I’m glad I had a chance to return to El Paso and Ciudad Juárez this past week, five weeks after my last visit. With a small group of WOLA board members, fellow staff, and supporters, I talked to scholars, Border Patrol agents, advocates and activists, attorneys, shelter managers, and migrants.
The situation migrants are facing continues to be dire, especially on the Mexican side of the border. Nearly all asylum seekers—well over 10,000 remaining in Juárez, probably—are being forced to wait there for the U.S. immigration court system to get around to hearing their cases, at which point they get to come back for speedy hearings, nearly always without an attorney. Since November, a few hundred more have just been sent to Guatemala and told to ask for asylum there, under a new “third country agreement.”
While they wait in Juárez, dozens or hundreds have suffered assaults and kidnappings for ransom. Organized crime dominates much of Juárez and other Mexican border cities, exercising an East Germany-like control of people’s comings and goings in many neighborhoods, including those along the borderline.
And Juárez is less violent than some other Mexican cities where U.S. authorities are forcing asylum seekers to “remain in Mexico,” like Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros to the east. Those cities are some of the most dangerous in the world right now. The State Department assigns a “Level 3: Reconsider Travel” warning to the state of Chihuahua, where Ciudad Juárez is located. But Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros are in Tamaulipas, which is “Level 4: Do Not Travel”—the same status as Syria and Afghanistan.
But no matter: that’s where the Department of Homeland Security is currently sending thousands of families with children, homeless and lacking a support network, for many months at a time.
I have three main takeaways from this visit.
1- Perplexity that the plight of those forced to “Remain in Mexico” isn’t getting the same level of red-alert media coverage that family separation and “kids in cages” got in 2018. Is it because the suffering is hard to see, swept under the rug into Mexican border towns' marginal neighborhoods? Is it because the worst things aren’t happening on U.S. soil? Do we really need video or audio of sobbing children before people will act?
U.S. congressional committees, especially in the House, have been doing good work scrutinizing and criticizing the Trump administration’s offenses against protection-seeking migrants. But for a lot of last year, they seemed to be “fighting the last war.” As Stephen Miller and Trump’s DHS ramped up “Remain in Mexico,” pressed Mexico into deploying soldiers to stop migrants, and started sending migrants to Guatemala (and soon Honduras), committees’ hearings and statements still focused mainly on the offenses of 2018, like family separation. This is all important, but the Trump administration has “flooded the zone” so much that not enough scrutiny has been going to the newest horrors. I’m very glad, then, to see that the House Judiciary Committee just launched an investigation into “Remain in Mexico.” They’d better not allow themselves to be stonewalled.
2- Confusion that the Trump administration doesn't seem to be suffering consequences in Florida—a critical 2020 election state with an important bloc of Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American voters—for its awful treatment of both countries' asylum seekers at the border, especially Cubans.
There are a couple of thousand of Cuban migrants stranded in Ciudad Juárez, forced to "remain in Mexico" pending their asylum cases. More are in the super-dangerous border cities in Tamaulipas to the east. There, they are very vulnerable to kidnapping and extortion, because Mexican criminal groups believe that they have established, wealthier relatives in the United States who can afford to pay ransoms. A 57-year-old Cuban woman died in a Mexican government shelter in December, apparently for lack of medical attention. ICE meanwhile deported 1,179 Cuban migrants back to Cuba in 2019, up from 463 in 2018 and 160 in 2017. And Cubans have complained of mistreatment while in ICE custody. You'd think there would be great anger at the Trump administration from a key voting constituency in Florida, a state whose electoral votes will be won by a razor-thin margin. But I'm not seeing much.
3- Continuing alarm at the culture of Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol, two agencies that have thousands of good, upstanding officials but where abusive behavior too often goes unpunished. Too often, agents dehumanize the "illegals," "bodies," or "subjects" in their custody, besetting them with indignities, insults, and cruelties ranging from petty to severe. These agencies' deeply ingrained view of their mission is that asylum seekers are to be treated adversarially, and that to make them miserable is necessary to maintain a “deterrent.”
I'm not sure where it comes from—the training academy? the attitudes with which the recruitment base enters the force? how management rewards behavior?. But if a Latin American security force were to accrue a similar human rights record, we'd be recommending restrictions on U.S. aid to it. I expect to do more work on border agencies' culture this year, and get answers to some of these questions. (An initial step is just to label it when I see it: on my news database, you can click Tag→"Border Security" and then Tag→"Organizational Culture" to see what I'm finding.)
I’m back in Washington this week, and turning to a new project: a bottom-up renovation and re-launch of our colombiapeace.org website, which we’ll be turning into a new resource with a wealth of current information, mostly in English, about the effort to implement Colombia’s peace accord. I’ll be doing a bit of coding and web design over the next few weeks, which I enjoy. I hope to have it up by late March.
5 links from the past week
Because of my travels this week, I no doubt missed a lot of important analysis and coverage. But from what I managed to see, here are five recommended reads.
- Alberto Pradilla, a journalist for Mexico’s Animal Político who wrote a well-received book about migrant caravans last year, was on hand in Chiapas this week for the Mexican National Guard’s heavy-handed breakup of a new caravan attempted by thousands of fleeing Hondurans.
- A reporter for Colombia’s main newsmagazine who had uncovered scandals in the U.S.-backed military learned—luckily—that hitmen had been dispatched to murder him. This is part of a pattern of daily threats suffered by reporters who’ve dared to report on Colombia’s army, and by some of the military whistleblowers themselves. El Espectadorreports.
- Kendrick Foster, ”From Selfies to Progress in El Salvador”: in the Harvard Political Review, a nuanced look at El Salvador’s hard-to-pin-down, social media-obsessed young president, Nayib Bukele. Is he really going after corruption? Is he really approaching gangs in a new way?
- “The Guerrillas Are the Police” is the title of a new Human Rights Watch report on the disastrous security and human rights situation in Arauca, Colombia (where I was last October) and across the border in Apure, Venezuela.
- Russian disinformation campaigns and bots are not responsible for the surge of popular protests in Latin America recently, but Moscow has definitely worked to encourage them, according to State Department analyses obtained by the New York Times.