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.
Remain in Mexico has been applied to nearly 250 people
As of Tuesday January 4, the Biden administration’s “Remain in Mexico” (RMX) program had sent 217 asylum-seeking migrants back into Mexico to await their first U.S. immigration court hearings. The program, also known as “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP), had been applied to 135 citizens of Nicaragua (62 percent), 46 Venezuelans, 16 Cubans, 13 Ecuadorians, and 7 Colombians.
By January 5 a source at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) told Mexico’s Aristegui Noticias that 224 men had been sent back across the border since December 8, when the court-ordered revival of the Trump-era program began. In some of these cases, rights advocates have observed a failure to take steps that the Biden administration had promised to implement in order to make RMX more humane.
As explained in past updates, Remain in Mexico was a Trump administration initiative that sent 71,071 asylum seekers with U.S. cases into Mexico between January 2019 and January 2021. Most were sent across before March 2020, when the “Title 42” pandemic measure made requesting asylum nearly impossible by quickly expelling as many migrants as possible.
At least 1,500 asylum seekers suffered violent attacks after being made to remain in Mexico, according to information compiled by Human Rights First. Candidate Joe Biden pledged to end the program, and acted quickly to do so in early 2021, bringing more than 10,000 asylum seekers to await their hearings on U.S. soil. A lawsuit from the 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.
Republican attorneys general of Texas and Missouri led to a Texas federal judge, in August 2021, ordering the Biden administration to carry out a “good faith” effort to restart Remain in Mexico. The Supreme Court refused to put a hold on that order while lower-court appeals continued.
Title 42, which expels undocumented migrants without affording them a chance to request protection in the United States, is applied heavily to citizens of Mexico, and to citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, whose expulsions Mexico agreed to receive in March 2020. Citizens of other, more distant countries are harder to expel quickly, though (as discussed below) the Biden administration is implementing a large-scale airlift of expelled Haitian migrants.
If they are from the Western Hemisphere, asylum seekers from those “other” countries—who, including Haiti, made up 30 percent of all encountered migrants in November—are now increasingly likely to find themselves subject to Remain in Mexico. Not a single citizen of El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras has ended up in the revived program yet. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) continues to use Title 42 for people from those countries, which means that they (along with Mexicans) do not even get asylum cases or hearing dates in the U.S. immigration system.
It is notable that the top three nationalities to which “Remain in Mexico” has so far been applied—Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba—are undemocratic states whose human rights record the U.S. government forcefully criticizes. They are also countries less likely to accept expulsion or deportation flights—though as noted below, 18 flights landed in Nicaragua last year.
The new Remain in Mexico began December 8 in El Paso; on January 5 it expanded to San Diego, where two Colombian men became the first people sent across to await their U.S. hearings in Tijuana. There, IOM staff tested them for COVID-19, gave them information about what to expect in the RMX process, and took them to a shelter.
A U.S. Embassy representative told Tijuana shelter operators and migrant advocates that Remain in Mexico would steadily expand to a maximum of 30 people per day in Tijuana. The Biden administration plans to implement the program at seven ports of entry (San Diego and Calexico, California; Nogales, Arizona; and El Paso, Eagle Pass, Laredo, and Brownsville, Texas). If it applied Remain in Mexico to that full complement of 30 people per day per port of entry, 6,300 people could be sent into Mexican border towns each month. The Trump administration only exceeded that monthly total three times during the earlier incarnation of RMX.
That many new returnees, along with regular deportations and an increasing number of migrants arriving from Haiti and elsewhere, will strain shelters and other humanitarian efforts in Tijuana, Father Patrick Murphy, who runs Tijuana’s Casa de Migrante shelter, told Border Report. “Tijuana is going to be in a difficult position with this constant migration and we haven’t seen much of a response from our government, there’s no help, and they won’t talk to us or take our input.”
The U.S. government has reportedly pledged to provide funding that would benefit shelters receiving RMX participants in Mexican border towns, but where that stands is not clear. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) referred San Diego Union-Tribune inquiries about funding to the Department of State, which did not respond.
In El Paso, the first hearings took place on January 3 for asylum seekers who had been sent across the border into Ciudad Juárez in December. Thirty-six people reported to the port of entry, some at 4:30 AM, and were brought to the federal courthouse in downtown El Paso.
The Biden administration had promised that migrants would have greater access to legal representation in the rebooted program; during the Trump-era program, only 10 percent (18 percent of those who were able to attend all immigration hearings) had lawyers. The situation so far is unchanged: only five of eighty-two asylum seekers brought to El Paso on January 3 and 4 had attorneys present, according to Yael Schacher of Refugees International, who observed the proceedings.
Observers’ access to the courtrooms was also spotty: reporter René Kladzyk of El Paso Matters was barred from attending hearings even though a Department of Justice fact sheet reads, “when court space is limited, media representatives have priority over the general public.” An official cited COVID-19 capacity limitations.
Human Rights First researchers noted other inconsistencies with the Biden administration’s promises of a more humane Remain in Mexico program. Some of the first returnees to Ciudad Juárez said they were not asked required medical screening questions that might exempt people with some conditions from being sent back: DHS personnel had simply checked “no” on a form’s list of medical conditions. Every person Human Rights First staff interviewed upon return to Juárez reported suffering harm in Mexico, including kidnappings, or violence from police or other officials—but they were sent back to Mexico anyway. The Border Project, a legal watchdog group, identified 24 returnees whom it determined should have been exempted from RMX for medical reasons.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reports, “When asked about this issue in a press call on Monday [January 3], administration officials said that asylum seekers in the program can go to ports of entry or reach out to U.S. officials via email if they feel they’ve been incorrectly placed into the program or if their situations have changed.”
The Biden administration continues to insist that it opposes the renewed program, even as it expands it. On December 29 the Department of Justice asked the Supreme Court to expedite its consideration of the lawsuit brought by the Texas and Missouri attorneys general, which had forced the program’s restart, urging it to hold oral arguments in April. It is far from certain that the conservative Supreme Court would find in the Biden administration’s favor.
Meanwhile, proponents of Remain in Mexico are arguing that the administration is not moving to restore the program as quickly as the court order requires. Former Trump White House advisor Stephen Miller published a tweet lamenting that Remain in Mexico has been applied to “about 200” single adult men so far “out of the many 100’s of thousands flooding across unimpeded,” claiming that “Biden is violating a fed court injunction.”
Migrant removal flights increased from 2020 to 2021
Guatemala City’s first U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contractor flights of the year landed on January 4, one from McAllen, Texas and one from nearby Harlingen, Texas. They discharged 251 deported or expelled Guatemalan citizens, 67 of them children. This continues the pace of removal flights set in 2021, according to Guatemalan authorities who counted 184 flights last year discharging 17,806 migrants. Many of those migrants—we don’t have an exact amount—were detained at the border and expelled under Title 42; others were detained by ICE in the U.S. interior. Last year, Mexican authorities deported another 45,498 people to Guatemala, 4,775 by air and the rest on 1,195 buses.
What a new report from Witness at the Border calls “the largest mass deportation campaign in 5 decades” continues in Haiti. As of the morning of January 7, the Biden administration had sent 162 planeloads of Haitian citizens back to Port-au-Prince or Cap-Haïtien, returning about 16,300 people in less than a year. Most are Title 42 expulsions. (In 2020, the Trump administration operated 37 ICE removal flights to Haiti, according to Witness at the Border, which monitors likely ICE fights.) About 126 of those flights have occurred since September 19, 2021, after thousands of Haitian citizens arrived en masse in the border town of Del Rio, Texas.
Overall, Witness at the Border found an increase in migrant removal flights from the Trump administration’s final year to the Biden administration’s first year. 975 flights operated between February and December 2021 (discarding January 2021, which was split between the two presidents). This is up 6 percent from 917 flights between February and December 2020.
Among other interesting findings in the organization’s year-end report:
- Removal flights going directly to El Salvador (-21 percent), Guatemala (-26 percent), and Honduras (-26 percent) decreased from 2020 to 2021. However, “this decrease of 135 flights was more than offset by the 143 flights to Villahermosa and Tapachula [southern Mexico] that resulted in chain expulsions of an estimated over 14,000 people, primarily Guatemalans and Hondurans, expelled first by US to southern Mexico by air, and then expelled by Mexico by land to Guatemala. In neither case were these people afforded their legal right to assert their rights to seek protection.”
- One or two flights per month removed people to Nicaragua, despite the deteriorating political and human rights situation and a poor bilateral relationship. Flights continued even after Nicaragua’s illegitimate November 7 elections: two in November, two in December, and eighteen in the year, similar to the nineteen that operated in 2020.
- The 19 destinations with more than 1 removal flight in 2021 were Guatemala City, Guatemala (184); all of Honduras (149); Port-au-Prince, Haiti (132); Villahermosa, Mexico (112); San Salvador, El Salvador (90); Ecuador (72); Tapachula, Mexico (56); Guadalajara, Mexico (52); Mexico City, Mexico (49); Morelia, Mexico (23); Cap-Haïtien, Haiti (22); Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (21); all of Brazil (21); Managua, Nicaragua (18); Querétaro, Mexico (16); Bogotá, Colombia (12); Kingston, Jamaica (12); Puebla, Mexico (7); and Piarco, Trinidad (3).
Asylum claims in Mexico
Mexico’s small refugee agency, COMAR, reported a record-smashing number of migrants requesting asylum in the country in 2021. The 131,448 applications last year exceeded COMAR’s previous high (70,351 in 2019) by 87 percent. It is more than 100 times the number of people who sought asylum in Mexico as recently as 2013.
For the first time, Haiti led the list of nationalities of asylum seekers in Mexico, with 51,827. Another 6,970 people listed as from Chile and 3,836 from Brazil are also mostly of Haitian descent: many are children of Haitian migrants who first emigrated to those countries. Honduras, with 36,361 applicants, was in second place—though the number of Honduran asylum seekers exceeds 2019’s record.
While the U.S. government continues Title 42 expulsions of Haitian migrants, Mexico (without even counting those listed as Chilean or Brazilian) has considered asylum requests from 837 percent more Haitians in 2021 than in 2019. Working with the UN Refugee Agency, COMAR has launched a pilot program to provide 200 Haitian asylum applicants with temporary visas allowing them to work while awaiting decisions on their cases. Mexico’s largest convenience store chain, Oxxo, also announced its intention to hire Haitians.
The busiest COMAR office continues to be the one in Mexico’s southern border city of Tapachula, Chiapas. In this city of about 350,000 people, 89,688 migrants applied for asylum last year: 68 percent of all of Mexico’s 2021 asylum requests. Tapachula was followed by COMAR’s offices in Mexico City (18,959); Tenosique, Tabasco (7,161); Acayucan, Veracruz (5,809); Palenque, Chiapas (5,696); and Tijuana, Baja California (4,135).
Of the 37,806 asylum decisions that COMAR issued in 2021, 72 percent were grants of asylum and 2 percent were grants of “complementary protection.” The other 26 percent of applications were denied. Adding asylum and complementary protection, COMAR approved 97 percent of Venezuelans, 85 percent of Hondurans and Salvadorans; 69 percent of Cubans; 35 percent of Haitians; and 56 percent of other countries’ citizens.
Texas’s troubled National Guard border mission
Since March 2021 Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has ramped up the National Guard presence along his state’s border with Mexico, part of a $2 billion crackdown that he calls “Operation Lone Star.” About 10,000 troops are helping to set up border fencing with state funds, to interdict migrants on charges of “trespassing,” and to support Texas state police in the border zone.
In the United States, National Guardsmen are military personnel commanded by state governors, though they may also be called up for federal government duty. A separate federal National Guard deployment, begun by Donald Trump in 2018 and continued in the Biden administration, maintained about 4,000 troops along the border in 2021. An extensive December 2021 investigation by Army Times finds this federal deployment “falling apart” amid low morale, discipline problems, and an unclear mission.
The state mission is also deeply troubled, Army Times investigator Davis Winkie revealed in a subsequent report published December 23. Four soldiers tied to Operation Lone Star died by suicide between late October and mid-December. A fifth “accidentally shot and killed himself in an alcohol-related incident Saturday [January 1] and another survived a suicide attempt during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day,” Winkie again reported on January 4.
A possible reason for the wave of suicides may be the disruption to the lives of guardsmen caused by call-ups on just a few days’ notice, causing significant hardship. Like reservists, most National Guard personnel are civilians, with non-military jobs and families, until they are called to serve.
The morale situation is exacerbated by Texas state government budget cuts that slashed tuition assistance grants for guardsmen by more than 50 percent this year. Meanwhile, many soldiers are not being paid on time, the Houston Chronicle reported.
- New arrivals of unaccompanied children at the U.S.-Mexico border have dropped sharply in the new year. CBP encountered 55 children on January 2, 68 on January 3, and 81 on January 4. That is down from a range of 145 to 168 per day the previous week, which itself is down from an average of 402 per day during fiscal year 2021. The number of unaccompanied migrant children in the shelter system run by the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) fell below 10,000 on January 2, for the first time since March 2021.
- 11 months after the Biden administration paused border wall construction, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it will make improvements and remediations to include “closing small gaps that remain open from prior construction activities and remediating incomplete gates.” While we haven’t yet confirmed that this will happen, “closing gaps” appears to mean building some wall segments. “Some of the work involves ‘closing construction access gaps’ in the Tucson, El Paso and Yuma Border Patrol sectors ‘to address safety concerns,’” the Arizona Republic reports. “Other activities will involve flood and erosion prevention.” Environmental experts interviewed by the Republic foresee severe impacts on wildlife of closing remaining gaps in Arizona, where one stretch of border wall now runs for a continuous 70 miles, blocking animals’ migratory routes.
- Biden administration attorneys filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought in a northern California court by three families whose members had been separated by the Trump administration’s notorious “Zero Tolerance” policy. “Actions speak louder than words, and by sending its lawyers to try to throw separated families out of court, the Biden Administration is effectively defending Trump’s cruel and unlawful family separation policy,” said Bree Bernwanger of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. Negotiations over damage payments broke down in November between the Biden administration and attorneys representing families. “That pits administration lawyers against immigrants who had their children seized—a legally and politically perilous scenario for a president whose support from Latinos and liberals is already shaky,” the Washington Post put it.
- CBP is conducting a review of “Operation Whistle Pig,” a Trump-era program in which the agency’s secretive Counter Network Division used government databases to “vet” journalists, NGO personnel, members of Congress and others.
- Tijuana recorded 1,972 homicides in 2021, a slight decrease from the previous two years—but with a population of 1.7 million people, that would be a homicide rate of nearly 120 per 100,000 residents, far higher than the hardest-hit U.S. cities. The homicide rate in Ciudad Juárez was nearly as high as Tijuana’s, with 1,424 recorded murders in a city of 1.3 million. Juárez’s 2021 homicide total, though, was 13 percent smaller than a year earlier.
- The 2021 U.S. Senate session ended without a vote on the Biden administration’s nomination of Ed Gonzalez, the sheriff of Harris County (Houston), Texas, to be director of ICE. Republican senators have opposed his nomination, as Gonzalez’s department had curtailed some migration enforcement cooperation with ICE. His nomination was reintroduced on January 5. If approved, Gonzalez would be the first Senate-confirmed ICE director in five years.
- As their country slides deeper into dictatorship, 47,534 Nicaraguans applied for asylum or other refuge in Costa Rica during the first 11 months of 2021—16,846 of them in October and November alone. The total since 2018 is 111,712 applicants.
- At least 2,000 Hondurans may be planning to attempt a new migrant caravan around January 15, a migrant rights activist told local media. No “caravan” has succeeded in making it to the U.S. border since late 2018, as Guatemalan and Mexican authorities have blocked their progress. Guatemalan authorities report that they are preparing “protocols” to respond to a possible caravan arrival.
- About 150-200 migrants gathered at the border bridge between Piedras Negras, Mexico and Eagle Pass, Texas late on the evening of January 2. They were apparently responding to a false rumor that CBP was processing asylum seekers. CBP closed the bridge for about an hour. Border Patrol told local news media that agents in its Del Rio sector, which includes Eagle Pass, are currently encountering about 1,000 migrants per day.