WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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24 Jun 2021 | Commentary

Resources for Understanding What’s Happening at the U.S.-Mexico Border

By Adam Isacson and Elyssa Pachico

With Vice President Kamala Harris scheduled to visit El Paso, Texas on Friday, June 25, here are key points and resources for understanding migration issues at the U.S.-Mexico border right now:

A lingering Trump policy is driving up repeat border crossings to dramatic levels

Since March 2020, nearly all migrants and asylum seekers apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border are quickly expelled back into Mexico, under a Trump administration order (known as the “Title 42” policy) that is widely viewed as illegal and lacking scientific basis for protecting public health amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

At a quick glance, May 2021 appears to show a large increase in people crossing the border, with just over 180,000 people encountered by Border Patrol. But two-fifths of those 180,000 people are migrants who’ve tried to cross the border at least once since October.

Download more charts about the U.S-Mexico border here.

To put it another way, the average number of repeat border crossers (the “recidivism” rate) hovered at 15 percent from 2014 to 2019. Last year, it was 26 percent. In May, 38 percent of Border Patrol’s encounters involved people who’d previously tried to cross the border at least once in the past year. That’s likely unprecedented. As a result, while the above chart doesn’t reflect it, Border Patrol is actually apprehending fewer new people now than it was in mid-2019, during the Trump administration.

This is indicative of how policies that completely shut down asylum and rapidly expel people at the border are counterproductive: they end up benefiting smugglers and creating cycles of the same people crossing, being apprehended, and sent back multiple times.

What’s needed are options for migrants and asylum seekers to petition to enter the United States in an orderly, legal way. Right now, border “shutdown” policies like Title 42 leave this population with few options but to seek out smugglers.

Go more in-depth on U.S.-Mexico border migration data by reading WOLA Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson’s latest border news update

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To manage orderly and safe migration, the U.S. government must fully restore access to asylum at the border

People who are fleeing violence in their home countries have a fundamental right to seek protection through asylum. By denying asylum seekers this fundamental right, Trump administration policies placed them in additional danger. Many times, the U.S. government’s shirking of its responsibilities under national and international asylum law has led to deaths.

The Biden administration has taken positive steps in this area. Most recently, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would allow additional victims of Trump’s illegal “Remain in Mexico” policy to get a second chance at applying for asylum. Under the expanded criteria, asylum seekers deported back to Mexico to await their U.S. court date—and who were then unable to attend those hearings, in some cases because they were kidnapped or couldn’t safely travel to the border—will get a chance to reapply for protection. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is also putting up “soft-sided” facilities in some border sectors in order to process asylum claimants more efficiently.

Further steps are needed to not just fully unwind “Remain in Mexico,” but to comprehensively restore access to asylum at the southern border—most critically by ending the “Title 42” policy. So long as only a minuscule number of people are allowed to present themselves at U.S. ports of entry and apply for asylum, this will incentivize crossing the border in dangerous areas away from official inspection points.

Read WOLA’s recent commentary about Biden administration officials’ recent trips to Central America, and what more needs to happen to ensure rights-respecting U.S. migration policies. 

There’s a new reality of asylum-seeking populations at the border. The United States needs to build the infrastructure to deal with this.

As WOLA has previously noted:

No one should have to feel like their only fair shot at entering the asylum process is to climb walls or risk drowning in the Rio Grande. There should be no need for asylum seekers to seek out smugglers to cross the border—they should be able to show up to a designated location and go through an administrative process.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) needs to build up its capacity to process asylum-seeking children and families. New temporary holding facilities have been unveiled recently in Tucson and Yuma, but in the short and medium-term, more investment in permanent infrastructure is needed.

For Harris to gain a deeper understanding of what’s happening at the border, meet with and listen to civil society organizations while in El Paso.

The city has a wealth of experienced, knowledgeable, and passionate experts and advocates who could tell the vice president much that she wouldn’t hear in a CBP briefing room:

  • Asylum attorneys and migrants’ rights advocates know all about the humanitarian harm done by policies like “Remain in Mexico” and Title 42, and their work in the trenches makes them key sources for solutions to undo bottlenecks in the asylum system.
  • Shelter personnel on both sides of the border, and the migrants staying with them, know all about why people migrate, the dangers they face along the way, and terrible choices they have to make, like sending children across unaccompanied.
  • Activists and experts who monitor Border Patrol and CBP behavior, know all about the difficult work of holding those agencies accountable for human rights abuses and the need for changes to organizational culture.
  • Texas property owners know all about facing eminent domain proceedings because of the Trump administration’s wall-building mania.
  • Though mostly not in El Paso, humanitarian workers all along the border know all about the policies causing them to find more migrant remains on U.S. soil during this very hot summer.


WOLA Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson has a Twitter thread on some additional ideas.

There are commonsense migration policies that the U.S. government can now pursue. Join the Beyond the Wall campaign to learn more, and sign up for weekly updates about the U.S.-Mexico border.

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