With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.

This week:

  • The Biden administration is considering a new measure to harden the border against asylum seekers: a revival of family detention facilities, which the administration shuttered last year.
  • Four U.S. citizens were kidnapped, and two killed, in the Mexican border city of Matamoros. The tragedy highlighted crisis-level security conditions in Mexico’s state of Tamaulipas, a frequent site of U.S. deportations and expulsions of migrants.
  • The Matamoros incident fed calls in Washington to add Mexican criminal organizations to the U.S. “terrorist list,” or even to intervene militarily. Neither proposal is likely either to be enacted, or to yield lasting results against organized crime or illicit drug supplies.

Biden Administration considering reviving family detention

The New York Times revealed on March 6 that the Biden administration is once again considering reviving a mechanism to harden the border against asylum seekers. Five “current and former administration officials with knowledge” of internal discussions said that “the Department of Homeland Security [DHS] is outlining what it would need to do to restart temporary family detention by May 11,” the day that the Title 42 pandemic expulsion policy is slated to end.

Apart from 2 pre-existing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) family detention centers, the Obama administration opened three facilities, later closing one,  to detain asylum-seekers who arrived as families (parents with children). The Trump administration maintained the two large facilities in Texas. Families spent up to 20 days at the Dilley and Karnes centers, a maximum set by a federal judge overseeing the Flores settlement agreement, which mandates that migrant children be kept in the “least restrictive setting available.”

While in detention, families—under a procedure called expedited removal—underwent preliminary “credible fear” interviews with asylum officers to determine the validity of their protection claims. In the vast majority of cases, these interviews occurred without counsel present, as detention made access to attorneys difficult.

By 2019, the Trump administration was paying nearly $320 per family bed per night to detain up to 2,500 family members at a time at Dilley and Karnes. (Because of family configurations, ICE said, the actual number was usually closer to 1,500.) This was—and remains—a tiny percentage of the total family migrant population. Those not selected for detention were generally released into the U.S. interior, usually with devices or other methods of monitoring them, with dates to appear in immigration court.

The family facilities were harmful and controversial. One, in Artesia, New Mexico, was closed in 2014 “after complaints about the conditions there,” the Times recalled. In 2018 two experts contracted by the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties blew the whistle on detention conditions that they described as posing “substantial harm to children.” (Drs. Scott Allen and Pamela McPherson, now represented by the Government Accountability Project, issued a March 8 statement opposing renewed family detention.)

During the 2020 campaign, Joe Biden tweeted, “Children should be released from ICE detention with their parents immediately. This is pretty simple, and I can’t believe I have to say it: Families belong together.” A February 2022 memo ordered that the Dilley and Karnes facilities be reconfigured to hold only adults.

Numbers of migrants arriving as families have averaged about 52,000 per month during Biden’s presidential tenure. As his administration prepares for a likely end of Title 42, a reversal of the President’s past positions is a distinct possibility.

Asked about it by PBS’s Christiane Amanpour, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas replied, “One thing that I promote in this department is to put all options on the table. Great, good, bad, terrible, let us discuss them, and many will be left on the cutting room floor… We haven’t made a decision yet.” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre answered a reporter’s question: “I’m not saying it’s being considered… I’m not saying it is, and I’m not saying it is not. I’m saying that I’m not going to speak to rumors.”

“One leading option under consideration,” the Washington Post reported, would be to reopen the larger Dilley facility, though another Post source disputed that Dilley was being considered. “The facilities also would need to be set up to provide educational programs and playgrounds,” the New York Times noted.

The proposal came to light just two weeks after the Biden administration published a draft rule that would impose a “rebuttable” denial of asylum, with some exceptions, to migrants who passed through third countries and did not seek asylum there. (See WOLA’s February 23 Border Update.)

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times’s Hamed Aleaziz, unnamed administration officials voiced dismay about this turn to a harder line, lamenting that asylum would never again be what it was before Donald Trump’s term in office.“The one-two punch of family detention and the transit ban could create a deportation assembly line for families,” longtime immigration reporter Dara Lind wrote at the American Immigration Council’s Immigration Impact blog.

A non-exhaustive list of political figures who voiced immediate opposition to renewed family detention includes Senators Bob Menéndez (D-New Jersey) and Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico); former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro; Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee; Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona); Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas); Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Illinois); and Rep. Nanette Díaz Barragan (D-California), co-chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Conservatives and moderates were more circumspect. Asked by Roll Call about family detention, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina) said, “I think it’s a good first step.” While not explicitly backing the idea, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware) said, “I respect that the administration is studying a range of options in advance of the expiration of the public health emergency and Title 42, and I think we need to give them the room to find solutions.”

U.S. citizens kidnapped, killed in Matamoros

Four U.S. citizens, driving a van with North Carolina plates, were either ambushed or caught in a firefight just after crossing from Brownsville, Texas into Matamoros, Tamaulipas, on Friday, March 3. Members of an organized crime group kidnapped them in broad daylight. The victims were located in a wooden house on Matamoros’s outskirts on March 7: two had been killed, one suffered serious injuries, and one was mostly unharmed. The four had reportedly traveled to Matamoros, taking advantage of far lower medical care costs, for a plastic-surgery procedure.

Matamoros is the easternmost and southernmost city on Mexico’s side of the border, the shortest distance from Central America. It is a frequent destination for migrants, but it is also dominated by the Gulf Cartel, a decades-old organized crime group. Some media coverage speculates that the Gulf organization is internally divided and facing challenges from rival factions, which has worsened tensions. In that context, it is possible that the four Americans’ abductors mistakenly believed them to be members of a rival criminal organization.

Tamaulipas, the Mexican state that includes Matamoros, Reynosa, and Nuevo Laredo, is the only one of Mexico’s five border states to which the State Department assigns a “ Level 4: do not travel” warning, the same severity as Afghanistan or Syria. “We are particularly worried about the control that the Gulf cartel exercises over an area known as the frontera chica,” a couple of hours’ drive along the border west of Matamoros, warned a statement from U.S. Ambassador Ken Salazar.

Despite security risks, Matamoros is a frequent site of U.S. deportations of Mexican migrants: Mexico’s government counted 9,586 deportations to the Matamoros port of entry in 2022. To this must be added an unknown but probably similar number of Title 42 expulsions of several countries’ citizens.

The Matamoros-Brownsville port of entry is also the site along the border currently offering the largest number of appointments to asylum seekers, under a system of Title 42 exemptions using the “CBP One” smartphone app. This, too, draws asylum seekers to the city.

The Trump administration’s application of the “Remain in Mexico” policy caused a sprawling encampment to form along the Rio Grande in Matamoros, filled with asylum seekers awaiting their court dates on the U.S. side. The camp received a pre-Christmas 2019 visit from future first lady Jill Biden.

While that encampment disappeared with the Biden administration’s termination of Remain in Mexico, a new site sprang up in October 2022, after the same administration expanded use of Title 42 to expel Venezuelan citizens into Mexico. As an unseasonable heat wave lifts temperatures in Matamoros close to 100 degrees, humanitarian workers worry about the health of roughly 500 to 700 people still living there.

This week’s tragedy drew sharp U.S. media attention to the public-security crisis in Tamaulipas. For non-U.S. citizens passing through the state, though, kidnappings, assaults, extortion, and other crimes are frequent but rarely reported. “This is a common occurrence. It happens all the time. But it’s usually aimed at asylum-seekers, not anyone else,” Felicia Rangel-Samponaro told USA Today. Rangel-Samponaro runs the Sidewalk School, one of a small number of humanitarian organizations operating, despite security conditions, in Matamoros and Reynosa.

The Associated Press recalled, too, that Tamaulipas accounts for about a tenth of the more than 112,000 Mexicans reported as missing throughout the country. “Although a convoy of armored Mexican military trucks extracted the Americans, the only ones searching for most of the missing Mexicans are their desperate relatives.”

Calls in Washington for labeling Mexican organized crime “terrorists,” using U.S. military

The Matamoros tragedy, along with an incendiary Wall Street Journal column from Donald Trump’s former attorney general, fed some legislators’ calls to place Mexican criminal groups on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, or even to use U.S. military force against them inside Mexico.

“It is time we start treating cartels as terrorist organizations and work with the Mexican government, who is our closest and biggest trading partner, to dismantle cartels,” U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas), whose district includes Brownsville, said on March 7.

In a news conference that day, border-district Rep. Henry Cuéllar (D-Texas) mentioned—but is not listed as a co-sponsor of—the “Security First Act” ( H.R. 163), legislation introduced by border-district Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas). That bill would require the State Department to produce a report on whether Mexico’s Jalisco New Generation, Sinaloa, Juárez, Tijuana, Gulf, and Zetas criminal groups should be added to the U.S. “terrorist list.”

No purely criminal organizations are currently on the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list. The only Latin American groups currently listed are guerrillas claiming leftist political views: Colombia’s ELN and FARC dissidents, and remnants of Peru’s Shining Path. While all participate in drug trafficking and other criminality, little evidence points to these groups’ leaders accumulating significant personal wealth.

It is illegal for U.S. citizens to provide “material support”—a broadly defined term that could include information and advice—to members of groups on this list, or to engage in financial transactions with them. Adding Mexican criminal groups to the FTO list could leave U.S. citizens who purchase drugs from these groups, or who help them to launder money, facing terrorism charges.

The same could apply to corrupt foreign government and security personnel on these groups’ payroll. Asylum seekers could also be barred from the United States if found ever to have made payments to groups considered “terrorist”—including payments made under duress like extortion or ransoms.

Putting Mexican criminal groups on the list could also be complicated by their ephemeral nature: they frequently divide and change names, while new ones rapidly emerge.

“Look, designating these cartels as FTOs would not grant us any additional authorities that we don’t really have at this time,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on March 8. “So the United States has powerful sanctions authorities specifically designated to combat narcotics-trafficking organizations and the individuals and entities that enable them. So we have not been afraid to use them.”

In a March 2 Wall Street Journal opinion column, meanwhile, former attorney-general William Barr went further, advocating for U.S. military intervention: “a far more aggressive American effort inside Mexico than ever before, including a significant U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence presence, as well as select military capabilities.” This could be done without Mexico’s consent, Barr argued: “If a government is unwilling or unable to do so [confront criminal groups], then the country being harmed has the right to take direct action to eliminate the threat, with or without the host country’s approval.”

Barr cited a resolution introduced by Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), with 16 Republican co-sponsors, that would authorize the President to use military force to fight Mexican criminal organizations producing the drug fentanyl. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) told Fox News that he was planning to introduce similar legislation in the Senate.

Asked about such proposals at a March 8 House Armed Services Committee hearing, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs Melissa Dalton warned that they could end up causing Mexico “to cut off our access” and threaten “the lines of cooperation we do have with Mexico.”

Another factor complicating a military approach is the slippery nature of organized crime, which depends less on hierarchies and more on corrupt relationships within states. Years of military pressure have led to killings and arrests of leaders of the Medellín, Cali, Sinaloa, Gulf, Zetas, Tijuana, Familia Michoacana, and many other cartels. Still, these organizations—or mutated forms of them—persist while supplies of illicit drugs in the United States remain as robust as ever, as measured by seizures, survey data, overdose deaths, and price and purity estimates.

Other news

  • A WOLA commentary provides an overview of 10 deadly-force incidents resulting in fatalities, and a few others involving serious injuries, involving CBP and Border Patrol personnel at the border since 2020. Some or all of them “may—pending the final outcome of investigations, complaints, and litigation—have violated the agencies’ Use of Force policy.”
  • As this update goes to publication, the White House is sending Congress its 2024 federal budget request. Next week’s Border Update will provide an overview, but in the meantime DHS is publishing its requests, including detailed information about the CBP and ICE budgets, to this page. (As of the morning of March 10, no details have yet been posted there, but the White House has shared a “ fact sheet” about proposed border and migration spending.
  • Asked in an annual federal government survey whether they believe they can “disclose a suspected violation of any law, rule or regulation without fear of reprisal,” an unusually large number of respondents from the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Inspector-General’s Office (OIG) replied that they could not, reported the Project on Government Oversight. This is of concern because the OIG, when functioning, plays a critical role in holding DHS’s border law enforcement agencies accountable for human rights abuse and corruption.
  • Politico reported on internal documents revealing that DHS meanwhile maintains a domestic intelligence-gathering program, the “Overt Human Intelligence Collection Program,” that employees worry “could be illegal.”
  • A March 8 decision from a federal judge in Florida may, starting on March 15, block the Biden administration from processing asylum-seeking migrants using “parole plus alternative-to-detention,” a method that usually takes CBP 30 minutes per migrant. That would force the use of “notices to appear,” which takes about 90 minutes per migrant. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council explained the ramifications, including likely overcrowding in CBP facilities, in a Twitter thread.
  • The “humanitarian parole” program that the Biden administration began for Venezuelans last October, and for Cubans, Haitians, and Nicaraguans in January, has admitted 36,500 people into the United States so far, Axios reported. This falls short of the program’s maximum of 30,000 admissions per month of migrants who have passports and U.S.-based sponsors.
  • For the first time in January, Ecuador was the top nationality of migrants apprehended in a single month by Mexican migration authorities. Mexico apprehended 5,808 Ecuadorian citizens in January, 5,314 Venezuelans, 4,017 Guatemalans, 3,847 Hondurans, and a total of 36,147 from all nationalities, which was a 26 percent drop from December.
  • The latest monthly report from Witness at the Border finds a jump in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) migrant removal flights, from January to February, to Colombia (from 9 flights to 22 flights), Guatemala (from 22 to 36), Ecuador (20 to 28), Honduras (16 to 22), Peru (1 to 4), and one new flight each to Ghana, Nigeria, Mauritania, and Cote D’Ivoire.
  • Ecuador’s El Universo narrated the story of a mother from Cuenca who migrated via the Darién Gap. At the New York Times, photographer Oscar Castillo told the story of Venezuelan migrants trying to get through Mexico. EFE talked to Venezuelan migrants stranded in Tapachula, Mexico. At the New Yorker, Stephania Taladrid narrated a Venezuelan family’s arduous journey from Cali, Colombia, where they had fled in 2019, to New York via the Darién route.
  • “There were 15 suicides among Customs and Border Protection employees in 2022, the most since at least 2007, when the agency began tracking the deaths,” the Washington Post reported. “That’s almost twice the number in 2020 and three times as many in 2014.” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, called for a DHS mental health program that can “ensure that the workforce can access… resources without risking their careers.”
  • Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector “is in the initial phase of administering body cameras to its agents,” local television media reported. A Sector spokesperson said, “Having the body cam is like having a partner, a second set of eyes, a witness. So, one of the benefits of the body cam is to reduce false allegations, frivolous allegations against the agent.”
  • New Mexico’s state legislature is nearing passage of legislation that would prohibit private militia groups from engaging “in public patrols capable of causing injury or death with provisions regarding intimidation,” the Associated Press reported. The legislation is inspired in part by troubling past incidents along New Mexico’s international border.
  • Mexican migration authorities found 343 migrants, 103 of them unaccompanied Central American children, packed into a tractor-trailer container in the eastern state of Veracruz.
  • “With the Biden Administration’s recent move to curtail asylum at the US-Mexico border, a historic opportunity to better manage migration in the Western Hemisphere may be slipping away,” wrote former Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, winner of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, in a column at Spain’s El País.