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 IN BRIEF:
For the first time since May to June, the number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border declined from September to October. The main reason was a drop in migration of citizens of Venezuela, a likely “wait and see” reaction after the Biden administration, on October 5, announced a resumption of deportation flights to Caracas. Other trends included a rise in arrivals of Mexican families and a general westward shift in migrants’ destinations, with Arizona a particular focus.
Migration also declined in Panama’s Darién Gap region in October, led by a drop in Venezuelan citizens transiting the perilous jungle route. Migration through Honduras, however, jumped to over 100,000 people in October. The reason is an increase in aerial routes to Nicaragua, which does not require visas of most countries’ visiting citizens.
The state legislature of Texas, which is dominated by a Republican Party strongly critical of the Biden administration’s border policies, added the latest in a series of hardline measures: a law that would make it a state crime to cross the border irregularly from Mexico. The law raises questions about Mexico’s willingness to take back migrants expelled by Texas, the constitutionality of a state enforcing immigration laws, and a possible increase in racial profiling that today’s more conservative Supreme Court might uphold.
THE FULL UPDATE:
Word of renewed Venezuela deportations triggered a momentary drop in migration
For the first time since May to June, the number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border declined from September to October. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) took 240,988 people into custody last month, down 11 percent from 269,735 in September.
CBP’s release about its October results cited “an overall decrease in migrant encounters along the southwest border, even as we continue to see the largest displacement of individuals globally since World War II.”
- Between the official land border crossings (ports of entry), Border Patrol apprehended 188,788 people, down 14 percent from September (218,763 people).
- At the ports of entry themselves, CBP encountered 52,210 people, up slightly from September (50,972); of those, “more than 44,000” made appointments using the CBP One smartphone app, up from “approximately 43,000” in September.
Nearly all of the net reduction is citizens of Venezuela, whose numbers fell 39 percent (66,584 in September to 40,863 in October). Between the ports of entry, the drop was 46 percent. The reduction grows to 65 percent when comparing October 15-30 encounters with Venezuelans to September 15-30.
The cause appears to be the U.S. and Venezuelan governments’ October 5 announcement that they would renew deportation flights to Caracas. Though these flights have been infrequent so far, the mere possibility of being sent all the way back to Venezuela seems to have led many Venezuelan citizens considering migration to “wait and see” and delay their plans.
On November 16, the Treasury Department issued a partial license allowing payments to the sanctioned Venezuelan airline CONVIASA for “the repatriation of Venezuelan nationals from non-U.S. jurisdictions in the Western Hemisphere to Venezuela.” The license increases the probability of U.S.-funded deportations of Venezuelans from other countries, such as Panama.
This drop will probably be short-lived. It is reasonable to expect Venezuelan migration to recover, as conditions in the country remain dire and Venezuelans considering migration realize that the real probability of aerial deportation is slim. As noted in the next section, Honduras saw a big increase in Venezuelan in-transit migration during the first full week of November.
The one-month shift in CBP encounters by nationality, is as follows:
- Nicaragua +104% (+1,685)
- Turkey +40% (+368)
- Mexico +18% (+9,707)
- Other Countries +18% (+2,909)
- Cuba +17% (+1,829)
- Russia +12% (+212)
- India +7% (+284)
- China +5% (+219)
- Haiti +2% (+78)
- Colombia +1% (+130)
- El Salvador -4% (-300)
- Peru -5% (-201)
- Brazil -12% (-353)
- Honduras -20% (-5,491)
- Ecuador -22% (-3,391)
- Guatemala -31% (-10,692)
- Venezuela -39% (-25,721)
September had set a one-month record for CBP’s encounters with migrants traveling as family units (parents with children). In October, arrivals of family units dropped 14 percent (-17,525 people). Much of the decline was families from Venezuela (-34 percent), though families from Guatemala declined even more steeply.
- Nicaragua +56% (+152)
- India +45% (+326)
- Mexico +30% (+6,817)
- Cuba +23% (+697)
- Russia +19% (+190)
- Other Countries +13% (+325)
- El Salvador -1% (-63)
- Peru -5% (-109)
- Colombia -6% (-353)
- Brazil -18% (-233)
- Haiti -22% (-391)
- Honduras -26% (-4,774)
- Ecuador -28% (-2,125)
- Venezuela -34% (-9,042)
- Guatemala -37% (-8,913)
Encounters with unaccompanied children decreased 16 percent from September to October (13,771 to 11,522), and encounters with single adults fell 7 percent (132,017 to 123,055).
Arrivals of families of Mexican citizens have reached never-before-seen highs after growing 30 percent from September to October. This is a result of insecurity: many are coming from states along Mexico’s Pacific coast (Michoacán and Guerrero in particular) that are beset by organized crime-related violence. It is also a result of the May 2023 end of the Title 42 expulsions policy, which had sent most Mexican citizens back to Mexico without the chance to ask for asylum. The Biden administration’s May 2023 asylum rule, which denies asylum to some people who cross between ports of entry without seeking asylum in other countries, does not apply to Mexican citizens, who do not pass through third countries.
CBP’s statement about its October results notes that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has removed or returned more than 54,000 family members since May 2023. It adds, “DHS has removed or returned more individual family members in the last six months than in any previous full fiscal year.”
Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico border into nine geographic sectors. These saw sharp variations in migrant arrivals from September to October, with a pronounced shift away from Texas and toward Arizona and California.
- San Diego Sector (California) +12% (+3,295)
- Tucson Sector (Arizona) +8% (+4,223)
- El Centro Sector (California) +4% (+70)
- Yuma Sector (Arizona-California) -1% (-65)
- Laredo Sector (Texas) -8% (-252)
- Big Bend Sector (Texas) -14% (-81)
- Del Rio Sector (Texas) -16% (-7,477)
- Rio Grande Valley Sector (Texas) -30% (-13,657)
- El Paso Sector (Texas) -42% (-16,041)
For the fourth straight month, Border Patrol’s Tucson, Arizona sector (red in the chart) was the number one destination for migration. The 55,224 people who came to Tucson were nearly 2.5 times more numerous than the sector’s encounters in October 2022 (22,938). In October, Border Patrol apprehended 77 percent of Mexican family members (16,556 of 21,439) in its Tucson Sector.
In an unusual late October shift that has continued into November, Tucson sector migrants have stopped arriving near the town of Sásabe, not far from Nogales, where organized crime groups have been fighting intensely. Instead, they are coming further westward, in an especially remote area of desert within the lands of the Tohono O’odham Indigenous nation.
“Until recently, ‘we have seen nothing of this magnitude of migrants crossing in our area,’” Tohono O’odham Chairman Verlon Jose told the Arizona Daily Star. “We know this is not going to stop anytime soon.” Jose “emphasized that migrants don’t represent a threat to tribal members’ safety,” as they are mostly asylum-seeking families. “They cross and they sit down” to await border agents.
San Diego, California was in fourth place out of Border Patrol’s nine sectors in October but saw the fastest one-month growth rate. There, as shelters are full, CBP has been releasing migrants onto San Diego streets with notices to appear in immigration court. Border Report covered a San Diego non-profit “migrant transitional center” assisting 400 to 700 asylum seekers daily.
Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector, the number-one migrant destination during the final seven months of the Title 42 period, has slipped to fifth place in migrant arrivals. Across the border in Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican bank of the Rio Grande “is now empty,” EFE reported. That is due both to lower overall numbers and to a crackdown: “Patrols from Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) circulate 24 hours a day, every day of the week, to prevent migrants from approaching the border in an operation that includes taking them off the train known as ‘The Beast.’”
A survey of 1,200 migrants in Ciudad Juárez, carried out by Mexico’s College of the Northern Border (COLEF), found that 97 percent of Mexican migrants and 80 percent of non-Mexican migrants in the city planned to seek asylum in the United States, and that only 7 percent intended to cross the border “irregularly” between the ports of entry. Migrants said they generally chose to come to Ciudad Juárez-El Paso because of “the perception that migration processes are faster at this part of the border and because they already have support networks in this city.”
In another development of note, Border Report published a pair of CBP-produced “heat maps” from May 2023, released by Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), showing areas along the border where migrants were most often apprehended that month. The map shows a negative correlation between border walls and migration in several areas. Stretches of the border with the least pedestrian fencing (blue or blank) often saw fewer migrants, and vice versa.
Finally, WOLA staff gathered old and current CBP data to build this chart and data table of Border Patrol migrant encounters by nationality between 2007 and 2023.
This chart shows dramatic shifts in the migrant population.
- More than 90 percent of migrants were citizens of Mexico (blue) until 2009, and more than 80 percent until 2012. In 2023, the migrant population was just 31 percent Mexican.
- Until 2019, more than 90 percent (89 percent in 2020) of the migrant population came from four countries: Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (blue, dark green, brown, and yellow).
- By 2023, just 54 percent came from these countries. Since the pandemic, the diversity of nationalities apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border has multiplied.
Notes on migrants transiting Central America
The Darién Gap
Fresh numbers from Panama show a 35 percent drop, from September to October, in the number of people migrating through the Darién Gap (from 75,268 to 49,256). The leading cause was a 41 percent decline in the number of citizens of Venezuela (blue in the chart) who traveled through the treacherous jungle region straddling Colombia and Panama.
2023 is still a record-breaking year for Darién Gap migration. 458,228 people migrated through the region during the first 10 months of the year, making it certain that the year-end total will surpass 500,000. 294,598 of this year’s migrants (64 percent, blue in the chart) have been Venezuelan.
Honduras is the country that reports in-transit migration in the most current manner. Looking at weekly migration through Honduras shows a possible recovery in Venezuelan migration (blue) during the first full week of November. However, a single week’s data doesn’t necessarily point to a trend.
The chart also depicts citizens of Haiti (green), whose numbers rose then fell during the same period. The recent drop owes to the Haitian government, at strong U.S. suggestion, banning charter flights to Nicaragua at the end of October. A UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) update noted that Honduras registered more migrants from Haiti than from Venezuela last month.
The Nicaragua route
Honduras tracks a majority of in-transit migrants because those who register receive a free document allowing them to remain in the country for five days, without which it is not legal to board a bus to Guatemala.
102,009 people from 92 countries registered themselves in Honduras in October. That is more than twice the total in July, which at the time was a record. It was the first time Honduras’s registries exceeded 100,000 in a month. Honduras’s October total was more than double Panama’s registries at the Darién Gap.
The reason is that an increasing number of migrants are arriving in Nicaragua, which charges a hefty entry fee (usually $150-200) to most countries’ citizens but does not require them to obtain a visa in advance. Air routes to Nicaragua, which involve overland travel through Honduras and further north, have opened up from Cuba, Haiti, and many African countries.
Many Nicaragua-bound flights, especially those operated by the airline Avianca, require passengers first to change planes in El Salvador. On October 20, the Salvadoran government announced it would begin charging a $1,130 “airport improvement fee” to all passengers from 57 largely African countries and India whose itineraries require transit through the San Salvador airport. The Associated Press reported viewing the flight itinerary of a Senegalese migrant whose route had them “passing through Morocco, Spain, and El Salvador before landing in Managua. The last two legs were aboard Avianca flights.”
The Honduran independent journalism outlet ContraCorriente reported from Honduras’s western border with Guatemala, where buses carrying migrants from the eastern border with Nicaragua end their routes. There, in Agua Caliente, Ocotepeque, dozens of migrant smugglers wait to take people via unofficial crossings into Guatemala, where the government formally discourages in-transit migration and frequently detains migrants traveling without smugglers.
Texas makes crossing the border a state crime
The state government of Texas, dominated by the Republican Party and strongly critical of the Biden administration, has taken a long series of steps to harden the border and block asylum seekers, including building walls and laying down razor wire, jailing migrants on “trespassing” charges, and deploying military personnel. Texas took another big step on November 14, as its legislature passed a bill making crossing the border irregularly between Mexico and Texas a state crime.
The bill, S.B. 4, passed Texas’s House of Representatives by an 83-61 party-line vote, with just one Republican dissenting. The bill had passed Texas’s Senate at the end of the previous week. It now goes to Governor Greg Abbott (R) for a very likely signature. (The legislature also passed S.B. 3, which would spend another $1.53 billion on state border barriers.)
The bill, the Texas Tribune explained, “would make it a state misdemeanor to illegally cross the border from Mexico into Texas, empower Texas peace officers to arrest undocumented immigrants, and require that a state judge order the person to leave the U.S. to Mexico in lieu of prosecution.”
The maximum penalty for a misdemeanor offense in Texas is a year in prison. The law would make the charge a felony—punishable by two to twenty years in prison—if an arrested migrant refuses to comply with a judge’s order to return to Mexico.
S.B. 4 appears to depend on Mexico’s willingness to take back migrants—including non-Mexicans—whom Texas deports. “The Mexican government categorically rejects any measure that would allow local or state authorities to detain or deport Mexicans or other nationalities to Mexican soil,” read a November 15 statement from Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department.
If Mexico refuses to take back arrested migrants, it is not clear whether Texas would then imprison them. “In this situation, it’s going to be between an armed law enforcement officer and the country of Mexico,” Kristin Etter of the Texas Immigration Law Council told the Dallas Morning News.
The law raises constitutional questions. “Since when does a state deport individuals?” said Democratic state Rep. Victoria Neave Criado, cited by the Associated Press. “That’s not a power that states have. That’s a power that the federal government has.”
A DHS spokesperson cited by the Dallas Morning News reiterated that states cannot determine how and when to remove noncitizens who violate federal immigration laws: “State actions that conflict with federal law are invalid under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution.” The lone Republican in the legislature to vote against the bill, State Sen. Brian Birdwell, shared this view: “We are setting a terrible precedent for the future by invalidating our obedience and faithfulness to our Constitution.”
The law also raises the possibility of becoming a racial profiling or “show me your papers” measure. The Associated Press explained, “The new law would empower all police in Texas—including officers hundreds of miles (kilometers) from the border—to arrest migrants suspected of illegally entering the country.”
Critics cited by AP “say the law could lead to racial profiling or the wrongful arrest of U.S. citizens and immigrants who are in the country legally.” The bill’s defenders contend that would be unlikely, as it would be too hard to prove that someone arrested in the Texas interior had entered illegally and because misdemeanors have a two-year statute of limitations.
Still, this aspect of the law recalls SB 1070, an Arizona law that required police officers to investigate the immigration status of any person they stopped. The Supreme Court struck down SB 1070 in 2012, but Texas Democrats worry that the state government hopes to bring this new law back to the Court, expecting its justices—much more conservative than they were 11 years ago—to rule differently.
- WOLA’s November 10 Border Update reported on congressional Republicans’ efforts to attach hard-line border and migration measures to the Biden administration’s request for additional, “supplemental” funds for 2024. (Congress has not yet approved the regular 2024 budget, but this week it passed a “ continuing resolution” keeping DHS funded at 2023 levels until February 2, 2024.) There is little new to report on Republican border demands on the supplemental request: closed-door negotiations continue, with little apparent progress. A November 14 analysis from WOLA warned that Republican legislators’ demands, if met, would eviscerate the decades-old right to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.
- Survivors, relatives, and advocates for victims of a March 27 fire in a Mexican government detention station in Ciudad Juárez testified at a hearing of the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). They called for a special commission to investigate grave human rights violations against migrants in Mexico.
- High Country News analyzed data obtained by the Arizona humanitarian group No More Deaths, finding that “911 dispatchers in one of the country’s largest and most dangerous migration corridors often abdicate responsibility for the well-being of suspected migrants, handing them off to the Border Patrol without adequate follow up to ensure that the caller was found.”
- At the Baffler, Caroline Tracey profiled humanitarian workers helping to exhume and identify migrant remains in Texas. She finds that the state’s activists and anthropologists describe their work “as a humanitarian endeavor outside of politics. In such a sharply divided state, there are pragmatic reasons to present their efforts as apolitical. Texas’s unusual bureaucracy means that migration activists, Border Patrol, law enforcement, and local officials work closely together.”
- The New York Times reported on a sharp increase in deaths and severe injuries from falls off of the border wall, which the Trump administration’s buildup made much taller in many areas. A Trump-era project completed new 30-foot walls in San Diego in 2019; since then, “the number of wall-fall patients admitted to the trauma center at U.C. San Diego Health trauma center has increased sevenfold” through 2022 and is expected to be larger in 2023, while “the number of deaths from falls has gone from zero between 2016 and 2019 to 23 since then.” The Times adds, “Last year, U.C. San Diego had to convert a postpartum unit into a ward for the border-wall casualties.”
- Neither border wall opponents nor border hardliners are happy about the design of nearly 20 miles of border wall that the Biden administration plans to build in Starr County, Texas, the Associated Press reported. (See WOLA’s October 13 Border Update for more on this wall-building project.)
- If re-elected, ex-president Donald Trump “will unleash the vast arsenal of federal powers to implement the most spectacular migration crackdown,” Trump’s former advisor Stephen Miller told the New York Times, in an ominous and detailed report about the Republican candidate’s agenda for the border and migration. Reuters provided an overview of plans for border enforcement, travel bans, mass deportations, reducing legal immigration, family separation, and Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA).
- The IACHR published a report on violations of the rights of Venezuelan migrants. It found migration was closely related to authoritarianism in Venezuela, that most migrants travel by land, that women and girls are most at risk, and that countries should recognize Venezuelan migrants as refugees and better coordinate their responses. The Venezuelan outlet Efecto Cocuyo provided a summary.
- After two days of blocking the Pacific coastal highway that links Tapachula, Chiapas, with the rest of the country, thousands of migrants demanding that the Mexican government offer transit documents have largely dispersed. Few received documents, and some are attempting to walk north.
- At the Border Chronicle, investigator Todd Miller found that CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracts for private industry during the Biden administration ($23.5 billion) already exceed those approved during the full Trump administration ($20.9 billion).
- Colombia has surpassed 1 million people internally displaced by violence since the 2016 signing of a peace accord with the FARC guerrillas, according to a UNHCR operational update.