WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
18 Feb 2022 | News

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: Haiti Expulsions, Remain in Mexico “Lite,” Migration Drops in January

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.

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The Biden administration removes its 20,000th Haitian by air, and legislators call for a halt

Early on February 17, a plane operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) departed Laredo, Texas for Port-au-Prince, Haiti, dropping its passengers at the city’s airport. It was ICE’s 198th deportation or expulsion flight since Joe Biden’s January 2021 inauguration. According to Tom Cartwright of Witness at the Border, who monitors removal flights, aboard this flight was the 20,000th Haitian to be removed by air during the Biden administration.

Of those 198 flights, 161 have departed in the 5 months since over 10,000 mostly Haitian migrants arrived en masse in Del Rio, a small border city in rural south-central Texas. Of the 20,000, just over two thirds (13,783 as of the end of December) were rapidly expelled without getting a chance to ask for asylum or other protection. The rest were most likely undocumented Haitians arrested by ICE in the U.S. interior, or otherwise processed under regular immigration law. (Read a brief analysis WOLA published on February 17.)

The expulsions are enabled by the “Title 42” pandemic authority that the Trump administration invoked in March 2020, and that the Biden administration has since maintained. Title 42 has been used more than 1.5 million times to expel migrants. Most of those 1.5 million expulsions have sent migrants across the land border into Mexico, which agreed during the pandemic to take back citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in addition to Mexicans.

Citizens of Haiti have been the fifth most frequently expelled, after those four countries. Unlike those countries, nearly all expulsions take place by air. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has expelled 23 percent of all Haitians whom U.S. authorities have encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border. This is a vastly higher percentage than that of any other country whose citizens are primarily expelled using aircraft, which is a costly practice. Just over half of expelled Haitians have been families with children.

According to Witness at the Border’s monthly breakdown, 36 removal flights went to either Port-au-Prince (32) or Cap-Haïtien (4), Haiti in January, more than any other foreign ICE destination last month. Other January removal flights went to Honduras (27); Guatemala City, Guatemala (23); San Salvador, El Salvador (12); Brazil (6); Ecuador (5); Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (2); Managua, Nicaragua (2); Bogotá, Colombia (2); and Kingston, Jamaica (1).

The 20,000 Haitian citizens—about 1 in every 575 people living in the country today—had mostly been living outside Haiti for many years, having emigrated first to South America following a historic 2010 earthquake. As WOLA’s commentary notes, ICE is sending them to a country barely able to absorb them.

“Gang-related kidnappings and shootings have prevented aid groups from visiting parts of the capital, Port-au-Prince,” the Associated Press reported in December. “A severe shortage of fuel also has kept agencies from operating at full capacity.” A State Department “level 4” warning reads, “Do not travel to Haiti due to kidnapping, crime, civil unrest, and COVID-19.”… Haiti’s president was assassinated last July, and it now lacks a government that can be considered truly legitimate. The country was then hit by an earthquake and a tropical storm. COVID-19 vaccination rates (about 1 percent in January) are among the world’s lowest.

“Haiti simply cannot safely accept the repatriation of its nationals, which is why we are so deeply concerned with the large-scale removals and expulsions of individuals back to Haiti,” reads a February 16 letter to President Biden from over 100 Democratic Party senators and representatives. The document, drafted by Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Rep. Cori Bush (D-Missouri), has Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) among its signers. It calls for an end to the use of Title 42, which “is depriving legitimate asylum seekers the opportunity to pursue their claims, contrary to our obligations under international and domestic law.”

The letter cites data pointing to disproportionate harm done to Black migrants in the U.S. immigration system. The signers demand a thorough review of migration enforcement and immigration court records to assess discriminatory treatment of Black migrants.

Two days earlier, on February 14, 33 Democratic Party representatives sent a letter to Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky calling for an end to the Title 42 expulsions policy, which will hit its second anniversary in just over a month. Led by Reps. Judy Chu (D-California), Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts), and Nydia Velázquez (D-New York), the letter demands to know CDC’s justification “for treating asylum seekers as a unique public health threat” at a late stage in the pandemic when new case numbers are dropping.

Report points to a “lite” version of Remain in Mexico 2.0, for now

Between December 8 and February 15, DHS had returned 572 migrants to Mexico under the Biden administration’s court-ordered revival of the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy, which makes some asylum seekers await their U.S. hearings outside the United States. The second edition of a monthly report from DHS, presenting an unaccustomed level of statistical data, points to a program that, at least so far, has avoided—to a greater extent than the Trump-era program—sending back to Mexico migrants who are especially vulnerable or who have faced credible threats there.

That report covers December and January. As of January 31, DHS had chosen 673 asylum seekers to participate in Remain in Mexico, 400 of them in January. Of those 673 people, all of them adults:

  • Their countries of citizenship were Nicaragua (400, 59%); Venezuela (153, 23%); Cuba (66, 10%); Colombia (27, 4%); Ecuador (17, 3%); Peru (8, 1%); Costa Rica (1, 0%); and the Dominican Republic (1, 0%). 92 percent, then, came from Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba, widely considered to be the three most authoritarian states in Latin America today. Expulsions to those countries are complicated by flight costs and poor consular relations.
  • 404 were enrolled in El Paso, Texas (60%), 142 in San Diego, California (21%), and 127 in Brownsville, Texas (19%).
  • DHS administered 519 COVID vaccines for those enrolled.
  • 81 were taken out of the program after they expressed fear of returning to Mexico and passed fear screenings. That is 14 percent of all migrants who voiced fear of return to Mexico. (595 of 673 migrants—88 percent—had expressed fear of being made to wait in Mexico.)
  • 68 were taken out of the program for “case closure” reasons, which largely means they fit one of the categories of especially vulnerable migrants. (These categories, agreed with Mexico’s government, include mental or physical disabilities; advanced age; or sexual orientation or gender identity.)
  • After returning to the United States for their initial immigration court hearings, asylum seekers are asked whether they fear returning to Mexico to await their subsequent court dates. Of 185 people who had hearings by the end of January, 152 (82 percent) said they feared return to Mexico. Of those, 31 (20 percent) passed their fear screenings and were removed from “Remain in Mexico.” Another 25 had their cases closed during their U.S. hearings, and were removed from “Remain in Mexico,” for other reasons.

In all, that adds up to 205 out of 673 migrants (30 percent) being removed from “Remain in Mexico” during the program’s first two months due to threats, vulnerabilities, or other reasons. That, as the American Immigration Council’s Aaron Reichlin-Melnick noted, is greater than the 13 percent exemption rate granted during the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico 1.0” between January 2019 and January 2021. Still, in WOLA’s view, the process does not sufficiently address the risks that anyone under the program might face in Mexico.

A figure of 673 people in two months, with a greater exemption rate, points to a smaller program than the Trump-era version of Remain in Mexico, which sent back more than 71,000 asylum seekers over two years. This may not be surprising, since the Biden administration claims to oppose this program. Its restart is the result of a lawsuit brought by two Republican state attorneys general before a Republican-appointed federal judge in Texas.

There is no certainty, though, that Remain in Mexico won’t grow from its current size. The Trump administration also rolled the program out slowly in early 2019. For now, the renewed program is operating at just three of seven planned ports of entry. It has not yet been applied to families. And its use may become more vigorous as migrant arrivals climb in the spring.

Yael Schacher, the deputy director for the Americas and Europe at Refugees International, published a report this week about her observations of Remain in Mexico proceedings at El Paso’s immigration court in early January. (Listen to an April 2021 WOLA podcast interview with Schacher.) “Essentially, the Biden administration’s position is that ‘we know this is going to go badly and would rather not do it, but we are not doing anything legally wrong,’” Schacher wrote. “This matters little to the small number of asylum seekers placed in a program with a Kafkaesque quality. Many of the asylum seekers I saw seemed bewildered and without any sense of how to deal with the socio-bureaucratic absurdity.” About 140 adult men were slated to attend their initial hearings during Schacher’s four days in El Paso. Court dockets showed that only eight had attorneys.

Migration dropped in January; Mexico’s visa demands for Venezuelans could be a reason

While Customs and Border Protection (CBP) hasn’t yet released data about migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border in January, a monthly filing to the judge in the “Remain in Mexico” case, first shared by CBS News, includes some preliminary numbers. They show a 14 percent drop in migrant encounters at the border from December and January.

The 153,941 migrants CBP recorded last month, down from 178,840 in December, is the smallest monthly total CBP has measured since February 2021 (101,099). It is the largest total recorded in a month of January since 2000, however.

Some notable points in this preliminary data:

  • January 2022 was the first month since February 2013 during which south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector was not number one, among Border Patrol’s nine border sectors, in migrant encounters. The agency detained more migrants in south-central Texas’s rural Del Rio sector (30,773) than it did in the Rio Grande Valley (30,180).
  • Another rural, previously quiet sector was in third place last month: Yuma, which straddles southwest Arizona and southeast California, recorded 23,489 migrant encounters.
  • Del Rio and Yuma have been receiving large numbers of migrants from countries beyond Mexico and Central America’s “northern triangle.” In December, these two sectors combined for 71 percent of all border-wide encounters with migrants from Brazil, 79 percent of Colombians, 84 percent of Cubans, 59 percent of Haitians, 73 percent of Indians, and 84 percent of Venezuelans.
  • Because (with the exception of Haitians) the U.S. government rarely goes through the expense of using Title 42 to expel these countries’ citizens by air, these sectors see relatively infrequent use of Title 42 on encountered migrants. In Yuma, 11 percent of encountered migrants were expelled. In Del Rio, it was 36 percent. (By contrast, just east of Yuma, in the Tucson sector, CBP expelled 87 percent.)
  • Border-wide, DHS expelled 51 percent of all encountered migrants.
  • Of those not expelled border-wide, CBP released 46,186 migrants into the United States, in most cases to pursue asylum claims.

While CBP hasn’t yet released country-by-country data about what happened in January, an important reason for last month’s drop in migrant arrivals could be a sharp decline in citizens of Venezuela.

In December, for the first time ever, Venezuelans were the number-two category of citizens (after Mexicans) encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border; CBP took in nearly 25,000. Many had arrived by air to Mexico, which had not been requiring visas of visiting Venezuelans. Under pressure from the U.S. government, as of January 21 Mexico began requiring that Venezuelan visitors first obtain visas, as it did for Brazilians and Ecuadorians in 2021 after arrivals of those countries’ citizens increased at the U.S. border.

This has almost certainly slowed arrivals of Venezuelans. The American Immigration Council’s Reichlin-Melnick tweeted that, at a conference, he asked Border Patrol official Tony Barker for “a preview of the effect of Mexico’s visa requirements for Venezuelans and he said it’s been an 86% drop so far.”

Closure of the air route to Mexico, and Costa Rica’s announcement that it will start demanding visas on February 21, likely mean that more Venezuelans will attempt to migrate via dangerous land routes. Panama’s government reported a fivefold increase from December to January in Venezuelan migrants passing through the highly treacherous jungles of the Darién Gap, leading from the Colombian border. January was the first month ever in which Venezuelans were the number-one country of citizenship of migrants whom Panama registered. A turn to land routes may also owe to the expense of air travel and the extreme difficulty of obtaining a passport within Venezuela.

The U.S. government does not run expulsion or removal flights to Caracas, nor does it recognize as legitimate the ruling regime of Nicolás Maduro. Still, as a Noticias Telemundo investigation revealed, ICE deported 176 Venezuelans back to Venezuela via third countries, like the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago, in 2021. In February 11 follow-up coverage, reporters Damià Bonmatí and Belisa Morillo profiled Venezuelan asylum seekers who, after being returned on these in-transit flights, suffered violent abuse at the hands of Venezuelan officials from the moment they arrived in Caracas’s Maiquetía airport.

  • Taking advantage of a Justice Department filing that offers National Guard troops on state missions the right to form and join unions, troops assigned to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) controversial “Operation Lone Star” deployment are beginning to organize, reports Davis Winkie at Army Times. Winkie has filed several reports since December about miserable conditions and low morale for the nearly 10,000 guardsmen assigned to long tours of duty at the border with Mexico.
  • In south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, local TV station KENS looks at whether ongoing barrier construction along the Rio Grande is “levees” or “walls.” The Texas Tribune finds that Gov. Abbott is building a state border fence using surplus materials left over after Joe Biden halted construction of Donald Trump’s border wall. The federal government gave Texas 1,700 unused “surplus” border-barrier panels for free.
  • Over a dozen U.S. Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton, California have been court-martialed for smuggling undocumented migrants beginning in 2019, Emily Green reported at Vice. “At their peak, according to court records, they were going on multiple runs a week, coordinating among themselves to see who was free to go, and making excuses to get out of training exercises in order to make a few hundred dollars.” According to Green’s findings, fees that migrants pay to smugglers have continued rising: “Today, adults coming from Central America pay smugglers between $11,000 and $14,000, roughly twice as much as just five years ago, and a fortune compared to the $2,000 fee in the early 2000s.”
  • The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, visited the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border. In Tijuana, he toured the area outside of the main pedestrian crossing to San Diego, which until a February 6 eviction operation (discussed in last week’s update) had hosted an encampment of stranded migrants for more than a year. Further east, Amb. Salazar met with the governors of Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas, reaching agreements to build new border bridges or widen existing ones.
  • The Washington Post reports that CBP plans to roll out non-intrusive scanners—“multi-energy portals”—at ports of entry to help detect shipments of fentanyl, a very small-dose, low volume synthetic opioid, inside vehicles.
  • Last year more than 94,000 asylum-seeking migrants encountered at the border were released into the United States with instructions “to register with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement [ICE] within 60 days to complete the process the border officials started. But in some parts of the country, local ICE offices were overwhelmed and unable to give them appointments,” the New York Times found. As of the end of January, nearly 33,000 had not checked in with ICE.
  • Reuters reports that a subsidiary of Geo Group, a for-profit detention center and prison operator that has been embroiled in past controversies, will manage a “house arrest” alternative-to-detention program for asylum-seeking migrants. As discussed in last week’s update, the Biden Administration will launch this program shortly, on a pilot basis, in Houston and Baltimore.
  • A government Integrity Committee is investigating DHS’s Inspector General, Joseph Cuffari, who heads one of two main bodies that oversee the activities of CBP, including allegations of abuse or corruption. Cuffari is accused of ordering a “retaliatory” investigation of subordinates who have criticized his management of the DHS Inspector-General Office. Cuffari, a Trump appointee, had worked for the last two Republican governors of Arizona. The Project on Government Oversight reported about the crisis in this vital oversight agency.
  • Though it would invest very heavily in border security, a bill introduced by first-term Florida Republican Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar has generated strong pushback from her fellow Republican House members, Rafael Bernal and Mike Lillis write at The Hill, because it countenances a possible pathway to citizenship for some undocumented migrants.
  • “The government created illegal immigration among Cubans and Haitians by blocking their legal paths to enter,” reads a report from the Cato Institute’s David Bier. “It has a duty to correct this mistake. It should immediately reopen parole and begin the orderly immigration process that was available to them prior to 2017.”