It's Holy Week, the week before Easter—which if you're a Latin Americanist based in Washington, usually means the pace slows down. Congress is out of session, and much of the region is on holiday, or at least less "open" than usual.
You won't hear me complain: as the long updates below indicate, there's been so much going on, it's hard to keep track. I'm sure you feel the same, and I hope some of the information below helps you make sense of what's happening at the border and in Colombia.
Have a good week, enjoy the emerging spring weather in this hemisphere, and have a good holiday if you celebrate.
Colombia peace update: March 27, 2021
During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
Combat between Venezuelan forces and FARC dissidents
On March 22, residents of Arauquita, across the Arauca river from Venezuela, “woke up (hearing) explosions, machine guns, gunshots, with a very complex situation” on the other side of the border, the northeast Colombian municipality’s mayor told the Associated Press. In La Victoria, in Venezuela’s state of Apure, armed forces were carrying out an intense ground and air offensive against Colombian guerrilla dissidents, firing from helicopters and dropping bombs from aircraft.
Combat began on the 21st, according to a statement from the Venezuelan armed forces. That day, two Venezuelan officers taking part in border-wide military maneuvers called “Bolivarian Shield”—a major and a first lieutenant—were killed, apparently by landmines, a rarity in Venezuela. The statement claimed that government forces captured 32 people and destroyed 6 encampments while seizing drugs and war materiel, and killing a FARC dissident leader known as “Nando.” An opposition legislator, Karim Vera, said that about 20 Venezuelan troops were wounded.
Details are sketchy, in part due to power outages in La Victoria, but fighting continues. FARC dissidents attacked a Venezuelan military post on the night of March 23.
Civilians are being hit hard. As of March 25, 3,961 residents of La Victoria had fled across the border into Arauquita. “People we have spoken with are terrified and fear for their lives,” Dominika Arseniuk, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Country Director in Colombia, told the Associated Press.
Those who fled the Venezuelan side say that government forces—including the feared police Special Actions Force (FAES), rarely active outside cities—have been raiding homes, looting possessions, and beating people. FAES may have massacred a family in El Ripial, just east of La Victoria, and may have dressed the bodies in uniforms. Anderson Rodríguez, president of the Asociación Campesina de Arauca, told the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación that other families are presumed disappeared and some bombings were indiscriminate.
Three different Colombian armed groups, all of them nominally guerrillas or guerrilla-descended—are active on both sides of this part of the Colombia-Venezuela border. To varying degrees, they profit from extortion, taxing cross-border contraband, skimming from local treasuries, illicit mining of precious metals including the mineral coltan, and trafficking cocaine—though the ELN has prohibited most coca or cocaine production in Arauca, Colombia. Armed groups have also stepped up recruitment of Venezuelan migrants on the Colombian side of the border, especially of minors.
The presence of armed groups in this lightly governed zone goes back to well before Hugo Chávez’s 1998 election; as has happened in all countries bordering Colombia, Venezuelan forces tended to leave Colombian armed groups alone as long as they avoided violence (what Caracas Chronicles calls “a sort of laissez-passer secret policy”). The armed group presence has increased in recent years, though.
The three groups active now are:
- The National Liberation Army (ELN), whose powerful Frente de Guerra Oriental (FGO) is the region’s largest and longest established. It has been operating in Arauca since the 1980s and expanded in Apure, Venezuela for more than 10 years “with the permission of the Chavista regime,” according to Jeremy McDermott of InsightCrime. The FGO’s leader, alias “Pablito,” is a member of the ELN’s five-member Central Command and spends much of his time inside Venezuela. The ELN does not appear to be a party to the past week’s violence.
- The Venezuelan forces’ target this week, the 10th Front, a structure led by members of the disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who rejected the peace accord in 2016 and refused to demobilize. There are two main networks of FARC dissident bands active in Colombia right now, and the 10th Front appears to be affiliated with the largest: the “1st Front” group led by Miguel Botache alias “Gentil Duarte,” a former mid-level FARC commander most active in south-central Colombia. (InsightCrime’s McDermott sayshe has doubts about this affiliation.) The 10th may have as many as 800 fighters active in Arauca and Apure. Alias “Nando,” the leader whom Venezuelan forces claim to have killed on March 22, may have been the brother of the 10th Front’s finance chief. The 10th Front and Venezuelan forces have confronted each other in the past, but never on anything near the scale of last week.
- Members of the Segunda Marquetalia, the other main FARC dissident network. This band was founded by FARC leaders who demobilized in 2017 then rearmed in 2019, led by Iván Márquez, who was the FARC’s lead negotiator during the 2012-16 peace talks in Havana, Cuba. The group, named for the site where the FARC began following a 1964 military attack, is smaller than Gentil Duarte’s organization, but may enjoy closer political relations with the government in Caracas. (Iván Márquez appeared with Hugo Chávez on the presidential palace steps in 2007, during a brief moment when Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, authorized Chávez to help broker a prisoner-for-hostage exchange.) McDermott says Márquez “has had ties to the highest levels in Venezuela, including the presidency, and many of those ties are still in place.”
These three groups together may have 2,000 or more members inside Venezuelan territory—only some of them in Apure—but have avoided fighting each other. “They are not together but they are not fighting either, it is like a toxic relationship,” Kyle Johnson of Conflict Responses told a forum last week, “but we must remember that the ELN is very present in that area. The ELN believes it owns Apure and makes people think that those who operate there do so because they allow it. I am not entirely convinced of conflicts between these groups as such.” Conflict analyst Naryi Vargas told La Silla Vacía, “In Apure there is a relationship of coordination, and in some cases collaboration, between the Segunda Marquetalia and the 10th Front. There is no rivalry.” The two dissidences “appear to have a live-and-let-live relationship on the border,” tweeted analyst Bram Ebus, who has written a few much-cited studies of this region.
The Colombian government frequently accuses Venezuela of allowing ELN and FARC dissident fighters to operate safely on its soil. “The dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro has done tremendous damage to the implementation of the [peace] agreements by sheltering criminals such as [Nueva Marquetalia leaders] Iván Márquez, Jesús Santrich, alias El Paisa, and alias Romaña,” Colombia’s high commissioner for peace, Miguel Ceballos, told Reuters on March 23.
Several sources cited by Caracas Chronicles hypothesize that Nicolás Maduro’s regime, in seeking to mediate, regulate, or “triangulate” among the Colombian groups active in the region, has decided that the 10th Front is out of line and must be reined in. “One unconfirmed interpretation of the flare up,” Ebus tweeted, “is a business dispute that escalated quickly when it hit political sensitivities. F10 [10th Front] has irritated Venezuelan military authorities before for failing to pay a cut. Their visible presence in Apure may have been a bridge too far.”
A frequent hypothesis advanced in media coverage contends that Venezuela’s government is favoring the Segunda Marquetalia. “The Venezuelan National Guard has generals in its service who protect the Second Marquetalia,” said former Colombian chief organized crime prosecutor Claudia Carrasquilla. “There is a sector of the National Armed Forces kneeling at the orders of Jesús Santrich and Iván Márquez,” said Venezuelan opposition legislator Gaby Arellano. “Some weeks ago we reported in our PRR [Political Risk Report] that, according to our sources, Iván Márquez was being moved to a more secure location, far from the border, to protect him from eventual operations by Colombian forces,” noted Caracas Chronicles. “The Venezuelan military operations have not touched the operations of the Segunda Marquetalia, which are especially robust in the state of Apure,” McDermott told La Silla Vacía, adding, “The offensive responds to growing reports in Venezuela that the 10th Front had dominance in the area. And it could open a space for Márquez’s dissidents to expand later.”
Cited in Venezuela’s Tal Cual, McDermott also found it notable that Venezuela deployed the brutal police FAES unit to Apure. “Apparently Maduro does not trust the military in the Apure area, the military does not have the capacity to confront the Colombian dissidents, or the military on the border is very corrupt and its capacity has been eroded.”
A statement from a 10th Front leader known as “Arturo” insists that “we weren’t the ones who initiated this confrontation,” vows to keep fighting Venezuelan forces, but also offers to withdraw units if the Venezuelan government sends a “top-level commission to clarify truths.”
Serious incidents like this raise concerns about an outcome that, one hopes, all would wish to avoid: a hot inter-state conflict between Colombia’s and Venezuela’s government forces. The Colombian government announced that it is reinforcing military presence along the Arauca border by about 2,000 troops, and Colombian media report that, though there is no official information, “there is speculation that the Maduro government is enlisting 2,000 men of the Armed Forces to be sent to the border with Arauca.” In Caracas Chronicles’ estimation, “We have no reasons to fear for a war between Colombia and Venezuela, but we can’t forget that Venezuela is protecting public enemies of Colombia (the FARC dissidents), and that this is always a source of risks.”
Ebus sounded concerned, too, on Twitter: “Herein lies the danger: now that the confrontation has escalated, there’s no turning back. The dispute between Chavistas and the guerrillas is out in the open and it will be hard for either side to back down. In a moment like this, the grave risks of the lack of communication between Caracas and Bogotá are painfully evident. Political leaders have limited recourse to calm tensions, leaving the cauldron of border tensions to play out for itself.”
Jineth Bedoya case: government admits partial responsibility
The lead story in last week’s update covered the case in the Inter-American Human Rights Court of Jineth Bedoya, a journalist abducted, raped, and tortured by paramilitares while doing her job in 2000. Bedoya, whose long quest for justice is the first Colombian case of sexual violence ever heard by the Inter-American Court, saw her virtual hearing interrupted and postponed on March 15, when government lawyers accused the Court’s judges of bias and abruptly exited the proceedings.
The hearing resumed on March 22 and 23, after the Court rejected the government’s objections. A few hours in, the government’s lead attorney, Camilo Gómez, read a statement partially recognizing the Colombian state’s responsibility:
On behalf of the Colombian State, I recognize international responsibility for the failures of the judicial system, which did not carry out a criminal investigation worthy of the victim, by collecting twelve statements, and ask Jineth Bedoya for forgiveness for these facts and for the damage they caused her. The State recognizes that these actions violated her rights to personal integrity and judicial guarantees, in relation to the obligation to guarantee the rights enshrined in the American Convention on Human Rights.
This apology covers the Colombian judicial and prosecutorial system’s failures since the 2000 crime, in a case that has only seen the convictions of three low-level paramilitaries, and then not until 2016 and 2019. “Of the nearly 20 people involved in the process, only three have been prosecuted,” Bedoya told the Court. “Three convictions against material perpetrators, partial justice. Masterminds, none.”
The apology does not cover the Colombian executive branch’s failure to protect Bedoya even after she reported earlier threats and attacks, and in the face of evidence that a corrupt National Police General ordered her abduction. Gómez, the government’s lawyer, said that his team will respond to those charges in writing.
The government told the Court’s judges that in 1999, after Bedoya and her mother were attacked, the Presidency’s intelligence service (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, DAS) studied her risk and offered her a bodyguard. Bedoya, they said, “did not make the necessary arrangements to obtain the accompaniment.”
Bedoya explained she could not do her job as an investigative journalist under such conditions, noting that agents of the DAS—which has since been disbanded after a series of scandals—were working with paramilitaries at the time. “Over time, it was demonstrated that this entity carried out illegal espionage, stigmatization, intimidation, leaking of sensitive information to paramilitary groups, and acts of intimidation,” Jonathan Bock of Colombia’s Press Freedom Foundation said at a subsequent press conference. “Therefore, the lack of protection for the journalist generates state responsibility for failure to comply with the duty of prevention.”
The Colombian government attorneys’ theory that it is not responsible for Bedoya’s lack of protection and prevention “is especially chilling,” said her lawyer, Viviana Krsticevic of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), “because it advances a theory according to which Jineth is to blame for what happened to her. The State uses part of the factual information in a rigged way and omits saying important things.”
Jineth Bedoya called the government’s partial recognition of responsibility “one more slap in the face. To only recognize that on 12 occasions they made me testify about my rape, that there was no investigation into the threats, and that they do not admit the reparations that I have sought—it is like the cases that I denounce every day, where a husband beats a wife and the next day says ‘forgive me, I love you but I was in a bad mood’. That is what the State has done with me before the Court.”
The journalist, who is now the deputy editor of El Tiempo, Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, said that she continues to receive frequent death threats. She requested protection for her mother, who also receives constant threats and has no bodyguard. If it treats a person like her, a well-known journalist who has access to the media, in such an undignified manner, she concluded, “imagine how the state treats an anonymous victim, who does not have that possibility.”
- A car bomb detonated outside the mayor’s office in Corinto, in conflictive northern Cauca department, on March 26. Seventeen people were wounded, including eleven municipal employees.
- Polarizing politics, approaching elections, a slow vaccine rollout, a regressive tax reform, street protests, worsening insecurity, Álvaro Uribe’s judicial case, and the Truth Commission’s upcoming report combine to make Colombia a “powderkeg,” writes Javier Lafuente at Spain’s El País.
- A New York Times cover story dives deeply into the March 2 bombing of a FARC dissident site in Calamar, Guaviare that killed two minors whom the group had recruited. A new detail: one of the victims, 16-year-old Danna Liseth Montilla, had worked last year with Voces del Guayabero, a local media collective that published much-circulated reports and videos documenting violent government tactics during mid-2020 coca eradication operations. Last week soldiers found another 16-year-old girl who had fled the bombing and spent the next three weeks alone, lost in the jungle. The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) issued new charges of child recruitment, and arrest warrants, against FARC dissident leader “Gentil Duarte”—whose group had recruited the children killed on March 2—and key subordinates.
- 75 people who led coca substitution programs in the framework of the peace accords have been killed, according to a report from Somos Defensores, Minga, and Viso Mutop.
- “In Colombia we continue to speak of the existence of at least five non-international armed conflicts, whose actors continue to affect the dignity and lives of the civilian population,” reads the annual Colombia report of the International Committee of the Red Cross, released last week.
- An analysis in La Silla Vacía finds that the commission that the peace accord set up to manage protection of FARC ex-combatants is moribund, with the government ignoring suggestions and treating it as a forum to present already-crafted policies. Meanwhile, the number of FARC ex-combatants who have been killed since the accords went into effect stands at 261. Protection was among the principal concerns voiced in a letter that the leader of the former FARC party (Comunes), Rodrigo Londoño, sent to the U.S. Congress on March 23.
- So far this year, as of March 7, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) reported that 3,119 people have been displaced by violence in Colombia. “1,311 families have fled their lands to safeguard their lives and physical integrity.”
- The case of Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old protester killed by a policeman’s “nonlethal” weapon in downtown Bogotá in November 2019, remains before the military justice system. An amicus brief that Human Rights Watch and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Center submitted to Colombia’s Constitutional Court argues that the military system “fails to guarantee independent and impartial investigations into human rights abuses and should not handle Dilan Cruz’s case.”
- A new U.S. Army Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) will deploy to Colombia, as well as to Honduras and Panama, later this year. This unit’s first deployment in mid-2020, which involved dozens of trainers providing instruction to Colombian military personnel in a few conflictive parts of the country, generated controversy in media and among opposition legislators.
- Retired Army Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, who was imprisoned for working with paramilitary groups that carried out massacres in northwestern Colombia during the 1990s, appeared before the JEP and, to the disappointment of victims, denied any links with paramilitary groups. Del Río is free from prison for the moment pending his case before the JEP.
- The Washington Post published a poignant profile of Gonzalo Cardona, an environmental defender who dedicated his life to saving the endangered yellow-eared parrot in often-conflictive southern Tolima department. Cardona, 55, was shot to death in January.
Weekly border update: March 26, 2021
With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. Since what’s happening at the border is one of the principal events in this week’s U.S. news, this update is a “double issue,” longer than normal. See past weekly updates here.
Migration numbers, and projections
Total apprehensions and encounters
Migrants are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border at a pace rivaling the large numbers encountered in 2019, when Border Patrol apprehended more undocumented people than it had since 2007. Unlike those years, though, about half of all apprehended migrants are being expelled, usually without ever seeing the inside of a Border Patrol facility (most are rapidly turned back into Mexico even if they are Central American). These expulsions are taking place under a public health authority known as “Title 42.”
The Trump administration began implementing Title 42 expulsions in March 2020, and the Biden administration has continued them for all migrant populations except children who arrive unaccompanied by a parent or guardian.
Based on very partial data, mainly provided by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to journalists or on Twitter, we roughly estimate that Border Patrol may encounter 150,000 people in March 2021. (The Wall Street Journal, citing “internal Homeland Security documents,” reported that “border agents had recently averaged about 5,000 arrests a day”—which would be 150,000 over a month.)
150,000 would be the largest monthly total since 2006—except about half of those migrants will have been expelled. The number of migrants who actually have to be processed under normal U.S. immigration law would be perhaps half that: 75,000, a number that was exceeded during March, April, May, and June of 2019.
At the end of the day on March 24, CBP reported:
- 5,156 unaccompanied children were in CBP’s jail-like holding facilities, where they normally should only be for a maximum of 72 hours before being handed off to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which maintains a network of licensed shelters. The previous high, set in June 2019, was only 2,600 children.
- 11,900 children were in custody of ORR, whose existing shelters can hold 13,200 children.
- Add those two numbers, and that’s 17,056 unaccompanied migrant children in U.S. government custody as of March 24.
- On March 24 alone, CBP apprehended 681 unaccompanied children.
- CBP was able to transfer 437 children into ORR custody that day—so CBP’s net population in custody grew by 244.
- ORR moved 268 children out oif its shelters that day, placing them with relatives or sponsors. The agency seeks to avoid having children in its custody for long-term stays: the goal is to place them with relatives in the United States (in over 80 percent of cases; in 40 percent of cases with parents residing in the United States, and otherwise with a sponsor).
According to the Washington Post, “Border officials are on pace to take in more than 17,000 minors this month, which would be an all-time high,” exceeding the record of 11,475 set in May 2019. Here is how that total would appear on a chart of unaccompanied child encounters since the COVID-19 pandemic began:
As the numbers above indicate, ORR has been unable to find space to take children into its shelter system as quickly as CBP is apprehending new children. That may change soon with emergency measures discussed below. For now, though, it is causing alarming backlogs in CBP’s inadequate facilities, mainly Border Patrol stations and processing centers. More than 822 children had been in Border Patrol custody for over 10 days as of March 22.
A temporary soft-sided (tent-based) facility set up to process apprehended migrants in Donna, Texas—a substitute for a more permanent processing facility in McAllen that is under renovation—had 3,889 children housed in its tents on March 20. It was designed to accommodate 250 migrants.
The Biden administration has sought to expel asylum-seeking families under Title 42, continuing a Trump-era arrangement with Mexico allowing it to expel families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras back across the border into Mexican border towns. The data indicates, though, that apprehensions of mostly Central American families are rising sharply—probably more sharply than unaccompanied children—and that even if Mexico takes back more expelled families than it did in February, a large majority will not be expelled.
Instead, as in past years, families are being released from CBP custody into U.S. border towns with notices to appear in immigration court to pursue asylum claims. Most U.S. border towns have nonprofit “respite centers,” most of them now receiving federal funds, that receive families and help them with travel arrangements to destinations elsewhere in the United States.
CBP data reported by Axios point to 13,000 family members encountered at the border between March 14 and 21. Of these, 13 percent were returned to Mexico, far less than the 64 percent in January and 42 percent in February. On March 19, according to NBC News, Border Patrol apprehended 1,807 family members and expelled 179, or just under 10 percent.
The decreased percentage of expelled families is in part due to at least one Mexican state (Tamaulipas) refusing to accept families with children under age seven, perhaps because of a recent law prohibiting detention of migrant children. The main reason, though, may be capacity. As this rough projection shows, Mexico may in fact take back more expelled Central American families in March than in any prior month. But Mexico may have hit a ceiling of the number of family members it can absorb.
With increased family and child migration, there is an increase in the number of large groups of migrants arriving on the U.S. side of the border, mostly in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region, and awaiting Border Patrol apprehension. These voluntary mass apprehensions usually happen near the Rio Grande riverbank, south of any existing border fence. As of March 18, Border Patrol reported encountering 32 groups of 100 or more migrants since October, up from 10 such groups in all of fiscal 2020. As of March 22, 25 of those group apprehensions had taken place in the Rio Grande Valley, one of nine sectors into which CBP divides the border.
As of late March, it’s safe to say that family members have eclipsed unaccompanied children as the fastest-growing category of migrant now being encountered at the border. “I would’ve said two weeks ago that this was nothing like 2019,” the Migration Policy Institute’s Andrew Selee told CNN. “The fact now that a high percentage of families are being admitted means that it’s likely we’ll see an exponential increase of families getting across.”
Single adults are probably still the majority of encountered migrants, and more than 90 percent of them continue to be expelled quickly under Title 42. With almost no hope of seeking asylum, single adults have little incentive to turn themselves in to border authorities; most seek to avoid them.
An unusually large number may be having success in doing that. “During the past seven days, border officials estimated that about 6,500 people evaded detection,” the Wall Street Journal reported on March 24, citing “a person familiar with the government’s internal estimates.”
Of those who are caught and expelled under Title 42, many try to cross again. “The percentage of migrants caught at the border who had already been caught once grew to nearly 40% during the past six months, compared with 7% in 2019,” according to the Journal. “That’s the wonderful thing now. You have the opportunity to bat again and again. That’s better for us,” a Honduran migrant said. Because of this recidivism, “too often it’s groundhog day,” an unnamed federal law enforcement agent in El Paso told the Dallas Morning News. “We encounter the same person again, and again and again. The harder we make it, the more profitable it becomes.”
“Remain in Mexico” returns continue
Every day, the U.S. government continues to admit about 200 non-Mexican asylum-seeking migrants whom the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program had relegated to Mexican border towns. As of March 18, the UNHCR representative in Mexico tweeted that 2,660 people subject to the program had been brought across the border to pursue their asylum claims in the United States. In a March 23 meeting, administration officials cited a figure of 3,200. The total population of Remain in Mexico subjects eligible for admission in the United States is estimated at over 25,000; as of March 20, 16,776 had registered to do so.
Admissions had been happening at three ports of entry along the border. Two more Texas ports of entry got added this week: McAllen and Laredo.
Title 42 isn’t going anywhere
Though children and most family members are now avoiding expulsion under Title 42, the Biden administration has been forcefully conveying the message that it intends to keep the Trump-era border restriction in place, offering no sense of a timetable for when it might be lifted. Officials also indicate that they are encouraging Mexico to accept more expelled families.
“The border is closed. We are expelling families, we are expelling single adults and we have made a decision that we will not expel young, vulnerable children,” Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told Meet the Press, in one of five March 22 Sunday-morning news show appearances.
A March 19 Los Angeles Times analysis by Molly O’Toole offers a thorough explanation of the Title 42 expulsions policy, its impact, and its legality. It explains that when encountering migrants, Border Patrol agents may not ask them whether they fear return to their country. If migrants spontaneously claim fear, they are still expelled unless they can meet threat criteria under the Convention Against Torture, which are more stringent than asylum. In Title 42’s first year, fewer than 1 percent of encountered migrants have been able to seek protection.
After the Trump administration implemented Title 42 last March, O’Toole notes, “lawmakers—including then-Sen. Kamala Harris—called it an unconstitutional ‘executive power grab’ that had ‘no known precedent or clear legal rationale.’”
“The Biden administration’s use of Title 42 is flatly illegal,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt, which sued the Trump and Biden administrations to stop the expulsions, told O’Toole. “There is zero daylight between the Biden administration and Trump administration’s position.”
On March 25, in his first formal press conference, President Biden offered a full-throated defense of Title 42, and urged its fuller application to families.
If you take a look at the number of people who are coming, the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of people coming to the border and crossing are being sent back—are being sent back. Thousands—tens of thousands of people who are—who are over 18 years of age and single—people, one at a time coming, have been sent back, sent home.
…What about dealing with families? Why are not—some not going back? Because Mexico is refusing to take them back. They’re saying they won’t take them back—not all of them.
Biden’s remarks were clearly triggering to the ACLU, which had agreed to hold its lawsuit against Title 42 expulsions until the end of the month while the administration developed plans to stop applying it to families. “We put our Title 42 case for families on temporary hold in exchange for good faith promise to negotiate,” Gelernt tweeted. “But POTUS JUST said his hope is that U.S. wants to expel ALL families if Mexico will allow them. Then litigation may be only choice.”
The expulsions don’t just affect Mexicans and Central Americans. The Invisible Wall, a March 24 report by the Haitian Bridge Alliance, Quixote Center, and UndocuBlack Network, documents a sharp rise in Title 42 expulsions of Haitian migrants back to their politically convulsed country, via numerous ICE flights to Port-au-Prince. “More Haitians have been removed to Haiti in the weeks since President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took office than during all of fiscal year 2020,” the report reads. It notes that more Haitians have been arriving at the border, misled by misinformation that the Biden administration had lifted hardline Trump-era policies like Title 42 expulsions. Writing in The Nation, Jack Herrera discusses the disproportionate challenges faced by Black migrants and those advocating for them.
“What gave Donald Trump his wall was Title 42,” Ruben García, director of El Paso’s Annunciation House respite center, told The Guardian. “That has been incredibly more effective than any physical barrier. This was never about the pandemic to begin with. This was precisely about border enforcement.”
Facilities for unaccompanied children coming online
The thousands of unaccompanied children stuck in CBP and Border Patrol custody are largely invisible, but accounts of conditions in facilities like the Donna, Texas processing center have filtered out via members of Congress. A few senators who accompanied DHS Secretary Mayorkas on a March 19 visit described miserable conditions at the Donna facility.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) tweeted of seeing “100s of kids packed into big open rooms. In a corner, I fought back tears as a 13 yr old girl sobbbed [sic.] uncontrollably explaining thru a translator how terrified she was, having been separated from her grandmother and without her parents.” CNN reported that “children are alternating schedules to make space for one another in confined facilities, some kids haven’t seen sunlight in days, and others are taking turns showering, often going days without one,” CNN reported.
At his press conference, President Biden recognized the problem, and promised that 1,000 kids would be moved out of the facilities and into ORR custody within the next week.
A big part of the strategy for doing so involves opening up emergency housing facilities, in some cases with assistance from DHS’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Defense. They include the following (with a hat tip to an informative tweet thread from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas):
- 952 beds at the Carrizo Springs Influx Care Facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, opened February 22.
- 700 beds at a facility in Midland, Texas, opened in mid-March with significant American Red Cross involvement. On March 19 the Associated Press reported that this facility had paused new intakes as it “has faced multiple issues,” including a 10 percent COVID-19 positivity rate among the children.
- 2,300 beds at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, Texas, opened March 19.
- 500 beds, expandable to 2,000, at Target Lodge Pecos North, in Pecos, Texas, announced on March 20.
- 500 beds at a second Carrizo Springs facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, announced on March 23.
- 1,400 beds at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, California, announced on March 24. Closed by COVID-19 until events are to resume in August, the Center was being used to shelter homeless people. It will be available for children for 90 days.
- 2,400 beds at the Freeman Expo Center in San Antonio, Texas, announced on March 25.
- 5,000 beds at Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Texas, announced March 25.
- 350 beds at Joint Base San Antonio Lackland, in San Antonio, Texas, announced March 25. A Pentagon spokesman, saying “we have just received this request” from ORR, said he had no details about Fort Bliss and Joint Base San Antonio.
It appears that plans have been abandoned to use Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, California and Fort Lee in Virginia. This would not be the first time military bases have been used to accommodate unaccompanied children. In 2014, the Obama administration sheltered up to 7,500 kids for about four months at Joint Base San Antonio; Naval Base Ventura County, California; and Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
All together, these facilities could shelter about 15,600 children which, added to ORR’s existing capacity of 13,200, would allow short-term care for 28,800 kids. These 15,600 beds, however, would be in emergency, often barracks-like conditions, instead of the more than 170 state-licensed childcare facilities that ORR normally runs.
ORR is also endeavoring to empty out its shelters as quickly as possible by placing children with relatives or sponsors in the United States. For so-called “category 1” children—those who have parents or legal guardians here—ORR is streamlining its background checks and approvals process, even paying the travel costs that relatives must incur in order to retrieve the children.
These measures could soon bring the child migrant situation more or less under control, at least bringing an end to the conditions revealed in a series of photos that Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) shared with Axios on March 23, depicting crowds of children in the Donna facility, lying on mats closely placed on a tent floor, under mylar blankets.
Rep. Cuellar said he shared the photos, which he had been given, because the Biden administration had been refusing media access to Donna. Both CBP and HHS have been refusing requests to visit their facilities, “due to agency COVID protocols and in order to protect the health and safety of our workforce and those in our care.”
Like Cuellar, other centrist Democratic legislators from border states have been urging the Biden administration to move faster. “The policy does need to change,” Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) told the Wall Street Journal. “I’m concerned they don’t totally have this figured out.” Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Arizona) “pressed the president in a closed-door meeting earlier this week for a timeline for additional resources, facilities and coronavirus testing protocols,” the Journal added. Arizona’s other Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona), produced a joint statement with Texas Republican John Cornyn (R-Texas) calling on the federal government to “rise to this challenge” without being “consumed by partisan battles on this critical topic.”
Accommodations for a rising number of families
As noted above, asylum-seeking families are now arriving in numbers that appear to exceed Mexico’s ability to receive expulsions, and many are now being released into the U.S. interior. This week NBC News and the Los Angeles Timesreported that in some cases, the families are being released without an immigration court date specified on their paperwork. They were asked to provide contact information, then given documents with the court date “to be determined” with instructions to expect to be contacted within 30 days. Asylum attorneys cited say that migrants find this very confusing. A CBP document told Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol agents that they could release migrants without court dates when facilities reach 100 percent capacity, among other criteria—a standard that has long since been surpassed.
Most releases of asylum seeking families happen in border cities that have respite centers run by non-profit organizations, where migrants can often stay for a day or two and receive food and medical attention while making travel arrangements to their U.S. destination cities. One of the best known respite centers, the Catholic Charities facility run by Sister Norma Pimentel in McAllen, Texas, received 150 to 200 family members each day during the week of March 15, the Associated Press reported, while the Los Angeles Times learned that 350 family members were released into the surrounding Rio Grande Valley region in one day, March 22. The respite center run by Jewish Family Service in San Diego, California, is also busy. It sheltered 490 asylum seekers in February, while as of March 19 it had attended to a total of 1,510 for the month, with Hondurans, Brazilians, and Cubans the largest groups. As of March 21, it was lodging some of the family migrants in four hotels.
In Arizona, Border Patrol has begun releasing families into desert towns with few resources to attend to families, like Yuma, Ajo, and Gila Bend, forcing service providers to scramble.
Before releasing families, CBP is also facing challenges in processing them: collecting identifying information, performing background checks, starting asylum paperwork, and other duties. The agency is opening tent-based processing centers in Tucson and Yuma. ICE has signed an $86.9 million contract with the Texas nonprofit Endeavors to add 1,239 beds in seven Arizona and Texas hotels, where families can stay while completing paperwork. Families may be free to leave the hotels within six hours if paperwork is completed, they have transportation, and test negative for COVID-19.
The lack of processing capacity is leading to miserable conditions in the Rio Grande Valley, where up to 600 families have been spending up to a few days under the Anzalduas International Bridge in Mission, Texas, sleeping on the dirt “without much food or access to medical care,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “We asked them why we were there for so long,” a Honduran mother of a five-year-old told the Times. “All they told us was, ‘That’s your problem.’”
Messaging and smugglers
Biden administration officials are aiming to be “more aggressive” in communicating that the border is “closed” and migrants shouldn’t come. “The message isn’t, ‘Don’t come now,’ it’s, ‘Don’t come in this way, ever,’” Amb. Roberta Jacobson, the National Security Council’s (NSC) coordinator for the southern border, told Reuters. “The way to come to the United States is through legal pathways.” The U.S. government has contracted radio ads across Latin America, in Spanish, Portuguese, and six Indigenous languages, warning people not to come.
Still, the administration has come under fire for perceptions that officials sent mixed messages by allegedly indicating that they would be more welcoming than Donald Trump. “You’ve got to be unambiguous,” Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) told the Wall Street Journal. “’Don’t come now, come later?’ What kind of message is that?”
It’s not clear, though, that what officials say matters. In Tijuana, a small plaza outside the main port of entry to San Diego has filled up with 200 tents, housing perhaps 1,500 migrants, none of whom have a chance of being admitted to the United States as long as Title 42 remains in place. “Badly misinformed, the migrants harbor false hope that President Joe Biden will open entry to the United States briefly and without notice,” the Associated Press reported. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) told the Washington Post of an interaction with Central American teenagers at the Carrizo Springs ORR facility. “They said, ‘We see this on TV. We see images of people coming across. … We see people coming across, so we’re going to do the same thing.’”
Migrant smugglers, in particular, offer counter-messaging, on social media and through community ties, that almost certainly overwhelms whatever warnings a U.S. official might issue from a lectern. A migrant told the Dallas Morning News of being enticed by $10,000 to $15,000 smuggling package, with $6,000 up front, that “would include a paid Uber ride from a nice hotel to the border wall where he’d use a $6 rebar ladder to climb over part of a $15 billion structure.”
Smugglers know that the Biden administration is not expelling unaccompanied children, and some told Reuters that they’re encouraging parents to send their children alone. “It’s good to take advantage of the moment, because children are able to pass quickly,” Daniel, a Guatemalan smuggler, told the wire service. “That’s what we’re telling everyone.” A Mexican smuggler added that “the cartel that controls the territory along the border in his region mandates that he and other smugglers use the migrant children as a decoy for the cartel’s own drug smuggling operations.”
Kamala Harris to lead a foreign policy push
On March 24 the White House announced that Vice President Kamala Harris will lead U.S. efforts with Mexico and Central American governments to address migration. Her mandate will focus on diplomatic efforts both to “stem the flow” of migrants and to collaborate on efforts to ease the “root causes” underlying migration from the region. The vice president’s involvement “could help shift part of the conversation away from the media-centric idea that the sum total of this ‘crisis’ is what’s happening at the border, and focus it on the deeper causes of these migrations,” observedWashington Post blogger Greg Sargent.
The diplomatic push is already underway. On March 22 Amb. Jacobson traveled to Mexico, accompanied by NSC Western Hemisphere Director Juan González and the newly named State Department special envoy for Central America’s Northern Triangle, Ricardo Zúñiga. González and Zúñiga were to travel to Guatemala on the 23rd, but ash from the Pacaya volcano closed Guatemala City’s airport, so meetings were virtual.
In meetings with Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard and other officials, the U.S. delegation focused on how to cooperate “to manage migration” and make it “orderly and safe.” While we cannot confirm this, messaging probably included suggesting that Mexico interdict more northbound migrants and—as President Biden mentioned in his press conference remarks—accept more expelled families at the border.
Mexico cracks down
Mexico has clearly gotten the message, following up a March 18 agreement to do more to control migration with a deployment of immigration and security personnel to its southern border with Guatemala. On March 19, immigration agents and National Guardsmen in riot gear paraded through the capital of border state Chiapas. The next day, agents and a few guardsmen appeared at several sites along the Suchiate River bordering Guatemala, checking the credentials of all who cross irregularly—as both migrants and people conducting local business have done in this area for decades.
Mexico also declared its southern border closed to all inessential travel, which it had not done when the pandemic broke out a year ago. Counter-migrant operations in the border zone, officials announced, would include “the installation of sanitary and inspection filters [checkpoints] to verify the documentation and migratory status of individuals and families seeking to enter the national territory, through the use of technological equipment such as drones and night vision mechanisms for surveillance.”
Mexican Defense Secretary Luis Crescencio Sandoval announced on March 22 that 8,715 army troops and national guardsmen (many of them army personnel on temporary duty) were deployed to the country’s northern and southern border. The Washington Post questioned whether this number was enough: “barely more than the average of 8,058 troops posted at the borders during 2020” and less than the 15,000 troops sent to Mexico’s borders in mid-2019 when Donald Trump threatened the country with tariffs if it failed to crack down on migration.
Groups like WOLA and Mexico’s governmental human rights ombudsman warned that a militarized Mexican crackdown on migrants could have grave human rights consequences, as such operations have in the past. The announcement from Mexico’s migration authority, WOLA noted,
contains no reference to the possibility that any families might need asylum. Additionally, Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, is thus far glaringly absent from the list of institutions playing a role in the border operation. The institutions that are most visible instead include Mexico’s armed forces—whose core mission is to defend against enemies, not to carry out migration tasks—and the National Guard, which is composed mainly of military troops and has already been implicated in human rights abuses against migrants.
Central America aid
González and Zúñiga spoke with Central American reporters on March 23 about priorities for “root causes” assistance to the region. President Biden has voiced support for providing the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras)” with $4 billion in such assistance over four years.
The U.S. officials centered their message on countering corruption, which is “at the center of everything we have to do,” as González put it. They mentioned plans to create a task force to combat corruption, drug trafficking, and money laundering in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, with an emphasis on assisting “prosecutors, investigators, and judges in their own countries, who are carrying out these important investigations.”
Asked about relations with El Salvador President Nayib Bukele (who has repeatedly attacked democratic institutions and rule of law), Zúñiga emphasized the importance of separation of powers and strong institutions in a democracy. On Guatemala, the officials voiced support for an independent Constitutional Court, following recent nominations of a majority of justices believed to have ties to corrupt interests.
President Bukele tweeted in English that he was opposed to a “recycled plan that did not work in 2014.” He rejected “the ‘northern triangle’ concept” that treats El Salvador the same as Guatemala and Honduras, which send more migrants to the United States. Measured by apprehensions since January 2020 as a portion of population, though, El Salvador is only modestly behind the other two Northern Triangle nations:
- Honduras: 849 U.S. border apprehensions/encounters per 100,000 population
- Guatemala: 549 per 100,000 population
- El Salvador: 459 per 100,000 population
- Mexico: 316 per 100,000 population
For her part, Rep. Norma Torres (D-California), a member of the House appropriations subcommittee that allocates foreign aid, wrote a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recommending “severely restricting funding that goes to central governments of the region. Instead, our foreign assistance should go to civil society, non-governmental organizations, multilateral institutions, and other credible institutions.”
Eighteen Republican senators are paying a visit to the border on March 26, led by Texas Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) told Fox News that if the delegation is denied access to facilities where CBP is holding children, “we’re going to shut the Senate down.” Graham—who in 2013 was a member of the “Gang of Eight” senators who promoted a bipartisan immigration reform bill—added, “It will never change, President Biden, until you tell everybody to go home and stop bringing people into the United States.”
(Also coming to the border on the weekend of March 27 will be a delegation of Democratic members of Congress invited by another Texas legislator, Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) of El Paso.)
Elsewhere in the Senate, five Republicans sought, and failed, to obtain unanimous consent for consideration of legislation, the “Stopping Border Surges Act,” that would make child and family detention legal, would make it possible to immediately deport children from non-contiguous countries, would reinstate “safe third country” agreements with Central America, and would tighten credible fear standards, among other measures.
More than 60 Republican House members and 40 Republican senators have requested that the Government Accountability Office, an independent auditing arm of Congress, examine the legality of President Biden’s 60-day suspension of border wall construction. The building freeze, mandated by a January 20 presidential proclamation, formally ended on March 21 without a plan in place yet for how to proceed. Construction remains on hold, however. The Republican legislators allege that Biden’s freeze is “a blatant violation of federal law and infringes on Congress’ constitutional power of the purse.”
- A DHS Inspector-General report made public on March 22 finds that, during the 2019 spike in child and family migration, the Trump administration threw out existing plans for dealing with the challenge, “created ad-hoc solutions,” and failed to get agencies to work together smoothly.
- “Immigrant rights advocates and others claim that” March 11 footage of smugglers floating migrants across the Rio Grande, which aired on CNN, “was staged, potentially with the cooperation of the Border Patrol,” the American Prospect reports. Smugglers, it notes, “don’t normally provide face masks and life vests, nor ferry six boatloads of people across in broad daylight.”
- The New York Times published a gripping photo essay from Comitancillo, Guatemala, depicting the return of the bodies of 13 migrants from that town who were massacred, apparently by Mexican state police, in Camargo, Tamaulipas, on January 22.
- On March 18 the House of Representatives passed the Dream and Promise Act, which would create a path to citizenship for up to 4 million “Dreamers”—undocumented people who were brought to the United States as children—and recipients of Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
5 links from the past week
- Lost in the “Biden border crisis” news framing is the crude fact that Joe Biden has kept in place a crown jewel of the Trump administration’s approach: the pandemic expulsions policy, known as “Title 42,” that expels most migrants. At the Los Angeles Times, Molly O’Toole explains the policy and unpacks data about how broadly it is being applied.
- In The Invisible Wall, the Haitian Bridge Alliance, Quixote Center, and UndocuBlack Network show the toll that the Title 42 policy has had on one of the weakest and most vulnerable populations: Haitian and other black migrants.
- Two years ago, the Bolsonaro government deployed the military to prevent Amazon deforestation. “Operation Green Brazil” has proved to be a predictable but disastrous failure, a Reuters investigation finds, in part because the armed forces were such an inappropriate tool for the job of environmental protection.
- El Faro talks to a former Salvadoran military captain and others who repent of their role in the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero.
- Dissent runs a thoughtful critique from three left-of-center scholars of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who “continues to decry the faults of neoliberalism, but his government is, for the most part, failing to build an effective alternative.”
Latin America-related online events this week
There's almost nothing this week: it’s Holy Week (the week before Easter.) The U.S. Congress is in recess, and much of Latin America tends to shut down.
Tuesday, March 30
- 10:30-12:00 at thedialogue.org: Freedom of Expression and Elections in Nicaragua (RSVP required).