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.

U.S. is expelling some Venezuelan asylum seekers to Colombia

CNN revealed on January 31 that the Biden administration has quietly begun expelling to Colombia some Venezuelan migrants whom U.S. authorities encounter at the Mexico border. If the migrants, like many who have fled Venezuela, had previously resided in Colombia, they may now be placed on planes to Bogotá.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) flew the first two Venezuelan individuals to Colombia on a commercial flight on January 27. Colombian migratory authorities say the two men would be allowed to remain in Colombia, but are electing to go back to Venezuela shortly.

They were expelled under the “Title 42” pandemic authority, which the Trump administration began using in March 2020 to reject even migrants who seek protection in the United States. The Biden administration has kept Title 42 in place, and renewed it this week for another 60 days.

Of the more than 1.5 million times that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) used Title 42 to expel migrants between March 2020 and December 2021, it applied it 94 percent of the time to citizens of five countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Haiti. In December 2021, these five countries made up 99 percent of expulsions. Mexico’s government accepts expelled citizens from the first four countries, who mostly get sent back across the land border under Title 42. Haitian citizens encountered at the border have been subject to a historically large airlift of expulsion flights back to their country: 191 flights expelling 19,400 Haitians since Joe Biden’s January 2021 inauguration, according to the count kept by Tom Cartwright of Witness at the Border.

All other countries make up the remaining 6 percent of U.S. expulsions—which fell to 1 percent in December, when they made up 40 percent of all encountered migrants. As last week’s update noted, 48 percent of migrants whom U.S. authorities did not expel in December 2020 were citizens of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. For the first time ever in a month, Venezuela was the number-two country of citizenship, after Mexico, of migrants whom CBP encountered at the border. Expulsion to these and other distant countries is difficult because of the cost of air expulsions and, at times, difficult diplomatic and consular relations.

Because they cannot expel the growing number of Venezuelans to Caracas, whose ruling regime the U.S. government does not recognize, U.S. authorities approached Colombia in December with a request to send more Venezuelans there. More than 6 million Venezuelans have left their country (original population about 30 million) since the mid-2010s, as the economy fell into a deep depression and a dictatorship consolidated. Of these 5 million, about 1.8 million are in Colombia. In April 2021, Colombian President Iván Duque granted a 10-year residency status to Venezuelan migrants who register.

“Flights to Colombia with Venezuelan nationals who previously resided in Colombia are expected to take place on a regular basis,” read a DHS statement. It is not clear whether “previously resided” means “registered for the Colombian government’s residency status program” or “passed through Colombia en route to another country,” which most Venezuelans who travel by land have to do. President Duque said that the two men expelled on January 27 did not have Colombian residency permits.

“Of course, that requires agreement with the government” of Colombia, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on February 1. Marta Lucía Ramírez, who serves both as Colombia’s vice president and foreign minister, told local media that in a December 2021 meeting, Colombia had not agreed to a blanket deal to accept expelled Venezuelans: “We will have to analyze on a case-by-case basis those who are sent for deportation.”

Condemnation of the new Biden administration policy was swift.

  • Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called these and other third-country deportations of Venezuelans “extremely disturbing. By continuing to use a page from Trump’s immigration enforcement playbook, this administration is turning its back on the immigrants who need our protection the most.”
  • Sen. Rick Scott (R-Florida), a backer of the Trump administration’s policies who also regularly calls for tough measures against President Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela, sounded a bit conflicted, telling the Voice of America, “I will get to the bottom of the issue to find out exactly what the Biden Administration is doing, because I want to do everything I can to help Venezuelans,” while also noting that he wants “a secure border.”
  • The Venezuelan “interim government” headed by Juan Guaidó, which the U.S. and many other governments recognize diplomatically, asked the Biden administration to “allow Venezuelan migrants to present their asylum requests.”
  • 106 U.S. organizations, including WOLA, signed a letter urging the Biden administration “to abandon efforts to prevent people from seeking asylum through externalized migration controls in the region and to undermine the right of people to seek protection in the United States.”
  • Tamara Taraciuk Broner of Human Rights Watch pointed out to the Associated Press the Biden administration’s “remarkable inconsistency in expelling Venezuelans, when less than a year ago it granted Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans in the United States, based precisely on the devastating conditions in the country that forced them to flee.”

The number of Venezuelan migrants encountered at the U.S. border is likely to drop from the nearly 25,000 CBP counted in December, because on January 21 Mexico began demanding visas of Venezuelans arriving in its territory. It is probably no coincidence that the number of Venezuelans traveling by land, through Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap jungles, increased nearly fivefold from December (542 Venezuelans registered in the Darién) to January, when the Associated Press reported that “more than half of the 4,702 migrants who crossed into Darién were Venezuelan,” making Venezuela for the first time the number-one nationality of migrants encountered there.

Noticias Telemundo meanwhile reported that the Biden administration has continued the Trump administration’s policy of deporting Venezuelans back to Caracas through third countries. In fiscal year 2020, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 193 Venezuelans through third countries, mainly Trinidad and Tobago; in 2021, ICE deported 176. Telemundo’s coverage profiles a Venezuelan man who was returned via the Dominican Republic as a “transit country” en route back to Venezuela.

Remain in Mexico hearings begin in San Diego

As of January 30, DHS had placed 410 asylum-seeking migrants into “Remain in Mexico” (RMX), a Trump-era program revived by order of a U.S. district court in Texas. Since the program’s reinstatement, 288 people were sent from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez to await their U.S. immigration court hearings, along with 109 from San Diego to Tijuana, and 13 from Brownsville to Matamoros.

The current iteration of RMX began on December 8, 2021 in El Paso. The Trump administration’s rollout of the program had occurred at a similar low-hundreds-per-month pace in the first months of 2019. (69 days in, on April 8, 2019, 1,105 asylum seekers had been sent back: 16 per day.) By the time the new Biden administration suspended it in January 2021, more than 71,000 asylum seekers had been sent back into Mexico.

Hearings have been underway for RMX subjects in El Paso, and on February 1 they began in a San Diego immigration court. Five of six asylum seekers who were scheduled for hearings that day managed to appear, including the two Colombian men who were the first to be returned to Tijuana in early January. (The California Welcoming Task Force noted that the two men have been living in a shelter that “has not received the support necessary to guarantee access to clean water.”) “The sixth person, because of a document mixup, was not able to cross in time for court,” reads a detailed account in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

They reported to a pickup point at 7:30, from where they received transportation to the border arranged by the International Organization for Migration. Guards—described by San Diego-based attorney Monika Langarica as “DHS contracted ‘detention officers’ who wear tactical looking green suits and vests”—took them to a courtroom in the San Diego federal building.

There, they appeared via videoconference before a judge located two courtrooms away, for COVID social-distancing reasons. Judge Guy Grande’s staff “struggled to set up a Webex videoconference between the two rooms, delaying the hearings’ start by nearly half an hour,” the Union-Tribune reported. The audio remained glitchy throughout the proceedings.

Grande asked one of the asylum-seekers, a woman, if she wanted more time to find an attorney, the Union-Tribune reported.

She told him no, that she had tried and she didn’t want to prolong her case. She didn’t have money to pay for a lawyer, she told him. She didn’t even have enough money to use her phone to make more calls to try to find one to help her for free.

He then asked the woman if she had a mailing address in Mexico.

The woman told him that she’d been staying in a shelter but that the shelter had told her that her stay expired that day.

“So you’re not going to have a place to stay?” the judge asked, a little concern audible in his voice. He then asked court staff to give the woman a blue document to write her new address and send to the court once she knew it.

All five migrants expressed fear of returning to Mexico, which gave them the right to a “non-refoulement interview” with an asylum officer. We have not heard if these fear claims led any of the five to be removed from RMX.

“The Biden administration’s attempts to increase humanitarian support and access to counsel under Remain in Mexico are not only insufficient and failing,” the California Welcoming Task Force wrote, “they are futile due to the very essence of a policy that removes people seeking asylum from the United States where they are seeking refuge.”

“Operation Lone Star” updates

The Texas state government’s security crackdown at the border, which includes fence-building, a National Guard deployment, and a wave of migrant arrests on “trespassing” charges, continued to generate media attention during the week. Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who is up for re-election this year, calls it “Operation Lone Star” and will spend over $2 billion on it this year.

The Intercept published a thorough overview of the operation, by longtime Mexico and border reporter Ryan Deveraux. He notes that of migrants arrested in rural south Texas, “the majority of the state’s cases have been dismissed” by counties’ overwhelmed courts, often after migrants spend weeks or months in jails awaiting trial. In January, a state judge in Austin ruled that the program violated a migrant’s constitutional rights, opening the door to a Texas RioGrande Legal Aid class-action suit on behalf of 400 jailed migrants.

Operation Lone Star’s 6,500 to 10,000-soldier National Guard deployment gets deep scrutiny in an analysis co-published by Military Times and the Texas Tribune. Reporter Davis Winkie of Military Times has published a series of articles since early December revealing deep problems with Gov. Abbott’s hastily thrown-together mission: soldiers going without pay, sudden call-ups, equipment shortages, miserable living conditions, little to do, morale problems, and suicides. Co-author James Barragán had added important reporting for the Tribune.

Troops assigned to Operation Lone Star are likely to be at the border for an entire year. National Guardsmen are civilians with families and jobs, but many got only a few days’ notice that their lives were about to be upended for a year. This is highly unusual, and unprecedented for a non-federal mission, Winkie and Barragán point out:

Usually, long-term Guard deployments come from the federal government, with nearly a year’s notice… But Operation Lone Star is different.

…Never before has Texas-or any other state-involuntarily activated so many troops under state active duty authority for such a long-term mission. Nor has it been done so quickly.

Some troops, speaking on conditions of anonymity, told Winkie and Barragán that they have little to do at the border. “Some say they feel underutilized and rarely see migrants while working isolated observation posts that in some cases lacked portable toilets for months.” In an angrily worded reply citing “scurrilous accusations by seemingly reputable media sources,” Texas Military Department Col. Rita Holton counted 100,000 migrants apprehended, or referred to law enforcement, by troops participating in the mission. Winkie and Barragán recall, though, that “many of the apprehensions are migrants surrendering to the first person in uniform they see in order to begin the asylum request process.”

A junior soldier assigned to a post along Falcon Lake near Zapata said he and his peers spend their days “staring” at the lake. Does he ever see migrants? “Nope, not even once,” he said. “Just people fishing.”

Operation Lone Star appears to be leading to retention problems as guardsmen decide not to re-enlist when their tours end, Winkie and Barragán report.

The law enforcement surge has not made conditions safer for the National Butterfly Center, a 100-acre private preserve along the Rio Grande in Mission, Texas. This facility took the Trump administration to court to prevent it from building a wall through its property, and has tangled legally with a private far-right wall-building organization, “We Build the Wall,” which built a stretch of wall along the riverbank near the Butterfly Center’s property. Trump associates Steve Bannon and Brian Kolfage have faced wire fraud and money laundering charges in connection with We Build the Wall, and Kolfage (whose Twitter account has been suspended) tweeted false allegations of “sex trade” and “death bodies” on the Butterfly Center’s property.

This has made the Center and its director, Marianna Treviño-Wright, targets of far-right individuals. As dozens of activists converged on nearby McAllen for a January 28-30 rally, the Butterfly Center received threats, including a visit from a Virginia congressional candidate who, Treviño-Wright says, pushed her to the ground and nearly ran over her son with her car. Faced with threats and harassment, on February 1 the National Butterfly Center announced that it would be closing its doors until further notice.

Though sharply divided along partisan lines, 52 percent of Texans in a new Dallas Morning News poll approved of Gov. Abbott’s border policies, up from 49 percent in November and 47 percent in September. Of Latino registered voters surveyed, “45% gave Abbott an approval rating on his handling of immigration issues, but only 37% gave Biden a thumbs up on immigration,” the Morning News found.

Of the 1,082 Texan registered voters polled, 54 percent approved of using state funds to deploy the National Guard and Texas state police to patrol the border. That is down from 59 percent in November. 36 percent “say it is reasonable to spend $20 million per mile in state funds to extend the border wall with Mexico, while 27% say it is wasteful” and 25 percent would prefer spending the money on technology at the border. 35 percent of Latinos polled agreed with building a wall, with 47 percent opposed. “The more the wall’s publicized, the worse he’s [Abbot is] going to get among Latino voters,” Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones told the Morning News.

  • DHS plans to release a memo tightening oversight of Border Patrol’s “Critical Incident Teams.” These secretive units’ existence has caused an outcry among human rights advocates and some members of Congress, who allege that they exist to carry out parallel investigations that shield Border Patrol agents from abuse allegations. (See coverage in last week’s update.) The proposed changes appear aimed not at disbanding the Critical Incident Teams, but giving Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Office of Professional Responsibility clearer authority over incident investigations.
  • A report from the Instituto para las Mujeres en la Migración (IMUMI) and the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) covers the impact of U.S. and Mexican migration policies on women seeking protection. Both countries’ policies, it finds, placed women and children at greater danger of harm, including sexual violence, during 2021.
  • The DHS Inspector-General reported on a July 2021 visit to holding facilities of Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector in South Texas. The oversight agency found Border Patrol struggling to keep up with large numbers of people in custody awaiting processing. “However, except for one facility, at the time of our site visit, we did not observe cells so overcrowded that detainees were not able to sit or lie down.” It noted that Border Patrol’s Temporary Outdoor Processing Site (TOPS) under the Anzalduas Bridge in Mission, Texas did not meet detention standards “but lessened overcrowding and health risks for detainees.” Though the ACLU reported about troubling conditions at TOPS in August 2021, the Inspector-General found that “water, snacks, and food for babies and children were readily available.”
  • A release from the DHS Science and Technology Directorate touts the agency’s plan to use sensor-laden Automated Ground Surveillance Vehicles, or “robot dogs”—a fleet of ground drones to augment Border Patrol.
  • A post from the American Immigration Council addresses the non-story circulating in right-wing media about “secret flights” transporting migrants into communities around the country. These much-repeated stories are merely documenting movements of a small number of asylum-seeking families to venues where they will appear in immigration court, or of unaccompanied migrant children within the shelter system run by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. This practice has been routine for decades. One of the most vocal purveyors of the “secret flights” trope has been Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a BuzzFeed story documents.
  • Guatemala quickly passed legislation increasing prison sentences for migrant smugglers to up to 30 years, following local authorities’ arrests of 10 people allegedly involved in smuggling Guatemalan migrants who ended up massacred on a roadside in Tamaulipas, Mexico in January 2021.
  • At the New Yorker, Jonathan Blitzer profiles Andrea Flores, who had worked from the White House to lead the Biden administration’s early effort to undo “Remain in Mexico.” She is one of several immigration reform advocates who have left the administration after being outmaneuvered by more political, centrist officials. Superiors, Blitzer reports, told her “that she was ‘too intense’ or ‘too close to the issues.'”
  • Linda Rivas, the executive director of El Paso’s Las Américas Immigrant Advocacy Center and a prominent advocate of the right to seek asylum in the United States, is stepping down after seven years.