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.

You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list.

2021 spending package probably includes some border wall money

The House and Senate have almost completely agreed on a federal budget for 2021. Its final approval might not come until next week, as negotiations continue over an accompanying COVID-19 relief package.

Border wall and ICE detention money were reportedly two of the sticking points on the 2021 omnibus budget bill. The Republican-majority Senate’s Homeland Security appropriation had sought to devote $1.96 billion to border wall-building next year, while the Democratic-majority House sought to zero out the wall and rescind some past-year money. The House also would have paid for roughly half as many ICE detention beds as the Senate.

The chambers appear to have reached a compromise. “The final disposition of immigrant detention bed capacity and border wall funding wasn’t immediately clear,” Roll Call reported on December 14. “But there was an expectation that the average daily population at ICE facilities would be cut under the tentative agreement in exchange for some wall construction funding.”

Nobody has seen any numbers, and it isn’t clear how the bill’s language might compel President-elect Joe Biden, who has said he would stop wall construction, to spend any new wall-building money.

The Washington Post learned from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that about $3.3 billion in its Defense budget wall construction accounts will be unspent as of January 20. As it might cost $700 million in fees to extricate the Corps from its contracts with construction companies, a halt would bring a net savings of about $2.6 billion.

Meanwhile in Arizona, NPR reported, “contractors have added shifts—they’re working all night long under light towers to meet Trump’s goal of 450 miles of new barriers before his term is over.”

El Salvador “safe third country” agreement is finalized

Chad Wolf, the acting secretary for Homeland Security (depending on whom you ask), visited El Salvador this week. There, he met with President Nayib Bukele and announced implementation accords for a so-called Asylum Cooperative Agreement (ACA, or “safe third country” agreement) that the United States and El Salvador signed in September 2019.

Under this agreement, El Salvador—a country so unsafe that it often tops the list of U.S. asylum seekers’ nationalities—will accept U.S. transfers of other countries’ asylum seekers, who would then need to seek protection in El Salvador.

DHS signed similar agreements with Guatemala and Honduras in 2019. Only the Guatemala agreement entered into force, and the Trump administration sent 939 Salvadoran and Honduran asylum seekers to Guatemala City between October 2019 and March 2020, when pandemic measures suspended the arrangement. Only 20 percent of them decided to apply for asylum in Guatemala; at least some of the rest were assuredly returned to danger. Human Rights Watch and Refugees International performed follow-up fieldwork in Guatemala, and found that of 30 returnees interviewed:

Several said they had no family or support networks in Guatemala and that they feared for their safety in Guatemala. Many indicated they would return to El Salvador and Honduras despite continuing to express a fear of persecution there.

Don’t expect the Biden administration to implement the El Salvador or other Northern Triangle safe third country agreements. A Biden campaign document was unequivocal: “Biden will end these [detrimental asylum] policies, starting with Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols and Safe Third Country Agreements.”

CBP’s November numbers show the expected migrant “wave” flattening out, for now

On December 14 Customs and Border Protection released monthly border statistics, covering November. After six consecutive months of increases in Border Patrol’s apprehensions of undocumented migrants, the new data showed a leveling off last month.

Download a PDF of dozens of border infographics at
  • Apprehensions declined by 0.8 percent, from 67,639 to 67,101, from October to November.
  • This, however, was the largest apprehensions number for a November since November 2005.
  • Note that this number measures “apprehensions” or “encounters,” not “people.” The quick turnaround of CBP’s pandemic-era expulsions is spurring recidivism as migrants turn around and try to cross again. The 67,101 includes much double and triple-counting.
  • Between March and November—with some double-counting—CBP expelled 328,037 apprehended migrants under the “Title 42” CDC pandemic policy, which ejects adult and family asylum seekers without a hearing. That policy faces legal challenges; on whether to lift or alter it, “the incoming administration has been silent,” a New York Times analysis notes.
  • Demographic trends are mixed. Compared to October,        
    • single adults from Mexico declined 2 percent;
    • single adults from the Northern Triangle increased 21 percent;
    • unaccompanied children from Guatemala and El Salvador increased, but children from Honduras and Mexico declined;
    • family unit members from Guatemala and Mexico increased, but those from El Salvador and Honduras declined.
Download a PDF of dozens of border infographics at

As noted in previous updates, officials and press coverage are predicting a migrant “surge” from Central America in early 2021. While that remains likely, November’s apprehension data revealed an unexpected break in momentum. One hypothesis: mobility was curtailed during the first half of November, when Central America was slammed by two major hurricanes.


  • In a Wednesday voice vote, the House of Representatives passed the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act (S. 2174), which addresses the longstanding crisis of hundreds of migrants each year dying in U.S. borderlands of dehydration and exposure. It authorizes spending for rescue beacons, identification of remains, and other priorities, as discussed in last week’s update. Because of some technical changes to the bill’s language, it needs the Senate—which passed the bill in November—to quickly approve it a second time before it goes to the President for signature.
  • A new Human Rights First report counts at least 1,314 attacks, including kidnappings, rapes, and assault, on asylum seekers subject to the “Remain in Mexico” policy in Mexican border cities.
  • Though a Supreme Court decision just preserved the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a big challenge goes before a Texas federal court on Tuesday. A suit led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, now known nationally for leading a multi-state challenge to Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory, is going before Houston District Judge Andrew Hanen, who during the Obama administration ruled against two other deferred-action programs and now may find DACA to be illegal.
  • “Although Biden promised to reverse Trump’s most restrictive immigration policies, he didn’t include immigration among his top four priorities: the coronavirus pandemic, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change. That was intentional,” an unnamed source close to the transition told NPR’s Franco Ordóñez, adding “that the Biden campaign and then the transition team felt that immigration activists had become too adversarial.”