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 spring migration increase is underway
Weekly Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data shared with the Washington Post point to the agency being on pace to encounter undocumented migrants more than 200,000 times at the U.S.-Mexico border by the end of March. That is a threshold that CBP crossed in July (213,593) and August (209,840) of 2021. Arrivals dropped moderately after that, reaching 154,745 in January. March 2021, Joe Biden’s second full month in office, saw 173,277 migrant encounters.
“An internal email sent to senior ICE officials in recent days warned that authorities are bracing for a ‘mass migration event,’” the Post reported, “and urged closer coordination with charities and nongovernmental groups that can help shelter and transport migrants after they are released.”
As in recent months, many migrants are arriving in Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, in rural mid-Texas. Del Rio was number one in migrant encounters among the agency’s nine U.S.-Mexico border sectors in January, and second in February. As of late 2020, there were 1,504 Border Patrol agents stationed in Del Rio, 6th among the 9 sectors. Border Patrol has just one temporary place-a tent compound in Eagle Pass, Texas-to hold and process apprehended migrants in Del Rio, other than its stations’ small holding cells.
“6 days in a row, DRT [Del Rio sector] agents are faced with large groups turning themselves in, over 700 migrants,” tweeted Border Patrol Chief Raúl Ortiz. “These type of encounters are exhausting our resources & manpower.” The sector chief reported 2,565 migrant encounters over the March 19-20 weekend, including four large groups turning themselves in to agents on March 18, 20, and 21.
Those four groups, totaling 485 people, were notable for their nationalities. Smugglers grouped together migrants from 17 countries, but only 2 out of the 485 individuals were from Mexico or Central America’s “Northern Triangle” (Honduras, in this case)-the countries that made up more than 90 percent of all apprehended migrants as recently as 2019 (and more than 95 percent in the years just before that). The rest were from countries, from Colombia to Cuba to Venezuela to several African nations, to which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cannot easily expel migrants using the Title 42 pandemic authority, due to distance or poor diplomatic relations.
The Washington Post reported that CBP is currently holding more than 15,000 migrants per day in short-term custody, up from fewer than 7,500 per day in February. Even after more than a year of consistently high migration numbers, the agency has permanent and temporary facilities able to hold and process only 5,200 migrants, plus the small holding cells at Border Patrol stations. Those processing facilities, mostly tents, are in Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley, Del Rio, El Paso, Tucson and Yuma sectors.
The capacity to process protection-seeking migrants-checking backgrounds and health status, gathering biometric data, starting asylum processes-is essential, especially if the COVID pandemic’s ebb brings an end to Title 42 expulsions. The 2022 Homeland Security appropriation, which finally became law on March 15, includes $200 million to build two permanent processing facilities, which Border Report calls “European-style ‘one-stop’ centers” incorporating several agencies under one roof.
A permanent processing facility was just renovated in McAllen, Texas, and another is nearing construction in El Paso using $192 million appropriated in February 2019. As of December, DHS was still seeking to purchase land for the El Paso site. The Department has 90 days to report to Congress its plans for the new $200 million outlay.
Title 42 may (or may not) be entering its last week
Processing capacity will be essential if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) decides that reduced COVID indicators warrant a lifting of Title 42 restrictions. The policy comes up for a 60-day renewal-or termination-on March 30.
Since March 2020, the Trump and Biden administrations have depended on this provision to expel migrants quickly, without affording a chance to ask for asylum, more than 1.7 million times. If Title 42 goes away, then migrants must be processed under regular immigration law (including a small but growing portion of asylum seekers subjected to the “Remain in Mexico” program).
White House and DHS leadership say that the decision is up to the CDC. “They’re going to make the decision that they make within the parameters of their authority,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told the Washington Post. “It’s a public health authority, not an immigration policy. And so they’ll make their decision and then we will proceed accordingly.” The Washington Examiner reported that “multiple government officials,” including a “senior CBP official,” are expecting the CDC to end Title 42 by April. It is still possible, though, that the CDC could cite the coronavirus’s emerging BA.2 variant as a reason to continue the border expulsions policy.
Though DHS has set up a “command post,” among other steps, to deal with a potential post-Title 42 overwhelm, CBP’s processing capacity (discussed above) remains insufficient. A March 24 letter to President Biden from Arizona’s two moderate Democratic senators, Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, worries that DHS has not created a “comprehensive plan” for “a secure, orderly, and humane process at the border” after Title 42, despite the senators having requested one of Secretary Mayorkas last June. For that reason, Kelly and Sinema ask that Title 42 remain in place-even without a public health justification-until a plan exists and DHS is ready to carry it out.
Title 42’s use meanwhile continues to expand. Following discussions with the Government of Colombia, earlier this month DHS began using Title 42 to expel hundreds of Colombian migrants back to Bogotá by air, CBS News revealed. A credible source tells WOLA that many Colombian migrant families were held in cells for as much as 20 days in Border Patrol’s Yuma sector stations, only to be expelled. The expulsions policy was meant to be a public health measure to avoid exactly this sort of practice: holding people for long periods in cramped CPB spaces where the virus could spread.
Title 42 continues to close ports of entry (official border crossings) to asylum seekers. At the line between Tijuana and San Diego, that has meant CBP officers turning away Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion, and Russians fleeing the Putin government’s repression. U.S. authorities have begun admitting Ukrainians, offering them humanitarian parole. CBS News’s Camilo Montoya-Gálvez tweeted that between February 23 and March 23, 168 Ukrainians had requested parole.
Russians are among the many other nationalities whose asylum seekers remain in limbo in Tijuana. Blocked by Title 42, some Russian families have been camped out on the sidewalk outside the San Ysidro port of entry leading to San Diego. Nationals from other countries, from Central America to Africa, continue to be unable to access protection at the port. “The racism is blatant at this point,” Hollie Webb, an attorney with the Tijuana-San Diego legal services organization Al Otro Lado, told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Mexico’s foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, said on March 21 that 1,300 Russian and Ukrainian citizens have gathered at the U.S. border. They appear to be concentrated mostly in the western part of the border: officials in Ciudad Juárez say they have seen “few if any” Ukrainians. In Baja California, the Mexican state whose largest city is Tijuana, education officials said that they had enrolled 15 Russian and Ukrainian children in the state’s schools.
“Operation Lone Star” faces serious questions
It has been just over a year since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a fierce critic of the Biden administration’s border policies, launched “Operation Lone Star,” a big state-funded security deployment along Texas’s border with Mexico. Abbott has increased the state’s border security budget to more than $3 billion through 2023. These funds have paid for miles of fencing on state-owned and some private land, along with the reconditioning of two jails to hold migrants arrested on state trespassing charges.
Operation Lone Star has sent about 10,000 Texas National Guardsmen and state police to the border. “To pull this off,” the Texas Observer noted this week, “the state ordered Guard members, under threat of possible arrest, to separate from families and civilian jobs, sometimes with just days’ notice, for an assignment set to last a year.”
As past WOLA Border Updates have reported, Abbott’s military deployment has been seriously troubled. “Troops have dealt with late paychecks, limited access to necessary equipment and cramped living conditions for a mission that some soldiers have said lacks purpose,” Stars and Stripes put it this week. Several soldiers have committed, or attempted, suicide.
The deployment’s problems have brought some unusual mid-course leadership changes. This week, the Texas National Guard abruptly replaced the commander of its 36th Infantry Division, which comprises 16,000 of Texas’s 23,200 National Guard troops. Gen. Charles Aris is the second Texas general to be replaced in two weeks: Gov. Abbott pushed out Gen. Tracy Norris as adjutant-general of the Texas Military Department on March 14. “Transitions for both command positions are typically announced in advance and include a formal public ceremony,” Stars and Stripes reported. “The announcements made last week were effective immediately and officials said ‘appropriate’ ceremonies are in the planning stages.”
At a March 10 event in the Rio Grande Valley, Gov. Abbott had commemorated Operation Lone Star’s one-year anniversary, claiming many criminal arrests, drug seizures, and migrant apprehensions. A big March 21 investigation by the Marshall Project, ProPublica, and the Texas Tribune cast serious doubt on these claims of success. The journalistic organizations found that among the Operation’s purported results, Texas authorities had been counting arrests and drug seizures that took place far from the border, involving police units unaffiliated with “Lone Star,” and in some cases taking place before the deployment even began. They note that “Abbott, DPS [Texas Department of Public Safety] and the Texas Military Department have fought two dozen public records requests from the news organizations that would provide a clearer picture of the operation’s accomplishments.”
Operation Lone Star’s arrests and jailings of migrants continue to be very controversial. A new filing by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, in a lawsuit challenging the mass arrests’ constitutionality, finds that migrants continue to be locked up for as much as five months before having access to an attorney or having misdemeanor charges filed against them. Texas law requires that defendants be assigned a lawyer within three days of asking for one, and prohibits jailing misdemeanor defendants without charges for more than 30 days.
On March 22 the Texas Observer profiled one of Operation Lone Star’s most outspoken critics, Sgt. Jason Featherston, who until late 2021 was the command sergeant major of the Texas Army National Guard. Guardsmen are part-time volunteer soldiers with civilian careers and families; Abbott gave most just a week or two to get their affairs in order and report to an unclear border mission. “Many requested exemption from deployment and were denied,” the Observer reports. “Among them were hospital staff combatting COVID-19 surges in their local communities; police officers in understaffed departments; a federal agent who helps protect the country’s nuclear weapons; and Texans helping tend to ailing relatives.” In Sgt. Featherston’s view, “Texas was trying to get a number to go to the border; they didn’t care how they got it.”
- WOLA published a photo essay recounting an early March trip to the Del Rio, Laredo, and Rio Grande Valley sectors of the U.S.-Mexico border, including four Mexican border cities.
- The Biden administration has published new regulations to govern the process by which migrants seek asylum. They empower asylum officers at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to issue decisions, among other efforts to “streamline” the overloaded adjudication system. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council summarizes the new rules’ 512 pages in a Twitter thread. He warns that the streamlined timelines, aiming to process cases within about 90 days, “are punishing, brutal, and will almost certainly prevent the vast majority of asylum seekers going through this system from being able to obtain lawyers.” The new rules will begin their phase-in in a little more than two months.
- A letter from 22 House Democrats to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, led by Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-El Paso, Texas) calls for in-country asylum processing programs, so that protection-seeking migrants might avoid “harsh terrain, threats of violence, harassment from local authorities, and even exploitation by smugglers and cartels” in the journey across Mexico.
- The more than 2,000 migrants packed under tents and tarps in a plaza in the high-crime border city of Reynosa, bottled up there by Title 42, are to be moved soon to a safer site at a converted baseball field. That project, though, is running far behind schedule, Border Report’s Sandra Sánchez finds, and Reynosa municipal authorities want the migrants out of the square.
- Nuevo Laredo continues to experience a convulsion of violence in the wake of the March 14 arrest and extradition of the town’s maximum organized-crime boss, Juan Gerardo “El Huevo” Treviño. Mexico’s federal government deployed 250 elite special forces troops to the city.
- Staff from the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) spoke to EFE about a recent visit to Panama’s migrant reception centers at the end of the treacherous Darién Gap jungle route. CEJIL’s director for Central America and Mexico, former Guatemalan attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz, said that “more and more women, and with minors” are crossing the Darién, “and the main consequence is an increase in sexual violence suffered during transit.” Panamanian government statistics indicate that 30 percent of migrants who passed through the Darién during the first two months of 2022 were Venezuelan-more than double the second-place country, Haiti.
- Nicaragua’s November 2021 lifting of visa requirements for visiting Cubans has created a new migration route through Central America and Mexico to the U.S. border, BBC Mundo reports. Cuba was the number-three country of citizenship of migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border in February. Florida International University expert Jorge Duany calls the Nicaragua route a “silent Mariel,” referring to a historic 1980 mass migration event. The entire trip, including exorbitant airfare, smugglers’ fees, and bribes to officials, costs about $10,000 per person.
- Nicaraguans, too, are fleeing to the United States in increasing numbers. “The historic destination had been Costa Rica, but the course changed,” Divergentes reports. “Nicaragua is going to empty out like Venezuela,” a migrant said.
- “Returns to Haiti are life-threatening now, and will continue to be so, until security conditions in Haiti improve,” reads a new report from Human Rights Watch calling on the United States to suspend expulsions and other removals.
- Daily protests by migrants stranded in the Mexico-Guatemala border zone city of Tapachula, Chiapas have become violent at times, Lillian Perlmutter reports at the Los Angeles Times. “Frustration rises to a boil, and people begin throwing things.”
- Protesting migrants reportedly blocked a road less than an hour’s drive south of the U.S. border in Allende, Coahuila, site of a notorious 2011 massacre abetted by a DEA trained and vetted federal police unit. The migrants claim that their documents are in order, but Mexican forces are blocking them from traveling further north to the border (Del Rio sector).
- CBP documents and situation reports that The Intercept obtained via the Freedom of Information Act reveal extreme steps the agency, along with Mexican authorities, took to block “migrant caravan” participants’ attempt to seek asylum in early 2019. Mexican forces confined nearly 2,000 migrants to a former body-bag factory in Piedras Negras, and blocked others from accessing the port of entry across the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, Texas. “Some of the Mexican officials watching over the migrants were part of Fuerza Coahuila, a body within the Coahuila State Police that has faced hundreds of complaints of human rights abuses, including forced disappearances.”
- CBP has published a plan and a “stakeholder feedback report” outlining proposed efforts to “remediate” border barriers in the agency’s Tucson, Arizona sector.
- The Border Chronicle reveals that “Veterans on Patrol,” a militia that espouses QAnon conspiracies, is intercepting unaccompanied minors near the border wall in Arizona. “They take the phone numbers of the children’s sponsors and, in some cases, confront the sponsors at their homes in the United States.” Local Border Patrol agents appear to be aware of and cooperating with them.
- While a Border Patrol agent was apprehending a group of migrants near the border wall in Santa Teresa, New Mexico earlier this month, an individual came across from Mexico, hurled a rock through the windshield of the agent’s parked SUV, and crossed back into Mexico.