With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S. Mexico border. This edition is a “double issue,” longer than usual. Following a holiday break, it covers events of the past three weeks.
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On December 27 President Trump signed into law an omnibus appropriations bill to fund the federal budget in 2021. It includes the Homeland Security Department’s appropriation, which was one of the most contentious areas of difference between the Democratic-majority House and the Republican-majority Senate.
The Senate had included $2 billion for further construction of Donald Trump’s border wall. The House’s version of the bill not only offered zero dollars for the wall, it sought to rescind wall-construction money from past bills. When leaders of both houses met to reconcile differences, the Senate got more of what it wanted so that President Trump might sign the bill: $1.375 billion for “the construction of barrier system along the southwest border.”
“We pushed back hard against this funding, and it was one of the last things resolved in our bill,” Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-California), the chair of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, told Border Report. “The White House made clear to leadership, however, that if the omnibus did not include this funding level and reference the ‘construction of border barrier system’ purpose from the FY20 bill, there would be no omnibus. That could have led to a government shutdown right before Christmas and could also have put in jeopardy the coronavirus pandemic funding.”
The question now is whether President-Elect Joe Biden is bound to spend the money on border wall construction, against his stated will. House Democrats say “no”: that the bill language provides wiggle room. “There is no definition of ‘barrier systems’ and, therefore, the Biden administration can use that for so many options,” another top House Democratic appropriator, Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo, Texas, told Border Report. “It could be used for technology, for roads, for lighting along the border, it can replace older existing fencing so therefore we don’t have to go with the new fence. It gives the administration a lot of leeway.” It’s not fully clear, but it may even be possible that “barrier systems” might include downgrading of wall designs in environmentally sensitive areas or Native American sacred sites.
This may all be moot, anyway, now that the Democrats are to assume Senate majority control following Tuesday’s election in Georgia. The new Congress is likely to approve any request from President Biden to rescind the border wall money.
Other border-relevant elements of the 2021 bill include:
- A 1.4% increase in CBP’s operations budget (to $12,908,923,000, from $12,735,399,000 in 2020);
- A 2% decrease in ICE’s budget (to $7,875,730,000, from $8,032,801,000 in 2020—the House bill had sought, but did not obtain, a sharp reduction in ICE’s detention capacity);
- A 7% decrease in the budget of ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations division ($4,118,902,000, from $4,429,033,000 in 2020);
- “No funding for new Border Patrol Agents or personnel hired above the baseline funded in fiscal year 2020;”
- A $110 million, or one-third, increase in the budget for alternatives to detention programs; and
- CBP and ICE reporting requirements to Congress, and in some cases to the public, about border security metrics, its border wall-building expenditure plan, family separation events, numbers of asylum seekers, migrant deaths, alternatives to detention, inspections and due process in detention facilities, unusually long stays in holding facilities, infrastructure needs at ports of entry, assistance provided to other law-enforcement agencies, and a “risk-based” border security improvement plan.
Biden administration won’t dismantle Trump policies on day one
Past updates have laid out some of the hardline Trump administration border and migration restrictions that the Biden administration has indicated it will undo. Transition officials, however, are trying to set expectations. Voicing concerns about a rush to the border and a lack of processing infrastructure, the President-Elect and top advisors warned in pre-Christmas press interactions that the phase-out may be more gradual than migrants rights’ advocates would prefer.
“It will get done and it will get done quickly but it’s not going to be able to be done on Day 1,” Biden said, adding that his administration would need “probably the next six months” to get processing and adjudication infrastructure in place to receive significant numbers of asylum seekers once again. Undoing Trump’s policies without that capacity in place, Biden added, would be “the last thing we need” because the result could be “two million people on our border.”
“Processing power at the border is not like a light that can be turned on and off,” Susan Rice, the Obama administration’s national security advisor, told Spain’s EFE news service in an interview given jointly with Jake Sullivan, Biden’s choice to fill her old position. “Migrants and asylum seekers should not at all believe the people in the region who are selling the idea that the border will suddenly be wide open to process everyone on the first day. It will not be so.”
As as result, the pandemic restrictions currently expelling people with fear of return will persist during the Biden administration’s early weeks. So will Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which has forced about 70,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their immigration hearings in Mexico. Sullivan said, though, that Biden “will work to promptly undo” the “safe third country” agreements signed with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, which would permit the United States to send other countries’ asylum seekers to apply for protection in those countries.
Policymakers are concerned about a “rush” of migrants to the border amid easing COVID travel restrictions and perceptions that a less hardline president is assuming power. Media in Central America are reporting about plans afoot in Honduras to organize a new migrant caravan, to depart on January 15.
CBP releases December border numbers
So far, U.S. government data are showing growing migration at the border, but not a surge. CBP’s numbers for December, released on January 7, showed a 3 percent increase in Border Patrol apprehensions of migrants from November to December.
The overall number—70,630 people apprehended—was very high by the standards of recent years. Of those, however, 60,010 were quickly expelled under pandemic border restrictions. And there was much double-counting, as the rapid expulsions have brought a sharp increase in repeat attempts to migrate.
Monthly migrant apprehensions have been roughly at the same level—the mid-to-high 60,000s—since September. The apprehended population, however, has become slightly less Mexican and more Central American. Apprehensions of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras increased 24 percent from November to December, while apprehensions of Mexican migrants—still the majority—fell by 6 percent. This was the second straight monthly decline in apprehensions of Mexicans, while apprehensions of Central Americans have been increasing steadily since June.
Only 13 percent of apprehended migrants were children or parents with children. That is a sharp reversal from 2019, when children and families were two-thirds of the apprehended population. The main reason is the current impossibility of pursuing asylum at the border, compounded by the controversial “Title 42” pandemic policy of expelling most migrants as quickly as possible, regardless of their fear of return. Border Patrol and CBP expelled migrants 393,807 times between March—when pandemic border measures went into place—and December.
The data points to increases in border-zone seizures of heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, and methamphetamine, starting a few months after the imposition of pandemic border restrictions. Though cartels have nimbly adjusted to the new measures, as Steve Fisher and Kirk Semple reported in a late December New York Times analysis, U.S. border authorities are intercepting a modestly larger share of their product. (No similar trend is evident for marijuana; smuggling from Mexico has plummeted in recent years as many U.S. states have legalized and regulated cannabis.)
Download a packet of WOLA border and migration infographics at http://bit.ly/wola_border.
The Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act is now law
On January 1 President Trump signed into law the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act of 2019 (S. 2174), a bill that helps border jurisdictions deal with the tragedy of hundreds of migrants who die of dehydration and exposure in borderland deserts and wilderness areas each year.
S. 2174 originated in the Senate, co-sponsored by Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Kamala Harris (D-California, the Vice President-Elect). It was not a controversial piece of legislation: it passed the Senate under unanimous consent in mid-Novembe, and an identical House version (H.R. 8772), co-sponsored by Reps. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) and Will Hurd (R-Texas), passed quickly in mid-December under suspension of the rules.
The new law authorizes funding for proper care and identification of remains, which will assist their return to citizens of other countries who have often gone years without knowing what happened to their loved ones who migrated. It authorizes funding for 170 solar-powered rescue beacons in the desert so that migrants in distress can call for help.
The bill also includes detailed reporting requirements, since data about the migrant deaths problem have been very spotty. For instance, while Border Patrol listed only 43 migrant remains found in Arizona between January and September 2020, a joint project of the Pima County (Tucson) Medical Examiner’s Office and the NGO Humane Borders reported finding 181 during that period.
In fact, the Pima-Humane Borders effort recorded its highest-ever total of migrant remains in 2020: 227 deaths after the hottest summer in Arizona’s history. This was way up from 144 in 2019 and 128 in 2018. While the heat is a big reason for the increase, so is the pandemic border closure and “expulsions” policy, which eliminated incentives for people who might otherwise seek asylum to turn themselves in to border agents. “They can’t apply for asylum, so their options are considerably cut down and they’re forced into more and more dangerous situations,” Montana Thames, of the Arizona humanitarian group No More Deaths, told Mother Jones. Thames added that “wall construction is happening closer to Nogales and Sasabe, where there are more resources—so because of the wall constitution, they have to go to more dangerous and more remote parts of the desert.”
In most recent years, Arizona’s migrant deaths total had been second to south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. There, in Brooks County about 80 miles north of the border, migrants trying to walk around a Border Patrol highway checkpoint have died in large numbers. In 2020, though, according to the Brooks County sheriff’s office, migrant deaths fell to 34 in 2020, down from 45 in 2019. The problem is worst right now in Arizona as tougher border measures push migrants to some of the most remote deserts.
- CBP released a “Strategy 2021-2026” document that, at 1,250 words over 32 photo-heavy pages, is more of a brochure than a strategy discussion. It does reveal, though, that the agency has increased Border Patrol agent hiring by 10 percent and CBP officer hiring by 22%, reversing years of decline caused by difficulties in recruitment and bringing the agencies closer to their authorized staffing levels. Notably, except for one photo caption, the document does not discuss the border wall.
- The DHS Office of Immigration Statistics released its 2020 “Enforcement Lifecycle Report,” which provides data about what happened to migrants after they were apprehended or presented at ports of entry.
- President Trump pardoned two CBP officers who were convicted in 2006 of beating an apprehended migrant with a shotgun, shooting him, and then attempting to cover up the crime.
- A joint investigation by Human Rights Watch, Stanford University’s Human Rights in Trauma Mental Health Program, and Willamette University’s Child and Family Advocacy Clinic documents trauma that children and families suffered as a direct result of the Remain in Mexico program.
- At the Washington Post, Hannah Dreier tells the outrageous and sad story of Kevin Euceda, a Honduran asylum seeker who spent three years in ICE detention, asked to be deported as COVID swept through his detention center, and died—or was killed—shortly after his return.
- The San Diego Union-Tribune’s Kate Morrissey provides a helpful primer on the U.S. asylum system, its origins, and possible reforms like reducing the court backlog, providing legal aid, sharply reducing detention, and working with other countries.
- The number of National Guard and other U.S. military personnel deployed to the border has fallen to 3,600—from well over 5,000 in 2018—reports Military Times.
- The Intercept’s Ryan Devereaux examines the Border Patrol’s hardline, politically active union, which attached itself very closely to Donald Trump and his unsuccessful reelection campaign, and the larger issue of a politicized border security apparatus that is likely to clash with the Biden administration.
- We salute the memory of two respected Mexican migrant shelter operators who died of COVID-19-related complications since mid-December. Juan Francisco Louriero of the San Juan Bosco shelter in Nogales and Father Pedro Pantoja of the Casa del Migrante de Saltillo were both 76 years old.