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.
CBP data points to a rise in migrants from “other” countries
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported on June 9 that in May, its agents encountered 180,034 undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. 8,023 of these “encounters” took place at official border ports of entry. 172,011 happened in the spaces between the ports of entry, where Border Patrol operates.
The Border Patrol number is a very slight reduction from April, when the agency encountered 173,686 undocumented migrants between ports of entry. Encounters with unaccompanied children dropped by 18 percent from April to May, and encounters with members of families dropped by 16 percent. Single adults increased 8 percent.
The May “encounters” number appeared to be the largest since April 2000, when Border Patrol apprehended 180,050 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. However, there is some double-counting. 38 percent of the agency’s May encounters were with people whom it had already encountered at least once in the previous 12 months.
Of May’s 172,011 encounters, then, only about 107,000 were “new” people. That is still a very high monthly number by the standards of the past 15 years at the border, but it means that the number of newly encountered people in May 2021 was significantly smaller than in May 2019 (which was perhaps 124,000 people, at that year’s recidivism rate). “The trend of border apprehensions in May is a reduction of individuals (unique encounters) and families below the peak in 2019,” reads a White House release.
A 38 percent “recidivism rate” is probably unprecedented. That number averaged 15 percent of Border Patrol’s “encountered” migrants between 2014 and 2019, and it rose to 26 percent in 2020. The reason for the increase is the pandemic response. Under a COVID-19 border measure known as “Title 42,” Border Patrol is rapidly expelling most migrants it finds, sending Mexicans and residents of some other countries back across into Mexico without detaining them. The quick procedure makes it relatively easy for migrants to attempt to cross again.
Of Border Patrol’s 897,213 “encounters” with migrants between ports of entry since October, 137,176—15 percent—were not from Mexico or from Central America’s Northern Triangle countries. That’s up from 11 percent from “other countries” in 2020, and 9 percent in 2019. In May, the “other countries” share was even larger: 23 percent of Border Patrol’s encounters. Last month, the agency encountered more citizens of Ecuador (11,655) than El Salvador (10,011).
In May, the non-Mexican, non-Northern Triangle countries whose citizens Border Patrol “encountered” most were Ecuador (11,655 May encounters, up 110% since March); Venezuela (7,371, up 213%); Brazil (7,366, up 85%); Nicaragua (4,354, up 126%); Haiti (2,704, down 12%); Cuba (2,611, down 54%); and Romania (1,203, up 214%). The Romanians are mainly members of the oft-persecuted Roma ethnic group, as Reuters reported in late May.
The 2020-21 year-on-year nationality numbers are also striking. They show great variation in the parts of the U.S.-Mexico border where migrants of different nationalities tend to arrive. Central Americans and Ecuadorians tend to arrive in south Texas and the El Paso-New Mexico area. Brazilians and Indians arrive overwhelmingly in the westernmost border sectors. Cubans and Venezuelans are arriving in sparsely populated areas: west Texas’s Del Rio sector and western Arizona’s Yuma sector (many Venezuelans are also arriving in central Arizona). The Del Rio sector has seen the largest percentage increase in migration from 2020 to 2021.
A few other facts about May, from CBP and from Mexico’s migration authorities:
- As in March (63%) and April (64%), Border Patrol expelled 64 percent of migrants it encountered, under the “Title 42” pandemic authority.
- Virtually no unaccompanied children were expelled, as has been the case since mid-November.
- Border Patrol expelled 22 percent of apprehended family unit members, down from 37 percent in April and 40 percent in March. The number of family members allowed into the United States, in most cases to begin asylum proceedings, has stayed very steady since March: 31,973 in March, 30,502 in April, and 31,722 in May.
- As in March (88%) and April (86%), Border Patrol expelled 86 percent of single adults it encountered.
- 68 percent of encountered migrants were single adults. This is vastly different from May 2019, when only 28 percent were single adults. (This includes some double counting due to recidivism.)
- Between January and May, Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR had received 41,195 requests for asylum in Mexico. That five-month total exceeds COMAR’s asylum requests in all of 2020 (41,179). 46 percent of requesters were from Honduras, followed by Haiti (17%) and Cuba (9%).
- In April, the latest available month, Mexican authorities apprehended 18,709 migrants, the most since July 2019.
Biden administration loosens two Trump-era restrictions on asylum
The Department of Justice this week reversed a Trump administration restriction on eligibility for asylum, while the Departments of State and Homeland Security reinstated a program extending protection to some Central American children.
On June 16 Attorney-General Merrick Garland reversed decisions from his Trump-era predecessors, Jeff Sessions and William Barr, that severely restricted asylum for victims of domestic abuse and gang violence. In the U.S. system, immigration courts are part of the executive-branch Department of Justice. This makes the attorney-general the maximum “judge” setting guidelines for immigration judges to follow.
In 2018, in a case called “the matter of A-B,” Sessions had overruled a prior decision granting asylum to a Salvadoran woman who had fled domestic violence. In 2019, in the “L-E-A” case, Barr determined that relatives of a Mexican man targeted by a criminal organization (in this case, the hyper-violent Familia Michoacana cartel) did not qualify as members of a “particular social group” eligible for asylum.
These two decisions had severely restricted possibilities of gaining U.S. asylum for tens of thousands of migrants, especially Central Americans, who had come to the United States fleeing abusive partners or violent gangs. “In the year after his [Sessions’s] decision,” the New York Times noted, “rates of asylum granted to people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras plunged 38 percent.” Attorney-General Garland’s decision, a response to an executive order from the first days of Joe Biden’s presidency, restores asylum eligibility to what it was before the Trump administration.
Meanwhile, on June 15 the Departments of State and Homeland Security announced an expansion of the recently restored Central American Minors (CAM) Program, allows parents living legally in the United States to petition to have their children in Central America reunited with them. A few thousand children gained admittance to the United States through the CAM during the last years of the Obama administration, but the Trump administration shut down the program in 2018.
President Biden had ordered the program’s reinstatement shortly after taking office. The June 15 announcement expands the CAM, adding new categories of adults who may petition for their children to join them. Now, legal guardians and parents who are still awaiting decisions on their status, including asylum-seekers, may also apply. An unnamed official told the Los Angeles Times that as many as 100,000 petitioners may now be eligible.
Once the parents apply, the CAM program interviews the children in Central America to determine whether they qualify for refugee resettlement status. If they do not qualify, they may still be granted humanitarian parole—a temporary residency status that does not place the children on a path to citizenship, CBS News explains.
Texas’s governor wants to build a wall
At a June 16 press conference in Austin, Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) announced that “In the Biden Administration’s absence, Texas is stepping up to get the job done by building the border wall.” Abbott asked his state’s Facilities Commission to hire a program manager to oversee border wall construction.
Abbott’s administration said it would transfer $250 million from the prison system’s budget to a “down payment” on a state border wall. (Texas already spends $1.1 billion in state funds on what it categorizes as “border security.”)
It cost the Trump administration about $26.5 million per mile to build border wall in Texas; at that rate, Abbott’s “down payment” would be enough to build 9 1/2 miles of wall. At least 1,100 miles of Texas’s border is unfenced. “My guess is that if Texas has the willingness to go through multiple years of litigation, it will be able to build a smattering of wall sections,” former Bush administration DHS official Stewart Verdery told the Washington Examiner.
In Texas, most border land is privately owned. Abbott’s “program manager” will have to “identify state land and land that private landowners and local governments can volunteer for the wall,” the governor’s office’s release reads. The state land commissioner, George P. Bush, said he would grant emergency authorization to build wall on state-owned lands.
While costly private land seizures through the eminent domain process are certain to slow the Governor’s plans, he is also seeking donations of land and money, including through a website. In 2011, Arizona’s state government set up a similar wall-building donation website with a goal of raising $50 million. It ultimately collected $270,000.
While states are not empowered to enforce immigration law, Abbott signaled that he would have state police arrest migrants on charges like trespassing or smuggling, regardless of their intention to seek asylum, and to hold them in newly built jails near the border. Imprisoning parents who arrive with children would cause a new wave of family separations. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) announced that it is considering filing an injunction against Abbott’s “abuse of power and using refugee children as political piñatas.”
“We are being invaded,” Lieutenant-Governor Dan Patrick said at the Governor’s press conference. “That term has been used in the past, but it has never been more true.” He added that a 14-year-old Central American boy who arrives that the border would probably turn into a criminal: “You can’t put a 14-year-old in a fifth grade class. What is his future? Crime, low wages. No future.” Migrant advocates reacted sharply to this “invasion” rhetoric, similar to that used by a mass shooter who killed 23 people at an El Paso Wal-Mart in August 2019. “If people die again, blood will be on your hands,” tweeted El Paso Rep. Veronica Escobar (D).
As he eyes a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, Abbott is already trying to revoke licenses for federally funded shelters housing unaccompanied migrant children in Texas. He has also invited former president Donald Trump to come to the border; a visit is likely on June 30.
Together with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), he has called on “fellow governors” to send law-enforcement personnel to the Texas border. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) answered this call on June 16, announcing that state police and some county officers—mainly from the state’s western panhandle region—would head to the Texas border. “It isn’t clear what exactly the Florida officers will be doing at the border or how the mutual aid agreement will work out legally, logistically or strategically,” the Pensacola News Journal reported. DeSantis cited a jump in methamphetamine availability in Florida. About 90 percent of methamphetamine detected at the border, however, is found at official ports of entry, not the spaces in between where Florida law enforcement personnel would presumably be deployed.
GAO issues three reports and decisions about the border
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), a U.S. Congress agency that carries out rigorous audits and evaluations, issued three documents related to the U.S.-Mexico border this week. Two covered the border wall.
On June 15, GAO responded to 122 House and Senate Republicans’ request for a ruling on the legality of President Biden January 20 order pausing border wall construction. Appropriations law requires that Biden spend money specifically assigned for border barrier construction, and the Impoundment Control Act of 1974 requires the President to spend appropriations as directed by Congress.
GAO determined that Biden has not broken the law by pausing wall construction: what has happened so far are “programmatic delays, not impoundments,” and he does not have to spend the money immediately, or could alter how it is spent while still meeting the “border barrier” definition. (The White House’s 2022 budget request goes further, asking Congress to cancel these previous unspent appropriations.) Unlike former president Trump’s refusal to provide assistance to Ukraine—part of his 2019 impeachment—“the delay here is precipitated by legal requirements,” GAO concluded.
A June 17 report looks into the money that President Trump, using an emergency declaration, wrested from the Defense Department’s budget in 2019 and 2020 to build border walls as quickly as possible. GAO found that in response to the Trump administration’s demands, the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversaw wall construction, obligated $10.6 billion for construction contracts. $4.3 billion of that was for “noncompetitive contracts,” which are usually more expensive. 88 percent of the $10.6 billion went to four contractors and two of their subsidiaries.
In the end, by the time President Biden called a halt to wall construction on January 20, the Trump administration had built a full “border wall system”—with electrical hookups, access roads, and similar components—on only 69 miles of the border. The approximately 400 miles of other new and replacement wall was primarily fencing panels without the accompanying components. “While the wall panels are typically the most costly part of border barrier construction, the full wall system remains incomplete,” GAO found.
On June 11, the Biden administration had returned $2 billion of this “emergency” funding back to the Defense Department, where it will be used for military construction programs that were delayed in 2019 and 2020.
The House of Representatives had challenged the Trump administration’s 2019 emergency declaration, alleging that the president had made an end-run around a Congress that refused to approve wall funding. That case is before the Supreme Court, but the Biden administration has asked that it be dropped because the executive branch opposes the precedent of one house of Congress being able to take spending disputes to court.
On June 14, GAO issued a report about how CBP responded to, and was affected by, the COVID-19 pandemic. It found that through February 2021, more than 7,000 of CBP’s 54,500 employees had contracted COVID-19, and 24 died. “Employee absences didn’t generally have a significant impact at air, land, or sea ports, which saw declining traffic, officials told” GAO.
Border Patrol responded to the pandemic, GAO found, by deploying agents closer to the borderline, moving away from interior checkpoints and “nonessential activities” further into the U.S. interior. It also responded with the Title 42 expulsions policy. By rapidly sending most migrants back across the border into Mexico, GAO found, agents reduced their exposure to COVID-19 but also lost opportunities to gain intelligence by interviewing migrants about smugglers and other illegal activity at the border.
- Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas visited Mexico on June 14-15, his first international trip as secretary. He met with several cabinet members. “We have challenged one another with respect to what more can each of us do to address the level of irregular migration that has persisted for several months,” Mayorkas told reporters, as he echoed Vice President Kamala Harris’s “do not come” message to would-be migrants. Mayorkas discussed with Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard the possibility of phasing out pandemic restrictions on cross-border trade and travel, though no details emerged. Ebrard also raised the issue of southbound flows of weapons purchased in the United States.
- USAID Administrator Samantha Power also paid a five-day visit to Central America from June 13 to 17, which included several meetings with prominent civil-society figures.
- Experts from WOLA’s Mexico and Central America/Citizen Security programs published an analysis of U.S. officials’ visits, with a series of recommendations for addressing migration’s “root causes,” engaging with Mexico, and collaborating on a rights-respecting approach to migration.
- Secretary Mayorkas testified in the House Homeland Security Committee on June 17 about his department’s 2022 budget request. The hearing was notable mainly for several testy exchanges with Republican members.
- The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post published reports about families separating on the Mexican side of the border, usually after U.S. authorities expel them under the Title 42 “public health” order. The parents are forced to send their kids across to the United States alone, as unaccompanied children do not get expelled.
- Janine Bouey, a former LAPD officer and veteran, filed a complaint against Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and DHS alleging that CBP agents sexually assaulted her at San Diego’s Otay Mesa port of entry. She got no result after filing an earlier complaint; this one, filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act, has an assist from Alliance San Diego.
- Two soldiers based at Fort Hood, Texas were arrested at a Border Patrol checkpoint as they drove a civilian vehicle, in uniform, with two undocumented Mexican migrants aboard.
- A 7,000-word Rolling Stone chronicle by Seth Harp finds that Mexico’s Gulf Cartel has come to dominate the migrant smuggling business along the easternmost 250 miles of Mexico’s side of the border, in Tamaulipas. (In fact, Harp explains, coyotes are independent, but have to pay the cartel a fee.)
- The Associated Press reported on the psychological trauma suffered by unaccompanied migrant children held at the massive emergency shelter at Fort Bliss, Texas, while they wait for caseworkers to connect them with relatives or sponsors inside the United States. “Some had marks on their arms indicating self-harm, and federal volunteers were ordered to keep out scissors, pencils or even toothbrushes that could be used as a weapon. While girls made origami and braided friendship bracelets, a large number of the children spent the day sleeping, the volunteer [AP’s source] said. Some had been there nearly two months.”
- The House Appropriations Committee will mark up (amend and approve drafts of) the 2022 Homeland Security appropriations budget legislation: in its Homeland Security Subcommittee on June 30 and in the full Appropriations Committee on July 13.