There’s so much happening at the U.S.-Mexico border—much of it outrageous, some of it heroic—that it’s hard to keep track. With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments in 900 words or less. We welcome your feedback.

October sees another big jump in undocumented migration

CBP reported on November 19 that, during October, Border Patrol apprehended 66,337 undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. (CBP encountered another 2,900 migrants at border ports of entry.) That was the most apprehensions since July 2019. It was the heaviest October since 2005. It was the 7th largest monthly total during the Trump administration’s 46 months.

57,206 of those apprehended, 86%, were single adults: by far the largest monthly single-adult total for the months we have data (since October 2011).

We say “apprehensions,” not “people,” as there may be some double-counting of migrants who were caught more than once. CBP reported a 37% “recidivism rate”—the portion of people caught more than once—between April and September 2020, up from 7 percent in FY 2019.

A key reason for high recidivism is the Trump administration’s pandemic policy, laid out in a March 2020 CDC order, of rapidly expelling nearly all undocumented migrants, with minimal processing. CBP is expelling Mexican and Central Americans back into Mexico, usually in less than 90 minutes, regardless of the migrants’ protection needs. US authorities expelled undocumented migrants 266,367 times between March and October. (See a May 2020 joint statement condemning the expulsion policy.)

As they involve minimal time in detention, and reduce the effort needed to cross again, the rapid expulsions facilitate repeat attempts. Migrant smugglers praised the pandemic policy in interviews with Reuters. They “often attempt to get migrants back across the border the very same day they are deported.” Their fees, “which can be $7,000, or double that,” for Central Americans, usually involve a “package” of two or three attempted border crossings. The border expulsions save smugglers money, as they don’t have to transit their clients all the way across Mexico again. One said the cost of that trip is “at least $800 per migrant paying off drug cartels for the right to transit through their turf,” plus funds for food, shelter, transportation, and bribes to Mexican authorities.

WOLA and others have been warning about a coming wave of migration from Central America and Mexico, due to persistently severe violence, climate-related crop failures, the COVID-19 economic depression, and now two strong hurricanes hitting Central America during the first half of November. That wave now appears to be underway.

A few other notes from the latest CBP data:

  • Apprehensions of children and families rose to their highest level since the pre-pandemic month of December 2019.
  • Mexico’s share of the apprehended population was 63%, up from a low of 13% in May 2019 but down from a high of 81% in May and June 2020.
  • Something is up with drug seizures. CBP seized 101% more heroin, 58% more fentanyl, 57% more cocaine, and 33% more methamphetamine in October than in September. 89% of fentanyl, and more than 90% of the other drugs, were seized at ports of entry.

Download WOLA’s package of border graphics illustrating this data, as a 4.5MB .pdf file, at

Court says unaccompanied children can’t be expelled

Under the March 2020 CDC order, U.S. border authorities have expelled nearly all migrants who would otherwise be petitioning for asylum or other protection in the United States. Those expelled include at least 13,000 children from non-contiguous countries who arrived at the border unaccompanied. Before the pandemic measures, these children would have been automatically placed in custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement and entered into asylum proceedings, as mandated by the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA). Most troublingly, the New York Times reported in October that CBP had expelled some non-Mexican children, unaccompanied, back into Mexico.

On November 18 DC District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan, a Clinton appointee, ordered a stop to the expulsions of unaccompanied children, agreeing with ACLU-represented plaintiffs that the COVID-19 border measures cannot supersede the TVPRA. All other undocumented migrants at the border, however, remain subject to immediate expulsion.

In another victory for migrant children’s rights, Mexico published in its official register a legal change prohibiting its longstanding practice of holding children in its migrant detention centers. Mexico will instead transfer undocumented migrant children to its federal family welfare agency.

Speculation about what Biden might do with the border wall

During the 2020 campaign, President-Elect Joe Biden pledged to stop the Trump administration’s border wall construction. In August, he told reporters, “there will not be another foot of wall constructed on my administration.”

How Biden might do that, and how far he might go, was the topic of analyses published last week by The Arizona Republic, NPR, The Daily Beast, and Arizona NPR’s Fronteras Desk.

Some of the issues these analyses identified:

  • Ending the February 2019 “national emergency” declaration and other measures that Donald Trump has used to transfer approximately $10 billion from the Defense Department’s budget into wall-building. Biden can do this easily by withdrawing Trump’s declaration.
  • Canceling or modifying 27 existing contracts, with 11 different contractors, for border wall construction. While these contracts include clauses allowing a halt to work, which are standard in government procurement procedure, they may involve termination fees, and contractors could bring disputes to the federal government’s Court of Federal Claims.
  • Desisting from eminent-domain lawsuits to seize private property owners’ land for new wall, mainly in Texas: “End. Stop. Done. Over. Not going to do it. Withdraw the lawsuits. We’re out. We’re not going to confiscate the land,” Biden said in August. He can do this easily by pulling the suits.
  • Biden has not specified whether he would dismantle any wall. Advocates are urging the incoming administration to take it down in remote areas where it threatens fragile ecosystems, like Arizona’s Quitobaquito Springs and San Pedro River, along important wildlife migration routes, and at sites sacred to indigenous communities.