Updates from Adam Isacson (December 19, 2023)

Hi, this is Adam. If you're receiving this message, it means you signed up on my website to receive regular updates. If you'd like to stop getting these, just follow the instructions further down.

I'm writing a couple of days late because this is almost certainly my last e-mail of the year, and I wanted to include links to a couple more things that got published yesterday.

This one has some of those, including a great video from Colombia. Also, this week's Border Update, another Congressional testimony, some charts, links to stuff to read, and more. There are no links to Latin America-related events, because I couldn't find any announcements for events during the week before Christmas.

I look forward to being in touch again next year. Have a great holiday.

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: December 15, 2023

Read the whole update at WOLA's website.

Also, at this time of many fast-moving border events, see our archive of daily updates.


  • White House giving ground on asylum in Senate negotiations

With more input from the White House and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a small group of senators continues to negotiate a deal that might water down the right to seek asylum at the border, a Republican demand for passage of a $110.5 billion Biden administration request for Ukraine and Israel aid, the border, and other priorities. Migrant rights defenders are alarmed by reports that the administration and Democratic legislators might agree to a provision that would expel asylum seekers, Title 42-style, if daily Border Patrol apprehensions exceed a certain threshold. Congress was set to adjourn on December 14; the House gaveled out, but the Senate remains in session in order to give negotiators more time.

  • Migrant arrivals remain high, though perhaps not for long

With nearly 10,000 Border Patrol migrant apprehensions per day, December 1-7 was one of the busiest weeks ever at the U.S.-Mexico border. Arrivals of asylum seekers are heaviest in Border Patrol’s Tucson, Del Rio, and San Diego sectors, where Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has partially or fully closed three ports of entry. More recent data point to a modest slowdown in migrant arrivals compared to the first week of the month. So do reports of reduced, though still historically high, levels of northbound migration through Honduras and Panama.

Read the rest here.

Video of last Thursday’s Congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Hearing on “Organized Crime, Gangs and Human Rights in Latin America”

I was honored to be invited (as a last-minute substitution, but still) to cover Colombia at the final 2023 hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives' Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, covering the human rights impact of organized crime and government efforts to combat it.

Here's the video (I start at 19:05). A PDF transcript of my oral testimony is here. Because I was added late, I have a couple more days to finish drafting written testimony.

Darién Gap Migration Fell in November

Panama has just posted statistics detailing migration through the treacherous Darién Gap region through November. They show the number of migrants passing through the Darién dropping for the third straight month, to less than half of August and September levels. November was 24 percent lighter than October.

Monthly Migration Through Panama’s Darién Gap

November 2023: Venezuela 61%, China 11%, Haiti (plus Brazil and Chile) 9%, Ecuador 8%, Colombia 5%, all others <1%

Since January 2020: Venezuela 53%, Haiti (plus Brazil and Chile) 21%, Ecuador 9%, all others <3%

	Venezuela	Haiti (plus Brazil and Chile)	Ecuador	Cuba	China	Colombia	India	Afghanistan	Peru	Other Countries
20-Jan	9	1332	11	48			7			131
20-Feb	20	1535	4	45		2	9			210
20-Mar	3	972	6	16		2	7			93
20-Apr		0								0
20-May		0								0
20-Jun	2	135	1	12			5			27
20-Jul		0								0
20-Aug		0			3	1				2
20-Sep	5	84				2				17
20-Oct	5	315	2			2			1	46
20-Nov	3	313	7	1		1			1	39
20-Dec	22	645	9	123		11	11		2	148
21-Jan	3	720	3	176		8	3			158
21-Feb	9	1231	2	205		7				403
21-Mar		2193	14	198	2	1	30			256
21-Apr	3	3818	12	1306			102			624
21-May	113	2180	5	1514			44			606
21-Jun	205	6527	9	2770		4	44			708
21-Jul	248	15488	19	2354		8	34			662
21-Aug	568	21285	22	2857		8	1			591
21-Sep	437	22473	48	1566	3	31	40			907
21-Oct	339	20626	88	3018	11	29	65			1728
21-Nov	352	3595	65	1639	22	18	158			1913
21-Dec	542	936	100	997	39	55	71			1454
22-Jan	1421	807	100	367	32	48	67	1	17	1842
22-Feb	1573	627	156	334	39	72	74	3	23	1361
22-Mar	1704	658	121	361	56	59	88	40	18	1722
22-Apr	2694	785	181	634	59	72	172	31	29	1477
22-May	9844	997	527	567	67	248	179	67	88	1310
22-Jun	11359	1025	555	416	66	287	228	82	109	1506
22-Jul	17066	1245	883	574	85	407	431	162	136	1833
22-Aug	23632	1921	1581	589	119	569	332	128	247	1986
22-Sep	38399	2642	2594	490	136	1306	350	180	365	1742
22-Oct	40593	4525	8487	663	274	1600	604	551	438	2038
22-Nov	668	5520	6350	535	377	208	813	379	34	1748
22-Dec	1374	6535	7821	431	695	188	756	596	39	1862
23-Jan	2337	12063	6352	142	913	333	562	291	39	1602
23-Feb	7097	7813	5203	36	1285	637	872	276	100	1338
23-Mar	20816	8335	2772	35	1657	1260	1109	359	261	1495
23-Apr	25395	5832	2683	59	1683	1634	446	386	277	1902
23-May	26409	3633	3059	59	1497	1645	161	192	394	1913
23-Jun	18501	1743	5052	74	1722	894	65	217	209	1245
23-Jul	38033	1548	9773	123	1789	1884	96	321	376	1444
23-Aug	62700	1992	8642	172	2433	2989	27	467	653	1871
23-Sep	58716	3176	4744	166	2588	2570	43	609	667	1989
23-Oct	34594	3958	2849	97	2934	2051	36	400	535	1802
23-Nov	22547	3232	2996	85	4090	1716	113	365	327	1760

Data table

Among major nationalities, the sharpest one-month declines were from Venezuela (-35%), Peru (-39%), Vietnam (-31%), and Benin (-38%). Migration from China increased 39 percent.

Venezuelan migrants may be delaying plans until they see what happens with the Biden administration’s announced resumption of deportation flights to Caracas. Colder weather and the end-of-year holidays may be part of the reason for the across-the-board decline.

Still, the barely governed jungle region finished the year’s first 11 months with nearly half a million migrants (495,459), which has never come close to happening before. A couple of weeks later, the count now stands at more than 506,000.

Annual Migration Through Panama’s Darién Gap

2023: Venezuela 64%, Ecuador 10.9%, Haiti (plus Brazil and Chile) 10.8%, China 5%, Colombia 4%, All Others <1%

Since 2010: Venezuela 47%, Haiti (plus Brazil and Chile) 22%, Ecuador 8%, Cuba 7%, China 3% Colombia 2%, All Others <2%

	Venezuela	Haiti (Plus Brazil and Chile)	Ecuador	Cuba	China	Colombia	India	Nepal	Bangladesh	Other Countries
2010		0		79	268		12	29	53	118
2011		1	15	18	9	65	11	9	45	110
2012		0	18	1154	11	24	48	213	89	220
2013		2	4	2010	1	26		297	398	313
2014		2	1	5026		9	1	468	377	291
2015	2	8	14	24623	1	32	1	2426	559	1623
2016	6	16742	93	7383		16	20	1619	580	3601
2017	18	40	50	736	6	36	1127	2138	506	2119
2018	65	420	51	329		13	2962	868	1525	2988
2019	78	10490	31	2691		23	1920	254	911	5704
2020	69	5331	40	245	3	21	39	56	123	538
2021	2819	101072	387	18600	77	169	592	523	1657	7830
2022	150327	27287	29356	5961	2005	5064	4094	1631	1884	20675
2023 (Nov)	317145	53325	54125	1048	22591	17613	3530	2153	1743	22186

Data table

So far this year, 22 percent of Darién Gap migrants have been minors. (UNICEF has estimated that half of minors transiting the Darién are under five years old.) 52 percent have been men, 26 percent women, 12 percent boys, and 10 percent girls.

Video: Migrants in Colombia: Between Government Absence and Criminal Control

WOLA videographer Sergio Ortiz Borbolla was with us in northwestern Colombia at the end of October, and produced this brilliant 1:47 video depicting what we saw and heard. This is what Necoclí, and the gateway to the Darién Gap, looked and felt like.

(I'm hours away from a draft report on this trip. I'm running behind, in part, because of unexpectedly having to prepare two congressional testimonies in the space of two weeks 😎.)

In English, with my voiceover:

En español, narrado por Laura Dib, directora del programa de Venezuela de WOLA:

Here’s WOLA’s December 11 statement about the migration negotiations happening right now in Congress. People accessing asylum are not the problem: the problem is our outdated, underfunded asylum system grappling with years-long backlogs. Appropriations should focus on that instead—and do no harm.

The White House is signaling support for life-threatening restrictions on asylum access, including raising the standard that asylum seekers must meet while being screened in U.S. custody. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) calls on Congress not to use the lives of tens of thousands of families and individuals as bargaining chips in exchange for assistance to Ukraine and Israel. 

Rather than putting people’s lives at risk, it is time to be realistic about the push and pull factors driving migration, guarantee due process to people who need protection, provide additional legal pathways to migration, and work with countries throughout the hemisphere that are also receiving record numbers of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Blocking asylum, a core human rights value adopted after World War II, has not and will not stop people from fleeing their homes and will worsen the humanitarian crisis. 

The reasons forcing asylum seekers from Venezuela, Haiti, Ukraine, Cuba, and many other nations to flee their homes will remain, regardless of changes in U.S. immigration policies. Right now, thousands of families are waiting for days in the most secluded border regions, in harsh conditions, and without supplies, to be picked up by Border Patrol in hopes of seeking protection in the country. 

The harsh measures that Texas’s state government is imposing aren’t deterring anyone: desperate people are crawling through razor wire with their children in El Paso, while over 3,000 per day are arriving in Border Patrol’s Del Rio Sector, the very heart of Gov. Abbott’s crackdown. People are coming even though a growing number do not survive the journey: the migrant death toll at the U.S.-Mexico border and throughout the region is the highest it has ever been. Further tightening access to asylum, which is a cornerstone of our legal system and an important reform of the post-World War II era, will only contribute to dysfunction at the border and the loss of lives.

Raising credible fear interview standards, capping numbers of asylum seekers, expanding expedited removal proceedings, and restricting humanitarian parole will place thousands of people in life-threatening situations.

These policies would increase the probability of U.S. authorities committing refoulement (returning people to their place of persecution), a serious violation of human rights and of international and U.S. law. It is bad enough that U.S. immigration law makes journeying to U.S. soil and asking for asylum the only viable pathway for most to achieve protection in the United States, and that U.S. policy restricts asylum seekers’ access to ports of entry.

After a harrowing journey, while still in CBP’s jail-like facilities without access to counsel, many people with urgent protection needs will not be able to effectively defend their cases over the phone with distant asylum officers—especially if the administration and Congress raise the standard of “fear” to something close to what they would eventually have to prove in an immigration court. This policy change will return thousands back to likely death, torture, or imprisonment. The expedited removal process already fast tracks asylum proceedings at the border. Expanding it into the U.S. interior, impeding their ability to get lawyers and effectively make their cases, would subject migrants and asylum seekers throughout the country to speedy deportations without due process. 

Beyond a possible agreement on raising fear standards, Republicans are pushing for limits on the presidential authority, dating back to the 1950s, to offer migrants temporary humanitarian parole. A partial offer of parole to citizens of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela increased order at the border by sharply reducing arrivals of most of those countries’ citizens. Restricting this program would overwhelm resources at the border.

These proposed policy changes directly contradict the United States’ commitments to racial equity, disproportionately impacting Black, Brown, and Indigenous migrants. The potential harm to these communities cannot be overlooked.

The standard for people to access asylum is not the problem; the problem is our outdated, underfunded asylum system grappling with years-long backlogs. Appropriations should focus on that, instead.

We urge Congress to not make permanent, harmful policy changes in exchange for a one-time funding package. The need for enduring, thoughtful solutions has never been more pressing.

There’s Empathy at Border Patrol, but it Depends on “What Agent You Get”

For a few months now, but especially in the past few weeks, large numbers of migrants have been arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona. A Border Patrol agent told the Los Angeles Times that about 90 percent of them are turning themselves in to ask for asylum.

It’s a humanitarian crisis, with hundreds forced to wait in the desert for long periods for overwhelmed Border Patrol agents to come and process them. Some of the crisis is self-inflicted, since there is only one port of entry in all of Arizona that allows asylum seekers to make “CBP One” appointments (Nogales), and it only takes 100 appointments per day, out of a border-wide 1,450. The scarcity of appointments pushes people into the desert.

Humanitarian volunteers from Arizona organizations like Tucson Samaritans and Humane Borders have been on scene providing food, water, and other help. These groups’ past relationships with the U.S. Border Patrol have been rocky. Some have denounced Border Patrol interference with humanitarian supplies, while agents have suspected volunteers of harboring migrants or incentivizing illegal crossings. During the Trump administration, agents twice raided a camp run by another group, No More Deaths.

But the crisis has brought a new level of cooperation, or at least friendliness, between Border Patrol and humanitarian groups. Emily Bregel of the Arizona Daily Star has commented on this side of Border Patrol a few times in her recent reporting from rural Arizona.

From December 6:

Aid workers and the Border Patrol have historically had a tense relationship, Abbott [Humane Borders volunteer Dan Abbott] said. But the recent surge has brought out some camaraderie between the two groups, who share the same goal, he said.

“For years, Border Patrol and aid organizations have been kind of on opposite sides,” he said. “What’s happening now is that, we’re both invested in keeping people alive.”

Relations have almost become amicable, he said.

“We’re not buddies, but we’re not getting in each others’ way,” he said. “Our basic understanding of immigration is different from theirs, but so be it. We can still work together and care for people in the meantime.”

From December 2:

Kocourek [Gail Kocourek of Salvavision and Tucson Samaritans] said agents seem to increasingly tolerate, and even welcome, aid workers’ presence and their reports of migrants with medical needs…

As he passed, one agent advised the Samaritans that 25 migrants were still left behind, at a nearby spot along the border wall.

…multiple Border Patrol trucks came roaring down the road, headed back to retrieve the waiting asylum seekers who would at least have shelter for the night.

An agent leaned out the window and grinned as the Samaritans waved happily, calling, “Thank you!”

From November 27:

Kocourek said she and other aid workers sat with the families near the wall until the Border Patrol picked them up. The agents were kind, she said.

“They had empathy. They understood these people were caught in the crossfire,” she said. “Most are in Tucson now. At least they’re alive and we’re helping them as much as we can.”

My WOLA colleagues Stephanie Brewer and Ana Lucía Verduzco were just in southern Arizona and published a brief memo today about what they saw. They heard similar news about positive interactions with Border Patrol agents, though with a key caveat.

Local aid groups alert Border Patrol to remote locations where asylum seekers are waiting. “Border Patrol is leaning on us,” a volunteer told us. But how quickly or humanely Border Patrol responds to migrants in distress or waiting asylum seekers often depends on “what agent you get”.

They say that individual agents continue to vary widely. Some are empathetic and helpful. Others are disdainful and indifferent to suffering. Who you get, it seems, depends on the shift.

It would be important to have a better idea of whether Border Patrol today offers any incentives for the empathetic, helpful agents. Are they more likely to get bonuses and promotions? Or does the Tucson Sector tend to reward “Old Patrol” types who treat even protection-seeking families as likely criminals?

Keegan Hamilton, As Border Extremism Goes Mainstream, Vigilante Groups Take a Starring Role (The Los Angeles Times, Monday, December 18, 2023).

Arizona Border Recon and other groups that patrol the border for migrants and drug smugglers are gaining followers and prominence, fueling far-right rhetoric and misinformation in national politics

Daniel Gonzalez, In Southern Mexico, the Cost for Migrants to Reach the Us Is Increasingly Death (The Austin American-Statesman, Thursday, December 14, 2023).

A rising death toll of migrants in southern Mexico, fueled in part by US-backed policies, has been largely overlooked, human rights groups say

Policia de Honduras se Alio Con Seguridad Privada de Transnacional para Desalojar Violentamente a Campesinos en el Aguan (Contra Corriente, Monday, December 11, 2023).

La violencia contra las familias campesinas y la persecución judicial contra sus liderazgos en el Bajo Aguán, en el norte de Honduras, se agudiza a pocos meses para que se cumplan dos años desde la firma del acuerdo tripartito

David Tarazona, Jose Guarnizo, Coltan, Oro y Pistas Clandestinas: El Botin Con el Que Grupos Armados Desangran al Guainia (Voragine (Colombia), Monday, December 11, 2023).

La reserva Puinawai, en el suroriente de Colombia y parte de la Amazonía, es impactada por la minería ilegal de oro y de coltán. Imágenes satelitales de 2023 muestran mordiscos en la selva causados por la actividad

Cbp Violations of Custody Standards and Human Rights of Individuals Detained in Open-Air Detention Sites in the San Diego Sector Require Immediate Attention to Save Lives (Several organizations, Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, Monday, December 11, 2023).

Border Patrol agents are still detaining asylum seekers in dangerous, exposed conditions, and are failing to provide the adequate food, water, sanitation, shelter, and medical care required under the law

Anyway, Happy Holidays.

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Jamie Larson