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.
Due to staff travel, there will be no border update on March 11. The next edition will appear on March 18.
Developing: as this update goes up mid-day on March 4, a District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals has just issued a ruling placing some limits on Title 42 expulsions of asylum-seeking families. It appears to uphold the practice of rapidly expelling asylum-seekers for public health reasons, but it also requires the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to avoid expelling people to places where they might be in danger of persecution or torture. This may require DHS to carry out reasonable fear interviews of all who express fear of expulsion.
House holds hearing on “Remain in Mexico”
The House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation, and Operations held a March 2 hearing to examine the Biden administration’s court-ordered resumption of the “Remain in Mexico” policy. This is the controversial program that the Trump administration employed between January 2019 and January 2021 to send over 71,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their U.S. hearings inside Mexico, usually in Mexican border cities with some of the world’s highest violent crime rates. The Biden administration terminated the program during its first months, only to have a Texas district court judge order its reinstatement in August 2021.
In written testimony, the acting assistant DHS secretary for border and immigration, Blas Nuñez-Neto, offered some statistics about the renewed Remain in Mexico program, which sent its first asylum seekers to Mexico on December 8. As of February 28:
- 1,602 people had been enrolled in the program.
- Of those, 893 had been returned to Mexico. 181 were still being processed. The rest were exempted due to vulnerabilities or because of a “reasonable possibility” of persecution and torture in Mexico.
- One was “a family unit individual,” who was later removed from the program.
- All had been Spanish speakers, “primarily from Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, and Ecuador.”
- Of the 1,602, 1,313 (82 percent) had claimed a fear of harm in Mexico. Of those, 225 (17 percent) received a “positive determination” and were removed from Remain in Mexico. Another 12 percent had their cases administratively closed.
- During their non-refoulement interviews (to determine fear of return to Mexico), 2 percent had legal representation.
“As of this week,” Nuñez-Neto said, Remain in Mexico returns “are now occurring in four locations across the entire Southwest border.” Those are El Paso-Ciudad Juárez; San Diego-Tijuana; Brownsville-Matamoros; and, as of this week, Laredo-Nuevo Laredo. Those being returned to the especially high-crime cities of Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo are given the option of transportation further south to the city of Monterrey. The first two migrants were returned to Nuevo Laredo on Thursday, March 3, and opted to go to Monterrey. The Mexican daily El Financiero reportedthat the UN-affiliated International Organization for Migration (IOM) “committed to transport them whenever they are called upon to continue their legal process” in the United States.
Immigration court facilities for those with Remain in Mexico hearing dates are now operating in El Paso, San Diego, and Brownsville. In Brownsville on February 15, the Biden administration reopened makeshift “tent courts” where asylum seekers will argue their cases with remote judges over video. Laredo’s tent court hearings will begin on or about March 28.
The 100-minute, 2-panel hearing was attended mostly by members of the Republican minority. The subcommittee’s chairwoman, Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-California), opened by noting her disappointment in the renewed Remain in Mexico program after a visit to San Diego and Tijuana. “I argue that more work needs to be done,” she said, pointing out that some relatives who don’t meet the definition of a nuclear family continue to be separated, that some people must plead their cases in non-refoulement interviews while under the influence of COVID vaccine side effects, and that most migrants are unable to secure legal representation.
Higgins and the ranking Republican on the full Homeland Security Committee, Rep. John Katko (R-New York), complained that “only 13” people per day are currently being made to remain in Mexico. “That’s only a quarter of one percent of those caught. That is not right,” Katko said. The Republican members argue that this does not constitute the “good faith effort” to reinstate Remain in Mexico that Amarillo, Texas Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ordered in August 2021.
Republicans offered other critiques of the Biden administration’s management of the revived program. Rep. Dan Bishop (R-North Carolina) speculated about lawyers “coaching” asylum seekers “to say that they’re depressed or have anxiety” in order to avoid being returned to Mexico. Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Georgia) complained about “tax dollars” being used to transport migrants to their hearings and to pay for items like wi-fi access in shelters so that they can communicate with counsel. “You know, I wish we treated our United States citizens that well.”
A Republican witness, Arizona state Department of Homeland Security Director Tim Roemer, incorrectly said “yes” when asked, “there should be no reason that an illegal or that an immigrant who wants to come here under a case of asylum couldn’t go to a legal port of entry, is that correct?” (Ports of entry have been closed to asylum seekers and other undocumented migrants since at least March 2020.)
Writing from Ciudad Juarez for The Intercept, John Washington spoke to Remain in Mexico-enrolled migrants who have been staying in a giant shelter operated by Mexico’s federal government. In addition to dangers from corrupt police and national guardsmen tied to kidnappers, Washington described
prison-like conditions, bad and insufficient food, filthy bathrooms, excessive cold, and lack of Covid precautions, including not quarantining people who were infected and guards not using masks. One of the guards, Mateo [a migrant afraid to use his real name] said to me, has repeatedly told some of the migrants, “You don’t belong here. You’re worth s—.” Another guard with a reputation for being a martinet told a Venezuelan man enrolled in MPP that he would disappear him if he didn’t comply with the rules.
Organized crime flares up in Tamaulipas, Mexico
On the eastern end of the U.S.-Mexico border is the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which extends from Nuevo Laredo to the Gulf of Mexico. This is one of five of Mexico’s thirty-two states—and the only border state—to which the State Department has assigned its highest level of warning: “do not travel,” due to “crime and kidnapping.” The Remain in Mexico program is now operating across from two Tamaulipas cities, Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo, though migrants have the option of transportation a few hours further south to the city of Monterrey, in the state of Nuevo León.
Tamaulipas’s border municipalities endured a spike in organized crime violence beginning around February 24. Mexican newspapers—often relying on social media reports because press reporting on organized crime activity is dangerous— described days of running gun battles, police pursuits, destruction of police surveillance cameras, and criminals hijacking trucks and buses in order to park them across main thoroughfares, blockading all traffic. Incidents were reported in and around the border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros, and elsewhere along the Ribereña highway that parallels the Rio Grande along Mexico’s side of the border.
Mexico’s Elefante Blanco news site pointed out that “the entire danger zone is coincidentally controlled by the Gulf Cartel, according to Mexican government reports.” The site adds, citing “Tamaulipas government sources,” that a triggering event may have been the February 24 arrest in the border town of Díaz Ordaz west of Reynosa, of Obed “P”, a U.S. citizen facing charges of homicide in the United States.
On the front lines of the flareup was the Tamaulipas state police force’s Special Operations Group (GOPES), a unit that has received some U.S. assistance. GOPES is controversial because of members’ alleged involvement in serious human rights abuses, including a September 2019 massacre in Nuevo Laredo and a January 2021 massacre near the border town of Camargo of 19 people, 17 of them Central American migrants.
Following violence on February 24, as they often do, criminal groups hung banners with messages seeking to justify their violence. Some accused the GOPES unit of “wanting to sow terror” in Tamaulipas. In the first two months of 2022, the daily Milenio reported, GOPES has been attacked thirteen times while patrolling near the border, often with Mexican Army soldiers.
State of the Union reactions
President Biden included a brief mention of the U.S.-Mexico border and migration policy in his March 1 State of the Union address:
[I]f we are to advance liberty and justice, we need to secure the Border and fix the immigration system. We can do both.
At our border, we’ve installed new technology like cutting-edge scanners to better detect drug smuggling. We’ve set up joint patrols with Mexico and Guatemala to catch more human traffickers. We’re putting in place dedicated immigration judges so families fleeing persecution and violence can have their cases heard faster. We’re securing commitments and supporting partners in South and Central America to host more refugees and secure their own borders.
We can do all this while keeping lit the torch of liberty that has led generations of immigrants to this land—my forefathers and so many of yours.
Provide a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, those on temporary status, farm workers, and essential workers. Revise our laws so businesses have the workers they need and families don’t wait decades to reunite.
It’s not only the right thing to do—it’s the economically smart thing to do. That’s why immigration reform is supported by everyone from labor unions to religious leaders to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Let’s get it done once and for all.
Some immigration advocates found Biden’s security-forward presentation to be unsatisfying or concerning. “We are disappointed in @POTUS claims to fund the police, and increase border funding to a border already well funded,” tweeted RAICES Texas. “Biden has promised to make the US welcoming, and he must end Title 42 end MPP and restore asylum today,” tweeted Amnesty International USA. “The president’s hawkish talk in his State of the Union speech feels like a gut punch,” wrote Arizona Republic editorial writer Elvia Díaz, who noted the persistence of Title 42 expulsions and the President’s stalled immigration reform effort. She called Biden’s reference to a pathway to citizenship “a line, almost as an afterthought,” lamenting that the President’s border rhetoric has hardened as the Democrats appear more vulnerable in November’s midterm congressional elections.
On the other side of the debate (in addition to some Republican representatives who yelled “build the wall” inside the chamber) were unnamed Border Patrol agents cited by Fox News. “‘F—ing pandering 101, full of sh—,’ one agent told Fox News. ‘I laughed,’ said another.” Another agent decided to level their attack on the asylum system:
“Immigration judges usually tend to follow the tendencies or intentions of their appointing administration, that means I and many other agents have little faith in them to actually follow immigration law,” they said. “The vast majority of these illegal aliens have no legitimate claims to asylum but administration-picked and taxpayer-funded lawyers will argue otherwise. Unemployment, inability to buy groceries, domestic violence, bad schools and bad weather are not legitimate claims, period.”
- Mexico’s refugee agency (COMAR) reported that 16,309 people applied for asylum in Mexico in January and February 2022. That is, by a margin of nearly 3,000, the largest January-February total COMAR has ever received. 63 percent of applications were filed at COMAR’s office in Tapachula, Chiapas. Applicants came predominantly from Haiti (4,189), Honduras (3,675), Cuba (2,004), Venezuela (1,957), and Nicaragua (800).
- Citing documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the Washington Post’s Nick Miroff found that recently built segments of border fence were been sawed through 3,272 times during the 2019 through 2021 fiscal years—three times per day—causing damage that cost $2.6 million ($800 per incident) to repair. More than half of breaches occurred in southeast California’s El Centro sector.
- “The idea started as a joke, but now we have a real opportunity to make the lives of soldiers better,” a specialist medic who is leading a drive to unionize National Guardsmen assigned to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) border deployment told Military Times. According to a January Justice Department court filing, laws forbidding troops from unionizing do not apply to Guardsmen on state orders.
- After a renovation that began in November 2020, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has reopened its Central Processing Center (also known as the “Ursula Avenue facility”) in McAllen, Texas. The warehouse-sized site, first used in 2014, can keep up to 1,200 people apprehended at the border in short-term custody while processing them for asylum, detention, removal, or other outcomes. Before its renovations, the Center was known for its “cages”: indoor pens separated by chain link fencing. For the time being, Border Patrol is also keeping in place a tent-based processing facility in nearby Donna, Texas.
- Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz told the Rio Grande Valley Monitor’s Valerie Gonzalez that the agency plans to increase processing capacity in its Del Rio (Texas) and Yuma (Arizona-California) sectors, which have seen rapid growth in migration. “What I don’t want to do is process these individuals in tents, which I’m doing quite a bit across the entire southwest border. We recognize that migration is going to continue, and we have to start planning for this being an enduring issue and be able to prepare for it accordingly.”
- Border Patrol’s El Centro Sector leadership went on a horseback ride with municipal security officials from the border city of Mexicali, Baja California. A delegation from the Colombian Foreign Ministry’s migration agency visited CBP headquarters in Washington “to discuss irregular migration mitigation efforts at the Southwest border and throughout the Latin American region.”
- Press coverage and expressions of concern continue to follow a February 2 article from the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate touting “robot dog” ground-based drones that the Directorate hopes to deploy along the border. The latest message is a letter from three Democratic House members, reported by Axios, citing “the threat the robots pose to migrants arriving at our southern border and the part they play in a long history of surveillance and privacy violations in our border communities.”
- A Mexican bus driver claims he was bitten by an actual Border Patrol canine during a February 2020 stop at the Kingsville, Texas Border Patrol station. Roberto De Leon says the injuries to his left hand took two surgeries to repair, and he is suing for $1 million.