WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
3 May 2024 | News

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: April dip in migration, drug seizure data, investigations published

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.

Due to an extended period of staff travel and commitments, we will produce Weekly Border Updates irregularly for the next two and a half months. We cannot publish Updates during the next two weeks; sporadic posting will begin in late May. We will resume a regular weekly schedule on July 26.

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THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:

Preliminary numbers published by CBS News and the Washington Post indicate that Border Patrol agents apprehended 129,000 or 130,000 migrants in April, a slight decline from February and March. U.S. officials continue to credit Mexican efforts to block migrants, which were the subject of a phone conversation between Presidents Biden and López Obrador. Migration through Panama’s Darién Gap also appears to have declined in April.

With fiscal year 2024 half over, CBP’s border drug seizure data points to notable declines in opioids, including the first-ever drop in fentanyl seizures. Cocaine and methamphetamine are increasing compared to 2023, while seizures of cannabis—which decreased precipitously after U.S. states started regulating its use—remain at a low level. Except for cannabis, at least 82 percent of border drug seizures occur at land-border ports of entry.

Human Rights Watch published a report on how the CBP One app denies access to asylum through “digital metering” at the U.S.-Mexico border. ProPublica and the Texas Tribune examined the relationship between U.S. border policies, including encouraging Mexico to interdict migrants, and tragedies like the March 2023 detention facility fire that killed 40 people in Ciudad Juárez. A consortium of journalists published a series on how organized crime, with corrupt officials’ collusion, transports migrants across Mexico in tractor-trailer containers.

 

THE FULL UPDATE:

Data show a slight decline as Biden and López Obrador discuss migration

Border Patrol’s migrant apprehensions in April totaled about 129,000 people, CBS News correspondent Camilo Montoya-Gálvez reported. The Washington Post’s Nick Miroff reported “about 130,000” April apprehensions in a front-page Washington Post story.

That would represent a decline from 140,638 reported in February and 137,480 in March. A drop in migration is very unusual in the spring, when milder weather usually means more people attempting to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Data table

 

The Washington Post cited U.S. officials’ belief that the Mexican government’s crackdown on migration is “the biggest factor” explaining the pattern. “The next several weeks will be a key test” of Mexico’s interdiction operations, the officials told Miroff.

Keeping border crossings down was the subject of an April 28 phone conversation between U.S. President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, which took place at Biden’s request. “The two leaders ordered their national security teams to work together to immediately implement concrete measures to significantly reduce irregular border crossings while protecting human rights,” read a joint statement.

The statement did not specify what these new measures might be. Still, an unnamed senior Biden administration official told the New York Times that possibilities included efforts “to prevent railways, buses, and airports from being used for illegal border crossing and more flights taking migrants back to their home countries.” The AP later cited White House national security spokesman John Kirby reiterating that the likely measures will be more transportation interdiction and more deportation flights.

USA Today covered Mexican forces’ strategy, intensified so far in 2024, of busing migrants away from the U.S. border zone and into the country’s interior, often Mexico’s far south. Analysts told reporter Lauren Villagrán that the busing has done more than Texas’s state crackdown to reduce recent migration into Texas. The Mexican government is relying less on international deportation or long-term detention: Mexico reports 359,697 “encounters” with migrants, but a relatively few 8,612 deportations, during January through March.

Data table

 

Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) top official, Troy Miller, testified on April 30 before the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security. Questioning noted that Border Patrol’s apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border had fallen recently to about 3,900 per day; members of Congress credited Mexico’s stepped-up migrant interdiction operations. Miller noted that he has “a senior advisor assigned to [him] that is solely dedicated to working with Mexico.”

Though the ongoing Mexican crackdown is a widely cited reason for 2024’s relative drop in irregular migration at the border, Border Patrol chiefs’ weekly updates have noted increases in migration to San Diego and (more modestly) Tucson, and recent days saw large numbers of migrants arriving, primarily by train, in Ciudad Juárez across from El Paso.

The chief of Border Patrol’s San Diego, California Sector—the westernmost of the agency’s nine U.S.-Mexico border sectors— reported that agents there apprehended 10,023 migrants during the week of April 24-30. That is 50 percent more than the last week of March in this region, and it cements San Diego’s current status as the border’s busiest sector, a position it has not held since the late 1990s.

 

San Diego’s county supervisor said the sector’s Border Patrol agents apprehended 2,000 people on April 23 alone. CBP has released more than 30,000 migrants onto the city’s streets since February, when a county-run reception center shut down for lack of funding.

Border Patrol agents had already been making asylum seekers wait for hours or days in the open air at the sector’s California borderline before being able to process them. The Washington Examiner’s Anna Giaritelli reported, based on a leaked internal document, that some migrants are hiking into rural California seeking to turn themselves in directly to Border Patrol stations or other law enforcement facilities. (Local volunteers say that this has been happening for months.)

Across from El Paso, over 1,000 migrants arrived in Ciudad Juárez atop train cars during the April 27 weekend, despite Mexico’s months-long operations to block northbound migration. According to Border Report, “Some U.S. officials are attributing the surge to a concerted effort by transnational criminal organizations” in Mexico to move migrants northward.

Many of those who arrived in Ciudad Juárez headed to the Rio Grande to seek to turn themselves in to Border Patrol to seek asylum, but Texas state authorities have blocked most of them on the riverbank. Some told EFE that Texas state National Guard personnel aggressively pushed them back into Mexico even though they were on U.S. soil, which requires that federal authorities process them.

The mostly Venezuelan migrants added that they fear Mexican organized crime more than Mexican migration authorities. Still, their fear of those authorities mistreating them—or even handing them over to criminals—prevents them from asking for help.

Many more people continue migrating into Mexico from further south, but that number is also anomalously decreasing. Migration through the Darién Gap, the jungle region straddling Colombia and Panama, has declined in April, a surprising development confirmed by an April 29 press release from Panama’s migration authority.

That release reported that 136,523 people had migrated through the treacherous region since January 1. This number stood at 110,008 on March 31. That means the average daily traffic through the Darién was 947 people per day during the first 28 days of April, the second-lowest daily average of any month since February 2023.

 

Similarly, Honduras’s statistics show a daily average of 1,281 over the first 24 days of April, also down significantly from 1,473 in March and 1,701 in February.

 

Drug seizure trends during the first half of fiscal 2024

U.S. border authorities report data according to the government’s fiscal year, which started on October 1. For CBP and Border Patrol, then, 2024 hit its halfway point on March 31, giving us an idea of the direction in which the year’s trends are headed at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The border agencies’ seizures of illicit drugs show a mixed picture. Opiate drugs are turning up less often than in recent years. But cocaine and methamphetamine are both up.

Fentanyl: Down 31 percent from this time last year; on pace to be down 29 percent from 2023

Data table

 

Fentanyl seizures are declining for the first time since the drug started appearing in the mid-2010s. It is not clear why, though an alleged Sinaloa Cartel “ order” to stop producing the drug could be a factor.

CBP seizes 87 percent of fentanyl at ports of entry. Ninety-two percent gets seized in California and Arizona. Arizona now accounts for a larger share than California.

 

Heroin: Down 30 percent from this time last year; on pace to be down 27 percent from 2023

Data table

 

Border drug seizure data reflect how fentanyl has almost entirely displaced heroin in U.S. illicit drug markets. Seizures continue to drop. CBP is seizing 82 percent of heroin at ports of entry. Fifty-seven percent gets seized in California, and 31 percent in Arizona.

 

Cocaine: Up 19 percent from this time last year; on pace to be up 27 percent from 2023

Data table

 

Coca and cocaine production has reportedly been increasing in the Andes since the mid-2010s, but border-area seizures have not been rising at a similar pace. That appears to be changing so far in fiscal 2024, as cocaine seizures have jumped. CBP is seizing 82 percent of cocaine at ports of entry. Sixty percent gets seized in California, 34 percent in Texas or New Mexico, and the remainder in Arizona.

 

Methamphetamine: Up 30 percent from this time last year; on pace to be down 14 percent from 2023

Data table

 

Methamphetamine seizures had been dropping from a high in 2021, but this year, they are on pace to reverse much of the previous two years’ slide. CBP is seizing 93 percent of methamphetamine at ports of entry. Sixty-three percent is seized in California, 29 percent in Texas or New Mexico, and the remainder in Arizona.

 

Cannabis: Down 10 percent from this time last year; on pace to be up 5 percent from 2023

Data table

 

Regulation of legal cannabis in many U.S. states has long since caused the bottom to fall out of illicit markets, curtailing incentives to import the drug from outside the United States. Seizures are on pace to be similar to last year, but more than 90 percent fewer than as recently as 2018. CBP is seizing only 40 percent of cannabis at ports of entry; it is the only drug for which Border Patrol seizes a majority at the border. Seventy-eight percent gets seized in Texas, 16 percent in Arizona, and 6 percent in California, where recreational cannabis is legal.

 

Investigations published this week on CBP One, Juárez fire, tractor-trailer smuggling, immigration courts

It was a robust week for non-governmental and journalistic investigations about the border and U.S.-bound migration. All of them presented alarming findings.

A report from Human Rights Watch detailed how rules mandating the use of the CBP One app restrict access to asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, forcing many to wait for months in precarious and vulnerable conditions inside Mexico. The report included examples of people kidnapped for ransom by Mexican criminal groups while awaiting appointments.

It found that CBP personnel routinely turn asylum seekers away from ports of entry, even when they say they are in danger, because the asylum seekers did not use the app to make appointments. The report called on DHS to stop making the app’s use mandatory and instead increase processing capacity at border ports of entry while increasing adjudication capacity to reduce asylum case backlogs.

HRW adds a novel argument: making large numbers of vulnerable people wait in Mexico increases the viability of their asylum claims. Because they are a “socially distinct group” inside Mexico—easily identifiable and frequently falling prey to violent criminals—people forced to await digital appointments may meet a central criterion for asylum eligibility under U.S. law: membership in a “particular social group.”

A ProPublica and Texas Tribune investigation drew a straight line between years of U.S. border and migration policies—including “outsourcing” of enforcement to Mexico—and the March 2023 detention facility fire that killed 40 migrants in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Nothing has changed about U.S. policy since; “If migrant deaths would lead to policy change, we would have changed policies a long time ago,” migration expert Stephanie Leutert told reporter Perla Trevizo.

“The Right Way,” a video accompanying the ProPublicaTexas Tribune project, profiled a Venezuelan family who had to wait for five months in Ciudad Juárez for a CBP One appointment during the 2023 period when 40 migrants died in a detention center fire in the city.

A collaborative effort among several Latin American journalistic outlets documented migrant smugglers’ dangerous but widespread use of tractor-trailers as a critical vector for moving people through Mexico to the U.S. border.

  • In Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, an organization called the Cartel de Chamula, whose members are primarily Indigenous Tzotzil people and which has aligned itself with the Sinaloa Cartel, dominates migrant smuggling operations, the reporters found. Chiapas was the scene of a December 2021 tractor-trailer accident that killed 56 of about 200 migrants whom smugglers had stuffed into its container. The report found that endemic corruption at all levels of government enables the smugglers’ operation.
  • The reporting project interviewed “Alberto,” a truck driver whom criminal groups have coerced into transporting migrants from Michoacán to Mexico’s northern border state of Tamaulipas, where the Gulf Cartel “is the one that transports migrants.” The migrants aboard pay steep fees—often about US$800—for their transport, which gets facilitated by corrupt arrangements, including bribes to Mexican National Guardsmen and other officials. The truck driver detailed how corrupt authorities allow his human cargo to pass through road checkpoints. The National Guard’s price, Alberto said, is “500 pesos per migrant” (about US$30) every time guardsmen stop the truck. Alberto added that if the National Migration Institute (INM) stops the truck because no payments were made in advance, the migration agents charge 1,000 pesos (US$60) per migrant.
  • Noticias Telemundo and the Centro Latinoamericano de Investigación Periodística (CLIP) published a third installment documenting the role of big organized crime groups and corrupt officials in tractor-trailer migrant smuggling. The series relies on a database of more than 170 trucks that crashed, were detained, or were abandoned between 2018 and 2023.

A report from the Center for Migration Studies called for deep, long-term reforms to the U.S. immigration court system’s staffing and infrastructure, along with other reforms to the immigration system, to reduce the system’s backlog of more than 2.5 million cases. Because of that backlog, most asylum seekers released into the U.S. interior from the border can expect to remain in the immigration court system for years. An accompanying “BacklogPredictor” tool helps estimate future backlogs and resource needs based on different assumptions.

 

Other news

  • The Huffington Post’s Roque Planas, who broke a story in February about Border Patrol agents’ frequent use of the slur “tonk” to describe migrants, published new revelations from the agency’s internal emails and text messages. The communications, made between 2017 and 2020, reveal agents joking about beating or poisoning migrants. “Now you’re leaning left and sounding like a snowflake,” wrote one agent after a colleague used the word “migrant” to describe a migrant.
  • A release from the Government Accountability Project regretted that CBP’s April 30 testimony in the House Appropriations Committee did not address whistleblowers’ complaints about contracting failures in the agency’s medical care system for migrants in custody, which they allege contributed to a child’s preventable death in Texas in May 2023. Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Illinois) asked Miller about measures taken in the aftermath of 8-year-old Anadith Danay Reyes Alvarez’s in-custody death.
  • Two women were hospitalized and in need of “higher level care” after falling from the border wall in San Diego, local news reported. In San Diego, the report added, “This year so far, at least five migrants have died as a result of a border wall fall, while dozens more have been injured.”
  • Someone on the Mexico side of the U.S.-Mexico border fired a weapon at an agent near San Elizario, in eastern El Paso county, on April 25. CBP has reported no injuries or other information about the incident.
  • Following a mistrial last week after the jury could not agree on a verdict, prosecutors in Nogales, Arizona will not seek to retry George Alan Kelly, a rancher who fired his AK-47 at a group of migrants on his cattle ranch in January 2023, killing a 48-year-old Mexican man.
  • Mexico has sent 600 troops to its northeastern border states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León amid worsening violence between competing criminal groups.
  • An article by the Migration Policy Institute evaluated the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy, which expired a year ago on May 11. Despite nearly 3 million expulsions, it found, migration at the U.S.-Mexico border reached new highs during the 38 months that the policy was in place. The report debunked claims that bringing back Title 42 or a similar “asylum shutdown” policy would deter or significantly reduce irregular migration: “While Title 42 offers a campaign-style slogan to shut down the border, the reality is that it never met that promise. And whatever outcomes it had came at the very sizeable cost of reneging on decades of U.S. commitments to guaranteeing humanitarian protection.”
  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) imposition of secondary state “safety inspections” at El Paso ports of entry has snarled cargo traffic from Ciudad Juárez, “stopping the movement of 1,344 units in two days, representing 87.4 million dollars in merchandise,” according to a local freight transportation association. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) uses these “safety” checks, which force truckers to undergo double inspections at border crossings—first federal, then state—“to pressure U.S. and Mexican officials to prevent mass illegal migration,” Border Report noted. CBP is responding by increasing hours of operation at nearby ports of entry.
  • A letter from 32 Democratic members of Congress, endorsed by WOLA and several other organizations, urged House appropriators to avoid funding any federal government activities that involve collaboration with the Texas state government’s “Operation Lone Star.” The letter noted that “groups have documented repeated cases of Border Patrol turning over migrants to Texas state law enforcement instead of processing them for immigration purposes and ensuring they have access to legal protections for those fleeing violence and danger.”
  • Four U.S. senators—two Democrats and two Republicans—sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas voicing concerns, and requesting information about, CBP’s warrantless searches of travelers’ electronic devices at border crossings. The signers included Sen. Gary Peters (D-Michigan), the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.
  • NOTUS reported that two Texas border counties’ police departments—Webb (Laredo) and Val Verde (Del Rio)—have purchased “TraffiCatch,” surveillance technology that tracks cellphone and Bluetooth signals and matches them to license plates. The counties used federal grant money (Operation Stonegarden) to buy the systems. “We are well beyond the idea that people have no privacy in public,” said Jennifer Granick of the ACLU. “Here, they’re installing this mass surveillance system. The public doesn’t know about it.”
  • In leaked audio of a recent phone conversation with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham complained that Border Patrol is focusing resources on seizing state-licensed cannabis at interior checkpoints. “They’re saying that they’re worried about fentanyl. So they’re taking all of our cannabis,” the audio records the Governor saying. “For the love of God, put them at the border in Sunland Park [west of El Paso] where I don’t have a single Border Patrol agent, not one. And people pour over, and so I’m cranky with the secretary.”
  • An Axios poll found half of U.S. respondents favoring mass deportations of undocumented migrants. On the other hand, 58 percent said they support expanding legal immigration pathways, and 46 percent favored protecting asylum seekers with “legitimate” cases.
  • The New York Times dug into the story of a counterfeit flier, attributed to a migrant aid group in Matamoros, Mexico, that urged migrants to vote for Joe Biden. Though it was a forgery, the Heritage Foundation think tank and several Republican politicians shared it publicly.
  • The Times also reported on how portraying migration at the border as an “invasion,” which only recently was considered an extreme, marginal position, is now a staple of mainstream Republican politicians’ rhetoric.