With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S. Mexico border.
Joe Biden’s first steps
The Biden administration devoted its first hours to a burst of executive orders, proclamations, legislative proposals, and policy changes. Several undo Donald Trump’s border and migration policies, charting a very different course. They include:
- Ordering a halt, within seven days, to all border wall construction, after which the administration will spend sixty days assessing the wall-building contracts (which they don’t appear to have seen), and developing a plan for ending those contracts and repurposing unspent funds.
- Biden’s proclamation cancels Trump’s February 2019 “national emergency” declaration that took $9.9 billion from the Defense Department budget to build fencing. The Army Corps of Engineers has ordered contractors to stop work.
- The proclamation cannot cancel funding ($5.8 billion) that Congress directly appropriated for wall-building between 2017 and 2021. That would require agreement with Congress on reinterpreting past appropriations’ language ordering barrier construction, or on rescinding past years’ funds completely. Failure to do so “would potentially oblige the Biden administration to complete up to 227 additional miles of border wall,” the Washington Post reported.
- “As of Jan. 15, the government spent $6.1 billion of the $10.8 billion in work it signed contracts to have done,” of a total of $16.45 billion secured for the wall, the Associated Press reported, citing “a Senate Democratic aide with knowledge of the contracts. The full amount under contract would have extended Trump’s wall to 664 miles” from the 455 miles that were completed.
- Suspending new enrollments in the “Remain in Mexico” (or “Migrant Protection Protocols”) program. For now, though, those already enrolled—more than 28,000 people whose asylum cases are still pending before U.S. immigration courts—must remain in Mexican border towns.
- Ordering the Homeland Security and Justice Departments to “preserve and fortify” Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA).
- Ordering a 100-day freeze on most deportations during which the Homeland Security Department will review immigration enforcement practices and policies.
- Revoking Trump’s ban on visas for citizens from several Muslim-majority and African countries.
- Revoking a January 2017 executive order cracking down on so-called “sanctuary jurisdictions.”
- Implementing a “regulatory freeze” that halts hardline immigration restriction rules and regulations issued in the Trump administration’s final months.
The new administration is introducing legislation, the “U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021,” that proposes to:
- Provide pathways to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants in the United States, with a quicker process for DACA and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients.
- Increase the integration and admission of refugees, including a restoration of the Central American Minors Program that allowed some threatened children to apply for refugee or asylum status from their home countries.
- Fund the use of scanning, surveillance, and other technologies along the border.
- Expand training and continuing education for border agents.
- Codify a four-year, $4 billion package of assistance to Central America to address migration’s “root causes.”
- Expand alternatives to detention and reduce immigration court backlogs.
Republican senators have already begun deriding the still un-introduced bill as “total amnesty” and a “non-starter.”
So far, there has been no mention of other measures that the Biden campaign or transition team had been floating:
- A program or task force to reunify hundreds of migrant families that remain separated by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.
- Withdrawal from “safe third country” (or “asylum cooperation”) agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
- Changes to the “Title 42” pandemic rapid-expulsions policy that has blocked migrants from requesting asylum.
Biden officials have indicated that some changes restoring the right to seek asylum at the border will have to wait until processing capacity is in place at or near ports of entry. A transition official told NBC News that would-be asylum seekers “need to understand they’re not going to be able to come into the United States immediately.”
Tent facility for processing migrants being built in Rio Grande Valley
Because it may need to be built quickly, much of that processing capacity will look quite temporary, at least at first. Before the Trump administration’s end, on January 19, CBP began construction of a “soft-sided”—that is, made up of tents—processing facility in Donna, Texas. There, personnel will perform background and health checks and begin paperwork for migrants seeking protection in the United States. The facility will take about 30 days to build.
Donna is in the Rio Grande Valley region of southeast Texas, which is by far the number-one arrival point for Central American asylum seeking migrants. CBP built a more permanent processing facility in the Rio Grande Valley in 2014, the “Ursula Avenue” Central Processing Center in McAllen. That facility, notorious for its stark warehouse-like appearance and chain-link “kids in cages” internal fencing—is now undergoing a year and a half-long renovation.
Contracts for similar “soft-sided” facilities are pending for Laredo and Brownsville, Texas, according to the Rio Grande Valley Monitor.
Guatemalan forces turn back migrant caravan
As discussed in last week’s update, about 7,000 would-be migrants departed from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in the days leading up to January 15, with the intent of forming a “caravan” to the U.S. border.
They didn’t make it. About 25 miles inside Guatemala, in the southeastern department of Chiquimula, a large contingent of Guatemalan soldiers and police (part of a 2,000-person deployment) gathered at a highway chokepoint to impede the migrants’ progress. Video showed helmeted security forces beating migrants with truncheons and deploying tear gas to keep them from passing through the cordon. By January 19, most of the would-be caravan participants had dispersed, presumably returning to Honduras.
Guatemala, which had declared a state of emergency in seven of its eastern departments, cited COVID-19 concerns to justify the use of force. Normally, residents of Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua are free to travel in Guatemala without a passport.
Important population centers in Honduras were devastated by two hurricanes in rapid succession in November. That came on top of the severe public health and economic blows dealt by COVID-19, which in turn were layered over very high rates of violence and extortion—much of it gang-related and worsened by official corruption—that were already forcing large numbers of Hondurans to abandon their country.
Migrants view “caravans” as a way to employ safety in numbers to minimize the dangers of the journey through Mexico, without having to pay thousands of dollars to migrant smugglers. Though only a tiny percentage of migrants who have arrived at the U.S. border travel this way, U.S. anti-immigration activists and politicians are triggered by striking images of thousands of people coming to the border all at once. The Trump administration pressed Mexico’s and Central America’s governments to crack down on “caravans.”
No migrant caravan has gotten past Chiapas, Mexico since January 2019. Security forces have dispersed them in April and October 2019; in January, October, and December 2020; and now in January 2021.
- Roberta Jacobson, a former ambassador to Mexico and assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, is to be named the White House National Security Council’s coordinator for the southwestern border.
- DHS Secretary-Designate Alejandro Mayorkas faced some critical questioning from Republicans at his January 19 confirmation hearing, and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) has placed a hold on his nomination, which could delay confirmation for days or weeks.
- The humanitarian group HIAS, which has worked extensively with “Remain in Mexico” victims in Mexican border towns, has published a detailed guide for how the Biden administration can dismantle the controversial program while observing public health requirements.
- The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Democrats published a report documenting disastrous consequences of the Trump administration’s safe third country agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. According to the report, titled Cruelty, Coercion, and Legal Contortions, DHS shipped 945 non-Guatemalan migrants to Guatemala to seek asylum there, and none received it.
- The U.S. immigration court backlog increased from 542,311 pending deportation cases when Donald Trump took office, to at least 1,290,766 cases today, according to TRAC Immigration.
- In one of its last moves, the outgoing Trump administration granted an 18-month deferral of deportation for more than 145,000 Venezuelans in the United States.
- Mexican National Guard personnel pulled over a semi truck driver, apparently for not using a seatbelt, on a highway in the southeastern state of Veracruz. After hearing shouts and pounding, they found 128 Central American migrants packed into the truck’s container.