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.
A girl from Venezuela drowns, as Mexico shuts down visas
Virginia Lugo Mayor, a 7-year-old girl from Zulia, in northwestern Venezuela, died on January 18 while she and her mother were trying to cross the Rio Grande to seek asylum in Del Rio, Texas. The drowning occurred three days before Mexico is to begin requiring visas of Venezuelans who arrive in the country, a move that may reduce the number who reach the U.S. border.
Del Rio is where nearly 10,000 Haitian migrants arrived during a few days in September, generating intense media coverage with photos of mounted Border Patrol agents charging at migrants by the riverside. In those images, the Rio Grande between Del Rio and Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, is quite shallow: ankle or knee deep.
The river was much higher on January 18. Virginia and her mother, Mayerlin Mayor, found themselves in over their heads, in a strong current. Ms. Mayor lost her grip on her daughter. Members of Grupos Beta, the humanitarian wing of Mexico’s migration authority (National Migration Institute, INM), found the girl’s body further downstream.
On the U.S. side, Border Patrol took Ms. Mayor, a former schoolteacher, into custody. According to the Venezuelan daily Tal Cual, Ms. Mayor has been released to pursue her asylum case. She is with a Venezuelan family inside the United States and is reportedly despondent.
U.S. border authorities have encountered a sharply increased number of asylum-seeking migrants from Venezuela in recent months. The monthly total of Venezuelan citizens taken into custody exceeded 1,000 for the first time in March 2021, remained between 6,000 and 7,500 between April and August, then shot up to 20,341 in November. (Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has yet to share its full December “encounters” data, a delay angrily noted by House Republicans.)
In recent years, Mexico had not required visas of citizens from several South American nations. As of January 21, Mexico is requiring visas of Venezuelans unless they have a U.S. tourist visa or are a legal resident of the U.S. or a number of other countries, a process that usually requires applicants to demonstrate economic solvency or proof (like an invitation to attend a professional event) that their planned visit is temporary. A January 7 INM document cites a “more than 1,000 percent” increase in Venezuelan arrivals compared to five years ago. It alleges that a third of Venezuelans who arrived this year as tourists have traveled north to the U.S. border in order to seek asylum or otherwise emigrate into the United States.
For similar reasons, Mexico also began requiring visas of arriving citizens from Brazil and Ecuador, at U.S. urging, earlier in 2021.
Guatemala disperses a migrant caravan
As foreseen by local media reports, a “caravan” of migrants departed San Pedro Sula, Honduras on January 15. They gathered just 12 days before Honduras is to swear in a new president, Xiomara Castro—an event that U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris is to attend.
No caravan—defined as a large group of migrants traveling together, usually to seek “safety in numbers” without paying a smuggler—has reached the U.S. border since late 2018. All have been dispersed en route by Mexican or Guatemalan forces. The same happened to the January 15 caravan, a relatively small group of 600 to 700 people.
As the migrants entered Guatemala on the evening of the 15th, in the town of Corinto, Izabal, they found further progress blocked by a human barrier of Guatemalan police and soldiers clad in riot gear. The migrants separated into smaller groups, seeking to enter. One group clashed briefly with the Guatemalan forces, hurling sticks and stones. Guatemalan authorities reported that 15 police and soldiers suffered injuries, most of them not serious. They provided no data about any injured migrants.
Normally, residents of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua may enter each other’s countries just by showing their national identity cards. Under pandemic measures, though, Guatemala is also requiring entrants to show proof of vaccination and a recent negative COVID test. Some migrants sought to show these documents to the Guatemalan forces arrayed at the border. Most were still sent back into Honduras.
Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry reported intercepting 622 “caravan” migrants in Corinto and nearby Agua Caliente, 23 percent of them minors. They were citizens of Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, Venezuela, and some African nations.
An unusually high number—perhaps half of the group—were Nicaraguans fleeing Daniel Ortega’s dictatorial regime. The online news outlet ContraCorriente talked to migrants who had spent time in Nicaraguan prisons for political opposition activity. One said it was difficult to leave Nicaragua because Ortega “has the Army everywhere” along the border with Honduras. Most of the Nicaraguans had learned about the January 15 caravan via social media. “Nicaragua is going to become like Maduro in Venezuela, where everyone emigrated,” one told ContraCorriente.
Guatemalan and Honduran media also reported allegations that Guatemalan police extorted some caravan participants, offering non-deportation into Honduras in exchange for bribes up to 800 quetzales (US$100). Venezuelan migrants told Guatemala’s Prensa Libre that police even searched their bags and wallets to verify that they had no money to give.
Indicators of an increasing migrant population on Mexico’s side of the U.S. border
The number of protection-seeking migrants—both Mexican and non-Mexican—has been steadily increasing for at least a year, due to U.S. authorities’ “Title 42” expulsions and the pandemic-related closure of U.S. ports of entry to asylum seekers. The most recent (November 2021) “Metering Update” from the University of Texas’s Strauss Center estimated that 26,505 migrants were on makeshift waiting lists to cross from Mexican border towns into the United States, up nearly 6,000 from August. Many more are not on any lists.
The numbers are set to increase further as the Biden administration continues its court-ordered revival of the “Remain in Mexico” program, a Trump-era policy that sends non-Mexican asylum seekers back across the border to await their U.S. hearings on Mexican soil. This program began operating in El Paso in early December and in San Diego in early January; this week, CBP personnel in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector received briefings and guidance to begin implementing Remain in Mexico there, probably within the next few days.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Immigration Statistics produced a brief report about implementation of Remain in Mexico during the month of December, when it operated only in El Paso. Among its key points:
- 267 single adults were enrolled in the program in December, of whom 162 (61 percent) were from Nicaragua, 59 (22 percent) were from Venezuela, 32 (12 percent) were from Cuba), 7 (3 percent) were from Colombia, and 7 (3 percent) were from Ecuador.
- 242 of those 267 people (91 percent) claimed they feared being returned to Mexico, and were given non-refoulement interviews with asylum officers.
- The asylum officers rejected the fear claims in 78 percent of cases (186 people), but 22 percent (51 people) were taken out of “Remain in Mexico” due to the credibility of their claims of fear of being in Mexico. Of those 51, 28 had “positive fear determinations” and 23 resulted in “administrative closures,” which “are generally, but not exclusively, related to individuals who are disenrolled from the program due to a finding of vulnerability.”
- Though migrants are presumably given 24 hours while in CBP custody to contact an attorney and prepare for their non-refoulement interviews, only 11 of the 242 who claimed fear had an attorney accompanying them. Four of those eleven people were taken out of Remain in Mexico due to “positive fear” findings.
- In all, 191 people were sent back into Mexico in December 2021, or 72 percent of all 267 people enrolled in “Remain in Mexico” that month. The remaining 76 were removed from the program due either to fear or other vulnerabilities, like medical conditions.
An analysis by the organized crime-monitoring group InsightCrime warns that the reinstatement of Remain in Mexico, along with ongoing Title 42 expulsions, gives Mexican criminal groups “another opportunity to profit from kidnapping those returned, especially in border towns rife with organized crime threats.” Using very partial data from Mexico’s National Kidnapping Unit, InsightCrime finds that at least one of every ten ransom kidnapping victims in Mexico is a migrant trying to reach the United States.
“The true number of victims is likely far greater,” the analysis continues, “especially for migrants targeted by organized crime groups, which at times collude with local police and government officials.” At Business Insider, reporter Luis Chaparro cites migrants’ view that INM agents’ collusion with organized crime can make it “more risky today to go and ask for political asylum at the [Mexico-US border] bridges,” where migrants will encounter INM personnel, “than to pay a smuggler and try to get across illegally.” A smuggler in Ciudad Juárez told Chaparro that for a fee, INM agents routinely deliver to him migrants whom U.S. authorities have sent back via Title 42 or Remain in Mexico.
The INM indicated on January 13 that 105 of its agents “were reported to its internal control office as under investigation for alleged ‘misconduct’ in 2021,” the Associated Press noted. (In 2019, INM had about 4,100 active agents.)
An increasing proportion of the migrant population in Mexican border cities is Haitian. As the Biden administration has ramped up expulsion flights to Haiti—sending nearly 19,000 Haitians back to their troubled country on 185 planes since Inauguration Day 2021—more Haitians are deciding to stay in Mexico and seek protection there. At Vox, Nicole Narea notes the sharp increase in Haitians seeking asylum in Mexico’s system, along with estimates that about 3,000 Haitians remain stuck in Mexico’s southern border-zone city of Tapachula, while about 4,000 are in Tijuana, where they’ve been settling since the Obama administration halted humanitarian parole for Haitians in 2016. In Ciudad Juárez, Enrique Valenzuela of the Chihuahua state government’s Population Council (COESPO) tells Border Report that hundreds of Haitian migrants have recently arrived in the city “with (Mexican) humanitarian visas, so they’re mostly looking for work. They usually don’t ask us for shelter because they already have a place to stay.”
Arrivals of migrants from elsewhere in the region—including Mexicans displaced by violence further south—have swelled the population of Ciudad Juárez’s shelters, according to Border Report. “We know of 3,000 migrants, give or take, who are staying at the shelters,” Valenzuela said. “But only 30 percent stay at shelters, so Juárez must have a migrant population of 9,000 to 10,000 people right now.”
The city’s oldest shelter, the church-run Casa de Migrante, is at capacity with nearly 400 migrants living there. Low on supplies, the Casa is asking for “donations of clothing, diapers, baby formula and personal care items such as soap, toothpaste and razors.” When they show up for their hearings in El Paso, many of the asylum seekers enrolled in Remain in Mexico “listed Casa del Migrante as their address.”
Further west, in Sonoyta, Sonora, a desert town of 13,000, an increase in asylum-seeking families has led to rapid growth in shelter space. What was once a way station for single adult migrants “now hosts a migrant resource center and three shelters,” Melissa del Bosque writes at the Border Chronicle.
Still further west, in Tijuana, shelters are also expanding. The evangelical-run Agape shelter is enlisting migrants to help build new facilities on land donated by the Baja California state government. Pastor Albert Rivera told Border Report that the expansion will increase the facility’s capacity from 600 to 1,500. He added: “most of our migrants are from Mexico, the states of Michoacán and Guerrero, there are some from Central America and Haiti, but it’s mostly Mexico now.” Tijuana authorities say they expect increased shelter space to allow closure of an encampment that sprung up in early 2021 just outside Chaparral, the main pedestrian border crossing. Amid harsh winter weather, the estimated population living in tents in a square outside the crossing has dropped to 400, from nearly 2,000 in the summer. Here, too, most migrants are now “Mexican nationals who have fled violence in the states of Guerrero and Michoacán,” according to Border Report.
More reporting about the Texas National Guard deployment’s morale crisis
The New York Times and San Antonio Express-News published new details about a steadily escalating National Guard border mission that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a critic of the Biden administration’s border policies, launched in March 2021. They find miserable conditions, unclear missions, politicization, and severe morale problems.
The Times and Express-News stories build on reporting since early December by Army Times, which first revealed disciplinary problems, lack of payment, and poor housing and equipment for soldiers assigned to the Texas state government deployment, as well as for those assigned to a parallel federal government deployment begun by Donald Trump in 2018. Since October 2021, the state mission has suffered a series of suicides.
What Abbott calls “Operation Lone Star” has sent at least 6,500 National Guard troops to the border; earlier statements from the governor’s office cited as many as 10,000. (As last week’s update explains, National Guardsmen are part-time soldiers at the command of state governors.) Another 2,400 are assigned to the federal mission, supporting CBP in Texas and elsewhere along the border.
The Texas state National Guard mission grew by leaps and bounds during 2021, the Times reports, as Abbott neared a 2022 re-election campaign facing Republican primary challengers on the right. The Times gives some credit for the National Guard increase to an influential FOX News television host:
According to state documents, Mr. Abbott in September requested that 1,500 troops join the 500 or so who had already been deployed to the border. Later that same week, Tucker Carlson began attacking Mr. Abbott on his Fox News show, which is popular with conservatives, for not sending more National Guard troops, and in subsequent days invited Mr. Abbott’s Republican challengers onto his show to do the same.
Shortly after, Mr. Abbott requested that another 2,500 troops from the National Guard be sent to the border in October. The governor then appeared on Mr. Carlson’s show that month for the first time and said that 6,500 Guard members and state troopers were on the border.
Earlier this month, Abbott made his re-election bid official at an event in the south Texas border city of McAllen. His first television commercial, the Times notes, is sponsored by the National Border Patrol Council, the union that claims to represent about three quarters of Border Patrol agents, and features the National Guard deployment.
As Abbott increased the National Guard footprint at the border, it was no longer possible to call up guardsmen on a voluntary basis. Service at the border became mandatory, forcing guardsmen to abandon their families and civilian jobs, with a few days’ or weeks’ notice, for deployments that may last a year.
The mission was thrown together hastily. Many guardsmen, the Times found, “have complained of poor planning, pay problems and a lack of basic equipment, like winter gear for the cold or stethoscopes for medics. There have been Covid outbreaks on hastily created bases, where dozens of soldiers crowd together in mobile quarters so tight that commanders call them ‘submarine trailers.’” Guardsmen even lack toilet facilities while posted near the border. “They can call for a shuttle to get to a restroom, but that takes a while,” the Express-News noted. “Rather than relieve himself in the open, one specialist said, ‘I just hold it for 12 hours straight.’” Many have yet to be paid, forcing them to spend their downtime negotiating with bill collectors.
Some guardsmen say they’ve been given little to do, for a mission that “has appeared ad hoc, ill-defined and politically motivated.” One active guardsman told the Times, “All we’re doing is standing down here. If someone comes up, we ask them to stop and wait, we call Border Patrol. If someone runs, we call Border Patrol. We’re basically mall cops on the border.”
It is exceedingly rare in the United States for soldiers to use force against U.S. citizens, or even to carry loaded weapons, as many Guard personnel assigned to Operation Lone Star are doing in Texas right now. On January 18 a National Guard soldier discharged his M4 carbine, shooting at and disabling a suspected smuggling vehicle near the border south of Laredo. While the incident report points to self-defense, and the soldier shot at the vehicle’s radiator and hood—not its driver—it is a highly uncommon case of military personnel firing weapons at a civilian target on U.S. soil.
National Guardsmen assigned to Operation Lone Star made further news on January 19, when one of the mission’s rental trucks, with two guardsmen aboard, crashed into a border levee gate on the premises of the National Butterfly Center, a private wildlife preserve along the Rio Grande. While they were unhurt, the guardsmen left the damaged vehicle, its hood crumpled into the gate. The Butterfly Center—which opposes border wall construction and has called on the National Guard to stop trespassing—posted several updates about the crash to its Twitter feed. (Border Report also published an update this week about the Butterfly Center’s legal battle with “We Build the Wall,” a private wall-building nonprofit, backed by prominent Donald Trump supporters, whose management is facing fraud charges.)
In other Defense Department border news, Stars and Stripes reports that the Pentagon has agreed to spend about $52.5 million to operate and maintain observation blimps along the border in Texas. Six of these “tethered aerostats,” which provide surveillance capability for as much as 200 miles, are owned by Border Patrol, and twelve are owned by the Defense Department. CBP had halted the program because it was deemed too costly; one of its main backers, though, is Laredo Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), a member of the House Appropriations Committee. (Cuellar, incidentally, had a difficult week, as the FBI raided his Laredo home on January 19 as part of an investigation possibly related to dealings with officials from Azerbaijan.)
Commentary about Joe Biden’s first year at the border
January 20 marked the end of Joe Biden’s first year in the U.S. presidency. His administration began with promises of reforms and a more humane approach to border, migration, and asylum policy. Several “Biden’s first year” media analyses came to similar conclusions about how that has turned out. A recent WOLA commentary also evaluates the Biden administration’s first year policies toward Latin America and includes analysis and recommendations on border policy for 2022 and ahead.
- Camilo Montoya-Galvez at CBS: “In its first year, Mr. Biden’s administration made dozens of high-profile and little-noticed changes to the U.S. immigration system, many of them reversals of Trump-era restrictions. But the Biden administration also continued some policies instituted by Mr. Trump. …A year in, the Biden administration’s border strategy has divided the president’s appointees and frustrated critics on the right and left, who hurl accusations of lax immigration enforcement and outrage over the continuation of some Trump-era restrictions.”
- Ted Hesson at Reuters: “Days after U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, two of his top immigration advisors outlined bold plans, including a major immigration reform bill, a 100-day deportation moratorium, and a strategy to restore protections for asylum seekers that were degraded under former President Donald Trump. …Now, the two White House officials who touted the plans, Tyler Moran and Esther Olavarria, are preparing to leave the administration, a White House spokesperson confirmed to Reuters. …Their departures are part of a greater exodus of senior Biden immigration staffers that suggests planned reforms could be put on hold or abandoned altogether as power tips to more security-minded White House officials. In the remaining camp is Susan Rice, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, who has tended to push for tougher enforcement at the border.”
- Catherine Rampell at the Washington Post: “What, exactly, are these nativists unhappy with? In many respects, Biden is doing exactly what the Stephen Millers of the world want him to do — keeping Donald Trump’s worst border policies in place. …It’s unclear why Biden has maintained his predecessor’s policies. One possibility is politics — that these choices were intended to stave off right-wing attacks about lax enforcement. If that was the motivation, though, it failed. Instead, Biden has delivered the worst of all worlds: inhumane, immoral, potentially illegal policy — and bad-faith political blowback about ‘open borders’ all the same.”
- Alicia Schmidt Camacho at the New Yorker: “To charges of human-rights abuses and failure, the Biden Administration, like others before it, answered weakly that they must follow the rule of law. But no law requires that people fleeing political violence and natural disaster should be met by the militarized cordon sanitaire in South Texas. …The U.S. government has largely excluded migrant-led organizations from the process of policy reform. And yet migrant communities have been crucial protagonists in the most vital struggles of our difficult moment.”
- Maria Ines Taracena at El Faro (El Salvador): “From the resumption and expansion of the Remain in Mexico program, to the administration’s near-shutdown of the asylum system at the U.S.-Mexico border, and its ongoing invocation of Title 42 during the pandemic: Biden has embraced many of the same cruel practices as his predecessor. …Many of the executive actions on immigration Biden signed on his first day and initial weeks in office were, we can now see, largely performative.”
- After a holiday lull during which fewer than 100 unaccompanied children per day were arriving at the border, CBP is now once again encountering nearly 500 unaccompanied children per day.
- While CBP has yet to report migrant encounter data from December, a January 14 “Remain in Mexico” court filing points to 178,840 border-wide migrant encounters, a slight increase from November (173,620). That is the first month-on-month increase since June-to-July. Of those 178,840, CBP used Title 42 to expel 56 percent (100,251).
- The Biden administration’s Department of Justice defended the Trump administration’s Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy, which remains in effect, in oral arguments before the DC Circuit Court of Appeals on January 19. The case against Title 42, brought by the ACLU and four other organizations, calls for an immediate end to the policy, which the organizations consider to be illegal. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has used this “public health” authority to quickly eject migrants, regardless of asylum needs, over 1.5 million times since March 2020.
- CBP has published a request for input, including detailed maps, on plans to build 86 miles of border barrier in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region. This barrier would be built with DHS funds that Congress appropriated in past years at the Trump administration’s request. The Biden administration has requested that Congress rescind those border-wall funds, but Congress has not yet passed a 2022 budget.
- The White House is considering requiring all migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border and are granted court hearings to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, Axios reports.
- Ciudad Juárez endured an outbreak of organized-crime violence the week of January 10, with criminals setting 11 vehicles and buildings ablaze around the city on the 12th. Mexico’s federal government sent over 2,000 members of the National Guard, a new militarized police force, to the city. In what may be a too-simplistic analysis, local media speculate about a possible alliance between the Jalisco and Juárez cartels against the Sinaloa Cartel.
- Reporters from the Honduran daily El Heraldo talk with a smuggler who offers to take migrants across Mexico to the U.S. border by air, for US$13,000.