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.
Migrant caravan continues grueling journey through coastal Chiapas
A “caravan” of at least 1,000 and perhaps up to 3,000 mostly Central American migrants, many of them families with children, continues a journey begun nearly two weeks ago, on October 23. They are still following a highway leading up the Pacific coast of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. In about twelve days, they have progressed, entirely on foot, as far as a car could drive in about three hours (about 200 kilometers or 125 miles).
Since 2019, Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) and National Guard have blocked or dispersed several attempts to form caravans. Some migrants have sought to employ this collaborative tactic to cross Mexico without having to pay smugglers, opting instead for “safety in numbers.” While all departed from the Mexico-Guatemala border zone city of Tapachula, none since late 2018 has made it as far into Chiapas as the current caravan.
This group is larger than most of the previous unsuccessful caravans, and many of its members claim that they do not seek to cross into the United States. Instead, their stated goal is to come to Mexico City and negotiate the government’s requirement that they remain in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, as they await long-delayed decisions on their asylum applications.
Between January and October, Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR received 108,195 asylum requests, leaving far behind 2019’s full-year record of 70,406 requests. October saw a new monthly record with 18,034 new asylum applications. 69 percent of 2021’s requests have been filed in Tapachula, where this caravan’s participants have been compelled to remain while awaiting the overburdened agency’s decisions on their cases.
This year’s top seven countries, COMAR director Andrés Ramírez tweeted, are Haiti (37,849 asylum requests), Honduras (33,578), Cuba (7,915), El Salvador (5,433), Chile (5,294, nearly all of them children of Haitians), Venezuela (5,113), and Guatemala (3,799). COMAR approves about 40 percent of Haitians’ applications, far fewer than those of Venezuelans (97 percent) or Hondurans (87 percent).
While the INM and National Guard have not acted to block or disperse this caravan, they are accompanying it closely, and strictly preventing its members from boarding buses or other vehicles. As the shortest route from Tapachula to Mexico City is about 1,200 kilometers, it would take the caravan participants 10 more weeks to reach the capital at their current walking pace. Luis García Villagrán of the non-governmental Centro de Dignificación Humana, who is closely accompanying the group, said that the migrants may take a route from Chiapas into Veracruz, avoiding Oaxaca where authorities, in his words, have set up a “bunker” to await them.
Migrants are falling ill in the heat of Chiapas’s coastal Soconusco region. The INM reported on November 1 that six caravan participants, five of them children, had contracted dengue fever, a severe mosquito-borne illness. Irineo Mujica of the organization Pueblo Sin Fronteras, who along with Villagrán is accompanying the group and frequently serving as a spokesman, insisted that the children were only suffering from dehydration and that “the INM is lying.”
On November 4, a contingent of National Guard carrying riot shields sought to block a group of migrants described as “rezagados de la caravana” (stragglers of the caravan), just outside the town of Pijijiapán. Videos showed the group of migrants, who appeared to be adult men or teenage boys, hurling stones and branches at the guardsmen, and beating one of them unconscious.
Authorities, who were caught on video treating caravan participants very roughly in August and September, appeared to be showing restraint during the November 4 incident. This was just days, though, after National Guardsmen discharged lethal firearms at a vehicle carrying migrants, killing at least one.
The incident happened after midnight on October 31 on a dirt road south of the coastal highway, a few miles from Pijijiapán. A statement from the National Guard, a force created in 2019 whose members are mostly soldiers or marines “on loan,” claims that a pickup truck carrying 14 migrants ignored guardsmen’s order to stop at a checkpoint, and tried to ram into them. At least one guardsman opened fire on the vehicle, killing a Cuban migrant and wounding four more people aboard.
The Chiapas state prosecutor’s office at first claimed that a rifle was found in the truck, but the National Guard made no mention of that in its statement. “Images that circulated later showed a weapon right under the body of the migrant who was shot to death,” Animal Político reported, adding “it is unusual for migrants to carry weapons.” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said on November 3, however, that “they did not shoot, they did not attack and the Guard fired.”
On November 3 word emerged that a second migrant had died of wounds resulting from the incident. President López Obrador told his morning press conference, “Two migrants lost their lives, they were shot at.” Later that day, the INM and Chiapas health authorities reported that they only knew of one death, the Cuban man.
López Obrador had some strong words for the guardsmen involved. “I already gave instructions to make these elements of the National Guard available to prosecutors… This should not happen, there are other ways to detain those who are violating the laws, this took place on a rural road in Pijijiapan, Chiapas. They could have stopped them further ahead, closed the way, without shooting at them.”
While the president’s expression of concern is welcome, prosecutions of security-force personnel for human rights violations are rare. This rapidly escalated use of lethal force, too, is a predictable outcome of placing combat-trained military personnel in roles, like migration checkpoints, that involve frequent contact with the civilian population.
Two press accounts point to deep disagreements within the Biden administration
Two reports from border-zone reporters this week point to deep disagreements within the Biden administration over how quickly, and to what extent, to dismantle the hardline border and migration policies inherited from the Trump administration. Unnamed sources revealed some of the turmoil to CBS News’ Camilo Montoya-Galvez and to a collaboration between the Associated Press’s Elliot Spagat and AIM Media Texas’s Valerie Gonzalez. An edition of the new Border Chronicle podcast interviewing Stephanie Leutert, who left a State Department post in July, offered additional perspective.
The inter-agency division appears to run between “those who are more progressive and those who are more enforcement-minded,” as a source tells CBS; “immigration advocates” versus “Biden’s inner circle,” as AP/AIM characterize it; or “more progressive members and then more political members,” as Leutert puts it.
“These battles have led to paralysis, which has allowed things to get worse in several ways,” the first source tells Montoya-Galvez. “We’re not making any progress,” says another, “citing ‘so much division’ among Mr. Biden’s appointees.”
Divisions emerged early on, the AP/AIM reports, when “Immigration advocates on the transition team shot down a detailed memo circulated among top aides that called for turning back some migrants who cross illegally by making them seek protection in other countries.” According to this narrative, the immigration advocates pushed back against predictions that migrant flows would increase without this “turnback” policy. Migrant flows did increase, despite the Biden administration using Trump’s “Title 42” pandemic border closure policy to swiftly expel hundreds of thousands, including asylum seekers.
In early July, CBS found, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was ready to lift Title 42; officials had “a comprehensive nine-page plan” to step up asylum seekers’ processing and alternatives to detention. Senior officials at DHS and the White House—Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice is often named—spiked the plan, as migration levels increased and COVID-19’s Delta variant spread. “Other Biden appointees,” though, “believe the continued implementation of Title 42 is largely based on optics” more than public health imperatives, CBS reports. They see the expulsions policy persisting “because of concerns that ending it will fuel perceptions of a chaotic border.”
Now, a Biden appointee told CBS, “We are in this very weird place where we’re implementing Title 42 more strongly than the Trump administration did.”
AP/AIM noted “‘great frustration and irritation’ at the administration’s highest levels” when the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas began refusing to accept Title 42 expulsions of Central American families with small children. South Texas, across from Tamaulipas, has since had a much smaller percentage of expelled families than other parts of the border.
Officials have disagreed sharply on the September decision to expel Haitian migrants back to their troubled country through a massive airlift of about 80 expulsion flights since September 19. “Some Biden appointees were horrified,” CBS reports, but they were overruled by senior officials like Rice and White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, who believed the expulsions “would deter other Haitians from coming.”
CBS reveals that Biden appointees at DHS and the National Security Council had proposed reviving the Trump administration’s Remain in Mexico policy—which Biden halted on Inauguration Day—last spring, months before a Texas district court judge’s August order for it to restart. Aides presented the revival of the program—which forced non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their U.S. hearings in dangerous Mexican border towns—“as a deterrence tool.” (DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told a forum on November 4 that talks with Mexico to enable Remain in Mexico’s court-ordered restart will conclude “in the coming days.”)
According to CBS, members of the administration also floated—unsuccessfully, so far—get-tough measures like expelling unaccompanied teenagers under Title 42, or trying to convince Mexico to sign a “safe third country” agreement forcing non-Mexican asylum seekers to apply there instead. (The Trump administration signed such agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, but could not compel Mexico. The Biden administration canceled the Central American agreements.)
“By midsummer, the pendulum swung to enforcement as patience wore thin in Biden’s inner circle,” AP/AIM put it. A few officials interviewed by CBS vented anger at “progressives” and non-governmental advocates who oppose harsh, Trump-like measures, insisting on reform to the asylum system even amid high current migration levels.
- A Biden appointee: “Some administration officials ‘don’t want to see folks ever removed. That’s not where President Biden is. That’s not where the mainstream Democratic Party is.’”
- An unnamed official: “The advocacy groups have not made things easy on the administration. The only policies they support are those in which every person who crosses the border is released into the country with cases that will take years to get to, if the government can get to them at all. That is not functional, or sustainable.”
- Cecilia Muñoz, a former Obama White House domestic policy advisor who served on the transition team: “Some advocates have not grappled with the difference, if any, between their position and an open-borders position. And an open-borders position is anathema in the country. It’s like pushing the administration right off a cliff.”
Persistent divisions have brought a lack of clarity about the Biden administration’s long-term plan for handling large-scale flows of protection-seeking migrants. Particularly muddy is the administration’s vision for what asylum processing and adjudication—among other border and migration mechanisms—might look like after Title 42’s inevitable, eventual lifting. “The administration has yet to release detailed plans of the ‘humane’ asylum system that Biden promised during his campaign,” AP and AIM Texas observe.
“I think there are probably a couple ideas being floated around,” Leutert told the Border Chronicle’s Melissa del Bosque.
But I think publicly, no, and really a concrete vision of what the next two three years will look like, I don’t think that’s been clearly articulated. …If you don’t have that that kind of end point of, we’re building toward X, we’re building toward the border looking like this articulated vision, if you don’t have that, and not everyone’s rowing their oars in the same direction, you do get swept away by the day to day events.
There are so many thoughtful, talented people in the administration and in the interagency. And they are working really round the clock, because there’s so much happening on a day to day basis. And the challenge there is that when you’re working all the time, when you’re working long hours, you’re responding to whatever fire is burning that particular day. It’s hard to think long term. There’s so much on a day-to-day basis, the numbers are creeping up, the President is getting just pummeled about immigration on the border on Fox News and in conservative media.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R), who vocally opposes the Biden administration’s partial dismantling of the Trump administration’s border and migration policies, continues to carry out his own series of border enforcement measures using state resources. Abbott launched what he calls “Operation Lone Star” in March, and is devoting more than $2 billion in state funds to fence-building, National Guard and state police deployments, and efforts to arrest and jail migrants on state charges like trespassing.
On October 28 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested a Texas state policeman serving “Lone Star” duty. Pablo Talavera will face a charge of conspiracy to sell narcotics. A criminal complaint reported in the Rio Grande Valley Monitor discusses Talavera escorting “loads of money and methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine on behalf of his father and uncle’s drug trafficking organization, which allegedly operated in Tennessee” between May 26 and September 16.
At Texas Monthly, Aaron Nelsen reports from rural Kinney County (population less than 4,000), which has arrested and jailed more migrants under “Operation Lone Star” (1,300) than any of Texas’s 254 counties. “Though hundreds of those apprehended have been released on bond, 792 of the 914 immigrants currently in state prison were arrested in Kinney.” The caseload has overwhelmed “a county that hasn’t had a jury trial in seven years.”
About 70 percent of the state police and national guardsmen deployed on Gov. Abbott’s orders, Nelsen reports, are in Kinney and neighboring Val Verde counties. (Both are in Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, which for the first time ever in 2021 was second in migrant encounters among the agency’s nine U.S.-Mexico border sectors.)
“Biden is diffusing all of these people in our country to change our culture,” Kinney County Judge Tully Shahan told Nelsen. “The left is on the way.” (In Texas, a county judge is an elected top leadership position whose power and responsibilities extend well beyond courts.) A county commissioner added, “These people are obviously bringing diseases. There’s leprosy, tuberculosis, measles, chicken pox, they’ve had some show polio, and COVID as well.”
Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas), whose district includes much of San Antonio, led a letter calling for a Justice Department investigation into “Operation Lone Star” for constitutional violations. The letter bears the signatures of 26 Democratic House members and is addressed to DHS Secretary Mayorkas and Attorney General Merrick Garland. It cites Gov. Abbott’s operation’s “likely violation of the Supremacy Clause [stating that the Constitution takes precedence over state laws] and its treatment of migrants, especially in regards to an individual’s constitutional right to due process.”
“One county in particular, Kinney County, has had to manage over 80 percent of the cases, and many of the migrants there had been without attorneys for weeks.,” the letter reads. “Over the past month, the [county] has passed multiple state statute deadlines to file charges, and jails must release defendants without those charges filed, which has also not occurred in all cases. As a result almost 1,000 migrants [have had] to sit in prison for weeks and sometimes over a month.”
With “Lone Star” and frequent criticism of the Biden administration, Gov. Abbott has made the border a central issue ahead of a 2022 re-election campaign. A Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation poll released this week had Abbott virtually tied (43 to 42 percent) with likely Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke.
- U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) found the remains of 557 migrants on U.S. soil during the 2021 fiscal year, according to data shared with CNN. This number, not yet final nor broken down by region, would vastly exceed CBP’s prior record of 492 remains found in 2006. Groups that seek to locate bodies in some regions of the border routinely find far more than CBP does. Most migrants who perish succumb to dehydration, exposure, drowning, or other preventable causes while traveling through treacherous wilderness in an attempt to avoid capture.
- A woman died and 36 more migrants were detained late on October 29, as a group of about 70 sought to swim the Pacific Ocean from Tijuana to San Diego, around the border fence that runs about 100 yards into the sea.
- The Latin America Working Group’s Daniella Burgi-Palomino visited a migrant shelter in Mexico City that is at capacity amid an increase in Haitians seeking asylum there.
- Republican legislators voiced outrage at indications, first reported in the Wall Street Journal, that families separated by the Trump administration might receive big payouts as part of a litigation settlement. Asked about it, President Biden said payments of $450,000 per person are “not going to happen.” The ACLU replied that “President Biden may not have been fully briefed about the actions of his very own Justice Department.”
- The Senate Finance Committee approved the nomination of Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus to be the next commissioner of CBP, by a 15-13 vote. The lone Republican vote came from Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana), who said the agency needs someone in charge amid the “mess at the border” and that he appreciated the “straight answers” Magnus gave at his October 19 hearing.
- A November 1 memo from acting CBP Commissioner Troy Miller officially rescinds Trump-era guidelines limiting the number of people allowed to approach land ports of entry to seek asylum (a practice known as “metering”). It calls on CBP officers to process asylum-seeking migrants as much as “operationally feasible,” including through use of CBP’s new “CBP One” mobile app. This changes little for the moment, though, since the “Title 42” pandemic expulsions policy prevents most everyone without documents from approaching ports of entry in the first place. The new guidelines comply with a federal district court judge’s September decision striking down “metering.”
- A graphical report from Mijente, Just Futures Law, and the No Border Wall Coalition explains the extent, and the risks involved with, the installation of new border-security technologies. Among the capabilities the report covers are video surveillance systems, drones, biometric data collection, facial recognition, CBP’s new app, and telephone and internet communications intercepts.
- Amber Ortega, a member of the Hia Ced O’odham tribe, is on trial in Tucson federal court for blocking border wall construction in southern Arizona’s ecologically fragile Quitobaquito springs in mid-2020. At that time, the Intercept reports, “For a low-level misdemeanor usually handled with a trespassing ticket, the two women [Ortega and fellow O’odham protester Nellie Jo David] were strip-searched, shackled, and driven to a for-profit jail 130 miles away, where they were held incommunicado, without access to a lawyer, for nearly 24 hours.”
- Official border crossings, closed to “non-essential” travelers since the COVID-19 pandemic’s March 2020 onset, are to reopen to all documented people who are fully vaccinated with an approved vaccine brand, on November 8. The Dallas Morning News predicts that the reopening will ease labor shortages in Texas. El Paso Matters reports on south El Paso stores anxious to see the return of Mexican shoppers who make up most of their clientele. For 20 months, Ciudad Juárez residents who had U.S. visas or border crossing cards, and could afford airfare, could only come across the Rio Grande to visit El Paso by booking flights.