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:

  • The Biden administration’s proposed new asylum transit ban rule has divided opinions among Democratic lawmakers and could be related to two senior White House officials’ exit.
  • The rule is leading Mexico’s refugee agency, which received 13,000 asylum requests in January, to rethink a plan for express asylum denials.
  • The “CBP One” smartphone app’s rollout for asylum seekers remains troubled, amid glitches and a scarcity of appointments so acute that it is causing families to separate.
  • A consequence of the Biden administration’s haste to place unaccompanied migrant children with U.S.-based sponsors is a “new economy of exploitation,” a New York Times investigation revealed.
  • Onerous new rules that could force migrant shelters to close are among factors making Guatemala a difficult transit country for migrants, especially those from Venezuela who report widespread extortion by corrupt police.
  • Migration is increasing again in Panama’s Darién Gap. The country temporarily suspended a troubled bus service that whisks migrants from the jungle region to the Costa Rica border.

Political fallout over the Biden administration’s new asylum transit ban rule

Analyses at CNN and the Washington Post highlighted divisions within the Democratic Party over the Biden administration’s proposed ban on asylum for migrants who passed through another country en route to the U.S.-Mexico border. (The administration calls the ban, discussed in WOLA’s February 23 update, a “rebuttable presumption of ineligibility” for asylum.)

“This is a racist policy,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-New York) told the Post. On the other side, “If a person thinks that the immigration activists are the only part of the Democratic base, then they’re wrong,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) told National Public Radio.

Two White House immigration policy advisors, Lise Clavel and Leidy Perez-Davis, are resigning, Politico reported. The article noted, “news of the impending exits comes days after the Biden administration announced its most restrictive border control measure to date.”

CNN and CBS News reported that administration officials considered an asylum transit ban in 2021, after migration levels at the border began a rapid increase. At the time, they ended up rejecting the idea because, the White House counsel argued, courts would be likely to block it.

The asylum ban rule is still officially a draft. People and organizations with views about it can submit comments—a key part of the federal government rulemaking process—until March 27. A coalition of migrants’ rights groups has published a guide and template for comments.

Transit ban’s impact on asylum in Mexico

In Mexico, the transit ban is causing the government’s refugee agency (Mexican Commission for Refugee Aid, COMAR) to rethink a pilot project that had sought to speed up asylum denials for applicants who appeared likely to use their status in Mexico to travel to the U.S. border and seek asylum there.

The Biden administration’s proposed rule would not disqualify those who had their asylum applications rejected by other countries en route. COMAR director Andrés Ramírez told CNN that he “now worries that accelerating asylum denials could actually increase Mexico’s attractiveness as a pit stop for those ultimately aiming to request asylum in the US,” using their Mexican denials.

According to the agency’s February 16 release of statistics, COMAR received nearly 13,000 requests for asylum in January, a pace that, if sustained for the entire year, would bring a record 154,000 asylum applications in Mexico’s system in 2023. The number-one nationality of asylum applicants in January was Haiti, the nation that was also number one in 2021. Honduras was COMAR’s number-one asylum-seeking nationality in 2022 and prior years.

Afghanistan, for the first time, made COMAR’s “top ten” in January with 430 asylum requests. Afghanistan was the number-nine nationality of migrants passing through Panama’s Darién Gap region in January (291 migrants reported by Panamanian authorities).

COMAR’s Ramírez tweeted on March 2 that, through February, COMAR’s year-to-date total was 24,025 asylum requests. That would imply a daily average of 415 applications in January, and 399 in February. Applications from Afghanistan appear to have slowed from 430 in January to 105 in February.

CBP One rollout for Title 42 exemptions remains troubled

Migrants will be exempted from the proposed transit ban if they use Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) “CBP One” smartphone app to book appointments to seek asylum at a land-border port of entry. (See WOLA’s February 23, February 2, and January 20 updates for more about CBP One.) The app is already in use, since January 12, as the only way to seek asylum at a port of entry under a system of exemptions to the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy.

Serious issues with the app persist. Lindsay Toczylowski, director of Immigrant Defenders (ImmDef), tweeted videos of migrants’ smartphone screens in Tijuana, as they failed to secure appointments because of bugs and glitches in the app. Though CBP denies that this is happening, darker-skinned migrants’ problems with the app’s facial photo requirement are so widespread that “black migrants in Reynosa have…set up bright construction lights for taking selfies,” according to the University of Texas’s Strauss Center.

The Center published the latest edition in a series of quarterly reports, going back to November 2018, on the status of asylum-seeker waitlists in Mexican border cities. With CBP One now the only means for accessing Title 42 exemptions, “list managers dissolved all remaining metering and Title 42 exception waitlists.”

The report estimates a rough average of 740 people per day currently getting appointments, via the app, to seek asylum at 8 land-border ports of entry. As that number is far less than the population seeking asylum, a day’s available appointments run out within minutes.

This lack of appointments is the most common complaint about its rollout. The Strauss Center report cited shelter operators in the Mexican border cities of Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, Agua Prieta, Nogales, and San Luis Rio Colorado, all claiming that almost none of the migrants staying with them have been able to secure appointments.

As WOLA’s February 23 Update discussed, it is especially hard to get asylum appointments for more than one person at a time. At some point in February, CBP largely stopped allowing individuals who had managed to secure an appointment to bring immediate family members with them. The result continues to be that “dozens of migrant families are splitting up” at the border, as Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, and Border Report found in the past week in Reynosa and Matamoros.

In many cases, parents with appointments are leaving minor children behind, or sending them across the border unaccompanied. A CBP spokesperson told the L.A. Times that the agency “updated the app this week to make it easier for family units to secure appointments.”

New York Times finds unaccompanied children falling prey to child labor

In its early months, the Biden administration contended with insufficient capacity to process a sharp increase in unaccompanied child migrants arriving at the border. (See, for instance, WOLA’s Border Updates from March 19, March 12, and February 26, 2021.) The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), faced pressure to reduce the number of unaccompanied children in its network of austere shelters by placing them more rapidly with relatives or other sponsors.

The result has been a “new economy of exploitation” with unaccompanied migrant children laboring in miserable or dangerous conditions that often violate child labor laws, according to a year-long investigation that the New York Times published on February 25.

Reporter Hannah Dreier, interviewing dozens of caseworkers, concluded that only a third of children have ended up being placed with parents in the United States. About two-thirds have ended up working full time, often in order to remit money back to relatives in their home countries—in about half of cases, Guatemala. Their jobs often involve long hours and sweatshop-like conditions. HHS has lost contact with more than 85,000 children after their release to sponsors; in one third of cases, the contact broke off immediately.

“This is not the first time children who fled their own countries have been subjected to new violence after arriving in our country,” read a memo from the Young Center, which represents children in the U.S. immigration system. It calls for six reforms to prevent this from happening, among them guaranteeing legal counsel for every child, community-based livelihood support, an end to policies that force families to separate, and speedier work authorizations for more legitimate jobs.

Darkening climate for migrants passing through Guatemala

Guatemala is not only a principal nationality of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, it is also a major country of transit for migrants arriving from nations to its south. Reports point to a worsening situation for migrants, particularly those from Venezuela, passing through Guatemalan territory.

At The Progressive, Jeff Abbott reported on the Guatemalan government’s imposition of new rules to implement a February 2022 immigration law passed “under pressure from the Biden Administration.” Under the new rules, Guatemala’s Episcopal Conference stated that the government is pressuring the Catholic Church’s network of nine migrant shelters “to gather biometric data and other personal information from the migrants they serve and to provide that data to immigration authorities.”

If they fail to do so, all shelters (church-run or otherwise) risk facing migrant trafficking or smuggling charges under the new law. “The Episcopal Conference has suggested that if they are forced to comply with these new measures the best move may be to close the shelters entirely in order to protect the migrants.” Shelter representatives were to meet this week with Guatemala’s Vice President to discuss the rule’s implementation.

“Guatemala has become a key gatekeeper for the United States in curbing migration,” read an El Faro report about Venezuelan migrants living in the country’s shadows. More than a dozen Venezuelans told reporter Roman Gressier that Guatemalan police extorted them on their route between the Honduras border and Guatemala City. (Gressier is a main focus of a November 2022 Ronan Farrow New Yorker feature about the Salvadoran government’s spying on journalists.) “They charged us a bill at each of ten stops. If not, they’ll send you back to Honduras,” one said. Guatemalan police extortion of Venezuelan migrants was a main subject of a podcast by the Agencia Ocote news outlet, linked from WOLA’s February 23 Border Update.

The director of the Guatemalan government’s Migration Institute (IGM), meanwhile, was in Washington on February 28. Manuel Estuardo Rodríguez met with CBP and Border Patrol leadership.

Darién Gap updates

Each month since October, an average of 7,250 citizens of Ecuador has passed through Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap jungle region, and February appears to have followed a similar pace. The BBC reported four reasons why Ecuador has been, since November, the number-two nationality (after Haiti) of migrants passing through the Darién Gap. They are sharply worsening violence, flight from extortion, Mexico’s reinstatement of a visa requirement for air travelers, and the economic devastation caused by COVID-19.

On February 26, Panama’s Public Security Ministry tweeted that, since January 1, 45,727 migrants had passed through the country. 24,634 migrants—795 per day—had transited in January; the new figure implies a higher daily average during February’s first 25 days, about 844 migrants per day. Of 2023’s year-to-date total, “16,113 are Haitian, 11,070 are Ecuadorian, and 7,875 are Venezuelan.”

Panama has temporarily suspended the private buses that rapidly transport migrants from Darién Gap reception centers to the Costa Rica border. The buses are undergoing government inspections after two accidents: a February 15 plunge off of a cliff that killed about 40 migrants, and a February 25 fire that destroyed a bus, from which passengers were successfully evacuated.

Migrants are charged $40 per person to board these buses. Panamanian authorities are forcing those who lack this fee to perform forced labor or even sexual favors, according to a December letter from several UN independent experts and special rapporteurs.

Other news

  • WOLA and Temple University Law School have published a new series of Annotated Table of Contents (ATOCs) for attorneys supporting asylum claims, tailored to cases from El Salvador, Mexico, and Nicaragua. The research on country conditions seeks to help attorneys bolster their arguments and strengthen clients’ claims of dire need. Previous ATOCs address country conditions in Guatemala and Honduras.
  • An ill migrant died on January 13 in the back of a Border Patrol vehicle that was transporting him, shackled, from a remote Arizona location to a hospital. A long narrative that CBP published on February 27 maintains that the deceased man was “acting in a combative and agitated manner while sitting in the back seat.” Three migrants and a U.S. citizen died in the pre-dawn hours of February 26 in a crash following a Border Patrol chase in Rio Bravo, in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley.
  • The independent Cuban media outlet El Toque estimated that 98 Cuban citizens have died, and 340 more have disappeared, while trying to migrate by land or sea since January 2021. El Toque published brief profiles of those deceased or missing whom it has been able to identify.
  • In his state of the union address, the President of the Dominican Republic reported that the country’s authorities deported citizens of neighboring Haiti 171,000 times in 2022, up from 85,000 in 2021. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk had said in February, “In my visit to the Ouanaminthe in the northeast of the country [Haiti], I heard terrible stories of the humiliating treatment to which many migrants are subjected to, including pregnant women and unaccompanied or separated children.”
  • The number of Mexican citizens living undocumented in the United States dropped from 6.6 million to 4.4 million between 2010 and 2020, according to the work of demographers cited in the New York Times.
  • The experience of the San Diego Rapid Response Network shelter, which has received asylum seekers released from CBP custody since 2018, “serves as a road map for how governments and communities across the U.S. can carry out humanitarian reception,” read a document from Jewish Family Service of San Diego and the Women’s Refugee Commission.
  • El Paso’s City Council approved extending an emergency ordinance allowing flexible spending to respond to large-scale migrant arrivals. The Council expects migration to increase again in May, when the Title 42 expulsion authority is expected to end.
  • CNN examined sharp disagreements between House Republicans about a border policy bill advanced by the party’s hardliners. GOP moderates want to do no favors for hardliners like the bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who tied up the new House majority in January with challenges to Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-California) nomination. Senate Republicans, meanwhile, do not share their House counterparts’ enthusiasm for impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for perceived mismanagement of the border, Bloomberg Law reported.
  • At CNN, a career CBP officer reported being shunned by his former colleagues after finding out, in 2018, that he was in fact a citizen of Mexico. Raúl Rodríguez, a Navy veteran, “says many of the friends he thought he’d made during his years at the agency have disappeared.”
  • The House Homeland Security Committee held its first hearing about the border since the new Republican majority took control of the chamber. Republican witnesses included the mother of two children who died of fentanyl overdoses, a Yuma, Arizona medical official, and the sheriff of an Arizona county that does not touch the border. Democrats invited Cato Institute immigration expert David Bier. Any who tuned in to the hearing would hear that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas should be arrested for “negligent homicide,” that unaccompanied children “in many cases are being released back to cartel members,” that “we could fix our border in one week,” and that Cato’s Bier may have been the product of a “laboratory experiment.”