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.
Western Hemisphere leaders gathered for the ninth Summit of the Americas are finalizing the text of the “Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection,” which is to go public on June 10. Previewing the document on June 9, a senior Biden administration official billed it as “a regional partnership to address historic migration flows affecting every country in the region.”
In a framework of “responsibility sharing” at a moment of historically high region-wide migration, the Los Angeles Declaration is to have four “pillars”:
“Unlawful migration is not acceptable,” President Joe Biden said in remarks opening the Summit on June 8. “We will enforce our borders through innovative, coordinated action with our regional partners.” The Associated Press noted that this cooperative approach contrasts with that of the Trump administration, “whose unilateral demands for cooperation included a threat to Mexico to close the border and raise tariffs.”
Implementing this declaration may be complicated by the challenges of translating lofty statements and commitments to concrete actions on the ground, and by the absence from the Summit of the presidents of seven of the nine Latin American countries whose citizens were encountered most often at the U.S.-Mexico border in April. The Biden administration did not invite the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua, or Venezuela to the summit. The presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico declined to attend, though they sent foreign ministers or high officials and have likely been engaged with the Biden administration in negotiating the text.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who is charged with developing the Biden administration’s “root causes” strategy for Central America’s “northern triangle” (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), announced new assistance for those countries. Little if any of it would go to these three countries’ governments, whose presidents all skipped the Summit. The Vice President announced more than $1.9 billion in new commitments from corporations willing to invest there, part of a private-sector “call to action” that, according to the White House, now adds up to over $3.2 billion in new investments. Further efforts include “In Her Hands,” a program that aims to “empower, protect, and train women in Northern Central America,” the creation of a Central American Service Corps for the region’s youth, a food security initiative, a Caribbean climate partnership, and a program to train health workers.
“We’re dealing with a challenge that, for a whole variety of reasons, is beyond anything that anyone has seen before,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN. “Countries are already having to do this,” Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols said to the Associated Press, “so rather than each country trying to sort this out and figure it out for themselves, what we’re doing is saying, ‘Let’s come together in a coherent way and construct a framework so we can all work together to make this situation more humane and more manageable.’”
A June 6 letter from 108 U.S. non-governmental groups, including WOLA, urged the Biden administration and regional governments to carry out their border and migration policies in coordination with civil society and migrant-led organizations. It offered a series of recommendations for protecting migrant rights, ensuring access to asylum (including ending the Title 42 and “Remain in Mexico” efforts that block asylum access), protecting immigrants in the United States, and expanding legal pathways to migration.
“What we hope to see in the Declaration are commitments more focused on access to protection and other legal avenues for migrants in need of leaving their countries of origin,” WOLA’s vice president for programs, Maureen Meyer, told Venezuela’s Efecto Cocuyo. “It is of concern that so far the main focus of the United States and several countries is migration control at the expense of the rights of migrants and access to protection.”
Thousands of migrants departed Mexico’s southern border-zone city of Tapachula, Chiapas, on June 6. This latest attempt to form a “caravan” is already dwindling as Mexico’s government engages in negotiations and prohibits participants from boarding vehicles.
Estimates of this caravan’s size have varied widely. Its principal organizer, Luis García Villagrán of the Mexican NGO Center for Human Dignity, who said it was deliberately timed to coincide with the Summit of the Americas, foresaw 15,000 participants, a number that appeared in widely shared initial reporting. As the group departed Tapachula, Reuters estimated “at least 6,000 people.” By June 7, Villagrán told reporters that numbers had dropped to between 5,000 and 8,000.
According to the Guardian, Villagrán said that 70 percent of caravan participants are women and children. While it’s not clear that this was accurate, a significant portion do appear to be neither male nor adult.
It is widely reported, though, that a majority of participants are from Venezuela—80 percent, estimates veteran Chiapas-based reporter Isaín Mandujano—with Central Americans, Haitians, Cubans, and citizens of African countries making up most of the rest. As they walked up Chiapas’s Pacific coastal highway leading out of Tapachula, some carried Venezuelan flags, sang Venezuela’s national anthem, or chanted insults aimed at the country’s authoritarian leader, Nicolás Maduro.
A large presence of Venezuelans in Tapachula is new. Until recently, Mexico did not require visas of visiting citizens of Venezuela, so most who intended to migrate to the U.S. border flew to Mexico City or Cancún, then traveled by bus with valid visas in their passports. That ended on January 21, when Mexico began requiring visas of visiting Venezuelans, at the strong suggestion of the U.S. government after encounters with Venezuelan citizens at the U.S.-Mexico border increased to over 20,000 per month.
Arrivals of Venezuelan citizens at the U.S. border soon plummeted—U.S. authorities encountered 4,103 in April—but Venezuelans determined to migrate northward have begun traveling by land in greater numbers. In the first five months of 2022, more than half of migrants walking through Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap jungles (16,720 out of 32,797 people) have been Venezuelan. In all of 2021, 2,821 Venezuelans took this route, and just 50 in 2020.
When Venezuelans without visas arrive by land in southern Mexico, they face the same choices as other undocumented migrants, most of whom end up in Tapachula: risk capture, detention, or deportation, or seek asylum in Mexico’s overburdened system. Almost 33,000 people applied for asylum in Tapachula during the first 5 months of 2022, and 89,604 applied in 2021. (Tapachula’s population is about 350,000.)
(While many can claim government persecution, even Venezuelan citizens who do not qualify for asylum are difficult to deport or remove. The U.S. government, which has sought to use Title 42 robustly to expel as many migrants as possible regardless of asylum needs, has expelled 1 percent of the Venezuelan migrants it has encountered, and most of those probably had some legal status that made possible their expulsion to Mexico.)
According to EFE, García Villagrán estimated that 45,000 migrants are currently stuck in Tapachula awaiting resolution of their asylum applications. Normally, Mexico requires asylum applicants to remain in the state where they first applied, though cases can occasionally be transferred to other states.
This is a hardship in Tapachula, an economically struggling city in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state. With COMAR barely able to keep up, the agency’s Tapachula office is now scheduling initial asylum application appointments for August, and deciding cases many months after that. This leaves most migrants with no viable way to support themselves while they await decisions. (In early June, both WOLA and Human Rights Watch published detailed, vividly documented field research reports about the plight of migrants stuck in Tapachula.)
To some extent, the “caravan”—and several that have come before it—is a reaction to that. Though they continue to get a lot of attention in U.S. media, no caravan has arrived intact at the U.S.-Mexico border since late 2018. Mexico and Guatemala have dispersed them shortly after they’ve formed, either by blocking them through at times violent operations, by prohibiting participants from boarding vehicles, or by agreeing to allow marchers to transfer their asylum applications to other Mexican states—usually states with greater employment opportunities but still distant from the U.S. border. A few hundred participants in a late 2021 caravan walked all the way from Tapachula to Mexico City, roughly one third of the distance to the U.S. border, but dispersed after that.
The current caravan seems to be dividing. By June 8 its participants had traveled about 25 miles from Tapachula to the town of Huixtla, Chiapas, where Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) apparently offered to provide documents to those who desist. Mandujano reported that the document on offer is the Humanitarian Visitors Card (Tarjeta de Visitante por Razones Humanitarias, TVRH), which allows migrants to stay in the country for a year and work. Although humanitarian visas should be provided to asylum seekers while their cases are processed, victims or witnesses of crime in Mexico, children, and for other humanitarian or public interest reasons, the U.S. government has often objected to Mexico’s use of this visa because many who receive it go directly to the U.S. border.
It is not clear how many TVRHs the Mexican government is issuing to caravan participants. García Villagrán told EFE that “INM Commissioner Francisco Garduño called him and pledged to assist all of the members of the caravan with their immigration proceedings.” Over 2,100 had been issued by June 8.
The offer has apparently split or reduced the caravan. On June 9, about 2,000 migrants, mainly younger males, walked north from Huixtla, according to the Associated Press, “but throngs of families with children decided to wait in Huixtla to see if they could get some sort of temporary exit visa.”
In the United States, some are watching closely. Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols, according to EFE, warned caravan participants that “the U.S. border is not open… what I say to these people is not to risk their lives on a long journey that will not result in entry into the United States.” The caravan has been featured on the social media accounts of immigration and border hardliners like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), and the FOX News cable network.
2018 email correspondence between Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials, made available via ongoing litigation, reveals that they sought to maximize the number of migrant parents and children being separated by the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy. Officials, some of whom remain in senior positions today, were upset that some parents were being released from the U.S. criminal justice system quickly enough to be reunited with their children.
Starting in late 2017 and intensifying during the spring of 2018, the Trump administration, led by then-attorney general Jeff Sessions, sought the highest possible number of criminal prosecutions of migrants who crossed the border between ports of entry, which is a misdemeanor. Under the “zero tolerance” policy, adult improper border crossers were jailed and made to appear in federal courts, regardless of whether they were seeking asylum. Meanwhile, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) carried out a policy called “metering,” sharply limiting the number of asylum seekers who could approach ports of entry “properly” to ask asylum, making improper crossings the only viable way to seek protection without a very long wait.
If the criminally prosecuted migrants arrived with children, CBP took the children away from parents, on the pretext that children cannot be held in prison, then classified the children as “unaccompanied” and sent them to the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). These separations happened more than 4,000 times until a San Diego federal judge ordered a halt to the “zero tolerance” policy in June 2018. For reasons that remain unexplained, CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) made very little effort to note the connection between jailed parent and separated child. As a result, hundreds of parents were deported without their children, and many remain separated today.
Trump administration officials sought to portray the family separations as an unfortunate byproduct of its “zero tolerance” effort to enforce existing U.S. laws. (“On multiple occasions, high-ranking members of the Trump administration denied developing a family separation policy,” CBS News put it this week.) The trove of emails, first revealed by the Washington Post’s Maria Sacchetti, explodes that claim. They show that the family separations were, in fact, the point: an effort to deter future migration by inflicting suffering on migrants, including asylum seekers.
On May 10, 2018, senior ICE official Matthew Albence sent a memo to top colleagues voicing his concern that, because judges were often sentencing parents to time served and releasing them, parents were returning to DHS custody too quickly, before their children could be classified as “unaccompanied” and taken away from them. According to the Washington Post, “Albence said CBP should work with ICE ‘to prevent this from happening,’ such as by taking the children themselves to ORR ‘at an accelerated pace’ or bringing the adults directly to ICE from criminal court, instead of returning them to their children.” Albence now works in the private sector.
Tae Johnson, a senior ICE official at the time, complained on May 25, 2018 that CBP was “reuniting adults with kids” after prosecution in McAllen. “What a fiasco,” he added. Tae Johnson is now the acting director of ICE, a position he has held since the final days of the Trump administration.
“We can’t have this,” Albence responded to Johnson’s e-mail. “ORR needs arm twisted,” wrote ICE official David Jennings. Albence added on May 26,“This obviously undermines the entire effort and the Dept is going to look completely ridiculous if we go through the effort of prosecuting only to send them to a [Family Residential Center] and out the door.” CBP official Sandi Goldhamer responded by suggesting “that Border Patrol ‘cease the reunification process’ if officials are ‘concerned about appearances.’”
Lawyers representing victims of family separation obtained these emails as part of a lawsuit filed against the U.S. government after settlement negotiations broke down in late 2021. The officials’ words, they say, strengthens the plaintiffs’ case: “in practice, the government implemented a sweeping administrative family separation policy—the exact DHS proposal discussed throughout 2017—under the guise of a prosecution policy, which was merely a pretext for the ultimate goal: separating families to deter immigration.”
In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 8 that a U.S. citizen could not sue a Border Patrol agent who assaulted him. The Egbert v. Boule decision will complicate future efforts to hold accountable federal law enforcement agents who violate constitutional rights.
The case stems from a 2014 incident in Washington state, along the U.S.-Canada border, in which Border Patrol agent Erik Egbert shoved and pushed to the ground innkeeper Robert Boule, who accused Egbert of illegally entering his property. The Supreme Court’s majority, in an opinion authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, decided that Boule did not have the right to sue a federal agent without explicit authorization from Congress.
This further weakens a 1971 Supreme Court ruling (Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics) that had allowed federal law enforcement officers to be sued for violating constitutional rights in some instances. The U.S. Constitution includes protections against excessive force or illegal search and seizure, but “it is silent about what the proper remedy is against an officer who violates these limits,” Ian Millhiser explained at Vox. The possibility of lawsuits as a recourse was already weakened by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2020 (Hernandez v. Mesa), which prohibited relatives of a 15-year-old Mexican boy from suing the Border Patrol agent who, while standing on U.S. soil, shot and killed him from across the border.
In a dissenting opinion cited in the Washington Post, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that “the court had ‘absolutely immunized from liability’ thousands of Border Patrol agents ‘no matter how egregious the misconduct or resultant injury.’”
Cecillia Wang, the ACLU’s deputy legal director, told the Los Angeles Times that the Ebert v. Boule decision “leaves victims of police violence by Border Patrol agents without an effective remedy and endangers us all. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is by far the largest federal police agency, and it has an appalling record of injuring and killing people.” Added the Southern Border Communities Coalition, “The decision in the Washington state case is a setback for victims and survivors of Border Patrol agents’ violence. The court found that BP agents cannot be held individually liable for abuse and excessive force used during their work day.”