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:
Border Patrol found the remains of 10 migrants over the July 8-9 weekend amid a prolonged heat wave in Texas and Arizona. Preliminary data point to another 70 deceased migrants recovered along the border in June. Shifts intensified by climate change are making the border deadlier during the summer’s hottest months.
In Eagle Pass, Texas, a site of frequent migrant drownings, Texas’s hardline state government is experimenting with a “wall” of floating buoys in the middle of the river to block would-be migrants. This and other state government measures have drawn criticism from environmental defenders, a local business, and those—including Border Patrol, in a leaked internal memo—who worry about danger to migrants and the difficulty of rescues.
- June migration declined sharply at the U.S.-Mexico border, declined somewhat in Panama, and is rising in Honduras
Preliminary data point to a 39 percent drop in Border Patrol apprehensions of migrants from May to June. This owes to a strict Biden administration rule, imposed after the Title 42 policy ended, that limits access to asylum, as well as a crackdown in Mexico. It also owes to a sharp increase in the availability of daily appointments for asylum seekers to approach land-border ports of entry. June data from Panama point to a 24 percent decrease, from May, in migration through the treacherous Darién Gap region. Data from Honduras, however, show a sharp increase in migration during the first nine days of July.
THE FULL UPDATE:
Extreme heat brings even more migrant fatalities
Border Patrol Chief Jason Owens shared in a July 10 tweet that, just during the July 8-9 weekend, his agents found the remains of 10 people who had died in the U.S.-Mexico border zone “due to the dangerous heat and conditions.” As noted in WOLA’s July 7 Border Update, a July 5 tweet from Owens had alerted about the recovery of 13 deceased migrants in the previous week.
These are the hottest months of the year in the border zone, and “heat dome” phenomena—a result of climate change-related changes to the jet stream and a very strong 2023 El Niño ocean current shift—have brought many consecutive days of triple-digit temperatures to Texas, northern Mexico, and now Arizona. In South Texas, wet bulb temperatures in the low 90s and heat indices near 120 are perilously close to levels ( 95 for wet bulb, 125 for heat index) considered fatal after several hours of exposure, as they overwhelm the human body’s ability to keep cool.
The historic heat in the borderlands is taking a heavy toll on residents with insufficient access to air conditioning and, of course, on the migrant population: both those seeking to cross into the United States undetected, and those waiting in northern Mexico for asylum appointments using the “CBP One” smartphone app.
- “Preliminary” data passed to the conservative Center Square news website from Border Patrol personnel point to agents having found the remains of 70 deceased migrants near the U.S.-Mexico border in June. Border Patrol’s Del Rio Sector, in mid-Texas, was the most lethal of the agency’s nine southern border sectors, with 22 migrant remains recovered last month. (In regions where they operate, local humanitarian organizations tend to find more remains than Border Patrol reports.)
- “This year in Brooks County,” in South Texas where many migrants perish while trying to walk around a Border Patrol checkpoint, “there has been 22 confirmed deaths, in terms of recoveries of human remains and bodies,” Eddie Canales of the South Texas Human Rights Center told Democracy Now.
- In Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector, which includes New Mexico, Sector Chief Anthony “Scott” Good tweeted on July 7 that agents have “recorded over 70 migrant deaths in the remote desert of New Mexico” since October 2022.
“Crossings have historically dipped during the peak summer months when temperatures along the border soar past 100 degrees,” the Washington Post noted on July 12. The Biden administration’s tough post-Title 42 asylum rule, however, may be causing more migrants who cannot access asylum to try to evade capture, and doing so in “more remote areas with greater risk. They may be U.S. deportees, or have criminal records, making them ineligible for CBP One.”
Dehydration and heat stroke are not the only causes of migrant death. A column at The Hill by University of California San Diego neurological surgery resident Alexander Tenorio recalls that the Trump administration’s construction of 30-foot border wall segments south of San Diego caused hospital admissions from migrants falling from the wall to multiply sevenfold since 2019. “Spinal injuries after border falls have cost an additional $26 million.”
Drownings in the Rio Grande and in irrigation canals remain too-common causes of death. On July 1, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel and Texas state police retrieved from the river the bodies of a mother and infant daughter from Guatemala near Eagle Pass. It was near that city, in the Del Rio Sector, where 13 migrants drowned to death in a single September 1, 2022 tragedy (see WOLA’s September 9, 2022 Border Update); about 2 months before that, authorities recovered the bodies of 12 people from the river in a single day.
Texas state government installs a 1,000-foot “wall of buoys”
On July 10, the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass was in the news again, this time as the site of the latest attention-grabbing attempt to seal the border by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a vociferous critic of the Biden administration’s border and migration policies.
Trucks delivered, and workers began installing, a 1,000-foot “wall” of large spherical buoys, floating in the middle of the river along the actual aquatic borderline between Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico. The line of buoys is anchored to the riverbed and equipped with underwater netting to prevent migrants from swimming under them.
While the riverine barrier makes for a striking, social media-ready image, it is not clear how it might deter would-be migrants who wish to cross and turn themselves in to authorities on the Eagle Pass riverbank, which is much more than 1,000 feet long. Abbott and state security authorities say that the Eagle Pass project is a test effort that they wish to extend for miles along the river.
Critics cited in media coverage worry that the smooth plastic buoys, which rotate and offer few handholds, could make crossing attempts more dangerous in a part of the river that has already seen many recent drownings. Environmental defenders voiced concerns that the underwater netting could trap enough debris to alter the river’s flow, which in turn would violate U.S.-Mexico river management treaties.
The buoy-wall project already faces litigation to stop it. The owner of a company offering canoe and kayak tours in Eagle Pass filed suit in Texas court, arguing that it harms his business.
Sister Isabel Turcios, who runs the Casa Frontera Diana migrant shelter in Piedras Negras, told Associated Press that she doubts the buoys will do much to deter migrants. She added that a greater danger to migrants is posed by spools of razor-sharp concertina wire that Texas state authorities have deployed along the Eagle Pass riverbank, which “forces migrants to spend additional time in the river.”
A June 26 internal CBP document obtained by Hearst Newspapers echoes safety concerns about the razor wire that Texas authorities installed. The document notes that the sharp coils block gates that Border Patrol agents use to reach the river quickly, which impedes their ability to rescue people in distress.
“Migrants are now traversing the banks of the river along spools of thick, sharp wire, increasing the chance of drownings, the document warns,” according to the Houston Chronicle. “And with water levels rising and some of the wire placed inside the river and not visible, there is a ‘high risk’ of injury, it says.” The Chronicle cites recent Fox News footage of agents having to use large shears to cut through the wire in order to reach migrants—including children—waiting on the riverbank, on U.S. soil, to turn themselves in.
June migration declined sharply at the U.S.-Mexico border, declined somewhat in Panama, and is rising in Honduras
Preliminary Border Patrol data reported by The Center Square website and by CBS News appear to confirm a sharp expected drop in the number of migrants who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border between ports of entry from May to June 2023. Border Patrol may have apprehended migrants 102,641 times over June’s 30 days, down 39 percent from 169,244 in May, 183,079 in April, and more than 200,000 in each of the last 4 months of 2022.
That would be the smallest number of Border Patrol migrant apprehensions since February 2021, the Biden administration’s first full month.
Regular posts to the Border Patrol chief’s Twitter account, which mostly stopped after Chief Jason Owens replaced Raúl Ortiz on July 1, pointed to daily averages of Border Patrol apprehensions dropping from over 10,000 in early May—the last days before the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy ended—to about 3,500 per day by the end of June.
The Center Square data, from “a U.S. Border Patrol agent who provided it on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation,” show Arizona’s Tucson Sector being the busiest of Border Patrol’s nine U.S.-Mexico border border sectors last month, edging out Texas’s Del Rio Sector with 25,090 migrant apprehensions to Del Rio’s 24,880.
That is the first time Tucson has led the list since February 2013. Migration is increasing rapidly in Arizona’s deserts despite the summer heat. According to the New York Times, Border Patrol apprehended 7,010 migrants there in the week ending June 30, up sharply from 4,290 during the week ending June 2.
Other formerly busy sectors are quieter. “The number of migrants released by CBP onto the streets of El Paso dropped to zero in recent days,” municipal authorities told the Washington Post. The El Paso sector—which led the list between October and April—dropped from 26,057 Border Patrol migrant apprehensions in May to an apparent 13,838 in June.
The Border Patrol figures do not include migrants who reported to land-border ports of entry (official border crossings), usually to make asylum claims. The number of migrants permitted to approach ports of entry has grown, as CBP increased the number of appointments available to asylum seekers in northern Mexico using its CBP One smartphone application. Daily CBP One appointments grew from about 740 during the final months of Title 42, to 1,000 during the last 3 weeks of May, to 1,250 in June and 1,450 in July.
In Ciudad Juarez, the Washington Post reported that the average wait time for a CBP One appointment is now four to six weeks. While this makes the asylum process more orderly and creates incentives to avoid crossing without inspection between the ports of entry, it poses critical challenges to people with more immediate protection needs in Mexico. Those without appointments but with grounds to fear being in Mexico have one main option: they must show up at a port of entry without an appointment and try to plead their case with CBP officers posted at the borderline.
While the greater availability of asylum appointments is a key factor in reduced Border Patrol apprehensions, so is the Biden administration’s adoption of stricter measures limiting access to asylum for those who lack appointments and did not first apply in another country through which they passed. A rule that went into effect with Title 42’s end now presumes that those who cross between the ports of entry are ineligible for asylum unless they can prove a more urgent protection need. If they do not, they are deported and banned from seeking asylum or other entry into the United States for five years. If they are from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, or Venezuela, they may be deported into Mexico.
Assistant DHS Secretary for Immigration and Border Policy Blas Nuñez Neto, interviewed by CBS News, credited this harsh approach, along with the “most significant expansion of the use of expedited removal in DHS history,” as key reasons for the May-to-June drop in migration.
“Expedited removal” requires asylum seekers to defend their cases before an asylum officer within days, while still in CBP’s austere custody. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) data highlighted by Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council show a sharp post-May 11 jump in the percentage of asylum seekers failing these “credible fear interviews.” He tweeted, “after the suite of changes the Biden admin put in effect in early May, the chance of being ordered deported during a credible fear interview more than doubled.” Recent reporting by the National Immigrant Justice Center points to CBP and USCIS carrying out these interviews with strong impediments to asylum seekers’ access to counsel.
Along with stricter measures on the U.S. side of the border, Mexican authorities are continuing a crackdown on irregular migration. The New York Times noted that Mexican security and immigration forces are busing other countries’ migrants “to places deep in the country’s interior,” away from the northern border, and have largely shut down issuance of “any documentation allowing migrants and refugees to stay in Mexico.” The Times found that migrants “now find themselves deep in Mexico’s interior, stymied by all the different obstacles,” and “grasping for options.”
While Mexico has yet to report data about migration flows in June, Panama published numbers of people who crossed the treacherous Darién Gap jungle region straddling its eastern border with Colombia. Though Darién Gap migration is on pace to shatter previous single-year records and reach nearly 400,000 people by the end of 2023, there was a drop from May to June of about 24 percent, from 38,962 to 29,722 people.
As in every recent month since February, the majority of June’s Darién Gap migrants (62 percent) were Venezuelan, followed by citizens of Ecuador, China, Haiti, and Colombia. The Latin American journalism outlet Connectas published a lengthy dispatch from Bajo Chiquito, a village at the end of the Darién Gap route in eastern Panama, whose residents have reaped a financial windfall by charging exhausted migrants for goods and services, or in some cases robbing them.
Neither the U.S., Mexican, nor Panamanian numbers clearly compare migration from early June to late June, or offer data about trends so far in July. It is difficult to confirm, then, whether the May-to-June post-Title 42 drop in migration is sustained or has begun to reverse.
However, Honduras, which registers a large majority of migrants crossing its territory (they need a document, issued free of charge, to board buses), does share data in something closer to real time. Its immigration authority’s statistics website is current through July 9. That page shows a striking increase in the number of migrants traversing Honduras. 10,657 people—1,184 per day—registered with Honduran authorities during the first 9 days of July. That exceeds even the 918 per day registered during the first 10 days of May, amid the rush before the Title 42 policy ended.
If other countries’ more recent data show a similar trend, then we can expect migration to increase from June to July, even as the U.S.-Mexico border endures historic height-of-summer heat.
- A 15-year-old Guatemalan girl who had arrived at the border unaccompanied in May died on July 10, reportedly of a pre-existing medical condition, while in custody of the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). It was the fourth death of an unaccompanied child in ORR custody so far in 2023, “though some of the children had serious, pre-existing conditions, including terminal illnesses,” CBS News reported. A fifth, 8-year-old Anadith Danay Reyes Alvarez, died in Border Patrol custody in Texas on May 17.
- “A Texas National Guard soldier who shot a migrant in the shoulder on Jan. 13 in Mission [Texas] won’t face civilian criminal charges despite conflicting accounts of the event,” reported Military Times. It was a very rare case of a soldier or guardsman using deadly force against a civilian on U.S. soil. The soldier claims his gun went off accidentally during a scuffle with the migrant; the migrant, Ricardo Rodriguez Nieto, claimed that Spc. Angel Gallegos shot him from across a room.
- Another Texas National Guardsman assigned to the state government’s border mission, Spc. Anthony Hernandez-Dominguez, died in a “non-duty related incident” during the week of July 2. “He is believed to be the eighth soldier to die while carrying out Operation Lone Star” since 2021, the San Antonio Express-News reported.
- At the San Diego Union-Tribune, Kate Morrissey profiled Jessica Guaman, who has sponsored many transgender women seeking asylum in the United States, building up a network of support in the New York area.
- The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) launched a “family reunification parole” program for citizens of Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras with legally resident relatives in the United States. The program was first announced in April.
- In Guatemala, U.S.-backed “Safe Mobility Offices,” where Central American would-be migrants can make appointments that might allow them to access legal paths to U.S. migration, have had the capacity to offer 3,000 appointments. Those were arranged in the first few days after the offices’ website opened on June 12. Having hit capacity, the website form has since been unavailable.
- On July 12 the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee passed a 2024 State Department and foreign assistance budget bill that would, among other provisions, freeze 15% of State’s Diplomatic Programs budget until the Biden administration moves toward negotiating a new “Remain in Mexico” program and “safe third country” agreements in Central America. The Democratic-majority Senate is certain to omit this from its version of the bill, and it is unlikely to become law.
- A report from the DHS Office of Inspector-General looked at Border Patrol’s 2022 release of a migrant who was later found to be on the FBI’s “watch list” of suspected terrorists. DHS told CBS News that, in its view, the report “sensationalizes and mischaracterizes a complex case.” Many migrants on terrorist watchlists in CBP custody—there have been 53 at the U.S.-Mexico border between October and May—are reportedly citizens of Colombia, where the FARC guerrilla group and AUC paramilitary network were on the State Department’s terrorist list before they disbanded.
- In a column at the Dallas Morning News, the American Immigration Council’s Aaron Reichlin-Melnick called for the creation of a federal program to coordinate interior U.S. integration of asylum seekers, similar to the way the federal government does for refugees.
- “For more than fifteen years now, countless South Texans who once regularly crossed the border have stopped going altogether,” wrote Jack Herrera at Texas Monthly, noting that this may be a reason that some Mexican-American voters in the Texas border zone have begun to support more conservative candidates.