WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
1 Mar 2024 | News

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: Biden and Trump visits, “migrant crime” narratives, shelters in peril

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.

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President Joe Biden visited Brownsville, Texas on February 29, the second U.S.-Mexico border visit of his administration. His remarks—calling for Trump to work with him to pass legislation that might, among other measures, deeply reduce migrants’ access to asylum—reflect the President’s recent rightward shift on border and migration issues. On the same day, Republican candidate Donald Trump was several hours’ drive west, at the border in Eagle Pass, where he offered anti-immigrant rhetoric alongside Texas state officials.

Numerous statements from Republican politicians and GOP-aligned media figures are raising the idea of “migrant crime” after the brutal murder of a Georgia nursing student, allegedly at the hands of a 26-year-old Venezuelan man who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso in September 2022. Analyses, though, continue to point out that migrants commit less violent crime than U.S. citizens, and that the alleged perpetrator of the Georgia murder arrived at a time when U.S. border policy was already very restrictive, with Title 42 firmly in place.

El Paso community leaders rallied around a Catholic non-profit migrant shelter under attack from the Texas state attorney general, who accuses Annunciation House of “alien harboring and human smuggling.” The incident drew attention to the vital role played by non-profit respite centers along the border that receive migrants from Border Patrol custody and help connect them to their destinations in the U.S. interior. Those that depend on federal funding are in danger of cutting back services or shutting their doors, which would force Border Patrol to leave migrants on border cities’ streets. This is already happening in San Diego and appears imminent in Tucson.



Biden and Trump Visit the Texas Border

President Joe Biden and ex-president and Republican candidate Donald Trump paid coinciding visits to the Texas-Mexico border on February 29.

Trump met with Texas state government and law enforcement, along with Border Patrol union activists, in Eagle Pass. Trump and Gov. Greg Abbott (R) visited the city’s riverfront Shelby Park, where Abbott has ordered state forces to deny entry, under most circumstances, to the federal Border Patrol. “We have languages coming into our country, we have nobody that even speaks those languages” was one of the ex-president’s many warnings about cross-border migration.

Biden met with Border Patrol, law enforcement, and local political leaders in Brownsville, but did not reach out to the many nonprofits working with the migrant population in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. The President’s public remarks reflected his administration’s recent rightward movement on border and migration issues. This bears the hallmarks of “ triangulation,” a political strategy that aims to reduce an opponent’s polling advantage on an issue by adopting some of that opponent’s proposals.

In Brownsville, Biden seized on Republicans’ early February rejection of a compromise Senate bill that, to migrant rights’ advocates alarm, would have suspended the right to asylum at the border. Among its new bars to asylum, the bill would have imposed Title 42-style migrant expulsions when daily arrivals average 4,000 or 5,000 people.

“Join me—or I’ll join you—in telling the Congress to pass this bipartisan border security bill,” Biden said, addressing Trump. While he has moved toward Trump on the border issue, the New York Times’ Shane Goldmacher pointed out, Biden is trying to distinguish his position with an argument about democracy: he would pursue these hardline changes through the institutional process, not through the authoritarian means that Trump promises.

With legislation to limit asylum access far from passage, the President is considering executive actions that might do something similar. He did not announce any new actions on the 29th, keeping the focus on legislation. Media reports during the week of February 18 indicated that the White House is considering such a step ahead of the March 7 State of the Union presidential address, despite a lack of firm legal footing for curbing asylum access (see WOLA’s February 23 Border Update).

At a February 23 meeting with state governors, Biden confirmed that he is considering executive actions to make asylum harder to obtain at the border, but added that existing laws and budgets leave him with few options. “Immigration was by far the most dominant topic of discussion” at the meeting, including from Democratic Party governors, NBC News reported.

Migrant rights defense groups and progressive legislators continue to voice outrage about possible executive actions. According to some reporting, the new curbs could include expulsions of asylum seekers when daily migrant encounters reach a certain level. Progressive Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) voiced firm opposition to the proposal: “Doing Trump impressions isn’t how we beat Trump,” tweeted Ocasio-Cortez.

On the other side of the political spectrum, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana) wrote that a Biden executive order or similar actions would be “election year gimmicks.”

The dual visits highlighted the deadlock in Washington on any decisions regarding the border and migration. No change—whether a reform or a crackdown, or even a new budget—has passed the 118th Congress, which began in January 2023. Border visits, the New York Times noted, have “become a compulsory bit of political theater for leaders who want to show they care about immigration.”

For the first time since 2019, a Gallup Poll found that immigration is what Americans regard to be “the most important issue facing the country.” 28 percent of respondents cited immigration, up from 20 percent a month ago. A Monmouth University poll found a majority of U.S. respondents (53 percent), for the first time, favoring border wall construction.

However, in the swing state of Arizona, younger Democratic voters are voicing frustration at the Biden administration’s rightward turn on border and migration policy, the Washington Post reported. A Post analysis meanwhile credited increased migration for the current moment of prosperity in the U.S. job market.


Republicans Highlight Venezuelan Man’s Alleged Murder of Georgia Student

Republican politicians, and a dramatic spike in Fox News stories, are promoting the idea of “migrant crime,” as a Venezuelan man who arrived at the border in 2022 stands accused of murdering a nursing student in Georgia last week. Republicans, including Trump, are blaming Biden for the February 22 murder, allegedly committed by a Venezuelan man, of a 22-year-old nursing student in Georgia.

Border Patrol had released José Ibarra from custody in El Paso in September 2022, at a time when the Title 42 expulsions policy was in place, and when the El Paso sector was the second-busiest of the agency’s nine U.S.-Mexico border sectors. It is not clear whether Ibarra applied for asylum. ICE claims that he was arrested in New York City in August 2023 but released without a transfer to ICE custody; New York officials say they have no record of an arrest.

Analyses continue to point out that “migrant crime” is a myth, as migrants proportionally commit less violent crime than do U.S. citizens. The alleged perpetrator of the Georgia murder, meanwhile, arrived at the border during the height of the Title 42 expulsions policy, showing the irrelevance or futility of harsh curbs on asylum.

PBS NewsHour analyzed the homicide and the role of migration. Charis Kubrin, a professor of criminology, law and society at U.C. Irvine, recalled: “across all this research, by and large, we find that immigrants do not engage in more crime than native-born counterparts, and immigration actually can cause crime to go down, rather than up.”


Texas’s Attack on Annunciation House Draws Attention to Non-Profit Shelters’ Vital Role and Precarious Funding

Annunciation House, a 47-year-old Catholic non-profit migrant shelter in El Paso, held a February 23 press conference with many community leaders to mount a defense against Texas’s attorney-general, Ken Paxton (R), who is seeking to revoke the shelter’s license to operate. (See WOLA’s February 23 Border Update.)

Annunciation House works with CBP and El Paso’s city government to receive asylum seekers released from federal custody. Facilities like “A-House” help migrants avoid being left on border cities’ streets, giving them a brief place to stop while helping them arrange travel to destinations in the U.S. interior.

Despite its daily interactions with CBP, Paxton accuses Annunciation House of “alien harboring, human smuggling and operating a stash house,” in part because it does not close its doors to fully undocumented migrants. In early February, the archconservative attorney-general demanded that Annunciation House hand over a large trove of client records on a day’s notice.

“Annunciation House isn’t a place, per se. It’s a community of like-minded people, driven by their faith to help the most vulnerable regardless of circumstance,” wrote reporter Lauren Villagrán at the El Paso Times. “We are now witnessing an escalating campaign of intimidation, fear and dehumanization in the state of Texas,” Bishop Mark Seitz of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso wrote in a statement. Further support for the shelter came from a group of Catholic and El Paso and Ciudad Juárez-based humanitarian and human rights groups. The New Yorker profiled longtime Annunciation House director Rubén García.

In Arizona, the Arizona Daily Star, profiling Tucson’s Casa Alitas, also pointed to the key role that shelters play in receiving asylum seekers released from CBP custody. At the New York Times, the shelter network’s director, Diego Piña Lopez, worried that federal funding is running out for non-profit facilities receiving migrants released from Border Patrol custody, which means street releases may come to Tucson next month. “It’s not going to be a trickle. You broke the faucet completely off.”

Funding has already run out for a county-run “welcome center” in San Diego. CalMatters covered the resumption of “street releases” of asylum seekers exiting CBP custody in San Diego, where elevated numbers of migrant arrivals exhausted the welcome center’s resources, forcing it to close its doors last week.

Confused migrants are now being left at a trolley station, as volunteers struggle to orient them. Advocates allege that the county’s money was not spent sustainably. San Diego County supervisors voted down a motion asking the federal government to shut down the border temporarily at moments of large-scale arrivals of asylum seekers. (“Shutting down” the border would make little difference, as asylum seekers have already crossed the border onto U.S. soil, where they have a legal right to petition for protection.)


Other News

  • On February 29 in Austin, Federal District Judge David Ezra blocked the implementation of Texas’s controversial new law empowering state law enforcement to arrest people who cross the border irregularly and imprison them if they do not return to Mexico. S.B. 4 was to go into effect on March 5. Texas is appealing the decision of Judge Ezra, a Reagan appointee, but this is a victory for the Biden administration and non-governmental plaintiffs including the ACLU.
  • As of February 25, year-to-date migration through the Darién Gap totaled over 68,400 people, about 22,700 more than the same period in 2023, EFE reported. Colombia’s navy last week seized two of the many boats that take migrants—with the permission of local organized crime—across the Gulf of Urabá from the town of Necoclí to Acandí, where the treacherous Darién Gap route into Panama begins. As a result, the New York Times reported, all boat transportation has halted and Necoclí, a small beach resort, is filling up with hundreds of migrants arriving each day, who are now stranded there.
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken, accompanied by Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, met in Washington to discuss migration approaches with cabinet-level counterparts from Mexico and Guatemala. They discussed addressing migration’s root causes and expanding legal pathways, and agreed to form a trilateral “operational cell” to share information and coordinate strategies. The three governments agreed to launch a new “dashboard” of migration flows data, “which will enhance data-driven decision-making and coordination.” U.S. officials praised Mexico’s recent increase in operations to control U.S.-bound migration flows, crediting them for some of the recent drop in migrant arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border, though some of the cause is seasonal. Guatemala will host the next ministerial-level meeting of the 22 signatory nations of the 2022 Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection. There is no date yet for that meeting.
  • In Eagle Pass, Texas, first responders are “overwhelmed and increasingly traumatized” by the frequency with which they rescue migrants—or recover their bodies—from the Rio Grande, NBC News reported. “On some shifts, firefighters with the Eagle Pass Fire Department can spend three to five hours in the water.” A Rolling Stone feature looked at the impact that the Texas state government’s border security and migration crackdown is having on daily life in Eagle Pass. A Rolling Stone feature looked at the impact that the Texas state government’s border security and migration crackdown is having on daily life in Eagle Pass.
  • A 29-year-old Mexican man died after falling from a 30-foot-tall Trump-era segment of border wall east of San Diego on February 27. Mexico’s consulate, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported, recorded 29 deaths and 120 injuries at the San Diego-area border in 2023 alone, down slightly from 42 and 124 in 2022 (not all were wall-related).
  • A tweet from Border Patrol’s chief indicated that the agency apprehended about 136,000 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border during the first 27 days of February. At that pace, the month-long apprehensions number will be about 146,000: 22,000 more than January, but the 7th-fewest of the Biden administration’s 37 full months in office.
  • Analyses at the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times examined why migrant apprehensions are up (though leveling off) at the Arizona and California borders and declining in Texas. “Stepped-up enforcement efforts by the governments of Mexico, Panama and Colombia, and heightened violence by cartels on the Mexican side of the Texas border have likely slowed expected migration into that state,” wrote Andrea Castillo at the LA Times.
  • Bloomberg mapped out where asylum seekers are settling after they reach the United States, finding a remarkable dispersal to both urban and rural areas. On a per capita basis, states experiencing the largest numbers of migrant arrivals in 2023 were probably New York, New Jersey, Florida, Texas, Colorado, and Illinois.
  • Senate Democrats appear likely to dismiss the Republican-majority House’s impeachment of DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas without holding an actual trial, a move that would require just a simple majority vote.
  • Congressional Republicans often urge President Biden to revive the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy despite its human rights impact, even though “it’s not clear Mexico’s government would play along,” Joseph Zeballos-Roig wrote at Semafor.
  • At New York magazine, reporter Piper French explored the many challenges still standing in the way of migrant families separated during the Trump administration, and the ongoing effort to reunite some of them.
  • Budget shortfalls have limited the Biden administration’s plan to subject more asylum seekers to rapid screening interviews shortly after apprehension, in a process called “expedited removal,” the Associated Press reported. Asylum officers carrying out the credible-fear interviews “are too understaffed to have much impact,” able to interview a number of migrants equal to about 15 percent of those who instead get released with “notices to appear” in immigration court.
  • The Washington Post published a series of maps detailing Texas’s security buildup along the Rio Grande in the Eagle Pass area.
  • The Texas Newsroom obtained invoices for four flights that Texas’s state government chartered to fly asylum-seeking migrants to New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. The total price tag of $845,000 was well over $1,000 per passenger.
  • A harrowing, in-depth report from Quinto Elemento Lab described criminal organizations’ trafficking of Honduran women in the dangerous southern Mexican border town of Frontera Comalapa, Chiapas, and the complicity of Mexican and Honduran government officials.
  • A U.S. deportation flight brought 51 Cuban citizens to Havana yesterday. This is the 11th removal flight to Cuba since they resumed last April: 1 each month. The Wall Street Journal confirmed that deportation flights to Venezuela stopped in late January. Between October and then, 15 planes had sent 1,800 Venezuelan migrants back to Caracas.
  • Voice of America and Mexico’s Milenio both published articles about Haitian migrants who have decided to settle in Mexico instead of pushing on to the United States.
  • Of more than 100 ancient saguaro cacti that construction crews dug up and transplanted while building Trump-era border wall in Arizona, “ dozens” have died.