WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
24 Nov 2021 | News

Weekly Border Update: Migration declines, Remain in Mexico weeks away, Hearings, Caravan

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.

We will not post an update on Friday, November 26. The next update will be posted on December 3, 2021.

 

Migration declined in October for the third straight month

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported on November 15 that its personnel encountered 117,260 individual undocumented migrants on 164,303 occasions during the month of October. That was an 18 percent reduction in people, and a 14 percent reduction in “encounters,” from September. Encounters have dropped 22 percent in two months, from 209,840 in August, and 23 percent from July’s years-long high of 213,593.

The overwhelming majority of those encounters (158,575) took place between official border land ports of entry, where CBP’s Border Patrol component took the migrants into custody. CBP encountered 5,728 at the ports of entry, the fewest since April.

The giant difference between “individuals” and “encounters” owes to a large number of repeat crossings. “29 percent involved individuals who had at least one prior encounter in the previous 12 months, compared to an average one-year re-encounter rate of 14 percent for FY2014-2019,” CPB reported. The “Title 42” pandemic expulsions policy begun by the Trump administration and continued by the Biden administration, which rapidly sends Mexicans and most Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans back into Mexico, involves little time in CBP custody and appears to have facilitated repeat attempts to cross.

In McAllen, Texas, in the Border Patrol’s busiest sector (Rio Grande Valley), the reduced pace of arrivals is palpable. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is releasing fewer than 300 asylum-seeking migrants a day to the city’s respite center, run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. In July, according to Border Report, U.S. authorities were turning over “upwards of 2,000 migrants” per day to the respite center.

Despite the reduction, October’s monthly “encounters” figure is historically high: 164,303 is the 12th-largest monthly total this century.

Unlike most of this century, though, Title 42 is in place, and most of the  encountered migrants aren’t being processed. CBP expelled 57 percent of migrants it encountered in October, the largest monthly proportion since May. Of single adults encountered in October, 74 percent got expelled. 31 percent of family members were expelled, the largest monthly proportion since April. The Biden administration does not expel non-Mexican children who arrive unaccompanied.

70,627 undocumented migrants were not expelled, and instead processed in the United States, many of them asylum seekers. That is the lowest monthly number of non-expelled migrants since May. Non-expelled migrants have declined by 20 percent since September and 38 percent since August. The number of migrants whom CBP actually processed in October was fewer than it was during six different months of the Trump administration (February-July 2019). Of those who weren’t expelled in October, 60 percent were children and family members. Children and family members were 14 percent of the expelled population.

CBP’s 42,913 encounters with undocumented family members in October was the least since February 2021, and represented a 51 percent drop in just two months, from August’s high of 87,054. (These numbers include a small number of “accompanied children” encountered at ports of entry traveling with relatives other than a parent.)

Arrivals of unaccompanied children (12,807) dropped to their lowest level since February as well, and have declined 32 percent since August. In October, the American Immigration Council notes, “the average number of unaccompanied children in CBP custody was 595 per day, compared with an average of 772 per day in September.” The drop calls into question whether migrants are being deterred by application of Title 42: unaccompanied children are fewer even though the policy isn’t being applied to them. The Council’s Aaron Reichlin-Melnick warns, though, that “daily border apprehensions of unaccompanied children have been slowly rising in recent weeks.”

Encounters with single adults—who are most likely to attempt repeat crossings—haven’t declined as sharply. In October they totaled 108,583, down 4 percent from September, up 4 percent from August, and down 11 percent from their high point in May.

It is unexpected to see migration to have declined in October, during the cooler fall months when it usually increases, after reaching its highest point of the year during summer. Reasons may include:

  • Mexico has been cracking down harder; as we’ve noted in recent updates, Mexico broke its records for monthly migrant apprehensions in August and September (it has not yet released October data). Reporter Manu Ureste at Mexico’s Animal Político points out that Mexico’s apprehensions jumped 120 percent after U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’s June 8 visit to Mexico City, which included a meeting with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
  • Though the numbers dropped slightly from September to October, the Biden administration had increased its month-on-month expulsions of family members every month between July and September, which may have affected asylum seekers’ calculations.
  • It’s possible that the population of would-be migrants who were “bottled up” during many months of border closures at the height of the pandemic have now all had a chance to migrate, and we’re seeing a leveling off.
  • U.S.-led crackdowns caused dramatic September-October declines in migration from Haiti and Ecuador. The Biden administration has expelled about 8,800 Haitians back to their country on 84 flights since September 19, and encouraged Mexico to begin demanding visas of Ecuadorians arriving in the country, which it did on August 20. Border encounters with undocumented Haitian migrants fell 95 percent in a month, from 17,638 to 902. Ecuadorian migrant encounters fell 90 percent, from 7,353 to 744.

In September, CBP encountered migrants from seven countries more than 10,000 times each. In October, CBP encountered migrants from four countries more than 10,000 times each.

Beyond Haiti and Ecuador, migration from the so-called “Northern Triangle” countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) has been declining since July. 50,937 encountered migrants came from those countries in October, down 45 percent in two months, since August.

Migration from Brazil, too, hit its lowest point since June, as Mexico has demanded visas of at least some Brazilians arriving at its airports. In Tijuana, “Brazilian migration has been going on for months, there was even a time when 20, 30, 50 were arriving daily six or seven months ago, arriving with their tourist visas,” José María García Lara of Tijuana’s Movimiento Juventud 2000 shelter told the local daily El Imparcial.

In addition to small increases in Colombians and Russians, the countries whose citizens registered the largest September-to-October migration increase are Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. In October, these countries respectively occupied 4th, 6th, and 8th place on CBP’s list of most-encountered nationalities. The U.S. government has been pressing Mexico to impose visa requirements on Venezuelans arriving at its airports, Reuters reports, though one U.S. official “said Washington was not leaning hard on Mexico.” A Mexican government source said “Mexico was reviewing its options, and holding discussions with Venezuela to explore alternatives to imposing visa requirements.”

After declining during the summer, migration from Mexico has increased for two straight months. Of 65,276 encountered Mexican migrants in October, all but 4,628 were single adults.

 

Remain in Mexico may restart in “weeks”

The Biden administration’s latest monthly filing on efforts to restart the controversial “Remain in Mexico” program, submitted November 15 on the orders of the judge who ordered its revival, is much shorter than previous filings: just one page of information. (Here are September’s and October’s filings.) This one reports that the administration has “initiated the relevant contracts and largely finished its internal planning,” and that “reimplementation will begin within the coming weeks.”

Between January 2019 and Joe Biden’s January 2021 inauguration, this Trump-era program, officially known as “Migrant Protection Protocols,” sent 71,071 non-Mexican asylum seekers back into Mexico after their apprehension in the United states. There, they had to wait for many months or more, usually in high-crime Mexican border towns, for hearing dates in the United States. Human Rights First documented more than 1,500 assaults, kidnappings, rapes, and other crimes committed against migrants after U.S. officials sent them back. While the Biden administration sought to terminate Remain in Mexico, a district court judge in Amarillo, Texas forced its restart and demanded monthly filings about “good faith efforts” to do so. (This background is amply covered in past weekly updates.)

Restarting the program means negotiating with a Mexican government that has not yet agreed to resume receiving potentially thousands of non-Mexican asylum seekers. The negotiators, the filing reports, “are close to finalizing these discussions,” with “one set of outstanding issues that must be resolved.” The filing does not name that set of issues, but it may have to do with migrants’ access to counsel for their cases. Border-zone immigration attorneys have voiced strenuous opposition to being made once again to risk their safety trying to represent clients who, while forced to live in danger, faced extremely low asylum grant rates in the program. “We refuse to be complicit in a program that facilitates the rape, torture, death, and family separations of people seeking protection by committing to provide legal services,” reads an October 19 letter from the principal pro bono attorneys’ organizations.

An administration official said that Presidents Biden and López Obrador did not mention the Remain in Mexico restart during a November 18 White House summit of North American leaders.

Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which compiles large amounts of immigration data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, received documents indicating that 18 asylum seekers were placed in “Remain in Mexico” in October. This seems unlikely because Mexico has not yet approved the program. Austin Kocher of TRAC told Border Report that his organization hasn’t yet cleared up this data point: “18 is not a fluke. Still, the number is small enough (and things are more confusing now policy-wise) that it’s hard to say exactly what’s up.”

 

The border is a subject of two Senate hearings

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas appeared in an often contentious hearing before a polarized Senate Judiciary Committee on November 16. A day later, two DHS officials and a third from the General Services Administration participated in a more sober hearing before the Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Government Operations and Border Management. Here are a few highlights of both.

November 16: Oversight of the Department of Homeland Security

  • Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) opened with remarks contending that “The chaos during the previous administration hobbled DHS and put our nation’s security at risk.” Durbin gave specific mention to the Trump administration’s “emergency” transfer of Defense budget money to build miles of border wall. “The Trump administration endangered our national security by literally transferring billions of dollars and Department of Defense funds to build the President’s so called border wall. American taxpayers, not Mexican taxpayers, as President Trump had promised so many times have paid dearly for this costly endeavor.”
  • Ranking Republican member Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) colorfully went after the Biden administration: “When you terminate physical barrier constructions, when you severely restrict the ability of ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] to deport illegal immigrants, when you terminate the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, when you roll back asylum cooperative [‘Safe Third Country’] agreements, when you gut Title 42, when you openly support sanctuary cities policies, then you should not be surprised when there’s a surge at the southern border. When you allow the ACLU and open border immigration activists rather than career law enforcement professionals to dictate the terms of your immigration and border policies, then you shouldn’t be surprised when record-shattering numbers of people start showing up at the borders to take advantage of that situation. When you run DHS like it’s an ‘Abolish ICE fan club,’ you shouldn’t be surprised when you have an immigration crisis on your hands.”
  • Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) asked how many of the 1.7 million migrants encountered during fiscal 2021 are still in the United States. Mayorkas estimated “approximately 375,000 are still here.”
  • Of asylum seekers who were released and not detained, Mayorkas told Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), “Between January 1 and October 31 of 2021, my data indicates that 210,465 non citizens were issued notices to appear. And 94,581 were issued notices to report [which don’t include specific court dates]. We’ve discontinued the practice of issuing notices to report.”
  • Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said, “We know basically, based on Border Patrol projections, that this figure 1.7 million doesn’t include 385,000 or so people who simply evade detection by Border Patrol. We know that there are about 350,000 people who are subject to a notice to appear in court or a notice to report, by my count that’s 735,000 people who have successfully made their way into the United States.”
  • Sen. Cornyn alleged that 10,000 relatives or sponsors of unaccompanied children placed in the United States have not responded to follow-up telephone check-in calls.
  • On the September incident involving horse-mounted Border Patrol agents charging at Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), asked, “What about the issue with your Border Patrol agents recently being accused by some folks in the media of whipping illegal immigrants, when in fact they were not? Why on earth? Did you not defend them?… Your response and your failure to defend them then and now is nothing short of morale crushing.”
  • Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said Mayorkas should go to prison for not reinstating Remain in Mexico quickly enough. “Customs and Border Patrol [sic] agent leadership have told me that your agency is slow-walking and refusing to comply with the order from the federal court to return to the Remain in Mexico policy. What would you say to the judge? If the judge was asking why you should not be held in contempt and incarcerated for defying a federal court order?”
  • Sen. John Kennedy (R-Louisiana) asked, “Your department has released thousands of people illegally into this country who are drug dealers, haven’t you?” Mayorkas responded, “I’m not familiar with what you’ve just articulated.” Kennedy followed up, “Your department has released into our country thousands of people who have probably gone on welfare. Isn’t that the case?” Mayorkas replied, “I don’t believe that.”
  • Sen. Alex Padilla (D-California) raised the issue of Border Patrol’s use of “Critical Incident Teams” to find exculpatory evidence in use-of-force cases, a secretive practice recently revealed by the Southern Border Communities Coalition. Mayorkas responded by praising Border Patrol.

November 17: Federal Government Perspective: Improving Security, Trade, and Travel Flows at the Southwest Border Ports of Entry

  • Ranking Subcommittee member Sen. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) lamented the court-ordered end of “metering” of asylum seekers at ports of entry. “Career staff who served in the Obama and Trump administrations have stated the metering policy was useful as CBP navigated increasing flows of migrants. Rescinding the metering tool, I fear, will open up our ports to increased risk by leaving cartels to be able to surge migrants at the ports and overwhelm them to distract CBP, while they move funneling hard narcotics across the border as our country reopens to travel.”
  • Witness Stuart Burns of the General Services Administration, which manages government buildings like ports of entry, noted that the average land port of entry “was designed and constructed more than 40 years ago. As a result, many of these facilities are functionally obsolete for the 21st century.”
  • Witness Joe Jeronimo of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) said his agency devotes about 20 percent of its work hours to CBP port of entry drug seizures. “And every time there is an interdiction by CBP, HSI spends at a minimum 95 hours to handle that interdiction, from cradle to grave, 95 hours, that’s 12 business days. So again, that’s significant in nature. And that’s a huge commitment.”
  • Jeronimo praised the agency’s monitoring of travelers throughout the hemisphere. “Our second effort is our biometric collection system. Bitmap is a partnership with DOD, CBP, as well as FBI, we have Bitmap locations in 18 countries. And what that does is it gives us an opportunity to enroll individuals as they come into the Western Hemisphere, and make their way up through South America into Latin America and into Mexico, from Sao Paolo to McAllen, is 5000 miles. And when somebody enters into the Western Hemisphere, I can pretty much tell you with certainty where that when that individual arrives, and where they’re going to travel through before they reach the southwest border. And what that does is it gives us an opportunity to know in advance who we’re dealing with, especially individuals that we consider KSTs, or individuals of interest to the United States, before they reach the southwest border. That Bitmap program last year enrolled 35,000 individuals and about 80 percent of those do make it to the southwest border.
  • “In the last two years,” Jeronimo added, “we have initiated over 5000 cases and nearly 8000 arrests, specifically to human smuggling organizations.”
  • Sen. Lankford asked, “What’s the current going rate for coyotes in moving a person or a family?” Jeronimo replied, “Depends on location, if you’re coming from Asia it could be anywhere from $50 to $75,000, if you’re coming from Brazil could be 10 to 15,000. If you come from Latin America, Mexico, anywhere from 5 to 10,000.”

 

Two migrant caravans now moving, entirely on foot, through southern Mexico

Two caravans of migrants, both multinational but mostly Central American citizens, are now walking on roads in southern Mexico. Both departed the city of Tapachula, Chiapas, near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, where tens of thousands of migrants have applied for asylum. Mexico requires asylum seekers to remain in the state where they applied while their cases are being decided, but Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, offers few economic opportunities. So migrants are organizing and seeking to leave en masse, relying on “safety in numbers.”

The first group departed Tapachula a month ago, on October 23. Its members have walked the entire length of Chiapas, then turned northward in Oaxaca and crossed the Isthmus of Tehuántepec, Mexico’s narrowest point. They are now in the vicinity of Acayucan, a crossroads town in the state of Veracruz, not far from the Gulf of Mexico. The second group left Tapachula on November 18 and is only part of the way through Chiapas.

The group in Veracruz has between 800 and 1,500 members. With a significant number of children and families, they have traveled 300 miles on foot over 30 days. Mexican authorities—mainly the Interior Department’s National Migration Institute (INM) and the National Guard—have been preventing caravan participants from boarding vehicles, such as trucks, “for their own safety.” Migrants confronted National Guardsmen on this prohibition in Oaxaca, but the soldiers insisted that they walk. “I have no intention” of stopping them, a Guardsman told Agénce France Presse. “The only requirement is that they advance on foot.”

The group is still many hundreds of miles from its destination, and its numbers are dwindling due to exhaustion, and due to the INM’s repeated offers of documents allowing migrants to stay in other states—none near the U.S. border—while they await asylum decisions, if they abandon the caravan. INM reports that it has offered humanitarian and permanent resident cards for the central and southern Mexican states of Puebla, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Morelos, Hidalgo, Guerrero, Chiapas, Querétaro, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Mexico state, Jalisco, Michoacán, Colima, and Aguascalientes. 1,574 such cards had been issued as of November 16.

Caravan organizer Irineo Mujica of the group Pueblos Sin Fronteras has been urging the migrants not to accept the documents, alleging that they may be detained or deported. The INM issued a statement denouncing Mujica’s “lies and actions,” calling out his “attitude, more akin to that of human traffickers.”

The Veracruz caravan’s destination is not clear. Some may wish to proceed to Mexico City and petition the national office of Mexico’s asylum and refugee agency, COMAR, to consider their asylum petitions there. Others may seek to walk all the way to the U.S. border; Agénce France Presse mentions that some have recommended the border state of Sonora as a destination. According to Milenio, Mujica has proposed boarding the “La Bestia” cargo train.

The caravan group in Chiapas is currently on the state’s coastal highway between Escuintla and Mapastepec, where the earlier group passed at the very end of October. It appears to have started out with about 3,000 members, closely accompanied by INM agents and National Guard and Army personnel. Many are Haitian and as many as 20 to 30 percent may be Venezuelan; most migrants of both nationalities already have tough experience with long walks, having passed through Panama’s highly treacherous Darién Gap jungles.

Elsewhere in Mexico, a group of 40 migrants, including people from Ghana, Togo, Guatemala, Nicaragua, appeared traveling together in León, in Mexico’s central state of Guanajuato. They are probably unrelated to the other two caravans, and most likely traveled in vehicles for much of their route. Authorities meanwhile reported apprehending 600 migrants—455 men and 145 women—inside two tractor-trailer containers in Veracruz on November 20. They came from 12 countries: Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Cuba, El Salvador, Venezuela, Ecuador, Ghana, India, Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, and Cameroon.

Statements from Mexico’s Human Rights Ombudsman (CNDH) and a group of senators called on the INM and National Guard to respect the human rights, and right to seek protection, of migrants in the country, including caravan participants. “Caravans don’t help migrants, they don’t help the authorities, they don’t help the United Nations, they don’t help anybody,” Giovanni Lepri, the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) representative in Mexico, told reporters during a visit to Mexico’s southern border zone. “In order for the caravans to stop happening, there must be a more agile, quicker, and more diversified response from the authorities, so that people don’t feel rushed into believing that the caravans will help them solve their needs.”

 

Links

  • 79 percent of Border Patrol agents met a November 22 deadline to be vaccinated against COVID-19. About 16 percent more “had submitted a reasonable accommodation request.” The Rio Grande Valley, Texas Monitor reports that 5 percent of agents “were out of compliance with the deadline—3% were not fully vaccinated and had not filed a reasonable accommodation request, the other 2% were unresponsive to the agency.”
  • Border Patrol agents in the agency’s El Paso sector found a sharply increased number of deceased migrants, mostly from dehydration, exposure, and falls from the border wall. The number of dead rose from 10 in 2020 to 39 in fiscal 2021, El Paso Matters reports. CNN reported recently that Border Patrol found at least 557 bodies border-wide in 2021, which is by far a record.
  • Rep. Henry Cuellar (R-Texas) said that DHS is asking the Defense Department to increase the deployment of U.S. military personnel—probably National Guardsmen—at the border from about 3,000 to 4,500. The extra 1,500 would be “in part to operate observation blimps previously used by forces in Afghanistan,” Stars and Stripes reports.
  • Nicaragua has lifted visa requirements for visitors from Cuba, a decision that could increase the number of Cubans migrating across the rest of Central America and Mexico and into the United States.
  • The government of Haiti opened a consulate in the city of Tapachula, Chiapas, near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, where thousands of Haitian asylum seekers have been living for months, confined there while they await decisions in their cases.
  • “One of the things we proposed [at a November 18 summit of North American presidents] is the idea of, with a view to the Summit of the Americas next summer, working with all the leaders of the region towards a new and bolder framework for managing migration,” an unnamed U.S. official told EFE. At that summit, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called on Joe Biden and Justin Trudeau to “put aside myths and prejudices, stop rejecting migrants, when in order to grow we need a labor force that in reality is not sufficiently available either in the United States or in Canada. Why not study the demand for labor and open up the migratory flow in an orderly fashion?”
  • CBP continues to investigate the mid-September incidents in Del Rio, Texas, in which horse-mounted Border Patrol agents were caught on video charging at Haitian migrants on the banks of the Rio Grande. Though Homeland Security leadership had promised a swift investigation, CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility has not completed its work, and any discipline will be “subject to certain timelines established” in CBP’s labor agreement with the Border Patrol’s union.
  • “Between Oct. 28 and Nov. 9, agents encountered five groups, mostly from Brazil and Venezuela,” in Border Patrol’s California-based San Diego Sector, a CBP release reads. “The groups all entered the United States illegally and consisted of men, women, and children and were 43, 49, 73, 84 and 93 people in size.”
  • “There is little doubt that the administration has used the [Title 42] policy as a stopgap measure to quickly remove migrants who are gathering at the southern border in large numbers,” the New York Times Editorial Board wrote on November 13.
  • Anne Schuchat, an official at the CDC during the Trump years, confirmed that view in comments before a congressional select committee revealed on November 12. “The bulk of the evidence at that time did not support this policy proposal” and “the facts on the ground didn’t call for this from a public health reason,” she said.
  • The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, visited Mexico on November 22. He and Mexican officials signed an agreement to strengthen the capacities of Mexico’s overwhelmed refugee and asylum agency, COMAR.
  • CBP officers at San Diego’s Otay Mesa port of entry caught a trucker trying to smuggle 17,584 pounds of methamphetamine and 389 pounds of fentanyl in a single cargo load labeled as “auto body parts.”
  • The federal trial of Hia C-ed O’odham activist Amber Ortega continues in Tucson, Arizona. Ortega was arrested in September 2020 for interfering with border wall construction, carrying out civil disobedience near the ecologically fragile Quitobaquito Spring along the Arizona-Sonora border. While the Biden Justice Department continues pursuing her prosecution, the case’s district court judge has decided that Ortega may not use a “religious freedom” defense.
  • On October 29, the Tijuana municipal government counted 769 migrants, 40 percent of them children and many of them expelled or blocked from the United States under Title 42, living in a miserable encampment outside the Chaparral port of entry into San Diego. The mayor, who recently installed fencing around the site, expects numbers to decline with upcoming seasonal rains.
  • A Dallas Morning News – University of Texas at Tyler poll found 49 percent of Texans, and 38 percent of Texan independents, supporting Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) very hardline border policies. 50 percent of those polled, including 46 percent of independents, agreed that “a wall along the Texas-Mexico border is necessary for a safe border.”