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:
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released two notices this week about fatal incidents involving Border Patrol. Anadith Tanay Reyes Álvarez died on May 17, her 9th day in Border Patrol custody in Texas. Her mother said her appeals for medical assistance did not get a timely response. On the evening of the 18th, agents shot a 58-year-old member of the Tohono O’odham nation multiple times in southern Arizona. The shooting was captured on agents’ body-worn cameras.
Even as post-Title 42 migrant arrivals slow at the U.S.-Mexico border, the picture inside Mexico is confusing. Mexican authorities have temporarily closed some migrant detention centers while moving migrants from its northern and southern border zones to the nation’s interior. In Mexico City, the closure of a municipal shelter has left hundreds of migrants occupying a park near the offices of the government’s refugee agency.
April 2023 was the third-heaviest month ever for migrants transiting the Darién Gap, a treacherous jungle region straddling Colombia and Panama. 63 percent were from Venezuela. As the U.S., Colombian, and Panamanian governments carry out a “60-day surge campaign” launched April 20, senior Biden administration officials are considering sending U.S. military personnel.
Documents obtained by CBS News show more than 1.5 million people in the United States have signed up to sponsor migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, for a new humanitarian parole program that accepts 30,000 people per month. The largest number of applications are for Haitians.
The Full Update
CBP reports two fatal incidents involving Border Patrol
On May 21, CBP offered some information about the May 17 death of an eight-year-old Honduran girl in a Border Patrol facility in Harlingen, Texas. Anadith Tanay Reyes Álvarez died—possibly of influenza, though medical examiners have not yet issued a finding—on her family’s ninth day in custody. Her parents had provided documents to Border Patrol showing she suffered from a heart condition and sickle cell anemia.
The family had turned themselves in to Border Patrol in Texas on May 9, two days before the Title 42 pandemic expulsion policy came to an end, a time when Border Patrol was apprehending more than 10,000 people per day. This may have prolonged the family’s time in custody, although the Associated Press reported that by May 14, the average time in custody border-wide had fallen to 77 hours while the rate of new apprehensions dropped rapidly. Under normal circumstances, migrants are meant to spend no more than 72 hours in Border Patrol’s austere holding facilities.
CBP’s statement notes that the girl had been diagnosed with influenza, and was suffering a fever and symptoms, on May 14, three days before she passed. Reyes’s mother told the Associated Press that on May 17, as the girl’s condition worsened, she asked Border Patrol for medical aid, including an ambulance, at least three times, but was refused. “They killed my daughter, because she was nearly a day and a half without being able to breathe,” Mabel Álvarez Benedicks said. “She cried and begged for her life and they ignored her. They didn’t do anything for her.”
In a May 21 statement, CBP Commissioner Troy Miller informed that the agency will review cases of “medically fragile” people being kept in custody for long periods, and “will immediately initiate a review of medical care practices at CBP facilities and ensure the deployment of additional medical personnel as needed.” The statement added that CBP has added more than 1,000 medical contractors to its facilities since 2021.
A May 22 CBP statement meanwhile reported on the May 18 death of Raymond Mattia, 58, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation in southern Arizona. Tohono O’odham land straddles the U.S.-Mexico border, and the Nation has had an uneasy relationship at times with U.S. border law enforcement.
According to CBP, Border Patrol agents responded to a report of gunfire on the evening of the 18th, in coordination with Tohono O’odham law enforcement authorities, in the village of Menagers Dam. (A relative of the victim, however, told local news that Mattia had called for help because migrants were passing through his property.)
Agents arrived about a half-hour after the initial call. According to CBP’s statement, they “encountered an individual”—Mattia—who threw an object that landed a few feet from a Tohono O’odham police officer. “Shortly after the individual threw the object, he abruptly extended his right arm away from his body and three agents fired their service weapons striking the individual several times.” Mattia was pronounced deceased less than half an hour later.
A “life-long family friend” told local news that Mattia was “a law-abiding citizen… not an aggressive kind of man, he was not violent.” “Raymond called for help and, in turn, was shot down at his doorstep,” read a statement from family members, which alleged that “improper and unprofessional actions of the agencies involved were witnessed by family members present near the crime scene.” The FBI and local police, along with CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), are investigating.
At least 10 of the Border Patrol agents at the scene, including the 3 who opened fire, were wearing body-worn cameras and had them activated. This is the third fatal incident since March for which OPR has footage available to review. CBP has shared footage from the two earlier incidents: the shooting of a man in the driver’s seat of his car near Sasabe, Arizona on March 14, and the shooting of a man who hit an agent with a wooden club following a car chase near Las Cruces, New Mexico, on April 2.
On May 23 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the publication of a new policy on body-worn cameras of the department’s 80,000 law enforcement personnel, most of whom are agents and officers of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and its Border Patrol component. The announcement noted that CBP, which has had its own body-worn camera directive since August 2021, has issued 7,000 cameras to its workforce.
In a more positive Border Patrol story, the Arizona Republic reported that agents confronted members of a vigilante group who had filmed themselves stopping migrant children near the border. “I don’t want you guys here, period,” an agent says on a video. “We are going to review those videos… If there’s any sort of you guys doing any sort of apprehension or saying you’re detaining people, just know that potential warrants may be issued for your arrest.” The vigilantes’ activity, and Border Patrol’s arrest of a 75-year-old humanitarian volunteer for trespassing, were subjects of a May 14 article at The Intercept.
Agents also reported having to avoid gunfire that ricocheted off the border wall adjacent to central Tijuana on May 15, as they were attending to a 4-year-old boy whom smugglers had lowered from the top of the wall.
Mexico moves migrants away from its borders, mostly
At the U.S.-Mexico border, Border Patrol’s apprehensions of migrants have fallen from an average of 9,680 per day ( May 5-11) to 2,917 per day ( May 19-21), indicating a continuation of the post-Title 42 decline in migrant arrivals discussed in WOLA’s May 19 Border Update. DHS reported deporting more than 11,000 migrants to over 30 countries during the week ending May 19, including 1,100 migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela who were returned to Mexico.
The change in U.S. policy has triggered a confusing series of responses in Mexico, where (as mid-May data from Honduras appears to indicate) migrants continue to arrive from the south in large numbers.
In Ciudad Juárez, municipal police cleared out an encampment that migrants had established near the mayor’s office. Video from the evening of May 22 showed families looking distraught and gathering belongings while a large number of police dismantled their tents. The city moved about 243 migrants, mainly from Venezuela, Colombia, and Honduras, to a tent-covered vacant lot near the Reforma border bridge.
The Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times reported that Mexico’s government is seeking “to relieve pressure on its border cities”—both north and south—by flying and busing migrants deeper into the country’s interior. From there, “it is unclear if they will ultimately be allowed to continue to the U.S. or face deportation or detention in Mexico.”
On May 16, CBP tweeted photos of a charter planeload of Venezuelan migrants whom Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) was transporting from Reynosa to an unspecified interior location. INM’s top official in the northern border state of Tamaulipas told AP that the flights were “voluntary humanitarian transfers.” Another Mexican federal official said that the government was transferring about 300 migrants south every day.
At Mexico’s southern border, in the city of Tapachula, “huge numbers of U.S.-bound migrants” continue to arrive, according to the Los Angeles Times, though Mexico’s chief diplomat for North America, Roberto Velasco, said he expects numbers to drop soon.
At least 150 are camped next to a road checkpoint outside Tapachula, waiting for government buses that might take them to Chiapas’s capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, more than 200 miles inland from the border. There, Mexico’s government appears to be issuing expulsion documents giving migrants days or weeks to leave the country, AP reported, which would allow them to have a documented status as they travel toward Mexico’s northern border.
The flights and buses are happening as the INM continues to be in disarray, with its commissioner facing criminal charges after a March 27 detention center fire in Ciudad Juárez that killed 40 migrants (see WOLA’s April 6 Border Update). On May 10, the day before the U.S. government’s Title 42 policy ended, the agency temporarily shut down 33 of its provisional migrant detention centers (used for holding migrants for short periods of time, up to 7 days) pending a review from the country’s human rights ombudsman.
The movements of migrants to the interior have caused an unusual concentration in Mexico City. The coordinator of Mexico’s Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR), Andrés Ramírez Silva, said that during the first 18 days of May, more people had applied for asylum in Mexico City than in the southern border state of Chiapas. That has never happened before: Chiapas is where 64 percent of asylum applications got filed between January and April.
The situation in Mexico’s capital is chaotic. Mexico City’s government abruptly closed a seven-week-old migrant shelter near COMAR’s offices, citing dramatic overcrowding—4,000 people in a space intended for 180. Hundreds of migrants relocated to the nearby Giordano Bruno park. On May 19, INM agents and Mexico City police cleared the migrants from the plaza. Hundreds—many of them Haitians who had been living in Brazil and Chile— returned.
In order to “relieve pressure” in Mexico City, Mexico has been offering migrants flights and buses back to Mexico’s southern border, to the town of Huixtla, Chiapas, a short drive from Tapachula. AP reported that the Mexican government is offering lodging and quick processing of documents to those who go there. This appears to contradict other efforts to relocate migrants from border zones to the interior.
More than 40,000 people migrated through Panama’s Darién Gap in April
Panama’s migration authority posted statistics indicating that April 2023 saw the third highest monthly total ever of migrants transiting the Darién Gap, a treacherous, ungoverned jungle region straddling Colombia and Panama.
40,297 people made the several-day journey last month. 63 percent were from Venezuela. 15 percent were Haitian, or the Brazilian- or Chilean-born children of Haitian parents (the number of Haitian migrants in the Darién has been declining so far this year). In all, people came from more than 36 countries.
In response, the U.S., Colombian, and Panamanian governments had announced a joint “60-day surge campaign,” which apparently launched April 20, to combat smugglers in the Darién Gap region. It involves the deployment of a U.S. Army Security Force Assistance Brigade—a unit created in 2017 to train foreign forces—to the area.
While we’ve heard little about that operation’s progress, NBC News reported on May 23 that senior Biden administration officials are considering sending U.S. military personnel to the Darién region, apparently as trainers and advisors. “The troops could work with Colombian National Police and other U.S. agencies already in the region, including the Drug Enforcement Administration and Homeland Security Investigations,” NBC noted. The commander of U.S. Southern Command, Gen. Laura Richardson, paid a visit to the Colombian side on May 22.
Humanitarian parole program swamped with signups
Documents obtained by CBS News show that a surprisingly large number of people resident in the United States have signed up to sponsor migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. More than 1.5 million people have registered for a program that admits 30,000 people per month.
In January, as it expanded Title 42 expulsions into Mexico of those countries’ citizens, the Biden administration used a 1950s-era authority to grant a two-year “humanitarian parole” in the United States to a combined monthly maximum of 30,000 Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans. (A similar program was available for up to 24,000 Venezuelans per month since October 2022.) Those paroled would apply online from outside the United States, arrive by air, and be eligible to apply for work permits. In order to access the program, applicants would need passports and U.S.-based sponsors.
Judging from the 1.5 million figure revealed by CBS, demand to participate in the new program has been stratospheric. “As of the end of last month, the agency was receiving an average of nearly 12,000 applications per day”—enough to exhaust a month’s 30,000 available spaces in less than 3 days.
As explained in WOLA’s May 19 Border Update, the U.S. government paroled over 90,000 citizens of those countries between January and April, but it has not shared a country-by-country breakdown of parolees. Using port-of-entry data, which includes airports, WOLA estimated that in March and April, citizens of Haiti led the other three countries, with Haitians comprising about 36 percent of parolees in April.
The CBS sponsorship data seems to confirm WOLA’s estimate, as it also puts Haiti in first place. “The government was overseeing more than 580,000 pending cases for Haitians, more than 380,000 for Cubans, nearly 120,000 for Venezuelans and more than 20,000 for Nicaraguans at the end of April.”
- Though a federal district court has ruled that CBP may not turn back asylum seekers from ports of entry without processing them (a practice known as “metering”), the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that this continues to happen. CBP is turning away from the San Ysidro port of entry asylum seekers who did not make appointments using the CBP One smartphone app. Reporter Kate Morrissey also documented cases of “turnbacks” in Texas, while “there is a line of about 200 asylum seekers, mostly families, who have been waiting for days to be processed” at Nogales’s DeConcini port of entry. This is happening in particular to Mexican asylum seekers, who are not banned by the Biden administration’s new rule excluding asylum seekers who did not first seek asylum in another country. “Now that the pandemic-era border policy [Title 42] is no longer in effect, it is not clear under what authority” CBP is using to turn people away.
- Reps. Veronica Escobar (D-El Paso, Texas) and María Elvira Salazar (R-Miami, Florida) released a rare piece of bipartisan legislation offering a series of reforms to border and migration policy. It proposes new pathways to citizenship for millions of people living undocumented in the United States, while increasing the size of Border Patrol by about 3,000 members and creating “humanitarian campuses” where some asylum seekers would be confined during a faster adjudication process. While the “Dignity Act” has little possibility of passing the Republican-run House, where immigration hardliners dominate the majority, and while it includes proposals that immigrants’ rights advocates will oppose, the 500-page bill is a starting point for more constructive conversations about policy change. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council published an overview.
- The Haitian Bridge Alliance, Human Rights First, and other groups published a report with findings from a delegation that traveled to the border during the final days of Title 42. Among these were that “Haitian and Black people seeking asylum are targets of anti-Black discrimination and violence.”
- Last August, Honduras stopped charging northbound migrants a fine of more than $200 per person in order to obtain a document they needed to transit the country. This “amnesty” caused the number of migrants who registered with the government to increase by 90 percent in a month, and reduced opportunities for organized crime to smuggle migrants. As the amnesty, which has been renewed twice, approaches a May 31 expiration date, the UN resident representative in Honduras urged the country’s congress to renew it again.
- “The use of federal military forces for law enforcement — including the enforcement of immigration laws — violates a tradition in American law and political thought that rejects military interference in civilian affairs,” wrote Joseph Nunn of the Brennan Center for Justice, at Just Security.
- A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that In fiscal year 2022, CBP collected DNA samples from about 37% of the 1.7 million people it encountered, and nearly 1 million DNA samples between 2020 and 2022. GAO found that when agents did not collect DNA, CBP did not document the reasons.
- Spain’s El País published in-depth coverage of the trial, begun this week in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas, Mexico, of 12 state police accused of massacring, then incinerating the vehicles and remains of, 19 mostly Guatemalan migrants outside Camargo, near the U.S. border, in January 2021.
- In a front-page story, the New York Times described the multi-country journey of an Afghan family whom reporter Julie Turkewitz and photographer Federico Ríos accompanied through the Darién Gap in February.