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.


A little girl, placed on a bus to Chicago by Texas authorities in Brownsville, died of still-unclear causes as the bus traveled through southern Illinois. This new tragedy, plus a survey finding that most of Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) Rio Grande “buoy wall” lies on Mexico’s side of the river, added new layers of controversy this week to the Texas state government’s “Operation Lone Star,” a $9.5 billion series of politicized border security measures.

New data from Panama showed that 55,387 people, 69 percent of them Venezuelan, migrated through the treacherous Darién Gap region in July 2023. It was the second-largest monthly total ever measured in the Darién, and it pushed Panama’s count of migrants for 2023’s first seven months ahead of its total for all twelve months of 2022.

The Biden administration is asking Congress for $40.1 billion in additional emergency spending for what remains of 2023, including about $4 billion for border and migration-related priorities. These include nearly $1 billion for “responding to migration surges,” nearly $800 million to help Latin American countries accommodate migrants, more than $400 million to counter fentanyl, and authorization for a new program of “community based residential” facilities for asylum-seeking families placed in expedited removal proceedings.


Death of three-year-old Venezuelan girl draws fresh attention to Texas state government crackdown

A three-year-old Venezuelan girl died on August 10 aboard one of the buses that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has contracted to take asylum-seeking migrants from his state’s border areas to cities run by Democratic mayors.

The bus, full of asylum seekers who had been released from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody into Brownsville, Texas, had traveled 1,200 miles into southern Illinois. The girl, who was with her parents, showed symptoms of illness—fever and diarrhea—then lost consciousness. The coroner of Marion County, Illinois told the Dallas Morning News that “preliminary autopsy results were inconclusive, but additional tests are being done that could establish what happened.” Those tests could take “a couple of weeks.”

Jismary Alejandra Barboza González, born in Colombia to Venezuelan parents in August 2019, traveled with her parents through the Darién Gap and across Central America and Mexico. The state of Illinois is covering the funeral costs for her family, who planned to live in Indiana while pursuing their asylum claim. A GoFundMe page exists to help her parents with “medical and psychological expenses.” She would have turned four on August 25.

The Texas state government’s Division of Emergency Management stated that every bus passenger had been processed by CBP before their release, and that Texas authorities checked all for fevers or medical conditions before boarding them onto the bus.

The death aboard the Texas bus is the latest in a string of controversies involving “Operation Lone Star” (OLS), a set of strategies that Gov. Abbott—a hardliner on border and migration policy—launched in 2021, with a price tag expected to reach $9.5 billion by 2025. They include:

  • Busing more than 30,000 migrants to Washington, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver, and Los Angeles, at a cost of more than $2,000 per passenger, without coordinating with or notifying those cities’ governments.
  • Deploying several thousand Texas National Guardsmen to the border, at first on very little notice and under miserable conditions (see WOLA’s December 10, 2021 Border Update). Eight guardsmen assigned to the mission have died: one while performing risky duties, some by suicide.
  • Sending police and guardsmen to arrest migrants on state charges of trespassing, often by encouraging asylum seekers to turn themselves in on what turns out to be state land. Migrants— mostly men—are jailed; when they get to court, judges usually release them with “time served” as their penalty. Most then go on to pursue asylum claims.
  • Arresting and jailing fathers, on at least 26 occasions this summer, separating them from the rest of their families who end up in CBP custody (see WOLA’s August 4 Border Update). An August 15 letter from 28 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus called on the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to “immediately launch an investigation” into Texas’s family separations.
  • Facing questioning, after scrutiny from outlets like ProPublica, about the veracity of Operation Lone Star’s statistics claiming inflated results against drugs and criminality.
  • Laying down 60 miles of razor-sharp concertina wire along, and within, the Rio Grande around Eagle Pass, Texas, where in July the Texas state government installed a 1,000-foot “wall” of buoys, with jagged circles of sharp metal between the individual spheres. The razor wire has injured migrants, while a Texas state police whistleblower revealed that police and guardsmen are encouraging asylum seekers on U.S. soil to get back into the river, denying them water and medical care despite record heat (see WOLA’s July 21 Border Update, among other Updates from July and August 2023).

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called the Venezuelan child’s death in Illinois “devastating and heartbreaking… horrific news and horrific to hear that,” expressing condolences to the family. She criticized Gov. Abbott for taking “dangerous” and “unlawful actions,” adding, “it doesn’t just put, sadly, young migrants at risk or migrants at risk, but it also puts at risk the Border Patrol who are trying to do their job. And he gets in the way of that every day.”

Asked whether CBP, a federal agency, would halt cooperation with OLS while a Justice Department lawsuit against Gov. Abbott’s “buoy wall” proceeds, Jean-Pierre responded, “I don’t have a response to that.”

That lawsuit, filed on July 24, seeks to force Abbott to take down the buoys in the middle of the river in Eagle Pass, asserting that they violate laws, and treaties with Mexico, governing management of the Rio Grande. “In Eagle Pass, sediment falling into the river from the installation of fences and buoys is already altering the water’s flow, according to environmentalists,” Reuters reported. U.S. District Court Judge David Alan Ezra will hear arguments in San Antonio on August 22.

About 80 percent of the “buoy wall” is in fact on Mexico’s side of the borderline, which runs down the center of the river, according to an August 15 Justice Department filing in the case. The filing includes the results of a July 27-28 survey carried out by the International Boundary and Water Commission, a binational body governing use of the river. The results uphold a claim that Mexico’s government has been making since the buoys were installed in July.

Alicia Bárcena, Mexico’s foreign minister, raised the issue in a joint August 10 appearance with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Bárcena added that Mexico will not take unilateral action to remove the buoys until the Justice Department’s lawsuit plays out. Blinken, contending that “we’re a country and a government that proceeds by rule of law,” said that the Biden administration would not remove the buoys until the courts rule on their legality.

The Texas state government’s response to the Justice Department lawsuit argues that the state “has a federal constitutional right to defend itself against invasion from even non-state actors.”

Elsewhere in Texas, amid a historic heat wave in the southernmost part of the state where people frequently find the remains of migrants who died of dehydration and heatstroke, someone has been stealing barrels of water left out on ranch lands by the South Texas Human Rights Center, a humanitarian group. The Associated Press reported that the cause could be road crews moving obstacles, wildfires, or something more nefarious.

In El Paso, the city “is again seeing small groups of migrants sleeping on the streets of Downtown and South El Paso as area shelters are at capacity and migrants are ‘timing out’ of their allowed stay,” El Paso Matters reported, as Border Patrol has been transferring and processing migrants from other parts of the border that are once again seeing elevated migration.

Darién Gap saw second-largest ever monthly total of migrants in July

On August 10 the government of Panama posted July statistics documenting migration through the Darién Gap, a highly treacherous region straddling the country’s eastern border with Colombia. Until a few years ago, this region, requiring a 60-mile walk through inhospitable jungle, fast-flowing rivers, and criminals operating unimpeded, was considered an impassable barrier to most transit.

The Darién jungle “is not a migratory route,” Samira Gozaine, director of Panama’s National Migration Service (SNM), told the U.S. Southern Command’s Diálogo website earlier this month. Panama’s numbers, though, show otherwise.

  • Panama counted 251,758 migrants passing through the Darién Gap during the first 7 months of 2023. That already exceeds the 248,284 migrants counted in all of 2022, which at the time was a shockingly large number. The 2010-2020 average was 10,717 migrants per year.

  • 55 percent of this year’s migrants through the Darién region have been citizens of Venezuela. In 2022, it was 61 percent. Before 2021—when Mexico, at strong U.S. government suggestion, began requiring visas of Venezuelans, making air travel difficult—Panama never counted more than 78 Venezuelan migrants in a single year (2019). Between January and July, Panama counted 138,588 Venezuelan migrants.
  • 21 percent of all migrants so far in 2023 have been minors, under the age of 18. 35 percent of migrants have been women or girls.
  • After dipping somewhat following the May 11, 2023 termination of the U.S. government’s Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy, migration through the Darién Gap is recovering quickly. July 2023 was the second-heaviest month ever for migration through the region, with 55,387 migrants registered—1,787 per day. Only October 2022 (59,773) saw more migration.
  • Venezuelans made up 69 percent of all of July’s Darién Gap migrants. During the first 7 months of this year, of the 10 most frequently encountered nationalities of Darién migrants, 5 are not Western Hemisphere nations:
    • Venezuela (138,588)
    • Haiti (including Panama’s listing of citizens of Brazil and Chile, who are mostly children born there to Haitian parents, 40,967)
    • Ecuador (34,894)
    • China (10,546)
    • Colombia (8,287)
    • India (3,311)
    • Afghanistan (2,042)
    • Peru (1,656)
    • Nepal (1,438)
    • Cameroon (1,034)

( Data table for this chart)

The pace of migration through the Darién Gap shows no signs of slowing. Honduras, three countries to the north of Panama, registered 1,956 migrants in transit per day during the first 13 days of August—more than double the rate measured during the weeks before Title 42 ended. 57 percent of August’s migrants so far have been citizens of Venezuela.

In response to increasing migration, Southern Command’s Diálogo website reported, Panama has deployed 1,200 security-force personnel to the Darién region. “The initiative, called Operation Chocó, is part of the Shield Campaign (Campaña Escudo) and will be carried out in five sectors with security, reconnaissance, and intelligence actions to take control of the routes along which criminal organizations move.” The Panamanian forces are using all-terrain vehicles, boats, and six helicopters provided by the U.S. government, along with real-time intelligence and advising.

White House issues supplemental budget request for 2023

On August 10, less than two months before the end of the U.S. federal government’s 2023 fiscal year, the Biden administration sent Congress a request for $40.1 billion in emergency supplemental funding, mainly to support Ukraine and carry out disaster relief. The request includes about $4 billion for border security and migration related priorities.

Congressional approval is uncertain. The legislature, which has yet to complete a 2024 budget and may not do so until December, is on recess during the month of August and will not return until early September. And in the Republican-majority House of Representatives, even if Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-California) is willing to pass a supplemental funding bill, members of his party may demand conditions that could make the bill hard for the Democratic-majority Senate to approve or for President Biden to sign. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a border hardliner and member of the “Freedom Caucus” bloc of far-right legislators, has already insisted on strict border security measures and limits on asylum-seeking migration as a condition for any support for additional 2023 spending.

Border-related provisions in the Biden administration request include the following items, which total $3.6 billion, plus a new spending authority. Some of the descriptive language here is vague, but it reflects all of the detail that the administration’s request provides.

Capacity for “responding to migration surges”: $961.7 million

  • $203.1 million in unrestricted funds to CBP “for responding to migration surges along the southwest border and related activities,” including “soft-sided facilities, migrant transportation, and medical care requirements.”
  • $758.6 million to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “to respond to migration surges along the Southwest border and related activities.”

A new “community-based residential” program for families in expedited removal proceedings

  • The White House request seeks authority to reprogram existing funds to create sites, operated by non-profit or for-profit grantees, where migrant families would reside during the few weeks it would take to bring them before asylum officers for credible-fear interviews to assess their asylum claims. There, family members would have access to “medical care and treatment, legal orientation programming and access to counsel, educational services, repatriation planning and counseling, referrals for social services.” Families “would be able to come and go as they please during the day, but would be required to check in and stay the night on the campus,” a DHS official told Axios, adding, “We do not view this as family detention.” This resembles a proposal for “humanitarian campuses” that appears in the Dignidad Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in the House of Representatives in May 2023.

Assistance for migrants who have settled in Latin America: $782 million

  • $532 million would go to the State Department-run Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA) account “to address humanitarian needs in the Western Hemisphere.” That means providing “safe options for forcibly displaced migrants to settle and rebuild their lives in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and other host countries” and to expand access to refugee resettlement.
  • $250 million would go to the USAID-run Economic Support Fund (ESF) account:
    • $50 million “to support foreign government repatriation operations of individuals deemed ineligible for refugee or other protected statuses.”
    • $50 million “to incentivize sustained cooperation from partner countries hosting Safe Mobility Offices.”
    • $150 million “to expand migrant integration support to target communities, access to labor pathway mechanisms, and engagement with the private sector and multilateral partners to spur greater investment in integration initiatives.”

Defense Department reimbursement: $606 million

  • $606 million for CBP to reimburse the Department of Defense for providing border security support. The Biden administration had deployed 1,500 active-duty military personnel to the border in May, as Title 42 was ending. That mission is being drawn down now, in August, though 2,500 National Guard personnel remain on federal duty (in addition to Texas’s Operation Lone Star) supporting CBP. A memo from the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), citing Joseph Nunn of the Brennan Center for Justice, points out that this federal troop deployment “has given Texas Governor Greg Abbott ‘a degree of cover for his militaristic approach and his bellicose rhetoric’ in the implementation of Operation Lone Star.”

Shelter and Services Program: $600 million

  • $600 million for CBP to transfer to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This would pay for Shelter and Services Program grants, some to non-governmental organizations, for sheltering and other activities to reduce overcrowding at CBP facilities processing large numbers of migrants.

Measures to combat fentanyl trafficking: $439.2 million

  • $323 million to CBP for “non-intrusive inspection technology”: scanners to detect shipments of fentanyl and other drugs.
  • $45 million to ICE, presumably its Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division, “for counter-drug activities related to fentanyl including enhanced data analysis and equipment, as well as counter-trafficking efforts.”
  • $27.3 million to CBP “for counter-drug activities related to fentanyl.”
  • $23.2 million to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA):
    • $10 million to “bolster DEA’s criminal drug network targeting efforts through data system improvements.”
    • $8 million for DEA’s “Operation Overdrive” counter-fentanyl effort.
    • $6 million for DEA laboratory analysis and tracing of fentanyl samples.
  • $20.7 million to DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate to counter fentanyl by improving information sharing, improving tracing capabilities, and analyzing evidence.

Biometric databases: $112 million

  • $61 million for the DHS Office of Biometric Identity Management. “This funding would support DHS’s biometric technology systems, including critical security patches and updates as well as a refresh of hardware approaching its end-of-life.”
  • $51 million for DHS’s Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology System (HART) and the Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT). “HART is a biometrics storage database set to replace the IDENT system that DHS uses for wide- ranging enforcement and surveillance purposes, with very little transparency,” noted NIJC’s memo. “Civil rights, immigrant rights and privacy advocates have documented how the HART database is turning out to be a windfall for military contractors and big tech at the expense of privacy and fundamental rights.”

Immigration judges: $36 million

  • $36 million would go to the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review “to accelerate the hiring of additional immigration judge teams in FY 2024.”

State Department migration efforts: $20 million

  • $12 million would go to the State Department “to respond effectively to the end of the public health order under title 42, support safe, orderly, and humane migration in the hemisphere, and support efforts in the region to reduce irregular encounters in the U.S. Southwest border through the first quarter of FY 2024.”
  • $8 million would go to the State Department for public diplomacy “messaging activities” to discourage migration and to educate about legal pathways.

State Department support for Safe Mobility Offices: $6 million

  • $6 million would go to the State Department “to assist with operating the Safe Mobility Offices in Colombia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Ecuador.” At these offices, administered with UN agencies, migrants who make appointments online participate in interviews and may be considered for legal pathways to migration in the systems of the United States, Canada, and Spain. (See WOLA’s June 30 Border Update.)

Other news

  • An NPR investigation, which required Freedom of Information Act litigation to compel the release of inspection reports about shocking conditions in ICE detention centers, revealed “‘negligent’ medical care (including mental health care), ‘unsafe and filthy’ conditions, racist abuse of detainees, inappropriate pepper-spraying of mentally ill detainees and other problems that, in some cases, contributed to detainee deaths.”
  • Groups suing in federal court to stop CBP officers at ports of entry from turning back asylum-seekers without CBP One appointments requested a preliminary injunction to stop the turnbacks while litigation proceeds. An analysis from the American Immigration Council’s Dara Lind recounted the case of a father who was killed in front of his children in Tijuana on June 1, several weeks after being turned away at the port of entry.
  • More than 1,000 people awaiting a chance to seek asylum, who have been living in a giant tent encampment along the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, across from Brownsville, Texas, have been relocated to an abandoned hospital that is under renovation. Hundreds reportedly remain, though, as they do not wish to leave the site near the border crossing. Texas state authorities had been shining bright lights and broadcasting loudspeaker messages across the river at the encampment throughout the night. “No one is sleeping inside of the Matamoros encampment,” the Sidewalk School, a charity operating there, had tweeted.
  • A report at Mexico’s Conexión Migrante website, citing an unpublished draft decree, claimed that the Mexican Interior Department’s civilian migration agency (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM) could “pass to the control of the National Guard” by September 1. Mexico-based non-governmental colleagues whom WOLA consulted about this rumor have cast doubt on it. The National Guard is a force created by Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose membership is mostly soldiers and marines “on loan;” López Obrador is seeking to make it a permanent branch of the armed forces.
  • In two separate statements, CBP notified about the deaths of two migrants in July in New Mexico, not far west of El Paso. On July 7, Border Patrol agents encountered an unresponsive Mexican man several miles from the Santa Teresa port of entry, who later died in intensive care. On July 22, agents encountered a woman from Ecuador in Doña Ana County, New Mexico, who later died of heat stroke with a temperature of 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • A Border Patrol vehicle pursuit near Willcox, Arizona ended with a collision that killed one migrant—a man from Mexico—and injured two others aboard an SUV. According to CBP’s release, agents were minutes behind the SUV when it crashed.
  • The Border Chronicle’s Melissa del Bosque accompanied volunteers holding a “stakeout” near Border Patrol’s Ajo, Arizona station, where agents—claiming overflowing numbers—have been holding migrants outdoors in record desert heat, in a partially shaded, fenced enclosure. (This practice was first reported by The Intercept in late July.) “In this location, they are provided with a large canopy and other shelter from the sun, large misting fans, evaporative air conditioners, hot meals, water, and bathroom facilities,” a Border Patrol spokesperson told del Bosque.
  • The independent Nicaraguan publication Confidencial profiled Nicaraguan migrants who, after fleeing the Ortega regime, have found themselves trapped and vulnerable in Ciudad Juárez, having difficulty securing asylum appointments using the CBP One smartphone app.
  • “The nation’s asylum system was not designed to meet the needs of all immigrants forced to flee their homes. But the global challenges we’re facing require a reimagining of the country’s immigration framework,” reads a New York Times column from former Biden White House official Andrea Flores, now the vice president for immigration policy and campaigns at FWD.us.
  • A segment of the old Berlin Wall, once privately gifted to the U.S. government but rejected by the Trump administration, now stands in Tijuana, at the beachside spot where the U.S. border wall—currently being upgraded—enters the Pacific Ocean. Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard was on hand for the installation.