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.
THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:
In July, Arizona’s hottest month on record, Border Patrol apprehended more migrants in its Tucson Sector—which comprises most of the state’s border miles—than in any month since April 2008. Large groups of migrants are arriving in very remote desert areas west of Nogales, straining U.S. agencies’ capacity to process them. Preliminary data point to many migrants perishing in the intense heat.
False rumors spread on social media, pointing to some sort of change in CBP policy at ports of entry, caused hundreds of migrants to gather at border bridges in Ciudad Juárez and Matamoros on August 7 and 8. U.S. personnel employed tear gas and pepper balls in El Paso, and closed a main Brownsville-Matamoros bridge for about nine hours.
A visiting delegation of Democratic members of Congress highlighted the integration of serrated, saw-like metal discs in the design of buoys that Gov. Greg Abbott (R) ordered installed in the middle of the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, Texas. Media revealed that federal agencies have repeatedly been communicating to Texas that its border-hardening measures along the river are illegal. A hearing in the Justice Department’s lawsuit seeking to take down the Eagle Pass buoys is scheduled for August 22.
THE FULL UPDATE:
Despite intense summer heat, Arizona is migration’s new geographic epicenter
Much of the U.S.-Mexico border is experiencing its hottest summer on record, and the heat has been especially intense in Arizona. Temperatures in Phoenix reached or exceeded 110 degrees Fahrenheit every day between June 30 and July 30; closer to the border in Tucson, residents experienced a record 45 straight days of temperatures of 100 degrees or more.
Surprisingly, the record-breaking hot month of July 2023 appears also to have been the heaviest month for migrant arrivals in Arizona since April 2008.
Border Patrol may have apprehended 40,664 migrants last month in its Tucson Sector, which includes most of Arizona, according to preliminary agency data leaked to the Center Square, a conservative website. (A month ago, this website published leaked data for June, which ultimately proved to be about 3 percent greater than Border Patrol’s final total.) That would make Tucson, one of nine Border Patrol sectors along the U.S.-Mexico border, the destination for nearly one in three migrants border-wide last month. Another 7,127 may have been apprehended in Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector, which includes slivers of western Arizona and eastern California.
If accurate (similar, though less exact, preliminary July numbers have been reported by the Washington Post and NBC News), that would mean Border Patrol apprehended over 1,300 people per day in the Tucson Sector in July. That appears to have risen to 1,900 per day “in recent days,” CBS News reported on August 7. That would be “an increase of 134% from an average of 812 in June.”
Border Patrol has been reporting several apprehensions of large groups of migrants, often including children and parents, in very remote desert areas west of Nogales. The Border Patrol station in the desert community of Ajo, west of the Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation and north of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, has vastly exceeded the capacity of its austere holding cells.
In late July, The Intercept found “roughly 50 migrants confined in a chain-link pen” outside the Ajo station, in heat above 110 degrees Fahrenheit, “gathered under a carport-like structure, crowding themselves into a single, narrow strip of shade to escape the desert sun.” Border Patrol told CNN and CBS that it has transferred personnel to Ajo and nearby Lukeville and is endeavoring to move migrants as quickly as possible to facilities elsewhere with more food, water, and medical services. “Currently, the average time in custody at the Ajo station is 15 hours, with some migrants spending a portion of those hours outside waiting to be transported,” CNN reported.
The dangerously high heat continues to kill many who attempt to migrate. The data from the Center Square point to Border Patrol recovering the remains of 64 people border-wide in July, down from 70 in June. Of those recoveries, 21 were in the Tucson sector in July, up sharply from 8 in June. These numbers are far from final, and Arizona-based humanitarian groups like No More Deaths and Humane Borders routinely find a much larger number of remains in the state’s borderland deserts.
An August 4 Customs and Border Protection (CBP) release recounted Border Patrol’s rescue of a severely heat-exhausted Colombian woman near Three Points, Arizona in the late afternoon of July 11; she died of cardiac arrest in a Tucson hospital early the next morning.
Rumors mislead migrants into gathering at border bridges
A false rumor, which spread quickly over social media, alleged that U.S. authorities would be suspending the Biden administration’s restrictive asylum rule on August 8. On that day, messages indicated, CBP would allow people to turn themselves in at land-border ports of entry without first making appointments using the CBP One smartphone app.
The rumor’s origin—perhaps organized crime, perhaps people interested in generating camera-ready images of chaos at the border—is unknown. CBP and non-governmental groups like the Haitian Bridge Alliance tried to get ahead of it, putting out messaging ahead of August 8 trying to dispel the rumor.
Despite those efforts, crowds of migrants gathered at bridges in Ciudad Juárez, across from El Paso, and in Matamoros, across from Brownsville. Both cities have large populations of migrants waiting for an opportunity to seek asylum via the CBP One app process.
In Ciudad Juárez, where the Mexican federal government’s large migrant shelter is now so full that single adults are forced to sleep outside, rumors seemed to point to U.S. authorities processing asylum seekers at a railroad bridge near the Paso del Norte port of entry. About 1,000 people arrived there the evening of August 7, Reuters reported, as CBP officers “uncoiled razor wire across the railway gate.”
U.S. personnel fired tear gas and pepper balls, a “less-lethal” crowd control weapon, into Mexico, Border Report reported, “after some migrants walked onto the U.S. side of the structure, known in Juarez as the Puente Negro (Black Bridge), started rocking the border wall and allegedly threw rocks in the direction of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.” Rights advocates cited by Border Report criticized the response as “disproportionate” and failing to de-escalate the situation.
On August 8, CBP closed the Gateway International Bridge between Brownsville and Matamoros from about midnight until after 9:00 AM, as hundreds of migrants gathered on the Mexican side. In Matamoros, migrants awaiting a chance to seek asylum have populated a dismal, mile-long tent encampment along the banks of the Rio Grande.
A statement from the Brownsville mayor, reported by Border Report, indicated that “at least 200 migrants attempted to force their way across the Gateway Bridge” as CBP and Brownsville police put up barriers. Mexican military personnel ultimately pushed the group off of the bridge. It is not clear whether any injuries resulted.
Fallout continues over Texas state government’s border measures in Eagle Pass
Four Democratic members of Congress, led by San Antonio Rep. Joaquín Castro, visited the border city of Eagle Pass on August 8. Eagle Pass has made national news in recent weeks as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a critic of the Biden administration’s border and migration policies, has focused a security buildup in the area.
As noted in WOLA’s July 14, July 21, July 28, and August 4 Border Updates, Texas authorities have occupied Eagle Pass’s riverfront Shelby Park, installing shipping containers, razor wire, dozens of police and national guardsmen, and a 1,000-foot “wall” of buoys, with underwater netting, in the middle of the river. A Texas state police whistleblower alleged that the razor wire was wounding many migrants, and that police and guardsmen were sending asylum seekers back into the river, a site of frequent drownings, and refusing requests for water. Authorities recovered the bodies of two drowned people—one caught in the buoy wall—on August 2. That day, press reported that Texas’s arrests of migrants on state “trespassing” charges were resulting in separations of dozens of asylum-seeking fathers from the rest of their families.
While in Eagle Pass, Rep. Castro and Rep. Sylvia García (D), who represents parts of Houston, posted videos of the buoys that Texas was installing in the river, highlighting the discs of sharp serrated metal, resembling power saws, that the state placed between each floating sphere. “You really have a situation where the state government and Greg Abbott are treating human beings like animals,” Castro said. “It’s incredibly dangerous, it’s incredibly inhumane, and it’s the reason I’ve said it’s barbaric, because it is.” García added, “To see all these barriers that are set, it almost looks like they are trying to trap wild hogs… the cruelty of the barriers in the water is just so graphic.”
Across the river in Piedras Negras, Mexico, Sister Isabel Turcios, director of the Frontera Digna migrant shelter, echoed this theme, telling the Guardian, “People are indignant about the way migrants are being treated. There’s no respect for human life. These are like traps meant for animals.”
The Dallas Morning News meanwhile revealed correspondence dating back to late 2022 showing that the International Boundary and Water Commission, a binational body that governs use of the Rio Grande, and U.S. federal agencies have issued repeated warnings to Texas’s state government, in many cases about the impact of measures taken in Eagle Pass. “DPS and other Texas entities were put on notice about federal permit and floodplain impact study requirements at least as far back as Dec. 21, and many times since then.”
The Biden administration’s Justice Department filed a lawsuit on July 24 to force Abbott to take down the buoy barrier within 10 days. A hearing is scheduled in Austin federal district court on August 22.
The Border Chronicle interviewed Robie and Alex Flores, filmmakers and activists who played a key role in convincing the Eagle Pass City Council to revoke, on August 1, an affidavit that gave Texas state authorities free use of Shelby Park along the riverfront. “It’s a war zone set that they’ve created,” Robie Flores said. “In Piedras Negras you see murals and playgrounds, people jogging and fishing, and then you look at Eagle Pass, and it’s Humvees and razor wire. It’s a set.”
In Piedras Negras, a migrant smuggler named “José Roberto” told the Dallas Morning News’s Alfredo Corchado that Gov. Abbott’s border-hardening measures in Eagle Pass have been good for business. Because the journey is harder, more migrants must use his services, and he and other smugglers can charge more. The buoy wall and concertina wire mean “a quick buck for us,” he said.
- Alicia Bárcena, Mexico’s incoming foreign secretary, told La Jornada that a new International Migrant Processing Center in southern Mexico, first mentioned in a July 28 White House statement, “will be a facility that we will establish with the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the United Nations Children’s Fund, in order to provide attention to the 40,000 people who entered Mexico from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela before the end of Title 42. It will respond to the needs of a very specific group and is a temporary initiative.”
- Mexican migration agents apprehended a group of 491 migrants—485 from Guatemala, 6 from Honduras, 277 of them minors, 52 of them unaccompanied—along a highway in Puebla.
- The Washington Examiner, citing Department of Homeland Security (DHS) documents and communications, reported that migrant smuggling organizations are using virtual private networks to spoof the location of migrants’ smartphones, allowing them to secure CBP One asylum appointments for a fee without being present in northern Mexico, as the CBP app requires.
- “The capacity to receive and provide assistance to refugees and migrants has been exceeded for months” at the U.S.-Mexico border, said spokesperson William Spindler of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Spindler called on the United States to have in place “effective reception and processing systems at borders” for asylum seekers.
- “In recent days, between 2,600 and 2,800 migrants per day have been moving through” Panama’s Darién Gap region, Samira Gozaine, director of the country’s National Migration Service (SNM), told the Associated Press. “The Darién Gap should be kept as a buffer, but the same Clan del Golfo [a Colombian armed group] opened it for us and this illegal migration should not be allowed to continue,” Gozaine told the U.S. Southern Command’s Diálogo website. Speaking to AP, Gozaine criticized Colombia’s government, with which “there has been no agreement, no information sharing, nor any effort that might help Panama manage the unregulated flow.”
- “The Colombian side of the Darién is controlled by the Gaitanistas Self-Defence Forces, the country’s largest cocaine trafficking organization,” wrote Bram Ebus in a report for the International Crisis Group, using another name for the Clan del Golfo. “In effect, the Gaitanistas are the gatekeepers of the Darién jungle, at least on the Colombian side.”
- Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) migrant removal flights, which averaged 123 per month between February and June, fell to 99 in July, according to the latest monthly report from Witness at the Border, “because of a week lull resulting from the 30 June expiration of the ICE air charter contract with Classic Air Charter.” July’s removal destinations included 14 countries, with two-thirds going to Guatemala or Honduras.
- ICE is expanding to several new cities the rollout of its new Family Expedited Removal Management (FERM) program, which tightly restricts the movement of asylum-seeking families released in the United States and awaiting outcomes of credible fear interviews. According to the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times, FERM uses GPS to place heads of asylum-seeking households under 11:00 PM to 5:00 AM at-home curfew.
- “The vast majority of illicit fentanyl—close to 90%—is seized at official border crossings,” recalled a two– part National Public Radio series. “Immigration authorities say nearly all of that is smuggled by people who are legally authorized to cross the border, and more than half by U.S. citizens.”
- The New York Times covered the May 18, 2023 Border Patrol shooting death of Tohono O’odham nation member Raymond Mattia in southern Arizona, noting that it “touched off an outcry” within the Nation and “stirred up long-running resentments over the federal agency’s presence on the Native American territory.”
- “Many of the injuries sustained along the border—heat stroke from the hot desert sun, fractured skulls or spines after falling off the border wall, flesh torn by razor wire along the banks of the Rio Grande—are what I call political pathologies, preventable injuries that are a direct result of border policies intended to enact a high cost on those who attempt to cross over,” Brian Elmore, an El Paso-based emergency medicine resident and co-founder of the Clínica Hope project in Ciudad Juárez, wrote for CNN.
- About 100 migrants at Agape, one of Tijuana’s largest shelters, have initiated a fast to protest that most have spent more than three months unsuccessfully seeking asylum appointments using the “CBP One” smartphone app. None had succeeded in securing an appointment during the previous 10 days. In Baja California, the state’s chief official for Mexico’s government migration agency told KQED, CBP is processing “through the app about 370 asylum seekers a day in Tijuana and 70 in Mexicali, totaling approximately 3,080 people processed weekly.”
- The westernmost segment of border fence, leading into the Pacific Ocean and built during the Obama administration, is being replaced with a new section of wall that will be 30 feet tall. It will be 18 feet tall in an area near the beach that has been known as “Friendship Park” since the 1970s.