, may request asylum, which often involves release into the United States pending immigration hearings.

With the pandemic easing, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had set May 23, 2022 as Title 42’s final date, with a return to normal immigration processing and a restoration of the right to ask for asylum. Litigation by Republican state attorneys-general led to a Louisiana federal district court overturning the CDC decision in mid-May, forcing the Biden administration to continue implementing Title 42. The administration continues to oppose that judge’s order in the federal courts, seeking to win back the right to end the pandemic authority.

In early May 2022, when Title 42’s end appeared imminent, administration officials convinced Mexico to take back a limited number of Cuban and Nicaraguan asylum seekers. Expulsions of those countries’ citizens jumped from 639 in April to 4,172 in May. Mexico, though, had only agreed to accept these expulsions until May 23, and the number of expulsions declined to 605 in June.

Arrivals of migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela have more than quadrupled since 2021, from 94,000 during the first 10 months of fiscal year 2021 (October 2020-July 2021) to 438,000 during the same period this fiscal year. U.S. authorities have used Title 42 to expel 2 percent of them.

Encounters with migrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are near their highest level in over 15 years, but have declined from 2021 (154,000 in July 2021, 104,000 in July 2022). U.S. authorities have used Title 42 to expel 78 percent of them.

Now, even as it opposes the court order preventing it from ending Title 42, the Biden administration is asking Mexico to expand it, this time allowing expulsions of Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans, according to “seven U.S. and three Mexican officials” whom Reuters cited.

“Behind closed doors, some Biden officials still view expanding expulsions as a way to deter crossers, one of the U.S. officials said, even if it contradicts the Democratic Party’s more welcoming message toward migrants,” Reuters noted. The article offered a previously unreported detail: that the White House is asking Panama to accept some expelled Venezuelans who passed through the country en route to the United States.

El Paso sees a sudden increase in Venezuelan migration

Of the 128,556 migrants from Venezuela whom U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) encountered between October and July, 59 percent crossed into the United States in Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, a rural region of mid-Texas whose largest border cities are Del Rio and Eagle Pass. Now, Venezuelan migration—which has been increasing since March—appears to be shifting westward.

“For weeks, El Paso has been teetering with a rising number of migrants, as smugglers shift from Eagle Pass and Del Rio to West Texas,” Alfredo Corchado reported in the September 9 Dallas Morning News. It is possible (though unconfirmable) that migrant smuggling routes may have shifted upstream from the Del Rio sector because of a large number of recent drownings in the Rio Grande in that region, including a mass tragedy in Eagle Pass on September 1.

Before September began, Border Patrol agents in the El Paso sector—which includes Texas’s two westernmost counties and all of New Mexico—were encountering about 900 migrants per day. Of Border Patrol’s nine U.S.-Mexico border sectors, El Paso has been in fourth place for migrant encounters so far in fiscal 2022, but had edged up into third place more recently.

Since about the week of September 4, Border Patrol’s daily average in El Paso has risen to 1,300 or 1,400 per day. “Among those migrants arriving over the past five days are an average of 660 Venezuelans per day,” a Border Patrol spokesperson told the El Paso Times on September 14.

Asylum seekers have been arriving in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, the city that shares the border with El Paso, and wading across a Rio Grande that, at current low water levels, is roughly ten yards wide. They have been arriving in groups of as many as 300 at a time. There is a border fence on the U.S. side of the river, perhaps 100 yards from the ever-shifting riverbank.

“Faced with the massive arrival of migrants at the border, elements of [Mexico’s] National Guard and INM [Mexico’s immigration agency, the National Migration Institute] went this Monday, September 12, to the section of the Rio Grande where the migrants were entering the United States, but they were only observing the process,” reported El Paso Matters and the Ciudad Juárez daily La Verdad at the Venezuelan outlet Tal Cual.

Asylum seekers wait in the space between the river and the fence to turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents, who take them to El Paso’s Border Patrol processing center. If the migrants are from countries to which Title 42 expulsion is difficult—like Venezuela, whose current government the Biden administration does not recognize—then most are given notices to appear before asylum officers or immigration judges and released into El Paso.

Releases of asylum seekers are nothing new for El Paso. City officials say that less than 1 percent of migrants released in El Paso intend to stay there. As the rest have destinations elsewhere in the United States while they await their court dates, the city’s most pressing need is short-term shelter for the released migrants. Its network of short-term shelters, principally Annunciation House which has 14 facilities in the area, can assist about 800 migrants each day.

That is significantly less than the 1,300-1,400 currently arriving (not all of whom get released into El Paso: some adults are detained, and other nationalities may be expelled or deported). The Border Patrol processing center, where migrants should not be held for more than 72 hours except during emergencies, is currently holding about 3,500 people—more than 3 times its capacity.

When shelters are full and Border Patrol still needs to “de-compress” its processing center, the agency releases migrants onto the city’s streets, usually in the vicinity of the Greyhound bus station. As of the morning of September 14, that had happened to about 900 migrants over the prior week, the El Paso Times reported.

The city has paid for some hotel rooms, but other migrants are sleeping in tents near the bus station. (“When you’ve waded through jungles and mountains, walked in waist-deep mud and crossed rivers that nearly drowned you, this is nothing,” Miguel Ángel, a 24-year-old Venezuelan man, told El Paso Matters outside his tent.) El Paso expects to bill the federal government for reimbursement for lodging and transportation costs.

Unlike most prior populations of asylum seekers, a large portion of the arriving Venezuelans do not have relatives, contacts, or support networks in the United States. They lack a plan and a particular destination in the U.S. interior. Normally, a shelter like Annunciation House puts migrants in touch with U.S.-based contacts who help them pay for transportation to their destination within the United States. Many Venezuelans, though, lack these contacts, destinations, and money for bus or plane fare.

“A very high percentage of them don’t have a sponsor and they have no place to go, and so that backs everything up,” Annunciation House Director Rubén García told the Dallas Morning News. “They did not have a network set up in America like the other migrants do. That’s what threw this into a tailspin,” El Paso City Manager Tommy Gonzalez told Border Report.

Many Venezuelans point to New York as a destination. Since August 23, El Paso’s city government has so far paid for about 25 charter buses to send more than 1,135 recently arrived migrants to New York. The city plans to spend about $2 million on bus transportation over the next 16 months.

In an effort to send a political message to Democratic-run cities, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has been sending busloads of asylum-seeking migrants to Washington D.C., New York, and now Chicago since April. Those buses mostly depart from Del Rio, not El Paso. A September 8 Houston Chronicle investigation found that Abbott’s busing scheme has been costing Texas taxpayers $1,700 per migrant. This is part of a larger set of hardline border-security activities for which Abbott has now spent over $4 billion, cobbling together the funds with some creative accounting, including the use of federal COVID-19 relief funds, the September 13 Dallas Morning News reported.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) has joined Texas in sending busloads of migrants to northeastern cities. On the afternoon of September 14, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) added a new stunt, paying to fly 50 Venezuelan and Colombian asylum seekers to Martha’s Vineyard, a resort island in Massachusetts, apparently under false pretenses.

Venezuelans along the migration route

More than 6.1 million of Venezuela’s roughly 30 million people have left the country since the mid-2010s. Most migrated to other Latin American countries: as recently as February 2021, U.S. border authorities had not encountered more than 1,000 Venezuelan citizens per month. Venezuelan arrivals at the border began increasing in mid-2021, reaching nearly 25,000 in December.

Until January 2022, most Venezuelan migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border flew to Mexico, which had not required visas of visiting Venezuelans. Under strong U.S. urging, Mexico (along with Costa Rica and Belize) began requiring visas of Venezuelans on January 22 of this year.

Encounters with Venezuelan migrants dropped to 3,073 in February 2022, but quickly recovered (to 17,650 in July) as a growing number of Venezuelan citizens opted to migrate by land.

This 3,000-mile journey requires passage through the Darién Gap, a jungle region along the Colombia-Panama border where the Pan-American Highway was never built. Migrants walk about 60 miles through dense jungle with venomous animals, treacherous rivers, and almost no state presence, often falling prey to bandits, rapists, drug traffickers, and unscrupulous migrant smugglers. At its aid post near the end of the Darién route, Doctors Without Borders reported attending to 100 sexual violence victims in just the first five months of 2022.

In the first four months of 2021, Panama’s migration authorities registered just 15 Venezuelan citizens passing through the Darién Gap. By January 2022, that number had increased to just over 1,100. Since then, with the visa-free air route to Mexico closed off, the number of Venezuelans making the Darién journey has exploded, reaching 23,632 in August. During the first 8 months of 2022, 68,575 Venezuelans have passed through the Darién Gap.

(Venezuela is green on this chart.)

Panama’s border police (Servicio Nacional de Fronteras de Panamá, Senafront) revealed this week that it had found the remains of 18 migrants in the Darién during the first 8 months of 2022. Five drowned, and the other thirteen died of unknown causes. The actual death toll is doubtlessly higher, given migrants’ frequent accounts of seeing bodies on the journey, and given Panamanian authorities’ scarce presence along the full length of the route.

“You step on bodies, even children’s bodies. That jungle smells like death from the moment you enter until you leave,” two Venezuelan migrants in San José, Costa Rica told a reporter from Venezuela’s Efecto Cocuyo, which has been reporting extensively along the migrant trail.

In another story, Efecto Cocuyo describes “the grandfather’s camp” (“el campamento del abuelo”), a gathering of tents a few days’ journey along the Darién trail. (“Who is the grandfather? Nobody knows, nobody has seen him.”)

For the Monterrey family [Venezuelan migrants who passed through the Darién], this camp was one of the worst places in the jungle. The site is improvised, with wooden poles everywhere and some spaces covered with zinc or tarpaulin. “That place is terrible, you see animals mixed with garbage and even decomposing humans,” said Juan Monterrey.

In still another story, an Efecto Cocuyo reporter tells of his own migration through the Darién Gap in 2019:

In the days I was there I was threatened with death and harassed by human traffickers and armed groups that dominate specific parts of the route. I was kidnapped for 19 hours during which I felt that my life no longer belonged to me. I saw the corpse of a stranger in the jungle and also sick, lost and disoriented people who had been abandoned to their fate. By the time I finished the tour, I had been stripped of practically all my belongings.

The inhospitable jungle, located on the border between Colombia and Panama, is like a sort of Tower of Babel where people from more than 50 countries and different languages converge.

(See also Canadian journalist Nadja Drost’s April 2020 account of the Darién journey in California Sunday, which won her a Pulitzer Prize.)

Many of the Venezuelan migrants along this route have only recently left their country. Many others, though, abandoned Venezuela months or years ago and have had little success elsewhere in South America where employment is scarce, visa regimes are tightening, and discrimination is common.

The Ecuadorian daily El Universo reported on September 13 from Tulcán, Ecuador’s border city where the Pan-American Highway crosses into Colombia. There, its reporters note, the past three months have seen an increase in northward migration of Venezuelans leaving Argentina, Chile, Peru, and elsewhere in South America. “But in recent weeks, the presence of Venezuelans at the border terminals of Huaquillas and Tulcán has tripled to between 500 and 700 travelers per day.” The Tulcán bus terminal’s administrator estimated that perhaps 60 percent of the Venezuelans, especially the younger ones, intend to migrate to the United States, while the rest may be giving up and returning to Venezuela.

Efecto Cocuyo meanwhile reported from an area near the bus terminal in San José, Costa Rica, where Venezuelan migrants congregate, some sleeping in tents, just days after emerging from the Darién. What keeps many from moving immediately on to Nicaragua and further north is knowledge that Nicaraguan authorities charge $150 per migrant for “safe conduct” to pass through the country’s territory. “For many, the Darién took everything from them, so they have to stay in Costa Rica to collect the money or look for alternatives.” Lacking relatives or contacts in the United States who might wire money, many of the Venezuelan migrants are selling items like candy on the streets in order to earn enough to pay the Nicaraguan authorities.

These reports from along the migrant route indicate that the flow of Venezuelan migrants now being experienced in El Paso and elsewhere along the U.S.-Mexico border is not ebbing. It is likely to intensify further in the coming weeks.

Other news

  • In recent months, CBP has allowed a few hundred Haitian migrants each week to approach some ports of entry and seek asylum or humanitarian parole, as exceptions to Title 42. This led to a sharp drop in the number of Haitian migrants who cross between ports of entry and end up in Border Patrol custody. Still, the number allowed to access the ports each day is small, and Haitians waiting in Mexican border cities like Reynosa, Tamaulipas have begun to “protest” and voice anger at shelter directors when their names are not called, Sister Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley told Border Report. Currently, she said, 85 percent of all migrants in Reynosa, one of Mexico’s most violent border cities, are from Haiti.
  • That situation appears likely to worsen as CBP has suddenly suspended Title 42 exemptions at the Reynosa/Hidalgo port of entry.
  • At the Guardian, Valerie González reported from Reynosa, where shelter capacity is overwhelmed and migrants are camped outdoors in miserable conditions.
  • “We told him that we are not going to remain silent if migrants are mistreated, much less if Mexicans are mistreated, and I spoke about the issue of the wall, that President Biden has said that he is not going to build a wall, and that he is keeping his promise,” said Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador about his September 12 meeting in Mexico City with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
  • Alongside that meeting, a “High-Level Economic Dialogue,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Chris Magnus met with Mexican National Migration Institute (INM) director Francisco Garduño for what is at least the third time since June.
  • Three migrant women were hospitalized after falling from the border wall south of San Diego on September 11. In the San Diego area, “Just from January 1 to July 31, Mercy [Scripps Mercy trauma service] reported treating 141 patients and UCSD [University of California at San Diego] reported 159, putting them on track to beat prior years’ wall-fall counts,” reported the Medpage Today website.
  • Construction projects in Arizona continue as the Biden administration closes gaps between sections of border wall built by the Trump administration. Dora Rodríguez of the humanitarian group Salvavision Rescue Arizona told Fronteras Desk that “she worries closing them will just send people into deeper wilderness areas, especially as border policies like Title 42 severely restrict the ability to ask for asylum at a port of entry.” Construction of “levee walls” in south Texas continued last year despite the incoming Biden administration’s call to halt wall-building, note documents obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity.
  • “Joint Task Force Alpha,” an anti-smuggling initiative begun last year in the Biden administration’s Justice Department, handed down eight indictments of members of what it called “a prolific human smuggling operation in Texas and across the Southern United States.”
  • “Before crossing into the United States, César Ávalos sensed that something was not right, stopped his car and opened the trunk to find two men inside,” begins an article in the Mexican daily Milenio about an increase in cases of Mexican smuggling organizations using documented border-crossers as unwitting “blind mules.”
  • Though data point to an alarming increase in border-wide migrant deaths on the U.S. side of the border this year (as detailed in our September 9 and July 29 border updates), Cronkite News reports a reduction in Arizona. Though the state’s deserts are often one of the deadliest parts of the border, the Medical Examiner of Pima County, which includes Tucson, reports recovering 136 remains during the first 8 months of 2022, compared to 163 during the first 8 months of 2022.
  • Between the reasons they fled and abuse suffered during the journey, “7 out of 10 migrant women” who pass through the shelter in Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico “are currently in need of psychological or even psychiatric assistance,” estimated the shelter’s director, Alberto Xicotencatl Carrasco.
  • A data analysis from the Syracuse University-based TRAC Immigration project concludes that, contrary to much official and NGO reporting (including WOLA’s), Title 42 expulsions have not led to an increase in repeat border crossings.
  • CBP will shut down its “@CBPWestTexas” Twitter account after an unidentified employee used it to share former Trump advisor Stephen Miller’s view that “Biden’s eradication of our border means we are no longer a Republic,” and to issue “likes” to homophobic tweets.
  • “It’s not migrants bringing [fentanyl] across in backpacks, it’s mostly U.S. citizens and truckers smuggling it into the country through legal ports of entry,” reads an analysis of the lack of overlap between drug smuggling and migration, by Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council.

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: September 9, 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 many as 13 migrants drowned trying to cross a swollen Rio Grande between Piedras Negras, Coahuila and Eagle Pass, Texas on September 1. It is the latest tragedy in what is already a record year for migrant deaths at the border.
  • Mexico’s migration authorities apprehended their fourth largest-ever monthly total of undocumented migrants in July. For the first time, fully half of them were not from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. Eight months in, 2022 is already Mexico’s second-largest year for asylum requests. Mexico’s armed forces are playing an ever-larger role in interdicting migrants.
  • Guatemala blocked more than 500 migrants in a northbound “caravan” attempting to enter from Honduras. Smaller “caravans” are forming several times per week in Mexico near the Guatemala border, as migrants seek to obtain documents allowing them to transit Mexican territory.

Tragedy in Eagle Pass

On September 1, about a mile downstream of the border bridges between Piedras Negras, Coahuila and Eagle Pass, Texas, a large group of migrants attempted to cross a Rio Grande swollen by recent rains. CBP reported as of September 3 that nine members of this group died by drowning  in the river. A September 3 tweet from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Chris Magnus referred to “13 lives lost yesterday while they attempted to cross the Rio Grande River at Eagle Pass.”

The nationalities of the deceased have not been reported. U.S. personnel reported rescuing 37 members of the group from the river, while Mexican authorities apprehended 39 on the Coahuila side. The Washington Post reported that the tragedy “appeared to be the deadliest mass drowning along the border in years.” The Eagle Pass fire chief told the New York Times that U.S. and Mexican authorities recovered 12 bodies from the river in a single day (in separate events) about 2 months ago, adding that drownings are an everyday event there.

Eagle Pass is one of two major (over 30,000 population) towns in Border Patrol’s Del Rio Sector, in a rural area of mid-Texas. (Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico land border into nine sectors.) Once a quiet part of the border, Del Rio was the border’s number-one sector for CBP migrant encounters in January, June, and July of this year.

More than half of migrants encountered in Del Rio (70 percent of them in July) come from countries other than Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. Two thirds in July came from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Colombia. Citizens of those countries are led to cross in Del Rio (and in Yuma, Arizona) by word of mouth—but also by smuggling organizations. “What we know with absolute certainty is that the smuggling organizations control the flow,” the chief of Border Patrol’s Tucson, Arizona Sector told the Associated Press in a story reported this week from Yuma.

2022 is already the worst year on record for deaths of migrants on the U.S. side of the Mexico border, punctuated by tragedies like the June asphyxiation death of 53 people in a cargo container, and several hundred fatal cases of dehydration and exposure in deserts, dozens if not hundreds of drownings in rivers and canals, and numerous falls from the border wall. A 5-year-old Guatemalan girl drowned near El Paso, Texas on August 22. That week, Border Patrol encountered two unaccompanied Guatemalan girls, aged four and one years old, near Ajo, Arizona. The remains of 28 Guatemalan migrants, found at different locations this year, are currently in the morgue of McAllen, Texas, awaiting final certification of their identities.

Mexico’s migrant apprehensions remain high, and military role increases

Mexico’s migration authorities apprehended their fourth largest-ever monthly total of undocumented migrants in July—33,848 people—according to data posted in late August.

For the first time, fully half of those apprehended were not from Central America’s so-called “Northern Triangle” countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras). As recently as 2018, 87% of Mexico’s apprehended migrants came from those countries. The countries whose migrants Mexico apprehended over 1,000 times in July were, from most to least: Honduras, Guatemala, Venezuela, El Salvador, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Colombia.

For the month of August, Mexico’s refugee agency (Mexican Refugee Aid Commission, COMAR) reported receiving its largest number of asylum applications since March. 10,763 people applied for asylum in Mexico last month, boosting COMAR’s annual total to 77,786—already its second-largest asylum total ever. (COMAR received nearly 130,000 applications last year.)

The countries whose migrants have sought asylum in Mexico over 3,000 times in 2022 so far are, from most to least: Honduras, Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Applications from Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, and “other countries” already exceed their 2021 full-year totals.

Mexico, meanwhile, is increasingly using its military to interdict migrants. This is part of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s overall drive to increase the military’s role in Mexican life. That drive includes a bill nearing passage in Mexico’s Congress that would place the  National Guard, a militarized police force established in 2019, firmly within the military chain of command. A September 2 WOLA commentary warns that this step will give the armed forces “more and more power vis-à-vis civilian authorities.”

The Mexican Presidency’s latest annual “report on activities” offers statistics about the armed forces’ migration role, summarized by journalist Manu Ureste at Animal Político. The Army, Marines, and National Guard reported collaborating in the apprehension of 345,584 migrants between September 2021 and June 2022. Three-quarters were apprehended by the Army. Ureste notes that—for unclear reasons—this is more than the 309,430 migrants that Mexico’s civilian migration agency (National Migration Institute, INM) reported apprehending during those months.

46,916 military and National Guard personnel are currently deployed on counter-migration missions in Mexico right now, a 46 percent increase over 2021. Of those, 23,458 are marines (a 46 percent increase over 2021); 14,013 are army soldiers (a 2.5 percent increase); and 9,445 are guardsmen (a 296 percent increase).

Although the National Guard can check immigration status, formally, military personnel are not supposed to be detaining migrants: that is the task of the INM, a force that does not carry lethal weapons. Soldiers are meant to provide perimeter security for INM operations and to man checkpoints. However, as Ureste points out, human rights organizations have been pointing out since 2015 that military and police personnel are playing active roles in arresting migrants.

“In administrative terms, it is the INM who makes the detention,” Alberto Xicoténcatl of the Saltillo, Coahuila migrant shelter told Animal Político. “But in practical terms, those who carry out the operations to detain migrants, those who chase them and put them in the detention vans, are directly the National Guard or the Army.” Adds Yuriria Salvador of the Tapachula, Chiapas-based Fray Matías Migrant Rights Center, “It is very visible that the National Guard has become the armed wing of the INM and the executor of a migration policy based on containing and detaining migrants and asylum seekers, and on militarizing the Institute.”

From January to August, Jeff Abbott reported at Foreign Policy, Mexico had deported 26,557 Guatemalans by land. (The official statistic for all Mexican deportations of Guatemalans, including flights, is 28,826 during the first 7 months of 2022.) Abbott notes that almost no services are available to returned Guatemalans: “The extent of the attention they receive essentially ends once they leave the reception center.” The difficulty of crossing Mexico has increased smugglers’ fees to an average of US$15,500 “for a package that includes multiple attempts to cross the Mexico-U.S. border.”

Guatemala blocks “caravan” from Honduras, while short-term “caravans” form almost daily in Chiapas

Amid news of a “caravan” of several hundred migrants leaving Honduras and bound for the United States via Guatemala’s southern border, Guatemala’s migration authority (Guatemalan Migration Institute, IGM) declared itself on “orange alert.” Migration agents, in coordination with security forces, carried out an operation that, as of September 5, had removed 548 migrants back across the border into Honduras. (Guatemala has expelled about 11,000 migrants into Honduras so far in 2022.)

The IGM reported that 361 of the removed migrants were Venezuelan, 60 were Honduran, and 56 were Cuban. Other nationalities mentioned include Haiti, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Cameroon. One woman from Angola was detained while walking barefoot, her feet bleeding.

Under a longstanding migratory agreement, citizens of Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador can enter Guatemalan territory without a visa or passport, just showing their national identity cards. The IGM noted that it expelled the Honduran members of this most recent group, though, because they did not cross in an official manner.

On the other side of Guatemala’s border with Mexico, in Chiapas, migrants stranded in the border-zone city of Tapachula have organized about 12 so-called “caravans,” each approximately 200 to 500 people, in the space of just over two weeks. Their destination appears to be Tapanatepec, in Oaxaca state, the first crossroads town one hits after leaving Chiapas along the Pacific coastal highway from Tapachula, 180 miles away.

Word of mouth has spread that in that town, over the past month and a half, an INM facility has been handing out Multiple Migratory Forms (FMMs, basically tourist cards) allowing undocumented migrants to be in Mexico for 30 days.

With an FMM, migrants have a documented status allowing them to board buses and travel through Mexico, including to the U.S. border zone. Migrants told the online journalism outlet Desinformémonos that word of mouth tells them to go to areas in Mexico’s northern-border zone where Mexican authorities are less likely to take migrants’ FMMs and “rip them up in your faces.”

Other News

  • The latest quarterly “Metering Update” from the University of Texas Strauss Center estimates 55,445 migrants currently on asylum waitlists in 11 Mexican border cities. The number includes those who’ve added their names to Title 42 exception waitlists. Most are in Tijuana.
  • “The U.S. government has returned 225 Cuban citizens in the last hours in four operations carried out through the port of Orozco, in the western province of Artemisa,” Cuba’s Interior Ministry announced on September 6. They were among the more than 5,154 Cuban citizens interdicted at sea since fiscal year 2022 began last October. Mexico, meanwhile, has carried out 13 deportation flights to Cuba this calendar year, returning 1,697 people.
  • Mexican authorities’ seizures of fentanyl in Tijuana increased 333 percent during the first 8 months of 2022 over the same period in 2021, EFE reported. Most seizures have taken place in Tijuana’s Zona Norte, a tourist-heavy area not far from the main (San Ysidro) port of entry.
  • A tweet from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico indicates that the State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement bureau (INL) plans to fund the training of 200 agents from Mexico’s migration agency (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM) in 2022 and 2023.
  • Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said that “border infrastructure” will be on the agenda when he meets U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken for a high-level economic dialogue next week in Monterrey.
  • “Absolutely,” Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke said when asked whether, if elected, he would keep National Guard troops and Texas state police stationed along the state’s border with Mexico. “But with all things, there has to be a balance,” narrowing their mission, he added before a crowd in the border city of Del Rio. O’Rourke is challenging current Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who has spent over $4 billion in state funds on military and police border deployments that the Democrat calls “stunts.”
  • Medium-term shelter is among the most acute needs for the nearly 10,000 migrants whom Gov. Abbott has bused to Washington, DC since March, the Washington Post reported in a story citing many migrants and aid workers. Of those bused to Washington, many of them Venezuelan, an unusually large number have no contacts, support networks, or places to stay in the United States. “The military said: ‘If you don’t have family to receive you, go to Washington. The trip is free,’” a Nicaraguan migrant said that a Texas National Guardsman told him.
  • “No one solves a problem they cannot see,” wrote Joy Olson at Mexico Today about Mexican migrant kidnappers’ extortion of their victims’ U.S.-based relatives—a crime that goes vastly unreported because so many of the relatives are undocumented and unwilling to alert U.S. authorities. “To see this problem, we need to develop clear channels for reporting.”
  • The latest monthly report from Witness at the Border, covering August, counted 140 migrant removal flights to 14 different countries, down from 142 flights in July. Colombia (19 to 23) and Brazil (3 to 10) saw the largest increases in flights; Guatemala (46 to 29) saw the largest decrease.
  • “The Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector has a new challenge coin that features concertina wire around the Border Patrol’s badge,” wrote Pedro Rios of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S.-Mexico Border Program at the San Diego Union-Tribune. “In its description on its website, it says the concertina wire symbolizes ‘a new way of thinking about border security in San Diego.’”
  • Costa Rica’s asylum system is so strained by an ongoing wave of Nicaraguan migration that applicants are being given appointments for the year 2030, the AP reported.

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: August 19, 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 absence, WOLA will not publish Weekly Border Updates on August 26 or September 2. The next update will appear on September 9.

This week:

  • July saw the second consecutive monthly drop in CBP’s encounters with migrants. The agency encountered slightly more individual migrants and significantly fewer repeat border crossers. Only 52 percent of July’s migrants came from Mexico or Central America’s “Northern Triangle,” the nationalities that make up nearly all Title 42 expulsions. As the remaining 48 percent came from countries whose citizens are harder to expel, the share of migrants subjected to Title 42 in July fell to 37 percent, the smallest share since the pandemic began.
  • Mexico’s two largest border cities, Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, saw unusually fierce outbreaks of organized-crime violence between August 11 and the August 13-14 weekend. CBP’s operations, including removals and expulsions into those cities, were unaffected.
  • Revelations about continued confiscation of Sikh asylum seekers’ turbans in Arizona drew new attention, and new advocacy energy, to the longstanding issue of CBP officers’ and Border Patrol agents’ confiscation, disposal, and non-return of migrants’ valuable and vital possessions.

Migration slows from Mexico and Northern Triangle, increases from elsewhere

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and its Border Patrol component encountered undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border 199,976 times in July, a 4 percent drop from June and a 6 percent drop from July 2021. “This marks the second month in a row of decreased encounters along the Southwest border. While the encounter numbers remain high, this is a positive trend and the first two-month drop since October 2021,” CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus said in a release.

Of last month’s 199,976 “migrant encounters”:

  • 181,552 took place in territory where Border Patrol operates: between the official border crossings, or ports of entry. That is 6 percent fewer than in June 2022 and 10 percent fewer than in July 2021.
  • 18,424 took place at the ports of entry, usually because CBP officers allowed migrants—many of them asylum seekers—to approach these border facilities and present themselves. That was 19 percent more encounters at ports of entry than in June, and 42 percent more than in July 2021. In the nearly 11 years for which we have monthly data, July 2022 saw the 3rd-largest monthly total of migrants allowed to approach ports of entry. (Really the 2nd-largest total, because April 2022, when a large number of Ukrainian refugees were processed at the ports of entry, was an anomaly.)

CBP reported that its 199,976 “encounters” took place with 162,792 actual individual migrants. 22 percent of last month’s migrant encounters were with repeat crossers: individuals who had already been encountered at least once in the previous 12 months.

That is a larger number of repeat crossers than was the norm in fiscal years 2014-19 (15 percent). The reason is the Title 42 pandemic authority in place since March 2020, which usually expels migrants very quickly: without a chance to ask for asylum in the United States, but also with very little time in CBP custody or other consequences. That, as an August 16 Wall Street Journal analysis points out, has incentivized repeat attempts to cross.

Despite this, July continued what appears to be a several-month decline in repeat border crossers. Although CBP reported a June-July drop in overall “encounters,” the agency reported increased individuals (162,792, up from 153,379 in June’s CBP release).

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: August 5, 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, WOLA will not publish a Weekly Border Update on August 12. The next update will appear on August 19.

This week:

  • As the Senate nears a vote on a big “Inflation Reduction Act,” a procedural quirk may provide Republican senators with an opportunity to add amendments curtailing the right to seek asylum, building more border walls, and otherwise hardening the border.
  • A month after the Supreme Court green-lighted the Biden administration’s efforts to end “Remain in Mexico,” some in the administration appear to favor keeping the program in place for now.
  • Confiscation of religious headgear, falsification of migration forms, post-midnight expulsions of small children,  a 33-hour detention of a 9-year-old U.S. citizen, and another fatal vehicle pursuit highlight continued concerns about human rights at CBP and Border Patrol.

“Vote-a-Rama” in U.S. Senate could include anti-migrant amendments

Before it leaves for its August recess, the U.S. Senate—which is divided evenly between 50 Democrats (including Democrat-leaning independents) and 50 Republicans—will debate and possibly approve the “Inflation Reduction Act,” a large budget bill reflecting Biden administration priorities, especially health care and climate provisions. The Senate’s complicated rules allow budget-only measures like this one to pass with a simple majority, avoiding the 60-vote “filibuster” threshold that prevents much legislation from being considered.

The resulting process, called “reconciliation,” requires that the bill be open to amendments on unrelated topics during a grueling, many-hours-long procedure that usually drags on until the pre-dawn hours of the next day. Called “vote-a-rama,” it offers an opportunity for senators from the body’s large Republican minority to introduce amendments that could restrict migration, codify obstacles to the right to seek asylum, or otherwise harden the U.S.-Mexico border.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma), the principal sponsor of a bill that would keep in place Title 42, the pandemic provision that eliminates the right to seek asylum at the border, told Roll Call on August 2 “that Republicans have some immigration-related amendments ‘in the queue,’ though he declined to provide specifics.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) added that “he thought border security would come up during the vote-a-rama process.”

Amendments could seek to enshrine into permanent law the Trump administration’s Remain in Mexico program, which forces asylum seekers to await their U.S. court dates inside Mexico, or Title 42, empowering U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to expel migrants indefinitely for public health reasons. Amendments could also seek to re-start construction of the Trump administration’s border wall, which Joe Biden halted when he assumed office in January 2021.

It is possible that some of these amendments to the spending bill could pass with a simple majority. They will have solid Republican support, and a small number of moderate and conservative Democrats, or Democrats facing tough re-election races in states where immigration is unpopular with swing voters, could end up voting for them as well. Several conservative or vulnerable Democrats are already co-sponsors of Lankford’s legislation that would keep Title 42 in place for months after the end of the U.S. COVID-19 emergency, which could last for years. (Currently Title 42, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had intended to lift on May 23, remains in place by order of a federal judge in Louisiana.)

Should such amendments succeed, however, the larger “Inflation Reduction Act” bill—which, if it passes, would do so with the slimmest of majorities—could be in jeopardy. The anti-migrant measures could lead progressive and pro-immigration Democratic senators to vote against the entire bill. If hardline “poison pill” border and immigration provisions added during “vote-a-rama” cause even a few of those senators to vote “no,” the bill will fail.

At the Washington Post, columnist Greg Sargent called the likelihood of Republican immigration amendments a “ticking time bomb still threatening the big climate deal.” Sargent cited an e-mailed statement from Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), who warned that “Adoption of amendments that would end access to asylum or expand Trump’s border wall…will put reconciliation at risk.” This, Sargent said, “is a not-so-veiled suggestion that adoption of such poison pills might imperil the whole climate deal.” Menendez repeated this language on Twitter.

WOLA, one of many groups to issue statements opposing harmful “vote-a-rama” amendments, warned that such provisions could usher in “a harmful regime that could cause years of real human suffering.” A letter from 286 U.S. non-governmental organizations, including WOLA, urged senators to oppose any legislation that might “end asylum at the border”; “harm immigrants’ health, economic well-being, or education”; or “further bloat enforcement or militarize the border.”

As of Thursday morning (August 4), the timetable is not clear. The Senate’s Democratic leadership is awaiting word from the body’s parliamentarian on how the rules of debate will proceed, while trying to secure the support of the remaining Democratic holdout, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona). “Several Democratic senators” cited by Roll Call said they expect the “vote-a-rama” process to begin “as soon as this weekend.”

“Remain in Mexico” is not over yet

With a 5-4 decision on June 30, the Supreme Court upheld the Biden administration’s ability to cancel the “Remain in Mexico” policy, an initiative begun by the Trump administration in 2019 that sent over 70,000 asylum-seeking migrants back across the border into Mexico to await their U.S. immigration hearings. Evidence that the Biden administration is preparing to end the policy, however, is scarce.

President Joe Biden began shutting down Remain in Mexico, which he regarded as cruel and ineffective, after taking office in January 2021, but a Texas federal judge in August 2021 ordered the White House to restart it. The program re-launched in December; since then, about 5,000 more migrants have been sent back to Mexico to await their U.S. hearings. The Supreme Court’s recent ruling overruled that August 2021 decision, giving a green light to “re-terminate” Remain in Mexico.

A month later, though, Remain in Mexico continues to operate, sending dozens of migrants back to Mexico each day.

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At Razón Pública: Iván Velásquez, ministro de Defensa: por qué y para qué

The Colombian publication Razón Pública today published a new piece by me about the defense and security challenges the country is facing, six days before it swears in a new president. That president will be the first leftist politician in Colombia’s modern history, and his choice to lead the Defense Ministry, Iván Velásquez, is one of Latin America’s best-known anti-corruption fighters.

I argue here that Velásquez is a good choice because he at least stands a credible chance of making progress on three urgent security priorities:

  • Combating corruption within the officer corps;
  • Increasing government presence in abandoned marginal rural areas where armed groups and coca thrive; and
  • Deeply reforming and civilianizing the police.

We’ll be adapting some of the language in this column for a WOLA commentary later this week, which will have an English version.

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: July 29, 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:

  • Leaked data show that 2022 is already the worst year on record for deaths of migrants on the U.S. side of the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • Mayors’ complaints indicate that Texas and Arizona governors’ steady flow of migrants bused to Washington, D.C. has begun to strain local services.
  • A new report shows how a rapidly changing smuggling business is using social media to sell its services, often with highly misleading claims, to an increasingly online migrant population.

Migrant deaths: 2022 is the worst year on record

2022 is already the worst year on record for deaths of migrants on the U.S. side of the U.S.-Mexico border, according to internal data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Anna Giaritelli of the Washington Examiner obtained and confirmed data showing that, since the U.S. government’s 2022 fiscal year started in October, CBP has found 605 remains of migrants. That already exceeds the fiscal 2021 full-year total of 566, which itself was a record. It is roughly double the amount of deaths CBP recorded each year from 2014 to 2020.

Most migrants die painful deaths. Dehydration, heat exhaustion, or exposure at night in deserts and dry brushland appear to be the most common causes. An increasing number are drowning in the Rio Grande, irrigation canals, and other bodies of water. An increasing number are killed, or badly injured, trying to climb segments of 30-foot-high border wall installed during the Trump administration. This year’s 609 deaths include the 53 migrants who perished in a hot, airless cargo trailer between Laredo and San Antonio, Texas, on June 27.

In a June 28 analysis, WOLA noted that “migrants continue to die at the U.S.-Mexico border, usually of drowning, dehydration, exposure, or falls from the border wall, with a frequency that seems unprecedented.” The new data confirms that the frequency is without precedent.

The Examiner and Reuters—which published an in-depth examination of border migrant deaths this week—both reported that CBP recorded 151 “CBP-related” deaths during the 2021 fiscal year. The term refers to deaths in CBP custody, at a port of entry or checkpoint, or while trying to elude CBP personnel.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) maintains a separate count of migrant deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border (as well as other migrant routes). The UN-affiliated agency counts 357 dead so far during the 2022 calendar year, on pace to match or exceed the 728 it counted in 2021.

“In addition to these deaths—the worst of all outcomes—there are countless other grave injuries sustained by people migrating as a result of the dangerous routes they are forced to undertake,” recalls a July 23 statement from Annunciation House, an El Paso respite center that attends to thousands of migrants released from CBP custody each month. “Many of our guests at Annunciation House are recovering from broken bones, amputations, or other injuries that were sustained because of the border wall and draconian immigration policies. In many cases, these injuries will permanently affect their mobility, well-being, and ability to earn a living.”

As WOLA’s July 28 analysis noted, border deaths increase as enforcement policies harden in an effort to deter migrants. (Today’s record levels of migration show that decades of deterrence policies have had no effect, other than increased fatalities.) Reuters cites the “towering wall” along the border, which has channeled migrants to more dangerous desert routes, and the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy, prolonged in May by a Louisiana federal court order, that forces many countries’ asylum seekers to avoid detection rather than turning themselves in to U.S. authorities.

“The U.S. immigration enforcement system has operated under a single premise since the creation of the Border Patrol in 1924: deterrence,” wrote Jason Buch in a July 25 essay at the Texas Observer. “It’s the idea we can somehow make coming to this country more miserable than the natural disasters, civil wars, gang violence, and economic hardship that displace people in the first place.”

Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico border into nine geographic sectors. According to the 2022 data, the sector with the most reported deaths this year is the easternmost one, south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, with 173 remains found. Giaritelli wrote, “The Del Rio region of Texas followed with 154 bodies; 72 in Tucson, Arizona; and 64 in Laredo, Texas.”

Many of the deaths in the Rio Grande Valley region actually take place about 80 miles north of the border, in Brooks County, where Border Patrol maintains a highway checkpoint that migrants seek to evade by walking for miles through dry brushland where it is easy to get lost. “There have already been 60 migrant deaths so far this year in Brooks County,” Sandra Sanchez of Border Report told the Texas Standard this week. “Last year there were 119, and in the entire Rio Grande Valley sector, there have been 140. So you can see almost half of the deaths occur in this area, Brooks County.” (For more, see the award-winning 2021 documentary Missing in Brooks County and WOLA’s podcast interview with its creators.)

Just west of the Rio Grande Valley, in Laredo, the organization Texas Nicaraguan Community reported that the bodies of four men and one woman remain in the city morgue two months after they perished because of difficulties in repatriating them to Nicaragua. “The organization says that ‘there are many suspicions of more Nicaraguans in that morgue in unidentified condition,’” according to Nicaragua Investiga.

Further west in El Paso, Border Report noted, CBP has counted 56 migrant deaths since fiscal 2022 began. Of those, 20 were drownings in fast-flowing irrigation canals, most of them in the past two months. The El Paso Sheriff told Border Report that a 42-year-old Mexican man was recovered from an irrigation canal on July 22, while the El Paso Times reported the recovery of a boy’s body from a canal that same day.

Border Report this week also profiled work to recover and identify bodies, and to help bring closure to victims’ families, in Tucson, Arizona by the Pima County Medical Examiner and the Colibrí Center for Human Rights.

Though not at the border, U.S.-bound migrants are also dying in elevated numbers at sea this year. At least 17 Haitians, including a child, died on July 24 when their 30-foot speedboat, loaded with up to 60 people, capsized about 7 miles off the coast of the Bahamian island of New Providence. “The passengers paid $3,000 to $8,000 to travel on the boat,” according to Bahamian officials cited in the New York Times.

Border Patrol “rescues” data also highlight migrants’ plight. The agency counted 16,897 search-and-rescue efforts carried out during the first 9 months of fiscal 2022, up from 12,833 in all of 2021 and about 5,000 each in 2019 and 2020.

The Washington Examiner border-wide data are revealing because CBP has not updated its official count of migrant deaths since 2020. Section 5(a) of the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act ( Public Law 116-277, passed on December 31, 2020) requires CBP to produce a public annual report on migrant deaths, including—where possible—information about the decedents’ gender, nationality, and location of death. The first report was due at the end of 2021; a WOLA inquiry to congressional oversight staff found that it is still forthcoming, but the timetable for release is not clear.

Washington and New York mayors appeal for help with Texas and Arizona migrant buses

In April, Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R), an immigration hardliner up for re-election in November, began paying to place willing asylum-seeking migrants on buses to Washington, DC, after their releases from CBP custody. Since then, Texas has bused over 5,400 migrants to Washington, Abbott’s office told DCist this week. In May, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) began a similar operation; Arizona has bused 1,151 migrants to Washington, according to Border Report.

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: July 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.

This week:

  • CBP encountered 14 percent fewer migrants at the border in June than in May, though it was still the busiest June since public monthly reporting began in 2000. 44 percent of encounters ended with Title 42 expulsions.
  • The nationality of migrants that increased the most was Venezuelans. This is despite Mexico’s January requirement of  visas for visiting Venezuelans: more are migrating through the dangerous Darién Gap region.
  • CBP’s data show border-zone seizures of nearly all major drugs, except possibly fentanyl, falling behind their 2021 pace. As in past years, the overwhelming majority of drugs—except cannabis—are seized at border ports of entry.
  • Following the July 12 meeting between the U.S. and Mexican presidents, Mexico detailed new border infrastructure investments, assigning many to its military. Mexico signaled that the U.S. government would offer more temporary work visas, but U.S. officials won’t confirm that.
  • Texas’s state law enforcement is rounding up migrants and dropping them at ports of entry, and sending released migrants on buses to Washington. A sergeant died on July 15, the eighth loss since October of a Texas National Guard soldier deployed to the border.

CBP’s migrant encounters dropped 14 percent in June

U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported encountering 207,416 undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in June. This was the most encounters ever for a month of June but 14 percent fewer than in May.

The Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy, prolonged by a federal court order, continues to ease repeat attempts to cross the border because it involves minimal time in CBP custody. As a result, the 207,416 “encounters” were with 153,379 actual individual people. 26 percent of CBP’s reported encounters were with people who had already been encountered at least once before in the past 12 months.

The “encounters” total includes 15,518 migrants who appeared at land ports of entry (official border crossings). The other 191,898 encounters occurred in the spaces between the ports of entry, where Border Patrol operates. This was Border Patrol’s smallest monthly total since February.

It is still a historically large number. Border Patrol has encountered migrants 1,634,104 times since October 2021, when the U.S. government’s 2022 fiscal year began. With three months to go before fiscal 2022 ends, that nearly exceeds 2021’s 1,659,206 encounters, which were the most ever reported.

Of those encountered in June, 44 percent were swiftly expelled under the Title 42 authority, which had been scheduled to end on May 23 but was prolonged by a Texas federal judge’s decision. Since the pandemic began in March 2020, Title 42 has been used to expel migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border 2,116,211 times.

In late June, Republican legislators succeeded in adding language to two 2023 appropriations bills that would keep Title 42 in place potentially for years, as reported in WOLA’s July 1 Update. More than 180 U.S. organizations, including WOLA, signed a July 15 letter calling on Congress to remove this “poison pill” language from the bills.

Mexico agreed in March 2020 to accept expelled citizens of Central America’s so-called “Northern Triangle” (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), and in May 2022 to accept limited numbers of expelled Cubans and Nicaraguans. Other migrants are expelled by air, although only Haiti has seen a significant percentage of its migrants returned on planes (33 percent during this fiscal year).

June saw a slowdown in expulsions of citizens of countries other than Mexico and the Northern Triangle. Expulsions of Cubans and Nicaraguans dropped from 3,979 in May to 593 in June. Mexico had committed to accepting expelled Cubans and Nicaraguans until May 23, the day that Title 42 was originally slated to end. The numbers show that Mexico did not resume accepting those expulsions after the court order prolonged Title 42. Planes to Haiti, meanwhile, largely ceased: Just 15 Haitians were expelled in June.

In fact, in an encouraging development, Border Patrol encountered only 143 Haitian citizens crossing between the ports of entry in June, down from more than 7,000 in May.

The reason is a change at the ports of entry: in coordination with humanitarian organizations, CBP has been allowing a larger number of migrants considered more vulnerable to approach the ports to seek protection. The 15,518 undocumented migrants who came to ports of entry in June were the sixth-largest monthly total measured since fiscal year 2012; May was the fourth-largest monthly total. Nearly 4,000 of the  migrants allowed to approach the ports last month were Haitian. About three-quarters of them arrived at ports of entry in south Texas.

The recent experience with Haitian migrants—orderly processing of protection claims at ports of entry, with a sharp drop in improper crossings—offers a potential model for managing today’s large hemisphere-wide flows of protection-seeking migration.

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: July 14, 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:

  • CBP released a long-awaited investigation into the September 2021 incident in Del Rio, Texas, when horse-mounted Border Patrol agents were caught on camera behaving aggressively toward Haitian migrants. The report finds fault with agents’ behavior, Border Patrol command and control, lack of crowd control training, and other issues. Administrative punishments appear likely.
  • President Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador met in Washington on July 12. Mexico agreed to make $1.5 billion in border infrastructure investments over the next two years. There was no agreement on temporary work visas.
  • 15,633 people migrated through Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap jungles in June, a number that has increased nearly every month this year. Almost three quarters of the migrants were Venezuelans who are now unable to fly visa-free to Mexico.
  • The once-quiet Del Rio border sector appears poised to become the busiest, leading all others in migrant encounters, with more than 13,000 in an early July week. Most are not from Mexico or Central America’s “Northern Triangle.”
  • An executive order from Texas’s governor, whose language adopts “invasion” rhetoric, empowers state law enforcement to apprehend migrants and transport them to border ports of entry.

CBP concludes Del Rio investigation

On July 8 U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released a long-awaited report on the September 2021 incident along the Rio Grande in Del Rio, Texas, when horse-mounted Border Patrol agents were caught on camera charging and swinging reins at Haitian migrants during a mass migration event. The investigation by CBP’s Office of Public Responsibility (OPR, a body that reports directly to CBP’s commissioner) foundfailures at multiple levels of the agency, a lack of appropriate policies and training, and unprofessional and dangerous behavior by several individual Agents.”

An outcry followed publication of the September 19 images and videos of mounted agents charging at, grabbing, swinging reins, yelling, and maneuvering the Haitians back into the river. Condemnation and promises of swift action came from President Joe Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris, and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, among many others. “I promise you, those people will pay. There is an investigation underway right now and there will be consequences,” said Biden.

Mayorkas promised that an investigation “will be completed in days—not weeks.” In fact, it took OPR nearly 10 months to produce its 511-page report. CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus, who took office last December, said he was “not happy about the length of time.” Much of the delay owed to the agency’s choice to treat the case as a criminal matter, referring it to the Department of Justice. The U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas considered it for nearly six months before deciding, on March 11, 2022, not to pursue criminal charges. During that long period, OPR was unable to interview the Border Patrol agents directly involved in the incident.

What imprecisely became known as the “whipping incident” happened during an unusual immigration event. CBP noted that “over the course of several days, U.S. Border Patrol Agents processed, screened, and vetted more than 30,000 migrants by the international bridge” in Del Rio, a mid-Texas border city of 30,000 people that until recently had seen only modest levels of migration.

Much of this population was Haitian: over the course of 2021, approximately 100,000 Haitian citizens who had been living in Brazil and Chile migrated north through Panama’s Darién Gap, then to Mexico. (Panama recorded 101,072 Haitians passing through the dangerous Darién in 2021, including children born in South America, while Mexico apprehended 18,924 Haitians and received asylum requests from 51,076.)

In late August and early September (as noted in WOLA’s Border Updates at the time) thousands of Haitian migrants bottled up in Mexico’s far south organized “caravans” seeking to continue toward the U.S. border. Mexican forces broke these up, often brutally—but then, in mid-September, for reasons that don’t remain fully clear, roughly 15,000 mostly Haitian migrants were able to transit the country and arrive in Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila, across from Del Rio, over the same few days. The migrants forded the river, which had shallow areas at the time, and gathered by the thousands in areas near the border bridge.

The mass arrival appeared to take CBP by surprise. Border Patrol, which had just 1,504 agents assigned to its once-quiet Del Rio Sector in 2020, surged personnel from elsewhere. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), an immigration hardliner, deployed state police to Del Rio.

While Abbott’s Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) personnel appeared to be seeking to block migrants’ access, CBP was seeking to process the Haitian migrants on U.S. soil. (The Title 42 pandemic order has curtailed the right to seek asylum, so many of the Haitians “processed” in Del Rio ended up being among the more than 26,000 whom the Biden administration has flown back to Haiti.)

Border Patrol, which could barely accommodate the thousands of migrants waiting to be processed on the banks of the river, was allowing them to cross into Mexico to buy food and water, then cross back.

During the mid-day on September 19, though, journalists’ cameras caught members of a Border Patrol horse patrol unit, brought in from Carrizo Springs, Texas, aggressively seeking to block the migrants—many of them carrying bags of food—from re-entering the United States. “At the time the agents used or threatened to use force, the migrants were not threatening” the mounted agents, the OPR report found.

The report includes the following findings about what happened over approximately a half hour on September 19.

  • There was no evidence that the agents “whipped” the migrants or that the riders’ reins struck any migrants. In future crowd control events, though, CBP will prohibit mounted agents from “twirling” their reins as “a distancing tactic.”
  • “Several mounted Border Patrol Agents used force or the threat of force to drive several migrants back into the Rio Grande River, despite the fact the migrants were well within the territorial boundary of the United States.”
  • In addition to swinging reins, aggressive tactics included charging horses at migrants to keep them from entering, in one case maneuvering a horse very close to a boy, and in another causing a man to fall back into the river; grabbing a man by his shirt and flipping him around; and yelling “unprofessional” comments, including “Hey! You use your women? This is why your country’s s***, you use your women for this.”
  • By pushing migrants back to the river and Mexico, the horse-patrol agents were following orders given not by Border Patrol, but a request from Texas state DPS. Though blocking migrants was not CBP’s objective, the Border Patrol supervisor approved the state agency’s request without checking with higher-ups.
  • This owed much to faulty command and control within Border Patrol. The horse patrol agents’ supervisor “was unable to obtain additional guidance from higher in the USBP chain of command at the time of the request” from Texas DPS. The agents “repeatedly sought guidance from the USBP incident command post” by radio, and backed off after being “eventually told to allow all the migrants to enter.”
  • Though assigned to a crowd control mission—a difficult job with a high risk of escalation and human rights abuse—the horse patrol unit’s members’ responses indicated that they had not received crowd control training. Commissioner Magnus said that from now on, horses would not be used for crowd control without the commissioner’s approval.

With the OPR report complete, a CBP Disciplinary Review Board, separate from OPR and made up of senior officials, is now considering punishments for the agents involved. Four agents may face administrative measures. CBS News reported that no firings are recommended, and that the Review Board proposed a seven-day suspension for the supervisor who approved the Texas state DPS request.

The agents’ defenders—including the National Border Patrol Council union, House Homeland Security Committee ranking Republican Rep. John Katko (R-New York), and several former Border Patrol leaders in a mid-June letter—argue that they are not receiving due process because President Biden had demanded in September 2021 that they “pay” for their actions. Border Patrol union President Brandon Judd said that the union will appeal any punishments.

Commissioner Magnus said on July 8 that despite the “reins” incident, “the vast majority of Border Patrol Agents and U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel acted with honor and integrity and provided an unprecedented response to the situation in Del Rio.”

While that could be accurate for much of the Del Rio migration event, the OPR report’s scope does not go beyond what happened in the approximate half-hour on September 19 when the horse patrol was caught on camera. Much of the report, in fact, describes scenes that are already familiar to anyone who has reviewed the much-publicized footage. Migrant rights groups like the Haitian Bridge Alliance and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights have documented other alleged abuses in the context of the Del Rio event.

Critics of the OPR report have meanwhile lamented that investigators did not speak to a single Haitian migrant about what happened. Among those who would have been available is Mirard Joseph, the man whose shirt was grabbed by a horse-mounted agent in one famous image. Joseph was removed to Haiti and is suing the U.S. government.

Biden and López Obrador discuss the border and migration

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was in Washington on July 11- 12 for his second visit since Joe Biden took office. Much media attention focused on the frosty relationship between the two leaders’ administrations, who disagree on issues ranging from energy policy to the Ukraine conflict to the June Summit of the Americas’ invitation list. López Obrador’s 30-minute-plus oratory during the presidents’ Oval Office photo op also drew comment.

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Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: July 7, 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:

  • May was Mexico’s fourth-largest month on record for apprehensions of migrants, and nearly half were not from Central America’s “Northern Triangle.” Mexico is on track to receive its second-largest annual total of asylum applications. Migrants—including an increasing number from countries, like Venezuela, who can no longer visit Mexico without a visa—have been staging protests and obtaining temporary migratory status.
  • We learned more about the circumstances of, and the victims of, the June 27 tragedy in which 53 migrants died of heat-related causes while being smuggled in the back of a tractor-trailer in south Texas. Humanitarian and human rights groups warned against quickly deporting the survivors.
  • Outbreaks of organized crime-related violence in Sonora and Baja California drew further attention to the difficult security situation along Mexico’s side of the border.

Trends in migration through Mexico

In late June Mexico’s Interior Department (Secretaría de Gobernación), through its Migratory Statistics Unit, released data about migration through the country during May 2022. That month, Mexican authorities apprehended 32,948 migrants, their 4th-largest monthly total on record.

Of that total, only 54 percent came from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the countries of Central America’s so-called “Northern Triangle.” Until the middle of last year, these three countries very rarely made up less than 80 percent of Mexico’s migrant apprehensions.

The remainder—shown in green in the above chart—come from the rest of the world, mainly the Americas. The following 13 nationalities measured at least 100 apprehended migrants in Mexico in May:

  1. Honduras 7,512
  2. Guatemala 7,046
  3. Nicaragua 3,462
  4. El Salvador 3,285
  5. Cuba 3,141
  6. Colombia 3,016
  7. Peru 1,165
  8. Venezuela 1,640
  9. Ecuador 756
  10. Brazil 398
  11. Russia 271
  12. Haiti 246
  13. Dominican Republic 102

The number of apprehended migrants from Haiti (#12) has fallen sharply: fewer than those from Russia in May. Haitian migration through Mexico reached a peak in September 2021, the month of the infamous Border Patrol “whipping” or “flailing reins” incident in Del Rio, Texas. That month, Mexican migration and security forces apprehended 9,009 Haitian citizens.

In early July, Mexico’s refugee agency (COMAR) reported that 9,740 people requested asylum in Mexico in June. That is slightly fewer than in February, March, and April, but still puts COMAR on track for its second-busiest year ever, with 58,462 applications during the first half of the year.

In 2021, a large number of Haitian citizens, migrating north after spending years living mostly in Brazil and Chile, made Haiti the number-one country of origin for asylum seekers in Mexico. The Chileans who appear in the above chart in 2020 and 2021 (in orange) were almost entirely the Chilean-born children of Haitian migrants.

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Recent writing…

You may be wondering what’s the point of maintaining a personal website, if you don’t even use it to post links to things you’ve created at the moment they go public. You’d have a good point.

My only defense is something along the lines of “deadlines meetings too much happening in the news when do I sleep.” That’s a poor defense, though, because it only takes a couple of minutes to post things here, I enjoy maintaining this space, and I want it to be a useful resource.

So here’s what’s come out lately:

The Tragedy in Texas Was Avoidable, Just Like Hundreds of Other Migrant Deaths on U.S. Soil This Year: (posted June 28) As we absorbed the horror of the mass death of migrants in a cargo container in Texas, we published this commentary explaining the larger context: 2022 was already on its way to being a record year for grisly and preventable deaths of migrants on U.S. soil along the border. It’s a result of policies put in place by people in our federal government who have—I don’t know how else to put it—a really cavalier attitude about the deaths of people who’ve committed no crimes.

From rebel to president: Colombia’s new leftist leader: An hourlong English unpacking of Colombia’s election result on BBC’s “Real Story” program, with journalist Catalina Lobo-Guerrero and Oscar Guardiola-Rivera of Birkbeck, University of London.

Migration and the Summit of the Americas: (posted June 23) a podcast I hosted with three WOLA colleagues. Between myself, VP for Programs Maureen Meyer, Mexico and Migrant Rights Program Director Stephanie Brewer, and Program Assistant Lesly Tejada, since March we’ve done field research in four of the nine sectors into which the U.S. Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico border, we’ve been to the Mexico-Guatemala border, and we’ve attended the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, where migration was a big topic. Here, we talk about all of that.

A fresh start for Colombia … and for US policy? (posted to the Quincy Institute Responsible Statecraft site June 22) In the wake of Gustavo Petro’s presidential election victory in Colombia, a preview of areas where the U.S. government could work with him (peace implementation, environment, ethnic and women’s rights, anticorruption) and where there may be a collision course (drugs, Venezuela, trade, the military “special relationship”).

Colombia’s politics are changing dramatically. U.S. policy must change too. (posted June 16) Posted in the runup to Colombia’s momentous presidential election, a look at what the implications might be for U.S. policy toward a country President Biden views as a “keystone.”

OK, in the end, this post actually took me a while to write, especially on a Saturday afternoon when there’s a lot going on around the house. Still, I resolve to do a better job of sharing recent work when it comes out.

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: July 1, 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 Supreme Court upheld the Biden administration’s cancellation of the “Remain in Mexico” program. By a 5-4 vote, judges determined that lower courts could not compel the administration to re-start the Trump-era program, as it had by sending about 5,000 asylum seekers back to Mexican border cities since December.
  • A horrific tragedy in San Antonio, Texas—the death of 53 migrants smuggled in a stifling hot tractor-trailer—drew attention to the dangers faced by those unable to access legal asylum and migration channels, during a year that appears likely to see record-breaking numbers of deaths near the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • The House Appropriations Committee drafted its 2023 Homeland Security budget bill. It includes a Republican amendment that, if made law, would preserve the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy, potentially for years.

Supreme Court allows Biden administration to terminate “Remain in Mexico”

With a 5-4 decision on June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the Biden administration did not violate immigration law when it ended the controversial Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) or “Remain in Mexico” program. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) may now proceed with its plan to stop sending asylum seekers to await their U.S. hearings in Mexico.

The Trump administration, which began implementing Remain in Mexico in January 2019, sent 71,076 asylum-seeking migrants back into Mexico until their next immigration court dates. At least 1,544 of them suffered “murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violent assaults” in Mexico , Human Rights First has reported.

Fulfilling a campaign promise, the Biden administration began shutting down the program with a February 2021 executive order and a June 2021 memorandum, bringing many of the asylum seekers into the United States. That process was halted in August 2021 when Amarillo, Texas federal judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ruled—in a suit brought by the Republican attorneys-general of Texas and Missouri—that the Biden administration had not properly terminated Remain in Mexico. Kacsmaryk ordered the program to restart, and the Biden administration appealed, issuing a new termination memorandum in October 2021. In December, the 5th Circuit blocked the administration’s attempt to end the program. The Supreme Court heard arguments in April.

Since its court-ordered restart of the program got underway in December, the Biden administration sent more than 4,300 (or 5,114, or at least 5,600) asylum seekers, primarily from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, back to Mexico to await hearings.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the court’s three liberal members in agreeing that the renewed “Remain in Mexico 2.0” may now come to an end. “The Government’s rescission of MPP did not violate section 1225 of the INA [Immigration and Nationality Act], and the October 29 Memoranda constituted final agency action,” the court’s decision reads.

While the Republican state attorneys-general may persist with their litigation before Judge Kacsmaryk, it appears that he and other lower-court judges are now unable to force DHS to revive the program while litigation proceeds through lower courts.

Should a challenge to Remain in Mexico’s termination make its way back up to the Supreme Court, the justices’ decision indicates that they might strike it down. The majority found that Remain in Mexico was a discretionary program: something that the Biden administration “may” continue carrying out, but was not required to. The court noted that the law also allows DHS other options, including detention (which Congress doesn’t fund fully enough to detain all asylum seekers) or parole into the U.S. interior, which is increasingly being used.

The Court also found that Remain in Mexico carries too many “foreign affairs consequences” for it to be mandatory. Forcing the administration to negotiate with Mexico to accept other countries’ asylum-seeking migrants “imposes a significant burden upon the Executive’s ability to conduct diplomatic relations with Mexico, one that Congress likely did not intend section 1225(b)(2)(C) to impose,” the decision reads.

The count obtained by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) project (which is higher than DHS’s publicly reported count) shows that as of May 31, the court-ordered revival of Remain in Mexico had sent 5,114 asylum seekers to Mexican border cities. 1,109 of whom have had their cases decided or closed, with the rest still pending. It is not yet clear whether the remaining 4,000 will now have an opportunity to re-enter the United States to continue pursuing their cases.

Meanwhile, the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy, prolonged by a Louisiana judge in May under other litigation from Republican state attorneys-general, remains in effect. While DHS returned 1,460 migrants to Mexico under the Remain in Mexico program in May, DHS expelled migrants 100,699 times under Title 42 that same month, usually into Mexico and always without a U.S. hearing date.

Tragedy in San Antonio highlights alarming increase in border deaths

In the late afternoon on June 27, a very hot day in San Antonio, Texas, a worker encountered a horrible scene along a road on the city’s outskirts. A refrigerated tractor trailer with no air conditioning unit had been left with its doors partially open. People inside were crying for help, but too weak to leave. Inside, as PBS reported it, were “people piled on top of each other. Bodies were also found strewn along the road near the scene.”

Read More

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: June 24, 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:

  • Several data points across border sectors—including a shocking 10 drownings in El Paso’s irrigation canals since June 9—point to a historically high number of migrants dying in the Rio Grande and on U.S. soil this year, mainly of drownings, dehydration, and falls from tall segments of the border wall.
  • The Supreme Court was expected to issue a ruling this week on the Biden administration’s effort to end the “Remain in Mexico” program, but no decision came. Media reports this week revealed that one woman assigned to Remain in Mexico attempted suicide in June, and three men were kidnapped in April.
  • Migration levels remain very high in June across the border. A court filing showed that CBP is increasingly granting parole—which doesn’t include an assigned immigration court date—while releasing migrants with tracking devices. Remnants of an early June caravan are arriving near the U.S. border, though Mexican states have been preventing the mostly Venezuelan migrants  from boarding buses.
  • Mexico sent hundreds more troops to the border cities of Tijuana and Matamoros in response to outbreaks of violence. A document from Mexico’s Defense Department shows the current extent of the military’s border-security and migrant-interdiction mission.

The migrant death toll increases further

Migrants continue to die at the U.S.-Mexico border, usually of drowning, dehydration, or falls from the border wall, with a frequency that appears unprecedented. WOLA’s Border Updates of May 13, May 27, June 3, and June 17 discussed migrant deaths. While U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has not reported official border-wide deaths data since 2020 (despite a legal requirement to do so), partial information points to the trend worsening further.

Since the U.S. government’s 2022 fiscal year began in October, CBP has reported 14,278 “search and rescue efforts,” which already exceeds 12,833 rescues in all of fiscal 2021 (October 2020-September 2021).

The U.S. Border Patrol divides the Mexico border into nine sectors. In its El Paso Sector, which covers 264 border miles in far west Texas and all of New Mexico, the agency reports recovering the remains of 37 migrants who died of injuries, drowning, dehydration, or vehicle strikes since October, according to a thoroughly reported El Paso Times story. Border Patrol had recovered 39 remains in all of fiscal 2021, and fiscal 2022 still has 3 very hot months to go.

Fifteen of the thirty-seven migrants who have died in the sector in 2022 have drowned in fast-flowing irrigation canals that run from the Rio Grande. At least 10 people have drowned in the two weeks since June 9, as “irrigation season”—when authorities increase the flow of water through the canals—has just begun.

“The purpose of the canal is to get water as fast as possible to our agriculture community,” Border Patrol Agent Orlando Marrero told the El Paso Times. “At 62 pounds per square foot, the water traveling nine miles per hour will create exactly 302 pounds of force. Imagine an average person, five-feet-eight or nine, in 10-foot deep water: There is no way. They are going to be swept.” Fernando García of the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights, said, “We have never seen so many deaths in a short period of time. The structure of that canal means that whoever falls there does not come out alive.”

The danger is worse in El Paso’s American Canal, where the most drownings have occurred, because it runs right alongside a segment of border fence that was built to 30 feet during the Trump administration. “That made it more dangerous,” Irrigation district manager Jesus Reyes told the El Paso Times. “Those people are coming over and, in some cases, they climb over and fall directly into the canal.”

Five of the sector’s thirty-seven deaths in 2022 have been heat-related: while the El Paso area’s Chihuahuan Desert is not as intensely hot as Arizona’s Sonoran Desert to the west, it is still deadly, and climate change is making it more so.

CBP reports that 229 migrants have suffered injuries since October, in the El Paso Sector alone, from falls from the border wall. Injuries range “from ankle injuries to brain injuries,” according to CNN. Some falls are fatal, like that of a man who fell from an El Paso Sector border wall segment near the Santa Teresa, New Mexico port of entry in the pre-dawn hours of June 17. He died the next day after suffering “a brain hemorrhage, skull fracture, sternum fracture and broken ribs.”

In Border Patrol’s Big Bend Sector in remote west Texas—the part of the border that sees the fewest migrants—the agency has recovered 24 remains during the first 8 months of fiscal year 2022, already tying the number for all of fiscal year 2021.

Partial data point to migrant fatalities increasing in other sectors. In the Tucson Sector, which comprises most of Arizona’s border with Mexico, Border Patrol reports finding the remains of 48 people since October, according to the Tucson Sentinel. The agency’s fatality numbers, though, are consistently lower than those compiled by local officials and humanitarian groups: the Pima County Medical Examiner has processed the remains of 98 people found in the Sonoran Desert since October. Together with the humanitarian group Humane Borders, the Medical Examiner recovered 225 remains of people believed to have been border crossers during the 2021 calendar year; some of that number may have died in prior years.

In the Tucson Sector, migrants who seek to avoid apprehension rather than turning themselves in to ask for protection are “nearly 90 percent of people crossing,” according to Sector Chief John Modlin. This population is seeking to avoid stepped-up enforcement by “increasingly attempting to cross the stark reaches of Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, as well as craggy heights in the Baboquivari Mountains to get into Arizona,” the Sentinel reported.

Further west, in Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector, in western Arizona and eastern California near the Colorado River, Sector Chief Chris Clem reported “six migrant deaths” during the week of June 12 to 18.

To the east, in south Texas’s Laredo Sector, which has reported just 5 percent of all border migrant encounters this year, Sector Chief Carl Landrum stated that Border Patrol has rescued “over 5,000 people this fiscal year.” This number seems oddly high, since Border Patrol has reported 14,278 rescues in all 9 sectors so far this year, including 2,192 in the deserts of the Tucson Sector. Landrum did not report a number of deaths in the Laredo Sector.

This year’s increase in fatalities along the border is partly a consequence of a larger overall population of migrants: as noted below and in WOLA’s June 17 Border Update, this is a record year for migration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The situation is worsened, though, by the “Title 42” pandemic border policy, which closes official border crossings to people who wish to seek asylum, and incentivizes repeat border crossing attempts by quickly expelling those who are caught. (The Biden administration’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had sought to end Title 42 by May 23, 2022, but a Louisiana judge has ordered that it remain in place.)

Across from El Paso, according to Border Report, “Officials estimate that at least 15,000 migrants are in [Ciudad] Juarez waiting for the end of Title 42 so they can apply for asylum in the U.S. “ El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said, “If Title 42 was not in place, they would be able to form, be able to come across and the process would flow. When the process doesn’t flow, there is a huge sense of desperation.” As a result, said García of the Border Network for Human Rights, “They are still crossing, and they are dying in extraordinary numbers.”

Supreme Court may rule soon on Remain in Mexico

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling soon on whether the Biden administration can terminate the Migrant Protection Protocols or “Remain in Mexico” Program, which a Texas judge forced it to restart last August. A ruling was thought probable on June 21 or 23, but the Court did not issue it.

When migrants from the Western Hemisphere who are not from Mexico ask for asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, CBP may place them in the “Remain in Mexico” program, which sends them back into Mexico until their next immigration court hearing date. The Trump administration, which invented Remain in Mexico and began implementing it in January 2019, sent 71,076 migrants back into Mexico. At least 1,544 of them suffered “murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violent assaults” in Mexican border towns, Human Rights First reported. Since its court-ordered restart of the program got underway in December, the Biden administration has sent more than 4,300 (or 5,114, or at least 5,600) migrants, primarily from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, back to Mexico to await hearings.

The Biden administration began shutting down the Remain in Mexico program in January 2021, bringing many of the asylum seekers into the United States. That process was halted when Amarillo, Texas judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ruled—in a suit brought by the Republican attorneys-general of Texas and Missouri—that the Biden administration had not properly terminated Remain in Mexico. Kacsmaryk ordered the program to restart, and the Biden administration appealed.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in April, and its decision is imminent. Though the Court has a conservative majority, it is not guaranteed to rule against the Biden administration, believe court-watchers like Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council, who explained his view in a June 21 Twitter thread. If they do not uphold Kacsmaryk’s decision, justices could “punt,” determining that the courts have no jurisdiction on immigration enforcement, or they could throw the case back to lower courts to determine whether the Administration’s second attempt to terminate Remain in Mexico met requirements.

Meanwhile, very troubling outcomes of the program are emerging.

  • The Syracuse University-based Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse project found that only 2.4 percent of the 1,109 Remain in Mexico asylum cases decided so far have resulted in grants of asylum, compared to half of cases in 2022 in the regular immigration court system.
  • Earlier this month, a woman assigned to Remain in Mexico attempted suicidewhile waiting at a migrant shelter in Monterrey, Mexico.
  • Reuters revealed that three men whom the program returned to the dangerous border city of Nuevo Laredo were kidnapped on April 10, while local authorities were transporting them to a shelter. (Most of those made to “remain” in Nuevo Laredo get transported further south, to Monterrey, but these three men were COVID-positive, requiring them to quarantine in Nuevo Laredo.) One of the victims, a man from Peru identified as “Raúl,” said they were held in a two-story house with about 20 other migrants. They beat him and released him after contacts wired a $6,000 ransom payment. Reuters reports: “‘You think you’re in good hands,’ Raul said of the U.S. government, asking that his last name be withheld out of fear of retaliation from the kidnappers. ‘But that’s not the case.’” After the kidnapping, Raul successfully petitioned to remain in the United States for the duration of his asylum case.

Migration levels remain high in June

As discussed in WOLA’s June 17 Border Update, U.S. authorities reported in May 2022 their largest number of encounters with undocumented migrants since they began publishing monthly records in 2000 (though with many repeat crossings, the number of individual migrants—177,793—may not have been a record). Arrivals at the border appear to remain very high so far in June.

In south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol Sector, which usually sees more migrant arrivals than any of the agency’s nine U.S.-Mexico border sectors, the agency reported encountering 533 migrants in 3 large groups during the 4 days ending on June 21. “A group of more than 100 migrants is considered a large group,” reads a CBP release; Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol has encountered over 100 large groups, totaling more than 15,000 people, since fiscal year 2022 began in October 2021.

In the mid-Texas Del Rio Sector, which gets about 50 percent of the border’s “large groups” right now, Sector Chief Jason Owens tweeted on June 18, “In the past 48 hours, agents encountered 8 groups totaling 1,780 migrants.”

In Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector, Border Report disclosed, agents were apprehending about 1,000 migrants per day in mid-May, in the runup to the expected May 23 termination of Title 42. When a Louisiana judge ordered Title 42 to remain in place, “apprehension numbers went down to 700 to 800 a day in the sector.”

The Biden administration’s latest monthly court filing in the “Remain in Mexico” litigation, shared by the Associated Press (AP), found that CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released 95,318 migrants into the U.S. interior in May, slightly over half the 177,793 individuals encountered at the border last month. The rest were either held in ICE detention centers or expelled (at times more than once) under Title 42.

Of the 95,318 released into the country, 64,263 were released on parole, which the AP calls a “rapidly expanding practice” in recent months brought on by lack of detention space, overwhelmed processing personnel, and the difficulty of expelling many countries’ citizens under Title 42. The AP explains “parole,” which does not come with an immigration court appointment:

Parole shields migrants from deportation for a set period of time but provides little else. By law, the Homeland Security Department may parole migrants into the United States “only on a case-by-case basis for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit.” Parolees can apply for asylum within a year.

Processing asylum-seeking migrants for immigration court—which happened about 33,000 times in May—can take “more than an hour each,” agents told the AP. “Parole, by comparison, is processed in minutes.”

All paroled migrants “have their criminal histories checked and generally arrive in families with an address where they will stay in the U.S.,” the AP reported. They are given a handheld device with an app that tracks their movements via GPS, and required to keep it with them. The devices cannot make or take calls, other than from ICE, Border Report notes.

The June 15 court filing reports that CBP’s daily approximate holding capacity is 6,535, combining spaces at ports of entry (935) and Border Patrol detention facilities (about 5,600). In May, Border Patrol was holding an average of 12,899 people per day.

During the week of June 6, at least 7,000 mostly Venezuelan migrants had participated in a “caravan” from the city of Tapachula, in Mexico’s southern border zone near Guatemala. As discussed in WOLA’s June 10 and June 17 Border Updates, that caravan quickly dispersed after Mexican migration authorities distributed Multiple Immigration Form (Forma Migratoria Multiple, FMM) documents reportedly requiring migrants to leave Mexico or regularize their status (mainly by applying for asylum) within 30 days.

During those 30 days, these migrants can travel freely through Mexico, and many appear to have headed for the U.S. border. Federal and local law enforcement officials in mid-Texas’s Del Rio Border Patrol Sector told the Washington Examiner that “many from the caravan successfully evaded Mexican authorities and were able to cross the border illegally into the United States over the past several days.”

This included a group of about 200 migrants apprehended near Eagle Pass, Texas. Citing federal authorities, the sheriff of Val Verde County, Texas, which includes Del Rio, said, “They’re getting remnants of the caravan. Yesterday, they had just shy of 2,000 people apprehended in the sector, which is probably an all-time high for the day.”

With arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border averaging about 8,000 per day in May, a dispersed 7,000-member caravan over several days would bring only a modest, barely perceptible increase.

As noted in WOLA’s June 17 update, the governors of Mexican border states Coahuila and Nuevo León have been preventing caravan participants from boarding buses to the border, leaving hundreds of migrants stranded in the bus station in Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo León.

It is not clear what legal authority is being employed to deny the ticket sales, since the migrants, having received travel documents, are not undocumented. Governors of the Mexican states bordering Texas appear to be wary of angering Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who responded to increased migration in April by using state authority to step up vehicle inspections near the border, badly snarling trade for nearly a week (see WOLA’s April 15 and April 22 Border Updates). Abbott said on June 17 that Texas state troopers and National Guardsmen were stepping up efforts to repel caravan arrivals.

This week, about 250 migrants stranded at the Monterrey bus station began walking to Coahuila, and to the border. (The border city of Piedras Negras, Coahuila, is about 240 miles from Monterrey.) The sheriff of Maverick County, Texas, which includes Eagle Pass across from Piedras Negras, told the Washington Examiner that many other migrants, blocked from buying bus tickets, were likely paying smugglers. “It’s actually giving business to the cartel, to the smugglers,” Sheriff Tom Shmerber said of the bus prohibitions.

Security worsens in Mexico’s border cities and the government sends more troops

Tijuana, considered the most violent city in Mexico, suffered 110 homicides during the first 15 days of June and has measured more crimes so far this year than in any year since 2019. Mexico’s federal government responded this week by sending 400 more Army personnel to the city: 200 paratroopers and 200 Special Operations Forces elements. Today, the city now hosts 3,600 military or paramilitary personnel: 1,600 from the Army and 2,000 from the National Guard, a recently created force largely made up of soldiers and marines.

At the border’s other extreme, the city of Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas, began the morning of June 19 with about 16 road blockades. Armed men positioned stolen buses and trucks across main entrances to the city and set them on fire, apparently in response to the detention (or imminent detention) of a leader of the Gulf Cartel, the city’s dominant criminal organization. Mexico’s Defense Department responded by sending 200 more army troops to the city.

Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval presented the latest in a series of security updates at a June 20 presidential news conference. Gen. Sandoval’s slideshow revealed that 28,463 Army personnel are currently deployed on missions supporting the government’s “Migration and Development Plan for the northern and southern borders.”

Military personnel, it continued, have contributed to the capture of 518,668 migrants since 2019, 105,795 of them so far in 2022. 85 percent of these captures occurred in Mexico’s southern border zone. Troops are focused along four “lines of contention”: along both of Mexico’s borders, across the Isthmus of Tehuántepec in Oaxaca and Veracruz, and in an arc passing through Guerrero, Puebla, Tlaxcala, and Veracruz.

Other News

  • In a new WOLA Podcast, staff discuss what they saw and heard at the June 8-10 Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, including that meeting’s migration declaration, and discuss findings of recent field research along the U.S.-Mexico and Mexico-Guatemala borders.
  • As this update is being written on the morning of June 24, the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, which is meeting to mark up its 2023 appropriation, has adopted a Republican amendment keeping Title 42 in place for at least six months after the lifting of a COVID-19 emergency, which could be years from now. It passed by voice vote. That language will now go to the full Appropriations Committee.
  • The May 24 death of Abigail Román Aguilar, a 32-year-old man from Chiapas, Mexico, has been ruled a homicide by the Pima County, Arizona Medical Examiner. Under circumstances that remain unclear, Aguilar died of stab wounds to the chest and blunt force injuries, apparently after an altercation with a Border Patrol agent, in Douglas, Arizona. The agent “ultimately stabbed Aguilar with a knife,” reported the Arizona Daily Star. The incident is under investigation by the FBI and by CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility.
  • A very brief June 20 statement from CBP recounts a June 18 vehicle pursuit near Falfurrias, in south Texas, “which later resulted in a use of force incident. One person is dead.”
  • “Under current practice, children who arrive in the United States without their parents…are taken to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing centers. But it doesn’t make sense to send children to the care of a law enforcement agency that has no expertise in child welfare,” reads a Vera Institute of Justice commentary finding that the agency continues to separate close relatives in custody. “A better system would place ORR [Office of Refugee Resettlement] officials at the border to immediately evaluate family relationships. This should be done in trauma-informed and developmentally appropriate settings, rather than in jail-like holding centers.”
  • As ORR struggled to keep up with increased arrivals of unaccompanied children in 2021, many kids assigned to the agency’s massive emergency reception facilities considered or attempted suicide while awaiting handover to relatives or sponsors in the United States, Reveal News reported based on documents obtained through litigation. Those who expressed thoughts of, or attempted, suicide had been in ORR custody for an average of 37 days.
  • The United States led the world in new asylum applications received in 2021 with 188,900, according to the UN Refugee Agency’s just-released Global Trends Report 2021. The number two through four countries are Germany (148,200 applications), Mexico (132,700), and Costa Rica (108,500).
  • During the first five months of 2022, Cuban authorities reported receiving 3,289 citizens deported from other countries: 1,276 from Mexico, 1,177 from the United States, 213 from the Bahamas, and 23 from other countries. Between January and May, U.S. authorities encountered 118,603 Cuban citizens, about 1 percent of the island’s population, at the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • More than 5,000 migrant children have walked through the dangerous jungles of Panama’s Darién Gap during the first five months of 2022, according to UNICEF. 170 were unaccompanied by parents or relatives, or had been separated on the way.
  • A new report from Refugees International examined migration through the Darién Gap from Colombia. Last year, the largest single nationality migrating through this route was Haitian. This year, the flow is mostly Venezuelan. Smuggling operations originating in Colombia, the report finds, are sophisticated and lucrative.
  • The nearly 180,000 Nicaraguans who have sought refuge in Costa Rica since 2018, when the Ortega regime’s crackdown on dissent intensified, is now greater than the number of Nicaraguan applications for protection in Costa Rica during the Contra war of the 1980s.
  • DHS announced that “it would overhaul the disciplinary process for its employees,” the New York Times reported, after the Times and the Project on Government Oversight found that the Department’s Inspector-General had failed to release disturbing findings about the extent of sexual harassment within the DHS workforce and the number of personnel facing domestic abuse allegations. The DHS Inspector General, Trump administration appointee Joseph Cuffari, had responded in May with a letter blaming his subordinates. “I would never have written this,” Gordon Heddell, a former Defense Department inspector-general, said of the letter in the Times article. “To me, what he’s saying is, ‘I’m leading a very dysfunctional office.’”
  • Four former Border Patrol chiefs and other former senior officials sent a letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas demanding that the ongoing, slow-moving investigation of agents involved in the so-called Del Rio “whipping” incident be impartial. The letter criticizes President Biden and Vice President Harris for “predictively prejudging” the investigation’s outcome. Biden and Harris had called for consequences after photos showed agents on horseback charging at Haitian migrants who had arrived en masse in Del Rio, Texas in September 2021. The National Police Association announced a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit demanding records about CBP’s investigation of the Del Rio incident.
  • Border Patrol reported capturing 15 people in May who were in the FBI’s terrorist screening database. Analysts were quick to note that none of those captured face specific charges. “This is an indictment of terror watch lists because zero of these individuals ended up being terrorists,” tweeted Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute.
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