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.
A six week-old tent encampment in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, along the narrow Rio Grande across from El Paso, Texas, no longer exists. On the morning of November 27, Ciudad Juárez municipal police clad in riot gear, accompanied by Chihuahua state police and federal national guardsmen, evicted 500 to 600 mostly Venezuelan migrants from the site. As migrants scrambled to rescue their belongings, some resisted and scuffled with the police, resulting in several minor injuries on both sides.
The site that some called “Little Venezuela” sprung up after October 12, when the U.S. and Mexican governments announced that Venezuelan migrants—whose numbers exceeded 1,000 per day border-wide in September—would no longer be able to cross the border, turn themselves in to U.S. authorities, and ask for asylum. The Biden administration began applying the Title 42 pandemic authority, quickly expelling Venezuelans back across the border into Mexico, whose government agreed to accept them. As of mid-November, more than 8,000 Venezuelan migrants had been expelled into Mexico border-wide, more than a quarter of them into Ciudad Juárez.
A separate process announced on October 12 would allow up to 24,000 Venezuelans to apply for “humanitarian parole” in the United States. This opportunity, though, is available only to Venezuelans who possess a passport and have someone in the United States willing to sponsor them.
When WOLA staff visited Ciudad Juárez on November 14-16, the tent encampment’s population was near its peak: up to 1,500 migrants living in about 350 donated tents along the paved riverbank. The vast majority were Venezuelan, and most were single adults, though a significant minority were families with children.
The population decreased somewhat as temperatures dropped to below freezing at night. It dropped further after U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan’s November 15 decision striking down the Title 42 pandemic authority, effective December 21 (discussed below).
Ciudad Juárez’s network of governmental and non-governmental migrant shelters, WOLA was told, had sufficient space for children and families at the encampment, and at least some space for adults. But most migrants camped along the river were distrustful, fearing that if they left the vicinity of the border they risked being sent back to persecution in Venezuela.
For days, local authorities had been entreating the migrants to leave the encampment and relocate to shelters, citing public health risks: many migrants had been falling ill, including cases of hypothermia and respiratory disease, due to cold and unsanitary conditions. At 6:00 AM on November 27, authorities arrived at the site with buses, offering once again to take people to shelters.
After two hours of mostly unsuccessful dialogue, police “evicted the migrants with shoves and kicks and demolished the makeshift shelter,” according to a detailed report in Ciudad Juárez’s La Verdad. Cleanup crews tore down the tents, throwing them into a garbage truck. “Migrants watched as workers raked up their shoes, baby blankets and other belongings they couldn’t grab quickly enough,” NPR reported.
“Tents were burned”—apparently by protesting migrants—while “punches were thrown and scuffles erupted,” the El Paso Times reported, as a phalanx of riot police led the effort to clear the camp. The police, who did not carry firearms, overcame migrants’ efforts to form a “human wall.” Some migrants threw stones, injuring at least two police. An adult female migrant suffered a blow to the head “when the riot squad was advancing at the point of shoving with shields,” according to La Verdad. Municipal human rights official Santiago González Reyes told reporters that no rights violations took place.
Border Patrol agents and other U.S. authorities closely observed the scene from the El Paso side. Perhaps 200 migrants at the site opted to cross the river and turn themselves in to the agents; most if not all faced expulsion under Title 42, which remains in force. According to the El Paso Times, about 80 agreed to enter the Mexican federal government’s large shelter, established in Ciudad Juárez in 2019, and about 14 more went to the city government’s shelter.
The rest, about 300 migrants, scattered into the city, probably to await December 21, when they believe that they will again be able to cross into the United States and seek asylum. The Mexico City daily La Jornada reported on November 29 that about 200 Venezuelans had gathered in a new site further west along the river, in Ciudad Juárez’s Las Tortugas playground park.
Title 42’s December 21 end date results from Judge Emmet Sullivan’s November 15 ruling that Title 42 was “arbitrary and capricious” and lacked public health reasoning to justify its use to deny the right to seek asylum. The Biden administration requested, and received, a five-week cushion allowing it to “resolve resource and logistical issues.”
The administration had originally planned to terminate Title 42 on May 23, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determined that the measure was no longer necessary. After 24 Republican state governments filed suit, a district judge in Louisiana issued a ruling forcing the administration to keep Title 42 in place. That ruling had focused on the procedure by which the Biden administration had sought to terminate the policy. Judge Sullivan’s November 15 ruling, the result of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU and other groups, challenges the legality of the entire Title 42 policy, and thus supersedes the Louisiana decision.
Title 42 was used about 2.5 million times to expel migrants, mainly into Mexico, since the Trump administration launched the pandemic policy in March 2020. Its implementation has likely bottled up tens of thousands of migrants who otherwise would have sought asylum. The latest quarterly update from the University of Texas’s Strauss Center estimates “approximately 44,700 individuals on waitlists in ten Mexican border cities.” Some may have abandoned these waitlists, but many others are not even inscribed.
The end of Title 42, then, may mean a further increase in already high levels of migration to the United States, at least in the first months after December 21. Experts told Politico they expect “a stressful and chaotic transition” as the Biden administration, which was relying heavily on Title 42 to limit the number of migrants requiring processing, scrambles to increase processing capacity. A likely outcome will be an increase in the number of migrants released into the U.S. interior with pending hearings in a U.S. asylum system that remains badly backlogged.
CNN reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is projecting between 9,000 and 14,000 daily arrivals of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border after December 21. That is more than the 6,000 to 7,000 per day currently arriving, but in line with estimates of 6,000 to 18,000 that DHS issued in April, the last time that Title 42’s cancellation appeared imminent.
It is unusual to see migration increase at the onset of winter, but we are seeing early indicators that numbers are trending upward.
On November 22, the number of unaccompanied migrant children in custody of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement exceeded 10,000 for the first time since August 4; by November 29 that number had risen to 10,502. (The Biden administration does not apply Title 42 to non-Mexican unaccompanied child migrants.)
On November 30, Mexico’s Interior Department updated its migration statistics for October 2022. They showed Mexico’s National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM) apprehending 52,262 people into custody that month, shattering the agency’s previous monthly record (set in August 2021) by nearly 6,000.
42 percent of migrants apprehended in Mexico in October were citizens of Venezuela; other countries of citizenship showing strong increases include Ecuador, Colombia, Nicaragua, and Cuba.
In the city of Tapachula, Chiapas, near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, the INM has established a temporary center to attend to thousands of arriving migrants. From a temporary facility in Oaxaca state, INM had been issuing immigration documents (Multiple Migratory Forms, FMMs) permitting many mostly Venezuelan migrants to transit Mexico as long as they left the country within 30 days. The new Tapachula facility, though, is issuing FMMs allowing migrants to remain only in Chiapas, leaving them just one legal way to exit Mexico by land: through its southern border back into Guatemala. Migrants in Tapachula indicated on November 28 their intention to protest this new FMM policy by organizing a “caravan” of perhaps 2,000 people through Chiapas.
In a further indicator of increasing U.S.-bound migration, the shelter network in Tijuana—the border’s largest—is apparently so full that some migrant families are paying about 25 U.S. dollars per month each to live on a rooftop near the city’s downtown. Human rights activist José Luis Pérez Canchola estimated to Border Report that 10,000 migrants are currently living in Tijuana; the Strauss Center’s latest report finds that Tijuana’s waitlist to approach the U.S. border port of entry totals about 23,000 people.
As occurred when Title 42 was thought to be ending last May, actors with border policymaking roles are voicing concerns about the Biden administration’s preparedness for a post-December 21 increase in migration. WOLA too, in a November 18 commentary, noted that “the Biden administration—while appearing to use Title 42 to buy time—has not done enough to prepare for its end.”
Four moderate U.S. Senate Democrats (Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly of Arizona, Jon Tester of Montana, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire) sent a November 18 letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas asking a series of questions about border agencies’ ability to process an increased flow of migrants at a time when, already, “Arizona Border Patrol regularly sees over three-quarters of on-duty agents assigned to processing.” The senators, all of whom had voiced reservations about ending Title 42 earlier this year, reference an April 26 DHS memo outlining its preparations. As the Louisiana court had ordered a halt to this memo’s implementation, the senators ask Mayorkas to explain how long the Department may take to revive it. They also express concerns about U.S. NGOs’ ability to receive an increased number of asylum seekers released into the U.S. interior.
In an article looking at the future of migrant processing, the San Diego Union Tribune interviewed Mariza Marin, the director of the border’s largest port of entry, San Ysidro, between San Diego and Tijuana. Once Title 42 is lifted, an earlier court decision will require ports of entry to cease “metering,” the practice of stationing agents on the borderline to prevent asylum seekers from touching U.S. soil.
“The reality for us is that I can never process everyone that’s going to arrive at the same time,” Marin told Tribune reporter Kate Morrissey. The Port Director added that she “sees the way forward in how her staff processes roughly 180 asylum seekers per day now through an exemption process to Title 42—a program that began earlier this year to allow a limited number of asylum seekers through the port of entry because of urgent needs.” Plans may also include increased use of the “CBP One” phone app as a way to manage flows of asylum seekers.
Fifteen state governments, all but one led by Republicans, filed a motion on November 21 seeking to delay Title 42’s lifting beyond December 21. While difficult to predict, it appears unlikely that Judge Sullivan, who delayed his order “with great reluctance,” would delay it further.
Meanwhile, unnamed Border Patrol agents interviewed by the conservative Washington Examiner voiced dire predictions about what might happen after December 21. “Title 42 was a cracked dam,” one senior agent in West Texas said. “We all know that when it breaks, a huge flood is coming. The flood of people coming in at once will cripple our already broken immigration system. Customs and Border Protection will have no other choice but to release virtually everyone.”
In March 2022, when it appeared that Title 42 was ending, a WOLA analysis predicted that the first months after its lifting would involve a larger number of migrants, but that numbers would be likely to decline somewhat and stabilize as repeat crossing attempts reduce and the number of single adult apprehensions drops sharply. WOLA does expect arrivals of asylum seekers to increase, particularly from the countries whose citizens were most aggressively subjected to Title 42 expulsions (Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, and more recently Venezuela). Numbers of migrants from these countries traveling as families (parents with children), which declined sharply under Title 42, would be likely to increase.
Angela Kelley, who served as a senior counselor on immigration at DHS until May 2022 and now works with the American Immigration Lawyers Association, echoed this sense that, following Title 42’s lifting, migration could stabilize after a few disordered months. “It really is like a Rubik’s cube,” Kelley told Politico. “The day after Title 42 comes down, I think it’s going to scramble the different colors. And then over time, the different sides will be the same color. But it’s going to take time, and it’s still going to be imperfect because our system needs to be modernized.”
Some clues about the Biden administration’s future approach come from a November 30 Axios article and from coverage of a November 22 briefing given to Spanish-language media by Blas Nuñez-Neto, the acting assistant DHS secretary for Border and Immigration Policy. “Top officials from the White House National Security Council, Department of Homeland Security, State Department and Justice Department have been involved” in discussions of what comes after December 21, including “a Cabinet-head level meeting” on November 28, Axios reported, citing two sources.
One proposal, mentioned by both Axios and Nuñez-Neto, would place single adult asylum seekers in “expedited removal” if they fail to apply for protection in other countries through which they travel. These removals could involve returns to Mexico, if the Mexican government agrees to it, or even to other countries.
Another proposal would involve “a surge in criminal prosecutions for single adults who have done nothing other than illegally cross the border—with a focus on those who evade Border Patrol.” It isn’t clear, though, whether Justice Department prosecutors could handle such an increased caseload.
Officials are also considering an expansion of the humanitarian parole program offered to up to 24,000 Venezuelans, raising the number and perhaps including Nicaraguans. This requires applicants to have both a U.S.-based sponsor and a passport, though, which can be major obstacles for many protection-seeking migrants.
Axios also mentions an increase in refugee resettlements from the Western Hemisphere (currently capped at 15,000), and use of the CBP One app “to allow migrants to schedule a meeting at a legal entry point ahead of time”—a sort of digital “metering” and waitlist management function.