With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. This is a “double issue,” longer than normal, as big policy changes led to an especially heavy news week.
A “crisis,” or a modest increase?
The Biden administration spent its third week chipping away at Trump-era border and migration restrictions. Media narratives suggested a new “wave” or “surge” of migrant arrivals at the border posed a “challenge” or “test for Biden.” Though it only covers the new administration’s first 12 days, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) release of January statistics does not align with that crisis narrative.
“President Biden’s more-welcoming message to immigrants is facing an immediate challenge along the Mexican border,” the Washington Post warned, “where Central American families and children have been crossing in numbers that point to a building crisis.” “The surge poses the first major test of Mr. Biden’s pledge to adopt a more compassionate policy along America’s border with Mexico” and “could create a strong public backlash,” added the New York Times. In the Associated Press’s view, “Warning signs are emerging of the border crises that marked former President Donald Trump’s term.”
The size and nature of this “challenge” is unclear. January numbers that CBP released late on February 10 showed the agency “encountering” 75,198 undocumented migrants crossing the border, and 3,125 more at ports of entry. That total of 78,323 (2,526 encounters per day) is up 6 percent from December (73,923), which was little changed since before the 2020 election—both October and November were over 70,000. But Deputy Border Patrol Chief Raúl Ortiz said that the agency has “averaged more than 3,000 daily apprehensions” so far in February, and a letter from 52 Republican House members—citing non-public data that CBP or Border Patrol personnel shared with them—cites “more than 3,500” per day, with the number of unaccompanied children “closing in on 300 per day.”
America’s Voice and other non-governmental migrants’ rights advocates have criticized the media’s rush to adopt the “surge” and “crisis” narrative. CBP’s numbers through January, at least, do not sustain that narrative. They tell us:
- The agency’s January “encounters” were 83 percent single adults, a much different population than the child and family “waves” of 2014, 2016, and 2019. Unless they are seeking asylum, the Biden administration has proposed no changes in policy toward single adult migrants at the border.
- 64,136 of encountered migrants—82 percent—were instantly expelled from the United States under the “Title 42” pandemic measures in place since March. CBP has expelled migrants 459,264 times since March, though this figure includes double-counting because expelled migrants often try to cross again.
- CBP provides some sense of the nationalities of the 75,198 migrants whom Border Patrol encountered between ports of entry. The results are surprising: most of the January increase was from countries other than Mexico and Central America. There were 4,151 more encounters in January than December. Only 1,542 of that increase was from Mexico or the “Northern Triangle” countries—that’s 2 percent more than December from those countries. Citizens of other countries (2,609) increased by 47 percent over December. We don’t know what countries are most represented, though Cuba, Haiti, and Venezuela are good guesses.
- While this isn’t from CBP numbers, it’s worth noting that Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, saw a 36 percent one-month increase in its own asylum applications from December to January.
Media coverage indicates that CBP is paroling more asylum-seeking migrant families into the United States, for lack of space in its facilities due to COVID-19 measures. The numbers are fuzzy, though.
The New York Times, citing “border activists,” reported that “at least 1,000 migrants have been allowed to cross into Texas in recent days,” and 200 in California during the first five days of February. Attorney Taylor Levy told Buzzfeed that mid- and south Texas, the busiest part of the border, was seeing “approximately 50 people per day being released.” The Dallas Morning News cited “about 50 persons daily” in Brownsville, south Texas. In McAllen, Sister Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities told Reuters “the Border Patrol has sent around 50 to 80 families to her shelter daily since Jan. 27, rising to 150 families on Wednesday [February 3].”
About 1,000 family members paroled into the United States in a week is not a “crisis” number. Since 2014, CBP has consistently taken in well over 2,000 family members and unaccompanied children—most of them asylum seekers—in an average week. Non-Mexican children have gone into Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) custody, and many, if not most, of the families have been paroled into the United States to await their hearings—at least, until the mid-2019 expansion of the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) or “Remain in Mexico” program.
As discussed above, the nationalities of those being encountered is unclear. Undocumented migrants from different countries face vastly different policies right now.
Mexico (52 percent of January Border Patrol encounters): under Title 42 pandemic measures, virtually all Mexican citizens are rapidly expelled back into Mexico without the opportunity to ask for protection in the United States.
El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (37 percent of January Border Patrol encounters):
- Mexico has agreed to take adults, and adults with children, expelled under Title 42 without a chance to ask for asylum.
- The Biden administration is taking in unaccompanied children, just as a November court order (reversed in late January) had compelled the Trump administration to do.
- Some of the “hundreds” of families paroled into the United States in late January and early February may have been Central American, because at some border crossings, Mexico appears to have made “adjustments” to its reception of families, perhaps due to new reforms to its laws on migration and refugees prohibiting detention of all migrant children. But Mexican officials insist that Mexico still accepts Central Americans expelled under Title 42 “on the same terms.”
Other countries (11 percent of January Border Patrol encounters):
- Other Spanish-speaking countries and Brazil:
- Many adults, or adults with children, are turned over to ICE for Title 42 expulsion via flights to their home countries.
- Flights are limited, so adults are often put in ICE detention, while some adults with children, and all unaccompanied children, are paroled into the United States to begin their asylum processes.
- The Trump administration had been sending nearly all asylum-seekers from these countries—most often Cuba, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Nicaragua—to await their U.S. hearings in Mexican territory, under “Remain in Mexico.” The Biden administration suspended that on January 20.
- Other non-Spanish-speaking countries:
- Unaccompanied children are admitted into ORR custody.
- ICE seeks to expel adults and families back to their home countries, by air, under Title 42. Expulsions of migrants from Haiti have accelerated during the Biden administration’s first weeks, as discussed below.
- If asylum seekers are from countries to which it is difficult to fly people back, ICE detains most adults, and paroles most families into the U.S. interior.
For all of these cases, the only changes from the Trump era so far have been Biden’s suspension of “Remain in Mexico” enrollments for those who can’t be expelled under Title 42, plus whatever “adjustments” Mexico made that resulted in its refusal to admit some Central American families expelled from the United States. If CBP has begun releasing hundreds of migrant families into U.S. border towns, they are either the small number of Central Americans whom Mexico is not accepting, or the increased number of non-Mexican, non-Central American arrivals.
News of even these few releases has caused consternation among asylum attorneys with clients who have spent a year or more in “Remain in Mexico,” only to see a few hundred families who just showed up given the chance to await their hearings on U.S. soil. There is also strong reason for concern that migrant smugglers will use these reports to entice would-be asylum seekers into paying them to cross from Mexican border towns into the United States.
Title 42, “Remain in Mexico,” and other restrictions on the ability to seek asylum at the border are keeping numbers down for now—but they violate U.S. refugee law and are causing suffering among migrant populations expelled to, or waiting in, Mexico and elsewhere. “As the administration reviews these policies, each day counts,” urges a February 9 letter from 94 organizations (including WOLA).
Though the Biden administration plans to undo the restrictive Trump-era policies, it is concerned about contending with a large increase in asylum-seeking migrants during a pandemic, before it has in place the necessary infrastructure and staffing for processing arrivals and placing them in alternatives to detention. “Now is not the time to come,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on February 10. “The vast majority of people will be turned away. Asylum processes at the border will not occur immediately; it will take time to implement.”
A big part of the needed infrastructure is physical facilities at which to process migrants: for background checks, asylum paperwork, health checks, referrals to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and other procedures that should take less than 72 hours while migrants remain in CBP custody. Ports of entry are small, though, so other facilities are needed. The largest—the McAllen, Texas Central Processing Center known for its chain-link cages and austere conditions—is undergoing renovation. In its place, CBP is opening up a 160,000 square foot “soft sided” (tent-based) processing facility in Donna, Texas, near McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley region.
There is a lot going on here. WOLA’s Adam Isacson unpacks much of it in a podcast interview at World Politics Review.
Biden administration to wind down “Remain in Mexico”
As of January, Syracuse University’s TRAC Immigration database reports, the Trump administration had subjected 71,036 migrants to the “Remain in Mexico” program, requiring them to await their U.S. hearing dates inside Mexican territory. Of those, 29,148 still have asylum cases pending in the U.S. immigration system. (A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statement says “approximately 25,000.”) Many have been waiting—often in shelters, crowded substandard housing, or even tent camps in Mexican border towns—since mid-2019. At least 1,314 are known to have suffered attacks.
While the Biden administration suspended new enrollments into “Remain in Mexico,” it had said little more than “please be patient” to the population already forced to wait for their U.S. court dates in Mexican border cities. However, on February 11 the administration began to reveal the outlines of its plan to dismantle the program and bring those with pending cases into the United States.
As of this writing (early February 12), most of what we know is in a report published on the afternoon of February 11 by BuzzFeed’s Hamed Aleaziz, who had access to an administration document laying out the plan. That article is short and quite readable, but here are key points:
- The wind-down will be rolled out within the next two weeks. (DHS’s announcement says “phase one” will begin February 19.)
- It will start slowly at three ports of entry: probably Matamoros-Brownsville, Ciudad Juárez-El Paso, and Tijuana-San Diego.
- Those “remaining in Mexico” with pending cases will be able to register with an online portal, then receive instructions and a date to appear at a staging area inside Mexico. UNCHR will be involved at this stage. Once at the border, they will get COVID-19 tests, and medical screening. Those who test positive will have to stay in Mexico until they’re negative.
- CBP will take in a certain number of people each day. “Officials believe they can process up to 300 people a day within the first few weeks at two of the ports of entry for the initial phase.”
- Those subject to MPP the longest will get first priority, though there will be exceptions for the most vulnerable.
- Those subject to MPP who have already been refused asylum, or who had their proceedings terminated, are not eligible during this phase.
- Once processed, MPP subjects will be able to await their U.S. hearing dates in the United States, without being detained, “unless they have a serious criminal record.” They will be released to shelters and made part of an ICE “alternative to detention” check-in program in which “they could also be forced to wear ankle bracelets,” BuzzFeed reports.
This information applies only to unwinding “Remain in Mexico” A February 2 White House executive order also declares a general intention to start unwinding the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy, but no information is yet available about that.
Deportations to Haiti continue amid severe political unrest
A big jump in deportations of Haitian citizens is causing an outcry, as the Black-majority Caribbean nation is in a severe political crisis, with months of violent protests causing a breakdown of security and many basic services. “A plane arrived from the United States on Monday. But instead of help or hope, it carried several dozen Haitians, including a 2-month-old and 21 other children, deported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE],” reads a strong February 10 New York Times editorial.
Haitian officials have been told to expect 14 ICE deportation flights during the first half of February, some as frequent as twice per day, a far faster than normal pace, the Miami Herald reports. Most deportees are being expelled under Title 42. Tom Cartwright at Witness at the Border, who closely tracks ICE deportation flights, noted at least one flight to Port-au-Prince every day this week.
On January 20 President Biden had ordered a 100-day moratorium on most deportations, but a federal judge in Texas blocked it shortly afterward. ICE continued deportations, but on February 5 it appeared that activists, and some members of Congress, had compelled ICE to suspend flights to Haiti. They had not. “I don’t know what’s going on between ICE and the Biden administration, but we know what needs to be done: the deportations must stop,” Guerline Jozef, executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, told the Guardian. “It’s as if there is a house burning, and instead of taking people out for their own safety the United States is sending defenseless babies into the burning house.”
“We are gravely concerned that ICE is disparately targeting Black asylum seekers and immigrants for detention, torture, and deportation,” added a February 8 letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas from 12 members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Removals of Haitians aren’t just happening via air. The Miami Herald reported on a strange recent expulsion of “over 100 Haitian asylum seekers… carrying little more than the clothes on their backs” over the land border into Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. “Nobody was at the bridge to receive them,” Tania Guerrero of CLINIC told the Herald. “They were just dropped there.” Title 42 expulsions often happen via this sort of contactless borderline dropoff, but Mexico has agreed to receive only expelled Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans. “A large number of people were taken to the middle of the bridge by CBP and were told to walk south. That’s it. There was zero interaction from any state or federal Mexican authorities,” attorney Taylor Levy described the process to BuzzFeed.
- WOLA published an in-depth commentary laying out what is happening with Donald Trump’s border wall: how much got built, how much it cost, and what will be involved in stopping construction and taking at least the most harmful parts down. On February 10 President Biden notified Congress that he had terminated the “national emergency” Trump declared in order to wrest wall-building funds from the Defense budget without congressional consent.
- New details emerged about past U.S. training of 3 of the 12 members of a Mexican state police unit arrested for the January 22 massacre of 19 people, including at least 14 Guatemalan migrants, near the U.S. border in Tamaulipas. Mexico’s El Economista learned from the U.S. embassy that the three had received State Department-funded “basic skills and/or first line supervisor training” in 2016 and 2017, after being vetted for past human rights allegations. “So fearsome is the unit’s reputation that the U.S. government, which trained a few of its individual members, has sought to distance itself from” the Tamaulipas State Police Special Operations Group (GOPES), the AP reports.
- As indicated in a February 2 White House executive order, the State Department has suspended and terminated so-called “Asylum Cooperative” or “safe third country” agreements that the Trump administration signed with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. These allowed the United States to send apprehended migrants from other countries to apply for asylum in the Central American nations’ barely existent asylum systems. The agreement with Guatemala was the only one that was being implemented before the pandemic; it was paused in mid-March 2020.
- While hailing the termination of the Safe Third Country Agreements, a UNHCR release “welcomed” Guatemala’s establishment of a new asylum unit. “In 2020, a total of 487 people applied for refugee status in the country, an 85 percent increase from 2018.”
- “DHS has only provided definitive responses to 14 of 73 complaints” formally filed in cases of CBP or Border Patrol abuse of migrants, “revealing an overall structural deficiency in the investigative process,” reads a letter to DHS Secretary Ali Mayorkas from the Nogales-based Kino Border Initiative.
- “A culture of racism within the Border Patrol has persisted throughout its history,” reads a new report from the American Immigration Council.
- NBC News reports that the White House is poised to name Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights and justice programs at the Women’s Refugee Commission, to head the task force charged with reuniting more than 600 migrant families who remain separated by the Trump-era “zero tolerance” policy.
- Border Patrol is taking down the six Army surplus “tethered aerostats”—sensor- and camera-equipped blimps on cables—that it has maintained in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region for about seven years. According to Rep. Henry Cuéllar (D-Texas), the move is a “self-imposed rule by Border Patrol” because the agency has been paying $5 million per balloon per year to a private contractor, Peraton, whose personnel merely “check the weather and physically raise and lower the blimps to various altitudes,” according to Border Report.
- Mark Morgan, a career FBI agent whom Barack Obama named Border Patrol chief and who then headed CBP during the Trump administration, is joining the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a hardline immigration restrictionist organization.