WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
8 Dec 2023 | News

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: Congress negotiations, increased arrivals, migration from China

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.


Legislators have hit an impasse over the Biden administration’s request for $110.5 billion in additional funding for Ukraine, Israel, the border, and other priorities. In exchange for their support, Republicans are demanding tougher border and migration measures, including some that could put asylum and humanitarian parole out of reach for many. Talks between a small group of senators have broken down, a “test vote” in the full Senate failed, and the tone is acrimonious.

Border Patrol apprehended more than 10,000 migrants on December 5, one of the highest daily counts ever. A September-to-October dip in migrant arrivals has reversed. Large groups are waiting, at times for days in poor humanitarian conditions, in Border Patrol’s sectors in Tucson, Arizona; Del Rio, Texas; and San Diego, California.

U.S. authorities encountered over 28,000 citizens of China at the U.S.-Mexico border over the 12 months ending in October, a more than tenfold increase over the previous 12 months, with more than 8,000 arriving in September and October. Most are coming to San Diego. People who flee China tend to be middle class or lower middle class. They are escaping persecution but also cite fears of falling into poverty as the world’s second-largest economy falters.



Republicans put border and migration at the center of Ukraine supplemental budget debate

On December 6 a Senate “test vote” failed, 49-51, on a $110.5 billion bill to fulfill the Biden administration’s request for additional 2024 money for Ukraine, Israel, the border, and other priorities. As WOLA’s December 4 Border Update explained, Republicans say they will not support the funding legislation unless it includes language clamping down on the right to seek asylum at the border, limiting the 1950s-era presidential authority to offer humanitarian parole to migrants, and imposing other restrictions on immigration.

The 49-seat Republican minority needs just 41 votes to filibuster the bill: to prevent cloture of debate and a final vote. All 49 Republican senators voted “no” on December 6 along with Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), who opposes military aid to Israel without conditions, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York), who had to vote “no” for procedural reasons.

Schumer had scheduled the vote partly to reinvigorate negotiations, which stalled last week, between a small group of senators. Those talks, Schumer said on December 4, are “on ice.” The small group of six or seven senators was to keep discussing a possible compromise over the December 2-3 weekend, but has not met since November 30.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana) sent a letter to the White House demanding “transformative change to our nation’s border security laws,” referencing H.R. 2, a bill that the House passed in May without a single Democratic vote. As WOLA explained in November, H.R. 2 would almost completely curtail access to the U.S. asylum system at the U.S.-Mexico border. A chorus of Democratic Senate voices vehemently rejected including H.R. 2.

Senate Republican negotiators assured that they are not demanding that the entirety of H.R. 2 be included. Johnson will “get what we send him,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina). “I’ve heard a lot of people say H.R. 2 or nothing. And I’ve always smiled and said, House Republicans didn’t get a single Democrat on H.R. 2, and they’re asking us to get 20 on our side. OK, well, that’s not realistic,” acknowledged Sen. James Lankford (Oklahoma).

But Lankford’s side is seeking more concessions than higher standards for asylum-seekers’ initial credible fear interviews, which some Democrats have said they are open to considering. According to the Wall Street Journal, Lankford mentioned “other options, including increasing detention bed space or adding a requirement that would allow the government to permanently send asylum seekers to third countries it deems safe for them.”

Semafor reported that Republicans triggered the impasse with a demand “to provide the president new authority to shut down the asylum system at will,” an authority similar to the pandemic-era Title 42 expulsions policy.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is not one of the negotiators, implied that the talks were more like blackmail terms than a search for a compromise: “This is not a traditional negotiation, where we expect to come up with a bipartisan compromise on the border. This is a price that has to be paid in order to get the supplemental.” The Democrats’ lead negotiator, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) replied, “Apparently I’ve wasted the last 3 weeks of my life since this was never a negotiation – just a take it or leave it demand. ”

A classified December 4 Senate briefing about the need for Ukraine and other aid in the funding request reportedly got ugly: Republican senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky), walked out early, and some screamed profanities in the presence of the secretaries of Defense and State and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“I am willing to make significant compromises on the border,” President Joe Biden told reporters. “We need to fix the broken border system. It is broken.”

Changes that Democrats appear inclined to adopt include expanding the number of asylum seekers placed in expedited removal proceedings after being encountered at the border, and requiring them to meet a higher standard of “credible fear” in initial interviews with asylum officers, usually while in custody days after crossing the border.

“‘There is a fundamental shift in the Democratic Party on immigration’ over the past six months,” Muzaffar Chishti of the Migration Policy Institute told the Associated Press. Democrats have stopped avoiding discussions of adjusting border policy: “Their backs don’t go up when they see someone saying we want to make some changes in the policies at the border.” Democrats have “ceded the ground to Republicans on immigration and the border,” added Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council.

Sen. Murphy told National Public Radio, “Right now there are far too many people crossing the border and being released into the country, many of them don’t have a legitimate claim of asylum,” but “I don’t think it’s in the best traditions of this country to deny people with legitimate claims of asylum access to the United States.”


Migrant arrivals rising again along the border

After dipping from September to October (see WOLA’s November 17 Border Update), arrivals of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border are increasing again.

Border Patrol reported “8,000+ apprehensions” of migrants border-wide on December 5. Reporters from CNN, CBS News, and Fox cited the actual number as one of the highest daily migrant apprehension totals ever: “10,300,” “10,200+,” “more than 10,000,” and “more than 12,000” when including port-of-entry encounters. As of December 6, CNN’s Priscilla Álvarez reported, Border Patrol had about 23,000 people in custody.

Border Patrol’s Tucson, Arizona sector remains the busiest of the nine sectors into which the agency divides the U.S.-Mexico border. The sector chief reported apprehending 17,500 migrants there during the week ending December 1.

Near the remote town of Lukeville, in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, over 1,000 people are waiting to turn themselves in to Border Patrol. They lack food, water, and health attention. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has closed the Lukeville port of entry so officers can assist Border Patrol with migrant processing.

Many of those awaiting Border Patrol passed through gaps that smugglers have cut into the Trump-era border wall. “At times, only one or two steel bollards are sawed off with power tools,” a Border Patrol agent told local television news. “Other times, cartels use chains and vehicles to remove parts of the barrier.”

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs (D) voiced concern that large numbers of arriving asylum seekers could cause CBP to close other ports of entry, in addition to Lukeville. Hobbs did not rule out sending the state’s National Guard to the border, but is holding off for now.

Border Patrol’s San Diego, California sector has also seen a large increase in migrant arrivals. Hundreds of people continue to wait, often for days, to turn themselves in near Jacumba Hot Springs, California, over an hour’s drive east of San Diego, where the border wall has openings amid difficult terrain. Volunteers are providing most assistance to those waiting, as nighttime temperatures drop.

A 13-year-old boy from Michoacán, Mexico died at one of the Jacumba camps on December 3; he apparently arrived there after being involved in a vehicle accident on a nearby highway on the Mexican side of the border.

Advocates say that people are coming to the camps because of the continued difficulty of accessing ports of entry to make asylum claims. Some in Tijuana, EFE reported, are finding it impossible to book CBP One appointments at the nearby port of entry: the app instead shows availability at the other end of the border, in Matamoros near the Gulf of Mexico. In late November, a group of migrants who flew from Tijuana to Matamoros for a CBP One appointment was kidnapped, apparently from the Matamoros airport.

In Border Patrol’s Del Rio Sector in mid-Texas, the sector chief tweeted that agents encountered over 3,000 migrants on December 5. CBP has closed one of the two border bridges between Piedras Negras, Coahuila and Eagle Pass, Texas so that port-of-entry personnel can assist Border Patrol with migrant processing.

Migration has increased in Del Rio even though the sector is a central zone of operations for the Texas state government’s “Operation Lone Star” border-security strategy. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has ordered a large law enforcement and National Guard presence to Del Rio and Eagle Pass to build dozens of miles of fencing, lay concertina wire and shipping containers along the riverbank, and install a 1,000-foot “wall of buoys” in the middle of the river in Eagle Pass. The migration numbers indicate that this operation is not deterring asylum seekers.

Arrivals of migrants in Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector (far west Texas and all of New Mexico) had fallen since the May 2023 end of the Title 42 policy, dropping sharply in October. Border Report reported, however, that arrivals have started to pick up again in El Paso.


Reports examine increasing migration from China

On December 3, for the second time in ten days, the New York Times published an analysis of Chinese citizens’ increased migration to the U.S.-Mexico border. “Every immigrant I interviewed this year who passed through the Darién Gap,” reporter Li Yuan wrote, “came from a lower middle-class background. They said that they feared falling into poverty if the Chinese economy worsened, and that they could no longer see a future for themselves or their children in their home country.”

U.S. authorities encountered more than 4,000 citizens of China at the U.S.-Mexico border in September, and again in October. Nearly all turn themselves in to Border Patrol between ports of entry, all but a few of them coming to the agency’s San Diego Sector. 28,145 Chinese citizens came to the U.S.-Mexico border during the 12 months ending in October 2023, up from 2,502 in the 12 months ending in October 2022.


Chinese citizens are among those waiting days to turn themselves in at Jacumba Hot Springs and elsewhere in the San Diego Sector. Many “have experienced political oppression at the hands of the Chinese government and many are political dissidents,” Erika Pinheiro of the Tijuana and San Diego-based non-profit Al Otro Lado told the New York Post. The paper noted that the Chinese migrants were often better dressed than other nationalities: many are “at least middle class.”

A Chinese migrant told the Times’s Li a joke: “‘Why did you go to the United States?’ someone asks a Chinese immigrant. ‘Aren’t you satisfied with your pay, your benefits and your life?’ The immigrant responds: ‘Yes, I’m satisfied. But in the U.S., I will be allowed to say that I’m not satisfied.’”


Other News

  • With 9,138 applications received in November, the Mexican government’s Refugee Assistance Commission (COMAR) has already broken its annual record for asylum requests: 136,934 during the first 11 months of 2023.
  • “The average wait time for non-Mexicans is two months after making an account and requesting an appointment” with the CBP One app, a senior CBP official told Bloomberg. “For Mexicans, the wait time is currently a little over 3 months,” the official added, noting that Mexican citizens have daily limits to prevent them from crowding out other nationalities. This is curious, since the result is that Mexican asylum seekers are forced to wait in the same country where they face threats.
  • Panama has now counted 500,000 migrants passing through the Darién Gap in 2023, EFE reported. The previous full-year record for migration through this dangerous jungle region, set last year, was less than half that (248,284).
  • While it considers the case, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has prohibited Border Patrol from reaching asylum seekers on U.S. soil by cutting through concertina wire that Texas police and National Guardsmen have laid along the Rio Grande. This temporarily reverses a November 29 district court decision allowing federal agents to cut the razor-sharp wire. Texas’s state government had filed suit in late October seeking to stop Border Patrol from cutting the wire.
  • Tom Cartwright’s latest monthly ICE deportation flights monitoring report for Witness at the Border counted 140 removal flights in November, up 39 percent over November 2022, the 3rd-highest monthly total of the past 12 months. Top removal flight destinations last month were Guatemala (57 flights), Honduras (40), El Salvador (14), Colombia (5), and Ecuador (4). Three went to Venezuela and one to Cuba.
  • Of nearly 500 mostly Haitian unaccompanied migrant children whom the U.S. Coast Guard apprehended at sea, in the Caribbean or Florida Straits, between July 2021 and September 2023, all but 12 were sent back to their countries of origin. “It’s often unclear where they go once they return,” reported a ProPublica / New York Times Magazine investigation by Seth Freed Wessler. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2008 requires that unaccompanied children from non-contiguous countries be given asylum hearings if encountered on U.S. soil, but does not cover children encountered at sea.
  • The Cato Institute’s David Bier compiled data indicating that Border Patrol’s estimated “got-aways”—migrants believed to have avoided apprehension at the border—fell by half after the end of the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy.
  • The Mexican daily Milenio posited a link between a Sinaloa Cartel faction’s order to cease fentanyl trafficking and a recent drop in fentanyl seizures at the border.
  • Mexico’s migration agency (National Migration Institute, INM) is running out of money for the year, and has suspended migrant deportations and other activities involving transport of personnel, the Associated Press reported. Mexican authorities encountered a record 588,626 migrants during the first 10 months of 2023.
  • Border Report published a three-part series detailing increasing drug trafficking and organized-crime violence in Ciudad Juárez and the effects that criminality, especially migrant smuggling, are having on still-peaceful El Paso.
  • The El Paso Times’ Lauren Villagrán visited Sololá, in Guatemala’s highlands, the home region of many of the 40 migrants who died in a horrific March 2023 fire in a Ciudad Juárez migrant detention facility.
  • About 90 percent of buses going north from Esquipulas, in Guatemala near the Honduras border, “are occupied by migrants,” reported Guatemala’s La Prensa Libre. “According to the testimonies of the migrants themselves, 5 kilometers after leaving the terminal, the first checkpoint is located, where they are asked for documents. This is where abuses take place” at the hands of corrupt Guatemalan police agents, the paper found, echoing findings of a more detailed mid-November account of police abuse published by Spain’s El País.
  • Honduras’s ContraCorriente reported on the harrowing experience of Honduran women attempting to migrate to flee domestic or gender-based violence.
  • Asked by Sean Hannity whether he would “be a dictator” if re-elected, ex-President Donald Trump replied, “No, no, no—other than Day 1. We’re closing the border. And we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator.”
  • At America’s Voice, Gabe Ortiz reported on House Republican backlash against new CBP guidance for LGBTQ+ migrants in custody, which instructs agents “to avoid using specific pronouns until they have more information about the individual, as well as to refrain from using derogatory speech, including stereotypes and offensive language.”