Exclusive: Countries along migrant route to U.S. experiencing ‘enforcement fatigue,' DHS documents show

A crowd of migrants hold out their hands for food.
Migrants seeking asylum in the United States line up for food at a makeshift encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, near the U.S.-Mexico border, on Dec. 29, 2022. (Reuters/Daniel Becerril)

The increasing influx of migrants to the U.S. border with Mexico is causing “enforcement fatigue” in Central and South American transit countries, according to Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Patrol documents obtained by Yahoo News, and almost all will not be able to handle an expected surge should Title 42 restrictions be lifted in the coming months.

“Multiple countries in Central and South America reported having limited resources and are requesting assistance from the United States as well as international partners to support migrants already in country, stating they are unable to provide migrants with basic social service requirements,” states a December DHS assessment. It is based largely on State Department communiqués from countries that migrants pass through on their way to the U.S., where they camp as they await policy changes, or where they are removed to if they are denied entry into the U.S.

Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama are facing limitations on capacity at migrant shelters, with some countries having to shutter shelters due to lack of funding, the DHS report states. The assessment notes that these countries are unable to handle the increase of migrants heading to the U.S. that is expected if and when Title 42 restrictions are lifted.

“There are at least 35,200 migrants in northern Mexican border cities waiting to cross into the United States once Title 42 concludes,” states a Dec. 31 CBP internal report obtained by Yahoo News.

“Central and South American transit countries also face changing legislative actions that have reduced or eliminated their ability to detain or repatriate individuals who have entered their country without proper documentation — effectively creating an avenue for continued migration towards the United States,” the DHS report says.

This Dec. 15 assessment was produced by the department’s Intelligence Enterprise’s Migration Indicators and Warnings Cell Migrant Fusion Cell, and is based on State Department cables provided to CBP and DHS on the impact of the end of Title 42 in each central and South American transit country. A copy of this report was obtained by Yahoo News.

Two migrants from Guatemala traveling without adults, one of about 5 and the other about 11, walk toward a border patrol transport vehicle, with a young man walking behind them.
Young migrants from Guatemala traveling without adults walk toward a border patrol transport vehicle after being smuggled across the Rio Grande river from Mexico into Roma, Texas, on Nov. 8, 2022. (Reuters/Adrees Latif)

Used by the Trump administration during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic to stem the flow of migrants into the U.S., Title 42 is a clause of the Public Health Services Law that allows the government to block the entry and deport individuals from other countries during a public health emergency. During the first two years in office, President Biden allowed Title 42 expulsions to continue, but has since sought to wind down the policy. Title 42 has been used to expel “2.4 million migrants” along the Southwest border, according to the DHS report, “of which 1.4 million were Mexican nationals.”

In early December, 19 Republican-led states sued the Biden administration to try to keep Title 42 in place past a scheduled end date of Dec. 21. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case in February, but has opted not to block the policy in the meantime.

The expectation of both parties in the case is that rescinding the policy will result in a dramatic spike in the number of migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. from Mexico. Those fears are echoed in the government documents obtained by Yahoo News.

“As the public health order is scheduled to terminate on 21 December, CBP anticipates an increase in the number of migrants encountered along the SWB—above the already high levels we currently experience. This initial surge will likely be comprised of migrants who are currently waiting in Northern Mexico,” the DHS report states.

On Jan. 5, the White House and DHS announced new enforcement policies that the administration hopes will reduce the number of migrants heading to the U.S. ahead of the lifting of Title 42 restrictions. The new policies include the launch of an app, CBP One, which allows migrants, thousands of whom are currently camped out on the Mexican side of the border, to book an appointment with CBP at the border in advance of their arrival. The U.S. also announced it would use expedited removal authority to more quickly expel migrants waiting for a court date after crossing into the U.S. It also granted expanded parole for migrants from three countries. Mexico agreed to accept 30,000 migrants per month from four nations if they are not accepted into the U.S.

A migrant from Venezuela seeking asylum in the U.S. displays the U.S. Customs and Border Protection application on his phone.
A migrant from Venezuela at a shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, uses his phone to access the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) CBP ONE application, to request an appointment at a land port of entry to the U.S., on Jan.12. (Reuters/Jose Luis Gonzalez)

The Biden administration’s expanded parole announcement prompted “concerns for authorities and confusion in migrants,” according to an internal CBP report dated Jan. 11, a copy of which was also obtained by Yahoo News. Officials in Baja California and Sonora, Mexico, voiced concern about managing daily returns of approximately 200 migrants with nationalities not eligible for expanded parole. Between Jan. 1 and Jan. 5, Mexico’s Migration National Institute apprehended an average of 2,795 irregular migrants a day, with only 114 being repatriated back to their country of origin. The U.S., Mexico and Canada are also working on a one-stop-shop website where migrants can see which country’s asylum or other immigration programs they may be eligible for. The U.S. is planning on several outreach campaigns targeting potential migrants, two officials said.

DHS and CBP did not respond to multiple requests from Yahoo News for comment.

Alan Bersin, a former Homeland Security official who served during the Obama administration and was nicknamed the "border czar,” suggested that enforcement fatigue in Mexico and other Central American countries would have little impact on the Biden administration's newest border initiatives.

“The key — and it’s a promising one — to the Biden proposals is their objective to reduce activity at the Southwest Border Line," Bersin told Yahoo News in an email. "By creating legal pathways into the United States through an asylum and parole ‘application’ process based away from the border, the new policies aim to impact the migrant/smuggler incentive calculation significantly and decrease the number of people who simply show up at the border line seeking relief."

An estimated 2,000 Venezuelan migrants continue to wait for Title 42 exceptions at the encampment along the Rio Grande River in Matamoros, Mexico, hoping for the opportunity to enter the U.S., according to a CBP Indications and Warnings Daily report produced by CBP’s Office of Intelligence and dated Jan. 11. Tensions over migrant center closures elsewhere in Mexico helped lead to riots at the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance in Tapachula on Jan 3. Other CBP documents note that the number of assaults against border patrol agents in El Paso, Texas, doubled from 2021 to 2022.

Asylum seekers, some seated in front of their tents, wait in line to put their name on a list.
Asylum seekers in Matamoros wait in line to put their name on a list to get called when it is their turn to seek asylum in the U.S., on Dec. 22, 2022. This was the day after Title 42 had been expected to be lifted. (Veronica G. Cardenas/AFP via Getty Images)

The December DHS assessment, which is not public, also offers new details on what the South and Central American countries on the migrants' route are telling the U.S. government. Panama, Costa Rica and Guatemala said they are at capacity, lack funding or otherwise cannot handle the increase of migrants headed to the U.S. anticipated when Title 42 is lifted.

CBP documents, also obtained by Yahoo News, provide further detail, including a severe lack of staffing for vast areas of terrain on the Mexican side of the border. Only 11 agents from Mexico’s immigration agency, for instance, are deployed along the entire border with Arizona, one CBP document says.

Other recent DHS and CBP internal documents obtained by Yahoo News shed light on some of the issues being faced by countries on the route to the U.S.

“The Costa Rican government is reportedly overwhelmed by the migration surge as well as the related health, education, and security costs, and they emphasize the need for increased burden sharing by the international community, according to U.S. government reporting,” the Dec. 15 DHS assessment states.

In late July, 2022, the government of Panama notified the U.S. that it will begin limiting long-term detention for known or suspected terrorists and other special interest migrants, citing lack of funding and overcrowding and “lack of specific justifications for prolonged detention.”

Panama also notified the U.S. that detaining migrants costs between $55 and $65 per day. Should Title 42 be lifted, the subsequent flood of people is likely to result in much higher expenses, too.

Mexico’s immigration authority installed 234 checkpoints in southern Mexico, which has led to an increase in apprehensions. But even now, with Title 42 still in place, only a small percentage of those detained end up being sent back to their home country.

“The Government of Mexico has expressed concern regarding its limited capacity to apprehend, detain, and/or shelter the current levels of irregular migrants and asylum-seekers — with officials in Nuevo Laredo stating they are unprepared for a surge once the United States rescinds Title 42,” according to U.S. government reporting.

— Caitlin Dickson contributed reporting