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:

  • U.S. data from February point to a sustained reduction in recorded levels of migration since January. This is likely a short-term result of the Biden administration’s expanded use of the Title 42 pandemic authority, which has put asylum out of reach for more nationalities of migrants. Migration from Cuba and Nicaragua plummeted 99+ percent from December to February.
  • The Biden administration’s 2024 budget request would fund small increases in Border Patrol agents, CBP officers, and processing coordinators, along with scanning equipment for ports of entry, a border “contingency fund,” and more immigration judges. One budget document notes a 2022 jump in the number of what Border Patrol calls “got-aways”: migrants who evaded apprehension.
  • Several hundred mostly Venezuelan migrants stranded in Ciudad Juárez, motivated by a false rumor, massed at a border bridge, leading CBP to close the route to El Paso for five hours. The episode underlined the desperation of migrants marooned in the Mexican border city and unable to secure asylum appointments via CBP’s smartphone app.

February migration remains near lowest levels of the Biden administration

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published data on March 15 showing that, after declining 40 percent from December to January, the number of migrants whom U.S. authorities encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border remained similar in February. (See WOLA’s February 17 Border Update for a discussion of the January decline.)

Border Patrol encountered 128,877 undocumented migrants in border zones between ports of entry in February, almost identical to the 128,913 migrants the agency encountered in January (a month that, of course, is 3 days longer). Another 26,121 undocumented migrants came to land-border ports of entry, most of them with appointments to seek asylum, adding up to a border-wide total of 154,998 migrants.

Of that total, 39,206—25 percent—were what U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) calls “repeat encounters”: individuals whom the agency or its Border Patrol component had encountered at least once in the past 12 months. The agency actually encountered 94,124 unique individuals in February, a 13 percent drop from January.

The drop made February 2023 the second-lightest month of migration since the Biden administration’s first full month, February 2021. In El Paso, CBS News reported, shelters are “no longer severely overcrowded.”

The likely reason for the lower numbers continues to be the near-impossibility of gaining access to asylum for citizens of Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. All of these eight countries’ citizens are subject to rapid expulsion back into Mexico—whose government accepts them—using the Title 42 pandemic authority.

That authority, which will be three years old on March 20, is set to expire on May 11. The Biden administration convinced Mexico to add Venezuelan citizens to the list of “expellable” nationalities in October 2022; Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua were added in early January 2023. The difficulty of accessing asylum appears to have discouraged numerous asylum seekers, regardless of the threats they may be fleeing.

CBP applied Title 42 to migrants 72,591 times in February, the most since October 2022. That means 47 percent of migrant encounters ended in expulsions, the largest percentage since March 2022. Since its inception in March 2020, CBP has used Title 42 to expel migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border 2,687,315 times.

Between the ports of entry where Border Patrol operates, migration plummeted from the four countries most recently subject to Title 42 expulsion into Mexico (Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela). Border Patrol encounters with citizens of Cuba fell 99.6 percent from December to February, from 42,616 to 176 (although maritime encounters saw a dramatic increase, as discussed below). Encounters with Nicaraguan citizens dropped 99 percent from December (35,361 to 402).

Venezuelan and Haitian citizens have arrived in increasing numbers at ports of entry, where most presumably have secured appointments to seek asylum. Since January 18, they have sought to do so using a feature in CBP’s smartphone app, CBP One.

“Since inception, over 40,000 individuals have scheduled an appointment via CBP One and the top nationalities who have done so are Venezuelan and Haitian,” noted CBP’s release announcing its February data. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas recently told reporters that CBP was granting about 740 port-of-entry appointments to asylum seekers per day at 8 official border crossings.

While expanded barriers to asylum brought a striking short-term drop in migration from newly affected nationalities, the drop is unlikely to persist in the medium and long term.  Border Patrol encountered more citizens of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in February than in January, even though all four countries’ citizens have been subject to Title 42 expulsion into Mexico for nearly three years.

As noted in WOLA’s February 23 Border Update, the steep drop in encounters with Cuban migrants at the border has been echoed by a steep increase in encounters with Cuban migrants in south Florida, nearly all of whom took a route requiring them to navigate a maritime path across the Florida Straits. In February, nearly six times as many Cuban migrants arrived in Florida than arrived at the border. In December, it was more than the reverse: 34 Cubans arrived at the border for every Cuban who arrived in Florida.

In October the Biden administration made another pathway available to Venezuelans, and in January to Cubans, Haitians, and Nicaraguans. If they have passports and U.S.-based sponsors, a combined total of up to 30,000 of these countries’ citizens may apply each month, from outside the United States, for two years of “humanitarian parole” in the United States. During February, CBP reported, “22,755 Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans (including immediate family members where applicable) were paroled into the country,” arriving at airports in the U.S. interior.

Border and migration in the 2024 federal budget request

The Biden administration sent to Congress, on March 9, its funding request for the U.S. federal government’s 2024 budget. Online resources include the White House’s budget materials including a border and migration fact sheet, and the DHS Budget Justification including a 500-plus-page document for CBP.

DHS is several large agencies lashed together, among them CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), FEMA, TSA, Coast Guard, and the Secret Service. Of the $60.4 billion in discretionary funding that the Biden administration is requesting for the whole department, nearly $25 billion would be for CBP and ICE, an $800 million increase over the 2023 levels.

According to the above-cited budget materials, the requested 2024 funds would:

  • Hire an additional 350 Border Patrol agents. (In a March 15 House committee hearing, Border Patrol Chief Raúl Ortiz called for hiring 3,000 more agents, to hit a target of 22,000 from the agency’s current 19,016.)
  • Hire an additional 150 CBP officers for ports of entry.
  • Hire an additional 460 more processing assistants at CBP and ICE.
  • Create a $4.7 billion contingency fund to allow DHS to respond to “migrant surges along the southwest border.”
  • Add new CBP border technologies at a cost of $535 million, including $305 million for “Non-Intrusive Inspection Systems, with a primary focus on fentanyl detection at ports of entry.” According to a March 9 Washington Post report, a CBP plan to install 123 “large-scale” non-intrusive scanners at border ports of entry by 2026 “is still roughly three years behind schedule, and the artificial intelligence software needed to manage the huge amount of data remains in development.”
  • Add 4,275 body cameras for Border Patrol agents and CBP officers, plus 10 vehicle-mounted cameras, at a cost of $19.6 million.
  • Employ a system called “Repository for Analytics in a Virtualized Environment (RAVEN), to help special investigative units disrupt and dismantle Transnational Criminal Organizations,” at a cost of $40 million, to focus on human smuggling and fentanyl production and transshipment.
  • Provide the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement with $7.3 billion “to help rebuild the Nation’s refugee resettlement infrastructure and respond to the needs of unaccompanied children.”
  • Hire 150 new immigration judge teams for the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. As of January, the U.S. immigration court system had 659 judges to work through a backlog of 1.87 million cases (2,840 cases per judge).
  • $430 million through the State Department and Foreign Operations appropriation for “hemispheric migration management” throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

The CBP budget request includes an interesting set of performance measures. Among them:

  • Of all migrants that Border Patrol encountered in fiscal 2022, 16.6 percent were “apprehended or encountered multiple times.” That is down from 26.6 percent in 2021 and 25.9 percent in 2020, but up from 6.7 percent in 2019. In 2022, “Of 1,480,416 unique subjects encountered, 246,045 made at least a second attempt.”
  • Of migrants who made more than one attempt, the average was 3.03 attempts, down from 3.14 in fiscal 2021.
  • Border Patrol apprehended or turned back 75.9 percent of all migrants it knew about in fiscal 2022. That is the lowest “effectiveness rate” since at least the mid-2010s. It means that “Border Patrol agents interdicted 2,320,442 of 3,057,686 detected illegal entries (75.9%) on the Southwest Border in FY 2022. The total of Got-Aways increased by more than 91% in FY 2022 to 737,244…as compared to FY 2021’s 385,707.
  • Border Patrol’s annual joint operations with “Mexican law enforcement partners” has fallen from 43 in fiscal 2018, to 39 in 2019, to 23, 22, and 23 in 2020, 2021, and 2022. The document blames COVID and “workforce availability.”

Ciudad Juárez incident highlights precarious reality of migrants stranded there

On the morning of Sunday, March 12 in Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, several hundred mostly Venezuelan migrants “walked to the top of the Paso del Norte Bridge…to learn if a rumor about the border being temporarily opened was true,” El Paso Matters reported.

Migrants stranded in Ciudad Juárez by Title 42 expansion reported seeing rumors on social media ( example here) about CBP temporarily opening the border that day. Some rumors mentioned commemoration of a supposed “Migrants’ Day.”

As hundreds, or as many as 1,200, migrants—including many families with children—gathered in the middle of the Paso del Norte Bridge, CBP “hardened” its presence, putting up barricades and concertina wire, and arraying riot gear-clad officers along the borderline. Videos showed the crowd breaking through the toll booth’s crossing arm on the Mexican approach to the bridge, grabbing and shaking a coil of razor-sharp wire, and “attempt[ing] to hurl an orange, plastic barrier at the U.S. line,” Reuters reported, noting that CBP may have used pepper spray.

Upon learning that the border was not, in fact, open, the crowd withdrew. The bridge was closed for about five hours.

It is unclear how the “border opening” rumor originated on social media. While there is no proof that it came from someone seeking to generate images of chaos at the border, the incident showed how easy it would be for a bad actor to do so.

A clear cause is the lack of credible information available to migrants about the asylum process and new procedures. “The State Department needs to lean in and provide much more educational support south of us. Many of the migrants who are making the journey don’t understand immigration law,” Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who represents El Paso, told Border Report. “Migrants and advocates say the U.S. government has yet to clearly communicate the new policies to migrants,” the New York Times added on March 10.

On the Ciudad Juárez side, Mayor Cruz Pérez Cuéllar said, “We must say that our patience is running out” with the current population of mostly Venezuelan migrants. Municipal officials told Border Report that “migrant shelters are only 75 percent full and temporary jobs have been offered to those willing to work.”

The population currently stranded in Juárez right now, though, seems most focused on getting out of their current limbo. “Many of the families waiting in the sun under the Mexican and American flags told similar stories: an application that doesn’t work, shelters that have no space, police that shake them down for the little money they earn through informal labor each day,” El Paso Matters reported.

Many noted struggles with the CBP One app, now the only means of securing an appointment to apply for asylum at a port of entry. “Each day,” the Washington Post reported on May 11, “migrants awake before sunrise to search for a WiFi signal and try to get one of the 700 to 800 appointments available at eight entry points. Advocates estimate there are more than 100,000 people seeking entry. The appointments fill up within five minutes.” (See WOLA’s March 3, February 23, February 2, and January 20 Border Updates for more about CBP One.)

“Mexico does not have the infrastructure nor the political will to support Venezuelan refugees,” Fernando Garcia, executive director of the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights, told Border Report. “When they are in Mexico, they are alone.”

Other news

  • The House Homeland Security Committee held a March 15 field hearing in Pharr, in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. Democratic members of the Committee did not participate. Witnesses included Border Patrol Chief Raúl Ortiz and Steven Cagen, a top official of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division. Republican legislators emphasized that the government has not achieved “operational control” of the border, a term strictly defined by a 2006 law as meaning zero crossings of undocumented migrants or contraband. Cagen, responding to a legislator’s question, denied that any link exists between migrants from China and fentanyl trafficking. Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene claimed that Border Patrol had recently found an explosive device along the border; it was a ball of sand wrapped in duct tape.
  • A week after revelations that the Biden administration is considering reviving migrant family detention (covered in the March 10 Border Update), the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent reported that there is no shortage of career officials within the Biden administration—including at ICE, which would operate the detention centers—who oppose a return to detaining families. “If the administration does go down this path, I am afraid the president will become the ‘asylum denier in chief,’” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) told Meet the Press.
  • Following the March 3 kidnapping of four U.S. citizens in the Mexican border city of Matamoros, two of whom were then murdered, the number of U.S. citizens crossing into Mexico’s embattled state of Tamaulipas has dropped by about 60 percent, according to the Nuevo Laredo daily El Mañana. As the U.S. victims were Black, “the violence has heightened public awareness of the mistreatment of Black immigrants in Mexico,” the Dallas Morning News reported.
  • Three U.S. resident women traveled from Peñitas, Texas into Mexico on February 24 to sell items at a flea market in the northern state of Nuevo León. They have not been heard from since. The last signal received from them was in Tamaulipas, a source told CNN. “Upon their arrival at Tamaulipas, the women told their contacts at the market that they’d made a wrong turn.”
  • Eight migrants, seven of them Mexican, perished off the coast of La Jolla, California, just north of San Diego, on March 11 when the boat in which they were traveling sank offshore.
  • The Texas state legislature’s Republican majority is considering a bill that would allow state police to deputize “law-abiding citizens without a felony conviction” to “arrest, detain, and deter individuals crossing the border illegally, including with the use of non-deadly force.” The bill would also make it a felony for a migrant crossing from Mexico to trespass on private property in Texas.
  • CBP issued two statements in the past week detailing vehicle pursuits in February that ended in fatalities: one in Texas and one in New Mexico.
  • A report from Refugees International, published along with the second anniversary of the Biden administration’s revival of the Central American Minors program, finds that the program has benefited very few children from Guatemala.
  • 33 House Democrats signed a letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas calling for dramatic improvements to the CBP One app.
  • The Miami Herald reported on a March 9 hearing before the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission at which U.S. officials defended continued expulsions and repatriations of Haitian citizens amid a public security and humanitarian crisis.
  • “The federal government is patently out of ideas,” wrote the American Immigration Council’s Dara Lind at the New York Times. “What makes this so frustrating is that it’s not hard to imagine other, better ways to evaluate the health of our immigration system and to improve it.”
  • The U.S. government’s deadline for submitting public comments on the Biden administration’s draft asylum “transit ban” rule is March 27—ten days from now. Consider adding a comment here. (See WOLA’s February 23 and March 3 Border Updates for more on the draft rule.) Consult guides and templates offered by noasylumban.us, NETWORK, and the National Immigrant Justice Center.