Weekly U.S.-Mexico Border Update: Migrant Deaths, In-Transit … – Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)

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.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that nearly half of all migrant deaths worldwide in 2022 occurred in the U.S.-Mexico border zone. The 686 deaths counted by IOM’s Missing Migrant Project are an undercount, limited by available data. Border Patrol is preliminarily reporting a modest decrease in migrant deaths in 2023, but the full toll of this summer’s record heat remains unclear.
Media reports from throughout the Americas in the past week point to record numbers of migrants transiting Panama and Honduras, while large numbers are stranded at the Peru-Chile border, northern Nicaragua, southern Guatemala, southern Mexico, and of course northern Mexico.
As happened in May, asylum seekers trying to turn themselves in between layers of San Diego’s double border wall are not being processed right away. Border Patrol is leaving them outdoors between the walls for a day or more with little food, water, or bathroom facilities.
The Biden administration is considering a policy change that would require many asylum-seeking families to remain in south Texas while awaiting credible fear interviews. Texas’s state government has now put 36,000 migrants on buses to the U.S. interior. An Illinois coroner’s report about a Venezuelan girl who died aboard a Texas bus has discrepancies with Texas’s account of her health when her family boarded the bus. A federal appeals court is allowing Texas to keep a wall of buoys in the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass while it considers a Justice Department lawsuit to take them down.

A report from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) found that the U.S.-Mexico border was “the deadliest land route for migrants worldwide on record” in 2022. IOM’s Missing Migrant Project, which maintains a large database of worldwide migrant deaths, counted 1,457 deaths hemisphere-wide last year, of which 686 occurred on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
As the organization acknowledges, this is an undercount. On the U.S. side alone, “In FY [fiscal year] 2022, more than 890 migrants died attempting to enter the United States between ports of entry across the SWB [southwest border]”—more than the IOM figure, the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Justice reported in March, in their draft of the May asylum “transit ban” rule. The departments offered no further detail, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has yet to produce the 2022 version of its Border Rescues and Mortality Data report. The 890 figure, too, is an undercount, as regional humanitarian groups along the border find a higher count of migrant remains than Border Patrol does in the regions that they cover.
“Although the data shows that deaths and disappearances in the U.S.-Mexico border decreased by 8 per cent from the previous year, the 2022 figure is likely higher than the available information suggests,” IOM notes, “due to missing official data, including information from Texas border county coroner’s offices and the Mexican search and rescue agency.” Of the 686 documented deaths in 2022, 307 “were linked to the hazardous crossing of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts” in Arizona and New Mexico.
Elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, IOM counted 350 deaths on migration routes in the Caribbean in 2022, a sharp increase over previous years, and 141 in the inhospitable Darién Gap jungle straddling the border between Colombia and Panama.
Between October 2022 and August 2023, according to a recent WOLA interaction with a Border Patrol official, the agency found the remains of 640 migrants, a 24 percent decrease over the same period in 2022. This could be due to a somewhat smaller migrant population—Border Patrol’s 2023 apprehensions were down 9 percent through July compared with 2022—and stepped-up search and rescue efforts.
On the other hand, this year’s record-breaking heat, especially in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts, may have killed more people than we yet know. Border Patrol told Border Report this week that it has found 140 remains since October in its El Paso Sector, which includes the area around the Texas city and all of New Mexico. That is up very sharply from 71 in 2022, and from an average of 13 in the 24 years between 1998 and 2021.

In the El Paso Sector, “the wall, the arrival of the Texas National Guard, the surge of Department of Public Safety patrols, all of that is pushing people to the desert,” Carlos Marentes, the executive director of the Border Farm Workers Center, told Border Report.

After a lull following the end of the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy, countries along the northbound migration route are again experiencing elevated levels of migration, which may portend record arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border this fall. These narratives all come from news coverage from the past seven days.
On Peru’s border with Chile, Infobae reported that dozens of Venezuelan, Colombian, Ecuadorian, and Haitian citizens are stranded and sleeping outdoors in the desert border city of Tacna, as Peruvian police prevent them from moving further. The migrants had been living in Chile, which ended a state of emergency in its northern border zone on August 27, making northbound migration somewhat easier.
An organization in Ecuador that supports Venezuelan migrants, the Fundación Yo Te Apoyo, reported that the country’s population of Venezuelan migrants declined by 120,000 in 2022 and by another 70,000 so far in 2023. In its latest update on the number of region-wide Venezuelan migrants, the Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (R4V), which is co-led by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR, found a much more modest decrease in Ecuador’s Venezuelan migrant population: from 502,214 in May 2022 to 474,945 in June 2023.
Whatever its dimensions, the decline reflects Venezuelans’ desire either to return home or to go to the United States as they find Ecuador economically unviable. In its latest “Refugee and Migrant Needs Analysis,” the IOM noted, R4V found that more than 4 million Venezuelan migrants “still face difficulties accessing food, shelter, health care, education and formal employment in Latin America and the Caribbean.” The R4V has requested that international donors contribute $1.72 billion this year for a “Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan” for Venezuelan migrants, but has only raised 12 percent of that.
While Panama has yet to release detailed numbers through August, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported on September 5 that about 330,000 people so far this year have migrated through Panama’s Darién Gap jungles. A September 14 New York Times story from the Darién Gap, citing Panamanian authorities, reported that 82,000 people—a record by far—transited the region in August.
The Times reported how communities and organized crime on Colombia’s side of the route are profiting from the flow of in-transit migrants. There, the region’s top police official told reporter Julie Turkewitz that it is not his responsibility to control migration, and President Gustavo Petro told her that “he had no intention of sending ‘horses and whips’ to the border to solve a problem that wasn’t of his country’s making.” (This is a veiled reference to a September 2021 incident in Del Rio, Texas, where Border Patrol agents on horseback were caught on camera charging at Haitian migrants on the bank of the Rio Grande.)
On September 8, Panama’s National Immigration Authority director, Samira Gozaine, announced that the country would step up charter deportation flights, especially of migrants with criminal records. The country deported 452 migrants by air between April and August, Agénce France Presse reported. Panama is also reducing the maximum allowed tourist stay from 90 to 15 days, and demanding that visitors prove that they have at least $1,000 in funds.
Panama and Colombia hosted a high-level U.S. visit to both sides of the Darién Gap, led by White House Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall and including officials from U.S. Southern Command, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State.
In Nicaragua, the online outlet Onda Local offered a rare journalistic glimpse at migration transiting a country whose hermetic dictatorship bars most journalists and international observers. “In the last 3 months, at least 30 cabs and 5 express buses have been transporting migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela and even Ecuador on a daily basis, making a journey of about 300 kilometers from the city of Managua to the border area of the municipality of Jalapa, in the department of Nueva Segovia, en route to the United States.” Each taxi carries five passengers, charging them $120 each, while a bus to the Honduran border zone costs $30. Those who lack these funds—depleted after paying Nicaraguan authorities a visa fee of at least $150—are stranded until they can raise them.
More than 18,300 migrants passed through Honduras’s municipality of Danlí, along the Nicaraguan border, in the previous week, Doctors Without Borders told EFE in a September 12 report. (When WOLA staff visited Danlí in early May, about 800 migrants per day—less than one third as many—were transiting the city.) On August 17, according to the Honduran investigative outlet ContraCorriente, a record 5,200 migrants registered for a document allowing them to transit the country in 5 days. “Since then, the number hasn’t gone below 4,000 daily entries.”
While Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras allow migrants to register, purchase a bus ticket, and transit their territory, Guatemala does not. Guatemalan police apprehend migrants, and the national government reports expelling into Honduras 13,884 migrants so far this year, more than 9,000 of them Venezuelan. Migrants report that police view this as an opportunity to solicit bribes in exchange for allowing them to proceed northward. This situation has stranded hundreds in the city of Esquipulas, not far from the Agua Caliente border crossing with Honduras.
In southern Mexico, “NGOs estimate that between 90,000 and 100,000 migrants are stranded in Tapachula, Mexico’s border with Guatemala,” EFE reported. Tapachula’s entire population is about 350,000. In Tijuana, municipal migration office director Enrique Lucero told the daily El Imparcial that between 5,500 and 6,000 migrants are currently occupying the migrant shelters that have city government recognition. Most are seeking one of 385 appointments that CBP makes available each day at the San Ysidro port of entry using its “CBP One” smartphone app.

For the second time this year, Border Patrol is making hundreds of asylum-seeking migrants wait outdoors for more than 24 hours, between layers of the area’s double border wall, to be processed between San Diego and Tijuana. In the makeshift camp that has sprung up between the walls, California Public Media reported, migrants “sleep outside with little protection from the elements. There are no bathrooms, leaving men, women and children to relieve themselves in nearby bushes.”
Either unwilling or unable to await a CBP One appointment, the migrants—often guided by smugglers—have passed from Tijuana through small openings, some perhaps sawed through, in the outer border wall. Once in the “no-man’s land” between the walls, they are on U.S. soil and hope to turn themselves in to Border Patrol and seek asylum, if they avoid having the Biden administration’s new “transit ban” asylum rule applied to them.
Migrants began appearing in significant numbers “on Tuesday, Wednesday of last week” (September 5 or 6), Adriana Jasso of the American Friends Service Committee told Reuters. Jasso told California Public Media that humanitarian workers have identified migrants from Cameroon, Morocco, Vietnam, China, Jamaica, Brazil, Peru, and Afghanistan.
According to the Tijuana daily El Imparcial, more than 500 non-Mexican migrants, including many families, have crossed this way. “Andrés,” a Colombian migrant traveling with his wife, told the paper that he did so out of fear of human traffickers in Tijuana. “At least here we don’t feel as unsafe as we did there.” Andrés and his wife were wearing white plastic bracelets from Border Patrol, indicating that they had arrived on September 11; the agency is processing the migrants according to when they arrived.
The wait for processing is currently 24 to 36 hours. Border Patrol agents hand out water bottles, cheese and crackers. Volunteers provide all other supplies, from blankets to diapers to phone charging equipment, through the slats of the border wall.
Border Patrol is putting about 50 migrants at a time on buses to be processed, which is “a faster circulation of people than what we saw back in May,” Pedro Rios of AFSC told San Diego’s local CBS affiliate. He was referring to the situation before the May 11 end of the Title 42 policy, when Border Patrol forced as many as 400 migrants to “camp” between the border wall layers for days before processing them. (See WOLA’s May 19, 2023 Border Update.)
At the time, the Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC) filed a complaint with DHS’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties alleging that CBP “is detaining migrants in cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions in an open-air corridor in California.” After several members of Congress wrote to CBP voicing strong concern, the agency responded that the migrants were always free to move back into Mexico, and that at the time Border Patrol was facing “capacity issues and some transportation challenges which have since been remediated.”
The director of the Mexican government’s migration agency (National Migration Institute or Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM) for the state of Baja California told El Imparcial that illegal smugglers have taken control of some areas along the border wall, including some of the canyons near the highway that follows the double wall between downtown Tijuana and the Pacific. David Pérez Tejada Padilla said that “in a single weekend, a thousand migrants cross irregularly through the Tijuana River channel with the support of smugglers.”

The border security and migration situation along the Texas-Mexico border remains eventful, as the Texas state government led by Biden administration critic Gov. Greg Abbott (R) continues to pursue a multi-billion-dollar border security crackdown dubbed “Operation Lone Star.”
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