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.
Mexico solidifies role as bulwark against U.S.-bound migration
On September 5, for the fourth time in about a week, Mexican immigration agents and militarized National Guard personnel broke up a “caravan” of migrants in Chiapas, near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala.
Perhaps 800 people, mostly from Haiti, Central America, Cuba, and Venezuela, many of them parents with children, sought to leave en masse from the southern border-zone city of Tapachula on September 4. They got about 30 miles up Chiapas’s Pacific coastal highway to the town of Huixtla, where most bedded down at a basketball court.
There, before dawn on the 5th, about 200 agents and guardsmen descended on the migrants. The Mexican forces spent the next eight hours chasing people through Huixtla and its environs, capturing many and hauling them away in vehicles. An unknown number escaped.
“We saw many people injured and wounded, in states of shock and fear,” reported Isaín Mandujano at Chiapas Paralelo. “Many people stated that the INM [Mexico’s National Migration Institute] took their documents and belongings during the operation.” Human rights defenders alleged that agents deliberately separated families “as a coercion strategy” to get people to turn themselves in. “They began to hit me all over,” a woman told the Associated Press “amid tears, alleging that police also beat her husband and pulled one of her daughters from her arms.” A Honduran man told Chiapas Paralelo that a National Guardsman threw him to the ground and hit him with his rifle butt. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Mexico office noted, INM and National Guard personnel also acted aggressively toward human rights defenders and journalists present in Huixtla, interfering with their ability to monitor the situation.
“So far the strategy of the authorities is to allow the migrants to walk, let them get tired, and then launch operations to detain them and return them to Tapachula,” observed reporter Alberto Pradilla at Animal Político. Some, however, are being expelled into Guatemala, even if they have documentation indicating that their asylum cases are pending.
While they await decisions on their petitions, Mexico requires asylum seekers to remain in the state where they filed their requests. For most, that means Chiapas: the country’s poorest state. Of the 77,599 people who have requested asylum in Mexico this year through August—a number that already breaks Mexico’s full-year record for asylum requests—55,005 applied in the Tapachula office of Mexico’s beleaguered refugee agency, COMAR. The agency is so badly backlogged that asylum case decisions—which used to come within 45 working days, before pandemic-related measures removed the deadline—are taking many months: a migrant who starts the asylum process in Tapachula today might receive an interview appointment date for January or February.
For tens of thousands of migrants from Haiti, Central America, and elsewhere, this means many months confined to Tapachula, a city of 350,000, with almost no ability to earn an income. With shelters long since filled, migrants are sleeping in slum housing, parks, and streets throughout what Pradilla and Chiapas Paralelo’s Ángeles Mariscal are calling a “city-jail.” Many of the caravan participants claim they are seeking simply to relocate to other parts of Mexico where they might find employment while they wait for COMAR to consider their petitions.
“What is collapsing us in Tapachula is the unusual arrival of Haitians who are not refugees,” COMAR’s coordinator, Andrés Ramírez, alleged in Animal Político. “They do not come from Haiti, they come from Brazil and Chile, but due to the lack of migratory alternatives they come to make their request with COMAR, oversaturating our asylum system and placing us in a very complicated situation to the detriment of those who really need protection.” Enrique Vidal of the Tapachula-based Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center responded that the Haitians are, in fact, “de facto asylum seekers” because they’ve begun the procedure and deserve due process—or some other form of international protection inside Mexico, because their lives and integrity may be at risk if they are deported.
If its just-released 2022 budget request is any indication, Mexico’s federal government does not plan to expand COMAR’s capacity to consider asylum requests. Adjusting for inflation, the request for 45.7 million pesos (US$2.3 million) would represent a 0.58 percent reduction in COMAR’s budget from 2021 to 2022. (The INM’s budget would increase by 0.29 percent.)
Haitian and Honduran migrants interviewed by Chiapas Paralelo allege corruption at both the INM and COMAR. “It takes more than 8 months to get a humanitarian visa, but if you have 4,000 dollars, or 5,000 dollars, it will be granted,” said a man whom the publication identified as a leader of the failed fourth caravan. “They tell us that the [COMAR asylum application] process is free, but there are people who ask us for money to enter, there are people who tell us that we have to hire a lawyer,” said a Haitian migrant. Others contend that middlemen offer to quickly secure humanitarian visas for US$1,300 or refugee status cards for US$4,000 to US$5,000. COMAR insists that it does not tolerate any corrupt behavior.
Human rights defenders and migration experts are raising the volume on their calls for Mexico to change course. “We call on the Executive Branch, the Ministry of the Interior, the National Migration Institute and the National Guard to put an end to the repression, detention, and violence against forcibly displaced persons, and to provide real strategies to solve the root causes of this displacement,” reads a statement from numerous Mexican human rights groups.
Emilio Álvarez Icaza, a former Executive Secretary of the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and now an independent senator, held a press conference to demand that top officials testify about the numerous abuse allegations coming out of Chiapas. The National Guard and INM are “out of control,” the senator said. “What Mexico is doing is the dirty work of the United States, first Trump and now Biden. We did not create the National Guard to chase migrants, but to fight crime.”
Tonatiuh Guillén, a longtime migration expert who headed the INM during the first six months of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s term, told Spain’s El País that the images of abuse in Chiapas “portray a profound regression of this government’s migration policy, which I believe had started out with a very different scenario, one of respect for human rights. We’re on the other side now.” This, Guillén added, is a result of Mexico’s “institutional internalization of the containment agreements established with the Trump Administration.” Now, “it is in line with militarization. The INM and the Guard are acting as though they’re confronting an enemy.”
WOLA’s Mexico and Migrant Rights Program Director Stephanie Brewer published a commentary calling on the Biden administration to “cease pressuring Mexico to act as an externalized U.S. border that blocks, contains, or deports as many migrants as possible, a bilateral focus that has led to a series of rights-violating practices. Current policies are producing outcomes as dangerous as they are absurd.”
“We don’t accept pressure from any government,” said President López Obrador in one of a few daily press conferences at which the migration issue came up this week. “Yes, we have this situation that concerns us and that we are dealing with, but it’s not because we’re puppets of the U.S. government, it’s because we’re putting things in order and helping, protecting.” López Obrador alleged that a “disinformation campaign” by his political adversaries is behind many of the allegations of human rights abuse and corruption.
“We do this,” the president said, “because we have to care for the migrants, though it seems paradoxical. If we allowed them to cross to the north of the country to cross the border, we would be running risks, many risks. We just rescued a very large group of migrants in the north who were practically kidnapped.” (An article at the Mexican publication Lado B explores how Mexican migration authorities favor such euphemisms to describe their work: “rescues” instead of “apprehensions,” “repatriation” instead of “deportation,” “migratory stations” instead of “detention centers.”)
López Obrador mentioned that two INM agents had been fired for kicking a migrant on video during an attempted caravan the previous week. Francisco Garduño, the INM’s commissioner, told reporters that “more will also have to be fired,” but did not know how many more agents face abuse allegations. Asked about videos showing personnel beating migrants, the National Guard’s commander, retired Gen. Luis Rodríguez Bucio, responded only, “Todo tranquilo, estamos trabajando”—“don’t worry, we’re working on it.”
The Mexican president called on the United States to accept more migrants in order to face its labor shortages, and to provide more assistance to Central America. “That is what is going to be raised again today with the U.S. government, that work be done immediately in Central America because there has been nothing for years.”
By “today,” López Obrador was referring to a September 9 “High Level Economic Dialogue” meeting in Washington, inaugurated by Vice President Kamala Harris. That dialogue’s agenda has four “pillars” of which “pillar two” is “Promising sustainable economic and social development in southern Mexico and Central America,” something Mexico’s president has been advocating for years. López Obrador has particularly sought U.S. support for a program that would pay Central Americans to plant trees; the Biden administration has not yet committed to that. At the September 9 meeting, Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard gave his counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a letter from López Obrador with a proposal for creating employment opportunities in Central America.
Migration via South America hits record highs
Hundreds of miles to the south, the number of migrants whose northward journeys might lead them to Chiapas keeps growing. In Colombia, according to the government’s human rights ombudsman (Defensoría), 11,400 people, most of them Haitian, are stranded in the Caribbean town of Necoclí. This is the last stop before ferries to the Panama border for migrants who mostly entered Colombia via Ecuador, 700 miles further south.
This is the second time in two months that the number of people waiting in Necoclí has reached 10,000 (see our August 6 update). They have filled hotels and private homes, and many are sleeping on the beach. Mayor Jorge Tobón says that 1,000 people are arriving in Necoclí each day right now, but the ferries are only talking 500 per day—the result of an agreement between Colombia and Panama to limit the flow into Panama. As a result, “if this trend continues, by the end of September we’re going to have more than 25,000 migrants in Necoclí,” the mayor says.
Panama claims that Colombia is in fact permitting more than 500 migrants per day to depart. “Right now we have 6,500 more people than we would have if the accord had been complied with,” said the director of Panama’s National Migration Service. The country’s security minister said that a remarkable 70,000 migrants have arrived in Panama so far this year, way up from 7,000 in the same period of 2020 and 17,000 in the same period of 2019. The Associated Press reported a still-high figure of 50,000, of whom about 16 percent are children.
The most worrying aspect of this sharply increased migration is that this route requires people to cross through Panama’s roadless, ungoverned Darién Gap wilderness. Migrants who travel through South and Central America routinely say that the Darién is the most dangerous part of their journey. As a Pulitzer-winning April 2020 report from Nadja Drost vividly documents, migrants in the Darién are routinely robbed and see dead bodies in a forest dominated by criminal bands and armed groups. The Wall Street Journal reported that Doctors Without Borders began providing medical care in May to migrants exiting the jungle from the Darién Gap. Since then, the group has documented 180 cases of rape. 70 percent of the time, the migrants were raped on Panamanian territory. “The group believes the true number of victims is likely far higher since many migrants don’t report the attacks.”
Further south, Ecuador has suddenly become the fourth-largest nationality of migrants whom U.S. authorities encounter at the U.S.-Mexico border. This owes heavily to Mexico’s 2018 decision to lift visa requirements for visiting Ecuadorians. Many who could afford a plane ticket have been flying to Mexico, traveling north, and crossing the land border into the United States. There, most have avoided expulsion under the “Title 42” pandemic policy, since deportation flight capacity to Quito is limited.
Ecuador’s government says 88,696 of its citizens traveled to Mexico from January to July 2021, and only 34,331 have returned. During those seven months, U.S. border agencies encountered citizens of Ecuador 62,494 times.
In response, very likely at the strong suggestion of the U.S. government, Mexico has reinstated its visa requirement for Ecuadorian citizens. This may mean a brief reduction in migration from Ecuador, but experts interviewed by the Guayaquil daily El Universo expect that migration routes will adjust. Even if the route becomes more dangerous, the state of the country’s COVID-battered economy may still lead many Ecuadorians to risk the journey.
Biden administration weighs “Remain in Mexico Lite,” feeds into Mexico’s southern-border “chain expulsions”
The Biden administration continues to consider how it will revive the Migrant Protection Protocols or “Remain in Mexico,” a policy that it bitterly opposes and sought to shut down. As detailed in our August 27 update, the Supreme Court refused to suspend a Texas judge’s order, still under appeal, forcing the Biden administration to make a “good faith effort” to revive the program, which Donald Trump’s administration launched at the end of 2018.
“Remain in Mexico” sent over 71,000 non-Mexican asylum-seekers back into Mexican border towns, penniless, homeless, and vulnerable to crime, to await eventual immigration hearing dates in the United States. Over 1,500 suffered assault, kidnapping, or other abuse, and less than 2 percent of those who were present for all of their hearings were granted asylum. President Joe Biden suspended Remain in Mexico the moment he was sworn in, in January 2021, and officially ended it on June 1.
Now, though, the court is ordering a restart, and on September 15 the administration must provide Amarillo, Texas District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk its first monthly report on the progress of its “good faith efforts.” What those next steps might look like isn’t clear, but reporting is pointing to some sort of limited “Remain in Mexico ‘Lite.’”
Homeland Security Department (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas repeated his opposition to Remain in Mexico in an interview with CBS news, but acknowledged that “We’re planning to implement the program while we litigate the ruling.” CBS revealed that “the department’s policy office has been working on logistical plans to facilitate its ‘expeditious reimplementation,’ including cost estimates, according to an internal memo.” Mexico, too, will have to give at least an informal green light; it is not clear where talks about this currently stand.
“Some Biden officials were already talking about reviving Mr. Trump’s policy in a limited way to deter migration,” unnamed officials told the New York Times. They say the Supreme Court’s ruling gives them a chance to “come up with a more humane version of Mr. Trump’s policy.” A proposal under consideration, three sources told Politico, “would require a small number of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their cases to be processed but give them better living conditions and access to attorneys.”
Asylum advocates reject the idea that a “lite” version of the program can exist.
- “There’s no lite MPP just as there’s no lite police brutality or lite torture,” tweeted Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council.
- “The answer is not to simply find a gentler, kinder MPP 2.0. That completely flies in the face of his [President Biden’s] promise” to end the program, said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of National Immigration Law Center.
- “There’s no way to implement it in a way that will satisfy actual due process or keep people safe, because it’s impossible to keep migrants safe in Mexico,” said Taylor Levy, an attorney who represented many victims of Remain in Mexico.
- “The reinstatement of MPP will place thousands of asylum seekers in harm’s way and deny them the right to a fair hearing of their claims,” said asylum officers’ union leader Michael Knowles.
- “I rejoiced when you declared an end to this immoral policy on your first days in office, and despaired when the Supreme Court required your administration to implement it once again,” reads a letter to President Biden, published in the Washington Post, from Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs Catholic Charities of Rio Grande Valley’s large migrant respite center in McAllen, Texas. “We must not make children live for months in rain-logged tents. We cannot abandon them to communities where their mothers are afraid to let them use the bathroom at night for fear they might encounter a gang member or be assaulted.”
Instead, advocates are calling on the administration to meet the court’s requirements by “re-terminating” the program. That would mean issuing a memo, as it did when it formally shut down the program in June, addressing Judge Kacsmaryk’s and the Fifth Circuit of Appeals’ concerns that the administration didn’t consider the “benefits” of Remain in Mexico when it decided to close down the program.
A letter from 31 Democratic congressional representatives and senators, led by Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), proposes exactly that. “The court orders leave ample room for your administration to ensure MPP never again puts another person in harm’s way,” it explains:
The decisions suggest that the potential perceived problem with your administration’s termination of MPP was that it did not say enough to demonstrate that it had sufficiently weighed the potential consequences of its decision to terminate. The court did not endorse the states’ claims that the government is actually required to return people to Mexico under the immigration statutes. As amicus briefs explained, those claims were egregiously wrong. Thus, we believe your administration can and should re-terminate MPP with a fuller explanation in order to address any perceived procedural defect of the termination.
While the Biden administration continues to deliberate over what to do about a program that sent 71,000 people to Mexico, though, it continues to carry out a program that, to date, has sent people—including asylum seekers—back to Mexico more than a million times since March 2020. “Title 42,” the pandemic policy permitting rapid expulsions of migrants, without regard to asylum or protection needs, remains in place. Mexico continues to receive expulsions of its own citizens and those of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Expelled migrants filling a plaza in Reynosa, Mexico are living in even worse conditions than Remain in Mexico victims who had inhabited an encampment in the nearby, and similarly crime-plagued, city of Matamoros, the Los Angeles Times reported. “There’s less potable water, fewer bathrooms, showers and other sanitation that U.S.-based nonprofits spent months installing in Matamoros. Mexican soldiers circle in trucks with guns mounted on top. Migrants face not only cartel extortion and kidnapping, but also COVID-19 outbreaks and pressure to leave from Mexican authorities.” Reynosa’s critical security situation scares off U.S. volunteers and attorneys. The L.A. Times estimates that 2,000 people are currently inhabiting the plaza. Sister Pimentel’s letter notes, “Recently we estimated that there are close to 5,000 migrants in Reynosa.”
Another encampment with a large number of expelled migrants persists at the other end of the border, right outside the main pedestrian border crossing in Tijuana. There, on September 3, migrants were gathering for vaccinations when word quickly spread—inaccurately—that U.S. authorities had opened the border. Hundreds of people rushed to the line, only to find a phalanx of riot gear-clad CBP officers.
Expulsions don’t just happen at Mexico’s northern border. Since early August, DHS has put expelled Central American migrants, including many families with children, on planes destined for Mexico’s far south: the cities of Villahermosa, Tabasco and Tapachula, Chiapas. Once those planes land, Mexico’s INM has gathered the expelled migrants onto buses and driven them to southern border crossings, instructing them to exit into Guatemala. At no moment do the expelled people have any migratory status in Mexico, much less any opportunity to ask for asylum or protection.
“These expulsions ridicule public health and human rights by crowding people into planes and buses and preventing legal access to asylum in violation of domestic and international law,” reads a report and list of recommendations for the U.S. and Mexican governments produced by several organizations, including WOLA. This document, based on Witness on the Border’s monitoring of deportation and expulsion flights, counted 34 planeloads of migrants to Villahermosa and Tapachula—about one every weekday—between August 5 and August 31.
There is no official count of the number of people who have been subject to these “chain expulsions.” Animal Político, citing Guatemala’s migration authority, reports that 4,243 people were expelled between August 22 and September 6. Many were pushed across the line into the very remote village of El Ceibo, a village of a few hundred people in Guatemala’s sparsely populated frontier department of El Petén, on the edge of the Lacandón jungle a few hours’ drive from Villahermosa.
The 4,243 are not all migrants from the U.S. government’s long-distance expulsion flights. The number includes some migrants whom Mexico’s INM apprehended in southern Mexico. Unnamed official sources tell Animal Político that the number of people expelled by the United States “could be around 3,500”: 2,000 whom Mexico went on to expel in El Ceibo, and 1,500 at the Talismán border crossing near Tapachula.
“While the majority are Central American, the expulsion of Venezuelans, Cubans, and even a Senegalese person was recorded.” One may have been a U.S. citizen, Reuters reports. Animal Político has seen evidence that southern Chiapas municipal police captured Haitian families in mid-August, then handed them over to INM, which expelled them into Guatemala.
“Upon their arrival,” migrants expelled at El Ceibo and Talismán “don’t have a peso or a quetzal in their pockets,” Mexico’s La Jornada puts it. At times, the expulsion buses have dropped people in El Ceibo in the middle of the night. “Mexican immigration authorities have not coordinated these expulsions with the Guatemalan government; nor notified the Guatemalan, Honduran, or Salvadoran consulates; nor arranged for onward transport,” reads a brief report from Human Rights Watch. “Many of those expelled have been forced to sleep on the street upon arrival in El Ceibo.” Some of those expelled, HRW reveals, had pending asylum applications in Mexico.
On September 2, Guatemala’s foreign minister announced an agreement with the U.S. government to send expulsion flights to the airport in Guatemala City instead of to southern Mexico. That agreement, though, will not go into effect until the end of the month—and it of course maintains Title 42’s refusal to consider migrants’ asylum or protection needs.
- While border-zone migrant deaths from dehydration, exposure, or similar causes are horrifyingly common, most victims have been single adults: migrant parents and children have been rare. That seems to be changing.
- A 21-year-old Ecuadorian woman died of dehydration on August 28 after attempting to migrate with her 2-year-old daughter in the desert of Sonora, Mexico, near the U.S. border. Jazmín Lema left her country, likely fleeing domestic violence, on August 21, flying to Mexico and taking buses north until stopped at a migration checkpoint. The child survived.
- Another Ecuadorian woman, traveling with children aged seven and one, was rescued in the Arizona desert near Yuma after calling 911.
- These events come just days after the death from dehydration, near Yuma, of a Colombian woman and her oldest child, while her toddler survived.
- Also near Yuma, a Mexican man died after falling from a 30-foot-high section of border wall. He fell on the Mexican side, requiring rescuers to open a gate in the wall that was not wide enough for an ambulance, then carry him for a mile before he passed away.
- Texas’s state Facilities Commission has recommended that a joint venture of two companies, Michael Baker International and Huitt-Zollars, get a contract to build fence or wall, using state funds, along parts of the state’s 1,200-mile border with Mexico. Texas’s state budget for 2022 includes $750 million to build barriers. If built at the per-mile cost of the Trump administration’s border wall, this money would build about 30-35 miles of barrier.
- Writing at the Border Chronicle, a new journalistic newsletter, Todd Miller narrates the rapid growth of a bipartisan “border security industrial complex” made up of well-connected technology, detention, and munitions companies that have been awarded large CBP contracts. These companies’ technologies, Miller warns, are often invasive and threaten civil liberties.
- At the Intercept, Melissa del Bosque reveals the vast expansion in CBP’s Tactical Terrorism Response Teams since their inception in 2015, finding that the secretive units detained and interrogated more than 600,000 travelers at airports and border crossings between 2017 and 2019, about a third of them U.S. citizens. The databases the teams use to flag suspected travelers rely on what is “essentially a black box algorithm,” as an ACLU attorney put it.
- A third whistleblower has come forward with allegations of abuse of unaccompanied migrant children held at a giant emergency shelter at Fort Bliss, Texas, run by contractors of the Department of Health and Human Services.
- Valerie González at the Rio Grande Valley, Texas Monitor rebuts alarmist claims by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) by sharing recent data pointing to reduced migration to the busy Rio Grande Valley region during August.
- About 1,500 people from Michoacán, Mexico have arrived in the border city of Tijuana, displaced by warring organized crime groups who often give them hours to leave their homes.
- A Georgia National Guard soldier, assigned to the border security mission that Donald Trump launched in 2018, died in a drunk driving incident in McAllen, Texas. The Guard immediately imposed an alcohol ban and curfew on all 3,000-plus personnel assigned to the mission.
- “Not a single terrorist has illegally crossed the Mexican border and then committed an attack on U.S. soil,” writes the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh in a scathing book review, citing numerous statistics, at Reason.