Less than two weeks after Hurricane Eta struck Central America, leading to deaths from Panama to Guatemala, another Hurricane is expected to hit Central America, coming ashore just north of where Eta struck along the Nicaraguan coast.
Eta left extraordinary damage in its wake, especially along Honduras’ northern coast and inland, where rivers crested, entirely cutting off communities from assistance. In Guatemala, mudslides have killed scores off people. In Guatemala and Honduras, the governments did little to prepare for the storm, and have been ineffectual in delivering emergency supplies to people in need. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees writes:
Honduras has been hit hardest by extensive rains and overflowing rivers, with an estimated 1.3 million people affected, 58 dead and 88,000 evacuated. Among these are 103 people who had been previously displaced by violence and persecution.
In Guatemala, over 640,000 people have been affected, including 46 dead and 96 missing nationwide. Some are buried under landslides or remain inaccessible to first responders. At least two families of asylum seekers have had to be evacuated from their homes due to flooding. UNHCR is coordinating the delivery of aid with authorities and partners and has made refugee housing units and essential supplies available, in response to the government-led appeal for support.
Nicaragua’s government managed to evacuate thousands of people prior to Eta’s landing. There were only two confirmed deaths in Nicaragua – both miners killed in a mudslide. Over the last week the government has delivered over 30,000 sheets of metal for roofing and other supplies to to begin reconstruction efforts. Nicaragua was better prepared than other countries in the region, as it had developed a national response network in the post-Mitch era. However, like everything else these days with Nicaragua, unless you are there, it is impossible to decipher the impact of government efforts from the media as every story of success has a counter-narrative these days. That said, like the rest of Central America, this hurricane hit at a time when economic growth has slowed due to the coronavirus outbreak and government resources are strained as a result. In Nicaragua, the struggle is further exacerbated by U.S. government sanctions aimed at pressuring the Sandinistas out of power.
As of now, another tropical system is heading toward Nicaragua, and is expected to strengthen into a hurricane. It is currently estimated to come to shore along the northern Nicaragua coast on Monday morning, and cut across Honduras, with impacts felt in Guatemala, El Salvador, Southern Mexico and Belize.
It goes without saying this is about the worst thing that can happen right now. We hope that conditions have changed enough to limit the strength of the storm. For example, this system is moving faster, and is not expected to reach the devastating Category 4 that Eta did. We will update as more is known.
Update: Friday 11:00 p.m.
The tropical depression has become Tropical Storm Iota. The latest from the National Hurricane Center now shows it potentially becoming a “major” hurricane by Monday morning – winds in excess of 110 MPH.
Update #2: Saturday 10:00 PM
Iota has slowed down, and is strengthening. The path has also shifted south some, currently on target to hit Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast very close to where Eta did. Honduras will get hit hard again on this path.
The Quixote Center serves as the fiscal sponsor for the Franciscan Network on Migration’s fundraising activities in the United States. We participate in the Network’s discussions on advocacy and work closely with Network coordinator Lori Winther to craft strategies concerning communications about network activities. Below are updates directly from the shelters in Mexico. If you are able to support this work you can make a secure, tax- deductible donation to the Franciscan Network on Migration here.
La 72, House for Migrants Tenosique, Tabasco, Mexico
During the first months of the pandemic, La 72 had institutionalized various health and protection measures for migrants, staff and volunteers. Since mid-October, the shelter has coordinated a re-opening with certain precautionary measures to ensure the protection of the people inside.
With the collaborating organization Medicos Sin Fronteras, they have determined that they can have up to 150 people in the shelter at a time. They monitor the count of people entering (20-30 a day) and those leaving the shelter. In special cases, they receive more than the 150 limit but try to keep the number consistent.
Everyone has to wear masks, and there are new guidelines for grooming, hand washing, and the use of antibacterial gel. People who want to go out can only do so twice a week to go shopping, to eat, to the doctor, etc. Those who go to work can do it daily with permission. They check every person who passes through the gate for temperature. Any suspected cases are transferred to what is normally the juvenile module for quarantine and COVID testing. To date, they have had one verified COVID case and 3 suspected cases.
There are also 200-250 people living on the court next to the house. They do not want to enter the shelter due to movement restrictions. La 72 offers them support for their migration cases as refugees or for suffering human rights violations, etc. and 100-150 can enter to sleep in the chapel between 8:30 pm until 6:30 am.
One of the changes that has affected migration the most is that the train, sometimes called “La Bestia,” stopped operating since the end of August due to the conversion of the routes for the new tourist “Mayan Train.” People now come walking or hitchhike in cars. They have established new routes from Petén, through Salto de Agua and Palenque (there is more information in the Casa Betania report on this below). UNICEF is carrying out a study on the impact of the construction of the routes for the Mayan Train, and has interviewed local and indigenous communities, and the different houses and shelters. They are seeing a lack of respect for indigenous people as well as environmental and social impacts.
Other impediments: At the moment it is also impossible to go through Veracruz or Monterrey on foot. There are many INM (National Institute of Migration) checkpoints there and people are deported. They are not seeing many people traveling south either, because Mexico is deporting them. What you see is the perseverance and tenacity of the people. They need to migrate and the obstacles don’t matter. However, more people every day are seeing that Mexico will be their destination. They end up staying as refugees in the big cities of northern Mexico.
Casa Betania Santa Martha, Salto de Agua, Chiapas, Mexico
The parish of San Fernando de Guadalupe has been cared for by the Missionaries of the Divine Word (SVD) for 33 years. Currently, in the Casa Betania-Santa Martha Project, five SVDs of five different nationalities work alongside four Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Mary (FMM) currently from Congo, the Philippines, and Mexico. The house is in the middle of Palenque and Villahermosa; the municipal seat is Salto de Agua. Normally, the border closest to the house is called “La Técnica.” About 70% of the migrants crossed this border nearby.
Right now the train, “La Bestia”, has stopped circulating on this route, people are entering more through El Ceibo and El Naranjo. Before, people came and got on the train between these borders and Tenosique, now they have to walk the long distance between these points, and Casa Betania is on the route. As a result the shelter has experienced a huge increase in numbers. Since August it has been increasing again, and now they are receiving around 100 people a day. The majority of the population are Hondurans (85%), Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, a few Cubans and Venezuelans. Some Africans have arrived.
The pandemic caused them many challenges; they heard that many houses were closing due to the pandemic. But seeing the migrants, the faces, hearing the stories, the team decided to keep the house open. 10 or 15 people arrived a day during the first phase of the epidemic. Most are male, but a variety of groups are arriving – women, children, unaccompanied minors, whole families, single girls, etc.
People can stay for 3 days. But they always try to personalize the situation of each one, for example if they have a disease or need a procedure, they can stay longer. Right now they have a family that was robbed asking for shelter and they are also being given additional time.
The relationship between the people has been, above all, positive. At first there were comments on social networks questioning the authorities about why they kept letting the migrants stay, always blaming the migrants for any bad that happens. But there were more people supporting them. Right now there is no formal opposition blocking their passage. The health authorities set rules for them, for example, once the migrants enter the shelter, that they do not leave, that they are not entering and leaving the shelter. Migrants, above all, do not believe in COVID, or it is a denial above all the complex situation they live, their dreams, their struggles to migrate. Well, it makes them live this denial. And so there is a bit of resistance facing the requirements, the use of the mask, the hand washing, the gel. They try to disinfect cutlery, tables, surfaces very well, and there are people who do not accept the value of these measures. But it is explained to people, raising awareness, and little by little they accept that this is the new normal.
About contagion, each person who arrives takes their temperature. If they suspect a contagion, there is an area reserved for quarantine. Currently there is a person who is positive. A couple arrived, and the young man had a fever. They were immediately taken to the hospital for an exam, and the boy tested positive. The two are isolated.
One of the sisters speaks to the women about violence on the road and hospital care for migrants who have been raped on the road.
A great challenge is that in this municipality, the authorities are not very competent to help migrants. When they need paperwork, they have to move to Palenque. It implies a day of work for the transfer.
Casa Betania Needs: They critically need volunteers. With only 4 or 5 people they are serving 100+ per day. Volunteers are available to live within the limitations they have there. There is a room in the house of a woman from the town, and the women volunteers stay in this house. The men are in a space in the shelter. They have to be of legal age, willing to work with migrants, who can follow the general rules of no drugs, no alcohol, no violence.
Materially, they especially need flip-flops for the bathroom.
Comedor San Francisco de Asís Mazatlán, Mexico
In the dining room that they operated in the parish before the pandemic, they still offer showers, distribute food (water, whey, fruit, tuna, etc.) in bags, and in special cases migrants can sleep there or they can serve lunches, as before, according to the health code.
The flow of migrants is increasing again to 9 to 10 migrants per day, some to the north, others deported. Most of the migrants continue north. They are a mix of Venezuelans and Central Americans, but very few Haitians and others at this time. They still cannot fully open with volunteers, for the safety of the volunteers.
The migrants stay under a bridge near the train tracks. Or they just eat, bathe, and leave. The INM sometimes asks for support from the parish or the DIF (National System for Integral Family Development), for people with physical disabilities, etc.
Pre-pandemic, a woman in the community offered to donate a house to better host the migrants. However, the house is not suitable for the men who make up the majority of the migrants who pass this route. The house is far from the parish and would be without an administrator on-site. There is not much space and everyone would be too crowded. There is no patio, it is completely enclosed. Sometimes there are arguments or problems. There is a lot of drug trafficking in the area, too, and they don’t have room for movement. People cannot be easily separated when tensions arise.
For these reasons, the friars plan to use the house to serve families or perhaps women, perhaps for two or three families at a time. Maybe use the house for medical care. In terms of legal paperwork, they already have right of use, but are awaiting deeds.
In other space, they plan to separate a section of the patio of their church, mainly to provide shade with a canopy (tin) roof and a large tree. There they could place cots, hammocks or mats for the men to sleep. There are two gates to the street. With a wall they will divide the areas between the parishioners and the migrants. This would give them more space for the migrants to relax and as Franciscans already live here, they would also be better supervised and supported.
They are presenting this plan for approval to their provincial government of the Franciscans at a meeting in Tijuana this month. If the plan is approved, a plan that involves blocking part of the entrance to the sanctuary from their worship space, they would need money to make these more basic plans. It would be better than what they have had, but not as good as what was originally proposed. The opportunity to buy the land where they hoped to build is no longer available.
The funds they obtained from the Central Mission of the Franciscans in Germany have been spent to cover food costs in recent months and they are running out of supplies. They are thinking of initiating a local campaign to collect more supplies.
Frontera Digna Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico
The Frontera Digna shelter is an institution that welcomes vulnerable migrants, refugees, and deportees. Due to the insecure situations that migrants experience, they arrive with an immense burden of incidents and cruelty that they have had to experience on the road and this shelter offers them relief: water so they can bathe, food, clothing, medicine. They receive spiritual support and care, nutritional assistance, and other accompaniment when required. We respond to the situations that each of them have, maintaining hope and strengthening.
In early 2020, staff at Frontera Digna were preparing a new “Compartiendo Esperanza” shelter exclusively for up to 80 women and children. In April, immigration authorities requested the use of the new shelter for 160 people in deportation proceedings from Mexico. You can read more about what happened here.
As we are very close to the border, people sometimes try to cross several times. There are helicopters, drones, dogs, sensors that detect movements, migrants even believe that when they turn on their phone, the sensors can detect them. However, they can cross and walk 3-6 days until the North American migration authorities capture and detain them, sometimes until they have lost everything along the way. We always hear, “I almost made it.” They try many times.
When they arrive with us, the deportees ask for food, clothes (sometimes they arrive in their prison suit or pajamas, flip flops). They ask to bathe and come very hungry. Sometimes they arrive dehydrated, in poor health, with traumas related to encounters with criminals, kidnappings, extortion, etc.
Temporarily closed for lodging, Frontera Digna served an average of 100 migrants every day before the COVID pandemic. Currently, they are providing pantry service, food and cleaning products and soaps, and follow up with pregnant women who are living in rented rooms. They also offered migrants the right to enter, rest a few hours and shower, but the municipality ordered them to only distribute food, bring clothes to wash, prohibiting others from entering the shelter.
There are migrants who are waiting for their asylum appointments in Nuevo Laredo, and many are arriving in Piedras Negras. They rent tiny rooms, now that the shelters are closed due to COVID. The person in charge of the INM who keeps the list to request asylum, reports that in the Piedras Negras detention center, around 160 deportees, are processed daily.
About the rented rooms, the police recently raided some buildings because the owners did not have the proper permits. The migrants were taken to detention even though some were awaiting asylum and had legal status in Mexico. They deported those who did not have papers to stay. They are constantly deporting people.
Nicaragua was struck with a category 4 hurricane on Tuesday this week. Hurricane Eta formed and quickly strengthened in the Caribbean last week and into the weekend. It came to shore as a very strong, slow moving storm near Bilwi on the northern Atlantic coast, and cut across the northern part of the country, swelling rivers and dropping rain all around.
As of Wednesday there were two reported deaths, both gold miners who perished in a mudslide west of Bilwi. Nan McCurdy with the Nicaragua Network reported on Wednesday, that “The torrential downpours on November 4 have caused the flooding of some neighborhoods in Jinotega, San José de Bocay and Wiwilí where 27 people were evacuated by the army. The strong currents of the Wamblán River dragged down the suspension bridge.” Further flooding and mudslides are always possible as the rain continues to fall, but it does seem as though Nicaragua has seen the worst effects, and has come through okay. That said, there has been significant damage to homes along the Atlantic coast and interior flooding with the result that some folks will be displaced for a time.
National emergency response systems put in place since Hurricane Mitch struck in 1998 were mobilized before the storm. On Tuesday, Erika Takeo with the Friends of the ATC wrote about precautions being taken: “Within the framework of prevention and mitigation of damages, more than 80 tons of food and basic elements were sent to the shelters (about 20 thousand people have been evacuated) that have been installed in safe areas of the city of Bilwi. Also, more than 1,500 troops of the Nicaraguan Army rescue unit were mobilized to the areas with red alert, and a provisional hospital with medical equipment from the Ministry of Health has been installed to attend to emergencies.”
We spoke with folk at Institute of John XXIII on Wednesday. As the rain was still falling, it was too early to know the full impact of the storm and, therefore, what emergency, or longer term responses might be needed. We will continue to be in touch. For now, we proceed mostly with relief that the people of Nicaragua seem to have come through the storm as well as could be expected.
Honduras and Guatemala have been more severely impacted. In Honduras at least 13 people have died in flooding, and many more in Guatemala, as 25 people were killed in a single mudslide near San Cristobal Verapaz.
We will have more information on impacts in Honduras and Guatemala early next week. At this point any funds we raise for Honduras and Guatemala will go to the Franciscan Network on Migration, which coordinates the work of shelters in Central America and Mexico.
The headlines on Haiti are once again sensational. Haiti is “on the brink,” “burning,” facing “barbarism” and so on. To be clear, Haiti is facing another trough in the decades long up and down struggle for democracy and accountability. The contours of the latest manifestation of tensions run along the same lines as they have over the past three years – anger at a government largely seen as illegitimate, anger at the spiraling economic crisis made worse by COVID, anger at the ongoing violence of gangs, which operate largely with impunity and in some cases in a coordinated fashion with the National Police. Murders that are widely believed to be politically motivated are on the rise, such as the shooting of the head of the Port-au-Prince Bar Association, Monferrier Dorval, in front of his house, hours after criticizing the government’s drive for constitutional reform. People are nervous and angry, and in parts of the country, increasingly desperate. When they protest now, however, they face lethal force from the police, or a potential backlash from armed groups.
As always beneath the headlines and media framing, there is the other Haiti. Where there is not so much chaos, but rather the predictable exercise of privilege and power in a setting where resources are increasingly scarce. There are the people who take advantage, protected in doing so by the violence of the state, which ultimately seeks to contain the poor, not serve them. On the other side there is the grassroot organization of those seeking to build a different kind of society. Students, peasant associations, women’s groups, labor unions, what remains of the grassroots church movement and so on. What so often happens in these times, is that their voices are drowned out amidst the cries for “stability,” “order” and (at the moment), “elections.”
In this update we touch on the recent currency confusion, the call for elections and current political violence, and celebrate the creation of (if not the need for) the Observatory for Crimes Against Humanity. I am reminded in writing this update of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who writes, capitalism “requires all kinds of scheming, including hard work by elites and their compradors in the overlapping and interlocking space-economies of the planet’s surface. They build and dismantle and reconfigure states, moving capacity into and out of the public realm. And they think very hard about money on the move.” Behind the turmoil in Haiti (and elsewhere) there is always the elite thinking about money on the move. Always.
Exchange rate debacle
At the beginning of October the Haitian Gourde experienced a rapid revaluation, strengthening against the dollar nearly twofold in the space of a day. On September 30, the Haitian Gourde was trading at 104.96 to the dollar, the next day 67.30. It has since stabilized at around 62 Gourde to the dollar, though whether it stays there is anyone’s guess. After three years of steady devaluation – and much criticism leveled at the government for the declining purchasing power that represented – some strengthening of the Gourde was potentially a good thing. However, the rapid change created turmoil, and made clear just how dependent Haiti is on the dollar. Suddenly the value of remittances tanked in Gourde, international non-governmental organizations working in Haiti saw the value of their budgets shrink – which meant possible cuts in pay for people working in Haiti and/or fewer local purchases. Export companies (which have made a killing exploiting Haitian workers because of the steady devaluation of the currency over the last three years) were suddenly saying they could not work under these conditions – which meant layoffs for Haitians, of course, not the company managers.
At the same time, people in Haiti can – potentially – buy more with their Gourde than before the change. This is, of course, a good thing provided local prices actually adjust, which they seem to be doing. Long-term, there is another looming downside however: If imports are cheaper, especially in the agricultural sector, the possibility for further undercutting of local production increases. If you are keeping tabs here, the result of all of this means Haiti will see a further decline in its trade balance (imports increasing more than exports) which is never good for a country in need of dollars to repay debts to international creditors. This just makes the point that there are pros and cons to both “weak” and “strong” currency valuations – and what ultimately matters is stability and predictability. If the Gourde settles in at the current rate, people will adjust. As no one believes this is an actual market valuation, however, the chances for future instability looms large. Indeed, given Haiti’s negative trade balance the reality is that the Gourde was probably overvalued at 105. The government’s intervention to strengthen the Gourde is thus likely best read as a short-term political stunt that may well backfire before elections some time next year, but will almost certainly have consequences for after.
President Moise has been ruling by decree since January of 2020. At that point, the terms of most of Haiti’s parliamentarians expired. As there was no prior agreement on an election law, election timetable, or members of the Provisional Electoral Council to oversee the process, Haiti’s parliament stopped functioning for lack of membership. Moise did appoint a Prime Minister, and thus, there is a head of government overseeing administrative functions. But there are only 11 elected officials in Haiti at the moment, and no legislature.
So, naturally, elections are a priority, right? Not necessarily. The problem is that the underlying divisions in society that were then manifested in the stalemate over legislative elections remain. Indeed, if anything, they have hardened amidst the violence that is surging in the country right now. It is hard to hold elections when opposition candidate’s offices are firebombed, and demonstrations, peaceful or otherwise, are met by armed gangs or armed police, or both. The government that is overseeing the process is the very same government that people have been mobilizing periodically for three years now to get rid of. Moise has no popular mandate – has never had one. So, for him to unilaterally oversee an election and concurrent constitutional reform is not acceptable to opposition leaders. And yet, in the absence of elections, there is no one with an official position to act as a countervailing force to Moise and the PHTK. It is the chicken-rock/ egg-hard place that would be funny except that people caught in the middle are being assassinated.
Now the Trump administration has decided to lean in – after mostly ignoring Haiti, with official prognostications at least, for three and half years. When the United States mobilizes to “help” a county hold elections it is rarely an ingredient for a democratic outcome. Indeed, the Obama administration’s “assistance” in 2011 and again in 2016/17 is how Haiti got stuck with its current president. The Trump (Haiti is a “shit-hole” country) administration is not likely to do much better. Indeed, every indication is that Trump’s team wants elections simply to confirm the continued rule of the PHTK and bring stability back to the regime of pillage the U.S. has come to expect as its right in Haiti. And so, Moise appointed a Provisional Electoral Council absent traditional civil society representation and with no voices from opposition leadership. Moise claims he will move forward with elections (though the timing is still to clear – note an earlier version of this article said elections were scheduled for February but nothing is set yet) over the demands of opposition and civil society for a seat at the table. And Trump’s folks have simply said to the people of Haiti, support the election “or else.”
Even if Trump should lose in two weeks, Biden, who wouldn’t take office until late January anyway, seems to be offering little that is different. His position is simply to work with the international community (not Haitians) to ensure elections happen ASAP. So, with U.S. patronage firmly in hand, Moise will likely just press on. Barring a miracle of compromise and consensus building, Haiti seems destined for another election with minimal official participation but, it is feared, much violence as those cut out of the process attempt to make their voices heard through what means they can find.
An observatory for human rights
Against this backdrop, the launching of the Observatory for Crimes Against Humanity, announced last week, is crucially important. There has been an explosion of violence in Haiti including political assassinations and attacks on communities that, much evidence suggests, involve the coordinated actions of armed criminal gangs and the police. Pierre Esperance, from National Network for the Defense of Human Rights, speaks of at least 9 massacres in recent years, the worst being in La Saline in November of 2018 which left at least 72 people dead, committed by forces allied with the government. The Haiti Action Committee’s recent Counter Punch article lifts up the assassination of student leader Gregory Saint-Hilaire, killed by security forces on October 2 while on campus. They also talk about the toll that the G-9 gang alliance is having on Port-au-Prince neighborhoods. The G-9 alliance is run by a former police officer Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier. The alliance was promoted by government officials, who have refused to distance themselves even after gang members have burned out entire neighborhoods.
With the U.S. and the Organization of American States pressing for February elections, and international human rights organizations apparently too busy elsewhere to speak out on the spiraling violence in Haiti, local human rights groups in Haiti have launched a new platform to monitor political violence and keep record of violations. The founders of the Observatory for Crimes Against Humanity in Haiti are the Bureau of International Lawyers (BAI), the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights (RNDDH), figures such as the former Minister of Justice, Mr. Camille Leblanc, career journalist Hérold Jean-François, Me Sonel Jean-François, Me Sonet Saint-Louis, among others. From the founding document:
The observatory is therefore made up of several organizations and firms specializing in the defense of human rights and other organizations of civil society, intellectuals and public figures attached to democratic values, with a view to collecting information and the production of analysis on causes of massive human rights violations, particularly cases of crimes against humanity committed in Haiti, while focusing fundamentally on the advisability of pursuing legal proceedings [at the] national and international level against those responsible for such abuses who will be supported by advocacy activities.
There is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity. As a result here is some hope that by putting a spotlight on the violations taking place, coupled with the prospect that if not now, some time in the future, there will be prosecutions, this will discourage attacks. Of course, such efforts must be magnified, and pressure put everywhere possible to stop the violence.
The CDC order is designed to accomplish under the guise of public health a dismantling of legal protections governing border arrivals that the Trump administration has been unable to achieve under the immigration laws. Lucas Guttentag, Just Security
Between October 5th and October 20th, ICE Air Operations flew 10 “deportation” flights to Haiti. All except one flight departed from Laredo, Texas, the other left from Brownsville. From April of this year, until late September, ICE deportation flights to Haiti occurred about once every other week. These flights were rarely full – though confirmation of numbers is never available from ICE. So, what happened?
Over the last two weeks, what we’ve seen are not deportations in the regular sense. If someone is deported that is the last step in a series of activities after a person has been deemed removable from the interior, or inadmissible at the border. In other words, prior to a deportation there is a process within which one can fight for asylum, or against removal on other grounds. These processes have many problems, but there is nevertheless an opportunity to present evidence and seek relief from removal prior to a deportation.
What we have been seeing over the last two weeks is something different. These flights are part of a different program involving the summary expulsion of people; none of whom have had any realistic chance to apply for asylum. They have been apprehended by Border Patrol and then quickly removed.
The basis for these removals is a March 20, 2020 order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that effectively closes the border to all non-essential travel, claiming authority under Title 42 of the Public Health Services Law. These “Title 42” removals have been ongoing since March, leading to the expulsion of 200,000 people (data accessed Oct. 22). Under the provisions of the order, people are removed immediately to the last country of transit (for 99% of people apprehended this is Mexico), or sent to their home country if Mexico can’t (or won’t) receive them. According to the administration, 90% of the people apprehended at the border are expelled within 2 hours.
When the order was issued, Mexico said that it would only accept people expelled if they were Mexican nationals, or from Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador. This means people from elsewhere, eg., Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela, Pakistan, Cameroon, etc. could not simply be turned back to Mexico (though no doubt many have been anyway). What has happened to them?
There has not been much information about this. From advocates we know who are working with Haitian migrants, people being detained while awaiting their Title 42 expulsion are not given an Alien (“A”) number like someone officially detained. Which means they can’t be tracked. As a result it is difficult to get a good picture of where people are being held. From press reports we know that some families and unaccompanied children have been placed in hotels until they can be flown out. Over the last two weeks we heard that many of the people from Haiti who were being expelled were being held at an ICE facility in Val Verde County, not far from Laredo where most of the flights departed from. Neither of these locations comports with the CDC guidance on temporary detention for those who can not be immediately expelled. Such detention is supposed to be in a designated space within a Border Patrol facility, or under a tent or other soft-sided shelter (e.g. temporary facility to minimize contact).
The recent increase in expulsions to Haiti is also related to a recent increase in the number of Haitians being apprehended by Border Patrol. The Customs and Border Patrol media office for the Del Rio sector issued a release on Monday saying that 1,800 people from 26 different countries had been arrested over a two week period, 25% (450) of them were from Haiti. I have not been able to confirm numbers from other sectors, but it seems likely that the number of people who are attempting entry is increasing rapidly across the board as borders south of Mexico have begun to open again. Border Patrol apprehensions totaled 54,711 in September (48,327 were Title 42 expulsions). I requested information from the CBP media office in the Del Rio sector concerning where people were being held and if they were being tested for COVID, and received no response.
So, what we have been seeing over the past two weeks is the mass expulsion of Haitians under Title 42. Most of this increase in removals seems to be the result of increased border crossings, though it is possible some families and unaccompanied children who have been detained for longer periods are also part of the increased expulsions.
Title 42 went into effect as a 30 day measure, but has been renewed indefinitely. It is important to point out that it was also NOT an initiative of the CDC. The order was the brainchild of Steven Miller, Trump’s hardline immigration advisor. CDC officials initially refused to implement it, saying there was no public health justification for such an extreme measure – though they ultimately went along with it under pressure from the White House. What is clear is that Trump has used COVID-19 to do what courts had previously denied him: blocking asylum, even for people already on U.S. soil. The hundreds of expulsions to Haiti last week were the result of this policy, along with 200,000 other people removed under this order since March.
In a torrent of media coverage, it has been reported that Pope Francis, the spiritual and political leader of the Roman Catholic Church, has endorsed civil unions for same-sex couples. Those of us who read this story today each bring to it a different set of lenses that filter the story and color its meaning. Before considering a couple of different perspectives and raising some concerns, it is worth looking at the context in which the statement was made. Like previous seemingly earth-shattering pronouncements of Pope Francis, this statement came during an informal interaction rather than an official channel, captured in the documentary film, Francesco, screened for the first time on October 21 at the Rome Film Festival.
As reported by Reuters, the quotations taken from the film seem to cast Pope Francis as an armchair policymaker, saying, for instance, “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.” Further, in a gentle tone, if somewhat antiquated language, Francis adds: “Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it. I stood up for that.”
The documentary also includes interview footage with Andrea Rubera, a married gay man and father of three, who was advised by Francis to bring his children to mass, who comments, “He didn’t mention what his opinion was about my family so (I think) he is following doctrine on this point but the attitude towards people has massively changed.”
Those who are inclined to optimism about progress on human rights may feel the triumphant sense that this age-old institution is embracing new families. But is this progress? Returning to the initial observation that there are many different perspectives from which to consider this question, it depends on where you are standing right now.
If you are standing in a country where same-sex relationships can carry penalties of imprisonment or worse, this must seem a remarkable development – having the leader of the Roman Catholic Church acknowledge that you have a right to legal recognition of your relationship and freedom from violence against you on that basis. Given the source of the statement, it is hard not to rejoice that legal campaigns led and sanctioned by church officials in recent years in places as diverse as Poland and Cameroon and the Philippines are apparently being challenged at the highest level of authority in the Church.
On the other hand, if you are standing, as I am, in a country that, after a long struggle, now affords recognition of your marriage – so designated – a civil union might feel like an attempt to carve out another class of relationship, purportedly separate but equal.
The last sentence of Francis’s quotation from the documentary, in particular, should give us pause. For the pope is not looking forward; he is looking backward, when he says, “I stood up for that.” A decade ago, the man who would become Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was Archbishop of Buenos Aires in his native Argentina. At that time, he was involved in church organizing against the passage of same-sex marriage legislation, putting him into direct confrontation with the country’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. He was publicly part of church-led opposition to this legislation, calling it “a destructive attack on God’s plan.”
And he advocated the politicially expedient measure of making space for civil unions for same-sex couples as an alternative to marriage. As proposed to the Argentine bishops conference, the civil union was apparently similar to marriage – except that it would not permit such couples to adopt children. This position seems to be one he has maintained consistently, with the same idea elaborated in his 2013 book On Heaven and Earth,in which he states, “Every person needs a male father and a female mother that can help them shape their identity.” Five years later, in 2018, Francis repeated this claim: “It is painful to say this today — people speak of varied families, of various kinds of family. The family (as) man and woman in the image of God is the only one.” Last month, it was reported that Francis told some parents of LGBT children, “The Pope loves your children as they are, because they are children of God,” but, again, this statement falls short of stating they would be fit parents.
In addition to this pattern of reinforcing the two-parent, one male and one female, family as the only acceptable model, it is evident that if the Pope were really committed to change, it would be within his magisterial capacity to make declarations that can steer policy in new directions within the church, either by making an ex cathedra pronouncement (described as “infallible”) or, with a different degree of authority, through an encyclical or other document. The remarks revealed in Francesco were not issued in an encyclical, a pastoral letter, a papal bull, a motu proprio, or any other peculiarly ecclesiastical instrument of communication with a related level of authority. Surely his failure to do so on the question of embracing same-sex unions and a more inclusive understanding of family is no mistake. The Pope is quite shrewd, and it is likely he makes these statements in the ways he does in order to avoid rocking the boat. Pope Francis knows he is not breaking any new ground. He is retreading ground he has walked on before.
Regrettably, I conclude that we have no reason to think the Pope has staked out a novel position in this documentary. He has simply stated in new words what seems to be a static position over the last decade; namely, that the church should pragmatically support watered down civil unions for same-sex couples. The outcomes of such a policy position are contradictory, since its impact may vary significantly from one place to another. On the one hand, for those living in places where LGBTQ people are at risk due to legal structures that permit or facilitate physical violence and discrimination, civil unions might promote improved conditions. On the other hand, reverting to a condition in which marriage is an exclusive institution reserved for heterosexual couples concedes a rigid conception of gender upon which the church patriarchy has built a firm foundation of discrimination and exclusion. And this should not be celebrated.
For years U.S. border policy has focused on one overarching strategy, with many different tactics: Deterrence. The idea behind deterrence is that if the consequences of unauthorized migration can be made punitive enough, people will stop trying. It doesn’t work. It has never worked. For example, in the late 1990’s, as part of the Clinton administration’s “prevention through deterrence” approach, border walls were built through urban areas along the U.S./Mexico border in order to drive people trying to cross the border into the desert. The policies did not stop migration, but thousands of people have died in those deserts as a result:
Experts can only guess at the true number of lives lost over the last two decades. At a minimum, more than 7,000 people have perished, though the true total is guaranteed to be higher. During the 1990s, the Office of the Pima County Medical Examiner dealt with an average of 12 migrant deaths annually. Over an 18-year period beginning in 2000, once prevention through deterrence was humming along, that number rose to 155 per year. According to the medical examiner’s office, 2,943 sets of human remains have been found in southern Arizona from 2000 to the present.
Writing in January of 2017, just before Trump took office, the Women’s Refugee Council, KIND and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services issued the report, Betraying Family Valuesin which they documented that,
As a matter of procedure and policy, border agents routinely separate family members, including intentionally, as a punishment – or “consequences- through what DHS calls its Consequence Delivery System (CDS). The consequences are meant to deter future migration, often regardless of international protection or other humanitarian concerns.
‘CDS’ was implemented in 2005, and employed by both the Bush and Obama administrations. For example,
As families fleeing violence in Central America began making headlines in 2014, the Obama Administration implemented an aggressive deterrence policy designed to stop families from seeking protection in the United States. The Administration prioritized all recent border crossers as enforcement priorities and vastly increased the use of expedited removal and detention of mothers arriving with children.
None of this worked – but it did establish precedents for Trump to use and abuse. Yet, even as Trump has elevated the consequences severely, people have kept coming. Indeed, the highest spike in Border apprehensions in over a decade came in the year AFTER the child separation fiasco ushered in by Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, and after the administration’s decision to detain nearly all asylum seekers. Last fiscal year (2019) the number of border patrol apprehensions reached 859,501, more than double the year before (404,142), and almost triple Trump’s first year in office (310,531). The crisis at the border throughout the spring and summer of 2019 was very real of course, but it was driven by Trump’s failed policy agenda, not asylum seekers.
The utter failure of Trump’s deterrence policies, however, have only led the administration to try even more punitive measures. Asylum seekers are no longer even admitted into the United States until after hearings before an immigration judge. 60,000+ people have been redirected to Mexico to await these hearings since January of 2019. When the hearings finally started last summer they were a fiasco. Only 1% of those who have received a hearing were granted asylum. When the COVID pandemic was declared, there were still 25,000 or more people along the U.S./Mexico border living in camps, or scraping by on the streets of Mexican border towns, waiting. Since March, the hearings have been suspended, and the border itself closed under an order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This order, dubious in origin, has led to the summary expulsion of close to 200,000 people. As a result of forcing people into crowded conditions to wait out the pandemic, the effect of the order has been to create a public health crisis on the border – not prevent one.
And yet, people are still coming. Despite all of the above, there were more Border Patrol apprehensions in September of 2020 than September of last year, and the number is only increasing. Why?
People end up at our borders from all over the world. Many are fleeing violent conflicts and the collapse of livelihoods from a variety of environmental and economic factors. Those from Central America, which make up the largest portion of asylum claims, are fleeing well documented violence at the hands of gangs, the state, or partners. Doctors Without Border issued a study just before the pandemic, based on 480 interviews and 26,000 medical records, showing that 45.7% of the people from Central America migrating through Mexico were fleeing violence – 75% of families. In one of the few empirical studies disagregating various causal factors behind migration, the Center for Global Development (2017) showed that there was a direct relationship between the murder rate in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and youth migration to the United States, irrespective of U.S. border policy, which made no significant difference in the decision to migrate. The study shows that from 2011 to 2016, “the violence-migration relationship was driven by events in the region and was unaffected by changes in U.S. immigration policy during the period.”
The impacts of climate change, in the form of drought, coffee rust, and food insecurity is probably the single biggest push factor behind migration in recent years, though it can be hard to separate climate impacts from the violence that grows out of the resulting scarcity. Even Customs and Border Patrol documented crop loss as a primary reason for migration – a finding ignored by the Trump administration, which actually cut assistance to mitigate crop loss in the region among other cuts in aid; cuts made as a punishment for countries’ in Central America not doing enough (in Trump’s mind) to stop migration!(?)
The impact of COVID-19.
The last six months have only deepened the crises in Central America. Economic growth has collapsed, driving even more people into poverty. Prior to COVID-19, Latin American economies were projected to grow about 1.9% this year. In September of 2020 the International Monetary Fund revised its estimate, anticipating a regional contraction of 9.4% – a negative swing of 11.3%. Mexico is among the hardest hit economies, expected to contract by over 10% this year.
Gang violence has seen a slight reduction in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, largely due to the curfews in force in all three countries. Nevertheless, the rate of killing is on the upswing as the curfews end. Honduras and Guatemala each saw just under 2,000 murders this year by the end of August. Mexico is still home to half of all the active gangs in Latin America and half of the related deaths. Gender based violence has increased in Central America during the pandemic, as it has elsewhere. In Honduras 45 women had been killed in domestic disputes by the end of May. Reports of gender based violence were up 70% in El Salvador and 65% in Mexico. State violence also increased across the region as governments sought to enforce draconian lockdowns measures with force. Honduras used the pretense of enforcing its lockdown to arrest dozens of opposition political activists.
Finally, as countries from the U.S. to Panama closed their borders in the spring, migrants already on the journey from Haiti, Cameroon, Pakistan, India, Cuba, Venezuela and elsewhere, were detained throughout Central America. These people are attempting to continue their journeys now – at least those able to. Many are now arriving at the U.S./Mexico border. During the first two weeks of October, Border Patrol arrested 1,800 people from 26 different countries in the Del Rio sector in Texas. One fourth (450) were from Haiti. Almost all were flown out over the space of a week, with no chance to apply for asylum.
The lesson here is that even with the border closed, and asylum off the table, people are still coming. And the numbers will only increase in the coming months. Deterrence has not worked. It will not work as long as economies weaken, climate change destroys livelihoods and violence leaves people with no other choice but to migrate. Indeed, for the foreseeable future, forced, survival migration will remain the norm with peaks and valleys in the movement of people, but it won’t end. Not with a wall, moat, machine gun turrets, lasers and drones. It is beyond time to acknowledge the global crises underlying displacement and stop acting like the resulting migration is something being done to us.
So, another four years of Trumpian antics won’t work. And a return to the Obama standard of massive deportations, high tech border toys and “consequence delivery systems” won’t either. What might? Well, it has already been shown that dollar for dollar, spending money on violence prevention programs targeting youth in Central America is far more effective at reducing migration than expanding the Border Patrol or changing asylum rules. Helping people mitigate the immediate impacts of climate change will do more to reduce refugee flows than 100 or 500 more miles of border wall. More importantly what these measures signify is an important truth: Treating all people with dignity is actually a better way to get results. We are all in this together, after all. Better we start acting like it.
Three weeks ago Dawn Wooten, formerly a nurse at Irwin County Detention Center, came forward with accusations that a doctor had performed medically unnecessary hysterectomies on many women who were at the Irwin Center under the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Irwin is run by a private, for-profit company, LaSalle Corrections. From a story in Vice, “In interviews with Project South, a Georgia nonprofit, multiple women said that hysterectomies were stunningly frequent among immigrants detained at the facility. ‘When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp,’ said one woman, who said she’d met five women who’d had hysterectomies after being detained between October and December 2019. The woman said that immigrants at Irwin are often sent to see one particular gynecologist outside of the facility. ‘It was like they’re experimenting with their bodies.’”The Associated Press did a follow up investigation after these reports surfaced. They were not able to confirm all of Dawn Wooten’s accusations, but did find a pattern of issues including a lack of consent for surgeries and medical procedures performed by Dr. Mahendra Amin:An Associated Press review of medical records for four women and interviews with lawyers revealed growing allegations that Amin performed surgeries and other procedures on detained immigrants that they never sought or didn’t fully understand. Although some procedures could be justified based on problems documented in the records, the women’s lack of consent or knowledge raises severe legal and ethical issues, lawyers and medical experts said.Pramila Jayapal, Representative from Seattle, led a letter to the Department of Homeland Security signed by 170 members of Congress that demanded an investigation into these reports. In covering this story, The Guardianrecalled the history of forced sterilizations in the United States – something that is not exactly ancient history. “In the 1960s and 70s an increase in federal funding for reproductive health procedures combined with racist and anti-immigration sentiment led to “tens of thousands” of women of colour being sterilized, including Native Americans…And by the 1970s, a third of all women in Puerto Rico had undergone sterilization procedures, the majority of which were involuntary, as part of US attempts at ‘population control’….In California prisons, between 1997 and 2013 about 1,400 people were sterilized.”Alexandra Minna Stern, professor of history at the University of Michigan and director of the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab told The Guardian, “Anyone who’s studied the history of sterilization abuse would look at this detention center and say this is the kind of place where sterilization abuse is likely to occur because all of the conditions that enable such medical malfeasance and reproductive oppression, they’re all in place.”The allegations have brought all eyes onto the Irwin County Detention Center and LaSalle Corrections. However, the issue of medical neglect in ICE custody is a systemic issue. Two weeks ago two different House committee reports on ICE detention practices made this point. Both reports included damning evidence of a history of neglect and malpractice. The first report came from the House Committee on Homeland Security. Noting that “ICE appears to prioritize obtaining bed space over the wellbeing of detainees in its custody”, the Committee “discovered a concerning pattern of ICE contracting with facilities that are poorly equipped to meet ICE’s own detention standards. This includes facilities, particularly in Louisiana [home of LaSalle Corrections], that had a well-publicized history of abuses prior to contracting with ICE. It also includes those facilities that have had longstanding contracts with ICE but have demonstrated an inability to comply with standards that affect the health and safety of detainees even after being repeatedly called out for violating those standards by DHS’s own inspection processes.”The primary findings of the committee was that ICE’s oversight of private contractors was inadequate. Oversight was poorly conceived, advance warning was given of inspections, the contractors hired to do inspections were ill prepared, problems, when found, went uncorrected and contracts continued to be extended regardless of patterns of abuse. On medical neglect in particular, The Committee repeatedly heard from detainees that their medical complaints were frequently dismissed. The most common complaint was that, whatever the issue, detainees would be given common pain relievers unless the symptoms were emergent. At LaSalle, migrants described a system that depended on non-medically trained people to make health care decisions. For example, if a person was experiencing pain, the guard in the housing unit might tell them to wait to go to the doctor until the morning. Even if they made it to see health professionals, migrants at LaSalle described medical personnel making fun of their complaints. Migrants held at Otay Mesa also recalled being told to prioritize “one problem at a time” and not raise multiple concerns when visiting health professional. And they had to wait days for a trip to the hospital for treatment or examinations. Sixty Migrants at Adelanto similarly complained about having to wait months to receive medical care for medical issues. The second report came from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. This report contained more recent developments, particularly regarding ICE’s medical neglect as it applies to COVID-19 prevention. The findings, however, were largely the same. ICE facilities fail to provide adequate medical services, and yet ICE continues to contract with the same companies. Commenting on a review of audits of detainee deaths, the Committee notes, “[t]hese documents reveal serious and widespread violations of ICE’s health and safety standards, negligent medical care, unsanitary living conditions, understaffing, poor record keeping, and critically delayed emergency care.” In relation to infectious diseases, the track record is truly damning: For example, in 2018 and 2019, an outbreak of the mumps infected nearly 900 detainees in 57 ICE detention facilities across 19 states. Documents also contain examples of improper treatment for tuberculosis, HIV, and in one case, an allegation of “grossly negligent” medical care when an ICE detainee died of meningitis in 2018.These persistent deficiencies could aggravate the spread of coronavirus in DHS facilities. ICE has confirmed more than 6,000 detainees and 45 ICE staff have been infected with coronavirus at over 95 detention facilities. Information obtained by the Committee shows that as of mid-July 2020, more than 600 GEO Group and CoreCivic employees working in at least 29 facilities also tested positive.Many ICE facilities, including those that house children, have had repeated sanitation problems, including dirty and moldy bathrooms, insufficient clean clothing, unsanitized dishes, dirty food preparation and service areas, and a lack of soap, toilet paper, paper towels, clean razors, and other hygiene items. During fiscal year 2020, twenty-one people have died in ICE custody. Eight of the eleven people who have died since May have died of COVID-19.Now what?So, over the last two weeks we’ve witnessed a damning whistleblower report on an ICE facility, alongside several follow up investigations supporting parts of this report, while exposing even more abuses. We’ve also seen two congressional committee reports that detail repeatedly how ICE is negligent in the care it provides. Further, the negligence in medical care has led to deaths, and the explosion of COVID-19 in its facilities. The reports this last week note that ICE private contractors are not held accountable. Indeed, the oversight regime in place now is a complete failure. I have no idea what it will take to move members of Congress to actually act. There is a bill circulating in the House, unlikely to make it out of committee within the time span left to this Congress. The Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act. The bill calls for minimizing the use of detention overall, phasing out of the use of contractors (private and governmental) in order to keep all detention facilities under one clear authority that is then tightly monitored based on a comprehensive set of standards. It was introduced last year. If not this bill, then something at least as comprehensive must be moved in the next Congress. This is not something that really needs to be studied any more. Detention is unnecessary, and private detention facilities are brutal. Period. We have known this for years. Enough is enough.
On March 19 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an order that blocked people from coming across the border. Under Title 42 of the Public Health Services Act border agents have been empowered to expel people as soon as they are encountered, with no access to traditional due process, and thus no ability to pursue asylum claims. The order has also been deployed to deny unaccompanied children access to asylum claims and other basic support. The result of this order is the expulsion of 154,000 people between March 19 and the end of August; 8,800 of them unaccompanied children. The vast majority of people are expelled back to Mexico, though people who are not from Mexico or Central America are sent elsewhere – presumably their home country, but there is little actually known about these folks. Some children, and families, mostly from Haiti, were found to have been put into hotels in Texas and Arizona until they could be removed. People detained, however briefly, under Title 42 are not given alien ID numbers (“A” numbers) that would allow them to be tracked while in detention. In effect, they disappear into the system until they can be removed. Family members are unable to find them, and they have no access to attorneys.
The impacts of Title 42 expulsions have rippled out in all directions from the border. In Mexico it has meant further crowding at the border among those trying to wait out the current crisis and continue their efforts to pursue asylum or other relief in the United States. Others have been forced back through Mexico to the border with Guatemala. Since March, they have been forced to wait until that border re-opens (it has in the last two weeks). Along the way, migrants look for places to stay in shelters that dot the landscape in Mexico. Staff with our partners in the Franciscan Network on Migration, for example, have noted there are more people traveling south these days than north.
Within the United States, Title 42 expulsions have led to a dramatic decline in detentions – as people apprehended at the border are now being expelled rather than transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be held while awaiting processing of their immigration status and/or asylum claims. Fewer people in ICE detention is a good thing, but the underlying reasons are not good – as people are in effect still being detained (halted from moving forward), but removed from oversight. Conditions within ICE detention facilities remain abysmal despite the lower numbers. Fiscal Year 2020 just ended, and during that year twenty-one people died while in ICE custody, the most in over 15 years. So, one of the chief stated purposes of Title 42 expulsions – to enhance safety for detention staff and detainees already in the United States, is patently false.
For those of us working on immigration policy, Title 42 was never a “good idea” simply administered badly. From the beginning it was clearly an effort to weaponize the COVID-19 response to do what the Trump team had otherwise been denied doing by the courts: Kill the asylum process and otherwise close the border to immigrants. It is also, one hopes this is because it is poorly understood, a popular policy, with a majority of U.S. Americans supporting it. That support has raised questions about whether Biden would actually suspend the order should he win the election. Given recent disclosures he absolutely must suspend the order.
Why? If one had any doubts about the duplicitous rationale behind Title 42 expulsions, news came this weekend that the CDC had originally refused to issue the order because there was no public health reason to do so. In fact, the order did not originate with the CDC at all. Rather, it was Trump advisor Stephen Miller’s brainchild. From the Associated Press:
“That was a Stephen Miller special. He was all over that,” said Olivia Troye, a former top aide to Pence, who coordinated the White House coronavirus task force. She recently resigned in protest, saying the administration had placed politics above public health. “There was a lot of pressure on DHS and CDC to push this forward.”
CDC doctors resisted implementing it for weeks because it would do no good in slowing the spread of coronavirus. Eventually Vice-President Pence was brought in to get it done. He called the CDC and told them to issue the order, “or else.” [“They forced us,” said a former health official involved in the process. “It is either do it or get fired” in AP report] The order was issued the next day.
“The decision to halt asylum processes ‘to protect the public health’ is not based on evidence or science,” wrote Dr. Anthony So, an international public health expert at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in a letter to Redfield in April. “This order directly endangers tens of thousands of lives and threatens to amplify dangerous anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia.”
The order was initially supposed to last for one month as an emergency measure – but that was a lie as well. Indeed, Miller made clear immediately upon implementation that he viewed this as a long-term approach.
Of course, amplifying dangerous anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia is precisely the point. It’s an election year after all. Calling the current administration out on its hypocrisy and lies seems almost pointless at this stage. But we take note in the hope that one day, perhaps, there will be some accountability. Shuttering the border and denying people legislatively guaranteed protections based on false pretenses has to be illegal….right? We’ll see.
Currently the number of people being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement is just over 20,000. This number has fallen off dramatically from the all time high of over 55,000 registered last August (2019). At the beginning of the current fiscal year (Oct 1, 2019) there were still over 53,000 people being held. Which means that over the last 12 months there has been a 62% fall off in the number of people in ICE detention.ICE contracts with 175 different facilities around the country to hold people. Many of these facilities are run by county sheriffs or state departments of corrections. However, the larger facilities, which in total hold close to 75% of the people in detention, are run by private companies, the largest are CoreCivic and the GEO Group, followed by LaSalle Corrections. With a collapse of nearly 62% of the number of people being held, you’d expect these companies to really be hurting. But they are not. The reason they are not on the verge of collapse is because the contracts for managing most of these facilities guarantee payment for a minimum number of beds, whether those beds are occupied or not. Indeed, across the 44 private facilities that have a guaranteed daily minimum, the total number of people they are guaranteed to get paid for is 30,242. (See full ICE stats YTD here)In those same facilities, the average daily population for the whole year was just 22,006 – or 8,236 a day below the guaranteed minimum. So, over the course of this year, which ends on September 30, the federal government has paid for an equivalent of 3,014,376 days of detention for empty beds (remember it was a leap year!). The actual amount that companies get paid for beds per day in individual contracts is not public. However, the funding enacted for ICE detention in FY2020 was $3.1 billion, based on an anticipated daily average of 50,126 beds, or an average cost of $168.97 per bed per day. This means that, based on the average daily bed costs in the budget enacted this year, ICE may have paid as much as $509,339,113 for empty beds in FY2020. Daily averages for the year aside, it is worth pointing out that at this moment there are 20,000 people in detention in the entirety of ICE’s network. And the companies housing three fourths of them are still getting paid for 30,242 people a day. (To be clear, we are not advocating ICE fill those beds.)With all of the extra money, you’d think services would have improved. But no. Health services remain abysmal – and even in the midst of a global pandemic, ICE contractors cannot be bothered to provide adequate services for people in detention – or for their own staff. Indeed, the companies are cutting staffing levels and services given the lower overall numbers, not providing better services. For CoreCivic’s part, revenue in the second quarter of 2020, the peak time of the COVID-19 crisis, and the lowest detention rates in 20 years, was still $471 million. This, they note, was down just 3.6% from the first quarter (which puts revenue for the first half of 2020 near $1 billion). On an investor call in August, company leadership made clear that the guaranteed minimums have insulated the company somewhat from the overall decline in ICE detention. Asked if ICE or the US Marshal service was trying to renegotiate the minimums at this time, Damon Hininger, CoreCivic’s President and CEO, responded, “No. So it is the contrary.” He then noted the recent 10-year extension for their contract at the T Don Hutto detention facility in Texas, and the expectation of a 10-year extension for their contract at the Houston Processing Center – the oldest private detention facility in the country – as evidence of ICE’s commitment to maintain “detention capacity.” The GEO Group had revenue of $588 million during the second quarter of this year. On a recent investor call, company directors also discussed the decline in ICE detention but noted that “most of our GEO Secure Services contracts contain fixed price or minimum guaranteed payment provisions.” For both GEO and CoreCivic, the guaranteed minimums are crucially important for cash flow and “investor confidence.” The GEO Group was also able to celebrate another 10-year deal for an ICE facility in southern Texas. ICE seems hell bent on protecting both of these companies from lost revenue.As I’ve written before, the reason detention numbers are so low is that the Trump administration has effectively closed the border – summarily expelling 175,000 people since March 19, 2020, many of whom would have otherwise been transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention network. Stephen Miller wants to keep the border closed indefinitely. The GEO Group and CoreCivic do not. So, while the first three years of Trump’s presidency were sort of a bonanza for these companies, the last year has been a struggle (in the way that a 3.6% decline in revenue for companies that make billions off incarcerating people is a “struggle”). Oddly enough, what this means is that a Biden victory is probably better for them in the short term, as Biden has indicated he will overturn the order that closed the border. Of course, prior to Trump taking office, Biden was part of the administration that set the previous record for detention rates, with a daily average of over 38,000 people in 2016. That administration also signed many of the sweetheart contracts with daily minimums that are keeping these companies afloat today. Capitalism surely makes for strange bedfellows, even when most of the beds are empty.