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.

Migrant deaths rise in Arizona

An Arizona Republic investigation finds a “dramatic rise in human smuggling activity across southern Arizona over the past year,” much of it a response to COVID-19-related border closures and rapid migrant expulsions.

At the beginning of the 2010s, Arizona was the part of the border where Border Patrol apprehended the most undocumented migrants. But the decade saw steady declines in Arizona. Asylum-seeking child and family migrants, mostly from Central America, became the majority of all apprehended migrants. Kids and families, who generally seek to be apprehended in order to petition for protection, arrived mostly in Texas and California—not Arizona.

Now, though, with the Trump administration closing off access to asylum and using pandemic measures to quickly expel nearly all apprehended migrants, the migrant population has become much more adult, and much more likely to seek to avoid apprehension. That means traveling with smugglers who will take migrants through remote areas where the chances of getting caught are reduced—like Arizona’s vast, treacherous borderland deserts.

“Once again, Arizona is a top corridor for migrants and smugglers making their illegal journey into the United States,” the Republic reports. CBP’s Tucson Sector ranked 2nd, among CBP’s 9 border sectors, in October 2020 migrant apprehensions, with 11,119. That’s up from 8,373 in September and 6,766 in August. In fiscal year 2019, Tucson had been a distant 4th among the 9 sectors.

That means more people are risking death of dehydration or exposure in Arizona’s deserts. “So far in 2020, southern Arizona has recorded the recovery of 205 migrant remains, according to the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner,” the Arizona Republic reported. That already makes 2020 the third-deadliest year since the Pima Medical Examiner started keeping data in 2020. With a month to go, it places this year “within striking distance to exceed 2010’s record of 222 bodies found in a single year.”

Mexico’s migrant apprehensions increase

Unlike U.S. authorities, Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, has continued to allow migrants apprehended near its borders to petition for asylum. COMAR’s updated data show that it received 4,257 asylum requests in November, up from a post-lockdown low of 977 in April. This is only slightly fewer than November 2018 (5,323) and November 2019 (4,548), indicating that migration through Mexico is recovering to pre-pandemic levels. 2020’s asylum requests have come mostly from Hondurans, Haitians, Cubans, Salvadorans, and Venezuelans.

Another indicator is apprehensions. Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) reports capturing 12,145 migrants in October. This is the agency’s largest monthly total since October 2019, with the exception of January 2020 when the INM broke up a “caravan” of Hondurans.

Citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras make up 96 percent of the INM’s October total, another indicator of a return to pre-pandemic migration levels. The recent migrant population, though, is more adult: only 11% of those apprehended in October were children. In October 2019, when Mexico apprehended a similar number, 23% were children.

INM, which apprehends, detains, and deports migrants, came under strong criticism this week from the Mexican government’s human rights ombudsman (CNDH) and non-governmental human rights groups. A statement from CNDH and NGOs warns that under the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, INM’s local delegations are increasingly being headed by individuals with a military background and little migration expertise.

A CNDH report released this week faults INM for a lethal March incident at its migrant detention center in Tenosique, Tabasco, near the Guatemala border. Detainees protesting close-quarters detention during the pandemic set fire to mattresses; the smoke asphyxiated a Guatemalan man while guards barred the migrants’ exit and “laughed.”

The investigative website Animal Político found, meanwhile, that INM has tested only 78 of its detainees for COVID-19, and 52 were positive.

More coverage of obstacles Biden will likely face

A Washington Post series, among other media accounts published this week, point to obstacles that the incoming Biden administration might face in undoing Donald Trump’s hardline border security and migration policies. Among them:

  • A reversal of “Remain in Mexico” and other blocks to asylum seekers could face an imminent wave of migration with insufficient capacity to process it.
  • Biden’s “likely stop-work order” on the border wall will face “‘demobilization’ costs of withdrawing crews and equipment, but the contracts have a termination clause that allows the government to break the deals.” Meanwhile, other immigration priorities are “eclipsing calls to tear down portions of the wall that already exist,” according to The New York Times.
  • Reducing deportations will run up against agencies like ICE and CBP that “are secretive, closely adopted President Trump’s aggressive immigration agenda and can be slow to change. They also have labor unions that endorsed Trump.”
  • In general, untangling the Trump administration’s web of restrictive regulations and policies will be difficult, probably requiring a phaseout that is more gradual than Biden officials would prefer. “People are really overwhelmed trying to figure out the sheer issues, the sheer number of pieces you have to coordinate,” someone CNN identifies as “a source familiar with the transition” said. “This is the genius of Stephen Miller.”


  • An early November court filing reported that investigators had not found parents whom DHS had separated from 666 children in 2017 and 2018. Since then, 38 children’s parents have been located, leaving 628. Lawyers say that DHS has been withholding information necessary to locate parents.
  • As of November 30, 44 detainees at ICE’s El Paso Service Processing Center had tested positive for COVID-19. This is the worst current outbreak at all ICE detention centers. The El Paso facility suffers from a “sustained failure in leadership” by ICE in a city hit hard by the pandemic, Linda Corchado of the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center told El Paso Matters.
  • The FBI released violent crime data for 2019, and—as is consistently the case—nearly all U.S. cities near the Mexico border reported lower violent crime rates than the national average. “Spillover violence” from Mexico is quite rare.