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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Weekly Border Update: February 18, 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.

The Biden administration removes its 20,000th Haitian by air, and legislators call for a halt

Early on February 17, a plane operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) departed Laredo, Texas for Port-au-Prince, Haiti, dropping its passengers at the city’s airport. It was ICE’s 198th deportation or expulsion flight since Joe Biden’s January 2021 inauguration. According to Tom Cartwright of Witness at the Border, who monitors removal flights, aboard this flight was the 20,000th Haitian to be removed by air during the Biden administration.

Of those 198 flights, 161 have departed in the 5 months since over 10,000 mostly Haitian migrants arrived en masse in Del Rio, a small border city in rural south-central Texas. Of the 20,000, just over two thirds (13,783 as of the end of December) were rapidly expelled without getting a chance to ask for asylum or other protection. The rest were most likely undocumented Haitians arrested by ICE in the U.S. interior, or otherwise processed under regular immigration law. (Read a brief analysis WOLA published on February 17.)

The expulsions are enabled by the “Title 42” pandemic authority that the Trump administration invoked in March 2020, and that the Biden administration has since maintained. Title 42 has been used more than 1.5 million times to expel migrants. Most of those 1.5 million expulsions have sent migrants across the land border into Mexico, which agreed during the pandemic to take back citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in addition to Mexicans.

Citizens of Haiti have been the fifth most frequently expelled, after those four countries. Unlike those countries, nearly all expulsions take place by air. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has expelled 23 percent of all Haitians whom U.S. authorities have encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border. This is a vastly higher percentage than that of any other country whose citizens are primarily expelled using aircraft, which is a costly practice. Just over half of expelled Haitians have been families with children.

According to Witness at the Border’s monthly breakdown, 36 removal flights went to either Port-au-Prince (32) or Cap-Haïtien (4), Haiti in January, more than any other foreign ICE destination last month. Other January removal flights went to Honduras (27); Guatemala City, Guatemala (23); San Salvador, El Salvador (12); Brazil (6); Ecuador (5); Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (2); Managua, Nicaragua (2); Bogotá, Colombia (2); and Kingston, Jamaica (1).

The 20,000 Haitian citizens—about 1 in every 575 people living in the country today—had mostly been living outside Haiti for many years, having emigrated first to South America following a historic 2010 earthquake. As WOLA’s commentary notes, ICE is sending them to a country barely able to absorb them.

“Gang-related kidnappings and shootings have prevented aid groups from visiting parts of the capital, Port-au-Prince,” the Associated Press reported in December. “A severe shortage of fuel also has kept agencies from operating at full capacity.” A State Department “level 4” warning reads, “Do not travel to Haiti due to kidnapping, crime, civil unrest, and COVID-19.”… Haiti’s president was assassinated last July, and it now lacks a government that can be considered truly legitimate. The country was then hit by an earthquake and a tropical storm. COVID-19 vaccination rates (about 1 percent in January) are among the world’s lowest.

“Haiti simply cannot safely accept the repatriation of its nationals, which is why we are so deeply concerned with the large-scale removals and expulsions of individuals back to Haiti,” reads a February 16 letter to President Biden from over 100 Democratic Party senators and representatives. The document, drafted by Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Rep. Cori Bush (D-Missouri), has Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) among its signers. It calls for an end to the use of Title 42, which “is depriving legitimate asylum seekers the opportunity to pursue their claims, contrary to our obligations under international and domestic law.”

The letter cites data pointing to disproportionate harm done to Black migrants in the U.S. immigration system. The signers demand a thorough review of migration enforcement and immigration court records to assess discriminatory treatment of Black migrants.

Two days earlier, on February 14, 33 Democratic Party representatives sent a letter to Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky calling for an end to the Title 42 expulsions policy, which will hit its second anniversary in just over a month. Led by Reps. Judy Chu (D-California), Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts), and Nydia Velázquez (D-New York), the letter demands to know CDC’s justification “for treating asylum seekers as a unique public health threat” at a late stage in the pandemic when new case numbers are dropping.

Report points to a “lite” version of Remain in Mexico 2.0, for now

Between December 8 and February 15, DHS had returned 572 migrants to Mexico under the Biden administration’s court-ordered revival of the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy, which makes some asylum seekers await their U.S. hearings outside the United States. The second edition of a monthly report from DHS, presenting an unaccustomed level of statistical data, points to a program that, at least so far, has avoided—to a greater extent than the Trump-era program—sending back to Mexico migrants who are especially vulnerable or who have faced credible threats there.

That report covers December and January. As of January 31, DHS had chosen 673 asylum seekers to participate in Remain in Mexico, 400 of them in January. Of those 673 people, all of them adults:

  • Their countries of citizenship were Nicaragua (400, 59%); Venezuela (153, 23%); Cuba (66, 10%); Colombia (27, 4%); Ecuador (17, 3%); Peru (8, 1%); Costa Rica (1, 0%); and the Dominican Republic (1, 0%). 92 percent, then, came from Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba, widely considered to be the three most authoritarian states in Latin America today. Expulsions to those countries are complicated by flight costs and poor consular relations.
  • 404 were enrolled in El Paso, Texas (60%), 142 in San Diego, California (21%), and 127 in Brownsville, Texas (19%).
  • DHS administered 519 COVID vaccines for those enrolled.
  • 81 were taken out of the program after they expressed fear of returning to Mexico and passed fear screenings. That is 14 percent of all migrants who voiced fear of return to Mexico. (595 of 673 migrants—88 percent—had expressed fear of being made to wait in Mexico.)
  • 68 were taken out of the program for “case closure” reasons, which largely means they fit one of the categories of especially vulnerable migrants. (These categories, agreed with Mexico’s government, include mental or physical disabilities; advanced age; or sexual orientation or gender identity.)
  • After returning to the United States for their initial immigration court hearings, asylum seekers are asked whether they fear returning to Mexico to await their subsequent court dates. Of 185 people who had hearings by the end of January, 152 (82 percent) said they feared return to Mexico. Of those, 31 (20 percent) passed their fear screenings and were removed from “Remain in Mexico.” Another 25 had their cases closed during their U.S. hearings, and were removed from “Remain in Mexico,” for other reasons.

In all, that adds up to 205 out of 673 migrants (30 percent) being removed from “Remain in Mexico” during the program’s first two months due to threats, vulnerabilities, or other reasons. That, as the American Immigration Council’s Aaron Reichlin-Melnick noted, is greater than the 13 percent exemption rate granted during the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico 1.0” between January 2019 and January 2021. Still, in WOLA’s view, the process does not sufficiently address the risks that anyone under the program might face in Mexico.

A figure of 673 people in two months, with a greater exemption rate, points to a smaller program than the Trump-era version of Remain in Mexico, which sent back more than 71,000 asylum seekers over two years. This may not be surprising, since the Biden administration claims to oppose this program. Its restart is the result of a lawsuit brought by two Republican state attorneys general before a Republican-appointed federal judge in Texas.

There is no certainty, though, that Remain in Mexico won’t grow from its current size. The Trump administration also rolled the program out slowly in early 2019. For now, the renewed program is operating at just three of seven planned ports of entry. It has not yet been applied to families. And its use may become more vigorous as migrant arrivals climb in the spring.

Yael Schacher, the deputy director for the Americas and Europe at Refugees International, published a report this week about her observations of Remain in Mexico proceedings at El Paso’s immigration court in early January. (Listen to an April 2021 WOLA podcast interview with Schacher.) “Essentially, the Biden administration’s position is that ‘we know this is going to go badly and would rather not do it, but we are not doing anything legally wrong,'” Schacher wrote. “This matters little to the small number of asylum seekers placed in a program with a Kafkaesque quality. Many of the asylum seekers I saw seemed bewildered and without any sense of how to deal with the socio-bureaucratic absurdity.” About 140 adult men were slated to attend their initial hearings during Schacher’s four days in El Paso. Court dockets showed that only eight had attorneys.

Migration dropped in January; Mexico’s visa demands for Venezuelans could be a reason

While Customs and Border Protection (CBP) hasn’t yet released data about migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border in January, a monthly filing to the judge in the “Remain in Mexico” case, first shared by CBS News, includes some preliminary numbers. They show a 14 percent drop in migrant encounters at the border from December and January.

The 153,941 migrants CBP recorded last month, down from 178,840 in December, is the smallest monthly total CBP has measured since February 2021 (101,099). It is the largest total recorded in a month of January since 2000, however.

Some notable points in this preliminary data:

  • January 2022 was the first month since February 2013 during which south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector was not number one, among Border Patrol’s nine border sectors, in migrant encounters. The agency detained more migrants in south-central Texas’s rural Del Rio sector (30,773) than it did in the Rio Grande Valley (30,180).
  • Another rural, previously quiet sector was in third place last month: Yuma, which straddles southwest Arizona and southeast California, recorded 23,489 migrant encounters.
  • Del Rio and Yuma have been receiving large numbers of migrants from countries beyond Mexico and Central America’s “northern triangle.” In December, these two sectors combined for 71 percent of all border-wide encounters with migrants from Brazil, 79 percent of Colombians, 84 percent of Cubans, 59 percent of Haitians, 73 percent of Indians, and 84 percent of Venezuelans.
  • Because (with the exception of Haitians) the U.S. government rarely goes through the expense of using Title 42 to expel these countries’ citizens by air, these sectors see relatively infrequent use of Title 42 on encountered migrants. In Yuma, 11 percent of encountered migrants were expelled. In Del Rio, it was 36 percent. (By contrast, just east of Yuma, in the Tucson sector, CBP expelled 87 percent.)
  • Border-wide, DHS expelled 51 percent of all encountered migrants.
  • Of those not expelled border-wide, CBP released 46,186 migrants into the United States, in most cases to pursue asylum claims.

While CBP hasn’t yet released country-by-country data about what happened in January, an important reason for last month’s drop in migrant arrivals could be a sharp decline in citizens of Venezuela.

In December, for the first time ever, Venezuelans were the number-two category of citizens (after Mexicans) encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border; CBP took in nearly 25,000. Many had arrived by air to Mexico, which had not been requiring visas of visiting Venezuelans. Under pressure from the U.S. government, as of January 21 Mexico began requiring that Venezuelan visitors first obtain visas, as it did for Brazilians and Ecuadorians in 2021 after arrivals of those countries’ citizens increased at the U.S. border.

This has almost certainly slowed arrivals of Venezuelans. The American Immigration Council’s Reichlin-Melnick tweeted that, at a conference, he asked Border Patrol official Tony Barker for “a preview of the effect of Mexico’s visa requirements for Venezuelans and he said it’s been an 86% drop so far.”

Closure of the air route to Mexico, and Costa Rica’s announcement that it will start demanding visas on February 21, likely mean that more Venezuelans will attempt to migrate via dangerous land routes. Panama’s government reported a fivefold increase from December to January in Venezuelan migrants passing through the highly treacherous jungles of the Darién Gap, leading from the Colombian border. January was the first month ever in which Venezuelans were the number-one country of citizenship of migrants whom Panama registered. A turn to land routes may also owe to the expense of air travel and the extreme difficulty of obtaining a passport within Venezuela.

The U.S. government does not run expulsion or removal flights to Caracas, nor does it recognize as legitimate the ruling regime of Nicolás Maduro. Still, as a Noticias Telemundo investigation revealed, ICE deported 176 Venezuelans back to Venezuela via third countries, like the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago, in 2021. In February 11 follow-up coverage, reporters Damià Bonmatí and Belisa Morillo profiled Venezuelan asylum seekers who, after being returned on these in-transit flights, suffered violent abuse at the hands of Venezuelan officials from the moment they arrived in Caracas’s Maiquetía airport.

  • Taking advantage of a Justice Department filing that offers National Guard troops on state missions the right to form and join unions, troops assigned to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) controversial “Operation Lone Star” deployment are beginning to organize, reports Davis Winkie at Army Times. Winkie has filed several reports since December about miserable conditions and low morale for the nearly 10,000 guardsmen assigned to long tours of duty at the border with Mexico.
  • In south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, local TV station KENS looks at whether ongoing barrier construction along the Rio Grande is “levees” or “walls.” The Texas Tribune finds that Gov. Abbott is building a state border fence using surplus materials left over after Joe Biden halted construction of Donald Trump’s border wall. The federal government gave Texas 1,700 unused “surplus” border-barrier panels for free.
  • Over a dozen U.S. Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton, California have been court-martialed for smuggling undocumented migrants beginning in 2019, Emily Green reported at Vice. “At their peak, according to court records, they were going on multiple runs a week, coordinating among themselves to see who was free to go, and making excuses to get out of training exercises in order to make a few hundred dollars.” According to Green’s findings, fees that migrants pay to smugglers have continued rising: “Today, adults coming from Central America pay smugglers between $11,000 and $14,000, roughly twice as much as just five years ago, and a fortune compared to the $2,000 fee in the early 2000s.”
  • The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, visited the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border. In Tijuana, he toured the area outside of the main pedestrian crossing to San Diego, which until a February 6 eviction operation (discussed in last week’s update) had hosted an encampment of stranded migrants for more than a year. Further east, Amb. Salazar met with the governors of Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas, reaching agreements to build new border bridges or widen existing ones.
  • The Washington Post reports that CBP plans to roll out non-intrusive scanners—“multi-energy portals”—at ports of entry to help detect shipments of fentanyl, a very small-dose, low volume synthetic opioid, inside vehicles.
  • Last year more than 94,000 asylum-seeking migrants encountered at the border were released into the United States with instructions “to register with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement [ICE] within 60 days to complete the process the border officials started. But in some parts of the country, local ICE offices were overwhelmed and unable to give them appointments,” the New York Times found. As of the end of January, nearly 33,000 had not checked in with ICE.
  • Reuters reports that a subsidiary of Geo Group, a for-profit detention center and prison operator that has been embroiled in past controversies, will manage a “house arrest” alternative-to-detention program for asylum-seeking migrants. As discussed in last week’s update, the Biden Administration will launch this program shortly, on a pilot basis, in Houston and Baltimore.
  • A government Integrity Committee is investigating DHS’s Inspector General, Joseph Cuffari, who heads one of two main bodies that oversee the activities of CBP, including allegations of abuse or corruption. Cuffari is accused of ordering a “retaliatory” investigation of subordinates who have criticized his management of the DHS Inspector-General Office. Cuffari, a Trump appointee, had worked for the last two Republican governors of Arizona. The Project on Government Oversight reported about the crisis in this vital oversight agency.
  • Though it would invest very heavily in border security, a bill introduced by first-term Florida Republican Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar has generated strong pushback from her fellow Republican House members, Rafael Bernal and Mike Lillis write at The Hill, because it countenances a possible pathway to citizenship for some undocumented migrants.
  • “The government created illegal immigration among Cubans and Haitians by blocking their legal paths to enter,” reads a report from the Cato Institute’s David Bier. “It has a duty to correct this mistake. It should immediately reopen parole and begin the orderly immigration process that was available to them prior to 2017.”

Weekly Border Update: February 11, 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.

Tijuana clears migrant encampment

At about 4:00 AM on February 6, authorities in Tijuana, Mexico cleared out a year-old migrant encampment outside the city’s main pedestrian border crossing to San Diego. “While children and families were sleeping in their tents, authorities accompanied by riot police and the National Guard arrived unannounced at the ‘El Chaparral’ encampment in Tijuana to carry out a total eviction,” read a statement from the “Chaparral Humanitarian Alliance,” a group of San Diego and Tijuana-based advocates and service providers.

Authorities took 382 migrants, with what personal items they could carry, on buses to three local shelters: the Migrant Integration Center shelter, the Salesian project and the Migrant Sanctuary. The Tijuana mayor’s office called it “a relocation protocol for 382 occupants… to spaces that allow greater security,” adding that the operation occurred “without any complication.” Of the 382 people, 86 were members of family units (parents with children), 33 were single men, 4 were single women, 2 were disabled, and 2 were LGBTI.

By mid-morning, a small square by the El Chaparral (PedWest) border crossing had been cleared of people who had been living there for months in tents, fenced off and depending on makeshift sanitary facilities. Excavators were bulldozing tents and belongings as workers hosed down the square.

The El Chaparral camp formed shortly after Joe Biden’s January 2021 inauguration, when misinformed migrants gathered with the expectation that the U.S. government would soon reopen the adjacent San Ysidro port of entry to asylum seekers. They were mistaken: a year later, the “Title 42” pandemic authority remains in place, and the port of entry is closed to all without documentation. Title 42 authorizes expelling Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Hondurans to Mexico, and others to their home countries, regardless of asylum needs.

U.S. law holds that all who reach U.S. soil have the right to petition for asylum at a port of entry. Even before Title 42 made quick expulsions the norm, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had begun posting guards on the borderline to prevent undocumented migrants from accessing the U.S. side of the line. A San Diego Union Tribune investigation found that an increasing number of asylum seekers, especially citizens of Russia, have been boarding often rented vehicles and seeking to reach the U.S. side at the San Ysidro port of entry’s vehicle entrances. (Asylum-seeking citizens of distant countries like Russia stand a very small chance of being expelled under Title 42 due to logistical and diplomatic challenges. Many Russian migrants arriving in San Diego are members of the Tatar ethnic group, which suffers persecution.) On December 12, a CBP officer fired his weapon four times at a vehicle carrying Russian asylum seekers as it drove over the borderline through a San Ysidro vehicle lane. Nobody was hurt.

This port of entry, meanwhile, is one of three so far that is part of the Biden administration’s rollout of the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which it is reviving under court order. Citing the UN migration agency, Camilo Montoya-Gálvez of CBS News tweeted that between December 8 and the morning of February 9, CBP had sent 480 asylum seekers back to Mexico to await their hearing dates: 313 to Ciudad Juárez from El Paso, 129 to Tijuana from San Diego, and 38 to Matamoros from Brownsville.

“As mayor of Tijuana I must make firm decisions,” said Mayor Montserrat Caballero Ramírez of the February 6 eviction. “As a government we are not looking to put an end to the dreams of those who come to this border, on the contrary, we will seek to provide them with the necessary tools to fulfill them, placing them in a safe and dignified place.”

“The way in which this eviction was carried out caused chaos, psychological and emotional trauma, loss of belongings, and widespread unnecessary fear among the migrant population; furthermore, it fosters xenophobia in the region,” the Chaparral Humanitarian Alliance’s statement responded. While the Associated Press reported that the eviction involved “about a hundred members of the police, National Guard and army,” the Alliance mentioned “150 elements of the municipal police and 200 elements of the National Guard” in addition to municipal officers.

“Testimony of the destruction of important documents, food, water, clothing, children’s toys, tents, blankets, grills, pots, etc. was observed and documented. Several migrants said authorities initially told them to bring a few changes of clothes and a backpack,” the Alliance’s statement reads. This group voiced fear that those transported to shelters might find their stays limited to just a few days. “Several people requested clarity on the length of stay in the shelters and the authorities mentioned that it would be for an indefinite period of time, with no limit. It is essential that this be done.”

Biden administration piloting “house arrest” for asylum seekers

Axios and Reuters reported that the Biden administration will soon launch a 120-day pilot of a more restrictive “alternatives to detention” program for asylum seekers who have been released into the United States to await hearings in badly backlogged immigration courts. The rollout of what Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is calling “home curfew” will occur in Houston and Baltimore, involving 100-200 single adults in each city, according to ICE documents reviewed by both news agencies.

The program is being tried out as an alternative to holding people in ICE’s network of detention centers, which costs about $142 per day per inmate. Instead, it will cost “$6-8 per day per enrollee,” according to Reuters, which adds that each “will generally be required to remain at home from 8 p.m. until 8 a.m., with exceptions for job schedules for those with work authorization or extraordinary circumstances.”

This is more restrictive than current alternatives-to-detention programs, which usually involve GPS monitoring with ankle bracelets or cellphone apps, and/or regular check-ins with case officers, but not requirements to remain confined to home. Officials indicated to Axios that there will be case-by-case variations on each migrant’s movement restrictions.

Following the pilot, “a nationwide program is expected later this year,” Axios reported. It could encompass 350,000 (according to Axios) or 400,000 people (according to Reuters) by the end of this year or next year. That number only includes heads of households: including children and other dependents, the number of migrants covered by the new program could be significantly higher.

About 164,000 (Reuters) or “just under 179,000” (Axios) migrants are currently in ICE-managed alternatives-to-detention programs. This is “roughly double the total on Sept. 30, 2020, before Biden took office,” Reuters reported, and doesn’t include dependents.

Citing a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official, Axios notes that during the past three weeks, about half of single adults encountered at the border have been “released with ankle bracelets or other tracking mechanisms.” (The other half were presumably expelled under Title 42 or placed in regular detention.) Single adult migrants “had typically been locked up.” A possible reason for the increased releases could be the rapid spread of the COVID-19 omicron variant in ICE detention facilities.

Several migrant rights advocacy groups quickly issued a statement criticizing the proposal. “Though framed as an ‘alternative-to-detention,’ we have no reason to believe this harsh ‘e-incarceration’ program would decrease the number of detention centers or the number of people detained in them. In fact, it would newly place hundreds of thousands of people under ICE’s control,” reads the document posted to Human Rights First’s website.

Axios’s coverage noted that “the administration has already stopped keeping migrant families in detention centers.” While two large facilities in Texas are no longer in use for that purpose, some family detention is in fact restarting. During the week of January 31, ICE resumed detaining migrant families at the Berks County Residential Center, a facility in Pennsylvania. The facility may currently be holding about 65 women and girls.

National Guard at the border

The use of National Guard troops for border security missions continued to draw media scrutiny last week. In the U.S. system, National Guardsmen are fully trained soldiers who normally live as civilians, in the civilian workforce. They can be called up by state governors, who command them, or occasionally for federal government duty.

Then-president Donald Trump launched a federal National Guard mission at the border in 2018, which continues today. Starting in March 2021, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) called up a separate state National Guard border mission, “Operation Lone Star,” which involves between 6,500 and 10,000 troops at a cost of about $3 billion.

As we have noted in recent weekly updates, these missions are not going well.

  • A soldier died in Brackettville, Texas on February 7 in an accidental shooting with his personal weapon. Spc. Dajuan Lester Townes is the sixth soldier linked to Operation Lone Star to have died during the deployment. Two of the deceased were victims of accidental shootings, and four died by suicide.
  • At CNN, “Multiple members of the Guard who are deployed as part of Operation Lone Star” told of “long hours with little to do, poor planning, and a lack of mission—all of which, they say, are contributing to low morale among soldiers.”
  • At Stars and Stripes, Rose Thayer reviews constitutional challenges to Gov. Abbott’s deployment, including the Governor’s use of soldiers to detain migrants—a very unusual authority for military personnel to be given, with no imminent end date, on U.S. soil. Guardsmen and Texas state police have arrested 10,400 migrants on state trespassing charges since mid-2021.
  • At the New Republic, Felipe de la Hoz links Gov. Abbott’s “drawing on armed state power to stage muscular showdowns with the feds” with many state governments’ adoption of voter suppression legislation and challenges to election results.
  • Arizona Attorney-General Mark Brnovich (R), meanwhile, drafted a lengthy request for a legal opinion on whether the state has been “invaded” by hostile non-state actors, which in his view would justify the state defending itself with its militia (the Arizona National Guard).
  • Mexico reported apprehending 307,679 undocumented migrants in 2021, leaving far behind its 2015 record of 198,141 apprehensions. This number is similar to U.S. border authorities’ annual apprehension totals a decade ago. Mexican authorities deported one in three (114,366) last year, while 131,448 sought asylum. The main countries of origin of those apprehended were Honduras (41%), Guatemala (26%), El Salvador (8%), Haiti (6%), Brazil (5%), Nicaragua (5%), Cuba (2%), and Venezuela (1%). Monthly apprehensions jumped from 9,564 in January to a peak of 46,370 in September, before dropping to 18,291 by December. Deportations actually dropped because of new laws protecting children, the number of asylum cases, and the difficulty of deporting a growing number of migrants from more distant countries.
  • In the southern Mexican border-zone city of Tapachula, where tens of thousands of migrants have arrived and most are awaiting asylum decisions, authorities carried out raids of hotels and the immediate vicinity of shelters, capturing dozens of undocumented migrants. Asylum-seeking migrants demanding visas allowing them to live in parts of Mexico with more opportunities than Tapachula held protests by the city’s giant migrant detention center, wearing chains. Some went on a hunger strike.
  • In a report jointly published by El Paso Matters and ProPublica, Bob Moore reveals an unpublished DHS Inspector General report with new findings about the May 2019 in-custody death of Carlos Gregorio Hernández Vásquez, a 16-year-old unaccompanied Guatemalan migrant. Hernández “died of the flu after writing on the floor of his cell” in the Weslaco, Texas Border Patrol station, according to the report, even as agents falsely logged regular “welfare checks” on his condition.
  • In a new leak to conservative media, “Border Patrol agents broke protocol to claim in interviews with the Washington Examiner that their jobs have been remade since President Joe Biden took office a year ago. They say that they have been redirected from fulfilling a law enforcement and national security role to working as though they were in an Ellis Island-style welcome center.” The article makes no mention of agents’ ability to expel undocumented migrants, under Title 42, 1.05 million times during the Biden administration’s first 11 full months—56 percent of all migrant encounters in that period.
  • Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) tweeted that he will introduce legislation to back up “disappointed and demoralized” Border Patrol agents by creating a “Border Patrol Reserve,” while increasing the force’s size and salaries. Sen. Portman is retiring at the end of this year.
  • Homicides in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico dropped in January to their lowest monthly total since February 2019, El Paso Matters reported. Of 83 people killed last month, 12 were women, a higher-than-normal percentage.
  • The travails of the National Butterfly Center, a private nature reserve along the Rio Grande in Mission, Texas, were the subject of features in the Rio Grande Valley Monitor, the Guardian, Politico, and the Border Chronicle. The facility’s management has long opposed efforts to build a border wall on or near its property, which led to litigation against the Trump administration and against a private wall-building effort that is now facing fraud charges (which the Center also sued for defamation). This has made the Butterfly Center a recipient of violence threats from far-right actors, forcing it to close “for the immediate future.”
  • The DHS Inspector General issued a report on August 2021 visits to CBP and Border Patrol facilities in the San Diego Sector. The oversight agency found that CBP and Border Patrol were “in general compliance with” standards for transportation, escort, detention, and search of apprehended migrants. A key factor was southern California’s relatively modest number of migrant arrivals at the time. Shaw Drake, an attorney at ACLU Texas who had filed complaints about detention conditions in the sector in 2020, called the IG report “irresponsible.”
  • Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, a first-term Republican from Miami, introduced legislation that would create a conditional pathway to citizenship for some undocumented migrants, in exchange for a major investment in Border Patrol, border law enforcement, and wall-building. The bill is unlikely to move ahead in the face of opposition on the right and left, but it received note because of the rarity of a House Republican proposing even a limited “pathway to citizenship.”
  • “Instead of creating a humane immigration system that might begin to address the reality of migration, the Biden administration is continuing a bipartisan legacy of throwing insane amounts of money at military-style border technology,” reads a Los Angeles Times column by Jean Guerrero.
  • “If his [Donald Trump’s] $15 billion, 455-mile border wall can be defeated by any small gap anywhere in it, it just goes to show the absurdity of the whole project because gaps can and are being made on a near-daily basis,” reads an analysis of the border wall’s failure to deter migration, by David Bier at the Cato Institute.

Weekly Border Update: February 4, 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.

U.S. is expelling some Venezuelan asylum seekers to Colombia

CNN revealed on January 31 that the Biden administration has quietly begun expelling to Colombia some Venezuelan migrants whom U.S. authorities encounter at the Mexico border. If the migrants, like many who have fled Venezuela, had previously resided in Colombia, they may now be placed on planes to Bogotá.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) flew the first two Venezuelan individuals to Colombia on a commercial flight on January 27. Colombian migratory authorities say the two men would be allowed to remain in Colombia, but are electing to go back to Venezuela shortly.

They were expelled under the “Title 42” pandemic authority, which the Trump administration began using in March 2020 to reject even migrants who seek protection in the United States. The Biden administration has kept Title 42 in place, and renewed it this week for another 60 days.

Of the more than 1.5 million times that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) used Title 42 to expel migrants between March 2020 and December 2021, it applied it 94 percent of the time to citizens of five countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Haiti. In December 2021, these five countries made up 99 percent of expulsions. Mexico’s government accepts expelled citizens from the first four countries, who mostly get sent back across the land border under Title 42. Haitian citizens encountered at the border have been subject to a historically large airlift of expulsion flights back to their country: 191 flights expelling 19,400 Haitians since Joe Biden’s January 2021 inauguration, according to the count kept by Tom Cartwright of Witness at the Border.

All other countries make up the remaining 6 percent of U.S. expulsions—which fell to 1 percent in December, when they made up 40 percent of all encountered migrants. As last week’s update noted, 48 percent of migrants whom U.S. authorities did not expel in December 2020 were citizens of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. For the first time ever in a month, Venezuela was the number-two country of citizenship, after Mexico, of migrants whom CBP encountered at the border. Expulsion to these and other distant countries is difficult because of the cost of air expulsions and, at times, difficult diplomatic and consular relations.

Because they cannot expel the growing number of Venezuelans to Caracas, whose ruling regime the U.S. government does not recognize, U.S. authorities approached Colombia in December with a request to send more Venezuelans there. More than 6 million Venezuelans have left their country (original population about 30 million) since the mid-2010s, as the economy fell into a deep depression and a dictatorship consolidated. Of these 5 million, about 1.8 million are in Colombia. In April 2021, Colombian President Iván Duque granted a 10-year residency status to Venezuelan migrants who register.

“Flights to Colombia with Venezuelan nationals who previously resided in Colombia are expected to take place on a regular basis,” read a DHS statement. It is not clear whether “previously resided” means “registered for the Colombian government’s residency status program” or “passed through Colombia en route to another country,” which most Venezuelans who travel by land have to do. President Duque said that the two men expelled on January 27 did not have Colombian residency permits.

“Of course, that requires agreement with the government” of Colombia, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on February 1. Marta Lucía Ramírez, who serves both as Colombia’s vice president and foreign minister, told local media that in a December 2021 meeting, Colombia had not agreed to a blanket deal to accept expelled Venezuelans: “We will have to analyze on a case-by-case basis those who are sent for deportation.”

Condemnation of the new Biden administration policy was swift.

  • Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called these and other third-country deportations of Venezuelans “extremely disturbing. By continuing to use a page from Trump’s immigration enforcement playbook, this administration is turning its back on the immigrants who need our protection the most.”
  • Sen. Rick Scott (R-Florida), a backer of the Trump administration’s policies who also regularly calls for tough measures against President Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela, sounded a bit conflicted, telling the Voice of America, “I will get to the bottom of the issue to find out exactly what the Biden Administration is doing, because I want to do everything I can to help Venezuelans,” while also noting that he wants “a secure border.”
  • The Venezuelan “interim government” headed by Juan Guaidó, which the U.S. and many other governments recognize diplomatically, asked the Biden administration to “allow Venezuelan migrants to present their asylum requests.”
  • 106 U.S. organizations, including WOLA, signed a letter urging the Biden administration “to abandon efforts to prevent people from seeking asylum through externalized migration controls in the region and to undermine the right of people to seek protection in the United States.”
  • Tamara Taraciuk Broner of Human Rights Watch pointed out to the Associated Press the Biden administration’s “remarkable inconsistency in expelling Venezuelans, when less than a year ago it granted Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans in the United States, based precisely on the devastating conditions in the country that forced them to flee.”

The number of Venezuelan migrants encountered at the U.S. border is likely to drop from the nearly 25,000 CBP counted in December, because on January 21 Mexico began demanding visas of Venezuelans arriving in its territory. It is probably no coincidence that the number of Venezuelans traveling by land, through Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap jungles, increased nearly fivefold from December (542 Venezuelans registered in the Darién) to January, when the Associated Press reported that “more than half of the 4,702 migrants who crossed into Darién were Venezuelan,” making Venezuela for the first time the number-one nationality of migrants encountered there.

Noticias Telemundo meanwhile reported that the Biden administration has continued the Trump administration’s policy of deporting Venezuelans back to Caracas through third countries. In fiscal year 2020, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 193 Venezuelans through third countries, mainly Trinidad and Tobago; in 2021, ICE deported 176. Telemundo’s coverage profiles a Venezuelan man who was returned via the Dominican Republic as a “transit country” en route back to Venezuela.

Remain in Mexico hearings begin in San Diego

As of January 30, DHS had placed 410 asylum-seeking migrants into “Remain in Mexico” (RMX), a Trump-era program revived by order of a U.S. district court in Texas. Since the program’s reinstatement, 288 people were sent from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez to await their U.S. immigration court hearings, along with 109 from San Diego to Tijuana, and 13 from Brownsville to Matamoros.

The current iteration of RMX began on December 8, 2021 in El Paso. The Trump administration’s rollout of the program had occurred at a similar low-hundreds-per-month pace in the first months of 2019. (69 days in, on April 8, 2019, 1,105 asylum seekers had been sent back: 16 per day.) By the time the new Biden administration suspended it in January 2021, more than 71,000 asylum seekers had been sent back into Mexico.

Hearings have been underway for RMX subjects in El Paso, and on February 1 they began in a San Diego immigration court. Five of six asylum seekers who were scheduled for hearings that day managed to appear, including the two Colombian men who were the first to be returned to Tijuana in early January. (The California Welcoming Task Force noted that the two men have been living in a shelter that “has not received the support necessary to guarantee access to clean water.”) “The sixth person, because of a document mixup, was not able to cross in time for court,” reads a detailed account in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

They reported to a pickup point at 7:30, from where they received transportation to the border arranged by the International Organization for Migration. Guards—described by San Diego-based attorney Monika Langarica as “DHS contracted ‘detention officers’ who wear tactical looking green suits and vests”—took them to a courtroom in the San Diego federal building.

There, they appeared via videoconference before a judge located two courtrooms away, for COVID social-distancing reasons. Judge Guy Grande’s staff “struggled to set up a Webex videoconference between the two rooms, delaying the hearings’ start by nearly half an hour,” the Union-Tribune reported. The audio remained glitchy throughout the proceedings.

Grande asked one of the asylum-seekers, a woman, if she wanted more time to find an attorney, the Union-Tribune reported.

She told him no, that she had tried and she didn’t want to prolong her case. She didn’t have money to pay for a lawyer, she told him. She didn’t even have enough money to use her phone to make more calls to try to find one to help her for free.

He then asked the woman if she had a mailing address in Mexico.

The woman told him that she’d been staying in a shelter but that the shelter had told her that her stay expired that day.

“So you’re not going to have a place to stay?” the judge asked, a little concern audible in his voice. He then asked court staff to give the woman a blue document to write her new address and send to the court once she knew it.

All five migrants expressed fear of returning to Mexico, which gave them the right to a “non-refoulement interview” with an asylum officer. We have not heard if these fear claims led any of the five to be removed from RMX.

“The Biden administration’s attempts to increase humanitarian support and access to counsel under Remain in Mexico are not only insufficient and failing,” the California Welcoming Task Force wrote, “they are futile due to the very essence of a policy that removes people seeking asylum from the United States where they are seeking refuge.”

“Operation Lone Star” updates

The Texas state government’s security crackdown at the border, which includes fence-building, a National Guard deployment, and a wave of migrant arrests on “trespassing” charges, continued to generate media attention during the week. Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who is up for re-election this year, calls it “Operation Lone Star” and will spend over $2 billion on it this year.

The Intercept published a thorough overview of the operation, by longtime Mexico and border reporter Ryan Deveraux. He notes that of migrants arrested in rural south Texas, “the majority of the state’s cases have been dismissed” by counties’ overwhelmed courts, often after migrants spend weeks or months in jails awaiting trial. In January, a state judge in Austin ruled that the program violated a migrant’s constitutional rights, opening the door to a Texas RioGrande Legal Aid class-action suit on behalf of 400 jailed migrants.

Operation Lone Star’s 6,500 to 10,000-soldier National Guard deployment gets deep scrutiny in an analysis co-published by Military Times and the Texas Tribune. Reporter Davis Winkie of Military Times has published a series of articles since early December revealing deep problems with Gov. Abbott’s hastily thrown-together mission: soldiers going without pay, sudden call-ups, equipment shortages, miserable living conditions, little to do, morale problems, and suicides. Co-author James Barragán had added important reporting for the Tribune.

Troops assigned to Operation Lone Star are likely to be at the border for an entire year. National Guardsmen are civilians with families and jobs, but many got only a few days’ notice that their lives were about to be upended for a year. This is highly unusual, and unprecedented for a non-federal mission, Winkie and Barragán point out:

Usually, long-term Guard deployments come from the federal government, with nearly a year’s notice… But Operation Lone Star is different.

…Never before has Texas-or any other state-involuntarily activated so many troops under state active duty authority for such a long-term mission. Nor has it been done so quickly.

Some troops, speaking on conditions of anonymity, told Winkie and Barragán that they have little to do at the border. “Some say they feel underutilized and rarely see migrants while working isolated observation posts that in some cases lacked portable toilets for months.” In an angrily worded reply citing “scurrilous accusations by seemingly reputable media sources,” Texas Military Department Col. Rita Holton counted 100,000 migrants apprehended, or referred to law enforcement, by troops participating in the mission. Winkie and Barragán recall, though, that “many of the apprehensions are migrants surrendering to the first person in uniform they see in order to begin the asylum request process.”

A junior soldier assigned to a post along Falcon Lake near Zapata said he and his peers spend their days “staring” at the lake. Does he ever see migrants? “Nope, not even once,” he said. “Just people fishing.”

Operation Lone Star appears to be leading to retention problems as guardsmen decide not to re-enlist when their tours end, Winkie and Barragán report.

The law enforcement surge has not made conditions safer for the National Butterfly Center, a 100-acre private preserve along the Rio Grande in Mission, Texas. This facility took the Trump administration to court to prevent it from building a wall through its property, and has tangled legally with a private far-right wall-building organization, “We Build the Wall,” which built a stretch of wall along the riverbank near the Butterfly Center’s property. Trump associates Steve Bannon and Brian Kolfage have faced wire fraud and money laundering charges in connection with We Build the Wall, and Kolfage (whose Twitter account has been suspended) tweeted false allegations of “sex trade” and “death bodies” on the Butterfly Center’s property.

This has made the Center and its director, Marianna Treviño-Wright, targets of far-right individuals. As dozens of activists converged on nearby McAllen for a January 28-30 rally, the Butterfly Center received threats, including a visit from a Virginia congressional candidate who, Treviño-Wright says, pushed her to the ground and nearly ran over her son with her car. Faced with threats and harassment, on February 1 the National Butterfly Center announced that it would be closing its doors until further notice.

Though sharply divided along partisan lines, 52 percent of Texans in a new Dallas Morning News poll approved of Gov. Abbott’s border policies, up from 49 percent in November and 47 percent in September. Of Latino registered voters surveyed, “45% gave Abbott an approval rating on his handling of immigration issues, but only 37% gave Biden a thumbs up on immigration,” the Morning News found.

Of the 1,082 Texan registered voters polled, 54 percent approved of using state funds to deploy the National Guard and Texas state police to patrol the border. That is down from 59 percent in November. 36 percent “say it is reasonable to spend $20 million per mile in state funds to extend the border wall with Mexico, while 27% say it is wasteful” and 25 percent would prefer spending the money on technology at the border. 35 percent of Latinos polled agreed with building a wall, with 47 percent opposed. “The more the wall’s publicized, the worse he’s [Abbot is] going to get among Latino voters,” Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones told the Morning News.

  • DHS plans to release a memo tightening oversight of Border Patrol’s “Critical Incident Teams.” These secretive units’ existence has caused an outcry among human rights advocates and some members of Congress, who allege that they exist to carry out parallel investigations that shield Border Patrol agents from abuse allegations. (See coverage in last week’s update.) The proposed changes appear aimed not at disbanding the Critical Incident Teams, but giving Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Office of Professional Responsibility clearer authority over incident investigations.
  • A report from the Instituto para las Mujeres en la Migración (IMUMI) and the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) covers the impact of U.S. and Mexican migration policies on women seeking protection. Both countries’ policies, it finds, placed women and children at greater danger of harm, including sexual violence, during 2021.
  • The DHS Inspector-General reported on a July 2021 visit to holding facilities of Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector in South Texas. The oversight agency found Border Patrol struggling to keep up with large numbers of people in custody awaiting processing. “However, except for one facility, at the time of our site visit, we did not observe cells so overcrowded that detainees were not able to sit or lie down.” It noted that Border Patrol’s Temporary Outdoor Processing Site (TOPS) under the Anzalduas Bridge in Mission, Texas did not meet detention standards “but lessened overcrowding and health risks for detainees.” Though the ACLU reported about troubling conditions at TOPS in August 2021, the Inspector-General found that “water, snacks, and food for babies and children were readily available.”
  • A release from the DHS Science and Technology Directorate touts the agency’s plan to use sensor-laden Automated Ground Surveillance Vehicles, or “robot dogs”—a fleet of ground drones to augment Border Patrol.
  • A post from the American Immigration Council addresses the non-story circulating in right-wing media about “secret flights” transporting migrants into communities around the country. These much-repeated stories are merely documenting movements of a small number of asylum-seeking families to venues where they will appear in immigration court, or of unaccompanied migrant children within the shelter system run by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. This practice has been routine for decades. One of the most vocal purveyors of the “secret flights” trope has been Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a BuzzFeed story documents.
  • Guatemala quickly passed legislation increasing prison sentences for migrant smugglers to up to 30 years, following local authorities’ arrests of 10 people allegedly involved in smuggling Guatemalan migrants who ended up massacred on a roadside in Tamaulipas, Mexico in January 2021.
  • At the New Yorker, Jonathan Blitzer profiles Andrea Flores, who had worked from the White House to lead the Biden administration’s early effort to undo “Remain in Mexico.” She is one of several immigration reform advocates who have left the administration after being outmaneuvered by more political, centrist officials. Superiors, Blitzer reports, told her “that she was ‘too intense’ or ‘too close to the issues.'”
  • Linda Rivas, the executive director of El Paso’s Las Américas Immigrant Advocacy Center and a prominent advocate of the right to seek asylum in the United States, is stepping down after seven years.

Weekly Border Update: January 28, 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.

December’s migration data

On January 24 U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released data about its encounters with undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border during December 2021. The agency took migrants into custody 178,840 times last month, probably the tenth-largest monthly total of this century. CBP’s Border Patrol component, which operates between official land border crossings (ports of entry), encountered 170,186 migrants, and its Office of Field Operations (OFO) encountered 8,654 at the ports of entry.

December’s total was 4,000 more than November—a 2 percent increase, the first month-on-month increase in the overall encounter total since June-July 2021. However, as CBP’s release pointed out, the agency actually encountered fewer migrants per day in December (with 31 days, after all, December is 3 percent longer than November).

As is common since the pandemic began, many of those “encounters” are the same person counted more than one time. The Title 42 policy, which expels many migrants back into Mexico with little time in CBP custody, has eased repeat attempts to enter the United States. The number of individual people whom CBP encountered in December was 135,040. While much lower than “encounters,” that “individuals” total was about 5 percent larger than November’s.

Walking through the numbers, an analysis from Philip Bump at the Washington Post points out that roughly one sixth of “encounters” result in a migrant being allowed to remain in the United States outside of detention while awaiting immigration court proceedings. The other five-sixths are expelled, or detained in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody.

In December CBP passed 1.5 million expulsions of migrants since March 2020, when the Trump administration first implemented Title 42. In many cases, these migrants were asylum seekers denied the chance to petition for protection from threats to their lives. 78,589 of December’s migrant encounters—44 percent—ended in expulsions.

That monthly percentage is the smallest since Title 42 went into effect. “CBP expelled only 44% of individuals under Title 42 in December 2021, again highlighting the Biden administration’s refusal to fully utilize the public health authority,” complained a press release from Republicans on the House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee.

44 percent did not represent any slackening in the use of Title 42, however. It instead reflects the nationalities of the migrants encountered in December. Of migrants who avoided expulsion last month, less than a quarter came from Mexico or from the three Central American nations whose citizens Mexico agrees to take back under Title 42 (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). The other three quarters are from countries to which expulsions are more difficult, either due to the cost of flying migrants back (as has happened to over 19,000 Haitians during the Biden administration), or due to poor diplomatic and consular relations.

Remarkably, 48 percent of December’s non-expelled migrants—47,682—came from Venezuela, Nicaragua, or Cuba. (Venezuela was 2nd overall in migrant encounters last month, after Mexico.) The Biden administration almost never sendsthose migrants on planes back to Havana, Managua, or Caracas. It is, however, sending citizens of those countries to “Remain in Mexico” to await their U.S. asylum hearings under a court-ordered renewal of this Trump-era program, which since December 8 has been undergoing a gradual rollout.

11,921 of December’s encounters were with children who arrived at the border unaccompanied. That was the smallest unaccompanied child total since February 2021, and 14 percent fewer than November. The Biden administration is not expelling unaccompanied children under Title 42.

Members of family units (parents with children) increased 14 percent from November, to 51,926. Remarkably, 7 out of every 10 family members encountered last month (69 percent) came from countries other than Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras.

After shooting upward when the Trump administration began applying Title 42 in 2020, then peaking during spring of 2021, encounters with single adults have plateaued. They dipped by a few hundred from November to December.

Of the nine sectors into which Border Patrol divides the border, South Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region continued to lead all others in monthly apprehensions, with 43,844, most of them Central American citizens. The number-two and number-three sectors are unusual and surprising: both are sparsely populated zones that saw little migration during the 2010s: Texas’s Del Rio sector (Del Rio and Eagle Pass the largest border towns), and the Yuma sector that straddles Arizona and California (Yuma the largest border town). Arrivals in Yuma during the first quarter of fiscal 2022 are up 2,391 percent over the first quarter of fiscal 2021.

Only 32 percent of migrants in Del Rio, and 7 percent of migrants in Yuma, came from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. These “unusual” sectors have seen high concentrations of migrants from “unusual” countries like Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Haiti, India, and Venezuela. 

This concentration of nationalities along specific geographic sectors seems to owe to fast-evolving smuggling networks, about which we have little information. “It is evident that migrants’ nationalities have concentrated route trajectories and precise points of arrival, unrelated to casual factors. We can say in jest that they share the same ‘travel agency,’” Tonatiuh Guillén, a longtime migration expert who was briefly the López Obrador administration’s first INM director, observed in a recent analysisof this phenomenon.

U.S. border authorities are expecting migrant encounters to rise in the spring of 2022, possibly exceeding 2021 totals. Two officials told Reuters that they “are preparing for as many as 9,000 border arrests per day by the spring”—which would mean record-breaking monthly totals above 270,000 encounters. That, however, is a “worst case scenario,” one of Reuters’s anonymous sources said.

In Mexico, meanwhile, on January 23 the government’s National Migration Institute (INM) reported apprehending more than 3,000 migrants in a 48-hour period, many of them discovered in the backs of cargo trucks. During 2021, a record-breaking year for Mexico, the INM apprehended an average of 690 migrants per day; reaching 1,500 per day over two January days is a strong sign that 2022 will be another year of very heavy migration for the region.

Mayorkas visits Border Patrol, hears griping

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas paid visits on January 26-28 to Border Patrol’s Yuma (Arizona-California), El Paso (Texas-New Mexico), and Laredo (Texas) sectors, where he met with many CBP and Border Patrol line personnel. Mayorkas filled his Twitter account with photos of him aboard Border Patrol boats and ATVs, showing up for early-morning muster, and conferring with sectors’ leadership. The Secretary repeatedly described agents as courageous, dedicated, mission-focused, talented, and impressive, while often calling for “more resources and support” for Border Patrol.

The feeling did not appear to be fully mutual. In Yuma, an agent surreptitiously recorded audio of the Secretary’s discussion with assembled agents and leaked it to TownHall.com, a right-wing website. The recording revealed some tense moments as Mayorkas fielded complaints from a workforce whose union—which claims to represent 90 percent of agents—strongly backed Donald Trump and vociferously criticizes the Biden administration’s policies.

“I know the policies of this administration are not particularly popular with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, but that’s the reality and let’s see what we can do within that framework,” Mayorkas told the agents. Some blamed the Biden administration for the increase in asylum-seeking migrants during 2021 that required agents to care for children and families while processing asylum paperwork, instead of the law enforcement tasks for which they were trained. “I know apprehending families and kids is not what you signed up to do. And now we got a composition that is changing even more with Cubans, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, and the like, it just gets more difficult,” Mayorkas said. One agent turned his back on Mayorkas after asking an aggrieved question about being forced to process children and families.

Another complained about the slow rollout of the Remain in Mexico program, ordered by a Texas federal district court judge, which to date has been applied to a few hundred migrants. In public, including in a strongly worded October memo“re-terminating” the program, Mayorkas has criticized “Remain in Mexico” and insisted that his department opposes the judicial order to restart it. In private, Mayorkas told the agent, “The numbers are not where they need to be. I agree with that.”

Though the Biden administration halted border wall building and publicly opposes Donald Trump’s use of resources to wall off the border, Mayorkas privately assured agents that “he has approved for gaps in the border wall system, which were created when Biden ordered a halt on construction, to be filled.”

After the audio leaked, DHS spokesperson Marsha Espinosa shared a statement with Reuters indicating that Mayorkas “welcomes candor during these conversations, and appreciates and respects the opinions of each member of the CBP workforce.”

In the Yuma meeting, an agent told the Secretary that “it has been ‘demoralizing’ to see politicians and others ‘demonize’ Border Patrol when they often save illegal immigrants from injury and death.” TownHall.com speculated—probably correctly—that this was a reference to an incident in Del Rio, Texas, in mid-September 2021. After video showed Border Patrol agents on horseback charging at Haitian migrants in an attempt to keep them from crossing the Rio Grande, Mayorkas had said he was “horrified” and President Joe Biden said “those people will pay.” At the time, the Border Patrol union shot back demanding an apology from the President.

“I want to assure you that we are addressing this with tremendous speed and tremendous force,” Mayorkas told the House Homeland Security Committee on September 22, days after the Del Rio incident, vowing that an investigation would “be completed in days—not weeks.” 128 days later, DHS has not made any public determination about what happened in Del Rio.

The DHS Inspector-General declined to take the case, and CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility shared preliminary findings with the Justice Department in October, to determine if criminal charges were warranted. Other than a list of next steps that DHS published in mid-November, there has been no further word. Now, unnamed DHS officials told the Washington Examiner that “a report may never be released.”

Congress steps up oversight of Border Patrol’s “Critical Incident Teams”

Accountability for alleged Border Patrol abuse came into focus in Congress on January 24, as the Democratic Party chairs of responsible committees launched investigations of secretive teams within the agency whose responsibilities appear to include protecting agents against abuse allegations. 

In an October 2021 document, the Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC) surfaced the issue of Border Patrol’s “Critical Incident Teams,” which often arrive at the scene when agents may have committed wrongdoing. While Critical Incident Teams may have other roles, coming up with exculpatory evidence to protect agents strongly appears to be one of them. No other law enforcement agency, the SBCC contends, has a similar capability, and the Teams’ existence is not specifically authorized by law.

SBCC was alerted to the Teams’ role while carrying out advocacy around the caseof Anastasio Hernández, a Mexican citizen whom border agents beat and tasered to death in a 2010 case caught on cellphone video. The Coalition found that a Critical Incident Team failed to notify San Diego police, controlled police investigators’ witness lists, tampered with evidence, sought to obtain Hernández’s medical records, failed to preserve video evidence, and “contacted the FBI and asked them to charge Anastasio with assault while he lay brain dead in the hospital. The FBI declined.”

Critical Incident Teams have existed in some form at least since 1987. (Their “challenge coin,” depicted in SBCC’s October document, says “Est. May 21, 2001” and includes images of a chalk outline and a rolled-over vehicle.) They are almost never mentioned in Border Patrol or CBP statements. “Their existence poses a threat to public safety,” SBCC argues, “by concealing agent misconduct, enabling abuse, and exacerbating impunity within the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Immediate investigations into BPCITs are imperative.”

The Critical Incident Teams came up again in a January 10 front-page New York Times story about Border Patrol vehicle pursuit tactics that have seen a growing number of fatal crashes. Following an August 3 crash in New Mexico, the Times reported:

Body camera footage from a state police officer captured one of the Border Patrol agents saying: “Our critical incident team is coming out. They’ll do all the crime scene stuff—well, not crime scene, but critical incident scene.” The agent said that he and his colleague would give statements to the team, which it would share with the police.

This reporting, and persistent work by the SBCC, moved leading members of Congress to act. A CBP briefing about the teams late last year, the New York Times notes, “did not fully address our questions,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Subsequent information requests have gotten no replies from the agency.

The next step came with two letters on January 24:

  • Ten chairpeople of House and Senate Judiciary, Homeland Security, and Oversight committees and subcommittees wrote to Comptroller-General Gene Dodaro, who heads the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO, the Congress’s auditing and investigative arm). They ask the GAO to produce a report about them: “We would like to better understand the roles and responsibilities of these Critical Incident Teams, including their authorities, activities, training and oversight.” The letter lists nine questions about the Teams’ authorities, procedures, training, budget, and track record.
  • The chairs of the House Homeland Security and Oversight Committees, Rep. Thompson and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) wrote to CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus, informing him in a more strongly worded message that they are launching their own joint investigation into the Critical Incident Teams. “We have grave concerns about the lack of transparency in the role of Border Patrol’s Critical Incident Teams,” the letter reads. “Despite the apparent lack of authority to investigate agent misconduct, Border Patrol appears to have created special teams of agents to investigate and collect evidence following incidents that may create criminal or civil liability, including allegations of excessive use of force.”

The Thompson-Maloney letter requires that CBP turn over, by February 7, a list of all existing Border Patrol evidence collection teams; a detailed list of the legal authorities under which the Teams operate; all polices, procedures, directives, guidances, and training materials for the Teams; all incident reports filed since 2010; and all reports of “potential misconduct or interference with criminal, civil, or administrative investigations by Border Patrol Critical Incident Teams or team members” since 2010.

Bloomberg Government asked CBP Commissioner Magnus, a former Tucson, Arizona police chief who has been in his position since early December, about the Critical Incident Teams. A statement responded that “U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s specialized teams are ‘vitally important’ in the collection and processing of evidence related to enforcement activities,” Bloomberg reported. “The teams assist CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility and other law enforcement agencies when they conduct investigations involving agents and work on enforcement cases related to human trafficking and drug smuggling.” Magnus said that CBP would work with the committees and with GAO.

Links

  • Vice President Kamala Harris was in Honduras on January 27 for the inauguration of President Xiomara Castro. The Biden administration hopes that Castro will follow through on her declared intention to pursue anti-corruption and other reforms to address “root causes” of migration away from Central America. Presidents of neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala have proved disinclined to pursue such reforms.
  • The revived “Remain in Mexico” program has begun operating in Brownsville, Texas, the third of seven ports of entry at which the Biden Administration is expected, under court order, to roll it out. The first three asylum seekers were returned on January 25. Brownsville is across from Matamoros, in Tamaulipas, a notoriously dangerous Mexican state for migrants. Those placed in “Remain in Mexico” in Matamoros will have the option to await their U.S. court dates four hours’ drive from the border in Monterrey, a large, and presumably safer, industrial city in Nuevo León state.
  • Lourdes Maldonado, shot in her car on January 24, was the second journalist to be murdered in Tijuana within a week. Concerns about insecurity and organized-crime violence are high in the border city, an active venue for the Remain in Mexico program. More than 2,000 members of the National Guard, Mexico’s new militarized police force, are to be deployed to Tijuana in coming days.
  • The U.S. embassy in Mexico tweeted photos of Mexican immigration agents being trained in what appear to be riot-control tactics, with plexiglass shields, in a November course in El Paso funded by the State Department and carried out by CBP.
  • The Intercept, the Texas Tribune , and the Houston Chronicle covered the unintended consequences of Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s (R) border crackdown, which has arrested over 10,000 undocumented migrants for trespassing since April 2021. Many who spend time in Texas state jails end up allowed to stay in the United States to pursue their asylum cases, avoiding Title 42 expulsion. Now, an Austin judge’s ruling on the constitutionality of the governor’s plan could bring it to an end.
  • Arizona has deployed about 220 National Guard troops to its border counties under a law enforcement support operation Gov. Doug Ducey (R) calls “Task Force Badge.” This is a smaller use of resources than the approximately 6,500 guardsmen whom Greg Abbott has deployed to parts of Texas’s border.
  • Groups of single male asylum seekers are being released in Brownsville, Texas, which is unusual because ICE prefers to detain single men. The reason isn’t clear, but a big spike in COVID cases at Texas’s ICE detention centers might be a factor, the Rio Grande Valley Monitor notes.
  • A report from the DHS Inspector-General finds that CBP spent about 15 percent of its 2021 budget ($3.08 billion) on counter-drug-related missions. The report also includes the most recent available count of the number of Border Patrol agents: 19,513 as of October 10, 2021— down slightlyfrom 19,740 in fiscal 2020. CBP’s Office of Field Operations (OFO), which mans ports of entry nationwide, had 25,662 officers in fiscal 2021, up from 23,147 in 2018.
  • Colombia reported that 106,838 migrants passed through its territory last year, more than 87 percent of them Haitians. That is up from 19,040 in 2019 and 3,922 in pandemic-hit 2020. Authorities say they expect a similar number this year. The Caribbean coastal town of Necoclí, from where ferries take passengers to Panama, was crowded with northbound migrants during the second half of 2021. Panama, meanwhile, counted over 130,000 arrivals from Colombia.
  • Far-right groups are gathering in the border city of McAllen, Texas on the January 29-30 weekend for a rally featuring Mark Morgan, who was Border Patrol chief under Obama and acting CBP commissioner under Trump, and Gen. Michael Flynn, who was briefly Trump’s national security advisor. Border Report cites some almost nonsensically extreme anti-immigrant language on the organizers’ website.

Weekly border update: January 21, 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.

A girl from Venezuela drowns, as Mexico shuts down visas

Virginia Lugo Mayor, a 7-year-old girl from Zulia, in northwestern Venezuela, died on January 18 while she and her mother were trying to cross the Rio Grande to seek asylum in Del Rio, Texas. The drowning occurred three days before Mexico is to begin requiring visas of Venezuelans who arrive in the country, a move that may reduce the number who reach the U.S. border.

Del Rio is where nearly 10,000 Haitian migrants arrived during a few days in September, generating intense media coverage with photos of mounted Border Patrol agents charging at migrants by the riverside. In those images, the Rio Grande between Del Rio and Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, is quite shallow: ankle or knee deep.

The river was much higher on January 18. Virginia and her mother, Mayerlin Mayor, found themselves in over their heads, in a strong current. Ms. Mayor lost her grip on her daughter. Members of Grupos Beta, the humanitarian wing of Mexico’s migration authority (National Migration Institute, INM), found the girl’s body further downstream.

On the U.S. side, Border Patrol took Ms. Mayor, a former schoolteacher, into custody. According to the Venezuelan daily Tal Cual, Ms. Mayor has been released to pursue her asylum case. She is with a Venezuelan family inside the United States and is reportedly despondent.

U.S. border authorities have encountered a sharply increased number of asylum-seeking migrants from Venezuela in recent months. The monthly total of Venezuelan citizens taken into custody exceeded 1,000 for the first time in March 2021, remained between 6,000 and 7,500 between April and August, then shot up to 20,341 in November. (Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has yet to share its full December “encounters” data, a delay angrily noted by House Republicans.)

In recent years, Mexico had not required visas of citizens from several South American nations. As of January 21, Mexico is requiring visas of Venezuelans unless they have a U.S. tourist visa or are a legal resident of the U.S. or a number of other countries, a process that usually requires applicants to demonstrate economic solvency or proof (like an invitation to attend a professional event) that their planned visit is temporary. A January 7 INM document cites a “more than 1,000 percent” increase in Venezuelan arrivals compared to five years ago. It alleges that a third of Venezuelans who arrived this year as tourists have traveled north to the U.S. border in order to seek asylum or otherwise emigrate into the United States.

For similar reasons, Mexico also began requiring visas of arriving citizens from Brazil and Ecuador, at U.S. urging, earlier in 2021.

Guatemala disperses a migrant caravan

As foreseen by local media reports, a “caravan” of migrants departed San Pedro Sula, Honduras on January 15. They gathered just 12 days before Honduras is to swear in a new president, Xiomara Castro—an event that U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris is to attend.

No caravan—defined as a large group of migrants traveling together, usually to seek “safety in numbers” without paying a smuggler—has reached the U.S. border since late 2018. All have been dispersed en route by Mexican or Guatemalan forces. The same happened to the January 15 caravan, a relatively small group of 600 to 700 people.

As the migrants entered Guatemala on the evening of the 15th, in the town of Corinto, Izabal, they found further progress blocked by a human barrier of Guatemalan police and soldiers clad in riot gear. The migrants separated into smaller groups, seeking to enter. One group clashed briefly with the Guatemalan forces, hurling sticks and stones. Guatemalan authorities reported that 15 police and soldiers suffered injuries, most of them not serious. They provided no data about any injured migrants.

Normally, residents of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua may enter each other’s countries just by showing their national identity cards. Under pandemic measures, though, Guatemala is also requiring entrants to show proof of vaccination and a recent negative COVID test. Some migrants sought to show these documents to the Guatemalan forces arrayed at the border. Most were still sent back into Honduras.

Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry reported intercepting 622 “caravan” migrants in Corinto and nearby Agua Caliente, 23 percent of them minors. They were citizens of Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, Venezuela, and some African nations.

An unusually high number—perhaps half of the group—were Nicaraguans fleeing Daniel Ortega’s dictatorial regime. The online news outlet ContraCorriente talked to migrants who had spent time in Nicaraguan prisons for political opposition activity. One said it was difficult to leave Nicaragua because Ortega “has the Army everywhere” along the border with Honduras. Most of the Nicaraguans had learned about the January 15 caravan via social media. “Nicaragua is going to become like Maduro in Venezuela, where everyone emigrated,” one told ContraCorriente.

Guatemalan and Honduran media also reported allegations that Guatemalan police extorted some caravan participants, offering non-deportation into Honduras in exchange for bribes up to 800 quetzales (US$100). Venezuelan migrants told Guatemala’s Prensa Libre that police even searched their bags and wallets to verify that they had no money to give.

Indicators of an increasing migrant population on Mexico’s side of the U.S. border

The number of protection-seeking migrants—both Mexican and non-Mexican—has been steadily increasing for at least a year, due to U.S. authorities’ “Title 42” expulsions and the pandemic-related closure of U.S. ports of entry to asylum seekers. The most recent (November 2021) “ Metering Update” from the University of Texas’s Strauss Center estimated that 26,505 migrants were on makeshift waiting lists to cross from Mexican border towns into the United States, up nearly 6,000 from August. Many more are not on any lists.

The numbers are set to increase further as the Biden administration continues its court-ordered revival of the “Remain in Mexico” program, a Trump-era policy that sends non-Mexican asylum seekers back across the border to await their U.S. hearings on Mexican soil. This program began operating in El Paso in early December and in San Diego in early January; this week, CBP personnel in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector received briefings and guidance to begin implementing Remain in Mexico there, probably within the next few days.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Immigration Statistics produced a brief reportabout implementation of Remain in Mexico during the month of December, when it operated only in El Paso. Among its key points:

  • 267 single adults were enrolled in the program in December, of whom 162 (61 percent) were from Nicaragua, 59 (22 percent) were from Venezuela, 32 (12 percent) were from Cuba), 7 (3 percent) were from Colombia, and 7 (3 percent) were from Ecuador.
  • 242 of those 267 people (91 percent) claimed they feared being returned to Mexico, and were given non-refoulement interviews with asylum officers.
  • The asylum officers rejected the fear claims in 78 percent of cases (186 people), but 22 percent (51 people) were taken out of “Remain in Mexico” due to the credibility of their claims of fear of being in Mexico. Of those 51, 28 had “positive fear determinations” and 23 resulted in “administrative closures,” which “are generally, but not exclusively, related to individuals who are disenrolled from the program due to a finding of vulnerability.”
  • Though migrants are presumably given 24 hours while in CBP custody to contact an attorney and prepare for their non-refoulement interviews, only 11 of the 242 who claimed fear had an attorney accompanying them. Four of those eleven people were taken out of Remain in Mexico due to “positive fear” findings.
  • In all, 191 people were sent back into Mexico in December 2021, or 72 percent of all 267 people enrolled in “Remain in Mexico” that month. The remaining 76 were removed from the program due either to fear or other vulnerabilities, like medical conditions.

An analysis by the organized crime-monitoring group InsightCrime warns that the reinstatement of Remain in Mexico, along with ongoing Title 42 expulsions, gives Mexican criminal groups “another opportunity to profit from kidnapping those returned, especially in border towns rife with organized crime threats.” Using very partial data from Mexico’s National Kidnapping Unit, InsightCrime finds that at least one of every ten ransom kidnapping victims in Mexico is a migrant trying to reach the United States.

“The true number of victims is likely far greater,” the analysis continues, “especially for migrants targeted by organized crime groups, which at times collude with local police and government officials.” At Business Insider, reporter Luis Chaparro cites migrants’ view that INM agents’ collusion with organized crime can make it “more risky today to go and ask for political asylum at the [Mexico-US border] bridges,” where migrants will encounter INM personnel, “than to pay a smuggler and try to get across illegally.” A smuggler in Ciudad Juárez told Chaparro that for a fee, INM agents routinely deliver to him migrants whom U.S. authorities have sent back via Title 42 or Remain in Mexico.

The INM indicated on January 13 that 105 of its agents “were reported to its internal control office as under investigation for alleged ‘misconduct’ in 2021,” the Associated Press noted. (In 2019, INM had about 4,100 active agents.)

An increasing proportion of the migrant population in Mexican border cities is Haitian. As the Biden administration has ramped up expulsion flights to Haiti— sendingnearly 19,000 Haitians back to their troubled country on 185 planes since Inauguration Day 2021—more Haitians are deciding to stay in Mexico and seek protection there. At Vox, Nicole Narea notes the sharp increase in Haitians seeking asylum in Mexico’s system, along with estimates that about 3,000 Haitians remain stuck in Mexico’s southern border-zone city of Tapachula, while about 4,000 are in Tijuana, where they’ve been settling since the Obama administration halted humanitarian parole for Haitians in 2016. In Ciudad Juárez, Enrique Valenzuela of the Chihuahua state government’s Population Council (COESPO) tells Border Report that hundreds of Haitian migrants have recently arrived in the city “with (Mexican) humanitarian visas, so they’re mostly looking for work. They usually don’t ask us for shelter because they already have a place to stay.”

Arrivals of migrants from elsewhere in the region—including Mexicans displaced by violence further south—have swelled the population of Ciudad Juárez’s shelters, according to Border Report. “We know of 3,000 migrants, give or take, who are staying at the shelters,” Valenzuela said. “But only 30 percent stay at shelters, so Juárez must have a migrant population of 9,000 to 10,000 people right now.”

The city’s oldest shelter, the church-run Casa de Migrante, is at capacity with nearly 400 migrants living there. Low on supplies, the Casa is asking for “donations of clothing, diapers, baby formula and personal care items such as soap, toothpaste and razors.” When they show up for their hearings in El Paso, many of the asylum seekers enrolled in Remain in Mexico “listed Casa del Migrante as their address.”

Further west, in Sonoyta, Sonora, a desert town of 13,000, an increase in asylum-seeking families has led to rapid growth in shelter space. What was once a way station for single adult migrants “now hosts a migrant resource center and three shelters,” Melissa del Bosque writes at the Border Chronicle.

Still further west, in Tijuana, shelters are also expanding. The evangelical-run Agape shelter is enlisting migrants to help build new facilities on land donated by the Baja California state government. Pastor Albert Rivera told Border Report that the expansion will increase the facility’s capacity from 600 to 1,500. He added: “most of our migrants are from Mexico, the states of Michoacán and Guerrero, there are some from Central America and Haiti, but it’s mostly Mexico now.” Tijuana authorities say they expect increased shelter space to allow closure of an encampment that sprung up in early 2021 just outside Chaparral, the main pedestrian border crossing. Amid harsh winter weather, the estimated population living in tents in a square outside the crossing has dropped to 400, from nearly 2,000 in the summer. Here, too, most migrants are now “Mexican nationals who have fled violence in the states of Guerrero and Michoacán,” according to Border Report.

More reporting about the Texas National Guard deployment’s morale crisis

The New York Times and San Antonio Express-News published new details about a steadily escalating National Guard border mission that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a critic of the Biden administration’s border policies, launched in March 2021. They find miserable conditions, unclear missions, politicization, and severe morale problems.

The Times and Express-News stories build on reporting since early December by Army Times, which first revealed disciplinary problems, lack of payment, and poor housing and equipment for soldiers assigned to the Texas state government deployment, as well as for those assigned to a parallel federal government deployment begun by Donald Trump in 2018. Since October 2021, the state mission has suffered a series of suicides.

What Abbott calls “Operation Lone Star” has sent at least 6,500 National Guard troops to the border; earlier statements from the governor’s office cited as many as 10,000. (As last week’s update explains, National Guardsmen are part-time soldiers at the command of state governors.) Another 2,400 are assigned to the federal mission, supporting CBP in Texas and elsewhere along the border.

The Texas state National Guard mission grew by leaps and bounds during 2021, the Times reports, as Abbott neared a 2022 re-election campaign facing Republican primary challengers on the right. The Times gives some credit for the National Guard increase to an influential FOX News television host:

According to state documents, Mr. Abbott in September requested that 1,500 troops join the 500 or so who had already been deployed to the border. Later that same week, Tucker Carlson began attacking Mr. Abbott on his Fox News show, which is popular with conservatives, for not sending more National Guard troops, and in subsequent days invited Mr. Abbott’s Republican challengers onto his show to do the same.

Shortly after, Mr. Abbott requested that another 2,500 troops from the National Guard be sent to the border in October. The governor then appeared on Mr. Carlson’s show that month for the first time and said that 6,500 Guard members and state troopers were on the border.

Earlier this month, Abbott made his re-election bid official at an event in the south Texas border city of McAllen. His first television commercial, the Times notes, is sponsored by the National Border Patrol Council, the union that claims to represent about three quarters of Border Patrol agents, and features the National Guard deployment.

As Abbott increased the National Guard footprint at the border, it was no longer possible to call up guardsmen on a voluntary basis. Service at the border became mandatory, forcing guardsmen to abandon their families and civilian jobs, with a few days’ or weeks’ notice, for deployments that may last a year.

The mission was thrown together hastily. Many guardsmen, the Times found, “have complained of poor planning, pay problems and a lack of basic equipment, like winter gear for the cold or stethoscopes for medics. There have been Covid outbreaks on hastily created bases, where dozens of soldiers crowd together in mobile quarters so tight that commanders call them ‘submarine trailers.’” Guardsmen even lack toilet facilities while posted near the border. “They can call for a shuttle to get to a restroom, but that takes a while,” the Express-News noted. “Rather than relieve himself in the open, one specialist said, ‘I just hold it for 12 hours straight.’” Many have yet to be paid, forcing them to spend their downtime negotiating with bill collectors.

Some guardsmen say they’ve been given little to do, for a mission that “has appeared ad hoc, ill-defined and politically motivated.” One active guardsman told the Times, “All we’re doing is standing down here. If someone comes up, we ask them to stop and wait, we call Border Patrol. If someone runs, we call Border Patrol. We’re basically mall cops on the border.

It is exceedingly rare in the United States for soldiers to use force against U.S. citizens, or even to carry loaded weapons, as many Guard personnel assigned to Operation Lone Star are doing in Texas right now. On January 18 a National Guard soldier discharged his M4 carbine, shooting at and disabling a suspected smuggling vehicle near the border south of Laredo. While the incident report points to self-defense, and the soldier shot at the vehicle’s radiator and hood—not its driver—it is a highly uncommon case of military personnel firing weapons at a civilian target on U.S. soil.

National Guardsmen assigned to Operation Lone Star made further news on January 19, when one of the mission’s rental trucks, with two guardsmen aboard, crashed into a border levee gate on the premises of the National Butterfly Center, a private wildlife preserve along the Rio Grande. While they were unhurt, the guardsmen left the damaged vehicle, its hood crumpled into the gate. The Butterfly Center—which opposes border wall construction and has called on the National Guard to stop trespassing—posted several updates about the crash to its Twitter feed. (Border Report also published an update this week about the Butterfly Center’s legal battle with “We Build the Wall,” a private wall-building nonprofit, backed by prominent Donald Trump supporters, whose management is facing fraud charges.)

In other Defense Department border news, Stars and Stripes reports that the Pentagon has agreed to spend about $52.5 million to operate and maintain observation blimps along the border in Texas. Six of these “tethered aerostats,” which provide surveillance capability for as much as 200 miles, are owned by Border Patrol, and twelve are owned by the Defense Department. CBP had halted the program because it was deemed too costly; one of its main backers, though, is Laredo Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), a member of the House Appropriations Committee. (Cuellar, incidentally, had a difficult week, as the FBI raided his Laredo home on January 19 as part of an investigation possibly related to dealings with officials from Azerbaijan.)

Commentary about Joe Biden’s first year at the border

January 20 marked the end of Joe Biden’s first year in the U.S. presidency. His administration began with promises of reforms and a more humane approach to border, migration, and asylum policy. Several “Biden’s first year” media analyses came to similar conclusions about how that has turned out. A recent WOLA commentary also evaluates the Biden administration’s first year policies toward Latin America and includes analysis and recommendations on border policy for 2022 and ahead.

  • Camilo Montoya-Galvez at CBS: “In its first year, Mr. Biden’s administration made dozens of high-profile and little-noticed changes to the U.S. immigration system, many of them reversals of Trump-era restrictions. But the Biden administration also continued some policies instituted by Mr. Trump. …A year in, the Biden administration’s border strategy has divided the president’s appointees and frustrated critics on the right and left, who hurl accusations of lax immigration enforcement and outrage over the continuation of some Trump-era restrictions.”
  • Ted Hesson at Reuters: “Days after U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, two of his top immigration advisors outlined bold plans, including a major immigration reform bill, a 100-day deportation moratorium, and a strategy to restore protections for asylum seekers that were degraded under former President Donald Trump. …Now, the two White House officials who touted the plans, Tyler Moran and Esther Olavarria, are preparing to leave the administration, a White House spokesperson confirmed to Reuters. …Their departures are part of a greater exodus of senior Biden immigration staffers that suggests planned reforms could be put on hold or abandoned altogether as power tips to more security-minded White House officials.In the remaining camp is Susan Rice, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, who has tended to push for tougher enforcement at the border.”
  • Catherine Rampell at the Washington Post: “What, exactly, are these nativists unhappy with? In many respects, Biden is doing exactly what the Stephen Millers of the world want him to do — keeping Donald Trump’s worst border policies in place. …It’s unclear why Biden has maintained his predecessor’s policies. One possibility is politics — that these choices were intended to stave off right-wing attacks about lax enforcement. If that was the motivation, though, it failed. Instead, Biden has delivered the worst of all worlds: inhumane, immoral, potentially illegal policy — and bad-faith political blowback about ‘open borders’ all the same.”
  • Alicia Schmidt Camacho at the New Yorker: “To charges of human-rights abuses and failure, the Biden Administration, like others before it, answered weakly that they must follow the rule of law. But no law requires that people fleeing political violence and natural disaster should be met by the militarized cordon sanitaire in South Texas. …The U.S. government has largely excluded migrant-led organizations from the process of policy reform. And yet migrant communities have been crucial protagonists in the most vital struggles of our difficult moment.”
  • Maria Ines Taracena at El Faro (El Salvador): “From the resumption and expansion of the Remain in Mexico program, to the administration’s near-shutdown of the asylum system at the U.S.-Mexico border, and its ongoing invocation of Title 42 during the pandemic: Biden has embraced many of the same cruel practices as his predecessor. …Many of the executive actions on immigration Biden signed on his first day and initial weeks in office were, we can now see, largely performative.”

Links

  • After a holiday lull during which fewer than 100 unaccompanied children per day were arriving at the border, CBP is now once again encountering nearly 500 unaccompanied children per day.
  • While CBP has yet to report migrant encounter data from December, a January 14 “Remain in Mexico” court filing points to 178,840 border-wide migrant encounters, a slight increase from November (173,620). That is the first month-on-month increase since June-to-July. Of those 178,840, CBP used Title 42 to expel 56 percent (100,251).
  • The Biden administration’s Department of Justice defended the Trump administration’s Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy, which remains in effect, in oral arguments before the DC Circuit Court of Appeals on January 19. The case against Title 42, brought by the ACLU and four other organizations, calls for an immediate end to the policy, which the organizations consider to be illegal. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has used this “public health” authority to quickly eject migrants, regardless of asylum needs, over 1.5 million times since March 2020.
  • CBP has published a request for input, including detailed maps, on plans to build 86 miles of border barrier in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region. This barrier would be built with DHS funds that Congress appropriated in past years at the Trump administration’s request. The Biden administration has requested that Congress rescind those border-wall funds, but Congress has not yet passed a 2022 budget.
  • The White House is considering requiring all migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border and are granted court hearings to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, Axios reports.
  • Ciudad Juárez endured an outbreak of organized-crime violence the week of January 10, with criminals setting 11 vehicles and buildings ablaze around the city on the 12th. Mexico’s federal government sent over 2,000 members of the National Guard, a new militarized police force, to the city. In what may be a too-simplistic analysis, local media speculate about a possible alliance between the Jalisco and Juárez cartels against the Sinaloa Cartel.
  • Reporters from the Honduran daily El Heraldo talk with a smuggler who offers to take migrants across Mexico to the U.S. border by air, for US$13,000.

Weekly border update: January 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.

Border Patrol’s vehicle pursuits and “Critical Incident Teams” get more scrutiny

A front-page story in the January 10 New York Times drew attention to Border Patrol’s frequent high-speed vehicle chases, and to its use of secretive investigative teams whose main mission appears to be to exonerate agents.

Citing the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Times found that 21 people died in vehicle collisions in 2021 after Border Patrol agents pursued them at high speed. That is up from 14 in 2020 and an average of 3.5 per year from 2010 to 2019. The Southern Border Communities Coalition counts 49 deaths since 2010 in vehicle collisions involving Customs and Border Protection (CBP, Border Patrol’s parent agency).

A 2019 ProPublica study examining three years of data found that one in three Border Patrol vehicle pursuits ended in a crash: at least one every nine days. Some injure innocent bystanders. The overall number of pursuit-related injuries jumped 42 percent during the first two years of Donald Trump’s administration.

Times reporter Eileen Sullivan cites the example of 25-year-old Erik A. Molix, who died near Las Cruces, New Mexico, in August 2021. Molix was transporting nine undocumented migrants in a sport utility vehicle; agents chased him at speeds reaching 73 miles per hour. A Border Patrol vehicle clipped Molix’s SUV, sending it tumbling off the road. Molix and an Ecuadorian migrant died. Molix’s mother, a 5th-grade teacher in El Paso, found out about her son’s death from a CBP news release. While he may have been doing something illegal, she told the Times, “That doesn’t mean you have to die for it.”

A July 2020 complaint filed by Shaw Drake, an attorney at ACLU Texas’s El Paso office, contends, “The high number of injuries and deaths resulting from Border Patrol’s actions suggest either that the policy fails to protect the safety and lives of pursuit subjects or that agents are consistently acting outside the bounds of agency policy.” Drake continues:

Under certain circumstances, a high-speed vehicle pursuit can constitute use of deadly force. …Border Patrol pursuits continue to include lethal tactics, such as boxing in moving vehicles, puncturing tires and other methods aimed at spinning vehicles off the road. These chases also happen in treacherous weather conditions and in populated locations including school zones, residential areas, and strip mall parking lots. Moreover, Border Patrol agents have no official cutoff speed.

Border Patrol had long refused to make public its vehicle pursuit policy, declining requests from the ACLU, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), and others. A redacted version appeared in November. “A vehicle pursuit is authorized,” it reads,

when there is reasonable suspicion to believe the occupant(s) of the vehicle failed to stop at an immigration checkpoint, failed to yield to an Officer’s/Agent’s attempt to stop a vehicle for an underlying violation of law, or committed a vehicle incursion into the United States at or between a POE [Port of Entry], and both the Officer/Agent and the pursuit supervisor have determined that the law enforcement benefit of the vehicle pursuit outweighs the risk to the public.

That standard appears to exceed those of most U.S. law enforcement agencies. Justice Department guidelines, the ACLU complaint points out, state that “[f]or anyone other than a violent felon, the balance weighs against the high-speed chase.” The ACLU told the Times that Border Patrol “gives agents too much discretion in determining the risk to public safety.”

At the site of the crash that killed Erik Molix, New Mexico State Police body camera footage captures a Border Patrol agent saying, “Our critical incident team is coming out. They’ll do all the crime scene stuff—well, not crime scene, but critical incident scene.”

“Critical incident teams are rarely mentioned by Customs and Border Protection or the Border Patrol,” the Times pointed out. “There is no public description of the scope of their authority.” Their mission is controversial: a key role of Border Patrol investigators on these teams is “collecting evidence that could be used to protect a Border Patrol agent and ‘help deal with potential liability issues,’” an unnamed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official told the Times.

The existence of units that show up at crime scenes just to find exculpatory information or narratives had avoided scrutiny until October 2021, when the Southern Border Communities Coalition filed a DHS Inspector-General complaint and called on Congress to investigate Border Patrol Critical Incident Teams’ (BPCITs) activities. The Coalition’s letter to Congress calls these units seriously into question:

BPCITs began in 1987 in the San Diego sector, followed by other sectors thereafter. They are known by many names including Sector Evidence Teams and Evidence Collection Teams. Their stated purpose is to mitigate civil liability for agents. There is no known equivalent in any other law enforcement agency. They are not independent investigators seeking facts. Instead they seek to exonerate agents. They act as cover-up units, protecting agents, rather than the public, and they answer to no one except the Border Patrol chiefs that control them.

The BPCITs are not authorized by Congress to engage in federal investigations in agent-involved killings and other use-of-force incidents. That authority is given to the FBI, the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG), and in limited circumstances to the CBP Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR). They are also not formally deputized by any of these agencies to investigate. They are simply unlawful.

Every day that BPCITs continue to exist, abuses go unchecked and agents get away with murder.

The Times notes that a Critical Incident Team arrived on the scene in Nogales, Arizona in June 2021 shortly after a Border Patrol agent shot an unarmed undocumented woman in the head while she sat in the backseat of a car. Marisol García Alcántara spent three days in a hospital and was deported to Mexico 22 days after that, without ever being interviewed by U.S. law enforcement.

Alarms sound about Texas’s troubled National Guard border deployments

A series of reports since December 8 in Army Times, an independent news organization reporting on U.S. military issues, has highlighted a crisis of low morale, lack of mission clarity, payment and equipment shortfalls, discipline problems, and now a rash of suicides among national guardsmen assigned to two deployments at the U.S.-Mexico border, especially in Texas.

The first, a federal government mission to support CBP, was begun by Donald Trump in 2018 and today continues to post 4,000 guardsmen across the entire border. The second, begun in March 2021 by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a fierce critic of the Biden administration, has sent—by the governor’s office’s count—10,000 of the Texas National Guard’s 23,000 members to the border. This deployment is part of a border mission that Abbott calls “Operation Lone Star.”

In the U.S. system, national guardsmen are soldiers who receive the same military training, wear the same uniforms, and hold the same ranks as the regular military. Like reservists, though, they are normally civilians. Most spend about one weekend per month and two weeks per year undergoing training, and are called up in emergencies. Guardsmen are normally under the command of state governors, though (as happened often in Iraq) they can be called on to perform federal missions. In Texas right now, missions under both federal and state authority are operating at the border with Mexico. The state mission, commanded by Gov. Abbott, is larger.

Both missions are troubled. Army Times reported on January 13 that U.S. Northern Command—the Defense Department geographic combatant command that manages U.S. military activity in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the Bahamas—is launching an investigation “into a wide range of alleged issues” with the federal deployment. Northcom’s independent investigation team, headed by a general and “composed of senior members,” will “take the time required to thoroughly answer the Commander’s inquiry.”

Also on January 13, 13 Democrats from Texas’s U.S. House of Representatives delegation wrote to the inspector-general of Texas’s state Military Department calling for an investigation of “deplorable conditions for our National Guard troops participating in ‘Operation Lone Star.’” The letter cites low morale in the state mission; payment discrepancies; “lack of cold weather equipment, body armor, first aid kits,” and sleeping facilities; guardsmen trespassing on private land; and “a growing number of confirmed deaths by suicide.”

Army Times found that four guardsmen assigned to the Operation Lone Star state mission died by suicide between October 26 and December 17. Another shot and killed himself in an alcohol-related incident on January 1, and two survived suicide attempts in late December and on January 9.

“The thing that’s most alarming about these four suicide deaths is that they happened in a two month span. And when you see clusters like that starting to form in a very short time frame, that’s what gets really alarming,” Davis Winkie, the Army Times reporter who has driven most coverage of the Guard deployments’ crisis, told Slate’s “What Next” podcast. “I had better conditions in Iraq than some of these soldiers have on the Texas border,” said retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Featherston, who was the Texas Army National Guard’s senior enlisted advisor until November 2021.

Even as they live crowded into trailers, the guardsmen don’t appear to have much to do. “There’s a sub task force that’s ostensibly building a border wall right now where I had a soldier reach out to me to say we’ve actually only had two workdays in the last two months. Other than that, we’re just manning guard posts around our base camp,” Winkie told Slate.

Operation Lone Star’s state-run National Guard deployment—whose 10,000 personnel count may include Texas state police—has already cost Texas $412 million, could amount to $2 billion during fiscal 2022, and would jump to $2.7 billion in 2023, according to estimates obtained by the Dallas Morning News. Meanwhile, Texas has slashed its tuition assistance budget for guardsmen in half, as part of across-the-board budget cuts.

The federal mission is also troubled, as Army Times reported in early December and WOLA’s December 10 border update summarized. Three soldiers died in 2021 in motor vehicle and alcohol-related incidents, and commanders carried out more than 1,200 legal and disciplinary investigations into misconduct allegedly committed by the 4,000-person force.

Critics of Gov. Abbott’s deployment charge that, as commander in chief of Texas’s National Guard, he is politicizing a military force. “It is clear State leadership does not have our troops’ best interest in mind. Instead, they continue to use them as political props,” reads the letter from the Democratic members of Congress. Winkie told Slate that Operation Lone Star became more openly politicized over the course of 2021: “it started to change as we got into the fall months and when it appeared certain as well that Abbott was going to be facing a primary challenge from the right.” Guardsmen’s participation shifted from being voluntary to mandatory.

Abbott’s most prominent challenger in the Republican primary for Texas’s 2022 gubernatorial election is Allen West, a former congressman who first gained notoriety for beating and simulating the execution of an Iraqi policeman in 2003. Sgt. Featherston, the retired Texas National Guard senior enlisted advisor and vocal critic of Operation Lone Star, spoke at a press conference West organized in early January. Abbott’s likely Democratic opponent in the general election, former El Paso congressman Beto O’Rourke, wrote a January 2 column in the Houston Chronicle accusing the governor of dealing “a slap in the face to the men and women who’ve signed up to serve this state and country in uniform.”

Abbott defended himself by citing 476 suicides within the larger U.S. military over the first nine months of 2021 (the Texas Tribune could only find an official tally of 380). This number is similar to 2018 (541), 2019 (498), and 2020 (580).

Meanwhile, late in the week of January 3, a Honduran migrant drowned in a flooded gravel pit after running away from National Guard soldiers near Eagle Pass, Texas. It was a very rare case of a civilian death involving U.S. military personnel operating on U.S. soil.

The new “Remain in Mexico” closely resembles the old “Remain in Mexico”

As of January 10, DHS had returned 249 adult asylum seekers to Mexico since December 8, under the court-ordered restart of the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which sends Western Hemisphere asylum seekers back to Mexico to await eventual hearing dates in the United States. Of that total, 229 had been sent from El Paso back across to Ciudad Juárez, and 20 from San Diego to Tijuana. As last week’s update notes, the overwhelming majority have been citizens of Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela. By January 12, the border-wide number of returned migrants had risen to 256, noted a new Human Rights First report.

During Remain in Mexico’s first iteration (January 2019 to January 2021), Human Rights First was able to document over 1,544 abuses and violent crimes committed in Mexico against migrants placed in the program. The organization’s January 13 report counts “over 8,705 reports of kidnappings and other violent attacks against migrants and asylum seekers blocked in and/or expelled to Mexico” since the Biden administration took office. The victims have been kept in Mexican border cities by the U.S. government’s Title 42 pandemic expulsion policy, continued port of entry closures to asylum seekers, and the revived “Remain in Mexico.”

For more background on Remain in Mexico, see our December 3 and August 27 updates (among others), and a historypublished on January 7 by the American Immigration Council.

The Human Rights First report finds that the program is returning asylum seekers to Mexico despite often quite strong claims of fear. It cites findings of the Border Project, run by the Jones Day law firm: of 87 returnees consulted in Ciudad Juárez in December, 70 percent “had been persecuted by Mexican police and other government officials,” but were sent back anyway. Among several examples cited is “a Nicaraguan asylum seeker who was kidnapped and tortured by electrocution and beatings for three weeks in Reynosa in November 2021,” with photos and video evidence sent by his kidnappers to extort his relatives, who still did not pass a non-refoulement interview and was sent to Ciudad Juárez in December.

For an article in the January 8 San Diego Union-Tribune, reporter Kate Morrissey interviewed the two Colombian men who were the first to be sent back to “remain” in Tijuana. She found that their experience “included many of the issues that plagued the program under the Trump administration.”

The Biden administration’s December 2 guidance for the restarted program promised access to counsel. But Morrissey found that “the two Colombian men were not allowed to speak with attorneys while in U.S. custody.” The wife of one of the men, a green card holder in the United States, could have hired an attorney for him to support his claim of fear of return to Mexico, but officials denied his request to call her.

The men, who had turned themselves in to U.S. personnel in order to seek protection after receiving urgent threats in Colombia, recounted miserable treatment in CBP custody. They were placed in a cell in a Border Patrol station with “dozens of other men,” forced to sleep on the floor for nearly a week, with lights always on, for lack of bed space. They were not given an opportunity to bathe or shower. “Though they do not speak much English, they realized that agents were speaking badly about them, they said. They recognized words like ‘stupid’ and phrases like ‘go back to your country.’

As required by the new guidelines, a Border Patrol agent asked the men if they were afraid to return to Mexico, although they said “another agent tried to keep that official from asking the question.” Under the Biden administration’s new guidance, after expressing fear the men were entitled to 24 hours to contact an attorney before speaking with an asylum officer. It was during those 24 hours, they said, that CBP personnel refused to allow them “to make any calls or otherwise access legal counsel.”

They said an agent told them that no matter what happened, they would be sent back to Mexico. So, when the asylum officer asked if they wanted to wait longer in custody in order to access attorneys, the men waived that right, not wanting to spend more time in the crowded cell with their fate already decided.

The men added that they were not asked detailed questions about their medical history, even though the Biden administration’s new guidelines specify medical conditions for exemption from the program. Though the new guidelines specify that those subject to Remain in Mexico are to receive COVID-19 vaccinations if they need them, one man who had only received the first of his two shots was sent over the border before officials could administer his vaccine.

CBP meanwhile confused the men’s paperwork, Morrissey found. Each man had the first page of the other’s notice to appear in court. And at first, they were scheduled for hearings months beyond the six-month limit that the Biden administration had agreed with Mexico. They managed to reschedule for February after raising the issue with their asylum officer.

Now in Tijuana, the Colombian men told Morrissey that they are “confused and terrified.” They refused to provide their names, fearing that their notoriety leaves them exposed to extortion or attack. “We’re the two from Colombia,” one said. “Everyone knows we’re them. We already have problems.”

Meanwhile, legal service providers continue to avoid involvement in the new Remain in Mexico, The Hill reports; an October letter from 73 service providers had notified the Biden administration that they would not enable the renewed program by participating in it. Many fear for their security while attending to clients in Mexican border towns; attorneys had been threatened while trying to do that during the earlier iteration of Remain in Mexico.

In The Hill, Nicholas Palazzo of the El Paso-based Las Américas Immigrant Advocacy Center summed up concerns about the impossibility of representing “Remain in Mexico” clients:

To assume that an organization will have the capacity to provide an attorney on the spot—‘cause they’re being called on a hotline—and drop everything to speak with someone, prepare them, discussing an incredibly traumatizing series of events, while also explaining a confusing legal standard over the phone while the person is in CBP custody and then hopefully represent them on the phone, I mean, there are very, very few organizations, if any, at least on the border, that will have actual capacity to do that. …This is a problem of the administration’s own creation. You can’t really blame anyone else but the administration for designing a program that is inherently flawed and then expecting that legal organizations are going to be able to drop everything to assist people on the fly like that.

Links

  • A heavily redacted report from the DHS Inspector-General finds that CBP officers “did not evaluate unsubstantiated information, and made unsupported conclusions” when they revoked the “trusted traveler” status of two U.S. citizens whom they believed were aiding migrant caravans in 2018 and 2019. NBC’s San Diego affiliate talks to a pastor who is suing because CBP officers, believing she was tied to a caravan, requested that the Mexican government deny her entry.
  • Vice President Kamala Harris is considering attending the inauguration of Honduran President-Elect Xiomara Castro, CNN’s Priscilla Álvarez tweeted.
  • The humanitarian group Humane Borders recovered more than 220 sets of human remains in southern Arizona in 2021, the bodies of migrants who perished of dehydration or exposure in the state’s deserts. “In Arizona, the death toll was at least on par with a 10-year high in 2020,” Fronteras Desk reports.
  • The Arizona Daily Star updates on CBP’s proposed border wall “remediation” projects in Arizona, for which the agency is seeking public input. The report notes that this will probably include closing small gaps where Trump-era construction segments did not fully meet up. Environmental defenders point out that these gaps are some of the only remaining corridors for migratory wildlife. Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat, voiced support for closing the gaps in a December statement.
  • CBP reportedly encountered more than 29,000 undocumented migrants in its Yuma sector, in southwest Arizona and southeast California, in December. That monthly number is more than any of the Yuma sector’s full-year encounter totals between 2008 and 2018. Many are Haitians who continue to be quickly placed on expulsion flights to Haiti, the Washington Examiner notes.
  • Panama’s migration authorities reported apprehending 133,726 migrants in 2021, more than in the previous 11 years combined. About three quarters were Haitian, or the Chilean or Brazilian-born children of Haitian citizens. Caitlyn Yates of the Migration Policy Institute summarizes the data on Twitter, pointing out that Panama’s numbers fell sharply at the end of 2021.
  • A letter from 35 Democratic senators, including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, asks the Departments of Homeland Security and State to grant or re-designate Temporary Protected Status for citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua for humanitarian reasons.
  • Reports continue to emerge of a migrant caravan likely to depart from Honduras on January 15. (No caravan has succeeded in reaching Mexico’s U.S. border since late 2018.)
  • The sheriff of Real County, Texas (pop. 3,400, about 100 miles from the border) “is under criminal investigation for allegedly having his deputies illegally seize money and a truck from undocumented immigrants during traffic stops,” before handing them over to Border Patrol, the Texas Tribune reports.
  • Migrant smugglers’ fees to reach the United States from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala have risen from about $3,200 in 1996 to over $18,000 today, Al Jazeera finds.
  • A new filing from the Biden administration’s Family Reunification Task Force notifies that it has reunited 112 children with parents who were separated from them by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policies. The task force has yet to reach the parents of 237 children. At the same time, the administration is arguing in federal court that families whom the Trump administration separated are not entitled to financial damages. Meanwhile, media reports that victims of family separation might receive financial compensation have already caused some families to receive calls from extortionists, the Associated Press reported.
  • CBP’s warehouse-sized “Ursula Avenue” processing facility for migrants in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector, first opened during the first child migrant crisis in 2014, will reopen in a matter of weeks after more than a year of renovations. Its new design will no longer include its notorious pens surrounded by chain-link fencing.
  • Tijuana’s El Imparcial newspaper reports that a smuggling network charges an increasing number of migrants from Russia up to $10,000 to cross into the United States. CBP data show that of the 1,711 Russian migrants the agency encountered in November 2021, 95 percent crossed in the San Diego sector, which abuts Tijuana. That number more than doubled in three months.
  • During the holidays (December 30), Border Patrol’s El Paso sector tweeted about the apprehension of five migrants from Turkey, accompanying it with a graphic bearing the words “TURKISH INCURSION” in bright red letters.

Weekly Border Update: January 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.

Remain in Mexico has been applied to nearly 250 people

As of Tuesday January 4, the Biden administration’s “Remain in Mexico” (RMX) program had sent 217 asylum-seeking migrants back into Mexico to await their first U.S. immigration court hearings. The program, also known as “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP), had been applied to 135 citizens of Nicaragua (62 percent), 46 Venezuelans, 16 Cubans, 13 Ecuadorians, and 7 Colombians.

By January 5 a source at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) told Mexico’s Aristegui Noticias that 224 men had been sent back across the border since December 8, when the court-ordered revival of the Trump-era program began. In some of these cases, rights advocates have observed a failure to take steps that the Biden administration had promised to implement in order to make RMX more humane.

As explained in past updates, Remain in Mexico was a Trump administration initiative that sent 71,071 asylum seekers with U.S. cases into Mexico between January 2019 and January 2021. Most were sent across before March 2020, when the “Title 42” pandemic measure made requesting asylum nearly impossible by quickly expelling as many migrants as possible.

At least 1,500 asylum seekers suffered violent attacks after being made to remain in Mexico, according to information compiled by Human Rights First. Candidate Joe Biden pledged to end the program, and acted quickly to do so in early 2021, bringing more than 10,000 asylum seekers to await their hearings on U.S. soil. A lawsuit from the 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.

Republican attorneys general of Texas and Missouri led to a Texas federal judge, in August 2021, ordering the Biden administration to carry out a “good faith” effort to restart Remain in Mexico. The Supreme Court refused to put a hold on that order while lower-court appeals continued.

Title 42, which expels undocumented migrants without affording them a chance to request protection in the United States, is applied heavily to citizens of Mexico, and to citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, whose expulsions Mexico agreed to receive in March 2020. Citizens of other, more distant countries are harder to expel quickly, though (as discussed below) the Biden administration is implementing a large-scale airlift of expelled Haitian migrants.

If they are from the Western Hemisphere, asylum seekers from those “other” countries—who, including Haiti, made up 30 percent of all encountered migrants in November—are now increasingly likely to find themselves subject to Remain in Mexico. Not a single citizen of El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras has ended up in the revived program yet. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) continues to use Title 42 for people from those countries, which means that they (along with Mexicans) do not even get asylum cases or hearing dates in the U.S. immigration system.

It is notable that the top three nationalities to which “Remain in Mexico” has so far been applied—Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba—are undemocratic states whose human rights record the U.S. government forcefully criticizes. They are also countries less likely to accept expulsion or deportation flights—though as noted below, 18 flights landed in Nicaragua last year.

The new Remain in Mexico began December 8 in El Paso; on January 5 it expanded to San Diego, where two Colombian men became the first people sent across to await their U.S. hearings in Tijuana. There, IOM staff tested them for COVID-19, gave them information about what to expect in the RMX process, and took them to a shelter.

A U.S. Embassy representative told Tijuana shelter operators and migrant advocates that Remain in Mexico would steadily expand to a maximum of 30 people per day in Tijuana. The Biden administration plans to implement the program at seven ports of entry (San Diego and Calexico, California; Nogales, Arizona; and El Paso, Eagle Pass, Laredo, and Brownsville, Texas). If it applied Remain in Mexico to that full complement of 30 people per day per port of entry, 6,300 people could be sent into Mexican border towns each month. The Trump administration only exceeded that monthly total three times during the earlier incarnation of RMX.

That many new returnees, along with regular deportations and an increasing number of migrants arriving from Haiti and elsewhere, will strain shelters and other humanitarian efforts in Tijuana, Father Patrick Murphy, who runs Tijuana’s Casa de Migrante shelter, told Border Report. “Tijuana is going to be in a difficult position with this constant migration and we haven’t seen much of a response from our government, there’s no help, and they won’t talk to us or take our input.”

The U.S. government has reportedly pledged to provide funding that would benefit shelters receiving RMX participants in Mexican border towns, but where that stands is not clear. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) referred San Diego Union-Tribune inquiries about funding to the Department of State, which did not respond.

In El Paso, the first hearings took place on January 3 for asylum seekers who had been sent across the border into Ciudad Juárez in December. Thirty-six people reported to the port of entry, some at 4:30 AM, and were brought to the federal courthouse in downtown El Paso.

The Biden administration had promised that migrants would have greater access to legal representation in the rebooted program; during the Trump-era program, only 10 percent (18 percent of those who were able to attend all immigration hearings) had lawyers. The situation so far is unchanged: only five of eighty-two asylum seekers brought to El Paso on January 3 and 4 had attorneys present, according to Yael Schacher of Refugees International, who observed the proceedings.

Observers’ access to the courtrooms was also spotty: reporter René Kladzyk of El Paso Matters was barred from attending hearings even though a Department of Justice fact sheet reads, “when court space is limited, media representatives have priority over the general public.” An official cited COVID-19 capacity limitations.

Human Rights First researchers noted other inconsistencies with the Biden administration’s promises of a more humane Remain in Mexico program. Some of the first returnees to Ciudad Juárez said they were not asked required medical screening questions that might exempt people with some conditions from being sent back: DHS personnel had simply checked “no” on a form’s list of medical conditions. Every person Human Rights First staff interviewed upon return to Juárez reported suffering harm in Mexico, including kidnappings, or violence from police or other officials—but they were sent back to Mexico anyway. The Border Project, a legal watchdog group, identified 24 returnees whom it determined should have been exempted from RMX for medical reasons.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reports, “When asked about this issue in a press call on Monday [January 3], administration officials said that asylum seekers in the program can go to ports of entry or reach out to U.S. officials via email if they feel they’ve been incorrectly placed into the program or if their situations have changed.”

The Biden administration continues to insist that it opposes the renewed program, even as it expands it. On December 29 the Department of Justice asked the Supreme Court to expedite its consideration of the lawsuit brought by the Texas and Missouri attorneys general, which had forced the program’s restart, urging it to hold oral arguments in April. It is far from certain that the conservative Supreme Court would find in the Biden administration’s favor.

Meanwhile, proponents of Remain in Mexico are arguing that the administration is not moving to restore the program as quickly as the court order requires. Former Trump White House advisor Stephen Miller published a tweet lamenting that Remain in Mexico has been applied to “about 200” single adult men so far “out of the many 100’s of thousands flooding across unimpeded,” claiming that “Biden is violating a fed court injunction.”

Migrant removal flights increased from 2020 to 2021

Guatemala City’s first U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contractor flights of the year landed on January 4, one from McAllen, Texas and one from nearby Harlingen, Texas. They discharged 251 deported or expelled Guatemalan citizens, 67 of them children. This continues the pace of removal flights set in 2021, according to Guatemalan authorities who counted 184 flights last year discharging 17,806 migrants. Many of those migrants—we don’t have an exact amount—were detained at the border and expelled under Title 42; others were detained by ICE in the U.S. interior. Last year, Mexican authorities deported another 45,498 people to Guatemala, 4,775 by air and the rest on 1,195 buses.

What a new report from Witness at the Border calls “the largest mass deportation campaign in 5 decades” continues in Haiti. As of the morning of January 7, the Biden administration had sent 162 planeloads of Haitian citizens back to Port-au-Prince or Cap-Haïtien, returning about 16,300 people in less than a year. Most are Title 42 expulsions. (In 2020, the Trump administration operated 37 ICE removal flights to Haiti, according to Witness at the Border, which monitors likely ICE fights.) About 126 of those flights have occurred since September 19, 2021, after thousands of Haitian citizens arrived en masse in the border town of Del Rio, Texas.

Overall, Witness at the Border found an increase in migrant removal flights from the Trump administration’s final year to the Biden administration’s first year. 975 flights operated between February and December 2021 (discarding January 2021, which was split between the two presidents). This is up 6 percent from 917 flights between February and December 2020.

Among other interesting findings in the organization’s year-end report:

  • Removal flights going directly to El Salvador (-21 percent), Guatemala (-26 percent), and Honduras (-26 percent) decreased from 2020 to 2021. However, “this decrease of 135 flights was more than offset by the 143 flights to Villahermosa and Tapachula [southern Mexico] that resulted in chain expulsions of an estimated over 14,000 people, primarily Guatemalans and Hondurans, expelled first by US to southern Mexico by air, and then expelled by Mexico by land to Guatemala. In neither case were these people afforded their legal right to assert their rights to seek protection.”
  • One or two flights per month removed people to Nicaragua, despite the deteriorating political and human rights situation and a poor bilateral relationship. Flights continued even after Nicaragua’s illegitimate November 7 elections: two in November, two in December, and eighteen in the year, similar to the nineteen that operated in 2020.
  • The 19 destinations with more than 1 removal flight in 2021 were Guatemala City, Guatemala (184); all of Honduras (149); Port-au-Prince, Haiti (132); Villahermosa, Mexico (112); San Salvador, El Salvador (90); Ecuador (72); Tapachula, Mexico (56); Guadalajara, Mexico (52); Mexico City, Mexico (49); Morelia, Mexico (23); Cap-Haïtien, Haiti (22); Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (21); all of Brazil (21); Managua, Nicaragua (18); Querétaro, Mexico (16); Bogotá, Colombia (12); Kingston, Jamaica (12); Puebla, Mexico (7); and Piarco, Trinidad (3).

Asylum claims in Mexico

Mexico’s small refugee agency, COMAR, reported a record-smashing number of migrants requesting asylum in the country in 2021. The 131,448 applications last year exceeded COMAR’s previous high (70,351 in 2019) by 87 percent. It is more than 100 times the number of people who sought asylum in Mexico as recently as 2013.

For the first time, Haiti led the list of nationalities of asylum seekers in Mexico, with 51,827. Another 6,970 people listed as from Chile and 3,836 from Brazil are also mostly of Haitian descent: many are children of Haitian migrants who first emigrated to those countries. Honduras, with 36,361 applicants, was in second place—though the number of Honduran asylum seekers exceeds 2019’s record.

While the U.S. government continues Title 42 expulsions of Haitian migrants, Mexico (without even counting those listed as Chilean or Brazilian) has considered asylum requests from 837 percent more Haitians in 2021 than in 2019. Working with the UN Refugee Agency, COMAR has launched a pilot program to provide 200 Haitian asylum applicants with temporary visas allowing them to work while awaiting decisions on their cases. Mexico’s largest convenience store chain, Oxxo, also announced its intention to hire Haitians.

The busiest COMAR office continues to be the one in Mexico’s southern border city of Tapachula, Chiapas. In this city of about 350,000 people, 89,688 migrants applied for asylum last year: 68 percent of all of Mexico’s 2021 asylum requests. Tapachula was followed by COMAR’s offices in Mexico City (18,959); Tenosique, Tabasco (7,161); Acayucan, Veracruz (5,809); Palenque, Chiapas (5,696); and Tijuana, Baja California (4,135).

Of the 37,806 asylum decisions that COMAR issued in 2021, 72 percent were grants of asylum and 2 percent were grants of “complementary protection.” The other 26 percent of applications were denied. Adding asylum and complementary protection, COMAR approved 97 percent of Venezuelans, 85 percent of Hondurans and Salvadorans; 69 percent of Cubans; 35 percent of Haitians; and 56 percent of other countries’ citizens.

Texas’s troubled National Guard border mission

Since March 2021 Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has ramped up the National Guard presence along his state’s border with Mexico, part of a $2 billion crackdown that he calls “Operation Lone Star.” About 10,000 troops are helping to set up border fencing with state funds, to interdict migrants on charges of “trespassing,” and to support Texas state police in the border zone.

In the United States, National Guardsmen are military personnel commanded by state governors, though they may also be called up for federal government duty. A separate federal National Guard deployment, begun by Donald Trump in 2018 and continued in the Biden administration, maintained about 4,000 troops along the border in 2021. An extensive December 2021 investigation by Army Times finds this federal deployment “falling apart” amid low morale, discipline problems, and an unclear mission.

The state mission is also deeply troubled, Army Times investigator Davis Winkie revealed in a subsequent report published December 23. Four soldiers tied to Operation Lone Star died by suicide between late October and mid-December. A fifth “accidentally shot and killed himself in an alcohol-related incident Saturday [January 1] and another survived a suicide attempt during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day,” Winkie again reported on January 4.

A possible reason for the wave of suicides may be the disruption to the lives of guardsmen caused by call-ups on just a few days’ notice, causing significant hardship. Like reservists, most National Guard personnel are civilians, with non-military jobs and families, until they are called to serve.

The morale situation is exacerbated by Texas state government budget cuts that slashed tuition assistance grants for guardsmen by more than 50 percent this year. Meanwhile, many soldiers are not being paid on time, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Links

  • New arrivals of unaccompanied children at the U.S.-Mexico border have dropped sharply in the new year. CBP encountered 55 children on January 2, 68 on January 3, and 81 on January 4. That is down from a range of 145 to 168 per day the previous week, which itself is down from an average of 402 per day during fiscal year 2021. The number of unaccompanied migrant children in the shelter system run by the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) fell below 10,000 on January 2, for the first time since March 2021.
  • 11 months after the Biden administration paused border wall construction, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it will make improvements and remediations to include “closing small gaps that remain open from prior construction activities and remediating incomplete gates.” While we haven’t yet confirmed that this will happen, “closing gaps” appears to mean building some wall segments. “Some of the work involves ‘closing construction access gaps’ in the Tucson, El Paso and Yuma Border Patrol sectors ‘to address safety concerns,’” the Arizona Republic reports. “Other activities will involve flood and erosion prevention.” Environmental experts interviewed by the Republic foresee severe impacts on wildlife of closing remaining gaps in Arizona, where one stretch of border wall now runs for a continuous 70 miles, blocking animals’ migratory routes.
  • Biden administration attorneys filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought in a northern California court by three families whose members had been separated by the Trump administration’s notorious “Zero Tolerance” policy. “Actions speak louder than words, and by sending its lawyers to try to throw separated families out of court, the Biden Administration is effectively defending Trump’s cruel and unlawful family separation policy,” said Bree Bernwanger of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. Negotiations over damage payments broke down in November between the Biden administration and attorneys representing families. “That pits administration lawyers against immigrants who had their children seized—a legally and politically perilous scenario for a president whose support from Latinos and liberals is already shaky,” the Washington Post put it.
  • CBP is conducting a review of “Operation Whistle Pig,” a Trump-era program in which the agency’s secretive Counter Network Division used government databases to “vet” journalists, NGO personnel, members of Congress and others.
  • Tijuana recorded 1,972 homicides in 2021, a slight decrease from the previous two years—but with a population of 1.7 million people, that would be a homicide rate of nearly 120 per 100,000 residents, far higher than the hardest-hit U.S. cities. The homicide rate in Ciudad Juárez was nearly as high as Tijuana’s, with 1,424 recorded murders in a city of 1.3 million. Juárez’s 2021 homicide total, though, was 13 percent smaller than a year earlier.
  • The 2021 U.S. Senate session ended without a vote on the Biden administration’s nomination of Ed Gonzalez, the sheriff of Harris County (Houston), Texas, to be director of ICE. Republican senators have opposed his nomination, as Gonzalez’s department had curtailed some migration enforcement cooperation with ICE. His nomination was reintroduced on January 5. If approved, Gonzalez would be the first Senate-confirmed ICE director in five years.
  • As their country slides deeper into dictatorship, 47,534 Nicaraguans applied for asylum or other refuge in Costa Rica during the first 11 months of 2021—16,846 of them in October and November alone. The total since 2018 is 111,712 applicants.
  • At least 2,000 Hondurans may be planning to attempt a new migrant caravan around January 15, a migrant rights activist told local media. No “caravan” has succeeded in making it to the U.S. border since late 2018, as Guatemalan and Mexican authorities have blocked their progress. Guatemalan authorities report that they are preparing “protocols” to respond to a possible caravan arrival.
  • About 150-200 migrants gathered at the border bridge between Piedras Negras, Mexico and Eagle Pass, Texas late on the evening of January 2. They were apparently responding to a false rumor that CBP was processing asylum seekers. CBP closed the bridge for about an hour. Border Patrol told local news media that agents in its Del Rio sector, which includes Eagle Pass, are currently encountering about 1,000 migrants per day.

Sadness (and hope)

We don’t do “sad” well here in the United States. We’re not really mourners or grievers. We go great lengths to avoid feeling sadness. “I’ll give you something to cry about” is something parents actually say to their young children. Perhaps it’s the same around the world.

Unless it’s something immediate, like the departure of a loved one, we put our heads down, furrow our brows, and soldier on. We numb with addictions, from alcohol to fentanyl to overwork to social media. (We write blog posts.) We bury.

We avoid feeling sadness, too, out of a sense that it’s a wrong turn: that it’s the opposite of acting to reverse it. That it’s pointless wallowing, or an admission of defeat.

It isn’t, though. Sometimes it’s first necessary to feel the sadness fully. Only then can we work to ease it. Maybe this part of the year is the time to do that. To give in, if only for a moment.

2021 has been another unrelenting year. Even if we haven’t been hit directly by COVID or other, mostly human-caused, tragedies, there’s an ambient sense of loss. Despair has been building up in our peripheral vision. If we look at it directly, we may find that all the little bits of sadness have accreted into a howling mass.

There’s great sadness for everything we lost during the pandemic. More than 800,000 people gone forever, in this country alone—1 in 400—along with all of the contributions they could have made. People who lost their incomes and saw their careers or ambitions derailed. People who lost parents or those they most admired, their sources of stability. People who just feel a lot less rooted and secure than they did two years ago. All the human connections, from classrooms to churches to celebrations, that never got made.

Sadness for the tens of millions deluded into refusing life-saving vaccines and treatments. Sadness for “essential” workers who’ve taken risks every day for us. Sadness for the big share of our population—the non-voters, the “low information,” those forced to work long hours while raising kids, those simply disconnected from their communities—whom our government, at all levels, didn’t make the extra required effort to reach and protect. Sadness for those in poorer countries denied a chance even to obtain vaccines and treatments.

Our planet: the fading-away species, their dwindling habitats, that we’ll never see again. The human victims of climate-related storms and wildfires. The imminent loss of coastal and floodplain communities, and the mass dislocations to come. The unchecked disappearance of rainforests and coral reefs. Humanity’s frustrating incapacity to act collectively on even modest efforts to change behavior. The knowledge that the weakest and most marginalized will bear the worst of it.

The tents going up in our towns, big and small, as the cost of a home slips out of reach. Kids and parents experiencing homelessness just blocks away. The growing addicted population. The numbingly common overdose deaths: more than 10 per hour nationwide. A Congress run by the “more compassionate” party but failing to pass legislation to help Americans falling through the cracks.

The storm clouds of U.S. democracy’s possible extinction in 2022 and 2024, and the paralysis among the majority who must act to prevent it. The marginalized, like Black Americans, LGBT Americans, undocumented Americans, the poorest Americans, whose experience of life here—interactions with police, employers, immigration agents, judges, and now even voting registries—can barely be called “democracy” anyway.

Our leaders’ remarkable inability—or lack of will—to hold accountable people who’ve broken our laws, including those paying no price for inspiring terror at the U.S. Capitol 50 weeks ago. A sad echo of the impunity granted to all who lied their way through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, through systematic torture, and in the runup to the 2008 financial crisis.

The manufactured suffering of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, whom a Democratic U.S. administration has left homeless and cut off from family and support networks in some of the hemisphere’s most dangerous cities, without even a chance to ask for protection here. The parents in those border cities sending their kids across alone, heartbroken but knowing they’ll be better protected. The peculiar glee with which many U.S. border and immigration personnel carry out these policies.

The growing number of countries becoming populist, nationalist dictatorships—first through fair elections, later through sham elections. The lack of formulas for unseating those regimes. The growing ranks of jailed, tortured, and exiled journalists, activists, and civic leaders. The probability that the United States could become one of those regimes. What that will mean for those of us who continue to speak out.

That’s a big, built-up mass of sadness and loss, constantly hovering in our peripheral vision.

Placing that mass into our direct focus, sitting with it and trying to draw some wisdom from it, can’t happen on a typical, hectic, routine day. We have too many responsibilities and people to attend. We have to stay paid. We certainly don’t sit with it on social media or wherever else our ragged “national conversation” takes place—those venues substitute outrage for sadness, making it worse as we endlessly scroll.

Here at the end of the year, though, most of us have time out of the routine. Hopefully that means at least a few hours not looking at our phones, and reflecting, alone and with those closest to us. If we get a chance to do that, then we should try, for a moment, not pushing the sadness away when it comes.

Go ahead and be with it for a long moment. The end of the year is a good time to do it. Don’t wallow, but do feel it deeply, in all its dimensions. Give in to it: let the sad pass through. It will probably be wrenching. It may hurt.

But then, act. Don’t turn the sadness into anger—at least, not into undirected rage. Sadness and anger are only worthwhile if, like alchemists, we can forge them into something creative.

Examples abound of people doing that. I know hundreds of them from my work in Latin America. But there are hundreds—even thousands—within a 10-mile radius of where you’re reading this.

Those doing registration and get-out-the-vote drives? Fighting for housing, addiction treatment, or asylum? Feeding the hungry, assembling COVID test kits, taking in strangers? They see so much of the sadness on a daily basis that they probably have PTSD. But they keep going.

Right now there are people teaching and mentoring kids, caring for the ill, caring for others’ kids, developing life-saving medical treatments. There are people defending migrants, representing victims of police brutality, advocating for those experiencing homelessness.

People trying to undo deliberate government policies that cause human suffering, at home and abroad. People pushing audacious ideas, from criminal justice reform to housing-first to alternative energy to immigration reform to disarmament to stopping human rights abuse. People trying to end armed conflicts and solve devastating political impasses.

Artists willing new works into existence, changing how we feel or view the world, comforting us, discomforting us, provoking us. People urging political leaders to act, but not content to wait around for them.

As with sources of sadness, the sources of hope are innumerable. They mean so much more than the latest outrages on our phones’ screens.

So give in, for a moment, to the sadness that comes with being alive right now. But then reflect on how to reduce it, how to alchemize it into hope.

Reflect on our own behaviors that might be contributing to the sadness—we all have some. Reflect on how we can better use our talents, our energies, and our connections with people to bring relief, to create… happiness. To create human happiness out of thin air, where nothing existed before but indifference and apathy.

After the sadness, go look for the embers of hope: in our communities, in our families, in our networks, and in ourselves. Then let’s fan them into real flames.

Let’s have a happy new year.

Weekly Border Update: December 10, 2021

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 is likely the final Border Update of 2021. We look forward to resuming on January 7.

First migrants are returned under Remain in Mexico 2.0

The Biden administration’s court-ordered restart of the Remain in Mexico (RMX) program became reality this week in El Paso, the city where the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) get-tough border initiatives often get rolled out first.

As explained in last week’s and prior updates, Remain in Mexico (known formally as Migrant Protection Protocols or MPP) was a Trump administration initiative that forced 71,071 asylum-seekers to await their U.S. immigration hearings inside Mexico between January 2019 and January 2021. Most cases occurred before March 2020, when the “Title 22” pandemic measure made requesting asylum nearly impossible. At least 1,500 of these asylum seekers suffered violent attacks. Candidate Joe Biden pledged to end the program, and acted quickly to do so in early 2021. A lawsuit from the Republican attorneys-general of Texas and Missouri led to a Texas federal judge, in August 2021, ordering the Biden administration to carry out a “good faith” effort to restart Remain in Mexico. The Supreme Court refused to put a hold on that order while lower-court appeals continue.

Months of negotiations with Mexico culminated in a December 2 agreement to restart the program. Remain in Mexico is to restart at seven ports of entry, with a maximum of 30 people per day expected to be sent back into Mexico from each port. (That, if used maximally, would add up to more than 60,000 people per month; the Trump administration’s peak month, August 2019, saw 12,387 people made to remain in Mexico.) A court filing indicated that the program would restart on December 6; as of December 4, Border Patrol sources told south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley Monitor that the agency had not yet received guidance for how to implement it.

“More than 30 migrants had their asylum cases processed in El Paso this week,” the Washington Post reported on December 8. As of mid-day on Friday the 10th, we’ve seen 28 of them:

  • Two single men, a Colombian and a Nicaraguan, sent across into Ciudad Juárez on the 8th. Their transfer, originally planned for the 7th, was delayed “after the process hit a temporary snag and coordination issues,” according to the Post. They have hearing dates in early January. The Nicaraguan migrant told Reuters that “he felt a little sad, but gave thanks to God that he was still alive.”
  • Six adult men escortedover the bridge to Juárez, clad in DHS-issued sweatsuits, on the morning of the 9th. They are citizens of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.
  • As we write this update on the 10th, another 20 migrants have just been returned from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez, informs Julie Neusner of Human Rights First, who has been closely reporting developments on her Twitter account. As of 1:30pm eastern on the 10th, we don’t know these migrants’ nationalities; Neusner said they appeared once again to be single adult males.

In addition to likely logistical issues, the delay in rolling out the send-backs may have something to do with migrants being granted non-refoulement interviews. In a shift from the Trump-era program, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers must now ask whether those enrolled in Remain in Mexico fear being returned to Mexico. If they say “yes,” they are to have interviews with asylum officers after 24 hours of preparation in custody. In those interviews, they must prove a “reasonable possibility” of persecution and torture in Mexico; if they do, their asylum petitions may be processed inside the United States. Advocates like former WOLA executive director Joy Olson are skeptical: “When it comes to the US making exceptions for asylum seekers who are at risk if they remain in Mexico, I’ll believe it when I see it. Until now, even those who had previously been kidnapped in Mexico were returned when they tried to apply for US asylum.”

After release into Juárez, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) gives migrants COVID-19 tests and transports them to an approved shelter. For now, those shelters appear to be the Kiko Romero shelter run by the municipal government and the large Leona Vicario facility run by the federal government. The latter shelter housed several hundred Remain in Mexico subjects in 2019 and 2020.

Migrant rights advocates, including WOLA, are surprised by how robust a program the Biden administration is establishing at the Texas court’s obligation, given its professed opposition to Remain in Mexico. “The reimplementation of MPP by this administration is going well beyond what is required of them by court order,” Shaw Drake of the El Paso-based American Civil Liberties Union Border Rights Center told the Washington Post. Not only will Remain in Mexico operate at a large number of border crossings—including some across from the country’s most violent border cities—the Biden administration is applying it to a larger variety of nationalities than the Trump administration did.

While the Trump-era program made citizens of Spanish and Portuguese-speaking Latin America remain in Mexico, the Biden 2.0 program will apply to citizens of the entire Western Hemisphere, including Creole-speaking Haitian migrants. “This is going beyond good faith implementation of the court order,” a former Biden appointee told BuzzFeed. “When you add new populations and are doing it in addition to Title 42, you are intentionally implementing a program that you know is largely indistinguishable from the prior one and putting more populations in it.” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who insists that he opposes RMX, explained that because “the demographics along the border change with time,” any “good faith” implementation required adding Haitians.

Early indications show other similarities to the Trump-era program’s harsher aspects. CBP is once again sending migrants into Mexico without returning most of their clothing and belongings, purportedly because they “might be ‘carrying diseases,’” Neusner reports. She adds that CBP is once again requiring migrants to report at U.S. ports of entry for their court dates at 4:30 in the morning, a time when dark and empty border cities can be dangerous.

While the Biden-era program includes humanitarian adjustments, these “aren’t clear and haven’t materialized, and they most likely won’t comply with the needs of shelter, protection, or access to health care and legal assistance,” Tonatiuh Guillén, who headed Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) during the first months of the Andrés Manuel López Obrador administration, told the Post. Kennji Kizuka of Human Rights First notes in the same article that promises of humanitarian exceptions were routinely broken in 2019 and 2020.

A key concern is shelter space for individuals and families who may have to wait months inside Mexico for their hearings. Ciudad Juárez’s network of 27 mostly charity-run migrant shelters is already at 83 percent capacity, Sin Embargo reports. The municipal shelter’s capacity is 200, and it currently houses about 170 people. IOM data cited by the Spanish wire service EFE indicate that Tijuana’s 23-shelter, 2,967-bed network is 85 percent occupied. “We’re saturated, we practically can’t attend to anyone else,” José María García of Tijuana’s Juventud 2000 shelter told the local daily El Imparcial.

Father Francisco Gallardo, who manages shelters in Matamoros and Reynosa, told Animal Político that “for the time being they have not received any information or extra support to receive the migrants.” While the top official for North America at Mexico’s foreign ministry, Roberto Velasco, told an interviewer that about US$80 million in U.S. assistance would be forthcoming to assist migrants via international organizations, no figure has been published anywhere else, and word about shelter provision remains quite vague.

IOM will be providing transportation to shelters and to court hearings. The agency has also condemned RMX as “inhumane and contrary to international law.” For its part, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) makes clear that it “was never involved in implementing MPP and will not be supporting the reinstated policy.” IOM is “pushing Mexico to provide migrants with documents and ID numbers that would allow them to work legally, open bank accounts and access services while they wait,” the Washington Post reports. However, during the Trump-era version of the program, Animal Político had found, only 64 of the 71,000 migrants forced to remain in Mexico had managed to secure formal employment.

Access to legal representation remains a concern. During RMX 1.0, “nearly 95% of people placed into MPP were unable to find a lawyer, compared to just 40% of people inside the United States,” according to Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council. This time, citing strong reluctance to return to the personal danger involved with representing RMX clients in dangerous Mexican border cities, most pro-bono attorneys are refusing to include their names on CBP handouts listing lawyers. “We have huge capacity limits and don’t want to be complicit in the restarting of MPP,” Linda Rivas of the El Paso-based Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center told CNN. “When they rely so much on the NGOs to make things happen, they try to justify programs that are inhumane and don’t restore asylum.”

Perhaps the most urgent unmet need is security. “A program that requires asylum seekers to remain in one of the most dangerous parts of the world while their cases are pending in U.S. immigration courts cannot guarantee their protection from persecution and torture, as required by U.S. law,” reads a December 2 letter from the U.S. asylum officers’ union. “That first half hour of return to Mexico is the most dangerous point,” Taylor Levy, an attorney who represented many RMX subjects in El Paso, told the Monitor. “That first half hour, that first hour, that’s where we see the most kidnappings. We see systematic kidnappings particularly in Tamaulipas, particularly in Nuevo Laredo.”

In response to these concerns, plans for RMX 2.0 indicate that those sent back into some of the most dangerous border cities in Tamaulipas and Coahuila, Mexico, may be transported to cities deeper into Mexico’s interior. Much about this transport remains undefined, though, including how migrants would be brought back to the border for their hearings.

While the Remain in Mexico rollout proceeds, the Biden administration continues to implement the Trump-era “Title 42” policy of quickly expelling migrants, purportedly to limit COVID exposure, without offering a chance to request asylum. Mexico accepts rapid expulsions of most migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Citizens of other Western Hemisphere countries may now find themselves in Mexico, too—including many from dictatorial regimes that the U.S. government regularly condemns, like Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Unlike those from northern Central America, those in RMX will at least have court dates in the United States to begin their asylum processes.

Though the chance of gaining asylum through Remain in Mexico 1.0 was very slim—1.6 percent of closed cases resulted in any protected status inside the United States—some migrants may be viewing RMX as an incentiveto cross. As long as Title 42 remains in effect and ports of entry remain closed to the undocumented, Remain in Mexico is just about the only avenue available to seek asylum for migrants arriving at the U.S. border right now.

Senate confirms Chris Magnus as CBP Commissioner

By a 50-47 vote on December 7, the U.S. Senate confirmed Chris Magnus, the 61-year-old police chief of Tucson, Arizona, as the first commissioner of CBP since 2019. It was a near-total party-line vote, with only Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) voting with all Democrats to confirm Magnus. Though Magnus was nominated in April, his Senate process was delayed by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who had held the nomination until CBP provided information about the Trump administration’s use of agency personnel to combat protesters in Portland in 2020.

Magnus is the first openly gay CBP Commissioner. He was known as a relatively progressive police chief, marching with Black Lives Matter protesters in 2014 and vocally criticizing the Trump administration’s immigration policies. He will now head a 60,000-person law enforcement organization, encompassing all of Border Patrol, port-of-entry personnel, and an air and marine division, whose unions were outspoken in their political support for Donald Trump. Even before taking office, Magnus has come up for frequent criticism in the Border Patrol union’s podcast.

CBP also usually ranks among federal agencies with the lowest morale. The agency faces frequent allegations of improper use of force, as well as a culture of everyday abuse—treatment of migrants in custody, verbal abuse, attitudes expressed in a controversial Facebook group—reflecting hostility to undocumented migrants and asylum seekers.

This, combined with many agents’ and supervisors’ affinity for Trump, may spell difficult relations between the agency’s rank and file and Magnus, who said at his October confirmation hearing that he wanted to enforce the law “humanely” and include more sensitivity in Border Patrol agents’ training. Magnus also told senators that he is “not an ideologue” and would take a pragmatic approach with the agency.

Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum, which investigated CBP’s use of force during the Obama administration, told the New York Times that he did not expect Magnus to burst out the gate with a barrage of transparency and accountability reforms. “Police chiefs coming into an environment like this recognize that their learning curve has to go up, and that means listening a lot before you do anything.”

The Times reports that the Biden administration’s nominee to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Harris County, Texas Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, might come up in the Senate next week.

Caravans dwindle while Mexico allows asylum seekers to wait in other states

The Mexican daily Milenio published a helpful explainer about the migrant “caravans”—episodes of mass travel, on foot—that have departed from Mexico’s southern border-zone city of Tapachula since October 23. The vast majority of these caravans’ members are among the 123,000 migrants who have requested asylum before Mexico’s beleaguered refugee agency, COMAR, during the first 11 months of 2021.

Though some seek to reach the United States, many are pushing Mexico to loosen a guideline restricting them to the state where they first applied for asylum. Nearly 85,000 applied in Tapachula, a city of 350,000 in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state. Caravan participants want to exit the city, where employment and income opportunities are few. COMAR, though, is only able to process about 5,000 asylum requests per month nationwide, so migrants’ waits have become very long. (WOLA staff discuss this complex situation with Mexico-based asylum advocates in a December 7 episode of our podcast.)

Milenio identifies four main migrant movements since mid-October, all made up of people of mixed nationalities:

  • The original October 23 movement of about 4,000 migrants from Tapachula, some of whose members—prevented from boarding vehicles—have walked almost all the way to Mexico City over nearly seven weeks. Past weekly updates have documented its slow progress.
  • A second group that arrived in Veracruz state around November 9, possibly a 500-person offshoot of the first caravan. Authorities appear to have blocked or dispersed this group.
  • A third group of about 3,000 people that left Tapachula on November 18, only to dissolve after about five days after National Migration Institute (INM) personnel agreed to provide travel documents allowing most to await the result of their asylum applications in other Mexican states.
  • A fourth collection of smaller groups that Milenio calls “ant caravans,” each with several hundred people. These appear to have dissolved after coming to relocation agreements with INM, though some of their participants may have appeared in Veracruz state.

A remnant of the first group, numbering between 300 and 600 (including some who probably joined the caravan in recent days or weeks) is now in Mexico’s central state of Puebla, and may soon arrive in Mexico City. Its longest-lasting members have walked through Chiapas, Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Puebla, about 500 miles. Milenio reports that their plan is to gather in the Zócalo in central Mexico City to push for “respect for human rights, and humanitarian visas.” In mid-November the INM had reported having convinced at least 1,500 members of this “caravan” to desist in exchange for travel documents allowing them to await their asylum decisions in other southern or central Mexican states.

Reuters reported on a group walking towards Mexico City along the main highway from Puebla on December 9. It is not clear whether these migrants are part of the October 23 caravan, or a group that INM had relocated to Puebla.

These relocation arrangements are becoming more common as INM yields to migrants’ demands to leave Tapachula. In recent days the agency has been offering bus transportation from Tapachula to other states—all of them far from the U.S. border—to a number of migrants that is unknown but very likely in the thousands. Reuters mentions 45 buses leaving the city on December 4, 32 buses on December 5, and 70 more on December 6.

Enrique Vidal of the Tapachula-based Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center is critical. “It is an improvised reaction,” he told the Associated Press. “They have the people completely uninformed and they think they can move them like merchandise.”

A large crowd of mostly Haitian migrants—estimates range from 3,000 to 7,000 people—has encamped outside of the Tapachula soccer stadium that COMAR had been using as a processing facility. They are demanding documents allowing them to live outside of Chiapas, along with bus transportation.

The process has been chaotic, which in turn has slowed the flow of buses from the stadium to a “trickle,” according to attorney Arturo Viscarra from CHIRLA. Meanwhile the Mexican daily El Universal published allegations that corrupt INM agents have been selling bus tickets to Haitian migrants—which are supposedly free—for US$300 apiece.

Between the restart of “Remain in Mexico” and Title 42’s persistence, on one hand, and the Tapachula buses on the other, Mexico is in a strange situation of seeking to relocate migrants into its interior from crowded situations at both its dangerous northern border and its economically depressed southern border.

Report points to devastated morale among National Guardsmen assigned to U.S.-Mexico border

A 4,300-word investigation by Army Times reporter Davis Winkie finds that the National Guard mission at the border, begun in 2018 as part of Donald Trump’s response to migrant caravans, “fell apart” over the past year due to irrelevance, poor leadership, and low morale.

National Guardsmen have been at the border almost continuously since the Bush administration, usually in support of CBP in roles that involve no contact with migrants. By the early Trump administration, only a couple of hundred guardsmen were stationed at the border, carrying out technology-intensive missions like aerial surveillance. In April 2018, Trump greatly increased the Guard presence, and during 2021 about 4,000 personnel from 20 states have remained. A February 2021 Government Accountability Office report found fault with the deployment’s cost estimates and internal monitoring.

The Biden administration has maintained the deployment but cut back its law enforcement role; most personnel now maintain vehicles and equipment, perform light construction, and sit in vehicles all day observing the border, alerting Border Patrol to any suspicious crossings they witness. This is distinct from the National Guard deployment ordered earlier this year Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, which is funded from Texas’s state treasury and—in an unusual move—empowers soldiers to arrest civilians.

The Army Times article includes a series of bombshell revelations provided by anonymous guardsmen who had been deployed at the border. While the entire article is a rewarding read, some highlights include:

The irrelevance of the mission: Guardsmen “stared into the darkness and fell asleep on the job while awaiting shipments of equipment for months, and only assisted in less than one in every five apprehensions. Legal restrictions on the use of Guardsmen left them with little more than watching as a mission.” Most troops are manning 24-hour lookout sites; “most consist of two soldiers in the front seat of a borrowed vehicle, peering through binoculars.” The 2021 units went months without night-vision goggles, reduced to peering into whatever was visible within range of their headlights. An officer who served at the border last year says, “We’re useless and CBP treats us like we’re useless. We cost the taxpayer millions of dollars in pay, benefits, per diem, hotels, [and] vehicle rentals.”

Personnel deaths: Three members of a 1,000-soldier battalion-level task force died, in motor vehicle and alcohol-related incidents, while based in McAllen, Texas in 2021. “For comparison, only three Army Guard troops died on overseas deployments in 2021, out of tens of thousands.”

Severe discipline problems among bored troops included widespread alcohol and drug use—so bad that local police brought drug dogs to sniff the south Texas hotels where Guardsmen were staying. Commanders carried out more than 1,200 legal actions “including nonjudicial punishments, property loss investigations, Army Regulation 15-6 investigations and more. That’s nearly one legal action for every three soldiers.” A staff officer said, “We are literally the biggest threat to ourselves down here.”

Vehicle accidents: “Troops at the border had more than three times as many car accidents over the past year—at least 500 incidents totaling roughly $630,000 in damages—than the 147 ‘illegal substance seizures’ they reported assisting.”

“If we want to secure the border, 100 customs officers is better than 100 National Guardsmen,” Rep. Rubén Gallego (D-Arizona), a former Marine, told Army Times.

“It feels warm and fuzzy to say that we have guys with camouflage down on the border, but it’s just politicians playing with people’s emotions. [The troops] don’t actually end up being effective, and you’re eroding our military capability for real threats. All you’re doing is, basically, taking [Guardsmen] away from their families [and] taking people from actual training. You’re screwing with readiness. You’re screwing with morale.

Winkie’s article cites an anonymous letter a soldier slipped under doors at a brigade headquarters in September. “‘Someone please wave the white flag and send us all home,’ the letter pleaded. ‘I would like to jump off a bridge headfirst into a pile of rocks after seeing the good ol’ boy system and f—ed up leadership I have witnessed here.’”

Now that the U.S. government has entered fiscal year 2022, the 2021 hodgepodge of units from 20 states has been replaced by a 3,000-person mission coordinated out of the Kentucky Army National Guard. The officer who commanded the Guard units during the first five months of fiscal 2021, “then-Col. Martin Clay, was promoted to brigadier general in May.”

Links

  • The International Organization on Migration estimates that 5,755 migrants have died along North American and Caribbean routes since 2014, with more than 1,060 perishing so far in 2021. Of this year’s victims, at least 650 people have died along the U.S.-Mexico border, usually of dehydration or exposure. That is the most IOM has counted since the organization began documenting deaths in 2014. Over this eight-year period, IOM counts 3,575 deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border, far more than the 2,580 remains the U.S. Border Patrol reports finding.
  • A tractor-trailer carrying about 150 migrants, most from Guatemala, hit a barrier and flipped over on a highway outside Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of Mexico’s state of Chiapas, on December 9. More than 50 people died, a number that is likely to increase.
  • The mayor of Yuma, Arizona says that more than 6,000 migrants arrived at his city’s border with Mexico between December 4 and December 9, seeking to be apprehended and petition for asylum.
  • In a two-part series at Border Report, Sandra Sánchez tells the story of a Honduran family that was placed into the Remain in Mexico program in July 2019.
  • For about a week, Tijuana shelters have noticed an increase in arrivals of Haitian migrants.
  • An internal August memo from the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) recommended against expelling or deporting Haitian migrants back to their home country given the criminal violence and political turmoil being suffered there, BuzzFeed reports. The CRCL memo was not taken into account, as about 9,600 Haitians have been expelled under Title 42, aboard 91 flights, since September 19.
  • Nicaragua has abruptly dropped visa requirements for visitors from Cuba, leading Univision to predict an increased flow of Cuban migrants through Central America and Mexico toward the U.S. border.
  • Mexican migration authorities have vastly stepped up their operations against bus transportation: Animal Político accessed internal documents showing “an increase in the number of operations against public transport, which went from one check in March to an average of 400 in August and September.” 12,000 migrants have been detained while aboard buses in Mexico so far this year. (In a much-cited 2019 article, CBP sources had told the Washington Post’sNick Miroff of a phenomenon of “express buses” leaving hundreds of asylum seekers at the border at a time.)
  • DHS is requesting public comments on policy changes to prevent any future implementation of border policies that separate families, as happened thousands of times during the Trump administration. Los Angeles Times reporter Molly O’Toole remarked on Twitter that the request for comments is “bizarre” because it “sure as hell opens itself up rhetorically to: Just don’t?”
  • Our April 16 update discussed the Biden Justice Department’s persistence in a Trump-era border wall land seizure lawsuit against the Cavazos family, which has held riverfront property in Mission, Texas for centuries. This week the family, represented by the Texas Civil Rights Project, got good news: a federal judge ordered the Biden administration to return the family’s land.

The meaning of the FARC’s removal from the U.S. terrorist list

This article appears today at the Colombian analysis site Razón Pública as “¿Qué implica que las FARC ya no estén en la lista de terroristas de Estados Unidos? I last covered this issue on this site in March 2020.


The meaning of the FARC’s removal from the U.S. terrorist list

Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America

At least in the 20 years since “Plan Colombia,” it’s been rare to see the U.S. and Colombian governments disagree in public about something. Even during the worst days of police abuses during the Paro Nacional protests earlier this year, Washington’s expressions of concern were remarkably mild.

That’s why it was surprising to hear President Iván Duque express disagreement with a step that the Biden administration took to coincide with the five-year anniversary of Colombia’s peace accord. “We understand and respect this information from the United States, but we would have preferred a different decision,” he said on November 29, the day before the State Department removed the FARC from its list of foreign terrorist organizations.

The removal of the FARC, or rather the ex-FARC, should be uncontroversial. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia on the U.S. list doesn’t exist, and hasn’t since August 2017. Of its 13,600 members who underwent demobilization, more than 90 percent haven’t carried out an act of organized violence in more than five years. They are playing by the rules and integrating themselves into civilian life.

A few continue to engage in violence against civilians. These are mainly members of Colombia’s two main ex-FARC dissident networks, the one headed by “Gentil Duarte” and the one known as “Nueva Marquetalia,” which either refused to demobilize in 2016 or abandoned the process later. Most of these groups’ members are new recruits with no guerrilla background; many weren’t even adolescents yet when the peace accord was signed. The Biden administration added these groups to the State Department’s list, in the FARC’s place.

The step taken on November 30, then, was less a “removal” of the FARC than an updating of the terrorist list to reflect reality.

As the list was being interpreted, “Gentil Duarte” and “El Paisa” were in the same category as former fighters now raising children and going to schools, starting their own businesses, or participating in competitive rafting teams. That was absurd.

But that was the reality. Under the “material support for terrorism” provisions in U.S. law, as they were being interpreted, it has been a crime—punishable with fines or up to 15 years in prison—for U.S. citizens to provide any demobilized FARC members with money, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, communications equipment, facilities, or transportation.

The U.S. government was interpreting this very strictly. It has literally been illegal even to buy them a cup of coffee, much less include them in development meetings or—as in the case of Humanicemos, a group of ex-FARC deminers who were unable to get any U.S. aid—to instruct them in a skill like landmine removal.

In off-the-record conversations going back to 2017, U.S. officials have told of incidents in which former low-ranking guerrillas have been barred from Colombian government meetings to plan Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs) or to consult with communities about government services, just because the U.S. government was partially or fully covering the meetings’ cost.

In some cases, U.S. officials only found out afterward that low-level former guerrillas had attended U.S.-funded events. When that has happened, because that ex-guerrilla may have eaten a snack provided by the conference organizers, or may have received some knowledge by attending the event, U.S. officials have had to endure numerous subsequent meetings with State Department lawyers, going over every detail to document and understand what happened, what the organizers knew, and whether it was punishable.

The delay in removing the FARC not only undermined U.S. programming, though. It made the U.S. government look out of date, unaware that the FARC on the list didn’t exist anymore. It even made the U.S. government appear actively hostile to the entire peace process, echoing the notion—expressed this year by Foreign Minister Claudia Blum and Defense Minister Diego Molano—that the Comunes party and the dissident groups (which, in fact, often target Comunes members) are somehow linked. Either way, the message Washington sent by keeping the FARC on the list was toxic.

It is great news that this step has finally been taken. But the Biden administration certainly could have rolled it out better. News of the impending decision leaked to the Wall Street Journal very early, on November 23, perhaps from an individual who opposed removing the FARC from the terrorist list. The explanation, with fuller context, did not come from the State Department and White House for days afterward, in part because November 25 was a major national holiday in the United States.

As a result, the initial reaction from many colleagues and journalists in Colombia was confused. Those of us who work on Colombia policy here in Washington got a lot of questions. Here are answers to a few of them.

Why did it take so long to take the FARC off the list, especially if it was causing so many problems for U.S. programming? There is no great answer to this, other than that while it is easy to add a group to the State Department’s list—all you need is a few attacks on civilian targets—it is hard to remove it. Revocation of a “terrorist” status requires a deliberative process within the State Department in which all interested actors have to reach consensus. The AUC formally demobilized in 2006 but remained on the list until 2014. Peru’s MRTA barely existed after the 1997 Japanese embassy fiasco, but was on the list until 2001. The Washington Post reported that each group’s terrorist designation usually gets reviewed every five years, and that the FARC had last been considered in April 2015. A fresh review of the FARC didn’t happen in 2020 because of the pandemic.

Does this mean FARC leaders are no longer wanted by U.S. justice? Nothing changes about extradition requests for FARC members. They are wanted in U.S. courts either for sending cocaine to the United States or for kidnapping or killing U.S. citizens. These are specific crimes, not the vague charge of “terrorism.” Those processes continue, so former FARC leaders wanted by U.S. justice still face risks if they travel internationally. Because he was arrested in Ecuador in 2004 while apparently serving as an intermediary for talks about three U.S. citizen defense contractors whom the FARC was holding at the time, Simón Trinidad remains imprisoned in the state of Colorado for his role in that specific case.

Is this an insult to the FARC’s victims? Annette Taddeo, a Democratic Party state senator in Florida, emigrated from Colombia when she was 17, after the FARC kidnapped her father. “For me and many of us, this is painful and very personal,” she tweeted. The FARC upended the lives of thousands of Colombians; many of them, and their loved ones, are no doubt outraged to see any sign of conciliation like a U.S. recognition that those leaders are no longer behaving as terrorists. The fact, though, is that the top non-dissident ex-FARC leadership appears truly to have renounced terrorism. They remain guilty of many things, and must answer to their victims and the transitional justice process. But the “terrorist” label no longer sticks.

What about Sen. Marco Rubio’s complaint that any U.S. money that benefits ex-FARC members should go through the Colombian government? The Colombian government “doesn’t want the delisting,” Sen. Marco Rubio (Republican of Florida), who is close to Uribismo, told U.S. radio. “What they wanted was, to the extent that you’re going to provide assistance to these people who abandoned the guerrilla fight, laid down their weapons, become politically engaged, we want you to run that assistance through the democratically elected government of Colombia, not unilaterally.” This argument is confusing. Most US assistance with ex-combatants’ participation—reincorporation, rural development, demining—would go hand-in-hand with the efforts of Colombian government agencies. U.S. aid almost never goes to such agencies directly as cash payments.

Why is Cuba still on the list of state sponsors? Before leaving office in January 2021, the Trump administration re-added Cuba to its list of state sponsors of terrorism, alongside Iran, Syria, and North Korea. The main reason cited was Cuba’s refusal to extradite ELN leaders who had been in the country for peace talks with the Colombian government, a move that would have violated those talks’ protocols. That the Biden administration hasn’t taken steps to remove Cuba, even as it removes the FARC, probably owes more to the politics around U.S.-Cuban relations. It would be very difficult to take Cuba off of the list—or perform any other act of engagement—in the weeks after Cuba’s government aggressively suppressed a citizen protest movement.

Why was the announcement rolled out this way? When we heard that the FARC were being taken off, why didn’t we know right away that the dissident groups would be added? There is no great answer to that. The impending decision was leaked, possibly by a hostile party. But for days, the Biden administration offered no new context, so many actors were left think that all of the FARC was being taken off of the list, and even that FARC leaders were no longer wanted by U.S. justice.

The rollout of this news was not graceful. In today’s climate, when a lie travels around the world before the truth can even get its running shoes on, that does damage. Still, there is only so much that the Biden administration could have done. Many sectors of our societies will always be determined to believe what they want, regardless of the facts we present to them.

There is a communications lesson here, though—one that recalls the plebiscite debacle of 2016. It is crucial to get out ahead of a story as much as possible, so that when it breaks, the response can be nimble, and people who are open to the truth—the majority of people, still—can get the context quickly.

Weekly Border Update: December 3, 2021

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.

Remain in Mexico to restart Monday, December 6

On December 2 the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS), Justice (DOJ), and State announced, and Mexico’s government acknowledged, agreement on a court-ordered restart of the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program. Starting on December 6 at one port of entry—probably El Paso—non-Mexican asylum seekers will once again be made to await their U.S. immigration hearings inside Mexico, rather than inside the United States where many have family ties, support networks, and places to live. The program will “start in one location and will expeditiously expand… border-wide in the days that follow,” reads a DHS court filing.

Known officially as “Migrant Protection Protocols” or “MPP,” Remain in Mexico sent 71,071 asylum-seekers back across the border between January 2019, when the Trump administration began implementing the policy, and Inauguration Day 2021, when the Biden administration suspended it. Human Rights First was able to document 1,544 violent attacks on these asylum seekers—kidnappings, assaults, rapes—after their return to Mexican border towns with some of the hemisphere’s highest violent crime rates. Of 45,387 RMX asylum cases that reached a decision, only 740 (1.6 percent) resulted in grants of asylum or other relief, and only 10 percent (18 percent of those who were able to attend all immigration hearings) had legal representation.

Candidate Joe Biden opposed Remain in Mexico; in December 2019 Jill Biden decried the program on a visit to an encampment of asylum seekers in Matamoros, Mexico. The new Biden administration suspended it and brought more than 10,000 asylum seekers with pending cases back to the United States. A June 1, 2021 DHS memo officially terminated Remain in Mexico.

The Republican attorneys-general of Texas and Missouri sued to reinstate the policy. A federal district court judge in Amarillo, Texas (a Trump appointee) agreed on August 13 that the Biden administration had failed to weigh the consequences of terminating RMX, and ordered it to carry out a “good faith” effort to restart the program. The Supreme Court refused to place a stay on this order while the Biden administration appealed it.

DHS issued a new memo (on October 29) “re-terminating” Remain in Mexico, with strong arguments about the program’s cruelty and ineffectiveness. However, amid a sharp increase in migration at the border during the pandemic’s latter phases, the Biden administration has been internally ambivalent about re-starting the program. “Biden appointees at DHS and the National Security Council had already proposed reviving the policy months earlier, in the spring,” CBS News reported in November. And the administration has followed the Texas court’s order rigorously, setting up infrastructure for hearings near border crossings and negotiating with Mexico its reception of those who would be forced to “remain.”

As laid out in a November 26 statement, Mexico’s government had several demands for a restarted program. Asylum seekers, it said, should have improved access to legal assistance. They should have medical attention and COVID-19 vaccines. Those with vulnerabilities—pregnant women, people with physical or mental disabilities, the elderly, LGBTI people, those who speak only Indigenous languages—should not be made to “remain.” Returns should be closely coordinated with authorities on the Mexican side. The U.S. government should provide resources for shelter and “meaningful” efforts to improve migrants’ conditions.

U.S. negotiators committed, with varying degrees of specificity, to meeting all of these conditions, and Mexico gave its green light on December 2. According to the deal to restart Remain in Mexico, first reported by the Washington Post, asylum seekers will be sent back into Mexico at ports of entry in San Diego and Calexico, California; Nogales, Arizona; and El Paso, Eagle Pass, Laredo, and Brownsville, Texas. Immigration courts, with a total of at least 22 dedicated judges, will operate near the San Diego, El Paso, Laredo, and Brownsville ports of entry. The Laredo and Brownsville facilities will once again be tents where asylum seekers must argue their cases via videoconference.

Due to difficult security conditions across from Eagle Pass (Piedras Negras), Laredo (Nuevo Laredo), and Brownsville (Matamoros), “some individuals” sent across the border there “may be moved to the interior of Mexico to await their hearings,” reads the guidance DHS published on December 2. It is not clear how they will be transported back to attend those hearings.

An official told the Washington Post that the plan “initially” is to apply Remain in Mexico “primarily for single adult asylum seekers,” instead of families. This has not been reported or acknowledged elsewhere.

Though administration officials claim they are only reinstating Remain in Mexico, a program they oppose, to comply with a court order, their efforts to do so have been far from minimal. In fact, the program’s 2.0 version will apply to citizens of even more countries than before: “nationals of any country in the Western Hemisphere other than Mexico,” the guidance reads. The Trump-era program was applied only to Spanish and Portuguese speakers, but notices for migrants who claim fear of harm in Mexico are being translated into Haitian Creole as well, according to an internal document seen by CBS News reporter Camilo Montoya-Galvez.

Between September 19 and November 26, the U.S. government used the Trump-era “Title 42” pandemic authority, which remains in effect, to expel 8,898 people back to Haiti, 20 percent of them children, on 85 different flights, usually without any chance to ask for asylum. The Biden administration will most likely continue to apply Title 42 to most migrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, as Mexico agreed in March 2020 to take back expelled citizens of those countries. Asylum seekers from other hemispheric countries, who are harder to expel because of distance or poor consular relations, will now be more likely to end up forced to Remain in Mexico—apparently including Haitians. Those migrants will have U.S. hearing dates, while those expelled under Title 42 do not.

Immigration attorney Taylor Levy, who has represented numerous RMX clients, shared this chart of likely destinations for asylum seekers, by nationality, as the Biden administration operates Remain in Mexico and Title 42 simultaneously:

( Tweeted December 2 by Taylor Levy @taylorklevy)

U.S. government documents and media reports point to the following changes that the Biden administration has agreed to implement to “soften” Remain in Mexico.

  • All asylum seekers will receive a COVID vaccine (one-dose Johnson and Johnson if over 18, one dose of a two-dose regime if between 5 and 18). “Proof of COVID-19 vaccination will be required for re-entry into the United States.” Mexico’s December 2 statement refers to “making vaccines available to migrants subject to both [Remain in Mexico] and Title 42 of the United States Code,” but no U.S. statements have referred to vaccinating those expelled under Title 42.
  • Mexico demanded that cases be resolved within a six month maximum timeframe; DHS guidance commits only to coordinating with the Justice Department’s Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR, the immigration court system) “to align the number of new MPP enrollments with the number of cases EOIR states it generally can complete within 180 days.”
  • DHS will facilitate access to counsel by providing “legal resource packets;’ State Department information about “where they can locate places in Mexico to engage in telephonic or video communications with counsel;” toll-free, confidential telephone access to confer with attorneys while in DHS custody; and the ability to confer with counsel before their hearings. These measures may make little difference to most of those made to remain in Mexico:        
    • Only 10 percent of those in the Trump-era program had legal representation, compared to 60 percent inside the United States.
    • Confidential discussions with counsel are very difficult while in DHS custody. “How is DHS going to do this? They struggle to do this with people in ICE custody who aren’t in MPP. It’s hard to imagine CBP [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] pulling off confidentiality,” tweeted Ohio State Law professor César García.
    • Meanwhile, “getting a US lawyer while stuck in Mexico in MPP is nearly impossible,” as Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council put it. In an October 19 letter, 73 legal service providers, law school clinics, and law firms, representing the overwhelming majority of border-area pro bono legal counsel, refused to take RMX cases this time, citing past security threats and trauma while trying to do their jobs in Mexican border towns. They are declining government requests to be added to the contact lists that asylum seekers will be given before DHS returns them to Mexico. “We certainly hope and expect that there will be counsel who will be available to help this population,” an official told reporters on a December 2 call.
  • Procedures for expressing fear of returning to Mexico will be strengthened somewhat. CBP officials must now “proactively ask questions” about migrants’ fear of return to Mexico. Those who do will have 24 hours to consult with counsel while in custody, if they can obtain representation, before an interview with an asylum officer. Asylum seekers will not be returned to Mexico if they can convince the asylum officer “that there is a ‘reasonable possibility’ that they will be persecuted on account of a statutorily protected ground (race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion) or that they will be tortured in Mexico.” The standard of “reasonable possibility” is less stringent than the past RMX standard of “more likely than not.”
  • Vunerable people exempted from Remain in Mexico will include “those with a known mental or physical health issue, including a disability or a medical condition related to pregnancy”—but not pregnancy itself; “those with particular vulnerabilities given their advanced age” but not all elderly people; and those at risk “due their sexual orientation or gender identity.” Reichlin-Melnick observes, “These categories are very similar to what they were under Trump, and CBP routinely violated even the narrow protections in place. I fully expect CBP to ignore these exemptions this time around too.”
  • While security in Mexican border towns remains uncertain, the DHS guidance states that the agency is “working with” the State Department and government of Mexico to ensure “access to shelters in Mexico and secure transportation to and from ports of entry to these shelters, so as to enable safe transit to and from court hearings.” No specifics are yet available about shelters and safe transportation. (The Trump-era program made no allowances for shelter, and required asylum seekers to find their own way to ports of entry on their hearing dates, usually for 4:00AM appointments.)

When asylum seekers have no address in Mexico—which is almost always, since they have sought to travel through Mexico to reach the United States—the DHS guidance tells CBP officials to instruct asylum seekers to update their forms “once an address is secured.”

As in the past, finding shelter in Mexican border towns is entirely up to migrants, and relies heavily on those towns’ charity-run shelter systems. “If people put into MPP are to ‘have access to shelters,’ those shelters should already be ready. Where are they?” García tweeted. In fact, right now “many shelters are full, and some shelters continue to operate at a reduced capacity” due to COVID-19 in Mexican border towns, according to the latest (December 1) “ Metering Update” from the University of Texas Strauss Center. The 23 public and private shelters in Ciudad Juárez are already at 70 percent capacity, the Mexican daily Milenioreported this week.

During the Trump-era Remain in Mexico program, Mexico “resisted” UN or outside assistance to shelter asylum seekers, as the Washington Post put it. This time, the Mexican government’s November 26 statement “considers it essential to have additional resources from the United States, destined for shelters and international organizations to improve conditions for migrants and asylum seekers in a meaningful way.”  The IOM-Mexicooffice already reiterated its public criticism of the program, which it considers in violation of international law, and called on the Biden administration to end it as soon as possible. 

While all this happens, the Biden administration continues to challenge the Texas judge’s order in the courts; its appeal remains before the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit. The American Civil Liberties Union has indicated that it may revive its Trump-era lawsuit against Remain in Mexico. If it does, the Biden administration may find itself in the bizarre position of fighting the ACLU to preserve “Remain in Mexico” in one court, while simultaneously fighting the attorneys-general of Texas and Missouri to end “Remain in Mexico” in another court.

2021 border drug seizures overview

A massive mid-November drug seizure at a San Diego port of entry—17,584 pounds of methamphetamine and 389 pounds of fentanyl on a single truck—drew attention to increased trafficking of synthetic drugs at the U.S.-Mexico border, even as seizures of drugs derived from plants (cocaine, heroin, marijuana) are flat or declining. Further attention came from a much-mocked tweet by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-New York), chairwoman of the House of Representatives’ Republican Conference, reporting a big fentanyl seizure at a port of entry as a sign of “Biden’s Border Crisis.”

In late October CBP released statistics about border drug seizures during the 2021 fiscal year, which ended on September 30. Three trends in particular stand out.

1) For the first time, seizures of fentanyl exceeded seizures of heroin. This is remarkable because by weight and volume, fentanyl is about 50 times more potent than heroin. The drug, synthesized in labs, appears to be replacing heroin among U.S. users of illegal opioids; some journalistic reports have documented depressed prices and conditions for farmers who grow opium poppies in rural Mexico. By weight, fentanyl seizures in 2021 were more than double heroin seizures. Since 2018, CBP’s seizures of heroin have declined 9 percent while seizures of fentanyl have increased 456 percent. Fentanyl was involved in a majority of the shocking 100,306 estimated overdose deaths in the United States in the 12 months ending April 2021.

2) Another synthetic drug, methamphetamine, continues to increase, while seizures of cocaine—derived from the coca plant—are barely rising. Seizures of methamphetamine are up 39 percent since 2019. Cocaine is up only 8 percent since 2018, even as U.S. and UN estimates point to a multiplication of the drug’s production in the Andean region over the past 8 years. These charts point to a similar divergence between synthetic and plant-based drugs.

Seizures of another plant-based drug, marijuana, have plummeted even more steeply, by 71 percent since 2018. This owes largely to the drug’s legalization in many U.S. states, which has deeply reduced incentives to risk smuggling it across the border.

3) With the exception of the rapidly declining marijuana traffic, the overwhelming majority of border drug seizures happen at ports of entry, and not in the areas between where Border Patrol operates and walls get built. Drugs are most often smuggled in vehicles and amid cargo. Even a significant portion of Border Patrol’s seizures happen at vehicle checkpoints, and not out in the field. Reduced traffic at ports of entry during the pandemic—non-citizens were barred from entry for “non-essential” purposes between March 2020 and November 2021—may have helped CBP seize more drugs, Vice observes.

Caravan updates

“Caravans” of migrants from Central America, Haiti, and elsewhere continue to leave Mexico’s southern border-zone city of Tapachula, in Chiapas, the country’s poorest state. They are not succeeding in reaching either Mexico City or the U.S. border. Security-force and immigration personnel are preventing participants from traveling in vehicles, forcing them to walk. Many are meanwhile accepting offers of documents allowing them to await decisions on their asylum cases in other parts of the country.

Increasingly, the “caravans” are resembling less efforts to migrate than protests against Mexican government policies confining asylum applicants to the state where they applied. Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, is badly backlogged. It reported receiving 15,018 asylum requests in November, bringing its year-to-date total up to 123,187 asylum requests. This is by far COMAR’s record, 95 times more asylum requests than the agency received in 2013—and 2021 isn’t over yet. Two thirds of this year’s asylum seekers are from Haiti (47,494) or Honduras (35,161).

While people await decisions from the overwhelmed agency, they must remain in the same state where they applied. 68 percent of asylum seekers—84,606 people—submitted their applications this year in Tapachula, a city of 300,000 that offers very few employment and income opportunities for those whose Mexican migration documents restrict them to Chiapas. Groups of mostly Haitian migrants sought to exit Tapachula en masse in late August and early September, but were blocked or dispersed by Mexican forces. (In mid-September, though, a group of 15,000 mostly Haitian migrants made it all the way to Del Rio, Texas; how Mexico’s enforcement shifted to allow this to happen remains unclear.)

On October 23, a caravan of perhaps 3,000 mostly Central American migrants departed Tapachula, and has proceeded on foot for hundreds of miles, reaching the Isthmus of Tehuántepec, Mexico’s narrowest point, in the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz. By November 27, the Mexican daily La Jornada reported, this caravan’s numbers had dwindled to about 150; most had taken offers from Mexico’s migration agency, INM, of documents allowing them to reside in another central or southern Mexican state while awaiting outcomes from COMAR. In recent days, the remaining members of this caravan appeared to be attempting to board cargo trains, known as La Bestia, to take them from Veracruz to Mexico City.

Other groups that departed Tapachula in mid-November appear to be following a pattern of walking many miles up Chiapas’s coastal highway, then desisting. Usually, the marches end with official offers of documents allowing caravan participants to move to other Mexican states, along with bus transportation to those states, all of which are far from the U.S. border. Some of these recent “caravans” are now more properly described as highway blockades: protests to demand relocation outside of Chiapas.

Thousands of Haitian migrants remain in Tapachula. Many are assembled outside the city’s soccer stadium, which COMAR has been using as a processing facility. Most are demanding permission to await decisions in states other than Chiapas. Meanwhile, more Haitian people continue to arrive in southern Mexico. Panamanian authorities counted more than 75,000 Haitian citizens—most of whom had lived for years in Brazil and Chile—crossing through the treacherous Darién Gap region between January and October, the Houston Chronicle reports. 17,000 came through in October alone.

Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) meanwhile continues to report large numbers of migrant apprehensions. August (3rd), September (1st), and October (2nd) are INM’s top three months for migrant apprehensions in the 20 years since Mexico’s government started sharing records. Of 228,115 migrants Mexico has apprehended between January and October 2021, 97,968 are from Honduras, 64,733 from Guatemala, 18,988 from El Salvador, 17,516 from Haiti, 10,960 from Nicaragua, 5,133 from Cuba, 2,288 from Venezuela, 2,166 from Chile (nearly all of them children of Haitians born in Chile), and 1,766 from Brazil (many of them also probably Haitians born in Brazil).

Notably, Mexico has deported just over one migrant for every three it has apprehended this year—82,627 deportations between January and October. Those most frequently deported come from Honduras (42,375), Guatemala (32,427), El Salvador (3,682), and Nicaragua (1,222). Haitians are fifth with 816 deportations.

Links

  • A “Bicentennial Framework” has replaced the “Mérida Initiative” as the guiding set of principles for U.S. security cooperation with Mexico. It focuses on a public health approach to drugs, combating arms trafficking, and targeting illicit financial flows. A new analysis from WOLA’s Mexico Program unpacks the likely differences and continuities in U.S. policy and the bilateral relationship.
  • The latest quarterly “ Metering Update” from the University of Texas Strauss Center finds 26,505 asylum seekers on waiting lists in 8 Mexican border cities in November—a 29 percent increase from the researchers’ Augustreport.
  • A new report from the El Paso-based Hope Border Institute digs into the reasons why increasing numbers of migrants are arriving. 51 in-person interviews with migrants at Ciudad Juárez shelters revealed that COVID and climate change are layered onto the traditional reasons why people are fleeing. Using data gained from thousands of surveys in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the Migration Policy Institute, World Food Program and MIT Civic Data Design Lab found an increased desire to migrate, a modest increase in actual plans to migrate, and economic factors predominating over several causes behind people’s decisions to migrate.
  • A study by physicians associated with Physicians for Human Rights finds evidence of long-lasting mental disorders among migrants whose families were forcibly separated at the border during the Trump administration. The Dallas Morning News has an overview.
  • CBP took 2,021 formal disciplinary actions against members of its 60,000-person workforce in fiscal year 2020, up from 1,629 actions in 2019, according to a new report.
  • On November 17, just before a mandate that all federal employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 by November 22, Border Patrol had a 79 percent rate of full vaccination. Another 16 percent had pending requests for exemptions from the mandate, much higher than the federal government average, leaving 5 percent unvaccinated or unresponsive. At the Intercept, Ken Klippenstein writes about agents who resent or are resisting the vaccine mandate.
  • Numbers of unaccompanied children arriving at the border have been gradually increasing since mid-October, though daily totals are still well below March-April and July-August increases. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council charts it out.
  • The U.S. and Mexican governments announced agreement to support “Sembrando Oportunidades,” a joint program of development aid to Central America. This may have been an effort to sweeten the deal involving Mexico’s cooperation with “Remain in Mexico.”
  • CBP has issued a policy statement laying out standards for more humane treatment of, and medical care for, infants and pregnant, postpartum, and nursing women in the agency’s custody.
  • At the Arizona Daily Star, Curt Prendergast and Alex Devoid document repeated unsuccessful attempts to pass legislation to deal more effectively with migrant deaths on U.S. soil near the border. “In all but one instance, bills that addressed migrant deaths either stalled in committees or were voted down as part of comprehensive immigration reform bills.”
  • More than 200 migrants, including one group of 70 from Venezuela, have been apprehended in Texas’s Big Bend National Park, one of the remotest and usually least active stretches of the entire border, between November 25 and December 1.
  • Reuters reports from Alpercata, a small town in Minas Gerais, Brazil that has lost a large portion of its population to U.S.-bound migration—including 10 percent of students and 5 percent of employees at the mayor’s office—since the pandemic hit. As is the case with several South American countries, Mexico had not been requiring visas of visiting citizens of Brazil. Due largely to U.S. pressure stemming from large numbers of Brazilian citizens arriving in Mexico and being apprehended on the U.S. side of the border, Mexico on November 26 announced a temporary suspension of visa exemptions for Brazil.
  • Just since October 1, people have breached the border fence in CBP’s El Paso sector more than 198 times using bolt cutters, grinders, and acetylene torches, the agency reports. Still, in south Texas’s Starr County, the state government is preparing to use its own funds to build border fencing along about 20,000 acres of property fronting the Rio Grande.
  • As the world reacted to the COVID-19 omicron variant, first documented in South Africa, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) earned rebukes after tweeting that South Africans were being apprehended at the Texas-Mexico border. Border Patrol apprehended four South African citizens at the border in all of 2019, and four more in 2020.
  • Rodney Scott, the Trump administration’s last Border Patrol chief who exited his position in August, faced a San Diego Superior Court judge for a September tweet in which he advised former Border Patrol agent turned activist Jenn Budd, who has recounted being raped at the Border Patrol academy, to “lean back, close your eyes, and just enjoy the show.” Budd also posted screenshots on Twitter showing Scott among those on private CBP and Border Patrol agents’ Facebook groups sharing images of Border Patrol shoulder patches reading “Let’s Go Brandon,” a right-wing euphemism for “F— Joe Biden.”

Big new report—A Long Way to Go: Implementing Colombia’s peace accord after five years

I’ve sort of neglected this website for the past two weeks. It was for a good reason, I think.

I’d been resolving for a while to write a big report evaluating, with as much hard data as possible, how Colombia’s peace accord is going. Like a lot of people who supported the peace accord, I had a strong and urgent feeling that things are going badly: that the government was falling ever further behind on its commitments. But a lot of the current information to support that feeling was either dispersed, or not available to English-speaking audiences.

I’d been working on the report in a piecemeal way for a while, but by early November I realized I had to dive in completely in order to have it ready by the peace accord’s fifth anniversary, which was today (November 24). So my website updates here largely stopped and I went into a sort of research and writing fugue state. I logged 83 hours last week, making the cursor go from left to right as fast as I could.

I’ve emerged from all of that now, and I’m very happy with the result. The report that we dropped late yesterday, A Long Way to Go,” is 28,000 words divided into 19 sections (counting the intro), with twentysomething graphics and like 320 footnotes. It’s a beast—almost certainly the heaviest thing I’ve written since I joined WOLA. But it’s my beast and I’m proud of it because it has a lot of information that you won’t find all in one place, especially not in English, about the urgent state of Colombia’s peace process. I’m glad it’s out there.

Read it here. Here’s a super-brief summary:

November 24 is the five-year anniversary of a landmark peace accord that ended a half a century of fighting in Colombia. While there are aspects worth celebrating, this is a far less happy anniversary than it promised to be.

The 2016 accord ended the most violent facet of a multi-front conflict that killed 260,000 people, left 80,000 more missing, and led to more than 9 million of Colombia’s 50 million people registering with the government as conflict victims. The months after November 2016 saw the disarmament and demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla group, though smaller armed groups remain.

For a time after the FARC left the scene, battered rural areas notorious for violence and illicit drug production experienced a moment of calm. A historic window of opportunity opened for Colombia to break its recurrent cycles of violence.

Five years later, the window is closing. Implementing the peace accord has gone more poorly than anticipated. A new report from the Washington Office on Latin America, “A Long Way to Go,” examines the experience of the past five years, presenting a wealth of data about each of the 2016 accord’s six chapters. While there are some positive developments, WOLA finds, Colombia is well behind where it should be.

It was up to Colombia’s government to preserve the peace, by fully implementing the commitments it made in the ambitious 300-page accord. That document promised not just to end the FARC, but to undo the causes underlying more than a century of rural strife in Latin America’s third-largest country: unequal land tenure, crushing poverty, an absent government, and impunity for the powerful.

That hasn’t happened. Parts of Colombia’s government acted, but what they did wasn’t enough. Opponents of the accord came to power in August 2018 and allowed many commitments to languish, keeping investments well below the necessary tempo and encouraging skepticism through messaging that regularly disparages the agreement.

10 notable facts from “A Long Way to Go: Implementing Colombia’s peace accord after five years”
1. As of March 2021, Colombia was 29 percent of the way into the peace accord’s implementation timetable, but had spent just 15 percent of what implementation is expected to cost.
2. One third of the way into the implementation process, the PDETs—the vital plans to bring the government into historically conflictive areas—are only one-seventh funded, and that’s according to the most optimistic estimate.
3. A nationwide mapping of landholdings, expected to be complete by 2023, was only 15 percent done as of March 2021.
4. 2021 is on pace to be Colombia’s worst year for homicides since 2013, and worst year for massacres since 2011.
5. Analysts’ estimates coincide in finding significantly less than 10 percent of demobilized ex-FARC members taking up arms again. “Dissident” groups’ membership is mostly new recruits.
6. Estimates of the number of social leaders murdered in 2020 range from 133 to 310. But the justice system only managed 20 convictions of social leaders’ killers that year, while the Interior Minister argued that “more people die here from cell phone thefts than for being human rights defenders.”
7. Of coca-growing families who signed up for a “two-year” package of crop substitution assistance three or more years ago, just 1 percent had received a complete package of payments by the end of 2020.
8. If the transitional justice tribunal is correct, half of the Colombian military’s claimed combat killings between 2002 and 2008 may have been civilians whom soldiers executed and then falsely claimed were members of armed groups.
9. 20 of the transitional justice tribunal’s 38 magistrates are women. 4 of 11 Truth Commissioners are women.
10. Since accord implementation began in fiscal 2017, U.S. assistance to Colombia has totaled about US$3.1 billion, roughly half of it for the military and police.

Read the report

In historically conflictive territories all around the country, violence is on the rise again. New armed groups are quickly filling the vacuums of authority that the government would not or could not fill on its own. As massacres, displacements, and confrontations increase again, in too many regions—including many Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities—it no longer makes sense to speak of a “post-conflict.”

The “Long Way to Go” report walks through many of the most important commitments Colombia’s government made, evaluating the extent to which each is truly being implemented after five years. The discussion passes through 17 sections.

  • The first looks at the overall budget and use of resources, finding that Colombia is well behind where it should be after five years.
  • The next four cover commitments to Colombia’s countryside, like addressing land tenure, making rural economies viable, and improving security and governance. These commitments, too, are falling alarmingly behind: state presence has not been increasing, land tenure programs are struggling, and violence indicators are worsening.
  • The sixth, seventh, and tenth sections explore commitments to expand political participation and protect social leaders. Despite some important steps forward, the continued pace of attacks and killings and occasional government displays of indifference show how much remains to be done.
  • The eighth and ninth evaluate assistance and security for demobilized ex-combatants. Assistance efforts have been worthy, but security lags amid a low probability of killers being brought to justice
  • The remaining seven sections look at separate sets of commitments: crop substitution, transitional justice, inclusion of ethnic communities, the accords’ gender focus, laws that remain to be passed, verification mechanisms, and the U.S. government’s role. There are positive notes here, like the transitional justice system’s performance, useful external verification, and a more supportive tone from the Biden administration. For the most part, though, these seven sections sound alarms as ground continues to be lost.

Finally, WOLA’s new report explains why, despite the many setbacks documented here, this is absolutely not the time to give up on the peace accord and its promise. Instead, WOLA expects this five-year evaluation to motivate and inform the government that will take power after Colombia’s May 2022 elections, which will need to redouble implementation together with international partners.

Although many findings in “A Long Way to Go” are grim, the report also upholds the bright spots of the past five years. More than nine in ten demobilized guerrillas remain committed to the peace process. The special post-conflict justice system is functioning, earning recent praise from the International Criminal Court. Though beleaguered by threats and attacks, Colombia’s civil society and free press remain vibrant, and the country is headed into 2022 elections with a broad spectrum of candidates.

The window has not closed all the way. All is not lost yet. By taking the temperature of implementation at the five year mark in the most clear-eyed possible manner, WOLA hopes to contribute to Colombians’ effort to resume and rethink their fight to curb the conflict’s historic causes.

The United States’ Influence on Latin America’s New Militarism

At WOLA’s website, find the English version of an article I wrote for Spain’s Fundación Carolina, which published it on November 16, 2021 as Análisis Carolina no. 28: “Estados Unidos y su influencia en el nuevo militarismo latinoamericano” (https://doi.org/10.33960/AC_28.2021).

Summary: U.S. military assistance has long encouraged armed forces to take on internal roles, complicating civil-military relations. This kind of aid declined, however, during the post-cold war period, as the U.S. “wars” on drugs, terror, and organized crime brought reduced, more focused aid and some reluctance to expand military roles. The U.S. pullback from encouraging militarization may be reversing in the 2020s, though, as Washington’s defense strategy shifts to great-power competition. We can expect more U.S. military support for governments that work with the United States and deny access to China and others. This may happen even if recipient governments are authoritarian-trending and use their militaries internally to confront “hybrid threats” within the population. Avoiding this outcome will require the United States to do more to protect and support the region’s increasingly vibrant, but often misunderstood, civil society.

Read the whole thing at WOLA’s website. O lea el español en el sitio de la Fundación Carolina.

Weekly Border Update: November 24, 2021

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.

We will not post an update on Friday, November 26. The next update will be posted on December 3, 2021.

Migration declined in October for the third straight month

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported on November 15 that its personnel encountered 117,260 individual undocumented migrants on 164,303 occasions during the month of October. That was an 18 percent reduction in people, and a 14 percent reduction in “encounters,” from September. Encounters have dropped 22 percent in two months, from 209,840 in August, and 23 percent from July’s years-long high of 213,593.

The overwhelming majority of those encounters (158,575) took place between official border land ports of entry, where CBP’s Border Patrol component took the migrants into custody. CBP encountered 5,728 at the ports of entry, the fewest since April.

The giant difference between “individuals” and “encounters” owes to a large number of repeat crossings. “29 percent involved individuals who had at least one prior encounter in the previous 12 months, compared to an average one-year re-encounter rate of 14 percent for FY2014-2019,” CPB reported. The “Title 42” pandemic expulsions policy begun by the Trump administration and continued by the Biden administration, which rapidly sends Mexicans and most Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans back into Mexico, involves little time in CBP custody and appears to have facilitated repeat attempts to cross.

In McAllen, Texas, in the Border Patrol’s busiest sector (Rio Grande Valley), the reduced pace of arrivals is palpable. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is releasing fewer than 300 asylum-seeking migrants a day to the city’s respite center, run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. In July, according to Border Report, U.S. authorities were turning over “upwards of 2,000 migrants” per day to the respite center.


Despite the reduction, October’s monthly “encounters” figure is historically high: 164,303 is the 12th-largest monthly total this century.

Unlike most of this century, though, Title 42 is in place, and most of the  encountered migrants aren’t being processed. CBP expelled 57 percent of migrants it encountered in October, the largest monthly proportion since May. Of single adults encountered in October, 74 percent got expelled. 31 percent of family members were expelled, the largest monthly proportion since April. The Biden administration does not expel non-Mexican children who arrive unaccompanied.

70,627 undocumented migrants were not expelled, and instead processed in the United States, many of them asylum seekers. That is the lowest monthly number of non-expelled migrants since May. Non-expelled migrants have declined by 20 percent since September and 38 percent since August. The number of migrants whom CBP actually processed in October was fewer than it was during six different months of the Trump administration (February-July 2019). Of those who weren’t expelled in October, 60 percent were children and family members. Children and family members were 14 percent of the expelled population.

CBP’s 42,913 encounters with undocumented family members in October was the least since February 2021, and represented a 51 percent drop in just two months, from August’s high of 87,054. (These numbers include a small number of “accompanied children” encountered at ports of entry traveling with relatives other than a parent.)

Arrivals of unaccompanied children (12,807) dropped to their lowest level since February as well, and have declined 32 percent since August. In October, the American Immigration Council notes, “the average number of unaccompanied children in CBP custody was 595 per day, compared with an average of 772 per day in September.” The drop calls into question whether migrants are being deterred by application of Title 42: unaccompanied children are fewer even though the policy isn’t being applied to them. The Council’s Aaron Reichlin-Melnick warns, though, that “daily border apprehensions of unaccompanied children have been slowly rising in recent weeks.”

Encounters with single adults—who are most likely to attempt repeat crossings—haven’t declined as sharply. In October they totaled 108,583, down 4 percent from September, up 4 percent from August, and down 11 percent from their high point in May.

It is unexpected to see migration to have declined in October, during the cooler fall months when it usually increases, after reaching its highest point of the year during summer. Reasons may include:

  • Mexico has been cracking down harder; as we’ve noted in recent updates, Mexico broke its records for monthly migrant apprehensions in August and September (it has not yet released October data). Reporter Manu Ureste at Mexico’s Animal Político points out that Mexico’s apprehensions jumped 120 percent after U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’s June 8 visit to Mexico City, which included a meeting with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
  • Though the numbers dropped slightly from September to October, the Biden administration had increased its month-on-month expulsions of family members every month between July and September, which may have affected asylum seekers’ calculations.
  • It’s possible that the population of would-be migrants who were “bottled up” during many months of border closures at the height of the pandemic have now all had a chance to migrate, and we’re seeing a leveling off.
  • U.S.-led crackdowns caused dramatic September-October declines in migration from Haiti and Ecuador. The Biden administration has expelled about 8,800 Haitians back to their country on 84 flights since September 19, and encouraged Mexico to begin demanding visas of Ecuadorians arriving in the country, which it did on August 20. Border encounters with undocumented Haitian migrants fell 95 percent in a month, from 17,638 to 902. Ecuadorian migrant encounters fell 90 percent, from 7,353 to 744.

In September, CBP encountered migrants from seven countries more than 10,000 times each. In October, CBP encountered migrants from four countries more than 10,000 times each.

Beyond Haiti and Ecuador, migration from the so-called “Northern Triangle” countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) has been declining since July. 50,937 encountered migrants came from those countries in October, down 45 percent in two months, since August.

Migration from Brazil, too, hit its lowest point since June, as Mexico has demanded visas of at least some Brazilians arriving at its airports. In Tijuana, “Brazilian migration has been going on for months, there was even a time when 20, 30, 50 were arriving daily six or seven months ago, arriving with their tourist visas,” José María García Lara of Tijuana’s Movimiento Juventud 2000 shelter told the local daily El Imparcial.

In addition to small increases in Colombians and Russians, the countries whose citizens registered the largest September-to-October migration increase are Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. In October, these countries respectively occupied 4th, 6th, and 8th place on CBP’s list of most-encountered nationalities. The U.S. government has been pressing Mexico to impose visa requirements on Venezuelans arriving at its airports, Reuters reports, though one U.S. official “said Washington was not leaning hard on Mexico.” A Mexican government source said “Mexico was reviewing its options, and holding discussions with Venezuela to explore alternatives to imposing visa requirements.”

After declining during the summer, migration from Mexico has increased for two straight months. Of 65,276 encountered Mexican migrants in October, all but 4,628 were single adults.

Remain in Mexico may restart in “weeks”

The Biden administration’s latest monthly filing on efforts to restart the controversial “Remain in Mexico” program, submitted November 15 on the orders of the judge who ordered its revival, is much shorter than previous filings: just one page of information. (Here are September’s and October’s filings.) This one reports that the administration has “initiated the relevant contracts and largely finished its internal planning,” and that “reimplementation will begin within the coming weeks.”

Between January 2019 and Joe Biden’s January 2021 inauguration, this Trump-era program, officially known as “Migrant Protection Protocols,” sent 71,071 non-Mexican asylum seekers back into Mexico after their apprehension in the United states. There, they had to wait for many months or more, usually in high-crime Mexican border towns, for hearing dates in the United States. Human Rights First documented more than 1,500 assaults, kidnappings, rapes, and other crimes committed against migrants after U.S. officials sent them back. While the Biden administration sought to terminate Remain in Mexico, a district court judge in Amarillo, Texas forced its restart and demanded monthly filings about “good faith efforts” to do so. (This background is amply covered in past weekly updates.)

Restarting the program means negotiating with a Mexican government that has not yet agreed to resume receiving potentially thousands of non-Mexican asylum seekers. The negotiators, the filing reports, “are close to finalizing these discussions,” with “one set of outstanding issues that must be resolved.” The filing does not name that set of issues, but it may have to do with migrants’ access to counsel for their cases. Border-zone immigration attorneys have voiced strenuous opposition to being made once again to risk their safety trying to represent clients who, while forced to live in danger, faced extremely low asylum grant rates in the program. “We refuse to be complicit in a program that facilitates the rape, torture, death, and family separations of people seeking protection by committing to provide legal services,” reads an October 19 letter from the principal pro bono attorneys’ organizations.

An administration official said that Presidents Biden and López Obrador did not mention the Remain in Mexico restart during a November 18 White House summit of North American leaders.

Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which compiles large amounts of immigration data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, received documents indicating that 18 asylum seekers were placed in “Remain in Mexico” in October. This seems unlikely because Mexico has not yet approved the program. Austin Kocher of TRAC told Border Report that his organization hasn’t yet cleared up this data point: “18 is not a fluke. Still, the number is small enough (and things are more confusing now policy-wise) that it’s hard to say exactly what’s up.”

The border is a subject of two Senate hearings

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas appeared in an often contentious hearing before a polarized Senate Judiciary Committee on November 16. A day later, two DHS officials and a third from the General Services Administration participated in a more sober hearing before the Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Government Operations and Border Management. Here are a few highlights of both.

November 16: Oversight of the Department of Homeland Security

  • Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) opened with remarks contending that “The chaos during the previous administration hobbled DHS and put our nation’s security at risk.” Durbin gave specific mention to the Trump administration’s “emergency” transfer of Defense budget money to build miles of border wall. “The Trump administration endangered our national security by literally transferring billions of dollars and Department of Defense funds to build the President’s so called border wall. American taxpayers, not Mexican taxpayers, as President Trump had promised so many times have paid dearly for this costly endeavor.”
  • Ranking Republican member Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) colorfully went after the Biden administration: “When you terminate physical barrier constructions, when you severely restrict the ability of ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] to deport illegal immigrants, when you terminate the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, when you roll back asylum cooperative [‘Safe Third Country’] agreements, when you gut Title 42, when you openly support sanctuary cities policies, then you should not be surprised when there’s a surge at the southern border. When you allow the ACLU and open border immigration activists rather than career law enforcement professionals to dictate the terms of your immigration and border policies, then you shouldn’t be surprised when record-shattering numbers of people start showing up at the borders to take advantage of that situation. When you run DHS like it’s an ‘Abolish ICE fan club,’ you shouldn’t be surprised when you have an immigration crisis on your hands.”
  • Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) asked how many of the 1.7 million migrants encountered during fiscal 2021 are still in the United States. Mayorkas estimated “approximately 375,000 are still here.”
  • Of asylum seekers who were released and not detained, Mayorkas told Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), “Between January 1 and October 31 of 2021, my data indicates that 210,465 non citizens were issued notices to appear. And 94,581 were issued notices to report [which don’t include specific court dates]. We’ve discontinued the practice of issuing notices to report.”
  • Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said, “We know basically, based on Border Patrol projections, that this figure 1.7 million doesn’t include 385,000 or so people who simply evade detection by Border Patrol. We know that there are about 350,000 people who are subject to a notice to appear in court or a notice to report, by my count that’s 735,000 people who have successfully made their way into the United States.”
  • Sen. Cornyn alleged that 10,000 relatives or sponsors of unaccompanied children placed in the United States have not responded to follow-up telephone check-in calls.
  • On the September incident involving horse-mounted Border Patrol agents charging at Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), asked, “What about the issue with your Border Patrol agents recently being accused by some folks in the media of whipping illegal immigrants, when in fact they were not? Why on earth? Did you not defend them?… Your response and your failure to defend them then and now is nothing short of morale crushing.”
  • Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said Mayorkas should go to prison for not reinstating Remain in Mexico quickly enough. “Customs and Border Patrol [sic] agent leadership have told me that your agency is slow-walking and refusing to comply with the order from the federal court to return to the Remain in Mexico policy. What would you say to the judge? If the judge was asking why you should not be held in contempt and incarcerated for defying a federal court order?”
  • Sen. John Kennedy (R-Louisiana) asked, “Your department has released thousands of people illegally into this country who are drug dealers, haven’t you?” Mayorkas responded, “I’m not familiar with what you’ve just articulated.” Kennedy followed up, “Your department has released into our country thousands of people who have probably gone on welfare. Isn’t that the case?” Mayorkas replied, “I don’t believe that.”
  • Sen. Alex Padilla (D-California) raised the issue of Border Patrol’s use of “Critical Incident Teams” to find exculpatory evidence in use-of-force cases, a secretive practice recently revealed by the Southern Border Communities Coalition. Mayorkas responded by praising Border Patrol.

November 17: Federal Government Perspective: Improving Security, Trade, and Travel Flows at the Southwest Border Ports of Entry

  • Ranking Subcommittee member Sen. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) lamented the court-ordered end of “metering” of asylum seekers at ports of entry. “Career staff who served in the Obama and Trump administrations have stated the metering policy was useful as CBP navigated increasing flows of migrants. Rescinding the metering tool, I fear, will open up our ports to increased risk by leaving cartels to be able to surge migrants at the ports and overwhelm them to distract CBP, while they move funneling hard narcotics across the border as our country reopens to travel.”
  • Witness Stuart Burns of the General Services Administration, which manages government buildings like ports of entry, noted that the average land port of entry “was designed and constructed more than 40 years ago. As a result, many of these facilities are functionally obsolete for the 21st century.”
  • Witness Joe Jeronimo of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) said his agency devotes about 20 percent of its work hours to CBP port of entry drug seizures. “And every time there is an interdiction by CBP, HSI spends at a minimum 95 hours to handle that interdiction, from cradle to grave, 95 hours, that’s 12 business days. So again, that’s significant in nature. And that’s a huge commitment.”
  • Jeronimo praised the agency’s monitoring of travelers throughout the hemisphere. “Our second effort is our biometric collection system. Bitmap is a partnership with DOD, CBP, as well as FBI, we have Bitmap locations in 18 countries. And what that does is it gives us an opportunity to enroll individuals as they come into the Western Hemisphere, and make their way up through South America into Latin America and into Mexico, from Sao Paolo to McAllen, is 5000 miles. And when somebody enters into the Western Hemisphere, I can pretty much tell you with certainty where that when that individual arrives, and where they’re going to travel through before they reach the southwest border. And what that does is it gives us an opportunity to know in advance who we’re dealing with, especially individuals that we consider KSTs, or individuals of interest to the United States, before they reach the southwest border. That Bitmap program last year enrolled 35,000 individuals and about 80 percent of those do make it to the southwest border.
  • “In the last two years,” Jeronimo added, “we have initiated over 5000 cases and nearly 8000 arrests, specifically to human smuggling organizations.”
  • Sen. Lankford asked, “What’s the current going rate for coyotes in moving a person or a family?” Jeronimo replied, “Depends on location, if you’re coming from Asia it could be anywhere from $50 to $75,000, if you’re coming from Brazil could be 10 to 15,000. If you come from Latin America, Mexico, anywhere from 5 to 10,000.”

Two migrant caravans now moving, entirely on foot, through southern Mexico

Two caravans of migrants, both multinational but mostly Central American citizens, are now walking on roads in southern Mexico. Both departed the city of Tapachula, Chiapas, near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, where tens of thousands of migrants have applied for asylum. Mexico requires asylum seekers to remain in the state where they applied while their cases are being decided, but Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, offers few economic opportunities. So migrants are organizing and seeking to leave en masse, relying on “safety in numbers.”

The first group departed Tapachula a month ago, on October 23. Its members have walked the entire length of Chiapas, then turned northward in Oaxaca and crossed the Isthmus of Tehuántepec, Mexico’s narrowest point. They are now in the vicinity of Acayucan, a crossroads town in the state of Veracruz, not far from the Gulf of Mexico. The second group left Tapachula on November 18 and is only part of the way through Chiapas.

The group in Veracruz has between 800 and 1,500 members. With a significant number of children and families, they have traveled 300 miles on foot over 30 days. Mexican authorities—mainly the Interior Department’s National Migration Institute (INM) and the National Guard—have been preventing caravan participants from boarding vehicles, such as trucks, “for their own safety.” Migrants confronted National Guardsmen on this prohibition in Oaxaca, but the soldiers insisted that they walk. “I have no intention” of stopping them, a Guardsman told Agénce France Presse. “The only requirement is that they advance on foot.”

The group is still many hundreds of miles from its destination, and its numbers are dwindling due to exhaustion, and due to the INM’s repeated offers of documents allowing migrants to stay in other states—none near the U.S. border—while they await asylum decisions, if they abandon the caravan. INM reports that it has offered humanitarian and permanent resident cards for the central and southern Mexican states of Puebla, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Morelos, Hidalgo, Guerrero, Chiapas, Querétaro, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Mexico state, Jalisco, Michoacán, Colima, and Aguascalientes. 1,574 such cards had been issued as of November 16.

Caravan organizer Irineo Mujica of the group Pueblos Sin Fronteras has been urging the migrants not to accept the documents, alleging that they may be detained or deported. The INM issued a statement denouncing Mujica’s “lies and actions,” calling out his “attitude, more akin to that of human traffickers.”

The Veracruz caravan’s destination is not clear. Some may wish to proceed to Mexico City and petition the national office of Mexico’s asylum and refugee agency, COMAR, to consider their asylum petitions there. Others may seek to walk all the way to the U.S. border; Agénce France Presse mentions that some have recommended the border state of Sonora as a destination. According to Milenio, Mujica has proposed boarding the “La Bestia” cargo train.

The caravan group in Chiapas is currently on the state’s coastal highway between Escuintla and Mapastepec, where the earlier group passed at the very end of October. It appears to have started out with about 3,000 members, closely accompanied by INM agents and National Guard and Army personnel. Many are Haitian and as many as 20 to 30 percent may be Venezuelan; most migrants of both nationalities already have tough experience with long walks, having passed through Panama’s highly treacherous Darién Gap jungles.

Elsewhere in Mexico, a group of 40 migrants, including people from Ghana, Togo, Guatemala, Nicaragua, appeared traveling together in León, in Mexico’s central state of Guanajuato. They are probably unrelated to the other two caravans, and most likely traveled in vehicles for much of their route. Authorities meanwhile reported apprehending 600 migrants—455 men and 145 women—inside two tractor-trailer containers in Veracruz on November 20. They came from 12 countries: Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Cuba, El Salvador, Venezuela, Ecuador, Ghana, India, Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, and Cameroon.

Statements from Mexico’s Human Rights Ombudsman (CNDH) and a group of senators called on the INM and National Guard to respect the human rights, and right to seek protection, of migrants in the country, including caravan participants. “Caravans don’t help migrants, they don’t help the authorities, they don’t help the United Nations, they don’t help anybody,” Giovanni Lepri, the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) representative in Mexico, told reporters during a visit to Mexico’s southern border zone. “In order for the caravans to stop happening, there must be a more agile, quicker, and more diversified response from the authorities, so that people don’t feel rushed into believing that the caravans will help them solve their needs.”

Links

  • 79 percent of Border Patrol agents met a November 22 deadline to be vaccinated against COVID-19. About 16 percent more “had submitted a reasonable accommodation request.” The Rio Grande Valley, Texas Monitor reports that 5 percent of agents “were out of compliance with the deadline—3% were not fully vaccinated and had not filed a reasonable accommodation request, the other 2% were unresponsive to the agency.”
  • Border Patrol agents in the agency’s El Paso sector found a sharply increased number of deceased migrants, mostly from dehydration, exposure, and falls from the border wall. The number of dead rose from 10 in 2020 to 39 in fiscal 2021, El Paso Matters reports. CNN reported recently that Border Patrol found at least 557 bodies border-wide in 2021, which is by far a record.
  • Rep. Henry Cuellar (R-Texas) said that DHS is asking the Defense Department to increase the deployment of U.S. military personnel—probably National Guardsmen—at the border from about 3,000 to 4,500. The extra 1,500 would be “in part to operate observation blimps previously used by forces in Afghanistan,” Stars and Stripes reports.
  • Nicaragua has lifted visa requirements for visitors from Cuba, a decision that could increase the number of Cubans migrating across the rest of Central America and Mexico and into the United States.
  • The government of Haiti opened a consulate in the city of Tapachula, Chiapas, near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, where thousands of Haitian asylum seekers have been living for months, confined there while they await decisions in their cases.
  • “One of the things we proposed [at a November 18 summit of North American presidents] is the idea of, with a view to the Summit of the Americas next summer, working with all the leaders of the region towards a new and bolder framework for managing migration,” an unnamed U.S. official told EFE. At that summit, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called on Joe Biden and Justin Trudeau to “put aside myths and prejudices, stop rejecting migrants, when in order to grow we need a labor force that in reality is not sufficiently available either in the United States or in Canada. Why not study the demand for labor and open up the migratory flow in an orderly fashion?”
  • CBP continues to investigate the mid-September incidents in Del Rio, Texas, in which horse-mounted Border Patrol agents were caught on video charging at Haitian migrants on the banks of the Rio Grande. Though Homeland Security leadership had promised a swift investigation, CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility has not completed its work, and any discipline will be “subject to certain timelines established” in CBP’s labor agreement with the Border Patrol’s union.
  • “Between Oct. 28 and Nov. 9, agents encountered five groups, mostly from Brazil and Venezuela,” in Border Patrol’s California-based San Diego Sector, a CBP release reads. “The groups all entered the United States illegally and consisted of men, women, and children and were 43, 49, 73, 84 and 93 people in size.”
  • “There is little doubt that the administration has used the [Title 42] policy as a stopgap measure to quickly remove migrants who are gathering at the southern border in large numbers,” the New York Times Editorial Board wrote on November 13.
  • Anne Schuchat, an official at the CDC during the Trump years, confirmed that view in comments before a congressional select committee revealed on November 12. “The bulk of the evidence at that time did not support this policy proposal” and “the facts on the ground didn’t call for this from a public health reason,” she said.
  • The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, visited Mexico on November 22. He and Mexican officials signed an agreement to strengthen the capacities of Mexico’s overwhelmed refugee and asylum agency, COMAR.
  • CBP officers at San Diego’s Otay Mesa port of entry caught a trucker trying to smuggle 17,584 pounds of methamphetamine and 389 pounds of fentanyl in a single cargo load labeled as “auto body parts.”
  • The federal trial of Hia C-ed O’odham activist Amber Ortega continues in Tucson, Arizona. Ortega was arrested in September 2020 for interfering with border wall construction, carrying out civil disobedience near the ecologically fragile Quitobaquito Spring along the Arizona-Sonora border. While the Biden Justice Department continues pursuing her prosecution, the case’s district court judge has decided that Ortega may not use a “religious freedom” defense.
  • On October 29, the Tijuana municipal government counted 769 migrants, 40 percent of them children and many of them expelled or blocked from the United States under Title 42, living in a miserable encampment outside the Chaparral port of entry into San Diego. The mayor, who recently installed fencing around the site, expects numbers to decline with upcoming seasonal rains.
  • A Dallas Morning News – University of Texas at Tyler poll found 49 percent of Texans, and 38 percent of Texan independents, supporting Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) very hardline border policies. 50 percent of those polled, including 46 percent of independents, agreed that “a wall along the Texas-Mexico border is necessary for a safe border.”

Weekly Border Update: November 12, 2021

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.

U.S. border reopens—but not to asylum seekers

On November 8, after nearly 20 months of closure to all “non-essential” foreign nationals, the United States opened its official land border crossings to documented, vaccinated travelers. Many ports of entry at first saw long lines as Mexicans with U.S. visas or border-crossing cards sought to reunite with relatives, resume doing business, or just shop on the U.S. side. Traffic flows quickly returned to normal nearly everywhere.

Ports of entry remain closed, though, to asylum seekers—migrants who lack U.S. visas but claim fear of return to their home countries—regardless of their vaccination status. The Biden administration continues to implement the Trump administration’s “Title 42” policy of expelling or quickly turning back all undocumented migrants, even if they seek protection.

In El Paso and Nogales, advocates accompanied asylum-seeking families, vaccination cards in hand, as they sought to cross into the United States to seek asylum the “proper” way—that is, by arriving at an official port of entry instead of climbing a fence or crossing a river. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers stationed at the borderline blocked them from accessing U.S. soil. The continued application of Title 42 even to vaccinated asylum seekers places great stress on administration officials’ insistence that the Trump-era measure is a public-health policy and not an immigration deterrent.

While CBP sought to dispel rumors that the border re-opening applied to undocumented travelers, anecdotal reports pointed to an increase in migrants arriving in Mexican border towns in the lead-up to November 8. “They haven’t listened to us and they don’t want to wait,” José García, whose Movimiento Juventud 2000 is one of several shelters currently filling up in Tijuana, told Reuters regarding recently arrived migrants who’ve received “misinformation.” About 1,200 people remain in a makeshift encampment just outside Tijuana’s main pedestrian port of entry into San Diego, California. Last week, municipal authorities built a fence around the encampment and cut off the power that residents had drawn from electric lines.

Many new asylum-seeking arrivals in Mexican border towns are Mexican citizens, primarily from states like Michoacán and Guerrero that are racked by criminal violence. Carlos Spector, a well-known El Paso-based immigration attorney who specializes in Mexican asylum cases, told the Border Chronicle that he expects to see a big increase in such cases after November 8. Some will be threatened Mexicans who already have U.S. travel documents: “that’s generally going to be the lower middle class on up. I’ve had calls from women working with coalitions searching for the disappeared.” And some will be Mexican human rights defenders who can no longer withstand constant threats to their lives and to their families’ lives: “The biggest thing I’m seeing is that these are heavyweight human rights leaders, who before told me they weren’t going anywhere.” Over roughly the last three years, nearly 100 human rights defenders have been killed in Mexico, including multiple family members of the disappeared.

This week saw several other notable developments in border and asylum policy:

  • A report from Syracuse University’s TRAC Immigration project revealed that a larger proportion of asylum seekers won their cases in fiscal year 2021 than in fiscal year 2020. TRAC, which compiles large amounts of data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, found that 37 percent of cases were successful in 2021 compared to 29 percent in 2020. Due to COVID-19 closing immigration courts for much of the year, however, 2021 saw only 23,827 asylum cases decided overall, compared with 60,079 decisions in 2020; only 8,349 people were granted asylum during this period, with another 402 granted some other form of relief. TRAC’s monthly plotting of the data shows that asylum approvals steadily increased after President Joe Biden was sworn in last January. “By September 2021, the asylum denial rate had dropped to 53 percent. That means that success rates had climbed to 47 percent.”
  • The Biden administration’s court-ordered restart of the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” program, which forces non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their hearings inside Mexico, is proceeding apace, even as Mexico’s government has not yet assented to hosting those foreign nationals again. The Rio Grande Valley, Texas Monitor showed construction of tent courtrooms to hold teleconference hearings underway in Brownsville; they are also being built in Laredo. Two top House of Representatives appropriators, Barbara Lee (D-California) and Homeland Security Subcommittee Chairwoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-California), sent a strong letter to the Departments of State and Homeland Security (DHS) rejecting the program’s restart and laying out some strict conditions that a new Remain in Mexico would have to meet in order to receive funding from Congress. On November 15 (Monday), the Biden administration must submit to Texas District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk its latest monthly report documenting its “good faith efforts” to restart the program. (The last two reports are here and here.)
  • Witness at the Border’s latest monthly report on U.S. deportation and expulsion flights finds that DHS ran 80 expulsion flights to Haiti between September 19 and November 7, “expelling an estimated 8,500 people, almost half of which were women and children.” October also saw 37 direct expulsion flights to Guatemala and 35 expulsion flights of Central American citizens to southern Mexico. Since the southern Mexico flights began in August, Witness at the Border estimates that the Biden administration has sent over 11,000 Central Americans to Tapachula and Villahermosa, Mexico.
  • CBS News reported that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will be sending court documents to about 78,000 asylum-seeking migrants who were released at the border without a court date, due to overloaded CBP processing capacity at the time. These individuals were issued “Notices to Report” at an ICE facility in their place of destination to begin their cases, rather than “Notices to Appear,” with specific hearing dates, which take longer to produce. While the majority of those who received “Notices to Report” indeed reported at ICE facilities, what the agency calls “Operation Horizon” is seeking to notify the rest by mail.
  • The Associated Press covers immigration judges deciding asylum cases on the so-called “rocket docket”: the Biden administration’s effort to reduce the amount of time it takes to decide the claims of the most recently arrived migrants. Asylum cases routinely take three or four years or more to decide. By placing at the head of some courts’ lines the migrants who arrived at the border most recently, officials assume that the quick resulting decisions, usually within 300 days, might deter others with “weaker” asylum claims from attempting the journey to the United States. More than 16,000 cases are now on this “last in, first out” docket; critics worry that the policy weakens due process, as “it rushes the complex work of building asylum cases, making it nearly impossible for migrants to have a fair shot.”

A diminished migrant caravan reaches the Isthmus of Tehuántepec

The migrant “caravan” that departed Mexico’s southern border-zone city of Tapachula on October 23 exited Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas, on November 7. By November 11, approximately 1,000 (or by one count, up to 2,500) mostly Central American migrants were beginning their day in the town of Zanatepec, in the state of Oaxaca, not far from Mexico’s narrowest point, the Isthmus of Tehuántepec. (The caravan’s past progress is covered in our last two weekly updates.)

The group is moving slowly, as Mexican forces—including the National Guard contingent closely accompanying the marchers—are preventing vehicles from transporting the migrants. Entirely on foot, they have covered about 200 miles in about 20 days.

Their numbers are dwindling. Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) said that it now numbers fewer than 1,000 people, down from as many as 4,000 during its first days in Chiapas. It is hard to count them for sure, as not all are traveling in a tight formation: a group of 60, for instance, appears to be far ahead of the rest, already crossing from Oaxaca into the state of Veracruz.

Exhausted and frequently ill, many caravan participants, especially parents with children, have been turning themselves in to Mexican migration authorities. The INM announced on November 10 that it has delivered humanitarian visas to 800 “vulnerable” caravan participants—children, pregnant women, people with disabilities, and their relatives—who will be allowed to await their asylum decisions in the southern and central Mexican states of Puebla, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Morelos, Hidalgo, and Guerrero.

The two activists accompanying or leading the caravan have indicated to the press that they no longer plan to walk to Mexico City. The original intention was to go to the capital and petition for better living conditions, particularly the right to live in states other than impoverished Chiapas, while Mexico’s overwhelmed refugee agency, COMAR, decides on their asylum applications.

Now, though, Irineo Mujica and Luis García Villagrán say that the group intends to go straight to Mexico’s northern border with the United States. They blame Mexican forces’ aggression for the route change. In an October 31 incident that earned criticism from Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, National Guardsmen fired on a truck driving through a roadblock, killing a Cuban migrant and wounding several others. On November 4, though, a group of migrants confronted National Guardsmen with stones and sticks on the highway near the town of Pijijiapán, Chiapas. While no migrants were reported wounded in the incident, five guardsmen were wounded badly enough to go to the local hospital; all were discharged by November 6.

The caravan’s new route would avoid the capital, crossing the Isthmus of Tehuántepec on foot from Oaxaca into the Gulf of Mexico state of Veracruz. Caravan leaders say that they could be in the Gulf Coast city of Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz within 10 days. There, they might meet up with another caravan reportedly set to depart Tapachula on November 17 or 18, then head several hundred miles into the northern border state of Tamaulipas.

“It’s a painful road, when the migrants enter the corridor,” U.S. Ambassador Ken Salazar told a press conference on November 9. “But the majority of them come to the corridor because they’ve been deceived by the traffickers, criminals and those organizations are the ones that are enriching themselves by millions of dollars.” In an apparent reference to Mujica and García Villagrán, the Ambassador blamed the caravan’s formation on people “doing it for the money, they’re not doing it for the benefit of the migrants… The organizers portray themselves as if they’re doing something for human rights, when in reality what they’re doing is filling their pockets with money that comes from the traffickers and criminals.”

 The Ambassador provided no evidence to clarify this accusation, however. Those who participate in caravans usually do so in an effort to avoid having to pay a smuggler, seeking to get across Mexico instead through “safety in numbers.”

Indicators point to migration decline in October

According to preliminary CBP numbers reported in the Washington Post, migration at the US-Mexico border may have dropped by 25 percent in the three months between July and October. “About 160,000 border crossers were taken into CBP custody during the month, preliminary figures show, down from 192,000 in September,” the Post’s Nick Miroff reports. “It was the third consecutive month that border arrests have declined, after peaking at 213,593 in July.”

The sharpest decline, Miroff adds, is in arrivals of migrants from Haiti. CBP and its Border Patrol component apprehended about 1,000 Haitians in October, way down from 17,638 in September. That month, a sudden arrival of nearly 15,000 Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas, made national news.

The decline in Haitian migration owes to the uniqueness of the Del Rio event, a finite, one-time flow. (However, several thousand Haitians, most of whom lived in Brazil and Chile, remain in Tapachula, and along migration routes in South America, Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap, and Central America). It also owes to the Biden administration’s harsh response to that event: since September 19, DHS has expelled about 8,700 migrants back to Haiti on 82 flights. As a result, the number of Haitians seeking asylum in Mexico has increased: Haitians in October overtook Hondurans as the number-one nationality of migrants seeking asylum before Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, so far in 2021.

As we await CBP’s official release of October data, another indicator of a significant decline last month is a chart of immigrant arrivals in the very busy McAllen, Texas area, maintained by Valerie González of the Rio Grande Valley Monitor. Her chart, included in a larger article about how Border Patrol scrambled to deal with a sharp increase in child and family migration in July and August, appears to show McAllen’s migrant arrivals dropping to near their lowest levels since Joe Biden took office.

(Image from the Rio Grande Valley Monitor)

Arrivals of unaccompanied children, too, are down. While in July and August CBP was routinely apprehending more than 500 children per day, daily official reports of unaccompanied child apprehensions (collected here by Twitter user @juliekayswift) show the agency rarely encountering more than 400 per day anymore, and often fewer than 300. As of November 9, 12,418 unaccompanied children were in U.S. government custody (11,742 with the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, 676 in short-term CBP custody); that is still a very large number, but it is down from over 20,000 in April and May.

Links

  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) began a crackdown on undocumented border-area migration this year, known as “Operation Lone Star,” that has led to the arrest of more than 1,500 people since July—including some asylum seekers—on state charges of trespassing, a misdemeanor. The Wall Street Journal revealed that only 3 percent of those 1,500 have been convicted so far. “Most of the rest are waiting weeks or months in jail for their cases to be processed.” Of 1,006 in jail as of November 1, 53 percent had spent more than 30 days confined—for a misdemeanor offense—due to small rural courts’ overwhelm. Meanwhile, “of 170 Operation Lone Star cases resolved as of Nov. 1, about 70% were dismissed, declined or otherwise dropped, in some instances for lack of evidence.” After release, many migrants are not expelled under Title 42: “some migrants who likely would have been deported had they been immediately caught by the Border Patrol are waiting in the U.S. after being released by state authorities.”
  • “You’re preaching to the choir, and we appreciate you coming, and we appreciate you being here, and we’ll take your help,” the judge (top local authority) of Kinney County, Texas told leadership of the “Patriots for America.” This armed citizen militia group had arrived in the rural border county to respond to what it called “an invasion of this county” by migrants. Kinney County is one of the most active participants in Gov. Abbott’s “Operation Lone Star,” with over 1,000 arrests in two months. Concerns about this county-militia relationship are raised in a November 10 public information request by ACLU of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project.
  • Reversing an initial statement that “it’s not going to happen,” President Biden said on November 6 that the Justice Department might settle lawsuits and pay significant sums to “compensate” many of over 5,600 migrant families who suffered harm when the Trump administration separated children and parents at the border. Dozens of Republican senators have sponsored an amendment to the 2022 defense authorization bill, currently under consideration, that would ban any such payments.
  • Some non-citizens who served in the U.S. military but were later deported after committing criminal offenses are being allowed back into the United States after many years, under a new Biden administration policy.
  • At least 45 Haitian migrants detained at the border are being denied access to counsel while held at Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Torrance County Detention Facility in New Mexico, according to several migrants’ rights groups. One pregnant woman was denied medical care at Torrance and had a miscarriage, according to a civil rights complaint that groups filed.
  • Reporting from Haiti for Public Radio International, Monica Campbell talks to migrants who were expelled from the United States in recent months. Many are already planning to migrate again.
  • Florida’s government reported spending $570,988 to deploy dozens of state law enforcement personnel and equipment to Texas’s border with Mexico, in response to a request from Gov. Abbott. “While in Texas, state law enforcement officers made contact with 9,171 undocumented immigrants,” the Miami Herald reported. “Just over 3% of those contacts resulted in a criminal arrest.”
  • Nearly two months after being shown on widely shared video clips charging on horseback at Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas, at least six Border Patrol agents involved “were slated to sit down with DHS investigators to offer their own accounts of what happened in interviews on Tuesday and Wednesday,” CBS News reports.
  • Manuel Orozco, a longtime Central America expert at Creative Associates, told an interviewer that he expects an increase in migration from Nicaragua after Daniel Ortega’s re-election in an illegitimate vote on November 7.
  • “In historical perspective, the percent of criminal individuals apprehended by Border Patrol is low at about 1 percent in 2021,” writes Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute. “The rate of criminal individuals apprehended in 2021 is near the historical low point of zero to 1 percent during the late 1940s through the mid-1950s. Far from living during a period of high criminal apprehensions along the border, we are likely living during a period of relatively low border criminality.”
  • The mayor of Laredo, Texas called on Mexican authorities to do more to police the highways leading up to his border city from Mexico’s interior. Laredo is the starting point for Interstate 35, a transcontinental U.S. highway that criminal groups use as a corridor for transshipment of illicit drugs to U.S. markets.
  • The data visualization experts at the Pew Research Center shared a new post, “What’s Happening at the U.S.-Mexico Border in 7 Charts.”
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