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.

Due to staff travel, we will not publish Border Updates on November 18 and 25. Updates will resume on December 2.

This week:

  • 40,593 Venezuelan migrants passed through Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap region in October, a 6 percent increase over September. The rate of increase slowed from previous months, because the U.S. and Mexican governments agreed on October 12 to start using Title 42 to expel Venezuelans overland into Mexico, denying them the ability to seek U.S. asylum. Overall Darién Gap migration increased 24%, as the number of migrants of all other nationalities nearly doubled.
  • Though U.S. authorities are encountering fewer Venezuelan migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, citizens of other nations continue to arrive in large numbers. El Paso is at its capacity for processing and sheltering asylum seekers. Venezuelan migrants remain stranded along the migration route through Mexico and Central America. Mexico’s asylum system saw an 18 percent increase in applications from Venezuelan citizens from September to October.
  • As the United States continues to count votes from the November 8 midterm elections, the political map along the border is little changed. Democrats held off Republican challenges in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley House of Representatives districts, and appear to have regained the district that contains New Mexico’s border.

Venezuelan migration through the Darién Gap levels off, but migration from other countries doubles

Panama’s migration authority, Migración Panamá, released data about migrants passing overland through the Darién Gap, a treacherous jungle region straddling Colombia and Panama, during October. This lawless area has seen a record amount of migration this year: over 211,000 people have walked through since January.

On October 12, the U.S. and Mexican governments announced that they would cooperate in using the Title 42 authority, first employed as a pandemic measure in March 2020, to expel Venezuelan citizens across the U.S.-Mexico land border into Mexico. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported that this change, which severely curtails Venezuelans’ right to ask for asylum in the United States, has brought a sharp decline in U.S.-bound migration of Venezuelan citizens.

While Panamanian authorities also report a sharp drop in Venezuelan migration through the Darién Gap, their data for the entire month of October, which includes nearly two weeks before the new U.S. restriction began, barely reflect it.

The number of migrants from Venezuela did begin to level off over the course of the month: Panama registered 40,593 Venezuelans emerging from the Darién jungles in October, just 6 percent more than in September (38,399). That is a far smaller growth rate compared to prior months. The overwhelming majority probably came through before the October 12 Title 42 policy change began.

The number of migrants from elsewhere in the world, however, virtually doubled from September to October, increasing 96% (from 9,805 to 19,180). The most rapid growth among countries whose citizens were encountered over 100 times in the Darién in October occurred with citizens of Ecuador (+227% in one month), Afghanistan (+206%), China (+101%), Pakistan (+73%), Brazil (+73%), and India (+72%). Many of the fast-growing Afghan population, the New York Times noted, are escaping the Taliban regime that took power in August 2021.

Overall, because of the growth in non-Venezuelan migration, total migration through the Darién Gap increased 24 percent from September to October.

To cross the Darién Gap, migrants walk a dangerous, roughly 70-mile trail through dense jungle, with almost no government presence. They are routinely preyed on by criminals who rob, injure, sexually assault, or even kill them. Many others perish from river drownings, disease, or venomous animals.

Two recent photo-filled articles by New York Times correspondent Julie Turkewitz and photojournalist Federico Ríos—one published this week—illustrate the misery and danger of a journey taken by an average of 2,000 people per day in October—an until-recently unthinkable total.

The Darién route, Turkewitz reported, “has grown into a multimillion dollar migrant business increasingly organized to move a maximum number of people—with guides who have assembled into cooperatives, locals who have marked the route with blue flags and trafficking operations that ply their services openly on Facebook and TikTok.”

Venezuela migration ebbs, while migration from other nations remains at high levels

Reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border, the New York Times found several examples of Venezuelan families whom CBP had separated in the process of expelling them. One man and his adult stepson had been permitted to seek asylum and released in Brownsville, Texas, while his wife and adult stepdaughter had been expelled and then bused by Mexican authorities to Acapulco, several hundred miles away. Other families whose members had traveled separately found themselves permanently separated when the Title 42 expansion went into effect: some had arrived in the United States, and others were stranded along the migration route.

Mexico continues to take a piecemeal approach to attending to the newly expelled Venezuelans. Tijuana’s municipal government has converted a sports facility near the border into a shelter that can accommodate about 300 people until December 1. A tent encampment, occupied by hundreds of mostly Venezuelan migrants, persists on the bank of the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juárez.

Mexico’s migration authorities have been busing other expelled Venezuelans elsewhere in the country, some of them to as far as Tapachula, near the Mexico-Guatemala border. “From the United States they took us out handcuffed, others were chained by the feet and waist, from there they handed us over to Mexican Immigration, they kept us for several days in Tijuana, then they transferred us the next day to Mexicali, then they took us to Mexico City and later they transferred us to Tapachula,” a Venezuelan migrant who had crossed from Mexicali told EFE. In Tapachula and its surrounding state of Chiapas, Mexico, civil and business organizations estimated to EFE that “more than 125,000” migrants, from Venezuela and elsewhere, are either stranded or slowly passing through.

For still other Venezuelan migrants, the Mexican government’s National Migration Institute (Institution Nacional de Migración, INM) has been facilitating discounted flights back to Caracas. INM directly organized one 140-person return flight, on November 5, with the participation of officials from Venezuela’s embassy. Panama, which claims that over 3,800 Venezuelan migrants have returned voluntarily, facilitated a 62-person flight to Caracas, at a discounted fare, on Venezuela’s national airline.

Still other expelled Venezuelan migrants are seeking to apply for asylum within Mexico. Of 2022’s first 10 months, October was second only to March in the number of migrants who applied for asylum there. The Mexican government’s Refugee Aid Commission (COMAR) received 11,391 requests for protection last month.

The largest percentage increases in asylum seekers’ countries of citizenship from September to October were those from Venezuela (18%), Guatemala (16.3%), Haiti (16.0%), and Colombia (15%). COMAR reports approving 93 percent of Venezuelan citizens’ asylum applications this year. That exceeds the approval rate of all other reported nationalities, including Honduras (90%), El Salvador (89%), Cuba (50%), and Haiti (20%).

Beyond Mexico and Panama, the U.S. policy change has stranded Venezuelans elsewhere along the migration route. In Honduras, journalists from Criterio spoke to Venezuelan migrants in the capital, Tegucigalpa, who are selling candy and begging on the street to raise money for their travel. Many reported being assaulted or having to pay steep bribes to Honduran police and soldiers.

Despite the reduction in Venezuelan arrivals, the flow of new migrants from elsewhere remains very high in El Paso. In that sector, which includes all of New Mexico’s border, Border Patrol is reporting 1,650 apprehensions per day, with about 3,660 in its Central Processing facility on El Paso’s outskirts. Border Report reports that, to ease crowding, CBP is flying about 135 migrants per day to other processing facilities elsewhere along the border.

El Paso Matters reported that CBP released about 600 migrants onto the streets of El Paso between November 4 and 7, as the city’s shelters were already over capacity. Most of those released near the city’s bus station were single adults from Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. El Paso’s city government had been paying for many migrants’ bus fares to destinations elsewhere in the country, but had curtailed that program on October 20 due to cost.

On the other end of the Texas border in Brownsville, the Rio Grande Valley Monitor reported that the Ozanam Center shelter received 2,050 migrants during the month of October. Most were citizens of Haiti who had been permitted to approach the official border crossing (port of entry) under a small program of exemptions to Title 42 for migrants deemed most vulnerable. Those exemptions could be in danger, as Republican attorneys-general who have successfully sued to keep Title 42 in place filed a November 1 motion before the same judge, alleging that the Biden administration has “de facto terminated the Title 42 Policy vis-à-vis citizens of Haiti.”

The U.S. midterm elections and the U.S.-Mexico border

In the runup to the U.S. midterm congressional elections, much political analysis had noted an erosion in support for the Democratic Party among Latino voters in border districts. This erosion did not materialize. In south Texas, Democrats considered vulnerable (Rep. Henry Cuéllar and Rep. Vicente González) defeated Republican challengers. Most border counties gave Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke a 10 to 20 point margin in his unsuccessful bid to unseat Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a border and immigration hardliner. In New Mexico, Democrat Gabe Vásquez narrowly defeated Rep. Yvette Herrell (R) in the state’s 2nd district, which includes the entire border.

Three the border’s eleven districts will be represented by Republicans. Texas Rep. Tony Gonzales (R), whose district includes more border miles than any other, won re-election, as did Darrell Issa (R) in California’s central border zone. Republican Monica de la Cruz won a district drawn to concentrate Republican support, Texas’s 15th, which occupies a sliver of border near McAllen. Along Arizona’s southeastern border with Mexico, the state’s 6th district remains too close to call, while Raul Grijalva (D) was re-elected for its 7th district, covering the majority of the state’s border with Mexico.

In Texas, Gov. Abbott promised to continue his controversial large-scale border security spending program, which he calls “Operation Lone Star.” In Arizona, where the gubernatorial race remains too close to call, environmentalists continue to decry outgoing Gov. Doug Ducey’s (R) placement of razor wire-topped shipping containers along border wall gaps in a federal national forest. Should Republican nominee Kari Lake win the count, archconservative Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona) told an interviewer, she might deploy National Guard troops to encircle the Tohono O’Odham Native American reservation, which opposes border wall construction along its 74-mile stretch of Arizona’s border.

Other News

  • The OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission held a hearing on November 4 to consider the case of Anastasio Hernández, a Mexican citizen beaten and tased to death by CBP and Border Patrol personnel, caught on camera, in San Diego in 2010. None of those involved has ever faced punishment. Hernández’s widow, María Puga, was among those who testified. “Officials representing the United States at the hearing declined to engage on the merits of the case,” refusing to answer questions orally, reported the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Instead, the U.S. government asked the commission to throw the case out.” Puga was accompanied by Alliance San Diego and the University of California Berkeley’s International Human Rights Law Clinic.
  • Members of Border Patrol’s SWAT-style unit, BORTAC, shot and killed a migrant on U.S. soil near San Luis, Arizona. A CBP statement claimed that a Border Patrol remote camera operator detected six individuals crossing into the United States, one of them armed. “Three agents fired their weapons, striking and killing one of the subjects,” CBP reported, adding that a handgun was found near the man’s body. The agency did not specify what provoked the agents to open fire. The incident is under investigation by the FBI, the San Luis Police Department, and CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility.
  • Mexico increased to 32,317 the number of military personnel assigned to guarding its northern and southern borders, principally to detect and interdict migrants. That is up from 31,607 soldiers as of mid-October and about 28,000 in June.
  • The Associated Press reported that South Dakota National Guardsmen sent to the Texas-Mexico border in 2021 rarely had much to do. “Mission logs don’t contain any confirmed encounters with ‘transnational criminals,’ the AP found, citing one that read: “Very slow day. No encounters. It has been 5 days since last surrender.” The logs were obtained via a lawsuit filed by the Washington, DC-based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, which was seeking information about the South Dakota state government’s use of a private donor’s funds to support the deployment.
  • DHS is “reviewing internal practices” amid new reports that CBP and Border Patrol personnel have been confiscating apprehended migrants’ personal identity documents, CBS News reported. Non-return of migrants’ belongings is an issue that human rights advocates have been raising frequently. It came up again in a November 6 feature on the CBS program 60 Minutes, about migrants bused to New York: 12 of 16 migrants interviewed had important documents taken and not returned. Four Democratic House members, including key committee chairs, sent a letter to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) asking the agency to investigate the trend.
  • The fire department in Sunland Park, New Mexico, just west of El Paso, has responded to “between 25 to 30” emergency calls every month to desert areas of the border wall. “What is happening is that a lot of these immigrants are falling off the wall or jumping off the wall and sustaining lower extremity issues,” the Fire Department’s Battalion Chief, Ramiro Rios, told the local FOX TV affiliate.
  • An investigation in the Mexican daily El Heraldo de Chihuahua lists and maps seven criminal groups, mainly linked to the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels, that engage in migrant smuggling along the border in Mexico’s state of Chihuahua, which runs from New Mexico to Texas’s Big Bend National Park region.