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.

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73,167 people made the treacherous northbound journey through the Darién Gap region straddling Colombia and Panama during the first two months of 2024. That is 47 percent ahead of the same period in 2023, a year that ended with over 520,000 people migrating through. Panama’s government suspended Doctors Without Borders’ permission to provide health services at posts where the Darién trail ends; the announcement’s timing is curious because the organization had been denouncing rapidly increasing cases of sexual violence committed against the people whom their personnel were treating.

The White House sent Congress a $62 billion budget request to fund the Department of Homeland Security in 2025. The base budget for Customs and Border Protection would decrease slightly, though the agency would share in a $4.7 billion contingency fund for responding to surges in migration. The administration proposes to hire 1,300 Border Patrol agents, 1,000 CBP officers, 1,600 USCIS asylum officers, and 375 new immigration judge teams. The budget request stands almost no chance of passing this year, as Congress has not even passed the Department’s 2024 budget.

For at least a few more days, the Supreme Court has kept on hold Texas’s controversial S.B. 4 law, which allows state authorities to jail and deport migrants, while lower-court appeals continue. A federal judge threw out Texas’s and other Republican states’ challenge to the Biden administration program offering humanitarian parole to citizens of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. A state judge blocked Texas’s legal offensive against El Paso’s Annunciation House shelter.

The Republican response to President Biden’s March 7 State of the Union address included a graphic, harrowing story of a woman being subjected to years of sexual violence at the border. Further scrutiny revealed that Sen. Katie Britt’s (R-Alabama) account described crimes committed in Mexico during the Bush administration. President Biden voiced regret for using the term “an illegal” to refer to a migrant who allegedly killed a Georgia nursing student in February, in an off-the-cuff response to Republican hecklers during his address.


A busy start to the year in the Darién Gap

During the first two months of 2024, 73,167 people made the journey through the treacherous Darién Gap region, much more than the 49,291 who did so during January-February 2023, according to data reported by the government of Panama.

Data table

That puts this year 47 percent ahead of the pace set in early 2023, which ended with a once-unthinkable total of 520,085 people transiting the Darién jungles.

Of January and February’s migrant population, 64 percent were citizens of Venezuela, similar to 2023 (63 percent). The next four most frequent nationalities were Ecuador, Haiti, Colombia, and China—also similar to 2023.

Data table

In a March 9 video Samira Gozaine, the director of Panama’s Migration Service, said that more than 82,000 people had migrated through the Darién Gap so far this year, implying a continued pace of more than 1,000 people per day during the first days of March.

Of 2,600 migrants put on buses to Costa Rica on March 8, Gozaine said that about 2,100 were citizens of Venezuela, followed in number by citizens of Ecuador, China, Colombia, and Haiti.

There is no new word on Panama’s controversial decision during the week of March 4 to ban Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has been providing urgent health services at reception posts where the Darién trail ends. The ostensible reason for the suspension was the lack of “a collaboration agreement in force” with Panama’s Ministry of Health. MSF stated that it “has been trying in vain to obtain such a renewal since October 2023.”

The suspension came just a few days after MSF put out the latest in a series of statements denouncing a sharp increase in their medical personnel’s encounters with victims of sexual violence along the Darién route: 233 cases in 2024’s first two months after 676 cases in 2023, of which a majority occurred during the final 3 months of last year.

“When an organization leaves there is always a concern for the [remaining] organizations to be able to meet those needs,” said Panama-based UNICEF official Margarita Sánchez, about Doctors Without Borders’ (MSF) forced departure. “So, in this case, we hope that, surely, the Panamanian state can respond to that need.”

“Blocking the operations of MSF sends a chilling message to the international aid community to censor their communications,” International Crisis Group investigator Bram Ebus told the New Humanitarian. There is no word yet on whether Panama might reconsider.

Biden administration submits 2025 Homeland Security budget request

The Biden administration sent its 2025 budget request to Congress on March 11. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) submission calls for $62.2 billion, a 2 percent increase over 2023, the last year for which Congress has passed a budget.

The White House request repeated many items that appeared in a supplemental funding request that failed to pass the Senate in early February. These include the hiring of 1,300 Border Patrol agents, 1,000 CBP officers, 1,600 USCIS asylum officers, and 375 new immigration judge teams, along with “$849 million for cutting-edge [fentanyl and other contraband] detection technology at ports of entry.”

As in the 2024 budget request—which Congress still has not passed, with the next deadline coming up on March 22—the administration is seeking a flexible $4.7 billion “emergency fund” to deal with migration surges, to be distributed among DHS’s components (CBP, ICE, FEMA, and others) as needed. Republican legislators refused to support this proposal last year, calling it a “slush fund.”

The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) request foresees a reduction in the agency’s overall budget, from an enacted level of $20,968,070 in 2023 to a requested level of $19,764,120 in 2025. (This amount does not include whatever money CBP would receive from the above-mentioned contingency fund.)

The CBP request reported some notable performance metrics:

  • The number of individual people whom Border Patrol apprehended in 2023 was 1,432,579. The agency reported encountering migrants 2,045,838 times at the U.S.-Mexico border last year, but it turns out that 168,944 people were apprehended two or more times.
  • 168,944 people equal 11.8 percent of Border Patrol’s apprehended migrants making “at least a second attempt” to enter in fiscal 2023. That percentage is down from 16.6 percent in 2022. The decline owes mainly to the end of the Title 42 policy when rapid, consequence-free “expulsions” eased repeat attempts to cross.
  • Border Patrol estimated that agents interdicted 75.6 percent of illegal entries in 2023, similar to 75.9 percent in 2022 but down from 82.6 percent in 2021 and 86.3 percent in 2019.
  • Border Patrol carried out 26 joint operations with Mexican “law enforcement partners” in 2023, up from 23 in 2022 but down from 39 in 2019.

The 2025 DHS budget request is very unlikely to pass this year, and has zero probability of passing before Election Day (November 5). Congress has not yet approved the Department’s 2024 budget, even as the fiscal year nears its halfway mark. If the Republican-majority House of Representatives manages to pass a 2025 bill or even get it through the Appropriations Committee in the coming months, that bill will barely resemble the Biden administration’s proposal.

Texas litigation updates

The Supreme Court extended until March 18 its stay on implementation of S.B. 4, Texas’s controversial new law that would empower state authorities to imprison or deport into Mexico people who cross the border irregularly, wherever in Texas those authorities encounter them.

The law was to go into effect on March 5. A federal district judge hearing a challenge from the Biden administration and rights advocates blocked it on February 29. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is hearing the Texas state government’s appeal of that decision, and “un-blocked” it while it deliberates. So far at least, though, the Supreme Court is keeping the law on hold, though it could decide otherwise on March 18 and allow Texas to start implementing it.

Though the past few months have seen a shift toward Arizona and California, migration is rising in Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, which includes far west Texas and New Mexico. CBP is averaging 1,113 migrant “encounters” per day, up from less than 700 in January, according to the El Paso municipal government’s migration dashboard. Migrant shelter occupancy across the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juárez has increased by 30 percent since last week as more people arrive in the region, EFE reported.

The Spanish news agency indicated that the El Paso increase may be due to word-of-mouth spreading among migrants about federal courts delaying Texas’s implementation of S.B. 4.

On March 8 a federal district court judge in Texas threw out a lawsuit from Texas and 20 other Republican-led state governments that sought to block President Biden’s use of a 1950s humanitarian parole authority to give temporary documented status in the United States to citizens of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela with passports and U.S.-based sponsors. (The “CHNV” program has allowed 365,000 citizens of those countries—up to 30,000 per month permitted—to fly to the United States since late 2022.)

Judge Drew Tipton, a Trump nominee, ruled that Texas lacks legal standing to stop Biden’s use of the policy. The state government, Tipton reasoned, failed to demonstrate that it “suffered an injury,” particularly since the parole program is linked to a drop in arrivals of those countries’ citizens at the border. Texas and other Republican states announced on March 11 that they will appeal the ruling.

In a separate decision on a suit brought by Texas and other Republican-led state governments, Tipton temporarily blocked the Biden administration from stopping Trump-era border wall construction and redirecting money to environmental remediation. The administration can still appeal.

In El Paso, a Texas state judge blocked the state government’s legal attacks on Annunciation House, a decades-old shelter that receives migrants released from CBP custody. In early February Texas Attorney-General Ken Paxton (R) demanded that the shelter turn over a large amount of records on very short notice or risk revocation of its operating license (see WOLA’s March 1 Border Update). In a hearing last week, State District Court Judge Francisco Dominguez’s written opinion called out “the Attorney General’s efforts to run roughshod over Annunciation House, without regard to due process or fair play,” alleging politicized motives.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s hard-right challenges to the Biden administration’s border and migration policies continue on many fronts. A March 12 Washington Post analysis summarized five: the “Operation Lone Star” buildup; S.B. 4; shutting Border Patrol out of a riverfront park in Eagle Pass; placing concertina wire along the river; and busing migrants to Democratic-governed cities.

State of the Union Address fallout

In the televised Republican response to President Joe Biden’s March 7 State of the Union address, Sen. Katie Britt (R-Alabama) told a harrowing story about migration and the border. Further coverage revealed that Britt left out key context and manipulated the narrative.

Speaking from her kitchen, the senator told of meeting a woman in the border town of Del Rio, Texas, who spoke of being a victim of human trafficking and suffering thousands of rapes from the age of 12.

Sen. Britt used the story as an example of the failure of Joe Biden’s border policies, but closer scrutiny—led by a TikTok video from former AP reporter Jonathan Katz— revealed that the crimes happened more than 15 years ago, during the Bush administration. The victim’s ordeal happened in Mexico, not the United States.

The victim, activist Karla Jacinto Romero, has spoken publicly about what was done to her, including in U.S. congressional testimony. “I hardly ever cooperate with politicians, because it seems to me that they only want an image. They only want a photo—and that to me is not fair,” she told CNN on March 10.

Meanwhile, President Biden voiced regret about using the word “illegal” to refer to a migrant who allegedly killed a Georgia nursing student in February, in an off-the-cuff response to Republican heckling during the State of the Union address. The remark, Jose Antonio Vargas wrote at CNN, “does underscore the political reality that, in the Trump era, the country has veered right on immigration, and the language that shapes the anti-immigrant policies being pushed at almost all governmental levels reflects it.”

Other news

Mexico updates

  • The Mexican government plans to repatriate undocumented migrants by bus to all seven Central American countries, all the way to Panama. The route would begin in Tapachula, and Mexico has set aside 576 million pesos (about US$35 million) to pay for about 40 bus routes, some of which could involve journeys of up to four days.
  • Though the actual policy is “murky,” Mexico is busing apprehended people to the country’s south at an increased pace in order to slow U.S.-bound migration, the Guardian reported.
  • The PBS NewsHour spoke to migrants stranded in Mexico’s southern border-zone city of Tapachula. (This was part of a series that also covered the Arizona border and the situation of unaccompanied children.)
  • Mexico’s government is about to open a new migrant detention facility about 50 miles south of Ciudad Juárez, nearly a year after a March 2023 fire that destroyed a facility in the city, taking the lives of 40 migrants who guards left locked inside.
  • A survey study by the UN Refugee Agency and non-governmental groups found that 56 percent of migrants who crossed Mexico in 2023 suffered some kind of abuse. Of 207 surveyed who had been deported by the United States, 139 were people “who may require international protection after “fleeing violence” in their countries.”
  • A Mexican National Guard and National Migration Institute (INM) deployment has brought a sharp drop in the number of asylum-seeking migrants coming to Jacumba Springs, California, just over an hour’s drive east of San Diego. Daily crossings, which were so frequent that people were stuck in encampments on the borderline waiting for Border Patrol to process them, have fallen from 800 to 70, said the INM delegate to Baja California. The official added that the agency expects people to seek to cross elsewhere as a result. (Border Report noted last week that crossings have increased sharply in nearby Campo, California.)
  • At Arizona Luminaria, John Washington reported on the long wait for CBP One appointments in Nogales, Sonora, where CBP makes only 100 appointments available each day at the port of entry. The nearest ports of entry offering appointments are hundreds of miles away in Calexico and El Paso. As a result, many migrants are tempted to cross in the desert and turn themselves in to Border Patrol.
  • Also reporting from Nogales, Todd Miller visited a garden tended by migrants at the city’s Casa de la Misericordia de Todas las Naciones shelter.

Migrant deaths

  • In 2023, U.C. San Diego Health “saw 500 head injuries” from migrants who had fallen from the 30-foot-high Trump-era border wall between San Diego and Tijuana, “with many patients needing surgery,” a local television station reported. The per-patient cost for surgery on traumatic head injuries is about $250,000; UCSD Health neurosurgeon Joseph Ciacci said that “taxpayers are footing the bill.”
  • A Journal of the American Medical Association article, covered in the Washington Post, found a sharp increase in drowning deaths of migrants in the Pacific Ocean near San Diego after the Trump administration replaced existing border barriers with taller wall segments.
  • Deaths of migrants by drowning are worsening in the Rio Grande, which is swollen by recent rains, Aaron Nelsen reported at Texas Monthly. “No U.S. or Mexican agency, however, keeps a comprehensive count of migrant deaths,” and there is little coordination between local and national agencies on either side of the border.

Other updates

  • WOLA’s Adam Isacson (this update’s principal author) shared a tool ( cbpdata.adamisacson.com) that improves public access to CBP’s 2020-24 migration dataset. It generates custom tables of numbers revealing migrants’ nationalities, demographic characteristics, geographic areas of arrival, and whether they came to ports of entry or areas in between.
  • President Joe Biden told reporters that he is no longer considering executive action on migration at the border, like a legally dubious order to expel asylum seekers when daily migration exceeds a particular amount. On February 21, several media outlets reported that the White House was considering such an action. Yesterday, Biden instead called on Congress to change the law.
  • A helicopter crash near Rio Grande City, Texas claimed the lives of a Border Patrol agent and two members of the New York National Guard. A third New York National Guardsman is seriously injured. The cause of the UH-72 Lakota crash, while on a routine flight, is as yet unknown. The Guard personnel were working with Joint Task Force-North, a decades-old Defense Department Northern Command component that supports Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—not the state National Guard mission within Texas’s separate, state-funded “Operation Lone Star.”
  • Between 2,500 and 3,000 military personnel are part of the federal support mission currently assigned to the U.S.-Mexico border, according to House testimony delivered yesterday by Rebecca Zimmerman, the Defense Department’s senior civilian official for Homeland Defense and Hemispheric Affairs. (This mission is separate from the Texas state government’s deployment of National Guardsmen on a mission involving much more frequent contact between soldiers and migrants.)
  • The State Department announced that it has begun denying visas to executives of charter airline companies that offer flights to Nicaragua, which requires visas of few arriving nationalities, to people who intend to migrate from there to the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • The Intercept reported on DHS’s plans to install over 1,000 surveillance towers, many of them AI-equipped, along the United States’ land borders by 2034.
  • A Los Angeles Times column from Brown University’s Ieva Jusionyte links the heavy southbound flow of illegal U.S. weapons into Mexico and Latin America with the northbound flow of migrants. The link between arms trafficking and migration is the subject of a forthcoming book by the column’s author.
  • Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), newly re-elected Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-New York), and 24 other centrist Democratic representatives formed a “Democrats for Border Security Task Force” to oppose what they perceive to be their party’s leftward turn on immigration. Cuellar, who represents a border district in Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley, is the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee. Task Force members were among 14 Democrats who voted along with Republicans in favor of a March 12 resolution condemning President Joe Biden and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for creating “the worst border security crisis in the Nation’s history.”
  • New York featured a collection of images from Alex Hodor-Lee, a photographer with a background in crafting images of luxury fashion goods, depicting objects that migrants abandoned after Border Patrol agents told them to throw away any “non-essential” belongings.