Border Report

Vulnerable people, unmet protection needs, and a wasteful security buildup at the busiest section of the U.S.-Mexico border

By Adam Isacson and Joy Olson – Published 3/22/22 at

WOLA visited a large segment of the Texas-Mexico border, from Del Rio to Brownsville, during the week of March 7. Joy Olson, WOLA’s former executive director, and Adam Isacson, WOLA’s director for defense oversight, covered three of the nine sectors into which Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico border, crossing into four Mexican border cities along the way.

We were pursuing different research questions: Joy was looking at how the U.S. government could respond to ransom kidnappings, and Adam was looking at communities’ and migrants’ interactions with U.S. border law enforcement. Information about both topics is scarcer in this part of the border than it is from El Paso westward, and we wanted to know why.

We saw many longtime colleagues, for the first time since before the pandemic, who are doing important work throughout the border zone. We introduced ourselves to many others whom we’d never met before. We talked to service providers, shelter personnel, attorneys, and some government officials and experts—and we put a lot of miles on our rental car. Here are a few things we saw.

Click any image in this commentary to expand it in a new browser tab.

Measured by migrant arrivals, Del Rio, Texas was the busiest of all nine of Border Patrol’s sectors in January, and in second place every other month of fiscal 2022 so far. As recently as 2018, it was eighth. The Del Rio Sector’s four border counties have a combined population of 117,000; between November and February, 125,000 migrants arrived there.

That does not impact daily life in the main border cities, Del Rio and Eagle Pass. Everyone we spoke with said that the average citizen doesn’t notice the arriving migrants because they don’t stay here. The exception was the mid-September 2021 arrival of more than 10,000 mostly Haitian migrants near the bridge between Del Rio and Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila, which made national news. Many of the migrants who came during that event were immediately expelled under the Title 42 pandemic order: since September 19, 2021, the Biden administration has expelled or deported nearly 19,000 Haitians back to their country by air. Nearly 8,000 of them were apprehended in Del Rio. Of those who weren’t expelled, virtually none stayed in Del Rio.

Border Patrol has used Title 42 to expel 42 percent of migrants encountered in Del Rio so far in fiscal 2022. That is less than the border-wide average (53 percent), because many migrants who arrive in Del Rio come from countries, like Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, to which expulsion is difficult.

Above, a bus from a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) contractor dropped asylum seekers at the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition facility in Del Rio. The Coalition helps more than a hundred migrant family members on a typical day. Dedicated volunteers offer clothing, snacks, and help with making travel plans to elsewhere in the United States (the migrants, or their relatives in the United States, pay travel costs), where most will pursue asylum cases in U.S. immigration courts. The Coalition has many items on its Amazon wish list and could use help.

Above, a bus from a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) contractor dropped asylum seekers at the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition facility in Del Rio. The Coalition helps more than a hundred migrant family members on a typical day. Dedicated volunteers offer clothing, snacks, and help with making travel plans to elsewhere in the United States (the migrants, or their relatives in the United States, pay travel costs), where most will pursue asylum cases in U.S. immigration courts. The Coalition has many items on its Amazon wish list and could use help.

March 2021 Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a conservative critic of the Biden administration’s border and migration policies, launched a big state-funded buildup of security along the Texas-Mexico border. “Operation Lone Star” has since sent over 6,500 Texas National Guard troops and thousands of state police to border counties. These forces have arrested and jailed thousands of migrants on state charges of trespassing, with dubious results. Abbott has funded the building of border fencing on state-owned land (or on the land of willing private property owners). Numerous media reports have pointed to National Guardsmen assigned to the mission having low morale and not much to do.

The Del Rio Sector is a center of activity for “Operation Lone Star.” The deployment is making parts of Val Verde and Kinney counties, and the Rio Grande Valley, look like occupied territory. We saw miles of concertina wire-topped fencing near the river, and National Guard vehicles posted every few miles along the highway between Del Rio and Eagle Pass.

Gov. Abbott’s “wall” can easily be defeated by ladders or power tools. And then, a few miles west of Del Rio, it just ends. We had the strong impression that it is more of a photo op than a deterrent, especially in a sector—very far from other Texas population centers—where most migrants are not trying to avoid being apprehended. They just seek to set foot on U.S. soil, turn themselves in, and ask for asylum. This fence, across a road about 100 yards north of the Rio Grande, doesn’t deter that.

The military equipment often looks out of place, like this National Guard fuel truck in Eagle Pass, across the river from people washing clothes in Piedras Negras, Coahuila.
Tall border walls are less common in Texas than elsewhere along the border. Here, the Rio Grande is the boundary and much border-front property is privately owned. In Eagle Pass, barriers consist of concertina wire, then empty shipping containers, and some bollard fence behind that. (And in between the layers, a golf course.)
Most of the Del Rio Sector’s Title 42 expulsions—hundreds per day—send migrants from Eagle Pass, Texas into Piedras Negras, Coahuila. Here, the municipal government has cited the pandemic as a pretext to close most migrant shelters, reducing them to providing meals, legal advice, and similar daytime services. The thousands of migrants stranded in Piedras Negras must find somewhere else to sleep at night. Humanitarian workers told us that many are inhabiting abandoned buildings.
In some parts of the border, we saw a heavy presence of Mexico’s new, militarized National Guard, which President Andrés Manuel López Obrador created and has used extensively to control migration. These guardsmen were posted under Bridge 2 between Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras.
Laredo may be the largest border-front U.S. city to lack a big border barrier. There’s no wall here, just a 3-foot fence by the riverfront park. This is thanks to the good work of effective organizers in Laredo, who fought Trump’s intended use of Defense Department money to build a tall downtown wall.

Border Patrol’s Laredo sector is sandwiched between the agency’s two busiest sectors, but even without a wall, it ranks seventh in migrant encounters so far in fiscal 2022. The reason for the relative lack of migration here, according to the consensus of people we interviewed, is the power of organized crime on the Mexican side of this part of the border.

Across from Laredo is Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. The city has a nice riverfront park, but sources told us that nobody is allowed to use it. The Northeast Cartel, a remnant of the Zetas cartel that has maintained monopoly control of criminality here, has made the park off limits because it’s a strategic point. We were told that the people we did see in the park, like the truck in the bushes here, are cartel-affiliated.

This was taken 5 days before Mexican soldiers arrested and extradited Juan Gerardo “El Huevo” Treviño, the Northeast Cartel’s maximum leader. Mayhem broke out following Treviño’s March 14 arrest, with firefights and vehicles set on fire around the city. As of this writing, the U.S. consulate in Nuevo Laredo, which was hit by gunfire and grenades on March 14, remains closed to visitors.
The area around Nuevo Laredo’s border bridges is tightly controlled by organized crime. A humanitarian worker said that cartel-affiliated vehicles constantly patrol here, around the Gateway to the Americas Bridge, looking for migrants who haven’t paid their “toll,” and kidnapping them. It is extremely common, all sources told us, for migrants to be kidnapped in Nuevo Laredo after CBP uses Title 42 to expel them. Criminals then hold them, often torturing them, until the migrants’ relatives—usually in the United States—transfer ransom payments.

CBP expelled 12,404 non-Mexican migrants, most or all of them into Nuevo Laredo, after encountering them in the Laredo Sector during the first five months of fiscal 2022. The actual number of expulsions is probably larger: when things get busy in the adjacent Rio Grande Valley Sector, CBP moves migrants from there to Laredo and expels them into Nuevo Laredo.

The “Remain in Mexico” program, which the Biden administration is reviving under court order, began operating in Laredo on March 3. As of March 16, 57 asylum-seeking migrants had been sent from Laredo to “remain” in Mexico. Because of Nuevo Laredo’s security situation, most or all of them have chosen to be transported three hours’ drive south, to the city of Monterrey.

Most of CBP’s migrant encounters in the Laredo sector are with single adults from Mexico and Guatemala, so we were surprised to see shelters in Nuevo Laredo full of families, with many children. While many were Mexican citizens displaced by violence elsewhere in the country, we met people from a variety of countries, particularly South America.

Further to the east, south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley led all of Border Patrol’s nine sectors in migrant encounters between March 2013 and December 2021. Del Rio was number-one in January 2022, but Rio Grande Valley took the number-one spot back in February.

The Rio Grande Valley Sector has a heavy border security presence, augmented by “Operation Lone Star.” Above, in La Joya, Texas, was one of the “tethered aerostats” or “persistent threat detection systems,” blimps that hover over the area looking for smuggling activity. A $52.5 million Defense Department contract supports 18 of these blimps along the border. Below that, a Border Patrol boat raced up the Rio Grande in Mission, Texas, one of a large number of federal and state police vessels operating in the Rio Grande Valley. Including state police and game warden boats, we saw eight pass by in just over an hour.
Though candidate Joe Biden pledged not to build “another foot” of border wall, a great deal of “levee wall” is under construction in the Rio Grande Valley. This is next to Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park in Mission.

CBP has plans to build up to 86 miles of border wall in the Valley’s Starr, Hidalgo, and Cameron counties, using about $1.9 billion appropriated for that purpose in the 2018 and 2019 Homeland Security appropriations bills. The Biden administration and the Democratic majority in Congress had sought to rescind that past-year money, but Senate Republicans dug in and appear to have prevailed in the 2022 budget fight that just concluded last week. So construction must now go forward.

The REAL ID Act of 2005 included a rider allowing CBP to waive all other laws, from the Endangered Species Act to laws protecting sacred indigenous sites, in order to build walls like this. The Trump administration invoked waivers of up to 42 laws, 27 times. This is likely to happen again unless the Biden administration’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) wisely decides not to invoke the waivers.

Meanwhile, since most riverfront land in Texas is privately owned, wall-building in the Rio Grande Valley may mean years of bruising court battles with property owners whose land the government would seek to seize via eminent domain.

We had dinner in Mission with artist and activist Scott Nicol, who finds so many ladders used by migrants to defeat the border wall that he used them to create an art installation.

One of the most disturbing and heartbreaking things we’ve seen in more than a decade of working on border policy is the migrant encampment packed into a public square in Reynosa, just steps away from the bridge from Hidalgo, Texas, south of McAllen. People living here are waiting for the opportunity to ask for asylum the “right” or fully legal way, by presenting themselves at the port of entry. That is impossible while Title 42 keeps the port of entry closed to all without documents.

Right now, more than 2,000 people—including many families with children—are living in the Reynosa encampment under tents and tarps, eating food cooked on wood fires at four makeshift “kitchens.” Medical personnel say many are in poor health, as contagions spread quickly. We talked to people who had been living in the square for seven months. Church groups operate at least two other shelter spaces, which are very full. Another, a converted baseball field, will soon open up; it is intended to house the people stranded at this plaza.

Many migrants in the square were Guatemalan, Honduran, and Salvadoran: the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, across from the Rio Grande Valley, is the part of the border that lies closest to Central America. Reynosa has also seen a recent increase in arrivals of Haitians.

Of Mexico’s six border states, Tamaulipas is the only one to have a level-four “Do Not Travel” warning from the U.S. State Department, “due to crime and kidnapping.” Despite that, CBP has expelled 138,807 migrants into Tamaulipas from its Laredo and Rio Grande Valley sectors since October 2021, and Mexico has received another 7,411 of its citizens who were deported, mostly from the U.S. interior, into Tamaulipas between October and January.

As it is territory disputed between criminal groups, Reynosa is reputed to be the most dangerous of Tamaulipas’s border cities, and it has seen serious recent flareups of violence. This city, and nearby Matamoros, are very dangerous for migrants: when we asked whether “maybe 20 percent” of migrants waiting in Matamoros had been kidnapped before, a humanitarian worker said “it’s higher than that.” In Reynosa, women and children get moved to the encampment’s more central tents because kidnappers, with guns drawn, raid the square often.

“Tent courts” are now in place for the revival of “Remain in Mexico” in Brownsville, Texas. As of March 16, 345 people had been sent from Brownsville into Matamoros and Monterrey. The first hearings for these people are to happen in these tents around March 26. Asylum-seeking migrants brought back from Matamoros or Monterrey will try to argue their cases before judges over a video feed.

This was a worthwhile but difficult visit. We made modest progress on our research goals of tracking kidnapping patterns and experiences with U.S. border law enforcement: we confirmed that information is indeed scarcer here. The few non-governmental service providers active in this part of the border are too overwhelmed—by the urgent needs of large numbers of migrants, and by the menacing security situation—to document either problem thoroughly. We are now clearer about next steps for this work.

This part of the border is seeing a great deal of cruelty and hardship. The status quo is unsustainable and must change quickly. Three of the most urgently needed changes that stood out to us are:

  • Title 42 needs to end immediately. So should “Remain in Mexico,” support for Mexico’s crackdown, and any other effort to block asylum seekers at a time of historic need and human mobility throughout the Western Hemisphere. As the public health situation improves across the United States, it is time to put in place the infrastructure necessary to process people making asylum claims, monitor them without detention, and adjudicate their claims as quickly as due process allows. We were troubled to see little evidence that the Biden administration is putting much of that infrastructure in place. The main exception is the recently completed renovation of a big processing center in McAllen, Texas, a project that began during the Trump administration.
  • Border security must focus on security threats, not asylum-seeking migrants. “Operation Lone Star,” wall-building projects, and similar security displays are a huge part of the landscape in this part of Texas. Yet a large portion of the migrant population—possibly a majority—are people who want to be apprehended in order to petition for protection in the United States. Resources that could be minimizing harm from organized crime or drug trafficking at the border, protecting the United States from actual threats, are instead going toward blocking vulnerable people from exercising their legal right to seek asylum. This is unnecessary and wasteful.
  • Humanitarian workers must no longer be so alone, especially in Tamaulipas. Whether because the area is remote, like Del Rio, or because the security situation is alarming, like Tamaulipas, this part of the border has relatively few humanitarian organizations, despite its very large migration flows. Groups like Catholic Charities, HIAS, the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition, Global Response Management, the Sidewalk School, Team Brownsville, Doctors Without Borders, and several church-run shelters in Mexico are doing heroic work, as are pro-bono asylum attorneys on the U.S. side. The humanitarian and advocacy presence here, though, is much scarcer than elsewhere along the border, particularly the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez and San Diego-Tijuana areas.

As a result, not only do migrants’ urgent needs go unmet, we lack information about everything from assaults and kidnappings on the Mexican side, to experiences in CBP custody on the U.S. side. People doing good work here need much more accompaniment than they are receiving. We plan to come back soon.

What Avocados Teach Us About Protecting Mexican Journalists

There is a constant lament that Mexico is the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist. UNESCO recorded the killing of nine Mexican journalists in 2021, and in the first few months of 2022, at least five more have already been reported. Current protection measures are clearly not doing the job. Here is a lesson about effective protection measures from the recent suspension of Mexican avocado imports to the United States.

Around the time of the Super Bowl, when Mexican avocados are scooped up in US grocery stores to feed our guacamole habit, a US avocado inspector located in Michoacán was threatened. In response, US Department of Agriculture announced the suspension of Mexican avocados and that it would stay in “place for as long as necessary to ensure the appropriate actions are taken, to secure the safety of APHIS personnel working in Mexico.”

This did not go unnoticed. There were complaints from many sectors about how this hurt the wrong people, not the criminals, but the producers, consumers and everyone on the supply chain in between. What this action did was hurt the bottom line. That is the main reasons that it was the right thing to do. It sent an unequivocal message that the US would not tolerate violence against its inspectors – punto final.  Threaten our people and we will shut this down.

Criminal organizations have run amuck in Michoacán for decades. Efforts to control these organizations have been unsuccessful, although many have died trying. The region has settled into a less than peaceful co-existence between criminal organizations, agricultural producers and politicians. Those who really want to make change have never found sufficient support to make it last, or to do so without becoming targets.

That is why this action by USDA was so important. By suspending avocado imports, it forced a lot of different interests to draw a line at not tolerating violence against the inspectors.

Here’s a lesson for what the Mexican government needs to do to protect journalists.  They need to make it abundantly clear that violence against Mexican journalists will not be tolerated. The message must be big. It must broadly hurt the interests of those adjacent to this problem. If a journalist is killed, the government’s retaliation will be so complete that it will disrupt their lives as well. The consequence of killing a Mexican journalist must be economic as well as judicial.

After a week, the USDA lifted the avocado suspension. A costly message was sent, but I do not expect to see violence against avocado inspectors any time soon.

We need to get away from the idea that panic buttons (a phone app that can be pushed at the moment a journalist feels threatened) are going to protect journalists, and start demanding that the price of threatening journalists – not just killing them – be made dramatically clear. Business, the media and the state have to come together to develop a strategy that sends a clear message. That is not the message we see when the president of Mexico makes journalists the target of complaint during his daily media session.

Until there is a united resolve — including a high price to pay for threats, no less killings – -Mexican journalists will continue to be free game.

*First published 3/14/22 in, La Reforma’s English language site.

Gitmo: the Quagmire Time Forgot

I often think about what inspires change and why change doesn’t happen, especially in egregious situations. Acknowledgement of the problem is the first thing needed for change. Once headline news, time has forgotten the dilemma and tragedies of Guantanamo Bay.

This year is the 20th anniversary of the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay (referred to here as Gitmo) outside of US legal jurisdiction and the laws of war.  The farther we get from the shock of 9/11 and the establishment of Gitmo in response, the easier it is to forget what an aberration and abomination it is.

Gitmo was established out of fear. The US argued that it needed to protect itself from terrorists who didn’t play by the rules of war. Members of Al Qaeda were willing to fly planes into buildings full of innocent people. We were afraid.

In 2002 the US constructed the prison on a US military base in Cuba. The prison is outside of US legal jurisdiction because it is not on US soil. The US claimed that those incarcerated there were not prisoners of war, protected under the Geneva Convention. They were terrorists and classified as “unlawful enemy combatants.” To manage this designation, the US invented a military commission to try and judge those so imprisoned. Thus, started a 20-year legal battle over a sham “justice” system.

Since opening, over 800 men have been imprisoned in Gitmo. They came from many countries but were all swept up in efforts to corral members of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Many were tortured along the way. Today, only 39 remain. 19 of those have been “recommended for transfer.” This can be a cruel designation as some have held this status for decades without leaving Gitmo. Only one person has been transferred since 2016.

Over the years we have learned that we should have been more afraid of ourselves. Gitmo and what it represented, the willingness for the US to operate outside of the laws of war, the use of CIA black sites and torture. Gitmo is a reminder of the worst of US exceptionalism. If we don’t like the rules of the game, we won’t let them apply to us.

If the moral weight of the prison isn’t enough to make us want to change. Gitmo should be closed because it prevents some of those charged with the 9/11 attacks from being held accountable. After 20 years the military commissions have brought none of them to justice because it is not a real court. Out of respect for the families of the lost, we should bring these men to trial in a real US court.

Closing Gitmo is not easy, but that doesn’t mean there are not solutions. Almost all of those formerly held in Gitmo have been transferred to other countries. Uruguay resettled 6 men cleared for release during the Obama Administration. Countries could be incentivized to take the 19 with transfer status. While Congress has restricted the use of funds to transfer detainees to US soil – and the US justice process – the President could veto that legislation. There are blueprints for emptying the prison, trying those charged, and closing this chapter of history.

The hardest problems to solve are the ones that no one owns. While we no longer think about the Gitmo prison, the US owns it. We own holding people for decades without charge; we own the torture committed against some of the prisoners; we own the fact that we have created a sham judicial process that will never work; and, we own the need to legitimately prosecute those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks.

I’m not sure what will finally prompt this change, but I do know that it won’t close if we forget the multiple tragedies that it represents.

  • This column was first published on Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s English language site, 2/7/22.

Militarization in Slow Motion

Change in slow motion can leave one desensitized to its significance. With that in mind let’s take note of the changing role of the Mexican military.

In the final decades of the 20th century, military dictatorships were the main threat to democracy in Latin America. During this period, Mexico stood apart from much of the region because its military had a limited role, mostly addressing matters of national defense with some disaster response and drug eradication. But that limited role has changed.

Since the mid-1990s, the Mexican military has had a growing variety of roles in public security, often temporarily used to respond to drug trafficking, police corruption, and high homicide rates. Deployments of the military, or newly ex-military, in public security were generally accompanied by a political message that read: this was temporary, pending the implementation of long-term reform. Now, 25 years in, the military’s role in public security is being regularized.

In 2019 President Andres Manuel López Obrador created the National Guard. It was announced as a civilian public security body but was initially populated with active duty military who literally put on new arm bands to show their participation in a different force. In parallel, the President announced in 2020 that direct military deployment in public security tasks would end in 2024.

Today the National Guard has replaced the Federal Police and is formally part of the Ministry of Citizen Safety and Protection. But the majority of the Guard’s roughly 100,000 members are still military. They live in barracks and their commander is a general. And, abandoning all pretense that the National Guard is meant to be a civilian police body, López Obrador has stated that he will seek a constitutional reform to formally make the Guard part of the Ministry of National Defense; that is, the new force would become part of the armed forces.

Over time the Mexican military has accumulated responsibility for: ports and customs; immigration control; drug eradication; distribution of materials in response to Covid-19; natural disaster response; and construction in mega projects like the new Mexico City airport and the Mayan Train.

It is argued that using the military in these roles is efficient (they are already mobilized so why not use them). And that they are less corrupt than other Mexican civilian institutions.  

I find both arguments perplexing. When claiming efficiency, no one ever factors in the cost to maintain a force large enough to take on these roles. The corruption issue is even more perplexing. How would one ever determine that they are less corrupt? The Mexican military is one of the least transparent institutions in the country. And now it is giving out no bid contracts on construction projects, a highly questionable practice if anti-corruption is the goal.

So, what’s the downside to the expanded use of the military?

First, it delays problem solving. Stephanie Brewer, from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) puts it well, “Instead of buying time for (civilian) authorities to implement solutions, militarization has become the addiction that postpones those solutions indefinitely.”

That’s the second problem: using the military to address problems that don’t have a military solution doesn’t work. After 25 years of unsuccessful attempts at using the military in public security and drug control that failure seems clear.

Third, it undercuts civilian government. When you give too many authorities to one institution, only that institution has the capacity to respond, meaning that it will continue to be called upon. In this case, that institution is the one that has guns. Giving too many responsibilities to the military disturbs the balance of power. The more you do it, the fewer options you have.

Once the hemispheric example of quiet and limited civilian power, the Mexican military’s responsibilities are increasingly being expanded. Ojo, broadening military roles weakens democracy.

*First published in Mexican newspaper La Reforma‘s English language site, 1/10/22.

Thankful for Three Women: More Misuse of Mexico’s Organized Crime Law

I’m thankful for people who do hard things for the public good while under tremendous pressure. It was recently reported that Mexico’s anti-organized crime law was spuriously used to surveil three such people: Marcela Turati, Mimi Doretti and Ana Lorena Delgadillo. Here is who they are, why the use of the organized crime law against them is so wrong and why I am thankful for them.

Marcela Turati is an award-winning journalist who has done amazing and dangerous work to uncover information about the disappeared in Mexico. She is one of the founders of Periodistas de a Pie, an organization of journalists helping and training journalists doing rights related investigations. Mexico is the deadliest place in the world to be a journalist and Marcela is known for undertaking dangerous investigations.

Mimi Doretti is the leader of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF). This organization uses forensic tools to identify human remains and works with families searching for missing loved ones. The EAAF has helped identify victims of government abuse and organized crime as well as migrants who have perished on their journey to a better life. Mimi and the EAAF have trained young anthropologist throughout the world, including Mexico. Their findings have been used in prosecutions and comforted families of the previously lost.

Ana Lorena Delgadillo runs the Fundacíon para la Justicia in Mexico. The Foundation uses the judicial process to hold accountable those responsible for disappearances and accompanies the victims’ families in the process, which is often long, complicated and painful. They work with families of the disappeared in Mexico, including Central American migrants.

The work of these three came together around the identification of mass graves near San Fernando, Tamaulipas in 2011. In this series of bloody crimes, 193 people, many of them Central American migrants, were taken off of buses, killed and dumped in mass graves. No one has yet to be held accountable.

Now, decade later, the work to uncover the truth about San Fernando continues. As part of this process, the Fundación para la Justicia requested access to the legal case files and was able to get them in 2021. One thing revealed by the documents was stunning. In 2015, the Mexican government had used an anti-organized crime law to investigate these three women, who were not involved in the crime, but investigating the massacre and helping the victims’ families. These women were put under surveillance and their communications monitored as if they might be responsible for the killings. Yes, that is as twisted as it sounds and yet another misuse of Mexico’s anti-organized crime law.

Shame, or better yet accountability, should be heaped upon those who put these amazing women under surveillance. I think the phrase, “they worked tirelessly” is overused. But not when it comes to these three. They make our society better. As we reflect upon 2021 and look forward to 2022, let’s strive to be more like them, brave and tireless; and do more to hold accountable those who seek to intimidate, or do worse, to those seeking justice.

*Originally published in Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s English language site, 12/20/21.

Remain in Mexico 2.0: Civil Society Left Holding the Bag

The US asked for, and Mexico has accepted, the reinstatement of “Remain in Mexico,” the policy that makes asylum seekers stay in Mexico while their cases are adjudicated in the United States. This policy violates international law, gets Mexico to make promises that it has no intention or capacity to fulfill, and leaves civil society to deal with the mess of human suffering it produces.

The Biden administration says that it intends to terminate Remain in Mexico but is justifying the reinstatement because of a court order. Biden should not get brownie points for wanting to do the right thing, because implementing the court order violates other laws. The Administration is actually taking advantage of the court order. Remain in Mexico 2.0 will cover more categories of people than the previous version and Title 42, the adjacent and unjustifiable Covid-19 policy that allows the government to immediately expel others, has just been renewed.

The new agreement between the US and Mexico claims that it will address serious humanitarian, security and due process issues that abounded with the previous version. To address these concerns, the Department of Homeland Security, in its “Guiding Principles for Reimplementation” claims the following, that: 1) asylum cases will be heard in a timely fashion and asylum seekers will have “meaningful opportunities to access and meet with (legal) counsel;” 2) they are working to ensure that there will be shelters in Mexico and secure transportation to and from ports of entry; and that 3) no one will be returned to Mexico if they “demonstrate” a reasonable possibility of persecution or torture in Mexico.

Based on past experience with Remain in Mexico, here is what we can reasonably expect.

We know that US asylum seekers are much more likely to win their cases if they have legal representation. We also know little legal representation will be available. According to HIAS, a US immigration organization that helped provide legal representation the last time around, only about 10% of those under Remain in Mexico actually secured legal representation. This time, some lawyers who tried to help in the past are refusing to participate because they believe that by doing so they will be facilitating the violation of international law.

We know that security is a huge problem for those forced to wait at the border. It is well documented that this population is targeted by organized crime. NGO Human Rights First has documented 7,647 cases of kidnappings and violent attacks against people blocked or expelled to Mexico since President Biden took office. We also know that these crimes are grossly under-reported and almost never prosecuted.

We know that there are not sufficient shelters to protect those who are forced to wait. There isn’t sufficient shelter now and the numbers of people will only increase. One of the times when migrants are at greatest risk is when they move from shelters to the border for scheduled appointments. Mexico’s standard policy has been that it will not provide any additional protection for asylum seekers that is not provided to the regular Mexican population.

We know that people will not have sufficient access to medical care. Under the last round of Remain in Mexico, Global Response Management (GRM) responded in the border state of Tamaulipas. This is an organization that sets up emergency clinics in precarious humanitarian situations. Their idea is to go in early and help cover medical needs before the bigger organizations can establish a presence. The problem was that the bigger NGOs never came. Many international NGOS consider the Tamaulipas border to be too dangerous and will not put staff there. GRM is still there helping as best they can, but it is not enough.

When it comes to the US making exceptions for asylum seekers who are at risk if they remain in Mexico, I’ll believe it when I see it. Until now, even those who had previously been kidnapped in Mexico were returned when they tried to apply for US asylum.

There are NGOs and attorneys on both sides of the border who worked incredibly hard to provide support to those who suffered from the Remain in Mexico 1.0, and to help the US end that program. They are the ones who provide food, shelter, medicine and legal assistance to those in need. They are hopping mad that it is being reinstated. From experience, they know that they will be left holding the bag, having to figure out how to help those who will suffer under this policy. This is a chronicle of suffering foretold.

No matter what pretty words are in this agreement, we know what’s coming because we have been here before. And neither government has earned our trust that their stated intentions will be put into practice. Asylum seekers will get stuck, for months, if not years on the Mexican side of the border. They will not have housing; they will not be safe; and they will not get legal representation. And both governments will leave it to the NGOs to bear the burden of this policy.

*First published in Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s English language site, 12/6/21

Fear in Mexican Academia

The Mexican Attorney General’s Office has charged a number of accomplished of academics with organized crime and money laundering. Yes, you read that correctly and it is as crazy as it sounds. Just to be clear from the start, they are not accused of being involved with drug trafficking or pocketing money to buy mansions. The accusation relates to one academic program’s support for another academic program.

Organized crime and money laundering are real problems in Mexico. They are impediments to a more prosperous and equitable Mexico. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is known for his campaign against corruption. But what is happening here appears to be something else.

The López Obrador government alleges that one academic institution, CONACYT (the National Council for Science and Technology), used funds to inappropriately support another academic institution, the Foro Consultivo (the Scientific and Technological Consultative Forum). Even if true, it is not clear that a crime has even been committed since CONACYT’s governing documents reportedly mandated it to support the Foro Consultivo.

I don’t know the particulars of academic financing in Mexico and have no opinion about whether or not inappropriate academic financial transfers took place. But let’s look at the supposed crime – organized crime and money laundering – and the penalties they could incur. Does the accusation fit the alleged crime?

The UNODC defines organized crime as, “a continuing criminal enterprise that rationally works to profit from illicit activities…. (and) is maintained through corruption of public officials and the use of intimidation, threats or force to protect its operations.” Global Financial Integrity defines money laundering as, “the process of disguising the proceeds of crime and integrating it into the legitimate financial system.”

In this case, it is reported that CONACYT approved the budgets and expenses of the Foro and that the funds were externally audited. While something may have been inappropriate, it is hard to imagine how a misdeed of this type rises to the level of organized crime or money laundering.

In Mexico, simply being accused of these crimes can result in pretrial detention in a maximum-security prison. The Mexican Attorney General has twice sought arrest warrants for the academics. Twice judges have denied the request.

So what is happening here? Why these outsized charges for leading academics? Along with AMLO’s anti-corruption theme have been austerity measures that have hit public universities hard. The Foro did not just complain about the cuts, they sued the government over austerity related cuts.

Academia is based on challenging ideas. Their research should (and does) challenge the status quo. Threatening academics with a stint in a maximum-security prison is beyond the pale. Fear will keep them from performing their role in society.

The government’s allegations create real fear within the Mexican academic community. Maybe instigating fear is the intent. To silence and ensure compliance.

Unfortunately, this is not over. The Mexican Attorney General has said that he will seek another warrant for the academics. Scaring professors into not criticizing the government will not help Mexico. Organized crime and money laundering are the real problems.

*First published in Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s English language site 11/23/21.

Time to Own Cuba Policy

It is ten months into the Biden Administration and time they started owning their approach to Trump era foreign policies that they haven’t changed – like Cuba policy. US policy toward Cuba is stuck in a Cold War time warp and held in place by domestic policy concerns that have nothing to do what makes sense for 2021.

The Obama Administration stepped back from the Cold War “regime change” approach to Cuba policy and instead focused on encouraging change through engagement. With justifiable fanfare – after half of century of relations based on the idea that economic and political isolation would force change – the Obama Administration re-established a US embassy, eased rules on travel that dramatically increased the number of US visitors and eliminated almost all restrictions on the delivery of remittances to Cuba. While Cuba is one of the rare cases in which the US Congress has codified economic sanctions, meaning the Obama Administration couldn’t lift the entire embargo without congressional action, they went a long way in changing the fundamentals of the policy and the relationship.

Under the Trump Administration the US/Cuba relationship reverted to the 1980s. Since President Biden took office little has changed. Technically the US embassy in Havana still exists, but it has few staff members. With almost no staff, they don’t have the capacity to provide visas to Cubans for refugee admissions, family reunification or other options. This lack of legal pathways for migrations is contributing to the large number of Cubans crossing through Mexico and attempting to cross undocumented into the US at the southern border. While travel to Cuba had expanded greatly by the end of the Obama Administration, now only a handful of direct flights from the US are allowed. As Covid-19 related economic disruptions hit Cuba hard, the Trump Administration all but ended the flow of remittances from the US to Cuban families, first limiting total remittances to US $4,000, then imposing sanctions that made it impossible for Western Union to transfer remittances through Cuban financial institutions. These left-over policies from the Trump Administration mean that now, under the Biden Administration US/Cuba policy is still based on isolation.

The question of what to do with countries that break the rules of democratic governance – like Cuba – has long been a diplomatic challenge. If military intervention is off the table – which I’m glad it is – economic sanctions are considered one of the primary tools available to convey objection to human rights violations or anti-democratic behavior.

In recent years a lot of questions have arisen about the impact of economic sanctions, not just toward Cuba, but around the world. General economic sanctions are considered to have serious unintended consequences for the most vulnerable people in the target country. It is not the rich or corrupt who suffer. It is those living on the edge, taking public transportation and using public health services.

With these critiques in mind, the US Treasury Department recently published a global review of sanctions policy. The review recommended changes in how sanctions should be structured rather than recommending changes to specific country sanctions. Nonetheless, it is relevant to Cuba as three of the key recommendations are that: 1) sanctions be linked to a clear policy goal – while Cuba sanctions are about regime change; 2) the cost of sanctions should fall on the intended target – while Cuba sanctions impede access to humanitarian goods and limit the ability of families to support their loved ones; and 3) there should be international support for sanctions – while the UN votes regularly to condemn US sanctions on Cuba.

Among the Treasury Department’s recommendations are this: “Going forward, Treasury will continue to review its existing authorities to consider the unintended consequences of current sanctions regimes on humanitarian activity necessary to support basic human needs, as well as potential changes to address them while continuing to deny support to malicious actors.” Applying this analysis to existing US/Cuba policy is something the Biden Administration needs to do now.

To be clear, the reconsideration of sanctions should not ignore the Cuban government’s authoritarian practices, violations of due process or human rights abuses. This summer, discontent over food shortages, power black outs, and the government’s failure to follow through on promised reforms led to an eruption of spontaneous protests in Cuba, the likes of which have not been seen in decades. It was exciting to watch the free expression of popular sentiment. Unfortunately, the government quickly shut it down. A follow up protest is scheduled for November 15th. There is no doubt that the Cuban government will go to great lengths to stop this protest before it starts. They have a long history of detaining protest leaders before protests even happen. The US and others can and should encourage the Cuban government to tolerate and listen to dissent. The international community shouldn’t be indifferent when popular protest gets stifled. But being critical of Cuba doesn’t mean sticking to a failed policy of isolation.

Restructuring Cuba policy isn’t easy, but just keeping the Trump era restrictions is not the answer. For political pragmatists in the Democratic camp, there is always a reason not to change Cuba policy. Right after Biden came into office it was because he had bigger fish to fry – the domestic economic and social policy agenda. Then, all of the foreign policy political capital was spent on the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Now the reason for inaction is the US mid-term congressional elections. It would incense some voters in south Florida and they think risk the Democrats ability to win congressional seats. After November of 2022 the rationale will be that Cuba policy change will risk the Democrats ability to hold the presidency. The excuses are endless.

It is time for the Biden Administration to own the policies they implement. They did this in a good way last week when they issued a new ruling to end Remain in Mexico, the Trump era policy that forces US asylum seekers to wait in Mexico pending the termination of their cases in the US. That wasn’t a politically easy change. Now they should own Cuba policy by refocusing on engagement, as Obama did, and implementing the sanctions recommendations made by the Treasury Department. Waiting won’t make it easier and certainly doesn’t make current policy any better.

* Originally published on 11/2/21 in Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s site

The Judge Made Me Do It

The Biden Administration has recently announced that it will reinstate the “Migrant Protection Program” (what a misnomer) also called “Remain in Mexico” (somewhat more honest). Established by the Trump Administration, it requires asylum seekers, who approach the US border from Mexico, to stay there while their cases are adjudicated.

If you thought that policy was still in place, you are excused. It is very hard to keep track of US policies to deter asylum seekers at the US/Mexico border. Just to refresh your memory, the other one is called “Title 42,” which sounds like an article of the Constitution or the chapter of a much too long book. Title 42 is shorthand for the health code that allows the government to turn back potential asylum seekers using a public health rationale. While it may have had justification early in the Covid-19 pandemic, it is now simply a specious legal argument that allows the Border Patrol to turn people away before they can apply for asylum.

Democrats cried foul when the Trump Administration created Remain in Mexico, and a sad looking encampment of asylum seekers formed in Matamoros, within sight of the Brownsville border crossing. When President Biden was elected, they reversed the Remain in Mexico policy and dismantled the camp, but kept Title 42. It was a handy rationale to keep asylum seekers at bay.

Now, US courts have instructed the Biden Administration to reinstate Remain in Mexico. But before we allow “the judge made me do it” excuse to settle in, note that this decision was made because the Trump era program was determined to have been improperly terminated. The Biden Administration could simply decide to end it in a way that is acceptable to the court.

Let’s be clear. Instead of deciding to properly end the Trump era program, which violated international asylum commitments, the Biden Administration will own Remain in Mexico. This stain is on them.

Where does all of this leave asylum seekers? Dumped back on the Mexican side of the border, without support. There are currently camps of potential US asylum seekers sitting in plazas in Reynosa and Tijuana. They are disturbing scenes of humanity, filth and people being preyed upon by criminals.

Neither country wants to encourage asylum seekers and seem to think that misery is the best deterrent. Where are the international humanitarian assistance organizations that we all know and love – the big institutions like the UN High Commission for Refugees or the big international NGOs? Not in the most dangerous Mexican border cities. They all consider them too dangerous to have a continuous presence. The US State Department lists Tamaulipas as a “Do Not Travel” state, and seriously restricts the travel of US employees.

But this is where we will send migrants to wait while their US asylum claims are considered. To be clear, people requesting asylum do so because of a fear of persecution in their home countries. Our response is to make them wait in places where international organizations are too afraid to work, and US government employees are prohibited from moving about. US citizens are rightly outraged when children’s rights are not respected in US immigration facilities, or when Haitian migrants are chased on horseback at the border. But if we push these same people across the line back into Mexico, those so outraged fall silent. Pushing the asylum crisis into Mexico, into places US citizens will not venture, may help those on this side of the border sleep better at night, because they don’t see the problem. But Remain in Mexico creates a nightmare for asylum seekers and if President Biden reinstates it, he will shoulder the blame.

*Originally published in the Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s site – 10/19/20.

The Urgency of Tackling the Root Causes of Migration

This past week Mexico and the US restarted high level economic talks. This is good; as this kind of diplomatic engagement was dismantled under the Trump Administration. Central American migration was on the agenda. That’s good too, but both countries need to start displaying a sense of urgency to address the causes of migration.

Granted, high level diplomatic dialogues are not detail laden affairs. These are meetings of “the principals–” cabinet secretaries — and in this case Vice President Harris. They are designed to build the participants trust and facilitate problem solving, laudable goals. But this meeting reminded me of how much talk there is about addressing the “root causes” of migration and how little substance I see.

The presidents of both countries inherited dysfunctional migration systems from their predecessors, but both have also been in office long enough to own the policies that they execute. Neither country’s rhetoric aligns with what people in Central America experience.

The US talks about a US $4 billion investment in the Northern Triangle. But US economic aid is the slow boat to China (or in this case, Central America). It generally takes years from the moment that spending is announced, for it to be approved by Congress, contracted out and then implemented. To someone desperate for change in their immediate future, what could happen in two years means nothing.

Vice President Harris is also encouraging businesses to invest in Central America, but the US is not playing diplomatic hardball with fundamentally corrupt and undemocratic governments, and economic and political elites. If the US wants more investment in the region then their anti-corruption policies need to be more than tough tweeting.

Then there is Mexico, which professes to offer hope by announcing the expansion to Guatemala of Sembrando Vida, an employment generation/tree planting program; accompanying this announcement was an appeal to the US to provide temporary work visas for those who participate. Let’s take that apart. The provision of large numbers of temporary work visas to Central Americans could be an important part of a legitimate response to the outflow of people from the region and something that could give people immediate hope. But linking Sembrando Vida to a US visa, is a political gimmick. Few people will throw stones at a tree planting program, but Guatemalans aren’t going to stop leaving home because they got temporary work planting trees. The tree program is about Mexico looking like it is responding to a migration crisis without actually doing much. The US needs to provide serious numbers of work visas to Central America, and Mexico should push them to do it.

When both countries want to move fast to address a problem, they can. Just look at the US response to the Afghani refugees, or how fast the Mexican National Guard was brought in to stop migrants at Mexico’s southern border. When there is a sense of immediacy, and when a crisis does not involve our borders, both nations spring into action. But when the desperate people are your neighbors, it’s a different story.

The politicians are talking a good game about the root causes of migration in Central America, but the talk is miles ahead of action. Instead of giving people hope that things will change, all this talk is feeding cynicism. Only actions that are concrete and have some immediate component will provide a thread of hope to would be migrants. Both governments feel political urgency when it comes to migrants and refugees crossing our borders. Let’s see some urgency in addressing the root causes of migration.

*Originally published in the Mexican newspaper La Reforma’s site, 9/15/21.