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:

  • Several data points across border sectors—including a shocking 10 drownings in El Paso’s irrigation canals since June 9—point to a historically high number of migrants dying in the Rio Grande and on U.S. soil this year, mainly of drownings, dehydration, and falls from tall segments of the border wall.
  • The Supreme Court was expected to issue a ruling this week on the Biden administration’s effort to end the “Remain in Mexico” program, but no decision came. Media reports this week revealed that one woman assigned to Remain in Mexico attempted suicide in June, and three men were kidnapped in April.
  • Migration levels remain very high in June across the border. A court filing showed that CBP is increasingly granting parole—which doesn’t include an assigned immigration court date—while releasing migrants with tracking devices. Remnants of an early June caravan are arriving near the U.S. border, though Mexican states have been preventing the mostly Venezuelan migrants  from boarding buses.
  • Mexico sent hundreds more troops to the border cities of Tijuana and Matamoros in response to outbreaks of violence. A document from Mexico’s Defense Department shows the current extent of the military’s border-security and migrant-interdiction mission.

The migrant death toll increases further

Migrants continue to die at the U.S.-Mexico border, usually of drowning, dehydration, or falls from the border wall, with a frequency that appears unprecedented. WOLA’s Border Updates of May 13, May 27, June 3, and June 17 discussed migrant deaths. While U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has not reported official border-wide deaths data since 2020 (despite a legal requirement to do so), partial information points to the trend worsening further.

Since the U.S. government’s 2022 fiscal year began in October, CBP has reported 14,278 “search and rescue efforts,” which already exceeds 12,833 rescues in all of fiscal 2021 (October 2020-September 2021).

The U.S. Border Patrol divides the Mexico border into nine sectors. In its El Paso Sector, which covers 264 border miles in far west Texas and all of New Mexico, the agency reports recovering the remains of 37 migrants who died of injuries, drowning, dehydration, or vehicle strikes since October, according to a thoroughly reported El Paso Times story. Border Patrol had recovered 39 remains in all of fiscal 2021, and fiscal 2022 still has 3 very hot months to go.

Fifteen of the thirty-seven migrants who have died in the sector in 2022 have drowned in fast-flowing irrigation canals that run from the Rio Grande. At least 10 people have drowned in the two weeks since June 9, as “irrigation season”—when authorities increase the flow of water through the canals—has just begun.

“The purpose of the canal is to get water as fast as possible to our agriculture community,” Border Patrol Agent Orlando Marrero told the El Paso Times. “At 62 pounds per square foot, the water traveling nine miles per hour will create exactly 302 pounds of force. Imagine an average person, five-feet-eight or nine, in 10-foot deep water: There is no way. They are going to be swept.” Fernando García of the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights, said, “We have never seen so many deaths in a short period of time. The structure of that canal means that whoever falls there does not come out alive.”

The danger is worse in El Paso’s American Canal, where the most drownings have occurred, because it runs right alongside a segment of border fence that was built to 30 feet during the Trump administration. “That made it more dangerous,” Irrigation district manager Jesus Reyes told the El Paso Times. “Those people are coming over and, in some cases, they climb over and fall directly into the canal.”

Five of the sector’s thirty-seven deaths in 2022 have been heat-related: while the El Paso area’s Chihuahuan Desert is not as intensely hot as Arizona’s Sonoran Desert to the west, it is still deadly, and climate change is making it more so.

CBP reports that 229 migrants have suffered injuries since October, in the El Paso Sector alone, from falls from the border wall. Injuries range “from ankle injuries to brain injuries,” according to CNN. Some falls are fatal, like that of a man who fell from an El Paso Sector border wall segment near the Santa Teresa, New Mexico port of entry in the pre-dawn hours of June 17. He died the next day after suffering “a brain hemorrhage, skull fracture, sternum fracture and broken ribs.”

In Border Patrol’s Big Bend Sector in remote west Texas—the part of the border that sees the fewest migrants—the agency has recovered 24 remains during the first 8 months of fiscal year 2022, already tying the number for all of fiscal year 2021.

Partial data point to migrant fatalities increasing in other sectors. In the Tucson Sector, which comprises most of Arizona’s border with Mexico, Border Patrol reports finding the remains of 48 people since October, according to the Tucson Sentinel. The agency’s fatality numbers, though, are consistently lower than those compiled by local officials and humanitarian groups: the Pima County Medical Examiner has processed the remains of 98 people found in the Sonoran Desert since October. Together with the humanitarian group Humane Borders, the Medical Examiner recovered 225 remains of people believed to have been border crossers during the 2021 calendar year; some of that number may have died in prior years.

In the Tucson Sector, migrants who seek to avoid apprehension rather than turning themselves in to ask for protection are “nearly 90 percent of people crossing,” according to Sector Chief John Modlin. This population is seeking to avoid stepped-up enforcement by “increasingly attempting to cross the stark reaches of Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, as well as craggy heights in the Baboquivari Mountains to get into Arizona,” the Sentinel reported.

Further west, in Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector, in western Arizona and eastern California near the Colorado River, Sector Chief Chris Clem reported “six migrant deaths” during the week of June 12 to 18.

To the east, in south Texas’s Laredo Sector, which has reported just 5 percent of all border migrant encounters this year, Sector Chief Carl Landrum stated that Border Patrol has rescued “over 5,000 people this fiscal year.” This number seems oddly high, since Border Patrol has reported 14,278 rescues in all 9 sectors so far this year, including 2,192 in the deserts of the Tucson Sector. Landrum did not report a number of deaths in the Laredo Sector.

This year’s increase in fatalities along the border is partly a consequence of a larger overall population of migrants: as noted below and in WOLA’s June 17 Border Update, this is a record year for migration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The situation is worsened, though, by the “Title 42” pandemic border policy, which closes official border crossings to people who wish to seek asylum, and incentivizes repeat border crossing attempts by quickly expelling those who are caught. (The Biden administration’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had sought to end Title 42 by May 23, 2022, but a Louisiana judge has ordered that it remain in place.)

Across from El Paso, according to Border Report, “Officials estimate that at least 15,000 migrants are in [Ciudad] Juarez waiting for the end of Title 42 so they can apply for asylum in the U.S. “ El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said, “If Title 42 was not in place, they would be able to form, be able to come across and the process would flow. When the process doesn’t flow, there is a huge sense of desperation.” As a result, said García of the Border Network for Human Rights, “They are still crossing, and they are dying in extraordinary numbers.”

Supreme Court may rule soon on Remain in Mexico

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling soon on whether the Biden administration can terminate the Migrant Protection Protocols or “Remain in Mexico” Program, which a Texas judge forced it to restart last August. A ruling was thought probable on June 21 or 23, but the Court did not issue it.

When migrants from the Western Hemisphere who are not from Mexico ask for asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, CBP may place them in the “Remain in Mexico” program, which sends them back into Mexico until their next immigration court hearing date. The Trump administration, which invented Remain in Mexico and began implementing it in January 2019, sent 71,076 migrants back into Mexico. At least 1,544 of them suffered “murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violent assaults” in Mexican border towns, Human Rights First reported. Since its court-ordered restart of the program got underway in December, the Biden administration has sent more than 4,300 (or 5,114, or at least 5,600) migrants, primarily from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, back to Mexico to await hearings.

The Biden administration began shutting down the Remain in Mexico program in January 2021, bringing many of the asylum seekers into the United States. That process was halted when Amarillo, Texas judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ruled—in a suit brought by the Republican attorneys-general of Texas and Missouri—that the Biden administration had not properly terminated Remain in Mexico. Kacsmaryk ordered the program to restart, and the Biden administration appealed.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in April, and its decision is imminent. Though the Court has a conservative majority, it is not guaranteed to rule against the Biden administration, believe court-watchers like Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council, who explained his view in a June 21 Twitter thread. If they do not uphold Kacsmaryk’s decision, justices could “punt,” determining that the courts have no jurisdiction on immigration enforcement, or they could throw the case back to lower courts to determine whether the Administration’s second attempt to terminate Remain in Mexico met requirements.

Meanwhile, very troubling outcomes of the program are emerging.

  • The Syracuse University-based Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse project found that only 2.4 percent of the 1,109 Remain in Mexico asylum cases decided so far have resulted in grants of asylum, compared to half of cases in 2022 in the regular immigration court system.
  • Earlier this month, a woman assigned to Remain in Mexico attempted suicidewhile waiting at a migrant shelter in Monterrey, Mexico.
  • Reuters revealed that three men whom the program returned to the dangerous border city of Nuevo Laredo were kidnapped on April 10, while local authorities were transporting them to a shelter. (Most of those made to “remain” in Nuevo Laredo get transported further south, to Monterrey, but these three men were COVID-positive, requiring them to quarantine in Nuevo Laredo.) One of the victims, a man from Peru identified as “Raúl,” said they were held in a two-story house with about 20 other migrants. They beat him and released him after contacts wired a $6,000 ransom payment. Reuters reports: “‘You think you’re in good hands,’ Raul said of the U.S. government, asking that his last name be withheld out of fear of retaliation from the kidnappers. ‘But that’s not the case.’” After the kidnapping, Raul successfully petitioned to remain in the United States for the duration of his asylum case.

Migration levels remain high in June

As discussed in WOLA’s June 17 Border Update, U.S. authorities reported in May 2022 their largest number of encounters with undocumented migrants since they began publishing monthly records in 2000 (though with many repeat crossings, the number of individual migrants—177,793—may not have been a record). Arrivals at the border appear to remain very high so far in June.

In south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol Sector, which usually sees more migrant arrivals than any of the agency’s nine U.S.-Mexico border sectors, the agency reported encountering 533 migrants in 3 large groups during the 4 days ending on June 21. “A group of more than 100 migrants is considered a large group,” reads a CBP release; Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol has encountered over 100 large groups, totaling more than 15,000 people, since fiscal year 2022 began in October 2021.

In the mid-Texas Del Rio Sector, which gets about 50 percent of the border’s “large groups” right now, Sector Chief Jason Owens tweeted on June 18, “In the past 48 hours, agents encountered 8 groups totaling 1,780 migrants.”

In Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector, Border Report disclosed, agents were apprehending about 1,000 migrants per day in mid-May, in the runup to the expected May 23 termination of Title 42. When a Louisiana judge ordered Title 42 to remain in place, “apprehension numbers went down to 700 to 800 a day in the sector.”

The Biden administration’s latest monthly court filing in the “Remain in Mexico” litigation, shared by the Associated Press (AP), found that CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released 95,318 migrants into the U.S. interior in May, slightly over half the 177,793 individuals encountered at the border last month. The rest were either held in ICE detention centers or expelled (at times more than once) under Title 42.

Of the 95,318 released into the country, 64,263 were released on parole, which the AP calls a “rapidly expanding practice” in recent months brought on by lack of detention space, overwhelmed processing personnel, and the difficulty of expelling many countries’ citizens under Title 42. The AP explains “parole,” which does not come with an immigration court appointment:

Parole shields migrants from deportation for a set period of time but provides little else. By law, the Homeland Security Department may parole migrants into the United States “only on a case-by-case basis for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit.” Parolees can apply for asylum within a year.

Processing asylum-seeking migrants for immigration court—which happened about 33,000 times in May—can take “more than an hour each,” agents told the AP. “Parole, by comparison, is processed in minutes.”

All paroled migrants “have their criminal histories checked and generally arrive in families with an address where they will stay in the U.S.,” the AP reported. They are given a handheld device with an app that tracks their movements via GPS, and required to keep it with them. The devices cannot make or take calls, other than from ICE, Border Report notes.

The June 15 court filing reports that CBP’s daily approximate holding capacity is 6,535, combining spaces at ports of entry (935) and Border Patrol detention facilities (about 5,600). In May, Border Patrol was holding an average of 12,899 people per day.

During the week of June 6, at least 7,000 mostly Venezuelan migrants had participated in a “caravan” from the city of Tapachula, in Mexico’s southern border zone near Guatemala. As discussed in WOLA’s June 10 and June 17 Border Updates, that caravan quickly dispersed after Mexican migration authorities distributed Multiple Immigration Form (Forma Migratoria Multiple, FMM) documents reportedly requiring migrants to leave Mexico or regularize their status (mainly by applying for asylum) within 30 days.

During those 30 days, these migrants can travel freely through Mexico, and many appear to have headed for the U.S. border. Federal and local law enforcement officials in mid-Texas’s Del Rio Border Patrol Sector told the Washington Examiner that “many from the caravan successfully evaded Mexican authorities and were able to cross the border illegally into the United States over the past several days.”

This included a group of about 200 migrants apprehended near Eagle Pass, Texas. Citing federal authorities, the sheriff of Val Verde County, Texas, which includes Del Rio, said, “They’re getting remnants of the caravan. Yesterday, they had just shy of 2,000 people apprehended in the sector, which is probably an all-time high for the day.”

With arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border averaging about 8,000 per day in May, a dispersed 7,000-member caravan over several days would bring only a modest, barely perceptible increase.

As noted in WOLA’s June 17 update, the governors of Mexican border states Coahuila and Nuevo León have been preventing caravan participants from boarding buses to the border, leaving hundreds of migrants stranded in the bus station in Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo León.

It is not clear what legal authority is being employed to deny the ticket sales, since the migrants, having received travel documents, are not undocumented. Governors of the Mexican states bordering Texas appear to be wary of angering Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who responded to increased migration in April by using state authority to step up vehicle inspections near the border, badly snarling trade for nearly a week (see WOLA’s April 15 and April 22 Border Updates). Abbott said on June 17 that Texas state troopers and National Guardsmen were stepping up efforts to repel caravan arrivals.

This week, about 250 migrants stranded at the Monterrey bus station began walking to Coahuila, and to the border. (The border city of Piedras Negras, Coahuila, is about 240 miles from Monterrey.) The sheriff of Maverick County, Texas, which includes Eagle Pass across from Piedras Negras, told the Washington Examiner that many other migrants, blocked from buying bus tickets, were likely paying smugglers. “It’s actually giving business to the cartel, to the smugglers,” Sheriff Tom Shmerber said of the bus prohibitions.

Security worsens in Mexico’s border cities and the government sends more troops

Tijuana, considered the most violent city in Mexico, suffered 110 homicides during the first 15 days of June and has measured more crimes so far this year than in any year since 2019. Mexico’s federal government responded this week by sending 400 more Army personnel to the city: 200 paratroopers and 200 Special Operations Forces elements. Today, the city now hosts 3,600 military or paramilitary personnel: 1,600 from the Army and 2,000 from the National Guard, a recently created force largely made up of soldiers and marines.

At the border’s other extreme, the city of Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas, began the morning of June 19 with about 16 road blockades. Armed men positioned stolen buses and trucks across main entrances to the city and set them on fire, apparently in response to the detention (or imminent detention) of a leader of the Gulf Cartel, the city’s dominant criminal organization. Mexico’s Defense Department responded by sending 200 more army troops to the city.

Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval presented the latest in a series of security updates at a June 20 presidential news conference. Gen. Sandoval’s slideshow revealed that 28,463 Army personnel are currently deployed on missions supporting the government’s “Migration and Development Plan for the northern and southern borders.”

Military personnel, it continued, have contributed to the capture of 518,668 migrants since 2019, 105,795 of them so far in 2022. 85 percent of these captures occurred in Mexico’s southern border zone. Troops are focused along four “lines of contention”: along both of Mexico’s borders, across the Isthmus of Tehuántepec in Oaxaca and Veracruz, and in an arc passing through Guerrero, Puebla, Tlaxcala, and Veracruz.

Other News

  • In a new WOLA Podcast, staff discuss what they saw and heard at the June 8-10 Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, including that meeting’s migration declaration, and discuss findings of recent field research along the U.S.-Mexico and Mexico-Guatemala borders.
  • As this update is being written on the morning of June 24, the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, which is meeting to mark up its 2023 appropriation, has adopted a Republican amendment keeping Title 42 in place for at least six months after the lifting of a COVID-19 emergency, which could be years from now. It passed by voice vote. That language will now go to the full Appropriations Committee.
  • The May 24 death of Abigail Román Aguilar, a 32-year-old man from Chiapas, Mexico, has been ruled a homicide by the Pima County, Arizona Medical Examiner. Under circumstances that remain unclear, Aguilar died of stab wounds to the chest and blunt force injuries, apparently after an altercation with a Border Patrol agent, in Douglas, Arizona. The agent “ultimately stabbed Aguilar with a knife,” reported the Arizona Daily Star. The incident is under investigation by the FBI and by CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility.
  • A very brief June 20 statement from CBP recounts a June 18 vehicle pursuit near Falfurrias, in south Texas, “which later resulted in a use of force incident. One person is dead.”
  • “Under current practice, children who arrive in the United States without their parents…are taken to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing centers. But it doesn’t make sense to send children to the care of a law enforcement agency that has no expertise in child welfare,” reads a Vera Institute of Justice commentary finding that the agency continues to separate close relatives in custody. “A better system would place ORR [Office of Refugee Resettlement] officials at the border to immediately evaluate family relationships. This should be done in trauma-informed and developmentally appropriate settings, rather than in jail-like holding centers.”
  • As ORR struggled to keep up with increased arrivals of unaccompanied children in 2021, many kids assigned to the agency’s massive emergency reception facilities considered or attempted suicide while awaiting handover to relatives or sponsors in the United States, Reveal News reported based on documents obtained through litigation. Those who expressed thoughts of, or attempted, suicide had been in ORR custody for an average of 37 days.
  • The United States led the world in new asylum applications received in 2021 with 188,900, according to the UN Refugee Agency’s just-released Global Trends Report 2021. The number two through four countries are Germany (148,200 applications), Mexico (132,700), and Costa Rica (108,500).
  • During the first five months of 2022, Cuban authorities reported receiving 3,289 citizens deported from other countries: 1,276 from Mexico, 1,177 from the United States, 213 from the Bahamas, and 23 from other countries. Between January and May, U.S. authorities encountered 118,603 Cuban citizens, about 1 percent of the island’s population, at the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • More than 5,000 migrant children have walked through the dangerous jungles of Panama’s Darién Gap during the first five months of 2022, according to UNICEF. 170 were unaccompanied by parents or relatives, or had been separated on the way.
  • A new report from Refugees International examined migration through the Darién Gap from Colombia. Last year, the largest single nationality migrating through this route was Haitian. This year, the flow is mostly Venezuelan. Smuggling operations originating in Colombia, the report finds, are sophisticated and lucrative.
  • The nearly 180,000 Nicaraguans who have sought refuge in Costa Rica since 2018, when the Ortega regime’s crackdown on dissent intensified, is now greater than the number of Nicaraguan applications for protection in Costa Rica during the Contra war of the 1980s.
  • DHS announced that “it would overhaul the disciplinary process for its employees,” the New York Times reported, after the Times and the Project on Government Oversight found that the Department’s Inspector-General had failed to release disturbing findings about the extent of sexual harassment within the DHS workforce and the number of personnel facing domestic abuse allegations. The DHS Inspector General, Trump administration appointee Joseph Cuffari, had responded in May with a letter blaming his subordinates. “I would never have written this,” Gordon Heddell, a former Defense Department inspector-general, said of the letter in the Times article. “To me, what he’s saying is, ‘I’m leading a very dysfunctional office.’”
  • Four former Border Patrol chiefs and other former senior officials sent a letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas demanding that the ongoing, slow-moving investigation of agents involved in the so-called Del Rio “whipping” incident be impartial. The letter criticizes President Biden and Vice President Harris for “predictively prejudging” the investigation’s outcome. Biden and Harris had called for consequences after photos showed agents on horseback charging at Haitian migrants who had arrived en masse in Del Rio, Texas in September 2021. The National Police Association announced a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit demanding records about CBP’s investigation of the Del Rio incident.
  • Border Patrol reported capturing 15 people in May who were in the FBI’s terrorist screening database. Analysts were quick to note that none of those captured face specific charges. “This is an indictment of terror watch lists because zero of these individuals ended up being terrorists,” tweeted Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute.