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.
Supreme Court fails to block judge’s demand to reinstate “Remain in Mexico”
A Supreme Court decision issued the evening of August 24 leaves in effect a district court order for the Biden administration to reinstate the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), or “Remain in Mexico,” program. Between its December 2018 inception and January 2021, whenever asylum seekers from several Spanish or Portuguese-speaking countries arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, this program forced them to spend months or years in Mexican border towns—with no guarantees of housing, sustenance, or security—to await their hearings in U.S. immigration courts. (Read WOLA’s statement warning of this potential “return to an inhumane and unlawful policy.”)
Remain in Mexico forced 71,038 asylum seekers back across the border. Mexico’s government, under intense pressure from the Trump administration, went along with the program, including a sharp mid-2019 expansion.
Remain in Mexico spurred the creation of unsanitary and unsafe encampments in Mexican border cities. Human Rights First documented at least 1,544 cases of rape, kidnapping, torture, and other crimes against those subject to the program inside Mexico. If their cases even reached U.S. immigration court, difficult access to counsel and rushed, often virtual procedures made asylum all but impossible to obtain. Of the more than 15,000 closed cases for which asylum seekers attended all their hearings while remaining in Mexico, only 720—4.7 percent—were granted any form of relief from deportation.
“Donald Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy is dangerous, inhumane, and goes against everything we stand for as a nation of immigrants,” then-candidate Joe Biden tweeted in March 2020. “My administration will end it.” The Biden administration suspended Remain in Mexico with an order on January 20, 2021, and then formally terminated it on June 1. Now, though, federal courts are ordering “a good-faith effort” to restart the controversial program, at least while appeals proceed.
The action stems from a lawsuit filed by the Republican attorneys-general of Texas and Missouri, who alleged that the Biden administration failed to “consider all relevant factors” in terminating Remain in Mexico. They link the program’s end to an increase in migration this year, which they claim has increased financial costs for both states.
On August 13, Amarillo, Texas District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk agreed with the attorneys-general and ordered the Biden administration to restart Remain in Mexico, giving it a week to do so. Kacsmaryk is a Trump appointee. (Ian Milhiser reports at Vox that “Before Trump made Kacsmaryk a judge, Kacsmaryk worked at a religious-right law firm. He’s previously written that being transgender is a ‘mental disorder’ and that gay people are ‘disordered.’”)
His opinion claimed that a 1996 immigration law only gives “the government two options vis-à-vis aliens seeking asylum: (1) mandatory detention; or (2) return to a contiguous territory.” This is flatly incorrect: immigration law offers federal officials other options including parole, release on bond, and alternatives to detention.
Kacsmaryk, Milhiser observes, also effectively claimed that the 1996 law “required the federal government to implement the Remain in Mexico policy permanently. That policy didn’t even exist until 2019, so the upshot of Kacsmaryk’s opinion is that the government violated the law for nearly a quarter-century and no one noticed.”
The Department of Justice (DOJ) asked for a stay of Kacsmaryk’s decision while appeals proceed. A panel of three Trump-appointed judges from the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit denied that request on August 19. DOJ then went to the Supreme Court, which suspended the Remain in Mexico reinstatement until August 24.
That evening, with its three liberal-leaning judges dissenting, the Supreme Court refused to suspend Kacsmaryk’s decision while litigation continues. (While it didn’t offer a reason for its refusal, the Court cited a 5-4 decision in 2020 that blocked then-president Donald Trump’s repeal of the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) program.) Remain in Mexico—or, at least, good-faith efforts to reinstate it—have thus officially gone back into effect as of 12:01 a.m. August 25.
After suspending it, the Biden administration had endeavored to admit many of those subject to the program into the United States to await their immigration court proceedings. About 13,000 of the 71,000 Remain in Mexico victims entered through a process managed with cooperation from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). That process has now been suspended—those awaiting their turn to enter the United States must now stay in Mexico—and the website for new registrations has been shut down.
What happens now isn’t entirely clear. The district court’s ruling requires the Biden administration to make a “good faith effort” to restart Remain in Mexico, but neither it nor the Supreme Court define what that means. While expressing “respectful disagreement” with the courts’ decisions and pressing its appeals, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stated that it “will comply with the order in good faith,” adding that it “has begun to engage with the Government of Mexico in diplomatic discussions.” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki reiterated that on August 25.
While the administration “vigorously” pursues its appeals, one possible next step would be for DHS to “re-terminate” the program with a fuller explanation of the reasoning behind its decision to do so. That is a step that the ACLU recommends. “In theory, that’s a solvable problem,” Milhiser writes. “Except that the Supreme Court does not even offer a hint as to why it deemed the Biden administration’s original explanation insufficient.”
There is also concern that the administration might seek to create a “lite” version of Remain in Mexico. The administration “could reimplement it on a very small scale for families who meet certain criteria from very specific nationalities,” Jessica Bolter of the Migration Policy Institute suggested to the Associated Press. “Shockingly,” reads a statement from Human Rights First, “the administration is reportedly considering launching a ‘gentler’ version of the inherently unfixable policy—an exercise doomed to fail given the policy’s illegality and pervasive violence against asylum seekers in Mexico.”
Even that, though, depends on concurrence from the government of Mexico, which must consent to the possible introduction of tens of thousands more non-Mexican asylum-seekers on its soil. Remain in Mexico would not begin again if Mexico were to say “no.” An August 23 letter to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador from more than 74 international NGOs, including WOLA, calls on him to do just that. “As a sovereign nation, Mexico has the right to reject the reinstatement of MPP or any future iteration of this policy that aims to externalize the U.S. border into Mexican territory. It is impossible to re-implement MPP in a way that upholds human rights and due process, and Mexico has the responsibility to block this detrimental policy.”
So far, Mexico hasn’t clearly indicated how it will respond. Roberto Velasco, the director for North American affairs in Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department, made clear that the U.S. courts’ rulings don’t compel Mexico to do anything. He added, though, that “the Mexican government will start technical discussions with the U.S. government to evaluate how to handle safe, orderly and regulated immigration on the border.” At his morning press conference on August 26, President López Obrador said Mexico wants to “help,” but sought to shift the conversation to efforts to address the economic causes of Central American migration. The president rejected as “conservative” those who argue that such “root-causes” strategies are long-term in nature, and don’t address the present suffering of migrants stranded in Mexico’s border cities.
Title 42 expulsions continue, including flights to southern Mexico
Regardless of next steps for Remain in Mexico, we should recall that the Trump administration did not employ the program heavily after March 2020, when pandemic border restrictions went into effect. Of the 71,000 people enrolled in the program, only 6,153 were added between April 2020 and January 2021.
That is mainly because after March 2020, the Trump and Biden administrations had a new way to expel non-Mexican migrants into Mexico. Since COVID-19 pandemic border restrictions began, authorities have employed a public health provision called “Title 42” to expel migrants rapidly, usually without an opportunity to ask for asylum or protection in the United States. Mexico takes back its own citizens and citizens of other countries with some migratory status inside Mexico, and agreed in March 2020 to accept expelled citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Between March 2020 and July 2021, U.S. authorities have used Title 42 to expel migrants at the southern border 1,069,777 times. 431,662 of those times, the expelled migrants were not Mexican. (Several thousand of this number were expelled by air to their home countries, not by land into Mexico.) These numbers dwarf the 71,000 who were subjected to Remain in Mexico.
With Title 42 allowing it to expel them into Mexico, the Trump administration almost completely stopped applying “Remain in Mexico” to Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans. The 6,153 people enrolled in the program during the Trump administration’s last 10 months were almost entirely citizens of 6 Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries to which expulsions are difficult: Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.
Even as it ended Remain in Mexico, the Biden administration has energetically continued to expel people under Title 42: 610,208 expulsions, including 76,384 parents and children, between February and July. Because it is hard to expel them, though, the Biden administration has processed into the United States many citizens of the six countries that were subject to Remain in Mexico during the Trump administration’s pandemic tenure.
A two-tier system has resulted. Between February and July:
- Citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were expelled, under Title 42, 54 percent of the time. If traveling as families, they were expelled 34 percent of the time.
- Citizens of Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela were expelled 22 percent of the time. If traveling as families, they were expelled 4 percent of the time.
Citizens of most of these six countries have been arriving in greater numbers since February. By July, increases in citizens of Ecuador and Nicaragua had pushed El Salvador into sixth place among arriving migrants. This was quite possibly the first time El Salvador has ranked so low, even though arrivals of its citizens did increase from June to July.
If Remain in Mexico is reinstated, citizens of the six countries might find themselves pushed back into Mexican border towns again. However, they would at least have hearing dates in U.S. immigration courts, while Title 42 persists they would still be better off than the Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans being expelled without even a chance to ask for asylum.
On August 25 Human Rights First published a major update of its running series of reports documenting abuses committed against migrants after their expulsion into Mexican border towns. By gathering information from interviews and local organizations’ surveys and databases, the group has now “tracked at least 6,356 kidnappings, sexual assaults, and other violent attacks against people blocked at ports of entry or expelled to Mexico”—just in the months since President Biden took office. Of migrants participating in the surveys who identified as LGBTQ, a stunning 89 percent reported suffering recent attacks or threats while in northern Mexico.
Two encampments made up of expelled or blocked migrants continue to grow. One is in a public square near the border crossing in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, a city plagued by violence. Recent press estimates of the population subsisting there range from “more than 2,000” to “at least 2,500” to “over 5,000.” A similarly sized encampment sits outside the Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana.
The New York Times describes the Reynosa camp as “filthy and foul-smelling, lacking the health and sanitation infrastructure that nonprofit groups had spent months installing” in an earlier, now-demolished camp for Remain in Mexico victims in the nearby border city of Matamoros. “Assaults and kidnappings for ransom are commonplace.” Several people interviewed there “said that they had tried to make a case for asylum to U.S. Border Patrol agents, but that the agents would not listen. They were told, they said, to just answer questions and follow directions,” and were bused back to Mexico.
Several non-governmental groups are seeking to raise money for a facility to shelter roughly 400 COVID-positive migrants so that they might at least be able to leave the camp while they recover. Meanwhile, Reynosa’s municipal government—which recently sought to close down the city’s largest church-run migrant shelter—ordered the confiscation of gas cylinders that migrants in the camp were using to cook food, citing safety concerns. The migrants now depend more heavily on charitable food donations.
The U.S. government is offering no support. To the contrary: unnamed sources told Reuters that U.S. officials are urging Mexico to clear the encampments, “in part because the sheer volume of people in them could jeopardize security if they made a sudden rush for the border.”
In some cases, the U.S. government is seeking to move migrants even further from the border: since sometime in early August, DHS began expelling some Central American migrants via aircraft to two cities in southern Mexico—Tapachula, Chiapas, and Villahermosa, Tabasco—a relatively short drive from the Guatemalan border. From those cities’ airports, Mexican authorities have been busing migrants to border crossings and escorting them into Guatemala. The migrants are given no opportunity to ask for asylum in either country.
Guatemala has voiced particular concern about expulsions into the tiny border town of El Ceibo, in the country’s remote, sparsely populated, and organized crime-influenced northern department of Petén, which borders Tabasco, Mexico. Guatemala only authorizes, and has facilities to handle, deportees at one border crossing site hundreds of miles away, in the Pacific-zone border town of Tecún Umán. Very few services exist in El Ceibo, where Guatemala’s Migration Institute (IGM) on August 24 estimated that Mexico had dropped off 500 Central American migrants in the previous 3 days.
August migration may be declining somewhat
In July 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported taking 154,288 migrants into custody at the U.S.-Mexico border through 212,672 separate “encounters,” a term that includes many repeat crossings. This was the largest number all year, and one of the largest monthly totals in this century.
Some indicators, however, point to at least a modestly lighter flow of migrant arrivals in August. Daily reports (available here as a 12MB zipfile) show a decline over the month of August in arrivals of unaccompanied migrant children at the border, after a sharp increase in July. During the last two weeks of July, an average of more than 500 children per day were entering CBP custody at the border, and more than 600 per day the first week of August. This has dropped to 424 per day during the week of August 15 and 469 per day so far this week.
In Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, the sector that receives by far the largest number of migrants, especially children and families from Central America, numbers also appear to be dropping. myRGV.com reports:
Assistant City Manager Jeff Johnston reported that the numbers were down significantly last week.
“Back on Aug. 9, we reported an all-time high of 11,026 immigrants dropped off by Customs and Border Protection that week here in McAllen. That was an average of about 1,575 per day,” Johnston told city commissioners during Monday’s meeting. “This last week, our numbers were down quite a bit from that, in fact down by over 40%. We had 6,320 drop-offs this last week for an average of about 900 per day.”
COVID-19 positivity rates among asylum seekers in the Rio Grande Valley were also down “from about 15 percent two weeks ago to approximately 12 percent this week.”
- During Fiscal Year 2021 so far (October through July), Border Patrol has found the remains of 383 migrants on U.S. soil near the U.S.-Mexico border, the New York Times reports. Most died of dehydration, exposure, or drowning. That is more remains than Border Patrol has found in any full year since 2013 (451); with two months to go, 2021 is already the sixth-worst year since 1998, when Border Patrol’s records begin. CBP reports finding more than 100 remains of migrants just in the Rio Grande Valley sector, “on rugged ranch lands in south Texas,” adding, “Last week alone, 10 decedents were discovered on the ranch lands. This month, more than 20 people have lost their lives during smuggling attempts.”
- Mexican officials assert that seven out of every ten Ecuadorians traveling to Mexico in recent months have ended up apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol near the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexico is tightening visa requirements for Ecuador’s citizens, after easing them in 2018.
- Because it wants cooperation on limiting migration, the Biden administration has not been following up officials’ tough anti-corruption talk with action against Central American government officials, a New York Times analysis asserts. The piece leads with the scoop that shortly before being fired and forced into exile, Guatemala’s top anti-corruption prosecutor had a witness tell him of going to President Alejandro Giammattei’s home and delivering “a rolled-up carpet stuffed with cash.”
- As environmental advocates had warned would happen, monsoon rains in Arizona’s desert caused flash flooding that blew recently built border wall segments’ gates right off of their hinges.
- Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) has now sent about 1,000 National Guardsmen to the border with Mexico, with more than 60 of them tasked with building “temporary barriers in key areas.” These state-funded troops are in addition to about 3,800 soldiers and guardsmen whom the Trump administration sent to the border to support CBP, a deployment that the Biden administration has continued. Abbott’s move has pulled National Guard personnel away from the role they were playing in manning El Paso’s only food bank during the pandemic, forcing it to close most of its locations, at least temporarily. The governor has charged police and guardsmen with arresting undocumented migrants near the border on state charges, nearly always trespassing. As of August 25 Texas was holding 486 migrants in a prison in the town of Dilley, and is considering using a second facility in Edinburg, in the Rio Grande Valley. By a 14-8 vote, the Texas House’s Appropriations Committee approved $2 billion on August 24 to pay for Abbott’s crackdown.
- “Most public-health experts say it isn’t likely that migrants are contributing significantly to [COVID-19] transmissions within the U.S., since nearly all are tested and quarantined before release, and because the Delta variant is already widespread,” reads a Wall Street Journal analysis. “Think about an entire city on fire and I was to walk in and drop a match,” said one epidemiologist.
- Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and other voices on the U.S. right are alleging that the rapid Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, which included a mass prison release, may lead to terrorists seeking to enter the United States via the border with Mexico.
- Large numbers of Haitian migrants are stuck in Mexico’s border zone near Guatemala, where they must await decisions from Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, on their asylum cases. They are urging COMAR to adjudicate more quickly. Activists tell Chiapas Paralelo that their numbers in the border zone could be as high as 30,000, with another 15,000 en route, currently in Colombia and Panama. (The actual number may be smaller.)
- Intense fighting between the Jalisco cartel and local organized-crime groups, with almost no government intervention, has displaced thousands from the town of Aguililla, in Mexico’s Pacific state of Michoacán. Many families are trying to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, Vice reports.
- August 24 marked the 11th anniversary of an infamous massacre of 72 migrants from at least 6 countries in San Fernando, near the Texas border in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Nobody has ever been sentenced for the crime.