Updates from Adam Isacson (November 13, 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.

When I sent last week's message, I'd been less than two days back from a two-week trip to Colombia. Last week was more "normal," back in Washington. I spent two days of it in all-day planning sessions with WOLA, starting to get ready for next year. It was a great opportunity to spend time with 27 colleagues all in one place, and to reflect a bit on what is going on.

It meant, though, that I've made only a bit of progress so far on reporting back from my time in Colombia. That's my main goal this week, along with work to keep any congressional budget deal from harming migrants' right to seek protection (see below).

This week's e-mail has links to the border update; some charts with new migration data; links to a few recommended articles; and some upcoming events.

Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: November 10, 2023

Read the whole update at WOLA's website.


The U.S. Congress is considering the 2024 federal budget and a supplemental budget request for Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, and the U.S.-Mexico border. In exchange for approval—especially for the supplemental request—Republican legislators are demanding changes to border and migration policy, including a series of measures that would severely curtail the right to seek asylum in the United States. Democrats are opposed, but signal that they are willing to discuss some concessions on asylum, possibly including a higher standard that asylum seekers must meet in initial “credible fear” interviews.

The International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch issued in-depth research reports about migration in the treacherous Darién Gap jungle region straddling Colombia and Panama, through which about half a million people have migrated so far this year. Both find stark gaps in government presence and a powerful role for organized crime, along with frequent and severe abuses of migrants passing through the zone. Recommendations recognize the complexity of the situation, and focus largely on efforts in source and transit countries to address the causes of migration, improved integration of migrants especially from Venezuela and Haiti, and better cooperation and coordination between states.

Brief updates look at Costa Rica’s and Panama’s policy of busing northbound migrants through their territory; at Nicaragua’s increasing use as an initial arrival point for migrants from Cuba, Haiti, and elsewhere; and at the situation of thousands of migrants stranded in Chiapas and Oaxaca in southern Mexico.

Continue here to read the whole thing.

Images from Necoclí, Colombia

Check out these photos from our late-October visit to northwestern Colombia, at the threshold of the Darién Gap migration route.

Our photographer Sergio Ortiz Borbolla did a masterful job here. The kid in the dinosaur costume just guts me.

View the photos here.

On the Table Now: a Fatal Blow to the Right to Seek Protection in the United States

As noted in this week's Border Update, a Senate Republican “working group” has outlined a border and migration proposal as a likely condition of keeping the U.S. government open past the next “shutdown” date (November 17).

I’m still struggling to express graphically how severe this proposal’s consequences would be for tens of thousands of people facing real danger. Here is another attempt.

Infographic: Imagine that Senate Republicans' November 2023 border and migration proposal became law. Now imagine that you have fled to the U.S. border to seek asylum.

A series of arrows pointing downward, getting ever narrower as they reach the bottom.

Did you seek asylum, and get turned down, in every single country you passed through, no matter how impoverished, dangerous, and unable to protect you those countries are?

Did CBP officers doing “metering” at the borderline permit you to approach an official land border crossing (port of entry) to ask for asylum?

Was DHS somehow unable to ship you off to a (likely impoverished or dangerous) third country to go seek asylum there?

In your rapid screening interview, did you meet a new, very high “credible fear” standard?

Was DHS somehow unable to make you “Remain in Mexico”while you await your immigration court hearings?

Was ICE somehow unable to hold you (and your kids) in detention?

Did you make it this far? Almost certainly not. But if you did, then the United States might consider protecting you from likely harm, without jailing you in a detention center. This is a remarkably cruel proposal, undoing generations of basic protections. It must not become law.

View the actual proposal at https://bit.ly/2311_senate_gop

Annual Border Patrol Migrant Encounters by Country at the U.S.-Mexico Border

I don't think I've seen a chart that shows this before. I made it, and the underlying data table, by combining CBP’s migrant encounter data from 2020-2023 with data scraped from this big ugly CBP PDF covering 2007-2020.

Annual Border Patrol Migrant Encounters by Country at the U.S.-Mexico Border

2023: Mexico 31%, Guatemala 11.2%, Venezuela 10.6%, Mexico 20%, Honduras 10%, Colombia 8%, Cuba 6.1%, Ecuador 6.0%, All Others <6%

Since 2007: Mexico 51%, Guatemala 13%, Honduras 11%, El Salvador 6%, Venezuela 4%, Cuba 3.2%, All Others <3%

	Mexico	Guatemala	Honduras	El Salvador	Venezuela	Cuba	Nicaragua	Colombia	Ecuador	Other Countries
2007	800634	16307	21703	13602	60	131	1484	302	769	3647
2008	653035	15143	18110	12133	48	132	1327	215	1384	3478
2009	495582	14125	13344	11181	32	105	841	233	1169	4253
2010	396819	16831	12231	13123	35	84	760	307	1571	5970
2011	280580	17582	11270	10368	28	66	520	217	1064	5882
2012	262341	34453	30349	21903	28	40	876	185	2226	4472
2013	265409	54143	46448	36957	34	73	1389	365	3958	5621
2014	226771	80473	90968	66419	15	98	1809	233	4748	7837
2015	186017	56691	33445	43392	23	106	1015	282	2556	7806
2016	190760	74601	52952	71848	40	78	1298	302	2713	14278
2017	127938	65871	47260	49760	73	147	1057	196	1429	10185
2018	152257	115722	76513	31369	62	74	3282	192	1495	15613
2019	166458	264168	253795	89811	2202	11645	13309	401	13131	36588
2020	253118	47243	40091	16484	1227	9822	2123	295	11861	18387
2021	608037	279033	308931	95930	47752	38139	49841	5838	95692	114247
2022	738780	228220	199186	93196	187286	220321	163552	124540	23944	177672
2023	579146	213266	180659	53348	200668	116498	97757	154077	113813	188135

Data table

Looking at this, three things jump out at you:

  1. Until about 10 years ago, the migrant population at the U.S.-Mexico border was almost completely Mexican citizens (blue). More than 90 percent Mexican until 2009. More than 80 percent Mexican until 2012. Just 31 percent Mexican in 2023.
  2. Until the pandemic hit, the migrant population was almost completely Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, or Honduran (blue, darker green, brown, yellow). More than 90 percent came from those four countries until 2019; their share dropped to 89 percent in 2020. But just 54 percent came from those four countries in 2023.
  3. Since the pandemic, the diversity of nationalities apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border has multiplied. The arrival of more migrants from Cuba, Haiti, and South America reflects increasing insecurity and economic desperation, but also the emergence of new routes further south, like the “opening” of the Darién Gap and aerial arrivals in Nicaragua.

Video: "Migrant Justice in Times of Militarized Borders"

This was a great panel on November 7, with speakers in four countries (the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia). We talked about challenges for dignified migration at a time of hardening borders and more military and police involvement in migration control throughout the region.

Many thanks to Hispanics in Philanthropy and Open Society Foundations for organizing it and inviting me to participate.

One Out of Four Is a Lot

This can’t be the point Sen. Graham wanted to make, but:

Immigration judges, after rigorous procedures, are finding that 1 out of 4 people coming to the U.S.-Mexico border would be likely to die or be imprisoned if deported.

That’s a high likelihood of sending people back to severe harm if we deny them due process. It’s a strong argument for giving asylum seekers in the United States a fair hearing and to invest heavily in our asylum system.

Hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee, November 8, 2023

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina): You're the head of DHS and you can't tell me how many asylum claims are approved versus denied.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas: Generally, generally speaking across the board on a macro basis, it's approximately 75% [denied asylum].

Graham: Okay.

Haiti Led Nationalities of Migrants Transiting Honduras in October

Honduras’s “Irregular” Migrant Encounters (Since August 2022)

October 2023: Haiti 35%, Venezuela 34%, Cuba 17%, Ecuador 4%, Guinea 2.3%, Colombia 2.0%, All Others <2%

Since August 2022: Venezuela 41%, Cuba 17%, Haiti 15%, Ecuador 11%, Colombia 2.1%, All Others <2% 

	Venezuela	Cuba	Haiti	Ecuador	Colombia	China	Senegal	Guinea	Mauritania	Other Countries
22-Aug	10769	6899	836	1583	314	42	118	19	18	2278
22-Sep	11325	5144	863	1685	379	45	135	23	14	2220
22-Oct	14027	5290	1856	5793	723	99	185	30	18	3037
22-Nov	3756	9219	2858	5130	400	186	158	34	38	3857
22-Dec	1923	7225	2518	6557	231	405	87	22	63	4034
23-Jan	1866	2079	5365	4562	296	415	202	72	31	4054
23-Feb	4462	629	4092	5010	449	688	159	97	71	4449
23-Mar	9112	776	2991	2493	624	719	191	90	88	4576
23-Apr	10883	1301	2392	1692	682	985	472	87	87	4350
23-May	11809	2397	1629	2147	654	801	831	277	427	4398
23-Jun	12698	3254	1305	2817	488	1045	390	118	1801	2870
23-Jul	25050	6721	1558	6116	954	980	1398	389	2036	3769
23-Aug	35669	11343	4051	5789	1330	654	1629	1005	1036	3020
23-Sep	42550	19288	14898	4830	2174	570	1066	1762	48	3453
23-Oct	34547	17513	35529	3581	2021	1006	1235	2304	75	4198

Data table

We’ve grown accustomed to Venezuela (blue in this chart) being the number-one nationality of migrants transiting Central America and Mexico to come to the United States. Venezuela has been the number-one country of citizenship of people transiting Honduras during every month since March, and U.S. authorities encountered more migrants from Venezuela than from any other country—including Mexico—at the U.S.-Mexico border in September.

Data from Honduras in October, however, show at least a temporary pause in that trend. Last month, Honduras registered more migrants from Haiti transiting its territory (brown in this chart) than from Venezuela. (A new “Mixed Movements Protection Monitoring” report from UNCHR also notes this trend.)

It was a record month for Honduras’s registries of in-transit migrants from around the world: 102,009 people with “irregular” migratory status registered with the government, a necessary step for a short-term legal status making it possible to board buses to get across the country. Of that number, 35,529 were Haitian and 34,547 were Venezuelan. (271 were recorded as Brazilian and 489 as Chilean; many—probably most—of them were children born to Haitian citizen parents who had been living in those countries.)

Transit of Venezuelan migrants through Honduras fell 19 percent from September to October, from 42,550 to 34,547 people.

A possible reason could be a reaction to the Biden administration’s early October agreement with Venezuela to resume deportation flights to Caracas, news of which may have led some would-be migrants to pause their plans. Aerial deportations are expensive, however, and a charter flight to Venezuela only holds about 100-150 people. It is reasonable to expect Venezuelan migration to recover, as conditions in the country remain dire and as Venezuelans considering migration realize that the probability of aerial deportation is slim.

The sharp increase in Haitian migration appears to owe to a new air route from Haiti to Nicaragua, which does not require that visiting citizens of Haiti obtain a visa in advance (though it charges them a steep fee upon arrival). For more on that, see this good November 6 analysis from the Honduras-based journalism website ContraCorriente.

Migrants from far and wide are trekking northward through the Darién Gap, a dense jungle where they face dangers including criminal predation. Steps to improve law enforcement, ease crises in countries of origin and provide more humanitarian aid would push policy in the right direction
Restrictions on movement imposed by governments in the Americas have pushed migrants and asylum seekers to risk their lives crossing the Darién Gap, a swampy jungle at the Colombia-Panama border
Part of "NarcoFiles," a highly recommended series that OCCRP published all at once last week. Drug traffickers are redrawing the map of the cocaine trade for the 21st century: Cultivation is spreading further north, into Central America, while processing labs are jumping across the Atlantic to Europe and beyond
Migrant deaths are on the rise. One group is working to identify and repatriate the remains of migrants too often carelessly buried in the borderlands
Field report from El Plateado, Argelia, Cauca, Colombia, a strategic drug trafficking route where the military's post-election presence—its first time in the community in 15 years—led the largest FARC dissident group to suspend talks with the Petro government

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

Monday, November 13

  • 10:00-11:30 at the Wilson Center and online: US–EU Cooperation: Strengthening Democracy in Latin America (RSVP required).

Tuesday, November 14

Wednesday, November 15

  • 8:00-10:00 at atlanticcouncil.org: The Caribbean gender empowerment forum (RSVP required).
  • 9:00-12:00 at homeland.house.gov: Hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee on Worldwide Threats to the Homeland.
  • 11:00-12:30 at Georgetown University: CLAS Ambassador Series: A Conversation with H.E. Catalina Crespo Sancho of Costa Rica (RSVP required).
  • 2:00-3:00 at wilsoncenter.org: Examining the Impact of Elections in Argentina with Former President Macri (RSVP required).
  • 6:00-8:00 at WOLA and at wola.org: Racism in the Americas: A Path Forward (RSVP required).

I Was Looking Through Old Colombia Photos

Campaign posters on a Bogotá wall reading

Gustavo Petro
Daniel Garcia-Pena

Carlos Gaviria Senado
Lucho Garzon Presidente

This is from 2002, in Bogotá. The posters look like they were printed by Gutenberg.

And Finally

Subscribe to Adam Isacson

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson