WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
12 Apr 2024 | News

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: trends from Panama to U.S., possible executive action on asylum, DHS hearings in Congress

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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Migration continues to experience an unusual springtime lull across the U.S.-Mexico border, with numbers appearing to decline below January-March levels. San Diego, California, where migration is level, might soon become the border’s busiest sector, a change that has exceeded federal and local capacities there. Some of the drop in migration is a result of a Mexican government crackdown that began with the new year. Numbers of migrants are higher in Panama and Honduras than they were last year, but are not increasing.

President Biden told a Univisión interviewer that he is still considering taking executive action to “shut down” access to asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border when daily migrant encounters cross a certain threshold. A possible legal justification for doing so, which courts have not upheld, is a broad presidential authority to block migrants whose entry is considered “detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas appeared separately before House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees on April 10. He called for 2025 budget increases for the Department, including a flexible $4.7 billion border contingency fund that Republicans have opposed. The Senate still awaits the Republican-majority House of Representatives’ transmittal of impeachment articles against Mayorkas, alleging mismanagement of the border. Those articles narrowly passed the House in February; an actual Senate trial is unlikely.



Migration is down at the border and plateauing in countries further south

Trends at the U.S.-Mexico border

Across the U.S.-Mexico border, migration continues a very unusual springtime lull, sinking below the January-March levels, which were already among the lowest monthly migrant encounter totals of the Biden administration. Camilo Montoya-Gálvez of CBS News tweeted that Border Patrol apprehended about 4,000 migrants on April 8; the daily average for the first quarter of the 2024 calendar year was just over 4,400.

The chief of Border Patrol’s San Diego, California Sector reported apprehending 6,997 migrants during the week of April 3-9. That is similar to the sector’s weekly apprehensions in March—but it is greater than the number of apprehensions that the chief of the Tucson, Arizona Sector reported during March 29-April 4 (6,600). Of Border Patrol’s nine U.S.-Mexico border sectors, Tucson has been the number-one sector for migrant arrivals since July 2023, but weekly totals there have dropped by nearly half over the past month. (See WOLA’s April 5 Border Update.)

While one week’s data is not enough to go by, it is possible that San Diego may be supplanting Tucson as the number-one sector. If that were to happen, San Diego would become the fifth sector to be a month’s number-one migration destination since June 2022. That is unheard of: the Tucson Sector led all others from 1998 to 2013, and the Rio Grande Valley Sector in south Texas was number one from 2013 to 2022.

San Diego was number five as recently as December 2022, and the recent increase has exceeded federal and local authorities’ capacity to react.

  • In California, San Diego County authorities said that CBP had released 24,000 mostly asylum-seeking migrants onto the city’s streets since late February, when county funding for migrant reception shelters ran out.
  • The New York Times published a report from an outdoor encampment along the border near Campo, California, where asylum seekers wait for hours or days to turn themselves in to Border Patrol. Such encampments have existed for over a year now, and (as discussed in the April 5 WOLA Border Update) a federal judge just ruled that Border Patrol must care for children forced to wait there for processing. The camp featured in the Times article is in a very remote area of the border; it formed this year after Mexico placed National Guard personnel at more accessible breaks in the border wall near Jacumba Springs, California.
  • iNewSource meanwhile reported that the San Diego Sector is receiving a much greater number of unaccompanied minors than before.

Despite declines in Arizona, arrivals in the Tucson sector remain greater than they were during the Title 42 era, and they are more diverse. Migrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were 90 percent of the sector’s total as late as June 2022, but dropped below 70 percent between April and November 2023. “Six months ago, we had never seen somebody from Bangladesh or Africa in this part of the desert,” Pastor Randy Mayer of Arizona’s Green Valley Samaritans told PBS NewsHour.

The percentage of migrants apprehended in Tucson who were children or members of family units (parents with children) rose from 14 percent in fiscal 2022 to 53 percent so far in fiscal 2024.


U.S. officials are giving Mexico’s government some credit for the reduction in migrant encounters at the border, as Mexico has stepped up its operations to interdict migrants since the end of December. Mexico has not yet reported data for March, but it recorded a combined 240,000 migrants in January and February, far beyond levels it had ever measured before. (See WOLA’s March 29 Border Update.)

Mexico usually does not detain migrants for very long, and deportations have been infrequent this year. Instead, security and migration forces have been placing apprehended migrants on buses and sending them further into the country’s south or elsewhere into its interior, away from the U.S. border.

Mexican media and human rights defenders have reported on some of these operations, and the harsh tactics they appear to involve.

  • On April 8, Mexican national guardsmen and immigration agents detained 700 migrants who arrived aboard a freight train in Torreón, Coahuila. “At least 55, including women and children, reported that the agents detained them for several hours, beat them, and stole money, cell phones, and documents before releasing them,” reported La Jornada.
  • In Empalme, Sonora, Mexican soldiers threatened humanitarian workers who were offering assistance to migrants near the local railroad tracks, according to the Sonora-based Proyecto Puente. The director of the town’s Casa Franciscana shelter said a soldier told her, “You are on the list,” adding “It’s the first time that we encountered the Army doing something like this. We had a very good dialogue before.”
  • An April 10 communiqué from 49 Mexican human rights groups detailed abuse allegations in Chihuahua. These include National Migration Institute (INM) agents roughing up a migrant while trying to keep a reporter from filming; abandoning 55 people, including children, at a gas station; and chasing a large group of people, including children, from a train station. “These events occur as a result of the reactivation of INM operations initiated on April 1 in Ciudad Juarez and extended to the south of the state, where the media have recorded dozens of aggressions,” the statement reads.

A decline in migration is also evident in Tijuana, where migrant shelters are down to 50 to 60 percent capacity, according to municipal migration office director Enrique Lucero, who added that the city is seeing far fewer non-Mexican migrants. However, the number of migrant apprehensions throughout Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector, which borders Tijuana and much of Mexico’s Baja California state, is steady.

This may indicate that fewer migrants are choosing to endure the months-long wait in the city for CBP One appointments at the San Ysidro port of entry: they may be opting to cross and turn themselves in to Border Patrol instead.

Mexico’s asylum system meanwhile continues to receive a historically high number of applicants, but fewer than last year. 7,021 people applied for protection in Mexico in March, down sharply from over 13,000 in March 2022 and March 2023.


At its current pace, Mexico could receive less than 100,000 asylum applications for the first time since 2020. The reason for the drop is not clear. Of the 23,753 people who applied for asylum in the first quarter of 2024, 65 percent are from Honduras and Cuba. Applications from citizens of Haiti—last year’s number-one nationality—have declined steeply, from an average of over 4,200 per month in 2023 to an average of about 700 per month so far this year.

Spain’s El País reported about Haitian migrants who are starting new lives in Mexico City after applying for asylum in Mexico’s system. More than 70,000 Haitians (including children born in Brazil or Chile) have applied for Mexican asylum since 2022.


The number of people migrating through Honduras rose from January to February, but dropped slightly (7 percent) from February to March. Honduran authorities registered 45,666 people passing through its territory in March, much fewer than the amount they registered in July-November 2023, a record-breaking period.

Honduras’s March 2024 registered migration was nonetheless double what it was in March 2023 (21,660 people).


As has largely been the case over the past two years, Venezuela was by far the number-one nationality of migrants passing through Honduras, making up 46 percent of the total in March. China is now the number-six nationality.


Migration appears to be declining fast in the Darién Gap, the treacherous jungle region straddling Colombia and Panama. A brief statement from Panama’s National Migration Service (SNM) reported that the agency registered 8,065 people in the first 11 days of April (probably the first 10 days, as the 11th wasn’t over when the SNM published its statement).

That would be a daily average of about 800—and on Wednesday, the SNM reported just 485 people. During the first three months of 2024, migration through the Darién Gap averaged 1,200 people per day, which itself was a stark drop from the record 2,643 people who passed through the Darién each day last August.

Reasons for the decline are not yet clear; we have heard no reports of policy changes implemented, or organized crime trends shifting, in the past several weeks.

Despite the decline, Darién Gap migration is ahead of where it was at the same point in 2023. The 2024 count stood at 109,069 as of March 31, 13,579 (14 percent) ahead of where Panama was at the end of March 2023—and 2023 ended with more than 520,000 people migrating through the Darién. Panama has not yet reported all nationalities of Darién Gap migrants in March.

The foreign ministers of Panama and Colombia met on April 5 to discuss issues including the vigorous flow of migration through the Darién Gap, the jungle region that straddles their common border. Panama’s and Colombia’s bilateral discussions of migration cooperation have been uncommon, and Panamanian officials have publicly criticized Colombia for, in their view, insufficiently controlling their side of the common border.

The foreign ministers appeared more collegial this time, saying that they disagreed with an April 3 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report documenting both governments’ lack of coordination and governance in the Darién region, which contributes to alarming levels of violence, including sexual assault, being committed against migrants. Panamanian security and migration authorities went on to hold another press conference, on April 8, to dispute the HRW findings.

  • According to a release, National Migration Service director Samira Gozaine “assured that this report does not reflect reality and has a hidden purpose that only they know.”
  • The director of Panama’s border police (SENAFRONT) said that since 2021, his forces have dismantled 170 jungle encampments and arrested 321 people for crimes against migrants.
  • Public Security Minister Juan Manuel Pino said that Panama’s government has chartered five flights next week to deport people whom biometric exams revealed to have criminal records.

Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department announced that as of April 20, it will begin requiring visas of citizens of Peru arriving in the country, by air or otherwise. As a result, we can expect to see an increase in the number of Peruvian citizens migrating through the Darién Gap.

This has happened before. On three recent occasions, Mexico placed visa requirements on South American nationalities whose citizens had been flying to the country and traveling to the U.S. border to turn themselves in to U.S. authorities. Mexico changed visa procedures for Ecuadorian citizens in August 2021; Venezuelan citizens in January 2022; and Brazilian citizens in August 2022.

Each time, the Mexican visa restriction caused a short-term drop in that nationality’s migration to the United States. In the case of Ecuador and Venezuela, migration recovered to previous levels as sharply increased numbers of those countries’ citizens opted to take the dangerous overland Darién route.

Peru’s visa restriction is unusual because, like Colombia, it is part of a four-country arrangement (the “Pacific Alliance” uniting Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru) that allows visa-free travel. Mexico’s decision may respond to a U.S. suggestion but also to souring relations between the two countries.

Relations between Mexico and Colombia remain cordial, and Colombian citizens may still fly to Mexico visa-free (though they must demonstrate that they have activities planned during their stays).

A visual report from the Financial Times illustrated the Darién Gap’s transformation from an impenetrable jungle barrier straddling Colombia and Panama, to an organized crime-dominated route used by about 1,200 migrants per day this year.

Reporting from the Colombian side of the Darién Gap, InsightCrime pointed out that the current route requiring boat travel across the Gulf of Urabá is not migrants’ most direct path to the Panamanian border. Other land routes are shut off, however, by the “Gulf Clan,” the organized crime group that controls the region, which reserves them “for other types of activities,” mainly cocaine trafficking.


Executive action to limit asylum access: still on the table

President Joe Biden told Univision’s Enrique Acevedo that he is still considering executive actions that, he expects, would reduce migration by limiting access to asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. A similar measure, which would have “shut down” asylum at the border when daily migrant encounters exceeded 4,000 (discretionary) or 5,000 (mandatory), was part of a “border deal” that failed in the U.S. Senate in early February. (See WOLA’s February 2 and February 9 Border Updates.)

Without such a measure in the law, it is not clear what legal backing Biden could have for using executive authority to deny the right to seek asylum, which is guaranteed by the Refugee Act of 1980. “There’s no guarantee that I have that power all by myself without legislation,” Biden said. “And some have suggested I should just go ahead and try it. And if I get shut down by the court, I get shut down by the court.”

An Axiosscoop” added detail. The potential legal justification administration officials are considering using to block asylum—presumably when migrant encounters exceed a daily threshold—could be Section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. This vaguely worded authority allows the President to block certain classes of migrants whose entry is considered “detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

Donald Trump employed 212(f) during his presidency, but courts determined that the authority does not allow refusing asylum and deporting people who are already on U.S. soil and asking for protection in the United States. Rejecting asylum seekers without giving them due process would violate the Refugee Act.

At an April 10 congressional hearing, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas remarked that while the administration is constantly evaluating it, “executive action, which is inevitably challenged in the courts, is no substitute for the enduring solution of legislation.” Legislation is highly unlikely to prosper, however, during a 2024 election year with a divided Congress.


DHS Secretary appears in hearings as Senate heads toward a quiet, swift impeachment acquittal

DHS Secretary Mayorkas testified separately on April 10 before appropriations subcommittees of the Republican-majority House of Representatives and the Democratic-majority Senate.

He called for 2025 budget increases for DHS, including a Biden administration proposal for a $4.7 billion “Southwest Border Contingency Fund,” which would allow the Department to spend money as it sees fit to respond to unforeseen events like sudden migration increases. Republicans—who in the House will soon send Mayorkas’s impeachment to the Senate—rejected a nearly identical proposal in 2023, refusing to give the Secretary that kind of flexibility.

As they have done since 2021, Republicans in both houses criticized Mayorkas’s handling of the border and migration. Responding to questioning in the House, the Secretary acknowledged that he would use “crisis”—a word that the ​​Biden administration had avoided using—to describe the border situation. That has been part of Mayorkas’s border commentary since February, but it was the first time he used the term under oath.

The Secretary repeated calls to pass legislation like the Senate “border deal” that failed in February, which would have increased DHS resources while adding a new authority to shut down asylum access (discussed above).

The Senate had planned to spend a few hours on Thursday debating the Mayorkas impeachment, which House Republicans passed in February by a one-vote party-line margin on their second attempt. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) will probably use procedural measures to “ dispose” of the charges without going to a formal trial. An actual conviction of Mayorkas, which would require a two-thirds vote in the Democratic-majority Senate, is impossible.

House Republicans decided on April 9 to delay their presentation of impeachment articles to the Senate for another week.

The Heritage Foundation, a longtime conservative think-tank now closely associated with former president Donald Trump’s positions and officials, notified Republican senators that it will keep score of any votes against holding an impeachment trial for Mayorkas.

Elsewhere in Congress, the House of Representatives’ Rules Committee cleared the way for prompt consideration of a resolution, introduced by Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas), “denouncing the Biden administration’s immigration policies.” Gonzales, who represents the largest congressional district along the border and is facing a primary runoff challenger to his right, drafted language stating that “the Biden administration has allowed at least 6,400,000 illegal aliens from the southwest border to travel to American communities.” In fact, the latest (April 5) report from the DHS Office of Homeland Security Statistics—current through December—shows a total of 3,356,380 CBP releases since January 2021.


Other news

  • Thanks in large part to the establishment of U.S.-backed “Safe Mobility Offices” in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Guatemala, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program has already—six months into fiscal 2024— broken its full-year record for the number of refugees admitted from Latin America and the Caribbean.
  • Recent years’ sharp rises in migrant deaths continue in Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector, which includes the border in far west Texas and all of New Mexico. After a record 149 remains were recovered there in the 2023 fiscal year, the death toll stands at 34 halfway through the 2024 fiscal year, and the hot summer months are yet to come. Dehydration, heat exhaustion, and drowning are the principal causes of death.
  • The Border Chronicle published an interview with Bryce, a volunteer with No More Deaths who led the project that produced a report and database, published in March, documenting migrant deaths in the El Paso Sector. In June 2023, he said, “Something like 40 percent more people died in Doña Ana County in New Mexico than the entire state of Arizona. Most of these deaths were close to the highway or close to a town.”
  • Guatemala’s La Hora reported on the Trump-era border wall “improvements” that contributed to the fatality of migrant Heidy Poma Pérez’s March 21 fall from the border wall near San Diego. Friends and relatives have set up a GoFundMe to pay for the repatriation of her remains.
  • Officials from Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) announced the launch of a new fentanyl interdiction operation, which they are calling “Operation Plaza Spike.” Data from the first five months of fiscal year 2024 show CBP’s fentanyl seizures down 27 percent compared to the first five months of fiscal year 2023. The operation is beginning in Nogales; CBP’s Tucson field office, which includes the Nogales port of entry, currently seizes the most fentanyl of all 13 U.S.-Mexico border CBP field offices and Border Patrol sectors. One new tactic would be “releasing the name of the plazas’ senior ranking cartel officials, the ‘plaza bosses,’ to increase public and law enforcement pressure on them.”
  • Guatemala’s migration agency reported that the United States has returned 21,294 people back to Guatemala on 179 deportation flights so far this year. Aerial deportations to Guatemala are on pace this year to match or exceed levels reported before the pandemic-era Title 42 policy. Title 42 reduced aerial deportations because it allowed U.S. authorities to expel most Guatemalans directly into Mexico.
  • Bob Libal at Human Rights Watch recalled that the Texas state government’s military “Forward Operating Base” under construction near Eagle Pass could cost up to $400 million to maintain by 2026.
  • DHS Secretary Mayorkas told reporters that Texas’s use of razor-sharp concertina wire along the Rio Grande is a problem. “We do not consider concertina wire to be effective. It impairs Customs and Border Protection’s ability to do its job, and we’re also seeing migrants rather easily cutting concertina wire,” the Secretary said.
  • Mayorkas also revealed that the U.S. and Chinese governments are discussing increasing the currently very small number of Chinese citizens whom Beijing allows to be aerially deported back to China. The latest monthly report on ICE deportation flights from Witness at the Border noted that a plane did take migrants back to South Korea and China in March. With eight Chinese nationals aboard, NBC News noted, this flight was an example of “expensive and logistically challenging ‘Special High-Risk Charter’ flights, sometimes via South Korea.”
  • Voice of America profiled Chinese asylum seekers who, after taking long and expensive journeys to the United States via the U.S.-Mexico border, are opting to return to China, either after failing credible fear interviews while in custody, or due to “loneliness, deceit [including labor exploitation], or family pressure.”
  • Violent crime is dropping in the United States, and is lower in states with so-called “sanctuary cities” than elsewhere, wrote Caitlin Bellis in an analysis puncturing the “migrant crime” narrative for the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers’ Guild.
  • At Semafor, Jordan Weissman highlighted data indicating that the increase in migration at the U.S.-Mexico border may be buoying the robust current level of U.S. economic growth.
  • 42 percent of Latino adults surveyed support building a wall or fence along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, according to a new Axios-Ipsos Latino Poll. That is up 12 points from a December 2021 poll. 38 percent said they support deporting all undocumented immigrants. Support for wall-building was 15-20 points higher among people of Cuban descent than among people of Mexican or Central American descent. The article features 22-year-old volunteer Peter Fink, who is coordinating humanitarian relief efforts there.
  • A Sacramento Bee analysis noted that many Latino immigrants in the United States, some of whom have lived for years undocumented, voice “frustration” with asylum seekers being released at the border and given a temporary documented status by “an immigration system pitting immigrant Latinos against each other.” A January 2024 UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll found that 63 percent of Latino respondents in California considered undocumented immigrants to be a major or minor “burden.”