Updates from Adam Isacson (February 6, 2024)

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There's a lot in this week's edition—most of it border and migration-related because the launch of legislation in the Senate (plus a cabinet impeachment in the House, and crazy times in Texas) has been all-consuming at work. Encouraged by a big uptick in traffic to my personal site (cutting back on social media pays off), I've also been posting more there, so there's more to share here.

There's a weekly Border Update, two explainers about the Senate border deal (which may be dead anyway), some recommended Latin America security long-reads, two posts with charts illustrating migration trends and the futility of deterrence policies, a radio interview about Texas, and a TV interview about El Salvador. And of course, upcoming events and some recommended readings.

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: Senate bill, December numbers, migration route updates, Texas, impeachment

  • Read this week's edition here. See past weekly updates here.
  • For 2024 - read our daily border links posts here. You can subscribe to the daily border links list here.


Senators negotiating a deal that would restrict access to asylum at the border, as a Republican pre-condition for Ukraine aid and other spending, continue to insist that they are on the verge of making public the text of their agreement. Prospects for passage are growing ever dimmer, though. Donald Trump, House Republicans, and the rightmost wing of Republican senators are lining up against the deal because they don’t believe it goes far enough.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) updated its dataset of migration through December, showing a record 302,034 migrant encounters border-wide in December. The top nationalities were Mexico, Venezuela, Guatemala, Honduras, and Colombia. Encounters with members of family units rose to their second-highest level ever.

Among a variety of updates: A horrific number of sexual assaults recorded in the Darién Gap. Venezuela is halting U.S. deportation flights. ICE ran its first deportation flight to Mexico’s interior since May 2022. A “caravan” has almost completely dwindled in southern Mexico.

In addition to nearly throttling the Senate border deal, U.S. ultraconservatives have generated an avalanche of media coverage and political discussion around Texas’s challenge to federal authority at the border, and House Republicans’ effort to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

Read the whole thing here.

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At WOLA: Five Questions and Answers About the Senate Border Deal

Last October, the Biden administration asked Congress for a package of funding for Ukraine, Israel, border security, and other priorities. In the Democratic-majority Senate, where it takes 60 votes to move legislation forward, Republicans refused to support this request unless it included changes to U.S. law that would restrict the right to asylum, and perhaps other migration pathways, at the U.S.-Mexico border.

A small group of senators has been negotiating those changes since November. A bill may now be forthcoming.

At WOLA’s website on January 31, a few days ahead of the bill's launch, we posted a quick (less than 1,200 word) explainer looking at:

  1. What do we know about what’s in the deal? (We got this mostly right)
  2. What is the human cost of this bill’s provisions?
  3. Would this actually deter migration?
  4. Republican hard-liners are opposing this agreement, saying it doesn’t go far enough to restrict migration. What do they want?
  5. What would a better policy look like?

Read it here.

First Look at the Senate Negotiators’ Asylum-Limits-For-Ukraine-Aid Bill Language

(Here's a post I assembled quickly on Sunday night after Senate leadership revealed the text of the asylum-restrictions-for-Ukraine-aid deal that had been under negotiation since November. It misses some important elements of the 370-page text, particularly an agreement to re-dedicate old border-wall-building money into the building of new wall. I recommend the concise five-page overview that the National Immigrant Justice Center produced on February 5.)

(However, as my Daily Border Links posts are reporting, this legislation looks like it's at death's door anyway.)

The Senate’s leadership has just dropped the text of a $118 billion supplemental appropriation, complying with a Biden administration request, which would provide additional aid to Ukraine and Israel, among other priorities including $20 billion for border and migration needs.

Republican senators’ price for allowing this bill to go forward in the Senate—where Democrats have a majority but most legislation requires 60 votes to end debate and proceed to a vote—was new restrictions on migration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

This 370-page legislative text has been out for less than 2 hours as I write this, so my reading this Sunday evening has not been thorough. But it appears to include a lot of the controversial limits on access to asylum that had already been reported in media. (I summarized those last week in a Q&A document and in our weekly Border Update.)

Provisions include:

  • Requiring asylum seekers placed in “expedited removal”—usually 20-25,000 per month right now, but likely to expand—to meet a much higher standard of “credible fear” in screening interviews with asylum officers. The goal is to thin out asylum applications and make it unnecessary for as many cases as possible to go to immigration court.
  • Reducing the time for a large number of asylum seekers’ cases from years to a few months, often while in tightly controlled, costly alternatives-to-detention programs.
  • It does not appear to tighten the presidential use of humanitarian parole authority to permit some classes of migrants to enter the United States, though it adds a detailed reporting requirement.

Plus, the big one:

  • As expected, the bill would allow the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to impose a Title 42-like expulsion authority, “summarily removing” asylum-seekers from the United States (except for hard-to-prove Convention Against Torture appeals), when unauthorized migrant encounters reach a daily threshold.
  • That threshold is:
    • An average of 4,000 migrant encounters per day over 7 days, which would allow DHS to start expelling people at the Secretary’s discretion.
    • Expulsions become mandatory once the average hits 5,000 per day, or if encounters hit 8,500 in a single day.
    • “Encounters” means people who come to the border and end up in Customs and Border Protection (CBP, which includes Border Patrol) custody without documents or authorization. Even if all 5,000 of them are deported or detained, the expulsions authority would still kick in.
    • “Encounters” includes people who come to ports of entry with appointments made using the CBP One smartphone app; the bill requires DHS to maintain the capacity to keep receiving at least 1,400 of these people each day (nearly the current number of daily CBP One appointments), even when it is expelling people.
      • While these 1,400 would not be in danger of expulsion, they do count toward the daily “encounter” threshold. If CBP takes 1,400 per day at ports of entry, then the expulsions could kick in if Border Patrol apprehends 2,600 or 3,600 more per day between ports of entry (for the 4,000 and 5,000 thresholds).
      • Border Patrol apprehensions between ports of entry have averaged less than 3,600 per day during only 2 of the Biden administration’s first 36 full months. They have never averaged less than 2,600 per day.
  • It is not clear whether Mexico would agree to take back expelled migrants, and if so from which countries.
  • The expulsions would stop if the past week’s daily average dropped to 75 percent of the amount that triggered it (3,000 per day if the 4,000-encounter threshold was used; 3,750 per day if the 5,000-encounter threshold kicked in).
  • A previously undisclosed element of the new Title 42-style authority: it would automatically “sunset,” or repeal, after three years. And DHS would have fewer days per year to employ it during each of those three years. (It would take an act of Congress to renew the authority or make it permanent—which is certainly not impossible.)

What do I make of this?

  • Just as we pointed out in our Q&A last week, if this became law it would send thousands of people back to likely danger. The expulsion authority will ensnare many people with legitimate and urgent asylum claims, denying them due process. It will place many at the mercy of organized crime along the migration route and in Mexican border cities. And it wouldn’t even be justified with a thin “public health” reasoning, like Title 42 was: asylum seekers would be kicked out just because too many other people were fleeing. “The United States cannot deny someone the right to seek safety and protection just because they are number 5,001 in line that day,” a statement tonight from Human Rights First put it.
  • And again, as the Q&A and another post from last week made clear, it won’t reduce migration, except perhaps for an initial few months. We seem to forget that the Title 42 era (March 2020-May 2023) was one of the busiest times ever for migration at the U.S.-Mexico border. The experience of Title 42 should have made clear for everyone the futility of deterring protection-seeking migrants.

Either way, though, this legislation is probably not going to pass. Though I’m complaining here about some of these provisions’ cruelty, I don’t see enough red meat here to satisfy far-right and rabidly pro-Trump Republicans, especially in the GOP-majority House of Representatives. Even those who were willing to live without a full return to Trump’s policies were demanding a lower threshold number for expulsions, and curbs on the presidential humanitarian parole authority. Since they didn’t get those, they may obstruct the bill.

So the negotiators of this text added language that may endanger people. They took great pains, though, to minimize the harm it might do to asylum seekers. It is good that they tried to do so—but it means that it will be rough going in the MAGA-heavy, election-year House of Representatives.

Five Latin America Security Long-Reads from January

Steven Dudley, ‘Operation Polanco’: How the Dea Investigated Amlo’s 2006-Presidential Campaign (InsightCrime, Tuesday, January 30, 2024).
Tim Golden, Did Drug Traffickers Funnel Millions of Dollars to Mexican President Lopez Obrador’s First Campaign? (ProPublica, Tuesday, January 30, 2024).

Investigations from ProPublica and InsightCrime, citing DEA information, allege that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s unsuccessful 2006 campaign took money from narcotraffickers in exchange for assurances that, if elected, López Obrador would not impede their illicit business.

Jonathan Blitzer, “Do I Have to Come Here Injured or Dead?” (The New Yorker, Sunday, January 28, 2024).

In an excerpt from his upcoming book, New Yorker staff writer Jonathan Blitzer tells the story of Keldy Mabel Gonzáles Brebe de Zúniga, a Honduran migrant mother whom Border Patrol separated from her sons in 2017, when the Trump administration was still just piloting its family separation policy. “The cruelty she suffered in the United States was matched only by what she was forced to flee in Honduras.”

Maria Jose Longo Bautista, Lo Que Dejo la Fiebre de la Amapola en San Marcos (Agencia Ocote (Guatemala), Monday, January 22, 2024).

In Guatemala’s southwestern department of San Marcos, “poppy crops left more Mexico border trade and better living conditions. But also violence, weapons, and displaced people.”

Jhoan Sebastian Cote, Caqueta en Epoca de Paz Total: Refugio de Disidentes y Ruta de Marihuana (El Espectador (Colombia), Monday, January 22, 2024).

A graphics-heavy survey of the drug trade, violence, and politics in Colombia’s south-central department of Caquetá, much of which is under the influence of a FARC dissident network currently negotiating with the Petro government.

New Report Calls for Major Investments and Reforms to Build a U.S. Border Control System That Can Address Present and Future Challenges (Migration Policy Institute, Thursday, January 11, 2024).

This Migration Policy Institute report is a goldmine of data and hard-to-find information about border infrastructure, processing capacity, and other needs at a time of record arrivals of protection-seeking migrants.

January Migration Lull Seems to be Ending

After dipping sharply after the holidays, the number of people arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border appears to be increasing again.

That, at least, is the trend that we can discern from the weekly updates that the Border Patrol chiefs in Tucson and San Diego, two of the busiest of the agency’s nine U.S.-Mexico border sectors, have been posting to their Twitter accounts.

Expelling Migrants From the Border Doesn’t Reduce Migration at the Border

(I wrote this on January 30.)

Data table

A Senate deal on Ukraine, Israel, and border funding might include new restrictions on the right to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, satisfying Republican legislators’ demand. Of what we know, the most radical of these would be a new legal authority shutting the border to asylum seekers when the daily average of migrant apprehensions exceeds 5,000.

That would trigger a new “Title 42” authority expelling people out of the United States (if Mexico agrees to take them), regardless of protection needs.

On January 27, President Biden described this as an “emergency authority to shut down the border until it can get back under control.” He added, “If that bill were the law today, I’d shut down the border right now and fix it quickly.

We keep hearing this notion that more expelled asylum seekers equals fewer migrants at the border. But that’s not what happened during the Title 42 period (March 2020 to May 2023).

True, there was a decline in arrivals of would-be asylum-seekers from nationalities whose expulsions Mexico would accept. But the number of people from other countries, and of all people seeking to evade Border Patrol, grew sharply.

Migration ballooned during the Title 42 “expulsions” period. Title 42 was in place:

  • In the last 9 full months of the Trump administration, when migrant encounters shot upward, from 17,106 in April 2020 (the pandemic lockdown’s first full month) to 73,994 in December 2020.
  • in early 2021, when south Texas Border Patrol processing facilities were overwhelmed with child and family arrivals;
  • in September 2021, when more than 10,000 Haitian asylum seekers came to Del Rio, Texas all at once;
  • in September-December 2022, when more than 200,000 people—more than half of them from Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela—crossed into Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector.

This was not a time when the border was “fixed.”

If the Senate deal results in a new expulsion authority, it might bring the numbers down at the border for a few months, as all “get-tough” strategies against migration tend to do. But as we saw in 2020-2023, migration will recover despite the expulsions, after a period of adjustment—perhaps by Election Day.

On PRX’s “The World”: Who’s in control of the US-Mexico border?

Click here for audio of a 5:40 segment on PRX’s The World program, recorded Friday. Host Carol Hills and I talk about the very troubling standoff in Texas between federal and state border forces. “You have this very strange tableau now,” I point out, “of armed National Guard—their patches say ‘U.S. Army’ on them—telling Border Patrol that they cannot enter an area that is actually within the U.S. border on U.S. territory.”

At VOA’s Foro Interamericano: El Salvador define su futuro político

Here (en español) is a panel discussion, recorded Friday, on Voice of America. I joined Salvadoran analyst Napoleón Campos to talk about the implications of authoritarian-trending leader Nayib Bukele’s likely blowout re-election victory in today’s election in El Salvador.

(Events that I know of, anyway. All times are U.S. Eastern.)

Monday, February 5, 2024

  • 9:30-11:00 at wilsoncenter.org: A Conversation with Mexican Presidential Candidate Xóchitl Gálvez (RSVP required).

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Friday, February 9, 2024

  • 12:00 at UCSD online: Will Immigration be Biden’s Poisoned Apple in 2024? (RSVP required).

(Unfortunately, if they didn't have to do with the Senate border deal or border-migration issues in general, many stories from the past week are still in my "unread tabs." Here are some that I've gotten to, though.)

Jose Luis Sanz, Roman Gressier, In Election by His Own Rules, Four-Fifths of Salvadorans Give Bukele a Second Term (El Faro (El Salvador), Monday, February 5, 2024).

Opposition parties have been reduced to a minimum, capping an unconstitutional process totally controlled by the ruling party

Dan Restrepo, Debu Gandhi, Patrick Gaspard, To Resolve the Humanitarian and Administrative Border Crisis, the U.S. Must Fix the Broken Asylum System, Help Stabilize the Western Hemisphere, and Provide Robust, Orderly Migration Pathways (Center for American Progress, Monday, February 5, 2024).

This commentary broadly supports the bill currently before the Senate, but voices misgivings about the asylum limitations. It calls for more investment and reform to the U.S. asylum system and for more assistance to “stabilize” and support migrant integration in the Americas.

Amanda Ulrich, The Fight to Save Lives in the Treacherous California Desert: ‘a Broken Ankle Is a Death Sentence' (The Guardian (Uk), Sunday, February 4, 2024).

Hundreds of migrants die during southern border crossings each year. Volunteers are hiking for miles to support them

Felipe Botero Escobar, Organized Crime Declares War the Road to Chaos in Ecuador (Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Friday, February 2, 2024).

The existence of at least three intertwined criminal markets, the presence of transnational organized crime groups as well as local criminal networks, and the country’s poor resilience capacity to respond to and mitigate the effects of organized crime are all pivotal

And Finally

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Jamie Larson