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
Preparations for vice-presidential visit to Mexico and Central America
Vice President Kamala Harris departs for Guatemala late on June 6 for her first foreign trip since taking office. She will spend June 7 in Guatemala and June 8 in Mexico. The trip is part of her designated role as the White House’s point person for partnering with Mexico and Central America on the “root causes” of migration.
Harris and her staff have resisted Republican and some media portrayals of her role as involving the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border. It does not: the vice president is focusing on diplomatic efforts with Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. At a June 1 briefing for reporters, vice presidential staff said “she will focus on economic development, climate and food insecurity, and women and young people,” CNN reported.
In past months, Harris has held virtual meetings with Presidents Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala and Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico. She has met with experts, former officials, and reform advocates from the region and from the United States. The Biden administration has announced $310 million in emergency assistance for the Central American “Northern Triangle” countries. The foreign aid appropriation request that the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) sent to Congress on May 28 asks for $832.6 million in new assistance to Central America for 2022. On May 27 Harris announced that 12 U.S. companies and organizations, including MasterCard, Microsoft, and Nestlé Nespresso, would be increasing their investments in the region.
2022 Foreign Aid Request by Country
- Belize $250,000
- Costa Rica $725,000
- El Salvador $95,800,000
- Guatemala $127,450,000
- Honduras $95,800,000
- Nicaragua $15,000,000
- Panama $725,000
- Central America regional funds $496,850,000
2022 Foreign Aid Request by Account
- USAID Global Health Programs $13,000,000
- State Department Global Health Programs $43,600,000
- Development Assistance $391,735,000
- Economic Support Fund $131,000,000
- International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement $219,665,000
- NADR – Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction $2,000,000
- International Military Education and Training $4,100,000
- Foreign Military Financing $27,500,000
This request would increase Foreign Military Financing (FMF), the State Department’s main non-drug military aid program, by a surprising $15.1 million over 2020 levels. That year, the seven Central American countries got a combined $12.4 million, of which only $1.9 million went to the Northern Triangle (El Salvador). In 2021, Congress banned FMF for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras completely. (See Section 7045(a)(2)(D) of Division K here).
We are working to find out which countries would get the expanded FMF in 2022, and for what. The budget request only says: “In Central America, FMF will support the Administration’s Root Causes Strategy by addressing gaps in maritime interdiction and domain awareness capabilities to improve security.”
In her meeting with the president of Guatemala, CBS News reports, Harris “is expected to focus on the administration’s concerns with deep-rooted government corruption, threats to the country’s judicial independence and long-running U.S.-Guatemalan missions to target drug traffickers and the Guatemalan government’s desire for more economic aid, especially in the form of private sector investment.” Harris will also meet “Guatemalan community leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs,” Mazin Alfaqih, the vice president’s special adviser for the Northern Triangle, told reporters.
Concerns about corruption and impunity in Guatemala are growing, as explained in a June 2 statement from the Washington Office on Latin America, the Latin America Working Group, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the Due Process of Law Foundation, and the Center for Justice and International Law. “In Guatemala, the rule of law has continued to deteriorate rapidly since the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala was shut down in 2019,” it reads. Recent alarming examples include a refusal to allow anti-corruption judge Gloria Porras to take her Constitutional Court seat, legal actions against prosecutors and judges who have led past anti-corruption efforts, and the impending enactment of a law that would allow the government to dissolve non-governmental organizations.
The leaders will also discuss measures to reduce asylum-seeking migration from Guatemala, whose citizens were “encountered” by U.S. border agents 128,441 times between October and April. The agenda with Guatemala includes increasing “the number of border security personnel,” CNN reports. “The US will also increase the number of its own security forces on the ground to provide training, Alfaqih said.” The White House is also working with Guatemala on the opening of the first of what will be several “migrant resource centers… that would offer assistance to would-be migrants in their home countries.”
In Mexico, beyond her meeting with López Obrador, Vice President Harris will meet with female entrepreneurs and labor leaders, said Hillary Quam, Harris’s special adviser for the Western Hemisphere. The statement from WOLA and colleagues points out serious concerns about “security, the rule of law, judicial independence, human rights violations, and the role of the military” in Mexico. President López Obrador has given the armed forces a host of new internal roles without making the institution more accountable for human rights abuses or corruption. He “has also repeatedly sought to discredit civil society organizations and journalists that he perceives as critical of his government,” including recent demands that USAID stop funding press freedom and transparency organizations in Mexico.
That Harris is visiting Guatemala but not El Salvador and Honduras points to the fraught state of the Biden administration’s relations with the Central American countries whose citizens migrate most to the United States. In all three, the Biden administration plans to provide little government-to-government assistance in its proposed 2022-2025 $4 billion aid package, for which the $832 million request for 2022 is a first tranche.
Giammattei, CBS News observes, “is seen as leading a more stable government than Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras, whose brother was indicted in the U.S. for drug possession last year and Nayib Bukele of El Salvador, whose party now has total control of the country’s government and has moved in recent weeks to strip the nation’s judicial sector of many of its rights.” The vice president has not had conversations with Hernández or Bukele; “her staff is finding the best way to engage,” reports the Los Angeles Times’ Tracey Wilkinson.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Costa Rica on June 1 and 2 engaging with some of those other governments. At a meeting with the region’s foreign ministers and Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, Blinken planned to have “a very frank and honest” exchange of views, Julie Chung, the acting assistant secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, told Wilkinson. Blinken had separate one-on-one meetings with Ebrard and with the ministers of each Northern Triangle country.
In remarks while in Costa Rica, Blinken warned would-be migrants against taking “a very dangerous journey north,” adding, “People die along the way. They experience violence, and those who do make it to our border are turned around, because the border is not open.”
Some analysts worry that administration officials’ desire to stem migration in the short term could move them in a transactional direction, easing pressure on issues like corruption and democracy when leaders do more to stop migrants. In Honduras, where serious allegations beset President Juan Orlando Hernández, “the Biden administration refuses to denounce him,” writes journalist James Fredrick in a June 3 Washington Post opinion piece. “In fact, Biden administration officials are working with Hernández to try to prevent Hondurans from fleeing.”
The June 2 statement from WOLA and partner organizations voices concern “that in the name of reaching immigration enforcement agreements to limit the number of arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Biden administration will overlook pressing human rights, rule of law, and governance issues that should be addressed with the governments of Mexico and Guatemala.”
While Mexico and Guatemala have embraced immigration enforcement, partly as a result of U.S. pressure, this neither represents an effective and holistic response to migration, nor should it be a pretext to avoid conversations about corruption, insecurity, judicial independence, and attacks against civil society organizations, journalists and justice officials.
In the midst of these concerning human rights trends, Biden administration officials have praised the Mexican and Guatemalan governments for militarized crackdowns on migrants—actions that provoke further human rights violations. In the April meeting between Guatemalan President Giammattei and Vice President Harris, the governments announced an agreement for the United States to train members of a Guatemalan task force charged with border security and immigration enforcement. Media reports leading up to Harris’s May meeting with López Obrador revealed that U.S. officials are discussing proposals for additional enforcement actions, including asking Mexico to increase detentions and deportations of migrants.
A June 4 letter to Vice President Harris from 17 organizations, including WOLA, similarly calls to ensure “that combating corruption, advancing the rule of law, and promoting respect for human rights will be central to the U.S. approach toward the region. “At the same time,” it continues, “we are concerned by the continued focus on expanding migration enforcement in the region instead of increasing access to protection for refugees.”
Vice presidential spokespeople would not say whether conversations would cover another area where Mexico has been accommodating: the continued use of the “Title 42” pandemic authority at the border. The United States has employed Title 42 since March 2020 to expel over 200,000 non-Mexican migrants back across the border into Mexico.
Other recent moves have been less transactional. Vice President Harris met recently with four former Guatemalan prosecutors and judges who led anti-corruption efforts. USAID suspended assistance to Salvadoran security and justice institutions whose independence is now deeply in question after President Bukele and his congressional majority fired top judges and the chief prosecutor and redirected the aid to civil society and human rights organizations. In Costa Rica, Blinken said that “we’re meeting at a moment when democracy and human rights are being undermined in many parts of the region,” citing moves against judicial independence, the free press, NGOs, and opposition parties.
“Remain in Mexico” comes to a formal end as administration plans changes to asylum
With a June 1 memorandum, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas brought a formal end to the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols policy (MPP, also known as “Remain in Mexico”). In 2019 and 2020, MPP forced 71,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their court hearing dates in the United States, which for many families meant months or years stranded in dangerous Mexican border cities. Human Rights First documented at least 1,544 cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violent assaults committed against those whom the Trump administration forced to “Remain in Mexico.”
On January 20, the new Biden administration paused new referrals into MPP. On February 2, a White House executive order called on agencies to review the program and decide whether to terminate it. Mayorkas’s June 1 memo finalizing the end of “Remain in Mexico” signals the end of that review.
Starting on February 19, the administration started letting into the United States asylum-seekers who had been in Mexico awaiting their court dates. The Los Angeles Times reported on June 1 that 11,200 people with active cases have since been brought onto U.S. soil to await their hearings with relatives or other contacts.
Many more—probably about 15,000—still have pending cases. They are either waiting their turn to be allowed into the United States, in a process managed in cooperation with Mexican authorities, UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration, and NGOs, or their whereabouts are unknown. In addition, tens of thousands more had their asylum cases terminated, usually because they failed to show up on their appointed hearing dates. In at least a few cases, migrants missed those dates because they were actually being held by kidnappers in Mexico. The Biden administration has not decided whether a process will be in place to reconsider their cases.
Meanwhile the Biden administration, with a slowly growing number of exceptions, continues to maintain the “Title 42” pandemic policy. As discussed above, Title 42 has sent well over 200,000 Central American migrants back across the border into Mexico, without a chance to ask for asylum, since March 2020. Administration officials continue to offer no timeline for the policy’s lifting, even as new COVID-19 cases ebb and restrictions ease across the United States.
The result has been a confusing “lottery,” as NBC News puts it, for migrant families. In April, 35 percent of non-Mexican families (16,100 out of 46,499) whom Border Patrol apprehended were expelled under Title 42. The rest, however, got to stay in the United States to pursue their petitions for protection. In the same part of the border at different times, a family with small children can be expelled and a single adult can be allowed in.
The main reason for the inconsistency, Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol Sector Chief Brian Hastings told NBC, “is that some enter on days when Mexico cannot take them back… ‘When they run out of shelter space a lot of times they were telling different Border Patrol sectors, ‘No, we can no longer take any additional people because we don’t have additional housing or we don’t have additional space in a lot of our facilities.’’”
Meanwhile, BuzzFeed revealed that the Biden administration is planning a significant change to the U.S. asylum system designed to ease immigration courts’ backlog of more than 1.3 million cases for just over 500 judges. It would allow asylum officers—employees of DHS’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)—to decide most asylum cases instead of immigration court judges.
Right now, asylum officers have this power in the cases of asylum-seekers who are already in the United States. For those recently apprehended at the border, though, asylum officers’ role is usually limited to performing initial “credible fear” screenings. Those whose cases meet that standard then move on into the clogged court system.
Instead, many asylum cases would end with the asylum officer’s decision, which could be appealed to the courts. This greater role for asylum officers was a key recommendation developed by the Migration Policy Institute in an October 2020 brief. “DHS officials have estimated that officers could end up adjudicating upward of 300,000 cases a year,” BuzzFeed reports.
More single adult migrants may mean more dehydration and exposure deaths on U.S. soil
The Washington Post and NBC News reported new information raising alarms that 2021 could be a record-breaking year for deaths of migrants on the U.S. side of the U.S.-Mexico border zone. Between 1998 and 2019, Border Patrol reports finding the remains of 7,805 migrants who perished of dehydration, hypothermia, animal attacks, drowning, or similar causes while seeking to avoid apprehension in very remote areas. Advocates insist the real number is much higher.
Between a pandemic-caused economic depression and because Title 42 expulsions make it easy for expelled migrants to cross again, Border Patrol is encountering more single adult migrants in fiscal 2021 than it has since the mid-2000s. The agency encountered adults 108,301 times in April, and Reuters and the Post say preliminary figures point to a further increase in May. Unlike families and children, who are mostly seeking asylum and want to be apprehended, most of this larger number of single adults instead seeks to avoid apprehension. This means they are walking long distances in sparsely populated areas, usually deserts, where the chances of being detected are smaller.
Numbers are up in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector, where for years migrants have perished as they sought to walk around a Border Patrol highway checkpoint in Brooks County, about 80 miles north of the border. Border Patrol Agent Brandon Copp, lead coordinator for CBP’s Missing Migrants Program, told NBC that this spring, even before the weather gets truly hot, he “is already responding to one to two reports of dead bodies found in the Rio Grande Valley sector each week. He said rescues of migrants in distress are up 150 percent year to year, while deaths are up 58 percent.”
Brooks County Sheriff’s Deputy Don White told the Washington Post’s Nick Miroff, “It’s going to be a brutal summer… I’ve never seen so many people coming through, it’s just crazy right now.” The county has already recovered 34 bodies and remains so far this year.
In southern Arizona, where the Pima County (Tucson) Medical Examiner’s office found more remains in 2020 (220) than it had in a decade, “2021 looks like it will be pretty significant as well,” Medical Examiner Greg Hess told the Post. Miroff cites authorities who say “dangerous crossings have also increased” in the mountains of California between San Diego and the Imperial Valley.
Border-wide, Border Patrol “is on pace to make more than 10,000 rescues during fiscal 2021, twice the number recorded in 2019 and 2020,” the Post reveals. A CBP Air and Marine Operations official noted that many of these are happening in “mountain regions, which used to be exclusively narcotics traffic.”
Border Patrol is adding 15 rescue beacons in the Rio Grande Valley so that lost or struggling migrants can more easily call for help, NBC reports. Legislation passed in December 2020 authorizes the addition of up to 170 more rescue beacons border-wide.
The Post notes that the Trump administration’s border wall construction, much of it in Arizona and New Mexico deserts, hasn’t kept migrants from crossing in dangerous areas. “Officials say the barriers have made little difference in terms of where they are encountering bodies or human remains.”
- WOLA held an event May 27 with partners along the Mexico-Guatemala border to discuss the impact of migrant enforcement policies there. We posted video this week. At Border Report, reporter Julian Resendiz noted panelists’ observations about how corruption enables smuggling in Mexico: “buses or trailers carrying migrants often pass right through some checkpoints after paying a $100 per-head fee.”
- A June 3 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Inspector-General’s Office (OIG) “has not adhered to a number of professional standards for federal OIGs and key practices for effective management.” As a result, oversight of DHS was weakened during the Trump administration, a moment when it was badly needed. During those years, the Department’s leadership was mostly “acting,” and its personnel became involved in controversial missions ranging from family separations to combating protesters in Portland, Oregon and elsewhere.
- Amid pandemic border closures, drug traffickers have depended more heavily on U.S. citizens to bring their product in from Mexico, the Associated Press reports. “U.S. citizens were apprehended nearly seven times more often than Mexican citizens between October 2020 and March 31 for trying to smuggle drugs in vehicles,” according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data AP cites. This is a big jump over “roughly twice as often” in 2018 and 2019. “The use of American citizens kind of ebbs and flows. Drug organizations… are much more adept at changing than the government is,” former Border Patrol sector chief Victor Manjarrez told AP.
- The Biden administration announced a new plan to speed asylum decisions for migrants recently apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, by placing them in a separate immigration docket with the goal of handing down a decision within 300 days. However, “immigrant advocacy groups say that prioritizing speed comes at the cost of due process,” Rolling Stone reported. CBS News points out that during past so-called “rocket docket” experiences, the faster timeframe made it harder for asylum seeking families to secure legal representation. The plan will be rolled out at immigration courts in 10 cities.
- Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R), who is running for re-election this year, issued a disaster declaration for 34 border counties, citing an “ongoing surge” of migrants and accusing the Biden administration of inaction. Rep. Henry Cuéllar, a conservative Democrat who represents a large swath of borderland, called Abbott’s move “a state version of [former President Donald Trump] declaring a border emergency.”
- Part of Abbott’s order would end licenses for 52 Texas childcare facilities contracted by the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to house children who arrived unaccompanied at the border. These facilities were housing 4,223 unaccompanied children as of May 19, the Dallas Morning News reports. (Temporary emergency facilities housing children, like Fort Bliss, Texas, are not licensed and would be unaffected by Abbott’s order.) An HHS spokesperson told the DMN that staff are “assessing” the disaster declaration “and do not intend to close any facilities as a result of the order.”
- Sen. Rick Scott (R-Florida) announced that he is using procedural mechanisms to slow approvals of the Biden administration’s Homeland Security nominees until the President visits the U.S.-Mexico border. Those whose approvals could be delayed include nominees John Tien for deputy secretary, Jonathan Meyer for general counsel, and Robert Silvers as undersecretary for strategy, policy and plans. It is not clear whether nominees to head CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would be affected.
- Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) jointly toured Border Patrol facilities, including migrant shelters and “soft-sided” (tent-based) processing centers for apprehended migrants, in both of their states on June 1 and 2. The senators are co-sponsors of the “Bipartisan Border Solutions Act,” discussed in our April 30 update. The legislation would increase processing capacity and access to legal services at the border, but advocates have criticized provisions that would seek to hand down asylum decisions within as little as 72 hours, raising due process concerns.
- Reps. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), Adriano Espaillat (D-New York), and Sylvia García (D-Texas) reintroduced the “Homeland Security Improvement Act” (H.R. 3557), legislation that passed the House in 2019. It seeks to improve internal controls, training, use of force policies, and other aspects of human rights and effectiveness at CBP and elsewhere within DHS.
- As we await official statistics on migrants apprehended during the month of May, USA Today reports that the number of asylum-seeking family members may be reduced in Texas’s busy Rio Grande Valley. The Catholic Charities respite center, which receives nearly all families let out of Border Patrol custody, was receiving about 800 people a day in April, but “as of May, the organization had seen a decrease to 200 to 300 people daily.” In the USA Today article, local Rio Grande Valley officials and volunteers say that the Biden administration has been “slow” and is not coordinating with them enough on migrant reception.
- Mexican asylum seekers “are the invisible refugees, a group that has historically been excluded from the U.S. asylum system and rarely featured in the media or even academic research,” in part due to “the uncomfortable and inconvenient political truths that recognizing them would pose for U.S.-Mexico relations,” a team of six U.S. and Mexican researchers writes at NACLA.
- At Florida Public Radio’s WRLN, Tim Padgett reports on a big recent increase in asylum-seeking migrants from Venezuela at the U.S.-Mexico border, especially in the remote crossing between Ciudad Acuña, Mexico and Del Rio, Texas. Many arrived in Mexico by flying there: reporter Dudley Althaus said “they were sort of what we call business-class border migrants. More professionals and fewer laborers than you see among the Central Americans.”