WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
4 Nov 2022 | News

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: Migration in FY 2022, Venezuela Title 42 impact, 853 migrant deaths

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.

This week:

  • Fiscal Year 2022 saw the largest-ever number of encounters with undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. 45 percent of those encounters, though, ended in rapid Title 42 expulsions. Migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, declined from 2021. Those countries’ citizens are largely denied the right to seek asylum because Mexico allows them to be expelled across the land border under Title 42. Migration increased from more distant countries, like Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Colombia, whose citizens have a greater likelihood of seeking asylum because Title 42 expulsions are more difficult.
  • The U.S. and Mexican governments’ decision to allow Title 42 expulsions of Venezuelans into Mexico led to a short-term reduction in U.S.-bound migration from Venezuela. It also sent thousands of expelled Venezuelans into Mexican border cities (and Mexico City) that are ill-equipped to receive them, while stranding thousands in other countries along the route. In Ciudad Juárez, where migrants have begun living in tents along the borderline, U.S. border agents repelled a cross-border protest using “less-than-lethal” weapons.
  • Border Patrol recovered the remains of at least 853 migrants along the border in fiscal year 2022, which is a record by far. A larger migrant population and Title 42’s blockage of legal pathways to asylum are probably the main causes of the increase. Border Patrol has recovered nearly 9,500 remains in the past 25 years; this is certainly a significant undercount of the actual death toll.

CBP releases 2022 border data

WOLA hosts a full collection of charts and graphics, including those used in this narrative, at the “ Infographics” section of its Border Oversight resource, including links to most underlying data tables.

With an October 21 data release, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) shared information about its encounters with migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in September 2022 and during the U.S. federal government’s entire fiscal year, which runs from October to September.

Fiscal Year (FY) 2022

  • The agency reported encountering undocumented migrants 2,378,944 times at the U.S.-Mexico border during FY 2022. Border Patrol recorded 2,206,436 of these encounters in border zones between ports of entry. This is an all-time record for the number of times the agency took undocumented migrants into custody in a year.

  • 45 percent of migrant encounters in FY 2022 (1,079,507) ended with rapid expulsions under the Title 42 pandemic authority, which the Trump administration first implemented in March 2020.
  • Because it expels many migrants quickly into Mexico without an opportunity to ask for protection in the United States, Title 42 has facilitated many repeat crossings. Because of much double-counting, the actual number of individual migrants encountered at the border is significantly less than 2.2 million. CBP did not report an annual number of individuals.
  • The largest increases in migration from FY 2021 to FY 2022 involved citizens of countries distant from the U.S.-Mexico border. Of nationalities with more than 20,000 migrant encounters in FY 2022, those that saw the largest year-on-year percentage growth in migration over FY 2021 were Ukraine (3,652%), Colombia (1,918%), Cuba (471%), Russia (430%), Venezuela (286%), and Nicaragua (227%). Citizens of these countries have a greater probability of being allowed to ask for asylum despite Title 42, because the cost of expelling them by air is high or because the U.S. government lacks consular relationships with their governments.

  • Encounters declined from FY 2021 to FY 2022 for nationalities whose expulsions Mexico accepts across the land border: Honduras (-33%), Guatemala (-18%), and El Salvador (-2%). Mexico also receives its own citizens expelled by Title 42, including many who would have sought asylum as they fled threats from organized crime and corruption. Despite expelling 86 percent of encountered Mexican migrants in FY 2022, U.S. authorities encountered 23 percent more Mexican citizens than in FY 2021.

  • Encounters declined from FY 2021 to FY 2022 for some nationalities on whose citizens Mexico (at strong U.S. suggestion) imposed a visa requirement, slowing arrivals by air. Encounters with citizens of Ecuador dropped 75 percent, and encounters with citizens of Brazil fell 6 percent. Though Mexico also imposed a visa requirement for Venezuelan citizens in January 2022, after a temporary drop arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border rose as a sharply increased number of Venezuelan citizens traveled overland through Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap jungles. (As discussed below, on October 12—after FY 2022 ended—Mexico agreed to accept U.S. expulsions of Venezuelan citizens across the land border.)

September 2022

  • September saw the third-largest monthly number of migrant encounters in the 20 full months since the Biden administration began (227,547 encounters). However, when counting citizens of all countries except Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela (2nd, 3rd, and 4th place in September), September falls to 13th place among the Biden administration’s 20 full months.
  • CBP reported encountering 182,704 individual migrants, excluding repeat crossers, in September. (Subtracting 19,950 individuals who reported to ports of entry gives 162,754 individuals apprehended by Border Patrol.) That is the largest number of individual migrants encountered in a month since CBP began sharing this statistic in July 2021, and a 15 percent increase over August. A reduction in repeat crossers likely owes to the larger number of migrants from countries to which U.S. authorities cannot easily expel people.

  • Title 42 was used to expel 33 percent of migrants in September, the second-smallest full-month percentage since the pandemic authority began. Single-adult expulsions fell to 42 percent, and family unit expulsions to 11 percent; both proportions are the smallest measured in a full month since Title 42 began.
  • The drop in expulsion rate may result in part from a modestly greater probability of migrants being able to present at ports of entry to ask for asylum under Title 42 exemptions for those deemed most vulnerable. The numbers point to a small but important change. Of migrants who avoided Title 42 expulsion during the Biden administration’s first 14 full months, 10 percent or fewer had been encountered at ports of entry (official border crossings), which were largely closed to asylum seekers at the time. Since April 2022, though, the share of non-expelled migrants at ports of entry has been consistently in the double-digit percentages—at least double the proportion of a year ago. While “non-expelled migrants” are not all asylum seekers, this does point to increased processing capacity at ports of entry. The existence of this small legal pathway could be reducing the overall expulsion rate.

  • 56% of migrant encounters, and 77% of family unit encounters, were with citizens of countries other than Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. Mexico and the so-called “Northern Triangle” had always accounted for the vast majority of migrant encounters, but fell below 50 percent for the first time in August.

  • As discussed in this update’s next section, the U.S. and Mexican governments’ October 12 decision to begin using Title 42 to expel Venezuelans across the land border into Mexico is causing a sharp drop in encounters with Venezuelan migrants, which had reached over 1,000 per day in September. This may tilt migration from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras back into the majority of “encounters” when CBP reports October data later this month.
  • Of the nine sectors into which Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico border, three that were relatively quiet before the pandemic now combine to make up 56 percent of all migrant encounters. They are Del Rio, Texas; El Paso, Texas and New Mexico; and Yuma, Arizona and California. In September, these mostly rural regions were the destination for a majority of migrants from Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Turkey, Ukraine, Venezuela, and countries listed as “other” (which include Peru, the Dominican Republic, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and elsewhere).

  • Mexico’s government also released migration data in late October. September 2022 saw Mexican authorities apprehend their fourth-largest monthly total of undocumented migrants (41,915). 72 percent were not citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. More than a third (15,214) came from Venezuela.

  • According to tweets from the director of Mexico’s Refugee Aid Commission (COMAR), Mexico’s asylum system received about 11,352 requests in October, up more than 25 percent from September (8,954). Mexico’s asylum applications count stands at 97,973 for the first ten months of the 2022 calendar year, setting COMAR on pace for its second-busiest year ever after 2021. If a large number of applications from expelled Venezuelans materializes, COMAR could set a new record by December. So far this year, Venezuela is the number-four nationality of Mexico’s asylum seekers, after Honduras, Cuba, and Haiti.


Effects of Biden administration’s new Venezuela expulsion policy

Since October 12, when Mexico agreed to a U.S. request to accept Title 42 expulsions of Venezuelan citizens into its territory, U.S. authorities have expelled about 6,000 Venezuelans into Mexican border cities, according to personnel from an international organization that monitors the border, with whom WOLA staff spoke on November 2. The impossibility of requesting asylum in the United States has led to a sharp and sudden drop in U.S.-bound migration of Venezuelan citizens, which had been increasing rapidly since early 2022.

“Over the past week, the number of Venezuelans attempting to enter the country fell more than 80 percent compared to the week prior to the launch of the joint enforcement actions,” read the October 21 statement accompanying CBP’s release of border migration data. On October 27, Panama’s National Migration Service reported that just 54 Venezuelan citizens emerged from the Darién Gap jungle route, down from nearly 2,000 per day earlier in October. (Other nationalities continue to arrive in large numbers: Panama’s overall total for October 27 was 477 migrants that day.)

Panama and Mexico have begun facilitating flights to Caracas for Venezuelan migrants who wish to give up their journeys. More than 4,000 have flown from Panama City, EFE reported on November 1, with most paying for their own tickets. Offering a discounted price of just over $200 per ticket, Venezuela’s state airline Conviasa flew about 100 Venezuelan citizens from Mexico City on October 25, and about 295 more on November 1.

The Mexican journalism website Animal Político documented that, near Mexico’s border with Guatemala, agents of Mexico’s immigration agency (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM) have been carrying out their own U.S.-style expulsions, something not allowed under Mexican law. An unknown number of migrants are being forced to walk back to the border and cross into Guatemala.

Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, across from El Paso, Texas, appears to be absorbing the largest number of expelled Venezuelans. (Estimates range from “roughly 1,800” expelled between October 12-26, according to the El Paso Times, to “around 5,000 people” according to a Chihuahua state government official cited in La Jornada on November 2.)

The large number of expulsions is stressing the city’s system of migrant shelters, which was already near capacity. The El Paso Times reported that the Ciudad Juárez municipal government “opened an additional bare-bones shelter” as temperatures dropped in the city, and that the city’s mayor is pressing Mexico’s federal government to facilitate work permits because “we have more jobs than we do workers.” The El Paso-based Hope Border Institute opened a new health clinic in partnership with the Mexican federal government’s “Leona Vicaro” migrant shelter, at which U.S.-based doctors and medical professionals will volunteer their time.

The shelter efforts are not enough, though, to meet the needs that the expulsions have created. Dozens or hundreds of mostly Venezuelan migrants are now living in a cluster of tents on the Mexican side of the narrow Rio Grande, in an area where the U.S. bank of the river is cut off from the rest of El Paso by the border wall and an elevated highway.

There, on October 31, a few dozen migrants staged a protest, wading across the river into the U.S. side of the border carrying large U.S. and Venezuelan flags. CBP and Border Patrol agents pushed the migrants back into Mexico, employing at least three rounds of rifle-fired “pepper ball” crowd-control irritants. The agents took this measure, CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus stated, because “preliminary reports indicate that several individuals became combative and physically assaultive.” Border Patrol spokesman Landon Hutchens told the El Paso Times that “one of the protesters assaulted an agent with a flag pole” and that “a second subject threw a rock causing injury to an agent.”

La Jornada reported that two Venezuelan migrants suffered “light wounds.” Roberto Velasco, chief of the North America Unit at Mexico’s Foreign Secretariat, tweeted, “Mexico reiterates that respect for the human rights of persons in a situation of mobility must be the basis for the actions of all migration authorities and rejects any potential excessive use of force.” Chihuahua and Ciudad Juárez state and municipal police are now reportedly stationed near the tent encampment to prevent further border-crossing incidents or confrontations with U.S. authorities.

The Venezuela expulsions are causing stress elsewhere in Mexico. Tijuana’s migrant affairs chief, Enrique Lucero, told Border Report on October 24 that about 1,000 Venezuelan migrants had been expelled to the city, “well below projections of 200 per day but enough to fill shelters beyond capacity.” Shelter operator José María García Lara said, “There’s so many Venezuelans we don’t know where we can place them, there’s no more room in shelters in Tijuana, they’re all full.” Human rights advocates have meanwhile denounced that INM authorities in the Tijuana and Mexicali airports are turning back foreign travelers whom they suspect of intending to cross the border into the United States, even if their travel documents are valid in Mexico.

In Tamaulipas, state authorities say they plan to expand migrant shelters to accommodate a growing population of (largely non-Venezuelan) migrants stranded by Title 42 in border cities. About 8,000 are currently in the notoriously organized-crime-influenced city of Reynosa.

In Hermosillo, Sonora, “the sudden arrival of hundreds of Venezuelans has strained the resources of shelters like Vida Plena,” which has 100 guests while even more sleep on the streets, reported Fronteras Desk. The shelter’s manager said a large group of Venezuelans had already decided to attempt a new crossing into the United States, this time seeking to avoid apprehension, risking death in Arizona’s desert.

Further south, near the Mexico-Guatemala border in Chiapas, a group of mostly Venezuelan migrants held a “caravan” protest outside the city of Tapachula. More than 100 such migrant protests have taken place in 2022, EFE reported. While none have come close to reaching the U.S. border, many have led to negotiations with the Mexican government for travel documents allowing migrants to transit the country. In Tapachula on November 1, mostly Venezuelan, Colombian, and Cuban migrants inside INM’s Siglo XXI facility—the Americas’ largest migrant detention center—staged a protest that municipal police broke up. Not far from Tapachula, meanwhile, religious migrant-rights advocates denounced that INM agents raided a church in the town of Escuintla, Chiapas on October 29, capturing migrants who were inside and allegedly wounding a pregnant Colombian migrant.

In Panama, migration authorities from Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama, along with U.S. observers had a closed-door meeting on November 1 to discuss information-sharing and responses to migration. They agreed to meet again on November 9 to discuss seven points, which appear to include efforts to close unofficial border crossings, to combat migrant smuggling and human trafficking, and to create a “human mobility observatory” to share information. The acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Tae Johnson, was also in Panama, where he visited the Darién region.

Reuters reported on November 2 that “around 7,000” Venezuelans have managed to win approval for humanitarian parole in the United States, under a program that U.S. authorities launched for up to 24,000 Venezuelans alongside their imposition of Title 42 at the border. The approvals come quickly, at times in a matter of hours, but are available only to the minority of Venezuelans who hold passports and have a U.S. sponsor.


Migrant deaths totaled at least 853 in fiscal year 2022

U.S. border agents recovered or reported the remains of “at least 853” migrants during FY 2022, according to internal Border Patrol data reported by CBS News. That is by far the largest official single-year count of migrant deaths at the U.S.-Mexico border, exceeding the 546 remains recovered in 2021.

With that unofficial number, Border Patrol’s 25-year total of U.S.-Mexico border-zone migrant deaths rises to 9,460. Migrants frequently perish of dehydration and exposure while attempting to walk for days through the borderlands’ harsh deserts. Some fall victim to attacks from venomous snakes or other animals. Still others drown in the Rio Grande, irrigation canals, or other bodies of water. A growing number are dying of falls from the border wall, especially recently built segments that are as much as 30 feet high.

The actual migrant death toll is assuredly higher than what CBP reports. An April U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that the agency “hasn’t collected or recorded complete data on migrant deaths,” noting that its counts of the dead lag behind those of organizations that work in specific regions.

The sharp increase in 2022 fatalities owes in part to the overall migrant population being larger, as noted in this update’s first section. The Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy, however, is also a factor. Many thousands of migrants who would seek U.S. asylum are currently blocked from turning themselves in to U.S. authorities: they would be expelled without an opportunity to request protection. Instead, an unknown but probably large number are seeking to cross without being apprehended, like the Venezuelan group discussed in this update’s previous section who departed a migrant shelter in Hermosillo, Sonora. That usually means migrating through dangerous wilderness areas.


Other news

  • A July 8 memo from U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin authorized the deployment of 2,500 U.S. National Guard members along the border, in support of CBP, during the 2023 fiscal year. This is a 500-person reduction in the federal National Guard mission begun by the Trump administration in April 2018. (The Biden administration discontinued its predecessor’s use of active-duty personnel alongside the Guardsmen.) This mission is unrelated to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) use of state funds to send Texas National Guardsmen to the border. Unlike the Texas mission, the federal Guardsmen play a distant supporting role that makes contact with migrants unlikely.
  • “The unauthorized placement of those containers constitutes a violation of federal law and is a trespass against the United States,” reads a letter from the U.S. federal government’s Bureau of Reclamation to Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R-Arizona), who has been blocking gaps in his state’s border wall with empty shipping containers placed on National Forest lands.
  • “Based on the first half of fiscal year 2022, the border wall was on pace for 3,322 breaches—more than the number of breaches in any of the prior six years,” according to data that the Cato Institute obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
  • Mexico declared a formal end to the already-defunct “Remain in Mexico” program, which the Biden administration received Supreme Court permission to terminate in June. The Mexican government’s decision to stop accepting asylum seekers with U.S. court dates comes after Mexico’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the program’s implementation violated migrants’ rights in a constitutional protection lawsuit (amparo) presented almost three years ago by Instituto para las Mujeres en la Migración, AC (IMUMI) and the UNAM human rights program’s law clinic.
  • Ten migrants who survived being shot at by two men in rural Hudspeth County, Texas in September have been released from ICE detention and certified for “U” visas, a status given to crime victims serving as witnesses, the Border Chronicle reported.
  • Another Border Chronicle piece, reporting from Nogales, focused on the privacy and civil liberties risks of proliferating border-zone surveillance technologies like drones, towers, and blimps.
  • “The Biden administration predicts that when the fuel is no longer blocked and migrants are able to buy gas to power boats, there could be a mass exodus of Haitians trying to make the dangerous journey to the U.S. by sea,” NBC News reported. As a result, the White House is asking DHS “what number of Haitian migrants would require the U.S. to designate a third country, known as a ‘lily pad,’ to hold and process Haitian migrants who are intercepted at sea and what number would overwhelm a lily pad country and require Haitians to be taken to Guantánamo,” the U.S. naval base in southeast Cuba.
  • A documentary from Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines program illustrates Border Patrol’s controversial, now formally abolished “Critical Incident Teams.” These units were widely alleged to have frustrated investigations into improper use of force and other fatal incidents involving Border Patrol personnel, like a vehicle pursuit detailed in the documentary.
  • “Increased fentanyl seizures are not due to an ‘open border’ policy and are unrelated to displaced people seeking to apply for asylum under long-established immigration laws,” explains a data-heavy report from the Center for American Progress.
  • “There is strong evidence that expanding access to legal pathways can reduce border crossings,” wrote Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council at the Houston Chronicle. “This spring, …the Biden administration gradually began expanding humanitarian exemptions to Title 42 at ports of entry and Haitians began taking advantage of this process, making their asylum claims at ports of entry instead. The resulting shift is dramatic. In the first five months of 2022, 19,166 Haitian migrants were taken into custody by Border Patrol after crossing between ports of entry. That number has since dropped 95 percent.”