This is a long one, and I don't expect anyone to read this e-mail all the way through. A couple of things I was working on got published last week, and then the "weekly border update" is a monster because—though I tried to be brief and cut a lot—there's just way too much going on, what with the new adminstration chipping away at Trump's policies and all.
Here is the whole "firehose" from last week. An analysis of where the border wall stands, and how to take at least parts of it down. A breakdown of U.S. security aid to Mexico. A podcast about the border and Biden's policy changes. A weekly Colombia update looking at Venezuelan migrants, the ELN, and Buenaventura. A weekly border update looking at the "crisis" narrative, undoing "Remain in Mexico," and deportations to Haiti. 5 links to great reads elsewhere. A listing of online events this week. And, finally, some tweets that made me laugh last week.
(Maybe just skip down to the tweets.)
From ‘Pause’ to ‘Reverse’: What Lies Ahead for Stopping Trump’s Border Wall and Fixing the Damage
We’re 3 weeks into the Biden administration. What’s happening with Trump’s border wall? How much got built? How much did it cost? How much is left unspent? How can we go about taking this down, or at least taking the most harmful parts down?
Here’s a new analysis at wola.org that shares answers to all these questions, to the best of my current knowledge based on a lot of document-digging and coalition work. Not to mention the diligent editing, presentation improvements, and communications support from the great team at WOLA.
Here’s a brief excerpt of the boring, numbers-filled part, plus a great infographic that our communications team designed. But do read the whole thing at WOLA’s website.
What got built, and what funds remain
The Trump administration managed to build 455 miles of wall along the border before January 20, leaving 703 of the U.S.-Mexico border’s 1,970 miles fenced off in some way. From past U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) updateswe estimate that, of those 455 miles:
- 49 miles were built where no fencing existed before;
- 158 replaced existing, shorter pedestrian fencing;
- 193 replaced existing vehicle barrier; and
- 55 miles are new or replacement secondary fencing.
In all, then, the Trump administration built about 242 miles of fencing in places where it had previously been possible to walk across the border. The vast majority of the 455 miles are in Arizona and New Mexico.
The full amount of funding devoted to construction has totaled $16.45 billion between fiscal years 2017 and 2021. It was to build about 794 miles of wall. (That would be $20.7 million per mile.) Congress specifically approved only about one third of that amount ($5.8 billion). Trump wrested the remaining two-thirds from the budgets of the Defense and Treasury Departments.
Of that $16.45 billion, the amount that remains unspent—or that could be clawed back by canceling construction contracts—remains unclear. It’s one of the main things the new administration is trying to find out.
In-depth: Where the money for the wall came from
- $3.6 billion were taken in February 2019 from the Defense Department’s military construction funds. This was to build about 175 miles of border wall, of which about 87 had been completed as of January 8.
- In late 2018 and early 2019, Donald Trump allowed parts of the federal government to shut down for 35 days rather than sign a 2019 budget bill that didn’t meet his demand for $5.7 billion in border wall funding. Trump finally gave in, but shortly afterward—on February 15, 2019—he declared a “national emergency” that, he alleged, gave him the authority to transfer money from the Defense budget to build border barriers.
- The Pentagon saw $3.6 billion of its military construction plans cancelled or delayed as funds were transferred to the Homeland Security Department to build fencing.
- Though both houses of Congress twice voted to disapprove this “emergency,” they could not muster the two-thirds vote necessary to override Trump’s vetoes of their disapprovals.
- A challenge to this emergency continues to work its way through the courts, but the Supreme Court allowed building to continue while this happens.
- Because these funds were not appropriated by Congress, President Biden is not required to keep spending this money—and his January 20 proclamation, notified to Congress on February 10, rescinds Trump’s emergency declaration.
- $6.331 billion ($2.5 billion in 2019 and $3.831 billion in 2020) were transferred from elsewhere in the Defense Department budget into the Department’s counter-drug account. To do so, Trump used a recurring authority in the Defense Appropriations law (Section 8005), which allows the president to move up to $4 billion each year between Defense budget accounts to respond to “unforeseen” requirements. This maneuver was to provide funds to build about 291 miles of border wall, of which about 256 had been completed as of January 8.
- The Defense budget can be used to build walls, as long as the Department can claim there’s a counter-drug reason for doing so. Section 284(b)(7) of Title 10, U.S. Code, a piece of drug-war legislation that first passed a Democratic-majority Congress in 1990, allows the Defense Department to use its budget for “construction of roads and fences and installation of lighting to block drug smuggling corridors across international boundaries of the United States.”
- The Trump administration filled up the Defense counter-drug account with wall-building money by transferring it, in 2019 (here and here) and 2020, from many other defense priorities, ranging from equipment to aircraft procurement and much else.
- A challenge to this “unforeseen” transfer continues to work its way through the courts, but the Supreme Court allowed building to continue while this happens.
- Because these funds were not appropriated by Congress, President Biden is not required to keep spending this money.
- $601 million were taken in 2019 from the Treasury Department’s Asset Forfeiture Fund, the proceeds from assets seized from accused criminals or terrorists. It’s not clear how many miles of wall this has built or may build, as CBP’s reporting lumps this money together with congressionally appropriated money for 2019 discussed in the fourth category.
- Congress appropriated $5.841 billion in the Homeland Security components of the federal budgets for 2017 ($341 million) and 2018-2021 ($1.375 billion each). These appropriated funds, plus the Treasury funds in category three, were to pay for about 328 miles of wall (extrapolating from CBP’s most recent update and a January 20 Washington Post estimate), of which 110 miles have been built.
- Nearly all of what remains unbuilt from this category is in Texas, where most land abutting the border is privately owned.
- Because these funds were appropriated by Congress to build a “barrier system” at the border, the Biden administration needs to figure out how to avoid spending them on Trump’s border wall. These provisions, the Washington Post reported, “would potentially oblige the Biden administration to complete up to 227 additional miles of border wall.”
The four categories of border wall funding all add up to $16.373 billion (about $77 million short of the amount that a Senate staffer cited to the Associated Press on January 22). It would pay for 794 miles of wall, of which 455 were built.
Mexico: Moving On from Military Cooperation
Here’s a quick analysis of where things stand with U.S. aid to Mexico’s military and police, which I wrote with WOLA’s Mexico director, Stephanie Brewer. The Mexico Violence Resource Project, a new initiative affiliated with the University of California at San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, published it today as part of a really good collection of pieces about the future of U.S.-Mexican security cooperation. (Which is going through a rough patch right now.)
Here’s an excerpt, but I just include it here in order to drive traffic over there.
Today, WOLA estimates that U.S. assistance to Mexico’s security forces totals a bit more than $100 million, of an overall annual package of perhaps $210 million. Of that, two aid accounts matter most.
$100 million is a much smaller package than Colombia’s military and police will get in 2021 (about $250 million) and a fraction of what Mexico’s forces got in 2010, at the outset of the Mérida Initiative (about $500 million). And it’s not clear even how much of 2021’s $100 million might get delivered, considering all of the bumps in the relationship between the Biden and López Obrador administrations.
The question is whether they’ve been working together on the right things. A lesson of the Mérida Initiative years is that all four pillars are best fortified by civilian-to-civilian, not military-to-military, cooperation.
World Politics Review Podcast: Biden Confronts Trump’s Disastrous Legacy on Immigration
I joined World Politics Review’s Elliot Waldman on Monday (February 8) to talk about the Biden administration’s plans for undoing the damage that the Trump administration did to the border and to the U.S. asylum system. The challenges are complicated, the situation in Central America is dire, migration is increasing—but it is absolutely imperative that the promise of last week’s executive orders be fulfilled.
We talk about all of that here. Many thanks to Elliot and World Politics Review for having me on the show, and for turning it around so quickly—this is a fast-moving story right now.
Colombia peace update: February 13, 2021
Colombia offers documented status to Venezuelan migrants
In November 2020, the Interagency Platform for Mixed Migratory Flows (GIFMM) estimated that 1.71 million migrants from Venezuela were living in Colombia: 770,246 documented, and 947,106 with “irregular migration status.” They are part of a flow of 5.4 million Venezuelans who have fled the collapsing country since 2015.
In a surprise February 8 move, Colombian President Iván Duque decreed that all Venezuelans who arrived in the country before January 31 may receive a “Temporary Status for Venezuelan Migrants” (ETPV) allowing them to stay in the country for 10 years, to work legally, and to access health and education services, including COVID-19 vaccines. Implementation of the new status could take up to a year, Ligia Bolivar of Venezuela’s Universidad Católica Andrés Bello told The New Humanitarian, starting with the creation of a register of all undocumented Venezuelans.
Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, was in Bogotá for the announcement and called it “the most important humanitarian gesture” in the Americas since the 1980s. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken tweeted, “The US stands with Colombia in support of refugees and migrants as we also work to rebuild and expand our humanitarian programs worldwide.” (Angélika Rettberg of the Universidad de los Andes told the BBC she also saw “a kind of gesture towards the new U.S. government, because it shows that their [Colombia’s] policy towards Venezuela is not just ‘stick,’ but also humanitarian ‘carrot,’ something that may be more in line with Joe Biden’s administration.”)
President Duque highlighted that Colombia will need more international aid to assimilate a community equivalent to nearly 4 percent of Colombia’s population, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. For Duque, the announcement was a sharp reversal from his earlier position of refusing vaccinations to undocumented Venezuelans. While Colombia has not suffered major outbreaks of anti-Venezuelan violence, analysts worry about worsening xenophobia, especially among informal and low-wage workers who perceive themselves as competing for scarce jobs with the new arrivals. Such tensions, MercyCorps’ Colombia Director Hugh Aprile told the New Humanitarian, “have been on the rise.”
“As we take this historic and transcendental step for Latin America, we hope other countries will follow our example,” Duque said. Colombia’s move comes at a time when Peru and Ecuador have sent armored military vehicles to their common border to interdict migrants, and Chile has returned Venezuelans to their country on air force planes.
Cuba notifies Colombia of an imminent ELN attack
El Tiempo revealed a February 6 communication that the Cuban embassy in Colombia shared with the Colombian government, the chief of the UN Verification Mission, and two Catholic Church representatives. It reads: “Our embassy received information, whose veracity we cannot assess, about an alleged military attack by the Eastern War Front of the ELN in the coming days. We have shared this information with the ELN peace delegation in Havana, which expressed total ignorance and reiterated the guarantee that it has no involvement in the organization’s military decisions or operations.”
The “Eastern War Front” (FGO) is the ELN guerrilla group’s largest unit, based in the northeastern department of Arauca and over the border in Venezuela. Its commander, Carlos Emilio Marín alias “Pablito,” a 40-year member of the group, may be its most powerful member. The FGO carried out the January 2019 truck-bomb attack on Colombia’s police cadets’ school that killed 22 people and ended slow-moving peace negotiations in Havana. Several ELN negotiators have remained in Cuba since the talks’ breakdown; “experts assert that the alert to Colombia could be interpreted as Cuba distancing from its uncomfortable guests,” El Tiempo speculates.
High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos and Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz used the occasion to reiterate a demand that Cuba extradite the ELN leaders stranded in Cuba. The Havana peace talks’ protocols, signed by the Colombian government and international guarantors in 2017, made clear that if negotiations broke down, the ELN leaders would return to clandestinity in Colombia. The Duque government ignored these protocols, calling them a non-binding commitment made by the prior administration of President Juan Manuel Santos.
As a result, the ELN leaders remain in Cuba. Their continued presence was the principal reason the outgoing Trump administration cited for its January 11 re-addition of Cuba to the State Department’s list of terrorist-sponsoring states.
On February 7 El Tiempo revealed an internal, encrypted ELN communication, leaked from a government source, that appears to reveal internal division within the guerrilla group. Disagreements allegedly center on some units’ involvement in narcotrafficking and presence in Venezuela. The document also expresses frustration with ELN negotiators being “physically trapped” in Cuba.
High Commissioner Ceballos cited the document as proof that the ELN’s internal divisions make them impossible to negotiate with. From Havana, ELN leader Pablo Beltrán, who had headed the negotiating team stranded in Cuba, insistedthat the document was fake. Later in the week, the ELN leadership called the Cuban government’s warning about an imminent attack a “false positive,” saying that such an attack “is not part of the ELN’s military plans.”
In other leaked ELN document news, Semana revealed in late January a document retrieved from computers captured during an October military raid that killed Felipe Vanegas Londoño, alias “Uriel,” a vocal mid-level ELN leader, in Chocó. Using indirect language, the document appears to point to an $80,000 loan to the presidential campaign of Andrés Arauz, who led in February 7 voting in the first round of Ecuador’s presidential elections. (Arauz is the candidate aligned with Rafael Correa, the populist president who governed Ecuador between 2007 and 2017.) On February 12 Colombia’s prosecutor-general, Francisco Barbosa, traveled to Quito to furnish this evidence to Ecuadorian counterparts.
Buenaventura’s population protests against violence, government inaction
In Buenaventura, the port that accounts for 70 percent of Colombia’s import-export activity, a paramilitary-derived gang that briefly dominated criminality in the city, “La Local,” underwent a December schism into two factions, the “Chotas” and the “Espartanos.” Daily street fighting has ensued, leaving much of the city’s 400,000 people in the crossfire. Estimates of the toll so far in 2021 range from 20 to 52 killed, and 112 to 1,700 families displaced.
Youth groups led days of protest against the situation during the week of February 1. These continue, using the hashtag #SOSBuenaventura. When they manage to block port cargo transport for even a few hours, these protests get national attention.
The national government responded with a February 8 visit from Interior Minister Daniel Palacios. The minister promised increased rewards for information leading to the capture of gang leaders, the arrival of 120 more police, and “two detachments of Army Special Forces and a Navy reconnaissance platoon to assist with urban surveillance, adding up to more than 1,200 men from the security forces in Buenaventura.” The government also promised an increase in security cameras, a measure also being adopted in Buenaventura’s Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space, a district whose organized population bans weapons and seeks to exclude members of all armed groups.
These security measures are not what the #SOSBuenaventura movement is demanding. “There’s already a police presence here, for many people they do not represent security,” Leonard Rentería, a youth leader and vocal protest organizer, toldEl Espectador. “People continue to be afraid because they do not see the police providing guarantees to protect their lives.”
The bishop of Buenaventura, Msgr. Rubén Darío Jaramillo, went further:
The people feel that there’s no authority, that the authority is the bandits who are in the street with their guns dominating the territories. They are the authority here… The security forces are supposed to defend citizens in their honor, their property, and their lives. But many make the mistake of allying themselves with criminals. They buy them with money. The bandits know that by buying the police they win, and there is nothing the people can do about it.
Thousands of Buenaventurans, dressed in white, lined the narrow port city’s main thoroughfare on February 10, forming a 21-kilometer (13-mile) human chain. Prominent participants in the protest included Bishop Jaramillo and Mayor Víctor Hugo Vidal, who is starting his second year in office.
Vidal is Buenaventura’s first mayor who is not the product of a big political machine. He was a leader of the “Paro Cívico,” a social movement that shut down much of the city with three weeks of peaceful protests in mid-2017, demanding state investment in a city that, though the main port, is one of Colombia’s poorest. Paro Cívico members were threatened and killed in the ensuing years; given the forces arrayed against it, Vidal’s late-2019 election victory was remarkable.
As La Silla Vacía and Pares noted, though, the Paro Cívico has not been in the vanguard of the current anti-violence protests. While the movement has been supportive, it appears more focused on governing. Much of the new energy has come from youth leaders like Rentería, who described the Paro as “deactivated from the role it had assumed.”
- Next week, President Duque is likely to have his first phone conversation with President Joe Biden since the U.S. election, La Silla Vacía reports, noting that the three-month delay “has no precedent in the contemporary U.S.-Colombia relationship.”
- An annual report from Frontline Defenders, released February 9, found that 53 percent of murders of human rights defenders worldwide occurred in Colombia in 2020 (177 of 331). Human Rights Watch released a detailed reporton February 10 finding serious fault with the Colombian government’s efforts to protect human rights defenders and social leaders. On February 11 U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said, “We are concerned about ongoing violence against human rights defenders who play a vital role in building a just and lasting peace in Colombia. Reducing this violence and prosecuting these crimes is a top priority.”
- With the murders of Antonio Ricaurte in Puerto Asís, Putumayo, and Juan Carlos Correa in San Andrés de Cuerquia, Antioquia, 257 former FARC members have been killed since the 2016 peace accord went into effect. Eight so far this year.
- Rodrigo Londoño, the head of the former FARC political party Comunes, wrote a strikingly worded letter to former president Juan Manuel Santos, voicing alarm at ex-guerrillas’ security situation and asking for help getting a meeting with President Iván Duque. Santos responded that while he would try, Duque has not responded to his past overtures.
- In Londoño’s at times tearful testimony and exchanges with victims last week before the transitional justice tribunal (JEP), La Silla Vacía’s Juanita León and Juan Pablo Pérez optimistically see “an opportunity… to process the truths of the conflict with a grammar that recognizes the emotions that are surfacing in the spaces of transitional justice, and processes them through a restorative justice that allows the country to clarify facts of the past and build a common future.”
- “2020 deepened the deterioration of the media and the state of freedom of expression in the country,” reads the annual report of Colombia’s Free Press Foundation (FLIP). “Violence against the press occurs with the same systematicity and permissiveness as it did in past decades, during Colombia’s darkest years.”
- Colombia’s new defense minister, Diego Molano (profiled by Andrés Dávila at Razón Pública), told Reuters that U.S.-backed aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing areas, suspended since 2015, could restart “as early as next month.” The government, he says, will meet a series of safety, environmental, and consultation conditions set by the Constitutional Court “by the end of March.” Molano’s rapid fumigation timetable is not a sure thing, as legal challenges continue. Molano repeated the Duque government’s diagnosis that drug trafficking is “the biggest threat we have.” Cases of military corruption or human rights abuse, he told Semana, are “individual and isolated.”
- President Duque said that Colombia’s Army will soon inaugurate an elite counter-drug unit or “specialized command” meant to carry out a high-value targeting strategy against the heads of Colombia’s main drug trafficking organizations.
- WOLA laments the February 13 death, from COVID-19 complications, of our longtime colleague Luis Fernando Arias, head of Colombia’s National Organization of Indigenous Peoples (ONIC).
Weekly border update: February 12, 2021
A “crisis,” or a modest increase?
The Biden administration spent its third week chipping away at Trump-era border and migration restrictions. Media narratives suggested a new “wave” or “surge” of migrant arrivals at the border posed a “challenge” or “test for Biden.” Though it only covers the new administration’s first 12 days, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) release of January statistics does not align with that crisis narrative.
“President Biden’s more-welcoming message to immigrants is facing an immediate challenge along the Mexican border,” the Washington Post warned, “where Central American families and children have been crossing in numbers that point to a building crisis.” “The surge poses the first major test of Mr. Biden’s pledge to adopt a more compassionate policy along America’s border with Mexico” and “could create a strong public backlash,” added the New York Times. In the Associated Press’s view, “Warning signs are emerging of the border crises that marked former President Donald Trump’s term.”
The size and nature of this “challenge” is unclear. January numbers that CBP released late on February 10 showed the agency “encountering” 75,198 undocumented migrants crossing the border, and 3,125 more at ports of entry. That total of 78,323 (2,526 encounters per day) is up 6 percent from December (73,923), which was little changed since before the 2020 election—both October and November were over 70,000. But Deputy Border Patrol Chief Raúl Ortiz said that the agency has “averaged more than 3,000 daily apprehensions” so far in February, and a letter from 52 Republican House members—citing non-public data that CBP or Border Patrol personnel shared with them—cites “more than 3,500” per day, with the number of unaccompanied children “closing in on 300 per day.”
America’s Voice and other non-governmental migrants’ rights advocates have criticized the media’s rush to adopt the “surge” and “crisis” narrative. CBP’s numbers through January, at least, do not sustain that narrative. They tell us:
- The agency’s January “encounters” were 83 percent single adults, a much different population than the child and family “waves” of 2014, 2016, and 2019. Unless they are seeking asylum, the Biden administration has proposed no changes in policy toward single adult migrants at the border.
- 64,136 of encountered migrants—82 percent—were instantly expelled from the United States under the “Title 42” pandemic measures in place since March. CBP has expelled migrants 459,264 times since March, though this figure includes double-counting because expelled migrants often try to cross again.
- CBP provides some sense of the nationalities of the 75,198 migrants whom Border Patrol encountered between ports of entry. The results are surprising: most of the January increase was from countries other than Mexico and Central America. There were 4,151 more encounters in January than December. Only 1,542 of that increase was from Mexico or the “Northern Triangle” countries—that’s 2 percent more than December from those countries. Citizens of other countries (2,609) increased by 47 percent over December. We don’t know what countries are most represented, though Cuba, Haiti, and Venezuela are good guesses.
- While this isn’t from CBP numbers, it’s worth noting that Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, saw a 36 percent one-month increase in its own asylum applications from December to January.
Media coverage indicates that CBP is paroling more asylum-seeking migrant families into the United States, for lack of space in its facilities due to COVID-19 measures. The numbers are fuzzy, though.
The New York Times, citing “border activists,” reported that “at least 1,000 migrants have been allowed to cross into Texas in recent days,” and 200 in California during the first five days of February. Attorney Taylor Levy told Buzzfeed that mid- and south Texas, the busiest part of the border, was seeing “approximately 50 people per day being released.” The Dallas Morning News cited “about 50 persons daily” in Brownsville, south Texas. In McAllen, Sister Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities told Reuters “the Border Patrol has sent around 50 to 80 families to her shelter daily since Jan. 27, rising to 150 families on Wednesday [February 3].”
About 1,000 family members paroled into the United States in a week is not a “crisis” number. Since 2014, CBP has consistently taken in well over 2,000 family members and unaccompanied children—most of them asylum seekers—in an average week. Non-Mexican children have gone into Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) custody, and many, if not most, of the families have been paroled into the United States to await their hearings—at least, until the mid-2019 expansion of the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) or “Remain in Mexico” program.
As discussed above, the nationalities of those being encountered is unclear. Undocumented migrants from different countries face vastly different policies right now.
Mexico (52 percent of January Border Patrol encounters): under Title 42 pandemic measures, virtually all Mexican citizens are rapidly expelled back into Mexico without the opportunity to ask for protection in the United States.
El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (37 percent of January Border Patrol encounters):
- Mexico has agreed to take adults, and adults with children, expelled under Title 42 without a chance to ask for asylum.
- The Biden administration is taking in unaccompanied children, just as a November court order (reversed in late January) had compelled the Trump administration to do.
- Some of the “hundreds” of families paroled into the United States in late January and early February may have been Central American, because at some border crossings, Mexico appears to have made “adjustments” to its reception of families, perhaps due to new reforms to its laws on migration and refugees prohibiting detention of all migrant children. But Mexican officials insist that Mexico still accepts Central Americans expelled under Title 42 “on the same terms.”
Other countries (11 percent of January Border Patrol encounters):
- Other Spanish-speaking countries and Brazil:
- Many adults, or adults with children, are turned over to ICE for Title 42 expulsion via flights to their home countries.
- Flights are limited, so adults are often put in ICE detention, while some adults with children, and all unaccompanied children, are paroled into the United States to begin their asylum processes.
- The Trump administration had been sending nearly all asylum-seekers from these countries—most oftenCuba, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Nicaragua—to await their U.S. hearings in Mexican territory, under “Remain in Mexico.” The Biden administration suspended that on January 20.
- Other non-Spanish-speaking countries:
- Unaccompanied children are admitted into ORR custody.
- ICE seeks to expel adults and families back to their home countries, by air, under Title 42. Expulsions of migrants from Haiti have accelerated during the Biden administration’s first weeks, as discussed below.
- If asylum seekers are from countries to which it is difficult to fly people back, ICE detains most adults, and paroles most families into the U.S. interior.
For all of these cases, the only changes from the Trump era so far have been Biden’s suspension of “Remain in Mexico” enrollments for those who can’t be expelled under Title 42, plus whatever “adjustments” Mexico made that resulted in its refusal to admit some Central American families expelled from the United States. If CBP has begun releasing hundreds of migrant families into U.S. border towns, they are either the small number of Central Americans whom Mexico is not accepting, or the increased number of non-Mexican, non-Central American arrivals.
News of even these few releases has caused consternation among asylum attorneys with clients who have spent a year or more in “Remain in Mexico,” only to see a few hundred families who just showed up given the chance to await their hearings on U.S. soil. There is also strong reason for concern that migrant smugglers will use these reports to entice would-be asylum seekers into paying them to cross from Mexican border towns into the United States.
Title 42, “Remain in Mexico,” and other restrictions on the ability to seek asylum at the border are keeping numbers down for now—but they violate U.S. refugee law and are causing suffering among migrant populations expelled to, or waiting in, Mexico and elsewhere. “As the administration reviews these policies, each day counts,” urges a February 9 letter from 94 organizations (including WOLA).
Though the Biden administration plans to undo the restrictive Trump-era policies, it is concerned about contending with a large increase in asylum-seeking migrants during a pandemic, before it has in place the necessary infrastructure and staffing for processing arrivals and placing them in alternatives to detention. “Now is not the time to come,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on February 10. “The vast majority of people will be turned away. Asylum processes at the border will not occur immediately; it will take time to implement.”
A big part of the needed infrastructure is physical facilities at which to process migrants: for background checks, asylum paperwork, health checks, referrals to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and other procedures that should take less than 72 hours while migrants remain in CBP custody. Ports of entry are small, though, so other facilities are needed. The largest—the McAllen, Texas Central Processing Center known for its chain-link cages and austere conditions—is undergoing renovation. In its place, CBP is opening up a 160,000 square foot “soft sided” (tent-based) processing facility in Donna, Texas, near McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley region.
There is a lot going on here. WOLA’s Adam Isacson unpacks much of it in a podcast interview at World Politics Review.
Biden administration to wind down “Remain in Mexico”
As of January, Syracuse University’s TRAC Immigration database reports, the Trump administration had subjected 71,036 migrants to the “Remain in Mexico” program, requiring them to await their U.S. hearing dates inside Mexican territory. Of those, 29,148 still have asylum cases pending in the U.S. immigration system. (A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statement says “approximately 25,000.”) Many have been waiting—often in shelters, crowded substandard housing, or even tent camps in Mexican border towns—since mid-2019. At least 1,314 are known to have suffered attacks.
While the Biden administration suspended new enrollments into “Remain in Mexico,” it had said little more than “please be patient” to the population already forced to wait for their U.S. court dates in Mexican border cities. However, on February 11 the administration began to reveal the outlines of its plan to dismantle the program and bring those with pending cases into the United States.
As of this writing (early February 12), most of what we know is in a report published on the afternoon of February 11 by BuzzFeed’s Hamed Aleaziz, who had access to an administration document laying out the plan. That article is short and quite readable, but here are key points:
- The wind-down will be rolled out within the next two weeks. (DHS’s announcement says “phase one” will begin February 19.)
- It will start slowly at three ports of entry: probably Matamoros-Brownsville, Ciudad Juárez-El Paso, and Tijuana-San Diego.
- Those “remaining in Mexico” with pending cases will be able to register with an online portal, then receive instructions and a date to appear at a staging area inside Mexico. UNCHR will be involved at this stage. Once at the border, they will get COVID-19 tests, and medical screening. Those who test positive will have to stay in Mexico until they’re negative.
- CBP will take in a certain number of people each day. “Officials believe they can process up to 300 people a day within the first few weeks at two of the ports of entry for the initial phase.”
- Those subject to MPP the longest will get first priority, though there will be exceptions for the most vulnerable.
- Those subject to MPP who have already been refused asylum, or who had their proceedings terminated, are not eligible during this phase.
- Once processed, MPP subjects will be able to await their U.S. hearing dates in the United States, without being detained, “unless they have a serious criminal record.” They will be released to shelters and made part of an ICE “alternative to detention” check-in program in which “they could also be forced to wear ankle bracelets,” BuzzFeed reports.
This information applies only to unwinding “Remain in Mexico” A February 2 White House executive order also declares a general intention to start unwinding the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy, but no information is yet available about that.
Deportations to Haiti continue amid severe political unrest
A big jump in deportations of Haitian citizens is causing an outcry, as the Black-majority Caribbean nation is in a severe political crisis, with months of violent protests causing a breakdown of security and many basic services. “A plane arrived from the United States on Monday. But instead of help or hope, it carried several dozen Haitians, including a 2-month-old and 21 other children, deported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE],” reads a strong February 10 New York Times editorial.
Haitian officials have been told to expect 14 ICE deportation flights during the first half of February, some as frequent as twice per day, a far faster than normal pace, the Miami Herald reports. Most deportees are being expelled under Title 42. Tom Cartwright at Witness at the Border, who closely tracks ICE deportation flights, noted at least one flight to Port-au-Prince every day this week.
On January 20 President Biden had ordered a 100-day moratorium on most deportations, but a federal judge in Texas blocked it shortly afterward. ICE continued deportations, but on February 5 it appeared that activists, and some members of Congress, had compelled ICE to suspend flights to Haiti. They had not. “I don’t know what’s going on between ICE and the Biden administration, but we know what needs to be done: the deportations must stop,” Guerline Jozef, executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, told the Guardian. “It’s as if there is a house burning, and instead of taking people out for their own safety the United States is sending defenseless babies into the burning house.”
“We are gravely concerned that ICE is disparately targeting Black asylum seekers and immigrants for detention, torture, and deportation,” added a February 8 letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas from 12 members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Removals of Haitians aren’t just happening via air. The Miami Herald reported on a strange recent expulsion of “over 100 Haitian asylum seekers… carrying little more than the clothes on their backs” over the land border into Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. “Nobody was at the bridge to receive them,” Tania Guerrero of CLINIC told the Herald. “They were just dropped there.” Title 42 expulsions often happen via this sort of contactless borderline dropoff, but Mexico has agreed to receive only expelled Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans. “A large number of people were taken to the middle of the bridge by CBP and were told to walk south. That’s it. There was zero interaction from any state or federal Mexican authorities,” attorney Taylor Levy described the process to BuzzFeed.
- WOLA published an in-depth commentary laying out what is happening with Donald Trump’s border wall: how much got built, how much it cost, and what will be involved in stopping construction and taking at least the most harmful parts down. On February 10 President Biden notified Congress that he had terminated the “national emergency” Trump declared in order to wrest wall-building funds from the Defense budget without congressional consent.
- New details emerged about past U.S. training of 3 of the 12 members of a Mexican state police unit arrested for the January 22 massacre of 19 people, including at least 14 Guatemalan migrants, near the U.S. border in Tamaulipas. Mexico’s El Economista learned from the U.S. embassy that the three had received State Department-funded “basic skills and/or first line supervisor training” in 2016 and 2017, after being vetted for past human rights allegations. “So fearsome is the unit’s reputation that the U.S. government, which trained a few of its individual members, has sought to distance itself from” the Tamaulipas State Police Special Operations Group (GOPES), the AP reports.
- As indicated in a February 2 White House executive order, the State Department has suspended and terminated so-called “Asylum Cooperative” or “safe third country” agreements that the Trump administration signed with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. These allowed the United States to send apprehended migrants from other countries to apply for asylum in the Central American nations’ barely existent asylum systems. The agreement with Guatemala was the only one that was being implemented before the pandemic; it was paused in mid-March 2020.
- While hailing the termination of the Safe Third Country Agreements, a UNHCR release “welcomed” Guatemala’s establishment of a new asylum unit. “In 2020, a total of 487 people applied for refugee status in the country, an 85 percent increase from 2018.”
- “DHS has only provided definitive responses to 14 of 73 complaints” formally filed in cases of CBP or Border Patrol abuse of migrants, “revealing an overall structural deficiency in the investigative process,” reads a letter to DHS Secretary Ali Mayorkas from the Nogales-based Kino Border Initiative.
- “A culture of racism within the Border Patrol has persisted throughout its history,” reads a new report from the American Immigration Council.
- NBC News reports that the White House is poised to name Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights and justice programs at the Women’s Refugee Commission, to head the task force charged with reuniting more than 600 migrant families who remain separated by the Trump-era “zero tolerance” policy.
- Border Patrol is taking down the six Army surplus “tethered aerostats”—sensor- and camera-equipped blimps on cables—that it has maintained in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region for about seven years. According to Rep. Henry Cuéllar (D-Texas), the move is a “self-imposed rule by Border Patrol” because the agency has been paying $5 million per balloon per year to a private contractor, Peraton, whose personnel merely “check the weather and physically raise and lower the blimps to various altitudes,” according to Border Report.
- Mark Morgan, a career FBI agent whom Barack Obama named Border Patrol chief and who then headed CBP during the Trump administration, is joining the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a hardline immigration restrictionist organization.
5 links from the past week
- Human Rights Watch worked for many months on this report about killings of social leaders in Colombia. It’s especially strong in its dissection of the Colombian government’s ineffective response, and the ways in which the justice system fails to hold killers accountable.
- The American Immigration Council put out a report on “the Legacy of Racism within the U.S. Border Patrol” that filled a lot of information gaps for me about the agency’s deeply troubled organizational culture, especially about the patterns that developed in its early years.
- I’m intrigued by Latin America’s “Texases”—frontier places that are recently settled by outsiders, taken over by agribusiness or extractives, deeply religious and conservative, and booming and populating until the short-term bonanza—and the environment—are exhausted. Bryan Harris visits a classic example, Brazil’s Mato Grosso, for the Financial Times.
- This report, coordinated by Ernesto López Portillo at the Universidad Iberoamericana’s Citizen Security Program, is a data-rich, current, and easy-to-follow guide to the dangerous recent militarization of policing and public security in AMLO’s Mexico.
- The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff spent some time with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, whom U.S. prosecutors believe has been involved in drug trafficking, and looks at how the authoritarian-leaning leader is trying to maintain U.S. favor as Trump gives way to Biden.
Latin America-related online events this week
Monday, February 15
- 8:00–10:00pm at CISPES: Growth of Militarism and Neoliberalism in Central America (RSVP required).
Tuesday, February 16
- 12:30–1:30 at gwu.edu: Lessons Learned from Past International Projects with the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (RSVP required).
- 3:00 at insightcrime.org: A Deep Dive Into Honduras’ Criminal Dynamics and Its Borders (RSVP required).
Wednesday, February 17
- 9:00–10:00 at csis.org: An Armchair Conversation with Mauricio Claver-Carone, President of the Inter-American Development Bank (RSVP required).
- 9:30–11:00 at wilsoncenter.org: U.S. Counter-Drug Policy in the Western Hemisphere: Is it Working? (RSVP required).
- 10:00–11:30 at thedialogue.org: Biden’s Central America Plan – Perspectives from the Region (RSVP required).
- 12:00–1:30 at cina.gmu.edu: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Economy, Security and Transnational Organized Crime in the Americas (RSVP required).
- 12:00–2:00 at Facebook Live: Militarización, Militarismo, y Sistema Político en México
Thursday, February 18
- 10:00–11:30 at thedialogue.org: Results-Based Budgeting for Early Childhood Development – The Case of Peru (RSVP required).
- 10:00–11:30 at brookings.edu: Nonstate armed actors and the US Global Fragility Strategy: Challenges and opportunities (RSVP required).
- 4:00–5:00 at wilsoncenter.org: A Conversation with President Francisco Sagasti of Peru (RSVP required).
- 7:00–9:00pm at periodistasdeapie.org.mx: Periodismo y Acceso a la Información (RSVP required).