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:

  • Texas’s Republican governor, an immigration policy hardliner, responded to Title 42’s imminent lifting by imposing onerous cargo inspections at border crossings, snarling trade between Texas and Mexico and causing a supply-chain crisis. Greg Abbott also began sending busloads of released asylum-seeking migrants to Washington, an attempt to use migrants as political props that, in fact, covers the transportation costs—at Texas taxpayers’ expense—of people who intend to pursue their asylum cases in the U.S. east coast.
  • Customs and Border Protection data show the agency processed nearly 10,000 Ukrainian migrants between February 1 and April 6. Because of dysfunction in the U.S. immigration system, the fastest way for Ukrainians to take advantage of the Biden administration’s offer of protection is to arrive in Mexico first and apply for asylum at the U.S. border, mainly San Diego. Several hundred Ukrainians are now taking this route every day, causing a growing backlog in Tijuana.

Texas governor blocks trade, offers free voluntary transport to asylum seekers

The Republican governor of Texas, a critic of the Biden administration’s border and migration policies, put in place two measures at Texas’s border with Mexico that may be generating political blowback for him. In response to the announced May 23 end of the Title 42 pandemic policy—which has expelled migrants, including asylum seekers, from the United States over over 1.7 million times since March 2020—Greg Abbott (R) sent police to impose stringent vehicle inspections on all cargo entering Texas, and sent busloads of asylum-seeking migrants to Washington.

The vehicle inspections have snarled trade along the 13 ports of entry used to ship cargo between 4 Mexican border states and Texas. Calling it one of several “aggressive actions by the State of Texas to secure the border in the wake of President Biden’s decision to end Title 42 expulsions,” Abbott ordered the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) to conduct “safety inspections” of all cargo vehicles. State police installed checkpoints just beyond the ports of entry, where Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel already carry out inspections of entering cargo traffic, forcing Mexican trucks to undergo two separate procedures.

The Texas police have been taking more than 45 minutes to inspect each truck; as of April 13 they had turned nearly a quarter of them back to Mexico, citing defective headlights or taillights, brakes, or tires. The operation “hasn’t intercepted any drugs or immigrants,” DPS Director Steven McCraw said to the Wall Street Journal.

“I know in advance this is going to dramatically slow traffic from Mexico into Texas,” Gov. Abbott said before the operation began. The resulting slowdown has been dramatic, backing thousands of trucks as much as eight miles into Mexico from some ports of entry. The “safety inspections” forced some truckers to wait more than 36 hours to cross, often while carrying perishable products.

Abbott is seeking re-election in November. His Democratic opponent, former congressman Beto O’Rourke, took advantage of the cargo chaos with an event and messaging blaming the Governor for worsening already strained supply chains and contributing to inflation.

The outcry, though, has also come from quarters that rarely criticize tough border policies. A CBP statement made clear that “the longer than average wait times—and the subsequent supply chain disruptions—are unrelated to CBP screening activities and are due to additional and unnecessary inspections being conducted by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) at the order of the Governor of Texas.” Business leaders voiced increasing concern as losses mounted over the week. Texas’s Republican Agriculture Commissioner issued a statement accusing the Governor of “turning a crisis into a catastrophe,” warning that it could “quickly lead to $2.00 lemons, $5.00 avocados and worse.” The governors of Mexico’s four states bordering Texas (Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas) sent Abbott a letter noting, “political points have never been a good recipe to address common challenges or threats.” Texas state legislators representing border districts sent a letter criticizing Abbott for failing to consult local officials.

Cargo traffic came to a total halt early in the week at busy bridges between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, and between Reynosa and Pharr, as Mexican truckers staged protests that blocked vehicle lanes. The Pharr bridge is the busiest cargo crossing in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region, with about 3,000 trucks on a normal day, and the United States’ busiest land port for produce.

Both trucker protests stood down by April 13. That day, organized crime operatives in Reynosa set fire to trucks in an apparent effort to force an end to the protests. All illegal drugs except marijuana cross into the United States mostly through ports of entry, and the blockages were apparently hurting criminal business, too.

On April 13 Abbott held a press conference with the governor of Nuevo León, a Mexican state that shares 9 miles of Mexico’s 1,254-mile border with Texas, including one port of entry. In what appeared to be a face-saving deal, Gov. Samuel Alejandro García agreed to step up security on his state’s side of the border, and Abbott responded by lifting vehicle inspections at Nuevo León’s port of entry. Similar deals were reached with governors of Chihuahua and Coahuila states on April 14. It is not clear how greatly the Mexican governors’ new measures will depart from current practices. As of April 14, no agreement was in place with the government of Tamaulipas, and Abbott’s vehicle inspections continue in southeast Texas’s busy Rio Grande Valley region.

Imports from Mexico to Texas totaled $104 billion—$284 million per day—in the pre-pandemic year of 2019, so the cost of Abbott’s slowdowns has been significant. CBP and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that commercial traffic into Texas dropped by 60 percent. “Just-in-time” supply chains for household goods and car parts have been disrupted, and produce is in danger of spoiling. The inspections have cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to Texas-based Little Bear Produce, a company official told the Washington Post. “It’s at crisis level now,” the president of the Texas International Produce Association told the New York Times.

The other new measure Abbott adopted this week was also of unclear political benefit to the governor. Arguing that Washington should deal with asylum-seeking migrants who get released into the United States, he ordered Texas officials to send some of them on buses to the District of Columbia. At least two buses arrived near the Capitol starting on April 13, dropping off a few dozen migrants outside the building that houses Fox News studios.

The bus trips are voluntary, and many migrants wish to live with relatives or sponsors on the U.S. east coast while pursuing their asylum cases. So in staging a political stunt using migrants as props, Abbott was also doing them a favor, saving them or their relatives hundreds of dollars in transportation fares by having Texas taxpayers foot the bill.

On the morning of April 13, the first bus dropped off 24 migrants from Colombia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, the endpoint of a 30-hour trip from Del Rio, Texas. Many went to nearby Union Station to arrange transportation to other eastern U.S. destinations. “We are very thankful for all the help that has been given to us,” a Venezuelan mother of two told a reporter from the Texas Tribune. “Frankly, we did not have the money to get here otherwise, so we are very thankful for the help.” The White House’s Psaki told reporters, “These are all migrants who have been processed by CBP and are free to travel, so it’s nice the state of Texas is helping them get to their final destination as they await the outcome of their immigration proceedings, and they’re all in immigration proceedings.”

Sister Sharlet Wagner, of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, was on hand to receive the bus; she told CBS news that the migrants’ journey was only sort of voluntary: “they felt it was the only way to get out of Texas. I don’t know how much choice they were given.” Gov. Abbott said the buses, and perhaps charter planes, would continue to arrive in Washington.

This is the latest in a series of hardline border policies that Greg Abbott has imposed. The Governor has spent over $3 billion in Texas funds on fence construction, a National Guard deployment, and an effort to imprison migrants on state trespassing charges. This week’s measures are harder to understand from a purely political point of view. Causing large money-losing delays and giving free rides to asylum seekers may not be going down well with Abbott’s pro-business, anti-immigrant political base as re-election nears.

Ukrainians keep arriving in Tijuana

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data obtained by CBS News show that U.S. border officials processed 9,926 undocumented Ukrainian migrants between February 1 and April 6. (The Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24.) On April 6 alone, CBP processed 767 Ukrainian migrants.

The vast majority have come to ports of entry, rather than trying to cross the Rio Grande or climb the border wall. The 9,926 probably includes many who arrived at airports. In February, only 272 out of the 1,147 undocumented Ukrainians CBP encountered “nationwide” were at the Mexico border, and 17 at the Canadian border.

The same set of statistics obtained by CBS shows 5,207 Russian migrants processed between February 1 and April 6.

Most Ukrainians are arriving in Tijuana. The Biden administration has announced an intention to receive up to 100,000 refugees from Ukraine, often through offers of “humanitarian parole.” So far, though, the most common process by which Ukrainians have been able to take advantage of this offer has been by arriving in Mexico—which does not require visas of visiting Ukrainians—and traveling to the U.S. border. The most established migration route goes to Tijuana and San Diego.

That the Mexico border route is the best approach for Ukrainians seeking refuge in the United States indicates the dysfunction of the backlogged U.S. immigration system. In March, just 12 Ukrainian refugees were resettled in the United States—all of them “likely in the resettlement pipeline before the Russian invasion,” CBS News notes.

The backlog at U.S. ports of entry has caused a backlog of Ukrainian citizens in Tijuana—a city where the Title 42 policy has already contributed to a burgeoning population of protection-seeking migrants from many other countries. “As of a few days ago,” National Public Radio reported on April 13, the main Tijuana shelter set up for Ukrainians awaiting their turn to present at the port of entry “had registered about 10,000 people.”

CBP has effectively given Ukrainians a “fast lane” at the San Ysidro port of entry between Tijuana and San Diego. This has shown a greater ability to process large numbers of migrants than has been common in the past. It has also been controversially selective, surpassing migrants from all other nationalities, who have been waiting weeks or months in Tijuana for a chance to present before authorities. Several hundred Ukrainians are now arriving in Tijuana each day, overwhelming even the increased CBP capacity at the port of entry. What had been a two to three day wait for Ukrainians in Tijuana is beginning to lengthen further.

Other news

  • Republican officials in 21 states have signed on to a lawsuit seeking to block the Biden administration’s plan to end the Title 42 pandemic restriction on asylum seekers at the border.
  • The New York Times published one of the most thorough accounts of the Biden administration’s infighting around border and migration policy, with the President reportedly demanding in March 2021, “Who do I need to fire to fix this?” Disagreements led to delays in developing new rules and procedures to speed asylum processing, which won’t be in place during the anticipated mid-2022 jump in migration at the border.
  • A 32-year-old Mexican woman died painfully, hanging upside down, while attempting to rappel down the border wall near Douglas, Arizona on April 11. Mexican authorities recovered the body of a 52-year-old Nicaraguan man who drowned in the Rio Grande along with his adult son. Luis Alberto Jiménez and his son “are added to about 10 Nicaraguans who have perished in the Rio Grande’s waters during the first three months of 2022,” reports Nicaragua Investiga.
  • Agence France Presse profiled a swim instructor in Estelí, Nicaragua who is giving free lessons to people planning to migrate, so that they might avoid drowning in the Rio Grande. Most of his pupils are single mothers planning to flee with their children.
  • Since Nicaragua dropped visa requirements for migrants from Cuba last November, “The minimum price of a flight to Nicaragua from Cuba is $3,000” and “at least five airplanes a day leave Cuban passengers in Managua, and not infrequently they return empty,” reports the Central American investigative website Expediente Publico.
  • The family of Carmelo Cruz Marcos, a migrant from Puebla, Mexico who was shot to death by a Border Patrol agent, is pushing for an investigation of what happened on the night of February 19 outside Douglas, Arizona. The Border Patrol agent involved said that Cruz, seeking to avoid capture, was about to throw a rock at close range; the agent fired his weapon repeatedly, hitting Cruz four times. Cruz’s family is contemplating a lawsuit, the Tucson Sentinel reports, noting that a Border Patrol Critical Incident Team—a secretive and controversial unit accused of interfering with investigations of agents when alleged abuses occur—was on the scene.
  • Yahoo News obtained a March 16 CBP intelligence document indicating that Border Patrol officials in the Del Rio, Texas sector had reached out to Mexican counterparts for help to “deter migrant traffic,” including asylum seekers, “away from the sector’s overwhelmed ports of entry.” Officials in Coahuila state agreed to set up four “tactical checkpoints” manned by state police. (Coahuila’s state force, known as Fuerza Coahuila, has a troubled human rights record.)
  • Forced displacement is on the rise in Mexico, as fighting between organized crime groups comes to resemble wars, Mary Beth Sheridan reports at the Washington Post. About 20,000 people have fled Michoacán state in the past year, and “thousands more have abandoned their homes in other states like Zacatecas and Guerrero.” Some may seek refuge in the United States after Title 42 is lifted.
  • Longtime Tijuana shelter operator José María García told local media he expects “a new migrant caravan” after Title 42 comes to an end on May 23. He is concerned because shelters “are at 90 percent capacity” already. In Guatemala on April 11, government authorities met to plan responses to a possible post-Title 42 “caravan.”
  • Tijuana is in the midst of a wave of violence with five armed attacks taking place in a 12-hour period on April 9. Meanwhile, KPBS reports that asylum-seeking migrants ejected in February from a tent encampment near the main Tijuana-San Diego port of entry “have been pushed out to dangerous neighborhoods in the outskirts of Tijuana, where they have limited access to jobs, social services and stable housing options.”
  • At the Border Chronicle, Melissa del Bosque accuses Border Patrol union leaders of “echoing the ‘great replacement theory,’ a white-supremacist belief with roots in the French nationalist movement of the early 20th century,” in their media statements.