Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: wall, Venezuela deportations, migration leveling off, Texas updates

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Due to staff travel, WOLA will not produce Border Updates during the next three weeks. Updates will resume on November 10.

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.

THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:

The Biden administration’s October 5 announcements of new border wall construction and renewed deportations to Venezuela reverberated at the border, along the migration route, and in policy discussions. Many Democratic Party political leaders and non-governmental organizations voiced criticism. Analysts suggested that the moves pointed to a grim political reality for the administration at a time of near-record migrant arrivals at the border.

After three months of sharp growth, migration may be leveling off or even declining since mid-September, according to partial data and anecdotal evidence. September data show a very slight August-to-September reduction in near-record migration through Panama’s Darién Gap Region, and a sharp rise in the number of people traveling through Honduras.

Videos show asylum seekers forced to get past a gauntlet of Texas state police, soldiers, and razor wire in order to access Border Patrol agents further from the river’s edge. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has snarled cargo traffic in northern Mexican border cities by ordering “safety” checkpoints for trucks exiting border bridges. An appeals court heard arguments about Gov. Abbott’s “buoy wall” in Eagle Pass.

 

THE FULL UPDATE:

Fallout over Biden administration’s decisions to green-light border wall and deport Venezuelans

On October 5, just as the last edition of WOLA’s Border Update was nearing publication, the Biden administration announced two controversial policy changes.

  • The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) declared that it would build about 17 miles of new border wall in Texas, as directed by a 2019 appropriations law, and that to do so it would use a 2005 authority to waive 26 environmental, public health, and cultural resource protection laws to expedite construction.It is not clear whether the appropriation also compelled President Biden—who had pledged in 2020 that “not another foot” of wall would be built on his watch—to issue the waivers. “Why did they waive the environmental laws? That’s something else,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee who represents a south Texas border district, said to The Hill. “And we’ve been trying to get an answer, and they can’t give me an answer.”
  • The State Department announced an agreement with Venezuela, a government that the United States does not formally recognize, to resume direct deportations of Venezuelan migrants to Caracas.

The days following these announcements saw much outcry, analysis, and political fallout. Some highlights follow.

The border wall announcement

In Starr County, Texas, where the new border wall is to be built, the project “is unlikely to have an impact on the number of arrivals along the border, at least in the short term,” the New York Times reported, “because the area has not seen a recent surge in migration.” Residents echoed to the Wall Street Journal that migrant arrivals have been light in the county in recent years.

The decision “was kind of disappointing because we felt we should have been given more lead time,” Starr County Judge Eloy Vera told Border Report. One Starr County landowner told ABC News, “What the hell! We can’t catch a break down here. This feels like what we had to go through 3 years ago [during the Trump administration]. We haven’t been told anything and it’s frustrating.”

But riverfront property owner and activist Nayda Álvarez told the Times that the general response to the new announcement has been apathetic. “I think a lot of people have given up. Let’s start at the top: Even Biden said, ‘My hands are tied.’”

In Texas, walls must be built many yards inland from the Rio Grande because of flooding and shifting flows. Asylum seekers, who wish to reach U.S. soil and turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents, would continue to be able to do so on the riverbank, making wall construction largely irrelevant.

Members of Congress who voiced dismay at the border wall decision included Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), Ro Khanna (D-California), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Numerous non-governmental organizations criticized the move.

  • “President Biden is now in the notorious category of administrations that have denied borderlands and border communities the protection of dozens of bedrock laws,” read a statement from the Southern Border Communities Coalition.
  • The border wall decision “is yet another letdown that demonstrates a disregard for human dignity within a larger broken immigration system,” wrote Alexandra Villarreal of the National Immigration Forum at the Guardian.
  • “This decision to expand the wall is holistically damaging and irresponsible, failing to meet the needs of people on the move and border communities,” read a statement from the Interfaith Immigration Coalition.
  • “It’s disheartening to see President Biden stoop to this level, casting aside our nation’s bedrock environmental laws to build ineffective wildlife-killing border walls,” said Laiken Jordahl of the Center for Biological Diversity. (The Center for Biological Diversity also issued a statement.)
  • “On the campaign trail, President Biden put it best when he said that the border wall is not a serious policy solution—and we couldn’t agree more,” said Jonathan Blazer of the ACLU.
  • “Beyond wasting taxpayer dollars and serving as a symbol of anti-immigrant animus, the border wall creates more dangerous conditions for migrants seeking refuge in the United States and will harm both people and the environment along the border,” said Sirine Shebaya of the National Immigration Project.
  • “Over and over, it has shown that building walls and these deterrence policies do not help [address] the roots of immigration,” Alan Lizarraga of the Border Network for Human Rights told the Texas Tribune.
  • “While the challenge of managing migration is very complex, this administration continues to lean too heavily on the stick over the carrot,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service told the Guardian.
  • “It’s really just more of a speed bump. It’ll probably just take another few minutes to get into the U.S.,” WOLA’s Adam Isacson told the BBC. “This is not at all an insurmountable barrier. It’s harder to get kids over, or the old or disabled, and a lot more people die or are badly injured falling from it. But it does not seem to deter people.”

The border wall announcement “cast a shadow” over the Mexico City visit of the U.S. secretaries of State and Homeland Security and attorney general, Spain’s El País reported. “‘The Mexican government is absolutely opposed to any type of wall,’ said Mexico’s Foreign Minister Alicia Bárcena, reacting to the surprise announcement by the Department of Homeland Security.” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speculated in an October 6 press conference that “the 36 kilometers are not going to be built, and the U.S. government does not want to do it.”

(The secretaries’ visit was also notable in part for an assertion by Mexico’s security secretary, Rosa Icela Rodríguez, at a joint appearance: “Remember that Mexico is not a producer of fentanyl. Mexico is a country of transit. In Mexico, we have not detected fentanyl production laboratories.” The statement comes despite ample evidence of fentanyl production in the country, including Mexican soldiers’ seizures of fentanyl pills in laboratories.)

The Venezuela deportations announcement

Deportation flights to Venezuela have not begun as of October 12. When they do, it is unclear whether the tempo of flights would resemble the one per month going to Cuba or the forty to fifty per month going to Guatemala and Honduras (citing data compiled by Witness at the Border). Due to distance, cost, and consular complications, a number of monthly flights in the low single digits is most likely.

Some reports noted that the border wall and deportations announcements will not be likely to discourage or deter people from migrating to the United States. Venezuelan migrants in the Darién Gap told the Associated Press “that it would not stop them from continuing their journey.” In Ciudad Juárez, Spain’s El País reported, migrants are “more afraid of the unarmed Mexican agents than of the military police who carry assault rifles on the American side of the border.” Daniel Rosales, a 27-year-old migrant who passed through the Darién Gap, told Agénce France Presse that being deported “worries me, although I prefer a thousand times to stay in other countries than to return, because Venezuela is torture, one dies a living death, I see no future there.”

Leaders of south Florida’s Venezuelan community told WLRN that the misery of life in today’s Venezuela will keep migrants coming despite attempts to deter them. “It doesn’t matter what this administration does,” said Patricia Andrade of the nonprofit Raíces Venezolanas Miami. “Nothing has changed in Venezuela,” WOLA’s Venezuela Program director, Laura Dib, told the independent Venezuelan media outlet Efecto Cocuyo. “The situation of violation of human rights, the humanitarian emergency, the generalized violence are aspects that remain. Nothing has changed in that sense. A deportation policy can be dangerous.”

However, EFE spoke to Venezuelan migrants in Ciudad Juárez who voiced reluctance to cross without inspection, for fear of being deported to Venezuela. The New York Times spoke with a woman in Caracas who shelved, for now, her plans to migrate upon hearing news of the deportation policy.

“The United States must not be a country that deports people to repressive dictatorships where they may face serious threats to their lives or freedom,” read an October 6 WOLA statement about the deportation announcement. That document pointed out that the announcement came just 15 days after the administration extended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Venezuelan citizens because of the country’s dire conditions.

The political implications

Much reporting indicated that the Biden administration’s decisions owed to a grim political outlook on the border and migration issue amid large numbers of arriving asylum seekers.

  • A Fox News poll released October 11, carried out by a Democratic-aligned polling firm, found 57 percent of respondents in favor of building a border wall, one of the highest results in recent years and a reversal from the years of Donald Trump’s administration, when slim majorities tended to oppose border wall expansion.
  • “Respondents in a new Marquette University poll of registered voters were asked to choose who was ‘better’ on the issue of immigration and border security,” the BBC reported. “Fifty-two percent said they preferred Mr. Trump, while only 28 percent opted for Mr. Biden.”
  • Last week’s policy announcements “marked the official death of the pro-immigrant consensus that solidified in mainstream Democratic circles (and blue cities especially) during the Trump administration—and it made clear that although Trump lost in 2020, his immigration policies have won out,” wrote Felipe de la Hoz at the New Republic. “We are living in Stephen Miller’s world now.”
  • “My frustration has been that we are not addressing immigration in a holistic way as a country. We are depending on the president alone,” Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who represents El Paso, told the Associated Press. “We are treating people from different nationalities in a different way. And the pathways that have been created are being challenged in court consistently.”
  • “The best way I can explain it is that these are internal forces inside the Biden White House that are reacting to [high immigration numbers] and not taking into consideration the ugly, visceral negative reaction that Biden supporters in the Latino community are going to have against this action,” former Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Illinois) told The Hill.
  • Democratic political strategist Kristian Ramos told Axios that Democrats suffer from “a failure of communication” on migration policy. “I just think we are allowing the arsonists to set the fire and now withhold the water.”

An October 11 document from the immigration group fwd.us focused on solutions. It noted that the legal pathways to migration that the Biden administration has put in place, like humanitarian parole, TPS, and CBP One asylum appointments at ports of entry, “are critical and they are working—but they are also too limited at a time when 20 million people are displaced in the Western Hemisphere.” The memo goes on to propose a series of steps the administration can take without passage of new legislation, which is unlikely in the current Congress.

 

Migration since mid-September may be leveling off at the border and the Darién Gap, but increases continue in Honduras

While the picture is murky, as reporting is very partial, the rapid July-September increase in the number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border appears to have leveled off, or could even be receding slightly. That conclusion emerges from a survey of Border Patrol sector chiefs’ social media accounts and from records shared by the El Paso, Texas municipal government.

If accurate, the leveling-off or reduction in migration may owe more to Mexico cracking down on in-transit migration than to any important change in migration along the U.S.-bound route. Panama and Honduras have already reported September data; migration declined very slightly in Panama’s Darién Gap and grew sharply in Honduras.

At the U.S.-Mexico border

Tweets from the chief of Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector (Texas), which only report weekends, appear to show a slight decline in migrant apprehensions from mid-September.

The Mexican daily Reforma noted that Tamaulipas, the Mexican state across the border from the Rio Grande Valley, has experienced a decline in migrant arrivals as more have boarded cargo trains destined for the state of Coahuila, to the west across from the Del Rio Sector.

Tweets from the chief of Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector (Arizona), the busiest in July and August of Border Patrol’s nine U.S.-Mexico border sectors, show migrant apprehensions dipping a bit, then recovering.

In Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector (Texas-New Mexico), the El Paso municipal government’s dashboard of migration data shows a decline since mid-September.

  • Week 37 of 2023 (September 11-17): 1,170/day
  • Week 38 of 2023 (September 18-24): 1,637/day
  • Week 39 of 2023 (September 25-October 1): 1,333/day
  • Week 40 of 2023 (October 2-8): 1,162/day
  • Week 41 of 2023 (October 9-15): 909/day

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser told the city’s council on October 10, “In the last three to four days the numbers dropped down 1,000 people per day. So, we’ve gone from 1,700 (daily migrant encounters) to 600. That makes a big difference. We’ve closed down all the hotels” being used for short-term shelter. The Council still voted unanimously to renew emergency ordinances allowing municipal employees to assist nonprofits and shelters working with migrants.

Tweets from the chief of Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector (California) show a slight increase.

San Diego’s migrant shelter and reception system, which has seen cuts to its government funding, “is being tested like never before,” the Associated Press reported, as Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has dropped about 13,000 migrants off at the city’s transit stations with notices to appear in immigration court. The number appears to include migrants whom CBP has transferred from other border sectors for processing in San Diego.

Some asylum seekers are turning themselves in at the point near downtown Tijuana where the Tijuana River enters the United States. Hundreds of migrants continue to arrive each day east of San Diego, in the small town of Jacumba Springs, where difficult terrain leaves gaps in the border wall. Border Patrol “agents are swamped and they are very straightforward about the fact that this is not their job, this is not what they are set up to do… They are slammed,” humanitarian volunteer Samuel Schultz told Border Report.

Tweets from the chief of Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector (Arizona-California), show this part of the border to be relatively quiet. Yuma Border Patrol had averaged 850 apprehensions per day between September 2021 and December 2022, with most migrants coming from Cuba, South America, and Asia.

Four sectors’ chiefs have not reported updates on social media. They include Del Rio (Texas), one of the busiest sectors, and three usually quieter sectors: Laredo (Texas), El Centro (California), and Big Bend (Texas).

In Eagle Pass, in the Del Rio Sector, Border Report noted signs of easing: on October 11, migrants were no longer being processed under one of the two bridges connecting the city with Piedras Negras, Coahuila. “There were very few federal agents and other law enforcement from what just weeks ago resembled a very different scene.” The other bridge, though, remains closed to vehicular traffic as CBP personnel focus on processing asylum seekers.

At the Darién Gap

September was the 2nd busiest month ever (after August) for migration through the Darién Gap jungle region straddling Colombia and Panama, according to data that Panama’s government published this week. 75,268 people underwent the dangerous several-day journey last month, down from 81,946 in August. As of September 30, 408,972 people had migrated through the Darién Gap in 2023, a record by far.

Blue is Venezuela, green is Haiti, brown is Ecuador.

Data table

 

64 percent of this year’s migrants in the Darién have been citizens of Venezuela. 36 percent are women or girls. And 22 percent are children. According to the deputy director of Panama’s National Migration Service, María Isabel Saravia, 50 percent of those children are age five or under. National Public Radio recalled that Doctors Without Borders treated 216 women and girls who were sexually assaulted on the route during the first 6 months of this year.

As this chart makes clear, migration through this barely governed wilderness was rare before 2021.

Data table

 

The human rights ombudsman of Panama—where the government has criticized Colombian counterparts for insufficiently managing the flow of people through the region— called on Colombia to provide information about the number of people departing on the journey, so that Panama might have an idea of how many do not make it out. Meanwhile, “U.S. officials have been frustrated by what they see as Colombia’s unwillingness to take aggressive actions to stem the flow of migration into the Darién,” CBS News reported.

On October 12 the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus published a joint statement urging the Biden administration to reconsider a proposal (discussed in WOLA’s October 6 Border Update) to fund deportations of migrants from Panama to their home countries.

This week Costa Rica and Panama began collaborating on a coordinated bus route to transport migrants from the Darién Gap, through a Migrant Attention Center in Costa Rica near the countries’ common border, to Costa Rica’s border with Nicaragua.

In Honduras

Just over five months ago, WOLA staff visited Honduras’s most-used border crossing from Nicaragua (Trojes-Danlí). We were struck by the number of people we saw on the move, which at the time was a bit over 800 per day. In September, this border region saw nearly 3,000 people per day.

Data table

 

The Honduran government’s National Migration Institute reported registering 90,639 migrants in September. Since August 2022, Honduras has waived fees charged to migrants entering its territory, instead requiring all to register and have their information entered in a database. That allows migrants to get a form required to board buses through the country. As a result, Honduras’s numbers do record a strong majority of people coming through.

Honduras’s September number is larger than the Darién Gap number because a growing population of migrants—especially citizens of Cuba and African nations—have been entering the continent north of the Darién, in Nicaragua. Nicaragua does not require visas of visiting Cubans, and allows many other nationalities to obtain a visa upon arrival for a fee. A growing number of people are flying to Managua and traveling north by land, a journey that takes them through Honduras.

 

Texas updates

Controversy continues to surround “Operation Lone Star” (OLS), the roughly $10 billion set of hard-line border security initiatives put in place by Texas’s state government. Gov. Greg Abbott (R), an outspoken critic of the Biden administration’s border and migration policies, is building fencing and laying down razor-sharp concertina wire, deploying police and National Guard personnel, seeking to jail migrants on trespassing charges, and setting up “enhanced commercial vehicle safety inspections”: roadblocks that snarl traffic at border bridges.

Over 10 days in late September and early October, New York Times video journalists filmed the El Paso bank of the Rio Grande from across the river in Mexico. The footage shows an uncomfortable divide between the diverging approaches of Border Patrol, which processes people on U.S. soil who request asylum, and Texas’s OLS personnel—police and National Guardsmen—who seek to block asylum seekers and push them back into Mexico.

Between the river’s edge and the border wall is a concrete embankment. Once on U.S. soil, migrants have the legal right to petition for asylum. They are seeking to line up along the border wall, near a gate, to be processed by the federal Border Patrol. In order  to get that far up the embankment, though, asylum seekers have to get past separate measures put in place by the state of Texas. The New York Times videos show migrants getting lacerated by razor wire, trying to ease young children through the coils, and National Guardsmen chasing migrants and even gesturing at them with weapons.

Texas’s cargo truck “inspection” checkpoints have backed up commercial traffic on the Mexican side of the border. Mexico’s freight transport association claimed that 19,000 trucks carrying about $1.9 billion in merchandise were delayed at the border by “absurd” inspections. Some Mexican border cities’ shops were reporting shortages of goods. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador declared that Mexico would send a diplomatic note to protest Gov. Abbott’s actions. On October 6 Texas lifted vehicle inspections in Eagle Pass, where the need to process migrants led CBP to close one of two bridges to vehicular traffic.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on October 5 for the U.S. Justice Department’s lawsuit seeking to compel Texas to remove a 1,000 foot “wall” of buoys installed in the middle of the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass. A District Court judge had ordered Texas to take the buoys down, as they violated federal law governing use of the river; Texas appealed (see WOLA’s September 15 Border Update). The three-judge panel, two of whom were nominated by Democratic presidents (one, remarkably, by Jimmy Carter), voiced some skepticism about Texas’s arguments for keeping the buoys.

 

Other News

  • A statement from WOLA, offering data and a video, recalls that asylum is a right guaranteed by law, that countries throughout the hemisphere—not just the United States—are receiving and integrating migrants, that the United States’ border and migration apparatus is inappropriate for the current moment, and that some proposals from “border hawks” would harm vulnerable people.
  • The Department of Justice is declining to prosecute any of the Border Patrol agents who shot and killed Raymond Mattia, a member of the Tohono O’odham nation, in front of his house on May 18, 2023. Body-worn camera footage shows agents shooting Mattia, 58, multiple times after he reached into his jacket and pulled out what turned out to be a mobile phone. Federal prosecutors called a September 19 meeting with Mattia’s relatives to notify them of their decision; the relatives’ attorney told The Intercept that “the refusal to answer questions undercut new Justice Department guidelines on the rights of crime victims,” which are meant to be “victim-centered and trauma-informed.”
  • Blas Nuñez-Neto, the Department of Homeland Security’s assistant secretary for border and immigration policy, revealed that since the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy ended in May, Mexico has accepted the U.S. deportation into its territory of 17,000 citizens of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. This statistic has not been shared since late July, when Nuñez-Neto said it stood at about 4,000.
  • Mexican Army soldiers apparently shot and killed two Guatemalan migrants (one an alleged smuggler) and wounded four other migrants, including a Honduran man, at the border west of Ciudad Juárez on October 9. Survivors say they were planning to scale the border wall with a ladder, when soldiers pursued and shot at their vehicle. No party has claimed that the soldiers used force to defend against a threat of loss of life or serious injury. Prosecutors in Mexico’s Chihuahua state, which includes Juárez, said that the Army has turned over four soldiers to testify, according to the Associated Press.
  • Daniel Martínez of the University of Arizona’s Binational Migration Institute stated in a conference on migrant deaths covered by the Arizona Daily Star that Border Patrol’s counts of migrant deaths in the state are unreliable. “For example, in fiscal year 2021, Border Patrol’s count of border deaths in the Tucson Sector was 78, compared to the 225 recorded by the Pima County medical examiner,” the Daily Star reported.
  • A highway accident in Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca killed 18 migrants aboard a bus, mainly from Venezuela and Peru, and wounded 29 more.
  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is convening an October 22 meeting in Palenque, Chiapas, to discuss migration policy with the leaders of 11 Latin American countries along migration routes. Leaders expected to attend are those of Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Haiti, Cuba, Costa Rica, Panama, and Belize.
  • President López Obrador said on October 10 that he had rejected a U.S. request to establish a “Safe Mobility Office” inside Mexican territory. These offices, which exist on a small scale in Colombia, Costa Rica, and Guatemala, offer some migrants opportunities to access legal migration pathways in the United States (and eventually perhaps Canada and Spain) without having to travel to the U.S. border. “First we want to talk to the presidents,” López Obrador said, referring to the October 22 meeting. Mexico is, however, reportedly setting up a somewhat similar facility for migrants in the southern city of Villahermosa, Tabasco.
  • CBP personnel leaked information to Fox News about migrants from countries—usually middle eastern, majority-Islam countries—that the agency regards as of “special interest” for terrorism. Between October 2021 and October 2023, Fox reported, “agents encountered 6,386 nationals from Afghanistan in that period as well as 3,153 from Egypt, 659 from Iran and 538 from Syria” between ports of entry. “Agents also encountered 13,624 from Uzbekistan, 30,830 from Turkey, 1,613 from Pakistan, 164 from Lebanon, 185 from Jordan, 139 from Yemen, 123 from Iraq and 15,594 from Mauritania.”
  • “These are unprecedented times, never in human history have we had so many migrants on the move as we do right now,” Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols told an audience at the University of California at San Diego, according to Border Report. “Some 28 million migrants in our hemisphere are moving for a variety of reasons.”
  • The mayor of New York City, Eric Adams, traveled to Mexico, Ecuador, and Colombia, including the outskirts of the Darién Gap, seeking to convey to migrants that they avoid coming to the city, where the municipal shelter system in the city of 8 million has been strained by the arrival of more than 120,000 asylum seekers since 2022.



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