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.
In U.S. borderlands, 2021 may be the most lethal year for migrants in nearly a decade
A San Antonio television station obtained from Border Patrol the agency’s most recent count of migrant remains encountered on U.S. soil. Since 1998, Border Patrol has found the bodies of 8,258 individuals who perished of dehydration, exposure, drownings, animal attacks, and other causes while traveling through wilderness areas in an effort to avoid being apprehended. It is an enormous death toll for a phenomenon that receives such scarce attention.
So far in fiscal year 2021 (October 2020 through May 2021), Border Patrol reported finding 203 bodies. This is quite high given that the hottest and deadliest months of the year—June through September—remain to be counted, and that the U.S. southwest has been recording higher-than-normal temperatures. By the time fiscal 2021 ends, on September 30, this could end up being the deadliest year in Border Patrol’s data since at least 2013.
Since 1998, the sectors where Border Patrol has found the most remains have shifted geographically, from California to Arizona to southeast Texas, and now, increasingly, to south-central Texas. So far this year, Border Patrol has found the most bodies in its Del Rio sector, a vast unpopulated region between Big Bend National Park and Laredo. Border Patrol’s record for migrant apprehensions in Del Rio is 157,178, set in 2000. With four months left to report for fiscal 2021, the agency has already apprehended 118,314, including more than 20,000 each in March, April, and May. Many are from “unusual” countries like Venezuela, Haiti, Ecuador, and Cuba.
Border Patrol is the only entity keeping a national count of migrant deaths, but it “only counts those it handles in the course of its work,” the Guardian explains. Local organizations tend to find much larger numbers of dead in their home regions.
The Arizona-based group Humane Borders, mapping data from the Pima County medical examiner’s office, reported 43 bodies found in the state’s deserts in June. Not all necessarily died in June, “but at least 16 had been dead for just a day and another 13 for less than a week when they were found,” Humane Borders’ mapping coordinator, Mike Kreyche, told the Associated Press. During the first half of the 2021 calendar year, Humane Borders reports 127 sets of remains, way up from 96 during the first half of 2020. By contrast, Border Patrol reports finding only 22 remains in its Arizona sectors (Tucson and Yuma) since October 2020.
In Brooks County, Texas, about 80 miles north of where Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region borders Mexico, large numbers of migrants die while trying to circumvent a longstanding Border Patrol highway checkpoint. There, the county sheriff reports finding 50 bodies in calendar year 2021, more than in any full year since 2017. (Border Patrol reports finding 37 in the entire Rio Grande Valley sector since October 2020.) The Sheriff’s Office found 16 just in June, making this the worst June in Brooks County since 2012.
“We’re constantly having people dying,” Sheriff Benny Martinez told San Antonio’s KENS 5 TV station. “Do I sound a bit frustrated? Absolutely. Because I go through this all the time, every day, and people don’t seem to understand what’s occurring and it’s happening.”
A State Department spokesperson told CNN that the U.S. government is now running more than 30,000 radio advertisements per month in Central America, in Spanish and five Indigenous languages, in an effort to dissuade people from making the journey to the United States. This is up from 28,000 ads per month in the spring. The campaign is costing about $600,000 per month.
June border numbers increase over May
As of the morning of July 16, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has not yet reported its encounters with migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border during the month of June. This is many days later than usual. However, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official shared some numbers with CNN’s Geneva Sands.
They show a modest overall increase over May in the agency’s encounters with undocumented migrants at the border. That is unusual: migration usually drops off a bit in June, the first of the peak hot summer months. In fact, migrant encounters have only increased from May to June twice before in this century: in 2017, as numbers recovered from a sharp drop after Donald Trump’s inauguration; and in 2020 after the initial shock of March 2020 COVID border closures.
According to CNN:
- CBP’s encounters with migrants at the border—combining those apprehended by Border Patrol and the much smaller number who showed up at ports of entry—increased overall from 180,034 in May to 188,800 in June.
- Family members increased from 44,639 in May to 55,805 in June.
- Unaccompanied children increased from 14,158 in May to 15,253 in June.
- Single adults decreased, from 121,237 in May to 117,742 in June.
These numbers represent encounters—the number of times U.S. border authorities came across an undocumented migrant—and not people. 34 percent of those apprehended in June had already been encountered once before during fiscal 2021, CNN reports. So the actual number of people apprehended in June was roughly one third lower than the “encounters” number would indicate.
This 34 percent “recidivism rate” shot upward during the pandemic, as the Trump and Biden administrations began using an old public health law to expel hundreds of thousands of migrants very quickly, with minimal processing (including asylum processing). While this “Title 42” policy has been a great hardship for asylum seekers, it has eased the process for those who seek to avoid being apprehended, as they can try to cross again quickly after being expelled.
Numbers of children and family members had been dropping in April and May, but now are up slightly. On July 13, Border Patrol reported apprehending 672 unaccompanied children—far higher than the previous 30 days’ average (436). As the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) has failed to increase the pace of its placements of children with relatives or sponsors in the United States, the population in the agency’s shelters has begun to grow again, exceeding 15,000 this week for the first time since mid-June.
In south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley (RGV) region, which is first in migrant “encounters” among Border Patrol’s nine sectors, numbers are increasing, the RGV Monitor reports:
The number of migrant families dropped off at the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Respite Center, located in McAllen, is reaching record highs.
“The numbers have been up, they’ve been a little higher,” said McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos.
City records indicate the number of migrants released at the shelter is exceeding the capacity of 600 more consistently since the end of May.
During the week of June 24 through June 30, U.S. Border Patrol dropped off a record number of 6,238 individuals seeking asylum at the respite center.
On June 25, alone, Border Patrol dropped off 1,202 people at the center.
McAllen, Texas officials cited in the article voiced concern about whether U.S. authorities and the region’s shelters are prepared for an increase in asylum-seeking migrants that may result from an imminent lifting of the “Title 42” pandemic expulsions policy. As reported in last week’s update, the Biden administration may soon stop expelling asylum-seeking families. “If they just come drop off individuals there and the respite center can’t take care of them, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Mayor Villalobos told the Monitor. “I think it’s going to be chaotic and I think we’re going to start having issues with people in the downtown area.”
The Catholic Charities shelter continues to test all migrants for COVID, which CBP does not do before dropping them off. Those who test positive are placed in 10-day quarantine in area hotels. “Over 900 migrants were placed in quarantine at area hotels on July 5,” the Monitor reported. Sr. Norma Pimentel, who manages the Catholic Charities shelter, said that the positive test rate among migrants has crept up from 4 percent to “maybe 6 percent or 7 percent.”
Despite the low positivity rate and the quarantines policy, in very controversial July 14 comments Sen. Ted Cruz (R) blamed migrants for rising positivity rates in south Texas. (The state abandoned mask mandates and other distancing measures a long time ago, and more than half of its population remains unvaccinated.)
Sen. Cruz was one of 28 Republican senators who sent President Joe Biden a July 14 letter asking him to keep the Title 42 policy in place until “the threat of COVID-19 variants is significantly reduced,” the administration has consulted with local authorities, and “policies have been implemented to bring the situation along the southwest land border under control.” The letter was led by Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso (R).
All Cubans and Haitians at sea will be turned back
“Allow me to be clear: if you take to the sea, you will not come to the United States,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a July 13 warning to Cuban and Haitian people considering fleeing both countries’ political turmoil. The Secretary, who was born in Cuba and brought to the United States as an infant when his family fled the island in 1960, gave comments at U.S. Coast Guard headquarters in Washington.
Migrants normally must be on U.S. soil to request asylum, and the Biden administration, like its predecessors during past so-called “rafter” events, is determined to deny those interdicted at sea the chance to do so. Even those who do get an initial asylum screening—which in the past has occurred after being brought to an offshore location like the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba—will be “referred to third countries for resettlement.” Historically, CBS News reported, asylum seekers who have passed this credible fear screening “have been referred for resettlement in third countries like Australia.”
“It is disappointing to hear this from @SecMayorkas,” tweeted Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Asylum is asylum is asylum. Anyone who faces persecution should be allowed to apply for asylum in the United States.”
Since October, the U.S. Coast Guard has encountered 470 Cuban and 313 Haitian migrants at sea, Mayorkas said. In all of 2020, the Coast Guard encountered 49 Cubans and 430 Haitians.
Republican governors’ border deployments continue
In a series of small deployments discussed in last week’s update, at least seven Republican governors are sending National Guard or law enforcement personnel to Texas and Arizona border zones, at those Republican governors’ request.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) said on July 12 that 29 state troopers had arrived in Del Rio, Texas “a couple of days ago” and would remain for 16 days. “State officials have shared few details about the deployment, citing safety concerns,” the Des Moines Register reported. Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst (R) told reporters that Gov. Reynolds should provide information about what the troopers are doing. “I do support the governor’s efforts there, but since our taxpayer dollars are being spent on that, yes, we should have some accountability.”
Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R) held a roundtable with state law enforcement leaders “to discuss Idaho’s growing drug threat and the connection to the United States-Mexico border.” Little had sent five Idaho State Police investigators to Arizona in early July. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) visited Texas to meet National Guard troops from his state stationed there, mainly for a federal deployment that began in 2018.
At The Atlantic, Eric Schnurer worries that South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s use of a private donor’s money to pay for her state’s National Guard border deployment is a glimpse into “America’s future” of increasingly privatized security.
Twelve Texas county sheriffs met with Texas Governor Greg Abbott on July 10. Sheriff Ray Del Bosque of Zapata County, which borders Mexico just west of the Rio Grande Valley region, said his department needs state resources as migrant numbers increase. Meanwhile, Gov. Abbott has transferred 1,000 inmates out of a South Texas prison so he can convert it “into a state-run jail for immigrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally,” the Texas Tribune reports.
While the National Guard has been sent to the border before, “their troops have essentially done busy work,” writes Jack Herrera at Politico. “In 2018, Arizona National Guard members deployed on the border were literally tasked with mucking out manure from the stables that held Border Patrol’s horses.” Syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrete, Jr. observes, “In 30 years of writing about immigration, I’ve interviewed many of these [Border Patrol] agents firsthand. Not once have I heard any of them ask for backup from state troopers or the National Guard.”
- The full House Appropriations Committee approved its 2022 Homeland Security budget appropriation by a party-line 33-24 vote. Last week’s update summarized what is in the bill, which reflects Democratic Party priorities.
- More than 10,000 people requested asylum in Mexico in June. Six months into calendar year 2021, this is already Mexico’s second-largest year ever for asylum applications. In its largest year, 2019, Mexico had 31,481 asylum requests through June. This year it is already up to 51,654. At Telemundo, Albinson Linares talks to the director of Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR, who notes that current law forces most asylum applicants to await the backlogged system’s decisions in the southern state of Chiapas, one of Mexico’s poorest.
- Texas-based Border Patrol agent Rodney Tolson Jr. signed a plea deal admitting that he took $400-per-person bribes to allow smugglers to bring undocumented migrants into the United States. Tolson would advise those who paid “which lane and time window to use for crossing through the checkpoint” in Laredo.
- “Nearly everyone interviewed by the San Diego Union-Tribune shortly after being expelled to Tijuana said that they had tried crossing the border three or more times in recent weeks in hopes of getting in,” writes reporter Kate Morrissey. “One man, who declined to be identified, said he’d lost count of how many times he tried. He tossed out a guess—30.” (See the discussion above of how the Title 42 policy eases repeat crossings.) The Pew Research Center meanwhile reported findings that between 2013 and 2018, the late-2000s trend of more Mexican migrants leaving than entering the United States had already begun to reverse: “An estimated 870,000 Mexican migrants came to the U.S. between 2013 and 2018, while an estimated 710,000 left the U.S. for Mexico.”
- The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff revealed that the Trump administration had actually started separating migrant families during its first months in office, many months before previously known. A secret CBP program began prosecuting asylum-seeking parents and taking their children from them in Arizona’s Yuma sector, starting in July 2017. “Some of the parents separated under the Yuma program still remain apart from their children four years later.”
- The Biden administration is allowing a handful of the 945 asylum-seekers who got sent to Guatemala to seek asylum there, under the Trump administration’s now-defunct “safe third country” agreement with Guatemala, to apply for protection within the United States.
- A JAMA Network Open (Journal of the American Medical Association-affiliated) analysis finds that “death investigation records identified violations of ICE’s [Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s] internal standards for delivery of health care in most of” 55 cases of detainees’ deaths in ICE custody between 2011 and 2018. “Unlike the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which received a federal allocation of vaccines, ICE has relied on states to provide doses to its network of more than 200 detention facilities,” reports Camilo Montoya-Galvez at CBS News. “Since each state sets distinct allocation priorities, the vaccination of ICE detainees has been inconsistent across the country.”
- At Slate, Felipe de la Hoz characterizes the Biden administration’s immigration policy as a “dual approach of liberalizing the asylum system at home while making it more difficult for anyone to actually enter it.” This “reflects the longtime moderate Democratic id on immigration, which views humanitarian migration as a problem that can be solved humanely, but a problem nonetheless.”