There’s so much happening at the U.S.-Mexico border—much of it outrageous, some of it heroic—that it’s hard to keep track. With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments in 900 words or less. We welcome your feedback.
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Border wall a key disagreement delaying 2021 appropriations
Today, December 11, is the deadline that Congress had set for passage of a 2021 federal government budget. While the Democratic-majority House and Republican-majority Senate continue talks on a budget that Donald Trump might sign, they’re not finished. The Senate is likely to approve a continuing resolution, which the House passed Wednesday, extending the deadline to December 18 and averting a government shutdown in the midst of a pandemic.
Legislators are “torn on at least a dozen policy issues, particularly related to immigration,” congressional staff told the Washington Post. “The most divisive issues in government spending talks concern funding for President Trump’s border wall with Mexico and detention facilities run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”
The two chambers’ versions of the 2021 Homeland Security Appropriations bill could hardly differ more widely on border wall funding. The Senate bill—which the Senate Appropriations Committee revealed in November but never voted on—provides $1.96 billion “for the construction of barrier system” along the U.S.-Mexico border. The House bill—which the House Appropriations Committee passed in July but was never debated on the floor—not only has no money for wall construction, it would rescind $1.38 billion from 2020 and ban future transfers of Defense Department funds for wall-building, as President Trump has done by declaring a “state of emergency.”
“Trump almost certainly won’t sign a package that guts funding for one of his biggest priorities as his administration comes to a close,” notes Politico. Still, with President-elect Biden promising to hold wall construction immediately upon his inauguration, it’s not clear what would happen with any wall-building money in the 2021 bill.
Media continue pointing to increasing migration, “caravan”
CBP has yet to release its November migrant apprehensions numbers. But November is likely to be the seventh consecutive month of increased migration since arrivals hit a pandemic low in April. Reports in major media—some citing CBP officials—are rumbling about an accelerating increase in migration from pandemic and hurricane-hit Central America. A common framing is that it’s an “early test” for the incoming Biden administration.
Officials are reporting increased arrivals of unaccompanied children, who are less subject to immediate expulsion under questionably legal pandemic border measures. Deputy Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz said that the agency is “apprehending an average of 153 young migrants a day at the border since October.” In court filings, CBP has projected “that the flow of unaccompanied children could increase by 50 percent by late March 2021,” the Texas Tribune reports.
Often, Ortiz said, the children and their smugglers are seeking to avoid apprehension—which is a new pattern—and are being kept in “stash houses” in the border zone before being moved further north. For those who are apprehended, the Office of Refugee Resettlement—to which unaccompanied children are transferred—has less shelter space due to COVID-19 distancing restrictions: 7,971 beds, down from the norm of 13,764.
More migration from pandemic and hurricane-battered Central America appears to be a certainty. About 1,000 Honduran people, most of them victims of hurricanes Eta and Iota, departed the bus station in San Pedro Sula on Wednesday night in a “caravan” reportedly organized over social media. These efforts to migrate across Mexico, using “safety in numbers” rather than paying thousands of dollars to smugglers, became a staple of Fox News coverage and Donald Trump messaging in 2018.
Since then, though, almost none have made it through Mexico. A few members of a January 2019 caravan trickled into the United States, but most remained in Mexico. Since then, Mexico has deployed security and migration forces to block attempted caravans in the country’s far south, in April and October 2019, and again in January 2020. In October 2020, a caravan of Hondurans was broken up in Guatemala. And now, Guatemala’s National Police have announced “preventive actions” against new Honduran migration, requiring travelers to have valid passports and COVID-19 tests.
It’s not clear what a migrant wave might mean for the Biden team’s promised dismantling of the Trump administration’s hardline migration measures. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Biden transition team is “trying to decide which policies to change and when, in order to fulfill Mr. Biden’s campaign promises without creating the appearance of leniency.” This may include “temporarily leaving in place Mr. Trump’s pandemic order to return most migrants to Mexico shortly after they cross the border,” despite the illegality of expelling endangered people without giving them a hearing.
In WOLA’s view, dealing with a rising flow of asylum-seeking migrants is an administrative issue that—while difficult because the Trump administration is leaving behind a lack of infrastructure—can be handled with little drama. In a December 9 commentary, WOLA points to short, medium, and long term measures that the Biden administration can implement to handle a “wave” while guaranteeing protection to those who need it.
Hope for passage of missing migrant bill
The remains of about 8,000 migrants, most of whom died painful deaths of dehydration and exposure, have been found on U.S. soil, in border regions, since 1998. Advocates who have spent years trying to prevent these deaths, and to identify the remains, are hopeful that long-awaited legislation might ease their work.
S. 2174, the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act of 2019, co-sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris (D-California), passed the Senate by unanimous consent on November 16. Among other measures, the bill would fund the installation of up to 170 rescue beacons in desert areas, while helping local jurisdictions and non-profits pay for efforts to handle and identify migrant remains.
An identical bill in the House, H.R. 8772, was introduced November 18 by Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) and Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas). It needs to pass by the end of the 2020 congressional session in order to become law, otherwise both chambers need to start over again in 2021.
- The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) extended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for some citizens of El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan, Honduras, and Nepal until at least October of 2021.
- The Trump administration is leaving office by promulgating its most restrictive rule yet undoing the right to seek asylum.
- The New York Times published a wild story, based on a whistleblower complaint and a FOIA request, alleging that border wall contractor SLS and subcontractor Ultimate Concrete had brought Mexican citizens illegally onto their work site, on the U.S. side of the border in California, to work as armed guards. CBP records meanwhile showed that between October 2019 and March 2020, more than 320 breaches of the border wall took place in California and Arizona—nearly 2 per day.
- Thirty-five Democratic members of the House of Representatives, led by Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), sent a letter to Joe Biden asking him to “immediately” rescind Trump’s emergency declarations, waivers, and private property condemnations enabling wall-building.
- The El Paso Times ran a 4,000-word account of the journey of a Guatemalan father and his 10-year-old daughter caught in the web of “Remain in Mexico.”