Throughout the last administration, Department of Homeland Security officials at all levels—from Senate-confirmed power brokers in Washington to rank-and-file agents along the border—often complained that they were facing a double standard: They were doing the same work, using the same methods, as they had under previous presidents, they said, but because their boss was now Donald Trump, the public was quick to assume they were acting out of racism or malice.
At times, of course, Trump’s policies did break with those of previous administrations, including the zero-tolerance policy that separated thousands of migrant children from their parents. But in many ways, the DHS officials were right: Stories highlighting conditions and practices that predated the Trump presidency by years or even decades suddenly became front-page news. Reporters had doggedly covered those issues for years, but before Trump was inaugurated, their stories rarely generated any lasting national attention.
Up until recently, the Biden administration seemed to have been banking on the persistence of this double standard, whereby the left-leaning parts of the public assume general goodwill on the part of Democratic politicians and therefore give them a pass. The administration has taken up court battles to protect some of Trump’s harshest asylum policies and commenced flying multiple planeloads of migrants back to Haiti. Now-viral images show that, in recent days, Border Patrol agents have been charging at—and in some cases verbally assaulting—Haitian migrants marooned at the Mexican border across from Del Rio, Texas.
But the assumption that these tactics would go unchallenged when deployed by a Democratic administration, as was often the case in the past, appears to have been a serious miscalculation. The spotlight that Trump shined on the southern border for four years is still plugged in. The public is still paying attention. And images that evoke the era of slavery—with fair-skinned men on horseback rushing Black migrants, whiplike reins flailing behind them—have added to a long-simmering push from the left to consider immigration policy not simply in terms of economics or national security, but also in terms of race.
Key allies of President Joe Biden are responding in ways that suggest the era of presumed goodwill may be over. The recent treatment of Haitians “turns your stomach,” Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader, said this week in a speech on the Senate floor. “We cannot continue these hateful and xenophobic Trump policies that disregard our refugee laws.” Members of the Congressional Black Caucus were whisked to the White House for a meeting this week, and Al Sharpton, who traveled to the border recently, told The Washington Post that, like thus-far-unsuccessful efforts toward police reform, the treatment of Haitian migrants was an example of how Biden was failing Black Americans. Biden “said on election night: Black America, you had my back, I’ll have yours,” Sharpton said. “Well, we’re being stabbed in the back, Mr. President. We need you to stop the stabbing—from Haiti to Harlem.”
Belatedly realizing that the political climate seems to have changed, the Biden administration is now scrambling to do damage control. Vice President Kamala Harris called the images from Del Rio “deeply troubling.” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said he was “horrified,” and he suspended horse patrols there. The president himself said on Tuesday that the encounters were “dangerous” and “wrong,” and that “those people will pay.” All of this seems slightly disingenuous: As the administration well knows, Border Patrol agents have been policing on horseback for more than 100 years. And in this case, they were doing so under orders from their supervisors, who serve at the pleasure of the president. The scapegoating of rank-and-file agents will likely alienate a workforce that feels it was ordered to show force and then hung out to dry. Putting the focus on the horseback patrols also draws attention away from a larger issue: The administration has taken the legally dubious position of blocking most Haitian migrants from requesting asylum—and in this case, pushing them back onto the Mexican side of a dangerous river from which border agents often have to save people from drowning.
These events have stoked a broader conversation about race, not only because of the specifics of the encounters in Del Rio, but because of the way our current system is set up. One would be hard-pressed to imagine a scenario in which, following a coup or an earthquake in France, a large crowd of Parisians would show up in Matamoros, Mexico, and face the same treatment as the Haitians—because they would not be required to present themselves at the border in the first place. People from wealthy Western countries don’t need visas to come to the United States. For a few hundred dollars, they can simply hop on planes and enter the U.S. as tourists. Then, at some point on their “vacation,” they can show up at a government office and request asylum as part of a non-adversarial administrative process. Or they can simply stay in the U.S. illegally without seeking permission, as thousands of Western Europeans and Canadians do each year.
That experience is wholly unlike what an impoverished Haitian or Central American seeking asylum faces. Without a right to counsel, they must argue their case for safe haven in court, against a federal prosecutor whose job is to try to deport them and a judge who, like the prosecutor, works for the attorney general. Some of the asylum seekers are jailed during this process. Of those who are released, some choose to abandon the process and decide to continue living here illegally. But that’s only if they make it to the United States in the first place. Without access to tourist visas, the only way for poor people from poor countries to request asylum is to pay smugglers thousands of dollars, many of them using their life savings or going into debt, and hope that they survive the journey.
It is an irony worth noting that this flare-up along the border is occurring during a significant labor shortage. Despite our reflex to categorize migrants like the Haitians stuck in Texas as people in need of either safety or jobs, most want both. More specifically: Not everyone who comes to the United States for a job needs humanitarian protection, but everyone who comes for humanitarian protection needs a job. Yet our laws are so outdated and our elected officials so dependent on divisive talking points that we can’t figure out a lawful way to solve a problem that should be quite fixable.
The U.S. has a long history of singling out Haitians for exclusion. Throughout the Cold War, we welcomed hundreds of thousands of people fleeing communism in places such as Hungary, Yugoslavia, Poland, and China. But Haitians—who hailed from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, which at the time was run by a pair of brutally violent, successive, father-and-son dictators—were for the most part denied such invitations. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan signed an agreement with the younger dictator, Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, giving the U.S. Coast Guard permission to board Haitian boats at random and question passengers in order to head off any approach of the United States. As Haiti deteriorated further amid a coup in 1991 that involved “disappearances, torture, rape and massacres,” according to the scholar A. Naomi Paik, President George H. W. Bush moved to interdict refugees who braved the Atlantic on rickety rafts, sending them to other impoverished parts of the Caribbean. Those countries—Belize, Honduras, Trinidad and Tobago—quickly became overwhelmed. Instead of relenting at that point, the Bush administration opened a camp in Guantánamo Bay to temporarily house Haitian asylum seekers. About 10,000 of them were paroled into the United States after passing an initial screening, but then, according to a Congressional Research Service report, “President Bush ordered the Coast Guard to intercept all Haitians in boats and immediately return them without interviews to determine whether they were at risk of persecution.”
The targeting of Haitians for unusual stringency continued into the Clinton era. In 1997, Congress excluded Haitians from a bill to help Eastern Europeans and Central Americans who had been boxed out of asylum protections based on technicalities. (This prompted passage of the pointedly titled Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act the next year.) And in 2002, President George W. Bush’s Justice Department acknowledged that, without announcing a formal policy change, it had instructed regional offices in South Florida to change their parole criteria for Haitians specifically, the congressional report says. This quiet change required that Haitians remain jailed after they had successfully passed initial asylum screenings—even though other groups of migrants were freed after clearing that hurdle.
Presidents, both Democratic and Republican, have briefly enacted policies acknowledging that Haitians qualify for asylum or other forms of protection, only to revoke them soon after—sometimes within a few weeks—because too many Haitians were seen to be taking advantage of them. This whiplash has at times felt arbitrary or even cruel. For instance, after the 2010 earthquake that killed a quarter of a million people and nearly leveled Haiti’s capital, tens of thousands of Haitians were granted Temporary Protected Status, allowing them to live and work in the U.S. legally. Recent reporting suggests that most of the people who are now stalled at the American border also fled their country after the 2010 earthquake but stopped first in South America. They simply didn’t get here in time before the door slammed shut again.
The images captured by journalists at the border this week carry the weight of history. One shows a crying toddler with braided hair sitting on an adult male’s shoulders, tiny arms crossed and face scrunched with tears. The man grips the child fiercely as he wades through the neck-high waters of the Rio Grande, in which countless migrants have drowned. His face is set with the determination necessary to survive a system that was not created to help you.
The broader pressure that President Biden is facing to reckon with the racial overtones of America’s immigration policy may require an acknowledgment of that history, and of the searing pain this moment has caused for many Black and brown immigrants, their children, and their grandchildren. These photos from Del Rio haven’t cut fresh wounds. They’ve reopened old ones.