'Remain in Mexico' Is Working — And Better Fences Are Being Built

The U.S. government should advertise in the Northern Triangle

By Andrew R. Arthur on January 21, 2020

On January 19, 2020, the Laredo Morning Times reported that "Illegal crossings plunge as US extends policy across border". It shows the effectiveness of the administration's extension of the Migration Protection Protocols — "MPP", also known as "Remain in Mexico". A photograph with that article also shows improvements in the border wall.

The article, datelined Yuma, Ariz., begins:

Adolfo Cardenas smiles faintly at the memory of traveling with his 14-year-old son from Honduras to the U.S.-Mexico border in only nine days, riding buses and paying a smuggler $6,000 to ensure passage through highway checkpoints.

Father and son walked about 10 minutes in Arizona's stifling June heat before surrendering to border agents. Instead of being released with paperwork to appear in immigration court in Dallas, where Cardenas hopes to live with a cousin, they were bused more than an hour to wait in the Mexican border city of Mexicali.

"It was a surprise. I never imagined this would happen," Cardenas, 39, said while waiting at a Mexicali migrant shelter for his fifth court appearance in San Diego, on Jan. 24.

There is a lot to unpack there. First, the article never tells us whether Cardenas has a valid asylum claim, or even what his claim is at all — it simply quotes him as stating that he worked in construction in Tegucigalpa, and that "it was impossible to escape gangs in Honduras." There is no indication that he was actually affected by those gangs any more than residents of my erstwhile hometown of Baltimore are affected by the drug gangs that fuel violence in that city, which suffered 348 homicides last year.

The fact that he had a job in Honduras would suggest that it was not poverty, per se, that drove him and his son to travel illegally to the United States. Rather, it would appear that the promises of much higher wages in Dallas were a factor. He plainly had the $6,000 to give to a criminal (or criminals) to help him commit the crime of illegal entry — not an insignificant amount of money in a country where the average net annual wage is 456,940 Honduran Lempira — about $18,350.

Cardenas and his son arrived in June 2019, about four months after the MPP went into effect, so it is not entirely clear why he was "surprise[d]" that he would be returned to Mexicali, but the policy has been phased in across the border in coordination with the government of Mexico (it took effect in Yuma in May), so it was not in full effect when he left. There is no reason that any foreign national considering the journey should be unaware of it now. The U.S. government is, I hope, advertising that policy in the countries from which most illegal migrants hail in the "Northern Triangle" of Central America — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Finally, it is unclear why Cardenas and his son have had four immigration-court hearings already without a resolution. I can understand a continuance for counsel, and one to file an application for asylum (he was ostensibly subject to expedited removal and passed the low credible-fear bar), but four hearings is indicative of a slow-moving court process.

Here, however, is the key takeaway from that article:

Arrests in the Border Patrol's Yuma sector nearly hit 14,000 in May, when the policy to make asylum-seekers wait in Mexico took effect there. By October, they fell 94%, to less than 800, and have stayed there since, making Yuma the second-slowest of the agency's nine sectors on the Mexican border, just ahead of the perennially quiet Big Bend sector in Texas.

When I was in Yuma in January 2019, illegal border crossings were steady, but not exceptionally high, likely because of the significant border infrastructure in that sector. By April 16, 2019, however, the mayor of Yuma had to issue an emergency proclamation because the town lacked the resources to handle the flood of migrants that it was facing. As the Washington Times reported at the time:

Mayor Douglas Nicholls said the migrants are being released by the Border Patrol into his community faster than they can leave, and local shelters are already at capacity.

He warned of mobs of people "roaming the streets looking to satisfy basic human needs," clashing with citizens looking to protect their own property.

That proclamation was withdrawn on December 19, as the crisis subsided. The Department of Homeland Security reported: "The mayor credits successful efforts by the Trump Administration in confronting the crisis, including initiatives implemented by DHS and the Government of Mexico, that have substantially relieved the city's burden in caring for the overwhelming number of illegal immigrants."

I noted the hiccups in the implementation of MPP, in Arizona in particular, in a November 2019 post:

On November 11, 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Migration Protection Protocols (MPP, also known as "Remain in Mexico") are not in effect in Arizona. If true, this is a significant vulnerability to border enforcement that the administration must address immediately.

Those issues had been resolved by the beginning of this month, as I reported in a January 7 post, with migrants being bused back across the border to await their hearings.

Speaking of border infrastructure, the photograph that accompanied the Laredo Morning Times article shows workers in Yuma replacing so-called "Normandy barriers" with 30-foot steel bollard-style fencing. The Normandy barriers are good for stopping "drive-throughs", that is smugglers transporting large numbers of migrants, drugs, or contraband in vehicles. As my colleague Dan Cadman has explained, however, in the context of then-ongoing budget negotiations:

[A] "Normandy fence" is a non-starter, unless it's backed up by soldiers in bunkers with machine guns and mortars being lobbed toward the inward surges. Without those lethal instruments — and I don't think [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi [D-Calif.] has those in mind — such a fence wouldn't stop a single alien on foot from crossing the border and that, one suspects, is Pelosi's intent: to not impede these border-crossers. It's not even clear that such impediments by themselves would stop drug or weapons traffickers, north or south — just pass your load from one vehicle over the fence to the accomplice waiting on the other side.

I am a bit more charitable toward Normandy barriers than Cadman, but I agree that bollard fencing is a significant improvement, particularly at stopping migrants seeking entry and smugglers carrying small amounts (less than 100 pounds) of drugs. Of course, 100 pounds of heroin, methamphetamine, or fentanyl is enough to destroy entire communities, so perhaps I am jaded from more than a quarter century of dealing with the border and the crime that it impacts.

As for Cardenas, I would be interested in a follow-up on his case. Only 13 percent of Hondurans were granted asylum in FY 2019 according to the article, so the odds are not in his favor, or his son's. If he is ultimately denied, will he decide to return to construction in Tegucigalpa, or simply try to sneak across illegally? Thanks to the improved fencing, if he decides illegal entry is his best option after receiving due process, they should avoid Yuma.