With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S. Mexico border.
You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list.
Trump visits border wall in Texas
The Rio Grande Valley border town of Alamo, Texas, whose municipal officials received no official notice from the White House, hosted an abruptly planned January 12 visit from Donald Trump. It was the outgoing president’s first public appearance since the January 6 riot in the Capitol building. There, before an audience made up mainly of Border Patrol agents and DHS officials, Trump commemorated the construction of 450 miles of border wall during his administration.
“450 miles. Nobody realizes how big this is.… We gave you 100% of what you wanted so now you have no excuses,” he told the laughing crowd of assembled agents. Trump autographed a plaque affixed to the wall, then returned to Washington where, that same evening, the House of Representatives passed a resolution calling on Vice President Mike Pence to use the 25th Amendment to remove him. The next day, the House impeached him for a second time.
The previous week, Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan had told reporters that wall-building contractors were completing between 1.5 and 2 miles of new barrier each day, on pace to complete 475 miles by Trump’s likely final day in office, January 20. A CBP/Army Corps of Engineers update reported that 453 miles had been completed as of January 8. From this and past updates we can conclude that, of those 453:
- 47 miles were built where no fencing existed before;
- 158 replaced existing, shorter pedestrian fencing;
- 193 replaced existing vehicle barrier; and
- 55 miles are new or replacement secondary fencing.
In all, then, the Trump administration built 240 miles of fencing in places where it had previously been possible to walk across the border. Of the 453 miles, roughly 5% are in Texas, the state that makes up about 64% of the border. The topography of the Rio Grande and the predominance of private landholdings along the border complicate express wall-building in Texas, though the Trump administration has begun dozens of eminent-domain processes to seize border-zone land from Texas property owners.
To date, the administration has directed about $16.3 billion for wall construction; the Washington Post reported in December that at least $3.3 billion will be unused as of January 20. Despite Trump’s repeated pledges, Mexico has not paid for any construction.
CBP’s Morgan said that the administration plans to contract out another 300 miles “probably by January 17, 18, 19.” Those hasty arrangements will almost certainly be canceled once Joe Biden takes office; the President-Elect has said “there will not be another foot” of wall built during his administration. It remains to be seen whether Biden will act immediately to exercise “convenience clauses” to cancel existing contracts with private builders, which would involve paying termination fees-and, if so, whether his administration would go still further, downgrading or disassembling segments of Trump’s wall in environmentally sensitive areas and Native American sacred sites.
Security forces mobilize against possible “caravan” in Central America
Since December, social media messages in Central America, especially Honduras, have been calling for a new “caravan” of migrants. Many indicate an intention to depart from the bus station in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s second-largest city, on January 15.
In recent years, migrants have attempted “caravans”-hundreds or even thousands traveling en masse-as a way to migrate without paying thousands of dollars to a smuggler, while using safety in numbers to avoid the extreme dangers of the migrant trail through Mexico.
Under pressure from the Trump administration, security forces in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras dispersed attempted caravans, long before they came anywhere near the United States, in April and October 2019, and in January, October, and December 2020. It has been more than two years since a significant number of migrants traveling by “caravan” has reached the U.S. border. Migrants who pay steep fees to smugglers-whose business depends on official corruption along the migrant trail-continue to reach the U.S. border.
Whether in caravans or not, officials, advocates, and experts expect a steady increase in migration from Central America this year. COVID-19 and two November hurricanes have left millions in desperate conditions. In Honduras alone (population 9.7 million), 600,000 people have lost their employment since the pandemic began. This is on top of the large number of migrants who, as in past years, have fled Central America due to threats against their lives from criminal organizations and a lack of government protection.
About 250 migrants departed the San Pedro Sula bus station ahead of the scheduled date, on January 13. According to press reports, as of January 14 they were stranded on the city’s outskirts as police in riot gear assembled on the highway. An officer told AP “the intention was to stop the migrants from violating a pandemic-related curfew, check their documents and make sure they weren’t traveling with children that were not their own.”
Caravan participants will face similar blockages further along the route. On January 11 officials from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico met in the Honduran border city of Corinto, near San Pedro Sula and the Caribbean, to discuss migration coordination. While they stated that “migration is a right,” the government representatives said that all travelers will require passports, proof of parentage for any children, and proof of recent negative COVID-19 tests. On January 13 an 11-nation body, the Regional Conference on Migration, issued an “extraordinary declaration” pledging to increase cooperation amid “concern about irregular flows of migrants.”
Authorities in Honduras and Guatemala say they are deploying thousands of military personnel to interdict caravan participants. Guatemala, which even plans to use its Air Force, has declared a 15-day “state of prevention” in seven of its twenty-two departments (provinces) east of the central highlands. There, police and troops may restrict freedom of assembly and limit the population’s movements.
- Katie Tobin, an official at UNHCR’s Washington office with long experience on asylum, will begin work next week as senior director for transborder security on Joe Biden’s National Security Council.
- Winding down the “Remain in Mexico” program and treating asylum seekers more humanely “requires the active partnership of the Mexican government,” Leon Krauze points out in the Washington Post. Meanwhile Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden’s choice for National Security Advisor, spoke on January 6 with Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard about “a ‘new approach’ to migration issues that ‘offers alternatives to undertaking the dangerous journey to the United States,'” Reuters reported.
- Border Patrol agents in Texas’s Del Rio Sector recovered the body of a pregnant 33-year-old Haitian woman from the Rio Grande on January 8. They later determined that Mexican authorities had recovered the body of her husband from the river a few days earlier.
- The Trump administration has rushed through a host of 11th-hour regulations and immigration court decisions further limiting the right to seek asylum in the United States, which may take the Biden administration months to undo if it so chooses.
In response to a FOIA lawsuit filed by El Paso reporter Robert Moore, who was seeking information about a CBP crowd control exercise and metering of asylum seekers at ports of entry, the agency told a judge that “[t]he earliest it could start producing the requested records was June 30, 2021, and it would take up to six years to complete.”