WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
19 Aug 2022 | News

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: July migration, Mexico violence, migrants’ belongings

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.

Due to staff absence, WOLA will not publish Weekly Border Updates on August 26 or September 2. The next update will appear on September 9.

This week:

  • July saw the second consecutive monthly drop in CBP’s encounters with migrants. The agency encountered slightly more individual migrants and significantly fewer repeat border crossers. Only 52 percent of July’s migrants came from Mexico or Central America’s “Northern Triangle,” the nationalities that make up nearly all Title 42 expulsions. As the remaining 48 percent came from countries whose citizens are harder to expel, the share of migrants subjected to Title 42 in July fell to 37 percent, the smallest share since the pandemic began.
  • Mexico’s two largest border cities, Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, saw unusually fierce outbreaks of organized-crime violence between August 11 and the August 13-14 weekend. CBP’s operations, including removals and expulsions into those cities, were unaffected.
  • Revelations about continued confiscation of Sikh asylum seekers’ turbans in Arizona drew new attention, and new advocacy energy, to the longstanding issue of CBP officers’ and Border Patrol agents’ confiscation, disposal, and non-return of migrants’ valuable and vital possessions.


Migration slows from Mexico and Northern Triangle, increases from elsewhere

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and its Border Patrol component encountered undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border 199,976 times in July, a 4 percent drop from June and a 6 percent drop from July 2021. “This marks the second month in a row of decreased encounters along the Southwest border. While the encounter numbers remain high, this is a positive trend and the first two-month drop since October 2021,” CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus said in a release.

Of last month’s 199,976 “migrant encounters”:

  • 181,552 took place in territory where Border Patrol operates: between the official border crossings, or ports of entry. That is 6 percent fewer than in June 2022 and 10 percent fewer than in July 2021.
  • 18,424 took place at the ports of entry, usually because CBP officers allowed migrants—many of them asylum seekers—to approach these border facilities and present themselves. That was 19 percent more encounters at ports of entry than in June, and 42 percent more than in July 2021. In the nearly 11 years for which we have monthly data, July 2022 saw the 3rd-largest monthly total of migrants allowed to approach ports of entry. (Really the 2nd-largest total, because April 2022, when a large number of Ukrainian refugees were processed at the ports of entry, was an anomaly.)

CBP reported that its 199,976 “encounters” took place with 162,792 actual individual migrants. 22 percent of last month’s migrant encounters were with repeat crossers: individuals who had already been encountered at least once in the previous 12 months.

That is a larger number of repeat crossers than was the norm in fiscal years 2014-19 (15 percent). The reason is the Title 42 pandemic authority in place since March 2020, which usually expels migrants very quickly: without a chance to ask for asylum in the United States, but also with very little time in CBP custody or other consequences. That, as an August 16 Wall Street Journal analysis points out, has incentivized repeat attempts to cross.

Despite this, July continued what appears to be a several-month decline in repeat border crossers. Although CBP reported a June-July drop in overall “encounters,” the agency reported increased individuals (162,792, up from 153,379 in June’s CBP release).

The main reason for the reduction in repeat border crossers is a sharp decline in the migrant population likely to be subjected to Title 42 expulsion. 37 percent of July’s migrant encounters ended with expulsions, the lowest percentage since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Of those who were expelled last month, 99.1 percent came from the four countries whose citizens Mexico allows to be expelled back across the land border into its territory: Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

CBP expelled 71 percent of encountered migrants from those four countries last month. But migrants from those four countries only made up 52 percent of the entire encountered migrant population. (This is a historic shift; as recently as 2019, over 90 percent were from these four countries.)

Citizens of all other countries, among them Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Nicaragua, Brazil, and Haiti, made up the other 48 percent of encountered migrants. Because Title 42 expulsion would have to happen by air and because U.S. diplomatic relations with some of those countries are poor, just 0.9 percent of citizens of these “other” countries were expelled in July. The rest were processed under normal U.S. immigration law: some removed, some detained, and some released into the United States pending immigration hearings for asylum.

Twenty-eight months after the Trump administration established it, and more than two months since a Louisiana federal judge prevented the Biden administration from terminating it, Title 42 has become a program aimed almost entirely at four countries while it continues to ease repeat crossings. Border Patrol Chief Raúl Ortiz told the Wall Street Journal that “his agents like Title 42 because it has made processing migrants faster.” But he added, “I recognize that it’s becoming less of a tool.”


Migration from Mexico and Central America’s “Northern Triangle” countries dropped 17 percent from June to July, and was down one third from July 2021. The country whose citizens’ encounters have increased the most is Venezuela, up 330 percent from April to July.

Venezuelan migration to the U.S.-Mexico border declined sharply in February after Mexico instituted a visa requirement for Venezuelan citizens—but it has recovered as Venezuelan migrants have begun taking the dangerous land route through Panama’s Darién Gap jungle. Panama reported 16,864 Venezuelan citizens passing through the Darién Gap in July alone.

Venezuelans are heavily represented on the busloads of migrants whom the Republican governors of Texas and Arizona have been sending to Washington, DC and New York. Unlike most past asylum seekers, many Venezuelans are arriving without family or other support networks in the United States; some have no destination communities in mind and lack places to stay.

Though the least since February, July’s “migrant encounters” number is still historically high. The 1,946,780 encounters reported in the first 10 months of fiscal year 2022 already breaks CBP’s annual record (though the number of unique individual migrants, removing repeat crossers, may not yet be record-breaking). The 1,816,153 encountered between ports of entry by Border Patrol is also a record. Both numbers are certain to reach, and exceed, 2 million by September 30, when the U.S. government’s 2022 fiscal year ends.


Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez endure days of violence

An unusually intense wave of organized-crime violence, spilling over into commercial and tourist areas, gripped Mexico’s two largest border cities from August 11 into the August 13-14 weekend. The outbreak in Ciudad Juárez (Chihuahua, across from El Paso) and Tijuana (Baja California, across from San Diego) raised concerns about the efficacy of the Andrés Manuel López Obrador government’s security policies and about the safety of U.S.-bound migrants expelled to, or otherwise stranded at, the Mexican side of the border.

The violence was part of a nationwide wave that began on August 9 in the central and Pacific states of Guanajuato and Jalisco, where the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación) organized crime group responded to the attempted arrest of a senior leader by going on a multi-city rampage of burned vehicles, destroyed convenience stores, and other mayhem.

Two days later, a probably unrelated confrontation between rival gangs inside a Ciudad Juárez prison led to Black Thursday,” what one media outlet called “10 hours of panic” in the border city. Organized crime-group members blocked roads with burning cars and buses, set fire to shops, killed at least 11 people, many innocent bystanders like 4 people participating in a radio station promotional event outside a pizzeria. Many businesses and all major public universities remained closed on August 12.

“Thursday’s violence shattered their common wisdom—however flawed—that those who stay out of the drug trade and gang life will be safe,” the El Paso Times observed.

In Tijuana on August 12 and 13, organized crime-group members set fire to at least 14 vehicles, and at least 9 more in nearby cities, blocking roadways. Messages on social media indicated that the Jalisco New Generation Cartel was implementing a curfew. There were no reported deaths in Baja California, but the brazen incidents took place in areas near the main border crossing and in zones frequented by tourists. A Carnival cruise ship canceled a scheduled stop in Ensenada, Baja California, and the U.S. consulate ordered its personnel to shelter in place.

According to the Dallas Morning News, the criminal actors believed to be involved in Ciudad Juarez were the “Chapos,” an armed wing of the Sinaloa Cartel, and the “Mexicles,” aligned with the Juárez (La Línea) Cartel. “Among their ranks it is common to find deported migrants and Mexican-American citizens who can easily cross the border carrying weapons or drugs,” Milenio reported.

In Tijuana, Mayor Montserrat Caballero Ramírez blamed the violence on the Jalisco Cartel. She also raised eyebrows with a statement that appeared to admonish the cartel for failing to limit its violence only to people who don’t pay extortion—which she implicitly appeared to be tolerating.

People in both border cities posted photos and videos of usually busy border ports of entry empty and free of traffic, as residents hid inside their homes. “There were no changes for U.S. Customs and Border Protection at our border crossings, no closures and no new restrictions,” a CBP spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times. Title 42 expulsions and other cross-border removals continued. In Tijuana, a source told WOLA that a system of exceptions to Title 42, allowing a small daily number of the most vulnerable asylum seekers to approach the U.S. port of entry, was suspended over the weekend.

By early this week, things appeared to return to normal in both border cities. Both saw another in a series of deployments of new military personnel and National Guardsmen. 600 Army personnel arrived in Ciudad Juárez on August 12. 300 Army troops and 50 National Guardsmen were sent to Tijuana, the major Mexican city with the highest current homicide rate, where 3,000 Guardsmen and 2,000 local police already operate.


Increased concern over CBP confiscation of migrants’ belongings

The investigative publication Arizona Luminaria revealed still more cases of Arizona-based Border Patrol agents confiscating the religious headwear of asylum seekers of the Sikh faith. Reporter John Washington, citing an August 1 letter from the ACLU of Arizona, had documented at least 64 cases of Sikh migrants, fleeing religious persecution in India, forced to surrender their turbans to Border Patrol agents after turning themselves in to seek asylum. Sikhs almost never remove their turbans: doing so is seen as “humiliating,” so requiring them to turn in their headwear raises serious religious freedom issues.

Though CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus promised on August 3 to investigate and to retrain agents in detention standards, “The national Sikh Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona told Arizona Luminaria they are aware of at least 12 new cases of turban confiscation this month alone,” Washington reported in an August 17 follow-up piece. The ACLU, he added, “has identified 84 cases of confiscation this year, but they caution that the number is an undercount.”

“Confiscating and discarding religious items, including Sikh turbans, is an egregious violation of an individual’s religious freedom and goes against the values of our nation,” reads an August 17 letter to Magnus from Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona), Joaquín Castro (D-Texas), and Judy Chu (D-California). “Border Patrol is the largest law enforcement agency with the least amount of accountability in the country. And that’s the problem,” Rep. Grijalva, who represents a border district, told Arizona Luminaria.

The “turbans” case has drawn increased attention to Border Patrol’s and CBP’s frequent practice of seizing, disposing of, and not returning migrants’ valuable belongings and necessary documents. WOLA’s “Border Oversight” database has collected a few dozen anecdotal examples of migrants losing identification cards, prescription medicines, cash, mobile phones, jewelry, and items of sentimental value.

Much gets thrown away. In Yuma, an analysis at the Border Chronicle notes, “The Border Patrol allows each person only a small plastic Department of Homeland Security bag for all their things.” The rest ends up in the trash.

CBP policy allows agents to dispose of dangerous or unsanitary items, but usually requires them to store migrants’ valuable items for 30 days. This, too, is a problem, since migrants often move elsewhere—or are even expelled or removed from the United States—before they can claim their items in the place where they surrendered them.

Activism around the “migrant belongings” issue is increasing. On August 4, the Border Chronicle’s Melissa del Bosque reports, a group of local organizations, organized by the Tempe-based Uncage and Reunite Families Coalition, held a press conference in Phoenix to launch an advocacy campaign. The groups demand that CBP and Border Patrol follow their own written policies and that agents be retrained—and disciplined if they continue to confiscate or dispose of belongings.

Yuma Border Patrol Chief Chris Clem told the Coalition that agents will now give asylum seekers claim tickets, and the agency will keep their items for 30 days. Advocates protest that migrants’ items are still certain to be lost. “They’re going to Miami, New Jersey. They’re not going to be able to come back in person to Yuma and retrieve their things,” Fernando Quiroz of the AZ-CA Humanitarian Coalition told the Border Chronicle.


Other News

  • A Texas federal district court has vacated its August 2021 decision to require a restart of the “Remain in Mexico” program, after the Supreme Court ruled on June 30 that the Biden administration had the right to end the program. Biden’s DHS began undoing “Remain in Mexico” for a second time, “un-enrolling” asylum seekers when they arrive in the United States to attend their scheduled immigration court dates.
  • “Family members are still being separated under some circumstances” at the border during the Biden administration, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported, “including if a parent has a criminal history, has health issues, or is being criminally prosecuted.” A DHS report to Congress counted 227 family separations in 2021.
  • A Southern Border Community Coalition letter to congressional committee chairpeople laments that even as CBP moves to dismantle Border Patrol Critical Incident Teams, units accused of blocking agents’ accountability in use-of-force cases, members of the Teams may be transitioning to CBP’s Office of Public Responsibility, which is supposed to guarantee agents’ accountability in use-of-force cases.
  • Honduras decreed a temporary amnesty suspending fines of about US$240 per person for undocumented migrants passing through its territory. The Honduran website Criterio denounced that those fines continue to be levied on migrants, who can’t proceed until they pay them. Guatemala meanwhile expelled 48 mostly Venezuelan migrants back into Honduras.
  • “As of July 31, 66 people whose names appear on the terror watch list were stopped trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border between ports of entry this fiscal year,” according to a statement by House Homeland Security Committee Republicans.
  • 51 percent of Texan respondents to a Dallas Morning News poll approved of Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) hardline measures to limit immigration at the Texas-Mexico border. 42 percent disapproved. 51 percent approved of Abbott’s busing of migrants to New York and Washington using state funds. 47 percent approved of using state funds to build border fencing. Texas state troopers acting under a July 7 order from Abbott have captured over 3,900 migrants, transporting them to border ports of entry, the Washington Examiner reported.
  • Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) is filling “gaps” in the border wall around Yuma by placing razor wire-topped shipping containers on federal land. In the area near the Colorado River where many migrants wait near the fence openings to be processed, the wall is some distance from the actual borderline, so asylum-seeking migrants have already achieved their objective of setting foot on U.S. soil by the time they reach the shipping containers.
  • “It just appeared one day out of my window of the Sheriff’s Office,” the sheriff of Santa Cruz County, Arizona, David Hathaway, said of a new sensor blimp (“tethered aerostat”) that CBP has tethered thousands of feet over the border town of Nogales. “It was a total surprise, this—what I call the ‘spy blimp.’ I worry about the implications of the loss of privacy, like looking into residential communities and spying on what we’re doing.”
  • A smuggler in Ciudad Juárez interviewed by Al Jazeera praised Facebook for making his job easier: “‘It’s great for us. We don’t have to spend money on long-distance calls to Central America anymore; that’s the first win,’ he said. ‘Second of all, we are reaching people from Africa, Afghanistan—even from Russia lately, and all thanks to WhatsApp and Facebook.’”
  • Mexican migration authorities detained 688 mostly Guatemalan migrants in two operations in the state of Puebla over the August 13-14 weekend.
  • Drawing from regular presentations from Mexico’s Defense Department, the Mexican daily Reforma documented the steady growth of military and National Guard personnel whom the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has deployed on border and counter-migration missions, from 7,348 in January 2021 to 28,807 in July 2022.
  • “You can have as many National Guard or Army numbers as you want, but the forces that drive people to leave their countries are much greater,” Tonatiuh Guillén, the migration expert who briefly served as commissioner of Mexico’s migration authority (National Migration Institute, INM) at the beginning of the López Obrador government, told Reforma. “The largest flow we have is not economic migrants, but the people who would qualify in an international protection scenario. The fact is that, when the National Guard’s functions began, the flow was indeed high, but now it is three or four times more…In the end, my conclusion is that the big winners are the human traffickers.”