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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Reports, media coverage describe humanitarian emergency at the border as a result of Title 42
In a column at the Los Angeles Times, three medical providers from the Refugee Health Alliance discussed what they’ve seen at the tent encampment that has sprung up around the Chaparral port of entry, on the Mexican side of the main pedestrian border crossing between Tijuana and San Diego. There, about 2,000 asylum seekers from several countries are waiting for a chance to present to U.S. officials and ask for protection in the United States.
Some are recent arrivals; many are people, including families, whom U.S. border authorities apprehended, then rapidly expelled without a chance to ask for protection. Since March 2020, the expulsions have taken place under a pandemic public health order, known as “Title 42,” that the Trump administration began and the Biden administration has continued.
“We’ve seen how this expulsion policy has caused a humanitarian emergency in northern Mexico,” write Psyche Calderon, Hannah Janeway, and Ronica Mukerjee. “We have seen increasing dehydration, malnutrition and infectious diseases associated with overcrowding. At an encampment in Tijuana that shelters some 2,000 asylum seekers, there are no formal sanitation facilities; gastrointestinal illnesses are causing severe illness in newborns and young children.”
The op-ed highlights other recent striking statistics from the border, including research that found “More than 80% of LGBTQ refugees in Baja California [the state of which Tijuana is the capital] reported surviving an assault in Mexico from mid-February to March.”
In another recent report, Julia Neusner of Human Rights First interviewed more than 110 asylum seekers waiting in Tijuana, both at the encampment and elsewhere in the city. She found that many are threatened: “The U.S. government is delivering those expelled under Title 42 straight into the hands of criminal organizations, who extort their family members in the United States for ransom. Nearly a quarter of the fifty families I interviewed who had been expelled under Title 42 had been kidnapped in Mexico.” The report notes that Human Rights First has documented “more than 492 public reports of assaults, rapes, kidnappings, and other violent attacks against asylum seekers impacted by Title 42 since the Biden administration took office.”
As noted in recent weekly updates, a similar encampment of asylum seeking migrants, mostly made up of people expelled under Title 42, has also sprung up on the eastern end of the border, in Reynosa, Tamaulipas.
(Encampments at the border also came up during a May 26 congressional hearing, when the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia), asked Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas about “tent cities that have been set up on the northern border of Mexico, I’m assuming, I think those for set up for the adults that are waiting for this Title 42 authority to go.” (This is incorrect, the ‘tent cities’ include many families.) In his response, Mayorkas made no mention of the encampments in Tijuana and Reynosa. He centered his answer on an earlier encampment, in the city of Matamoros, where those subject to the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy had been living until the Biden administration terminated the policy earlier this year.)
Pressure on Biden to end Title 42
As a May 24 New York Times analysis indicates, the humanitarian effect of expulsions, ongoing litigation to stop them, and expressions like the UNHCR’s call to end Title 42 discussed in last week’s update, are putting great pressure on the Biden administration to end the policy.
Times reporter Zolan Kanno-Youngs notes that Vice President Kamala Harris, who as a senator signed a letter opposing Title 42, “has changed her view on the policy.” Kanno-Youngs tweeted on May 26, “In a private call yesterday for advocates, a White House official, Alida Garcia, was asked about the rule. She called it ‘a tool for the pandemic.’ Did not give timeline.”
Administration officials insist that they are working hard to build capacity to receive and process asylum seekers at the border. “Building asylum back better,” Mayorkas put it during the May 26 hearing. Part of that is the construction of a second Customs and Border Protection (CBP) “Central Processing Center” in El Paso, supplementing one built in early 2020, that may be large enough “to accommodate 965 detainees and a staff of 200 for the processing and temporary holding of migrants who have crossed into the U.S.,” the El Paso Times reported. Plans for the new processing center actually began under the Trump administration, using funds Congress assigned in a mid-2019 emergency supplemental appropriation.
Part of the gradual opening of asylum capacity and gradual closure of Title 42 is the deal between ACLU lawsuit plaintiffs and DHS, reported in last week’s update, to allow 250 families or individuals to enter the United States each day to begin their asylum claims. Now, at the Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana, KPBS reports, “Every morning and afternoon, Customs and Border Protection agents call out names.” It adds,
Deciding who ends up on the list that gets sent to the U.S. government is up to these service providers on the ground in Tijuana. Groups including Al Otro Lado and Casa del Migrante have been working with migrants in the camp and nearby shelters to help identify some of those 250 individuals. It’s based not on their claims of asylum from their home countries, but how much danger they face in Mexico.
“However,” the above-cited medical providers say in their May 27 LA Times op-ed, “this is nowhere near sufficient to address the widespread human rights violations and humanitarian crisis we see every day in Tijuana.”
In a whistleblower complaint, two subject-matter experts who do work for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) denounced the harms of family detention and found that Title 42 is causing the “de facto separation of children from their families, just on the Mexican side of the border.” The complaint is managed by the Government Accountability Project and was shared by the New York Times.
“There is even less of a public health justification now, when, more than a year later, arriving asylum seekers could be easily screened and tested, and currently those over 16 vaccinated, in a way that protects the public health,” the medical experts wrote.
Mayorkas testimony on eve of budget submission
The Biden administration is to submit its detailed DHS 2022 budget request (along with the rest of the federal budget) on May 28. As of this writing on the morning of the 28th, it has not appeared yet. As noted above, DHS Secretary Mayorkas testified before Senate appropriators about the funding request on May 26.
On April 9, the White House had submitted an overview document, called the “skinny budget,” that provided a few top-line numbers:
- $52 billion for DHS overall (Mayorkas said $52.2 billion on the 26th), “approximately equal to the 2021 enacted level.”
- $1.2 billion for border infrastructure: for ports of entry, technology, and custody of migrants, but none of it for border wall-building. Prior years’ border wall appropriations would be canceled.
- Big increases in budget for the offices of professional responsibility (internal affairs) at CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and for DHS’s office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which receives complaints.
Sen. Capito criticized the budget request’s lack of an increase for DHS over 2021 levels: “Despite every other agency receiving substantial increases in funding, the Department of Homeland Security stands alone as the only department held virtually flat from last year.” However, the $52 billion in 2021 and 2022 is $10 billion more than 2017, $5 billion more than 2018, $3 billion more than 2019, and nearly $2 billion more than 2020.
Mayorkas told The Washington Post that DHS does not plan any 2022 cuts to staffing or detention capacity at ICE. He promised the subcommittee that the Biden administration would notify the appropriators if dealing with the 2021 increase in migration makes it necessary to reprogram or transfer funds from other DHS accounts. “I would anticipate that we will indeed seek a reprogramming, but that’s something that we are assessing right now.”
The stop to border wall funding and the overall leveling-off of the budget could make the Homeland Security bill’s passage contentious in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Though it is chaired by Democrats in the 50-50 Senate, the Committee has 15 Democrats and 15 Republicans, leaving little room for maneuver to full committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Homeland Security Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut).
Unaccompanied children updates
During three of the past four weeks, the daily number of non-Mexican migrant children arriving unaccompanied at the U.S.-Mexico border has stayed within a daily average of 360 to 390 per day. (During the other week, the number was even lower.) This rate of arrivals points to about 11,500 non-Mexican unaccompanied children (plus perhaps 2,000 Mexican children who are quickly deported) during the month of May—a significant drop from 16,500 non-Mexican kids in March and 14,700 in April.
The population of children in Border Patrol’s inadequate holding facilities, awaiting handoffs to the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s (ORR) network of short-term shelters, has leveled off in the 600s. Handoffs from Border Patrol to ORR are mostly happening within 24 hours—not more than a week, as was happening in late March and early April.
The number of children in ORR custody, including 13 large and increasingly controversial temporary emergency shelters, remains over 18,000, though this population is at its lowest level in about six weeks. During three of the past four weeks, ORR has discharged an average of more than 500 kids per day to relatives or sponsors in the United States, with whom they will live while their protection claims are adjudicated. With about 360-390 children being newly apprehended and over 500 discharged each day, the population of unaccompanied kids in U.S. government custody is gradually but steadily decreasing.
Press reports are uncovering troubling details about life in ORR’s emergency shelters. While the agency prohibits nearly all access to the facilities and requires employees to sign non-disclosure agreements, reporters have talked to some discharged children and to some unidentified employees about what’s going on inside.
A 16-year-old who spent several days at Border Patrol’s tent-based processing facility in Donna, Texas told the BBC “there were 80 girls in her cubicle and that she and most of the children were wet under their blankets, due to dripping pipes. ‘We all woke up wet,’ she said. ‘We slept on our sides, all hugged, so we stayed warm.’” Other children at Donna told of being given expired, rotten, or uncooked food. Some went many days at a time without being able to shower, and contracted lice. A 10-year-old girl told BBC “the guards threatened the children if they did not keep their cramped quarters clean. ‘Sometimes they would tell us that if we were doing a lot of mess, they were going to punish us by leaving us there more days.’”
At the Dallas convention center where ORR is keeping hundreds of kids who need to be placed with relatives or sponsors, “The children always complain about not having enough, not eating enough,” a staff member told BBC, adding that the site is cold, the boys each have one thin blanket, they are forced to spend most of their time by their cots in the main convention hall, and are given only 30 minutes of indoor recreation twice per week.
4,500 children are currently at an emergency shelter site at Fort Bliss, a large Army base outside El Paso, Texas, a site that can hold up to 10,000. There, a source told BBC, “hundreds of children are in Covid isolation, and there are designated tents at the site now for scabies and lice, of which there are also outbreaks. Sources say the living conditions are unsanitary, and that there has been at least one report of sexual abuse in the girls’ tent.”
A 16-year-old Guatemalan boy who spent 25 days at Fort Bliss told CBS, “We were trapped. We would only go to the bathroom and return to the cots.” Even though his mother was in the United States and willing to sponsor him, he did not get to talk to a case manager for three weeks.
Of the 4,500 unaccompanied kids at Fort Bliss as of May 14, government data seen by CBS and Vice show, nearly 600 had been there for at least 40 days. 1,675 had been there for at least 30 days.
Vice reports that the contractor hired to set up and administer the Fort Bliss site, Alabama-based Rapid Deployment Inc., has received $614.3 million for its services; the contracts expire May 30 but could be extended through October. Rapid Deployment has built emergency shelters for natural disaster victims, but is not experienced in childcare.
The Health and Human Services Department (HHS), which oversees ORR, has abandoned plans to use the Fort Bliss facility to shelter “tender age” children (under 12 years old), CBS reports. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who represents El Paso, toured the Fort Bliss site on May 21 and told Vice that she “left convinced that ‘mega sites’ are a bad idea.’” She continued, “We need to break down these big sites. I find them depressing and disheartening. The bigger the bureaucracy, the bigger the facility, the bigger the problem. I’ve made that very clear.”
- A DHS Office of Inspector General report dated May 18 found that between July 2017 and July 2018, “ICE removed at least 348 parents separated from their children without documenting that those parents wanted to leave their children in the United States. In fact, ICE removed some parents without their children despite having evidence the parents wanted to bring their children back to their home country.” This comes after a scathing mid-January Justice Department Inspector General report, which found that then-attorney general Jeff Sessions and other officials knew that mass family separations would result from their policies, and didn’t bother to prepare the responsible agencies ahead of time.
- In two separate incidents this week, medical personnel in Sunland Park, New Mexico, just west of El Paso, had to medically evacuate people who fell from the border wall. One was a 39-year-old Mexican woman who “suffered serious head injuries.” Sunland Park’s fire chief told Newsweek, “There are rope ladders and other tools to help migrants climb up on the Mexico side but nothing to assist them on the U.S. side, so scaling down the steel bars is a dangerous feat.” In fact, this week on the Mexican side across from Sunland Park, in western Ciudad Juárez, immigration authorities recovered two more people who suffered injuries after falling from the wall.
- Those who perform initial “credible fear” interviews of asylum seekers “are not trained psychologists, therapists, or social workers,” writes attorney Elizabeth Silver at the Los Angeles Review of Books. “In many cases, they are not even trained asylum officers; in fact, they are often Customs and Border Protection officers with limited training in the interview process and an entire background based in law enforcement.”
- The Associated Press details how two immigration judges were responsible for many of 5,600 “Remain in Mexico” cases that got dismissed in San Diego during the Trump administration. In some cases, due process for asylum seekers was likely violated. At times, so that Mexico would take them back, CBP sent them across the border with “tear sheets” showing court dates that were, in fact, fake.
- A delegation of 12 Republican members of the House Border Security Caucus was “physically restricted” from visiting the Drug Enforcement Administration’s El Paso Intelligence Center (DEA EPIC), Fox News reported. In past years, WOLA has also been refused permission to visit the secretive facility, located on the grounds of Fort Bliss.
- “Border Patrol agents have apprehended 2,217 Romanians so far in fiscal year 2021, more than the 266 caught in fiscal 2020 and the 289 in fiscal 2019,” Reuters reports, noting that they are mostly members of the frequently persecuted Roma ethnic group.
- Several ICE detention centers around the United States are experiencing spikes in COVID-19 cases. The agency blames newly arrived immigrants, while critics say it is failing to systematically administer vaccines to detainees, according to the Arizona Republic and the American South. The mid-May population in ICE detention centers (19,041) is much lower than pre-pandemic levels, but 34 percent greater than at the end of the Trump administration. This is in large part due to more adults apprehended at the border and not expelled under Title 42.
- The New Yorker features a short film by Erin Semine Kokdil, “Since You Arrived, My Heart Stopped Belonging to Me,” telling the story of Central American mothers searching in Mexico for migrant children who disappeared there.
- Using some remarkable e-mail communications obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Bob Moore at El Paso Matters reconstructs Border Patrol’s plan to carry out a “shock and awe” crowd control exercise in the city on Election Day 2018. The plan was abandoned at the last minute. “Not sure it’s going to deter anyone at this point in their journey but it sure will rile up the local advocacy groups,” a Border Patrol agent in charge wrote in one of several memorable e-mails.