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

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: Tijuana migrant encampment cleared, “house arrest” for asylum seekers, National Guard

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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Tijuana clears migrant encampment

At about 4:00 AM on February 6, authorities in Tijuana, Mexico cleared out a year-old migrant encampment outside the city’s main pedestrian border crossing to San Diego. “While children and families were sleeping in their tents, authorities accompanied by riot police and the National Guard arrived unannounced at the ‘El Chaparral’ encampment in Tijuana to carry out a total eviction,” read a statement from the “Chaparral Humanitarian Alliance,” a group of San Diego and Tijuana-based advocates and service providers.

Authorities took 382 migrants, with what personal items they could carry, on buses to three local shelters: the Migrant Integration Center shelter, the Salesian project and the Migrant Sanctuary. The Tijuana mayor’s office called it “a relocation protocol for 382 occupants… to spaces that allow greater security,” adding that the operation occurred “without any complication.” Of the 382 people, 86 were members of family units (parents with children), 33 were single men, 4 were single women, 2 were disabled, and 2 were LGBTI.

By mid-morning, a small square by the El Chaparral (PedWest) border crossing had been cleared of people who had been living there for months in tents, fenced off and depending on makeshift sanitary facilities. Excavators were bulldozing tents and belongings as workers hosed down the square.

The El Chaparral camp formed shortly after Joe Biden’s January 2021 inauguration, when misinformed migrants gathered with the expectation that the U.S. government would soon reopen the adjacent San Ysidro port of entry to asylum seekers. They were mistaken: a year later, the “Title 42” pandemic authority remains in place, and the port of entry is closed to all without documentation. Title 42 authorizes expelling Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Hondurans to Mexico, and others to their home countries, regardless of asylum needs.

U.S. law holds that all who reach U.S. soil have the right to petition for asylum at a port of entry. Even before Title 42 made quick expulsions the norm, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had begun posting guards on the borderline to prevent undocumented migrants from accessing the U.S. side of the line. A San Diego Union Tribune investigation found that an increasing number of asylum seekers, especially citizens of Russia, have been boarding often rented vehicles and seeking to reach the U.S. side at the San Ysidro port of entry’s vehicle entrances. (Asylum-seeking citizens of distant countries like Russia stand a very small chance of being expelled under Title 42 due to logistical and diplomatic challenges. Many Russian migrants arriving in San Diego are members of the Tatar ethnic group, which suffers persecution.) On December 12, a CBP officer fired his weapon four times at a vehicle carrying Russian asylum seekers as it drove over the borderline through a San Ysidro vehicle lane. Nobody was hurt.

This port of entry, meanwhile, is one of three so far that is part of the Biden administration’s rollout of the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which it is reviving under court order. Citing the UN migration agency, Camilo Montoya-Gálvez of CBS News tweeted that between December 8 and the morning of February 9, CBP had sent 480 asylum seekers back to Mexico to await their hearing dates: 313 to Ciudad Juárez from El Paso, 129 to Tijuana from San Diego, and 38 to Matamoros from Brownsville.

“As mayor of Tijuana I must make firm decisions,” said Mayor Montserrat Caballero Ramírez of the February 6 eviction. “As a government we are not looking to put an end to the dreams of those who come to this border, on the contrary, we will seek to provide them with the necessary tools to fulfill them, placing them in a safe and dignified place.”

“The way in which this eviction was carried out caused chaos, psychological and emotional trauma, loss of belongings, and widespread unnecessary fear among the migrant population; furthermore, it fosters xenophobia in the region,” the Chaparral Humanitarian Alliance’s statement responded. While the Associated Press reported that the eviction involved “about a hundred members of the police, National Guard and army,” the Alliance mentioned “150 elements of the municipal police and 200 elements of the National Guard” in addition to municipal officers.

“Testimony of the destruction of important documents, food, water, clothing, children’s toys, tents, blankets, grills, pots, etc. was observed and documented. Several migrants said authorities initially told them to bring a few changes of clothes and a backpack,” the Alliance’s statement reads. This group voiced fear that those transported to shelters might find their stays limited to just a few days. “Several people requested clarity on the length of stay in the shelters and the authorities mentioned that it would be for an indefinite period of time, with no limit. It is essential that this be done.”

Biden administration piloting “house arrest” for asylum seekers

Axios and Reuters reported that the Biden administration will soon launch a 120-day pilot of a more restrictive “alternatives to detention” program for asylum seekers who have been released into the United States to await hearings in badly backlogged immigration courts. The rollout of what Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is calling “home curfew” will occur in Houston and Baltimore, involving 100-200 single adults in each city, according to ICE documents reviewed by both news agencies.

The program is being tried out as an alternative to holding people in ICE’s network of detention centers, which costs about $142 per day per inmate. Instead, it will cost “$6-8 per day per enrollee,” according to Reuters, which adds that each “will generally be required to remain at home from 8 p.m. until 8 a.m., with exceptions for job schedules for those with work authorization or extraordinary circumstances.”

This is more restrictive than current alternatives-to-detention programs, which usually involve GPS monitoring with ankle bracelets or cellphone apps, and/or regular check-ins with case officers, but not requirements to remain confined to home. Officials indicated to Axios that there will be case-by-case variations on each migrant’s movement restrictions.

Following the pilot, “a nationwide program is expected later this year,” Axios reported. It could encompass 350,000 (according to Axios) or 400,000 people (according to Reuters) by the end of this year or next year. That number only includes heads of households: including children and other dependents, the number of migrants covered by the new program could be significantly higher.

About 164,000 (Reuters) or “just under 179,000” (Axios) migrants are currently in ICE-managed alternatives-to-detention programs. This is “roughly double the total on Sept. 30, 2020, before Biden took office,” Reuters reported, and doesn’t include dependents.

Citing a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official, Axios notes that during the past three weeks, about half of single adults encountered at the border have been “released with ankle bracelets or other tracking mechanisms.” (The other half were presumably expelled under Title 42 or placed in regular detention.) Single adult migrants “had typically been locked up.” A possible reason for the increased releases could be the rapid spread of the COVID-19 omicron variant in ICE detention facilities.

Several migrant rights advocacy groups quickly issued a statement criticizing the proposal. “Though framed as an ‘alternative-to-detention,’ we have no reason to believe this harsh ‘e-incarceration’ program would decrease the number of detention centers or the number of people detained in them. In fact, it would newly place hundreds of thousands of people under ICE’s control,” reads the document posted to Human Rights First’s website.

Axios’s coverage noted that “the administration has already stopped keeping migrant families in detention centers.” While two large facilities in Texas are no longer in use for that purpose, some family detention is in fact restarting. During the week of January 31, ICE resumed detaining migrant families at the Berks County Residential Center, a facility in Pennsylvania. The facility may currently be holding about 65 women and girls.

National Guard at the border

The use of National Guard troops for border security missions continued to draw media scrutiny last week. In the U.S. system, National Guardsmen are fully trained soldiers who normally live as civilians, in the civilian workforce. They can be called up by state governors, who command them, or occasionally for federal government duty.

Then-president Donald Trump launched a federal National Guard mission at the border in 2018, which continues today. Starting in March 2021, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) called up a separate state National Guard border mission, “Operation Lone Star,” which involves between 6,500 and 10,000 troops at a cost of about $3 billion.

As we have noted in recent weekly updates, these missions are not going well.

  • A soldier died in Brackettville, Texas on February 7 in an accidental shooting with his personal weapon. Spc. Dajuan Lester Townes is the sixth soldier linked to Operation Lone Star to have died during the deployment. Two of the deceased were victims of accidental shootings, and four died by suicide.
  • At CNN, “Multiple members of the Guard who are deployed as part of Operation Lone Star” told of “long hours with little to do, poor planning, and a lack of mission—all of which, they say, are contributing to low morale among soldiers.”
  • At Stars and Stripes, Rose Thayer reviews constitutional challenges to Gov. Abbott’s deployment, including the Governor’s use of soldiers to detain migrants—a very unusual authority for military personnel to be given, with no imminent end date, on U.S. soil. Guardsmen and Texas state police have arrested 10,400 migrants on state trespassing charges since mid-2021.
  • At the New Republic, Felipe de la Hoz links Gov. Abbott’s “drawing on armed state power to stage muscular showdowns with the feds” with many state governments’ adoption of voter suppression legislation and challenges to election results.
  • Arizona Attorney-General Mark Brnovich (R), meanwhile, drafted a lengthy request for a legal opinion on whether the state has been “invaded” by hostile non-state actors, which in his view would justify the state defending itself with its militia (the Arizona National Guard).

  • Mexico reported apprehending 307,679 undocumented migrants in 2021, leaving far behind its 2015 record of 198,141 apprehensions. This number is similar to U.S. border authorities’ annual apprehension totals a decade ago. Mexican authorities deported one in three (114,366) last year, while 131,448 sought asylum. The main countries of origin of those apprehended were Honduras (41%), Guatemala (26%), El Salvador (8%), Haiti (6%), Brazil (5%), Nicaragua (5%), Cuba (2%), and Venezuela (1%). Monthly apprehensions jumped from 9,564 in January to a peak of 46,370 in September, before dropping to 18,291 by December. Deportations actually dropped because of new laws protecting children, the number of asylum cases, and the difficulty of deporting a growing number of migrants from more distant countries.
  • In the southern Mexican border-zone city of Tapachula, where tens of thousands of migrants have arrived and most are awaiting asylum decisions, authorities carried out raids of hotels and the immediate vicinity of shelters, capturing dozens of undocumented migrants. Asylum-seeking migrants demanding visas allowing them to live in parts of Mexico with more opportunities than Tapachula held protests by the city’s giant migrant detention center, wearing chains. Some went on a hunger strike.
  • In a report jointly published by El Paso Matters and ProPublica, Bob Moore reveals an unpublished DHS Inspector General report with new findings about the May 2019 in-custody death of Carlos Gregorio Hernández Vásquez, a 16-year-old unaccompanied Guatemalan migrant. Hernández “died of the flu after writing on the floor of his cell” in the Weslaco, Texas Border Patrol station, according to the report, even as agents falsely logged regular “welfare checks” on his condition.
  • In a new leak to conservative media, “Border Patrol agents broke protocol to claim in interviews with the Washington Examiner that their jobs have been remade since President Joe Biden took office a year ago. They say that they have been redirected from fulfilling a law enforcement and national security role to working as though they were in an Ellis Island-style welcome center.” The article makes no mention of agents’ ability to expel undocumented migrants, under Title 42, 1.05 million times during the Biden administration’s first 11 full months—56 percent of all migrant encounters in that period.
  • Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) tweeted that he will introduce legislation to back up “disappointed and demoralized” Border Patrol agents by creating a “Border Patrol Reserve,” while increasing the force’s size and salaries. Sen. Portman is retiring at the end of this year.
  • Homicides in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico dropped in January to their lowest monthly total since February 2019, El Paso Matters reported. Of 83 people killed last month, 12 were women, a higher-than-normal percentage.
  • The travails of the National Butterfly Center, a private nature reserve along the Rio Grande in Mission, Texas, were the subject of features in the Rio Grande Valley Monitor, the Guardian, Politico, and the Border Chronicle. The facility’s management has long opposed efforts to build a border wall on or near its property, which led to litigation against the Trump administration and against a private wall-building effort that is now facing fraud charges (which the Center also sued for defamation). This has made the Butterfly Center a recipient of violence threats from far-right actors, forcing it to close “for the immediate future.”
  • The DHS Inspector General issued a report on August 2021 visits to CBP and Border Patrol facilities in the San Diego Sector. The oversight agency found that CBP and Border Patrol were “in general compliance with” standards for transportation, escort, detention, and search of apprehended migrants. A key factor was southern California’s relatively modest number of migrant arrivals at the time. Shaw Drake, an attorney at ACLU Texas who had filed complaints about detention conditions in the sector in 2020, called the IG report “irresponsible.”
  • Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, a first-term Republican from Miami, introduced legislation that would create a conditional pathway to citizenship for some undocumented migrants, in exchange for a major investment in Border Patrol, border law enforcement, and wall-building. The bill is unlikely to move ahead in the face of opposition on the right and left, but it received note because of the rarity of a House Republican proposing even a limited “pathway to citizenship.”
  • “Instead of creating a humane immigration system that might begin to address the reality of migration, the Biden administration is continuing a bipartisan legacy of throwing insane amounts of money at military-style border technology,” reads a Los Angeles Times column by Jean Guerrero.
  • “If his [Donald Trump’s] $15 billion, 455-mile border wall can be defeated by any small gap anywhere in it, it just goes to show the absurdity of the whole project because gaps can and are being made on a near-daily basis,” reads an analysis of the border wall’s failure to deter migration, by David Bier at the Cato Institute.