Democratic anger grows over treatment of Haitian migrants
The Biden administration is under increasing scrutiny from Democrats over the conditions and treatment of Haitian migrants camped out under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas.
The intraparty pressure is especially caustic because the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has vowed to use deportations and expulsions as the agency’s primary means of addressing the crisis, even though many Democratic lawmakers have publicly lobbied for a suspension of Haitian repatriations.
“I’m unhappy with the administration. We are following Trump politics. He is the one who does not follow the Constitution and would not allow those seeking refuge to be able to petition to get into the country,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).
“What the hell are we doing here? What we witnessed takes us back hundreds of years,” she added, calling out Border Patrol agents who earlier this week were seen chasing Haitian migrants on horseback.
Those photos and videos drew sharp condemnation from administration officials, including Vice President Harris, and DHS has promised a swift investigation into the matter.
“Here we are, we see a crisis at the border. But the black-skinned immigrants who are seeking asylum are herded like animals with horses,” said Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), a member of Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) leadership.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the investigation by Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Office of Professional Responsibility would be completed “by next week” and that the Border Patrol officers involved in the incidents have been placed on administrative leave.
“We understand and agree that this has been an incredibly heart-wrenching issue,” Psaki told reporters during a briefing. “We’ve watched the photos of Haitians gathering under a bridge, many with families, and the horrific video of the CBP officers on horses using brutal and inappropriate measures against innocent people. I think it’s important to address that and separately address what our immigration policies are.”
Psaki said President Biden “remains committed to putting in place a humane and orderly immigration system.”
The developments have pitted administration officials against some members of the president’s party at a crucial point in efforts to advance Biden’s agenda on Capitol Hill.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to DHS and the State Department urging they halt repatriations to Haiti, while a group of CBC lawmakers met with Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Wednesday to voice similar demands.
The request to stop repatriations came last week, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement resumed repatriation flights to Haiti on Sunday. Fifty-six House Democrats sent a letter to Biden and Mayorkas that week asking for an indefinite suspension of flights to the ravaged country.
“It was not an appropriate response, and we magnified that today in no uncertain terms,” said Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), a CBC member, after attending Wednesday’s White House meeting.
CBC members are calling for suspended repatriations, designating Haitians as stateless to bolster their refugee claims and an end to Title 42, a Trump-era border management policy that allows U.S. authorities to immediately expel foreign nationals under the guise of pandemic sanitary protections.
Many Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), have called for the end of Title 42, but the pleas have not led to action on the part of the administration.
Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee also demanded a briefing from officials at CBP, the Border Patrol’s parent agency, on the treatment of Haitian migrants at the southern border.
Mayorkas, who was testifying Wednesday on Capitol Hill, referenced the images of migrants running from federal agents on horseback, saying they “correctly and necessarily were met with our nation’s horror.”
“We are addressing this with tremendous speed and with tremendous force. … The facts will drive the actions that we take, we ourselves will pull no punches, and we need to conduct this investigation thoroughly, but very quickly. It will be completed in days, not weeks.”
Much of the scrutiny at Wednesday’s hearing came from fellow Democrats, with many demanding strong action from the department.
“I know that you’re investigating it, but I tell you there’s under no circumstances that those individuals ought to be able to interact with other human beings ever again. They need to be released, and they need to be held accountable,” Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) said after reading a passage welcoming migrants from the poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty.
Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) noted the disparity between the recent incidents and the treatment of Haitians who entered the U.S. before July who were granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and allowed to remain in the U.S. due to conditions in Haiti.
“So, if we shouldn’t send [TPS holders] back because of conditions, then we find that we have persons who should be removed under Title 42 … I’m asking, is there some way to reconcile this so that we don’t have the appearance of contradicting ourselves? So that we show that there is some rationale for Haitians remaining here?”
But not all Democrats agree repatriations to Haiti should stop immediately.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), whose district has at times been a crossing point for unauthorized migration and is relatively close to Del Rio, cast doubt on whether most Haitians at the border have a claim to asylum.
Speaking at an event Wednesday, Cuellar warned a softening of U.S. policy could incentivize further crossings.
“You’ve got to have some sort of deterrence,” Cuellar said at the 2021 Texas Tribune Festival. “Otherwise, your laws don’t mean anything.”
Rep. Vicente González (D-Texas), another member whose district is in the Rio Grande Valley, said U.S. resources would be better spent stabilizing Haiti to reduce migration.
“We should be on the ground helping them in their home country. We could do a lot more than we’re doing,” said González.
Democratic strategists say the recent developments could carry negative political implications for Biden if his administration does not resolve the situation.
Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist and director of the public policy program at Hunter College in New York, said the images of Haitians at the border are “going to cause a tremendous amount of consternation” among Biden’s base.
Smikle argued that it’s not so much the broader handling of the immigration issue but rather the apparent “disparate treatment” of Afghan refugees and Mexican and Latino immigrants when compared with the treatment of Haitians.
“That’s where they need to step up their language and engagement,” Smikle said.
The political implications could extend to places like South Florida, where there is a sizable Haitian community that has increasingly been active in elections, said Susan MacManus, a political analyst and professor at the University of South Florida.
“Biden made a lot of inroads of late with the Haitian community because of offering them TPS status. This almost completely erases any benefit that Biden would have gotten from that and one of the telltale signs is the fact that the South Florida Democrats have come out against this recent move,” said MacManus.
Harris, who is leading an effort by the administration to address the root causes of migration, called the treatment of Haitian migrants at the border “horrible.”
“Human beings should never be treated that way, and I’m deeply troubled about it,” she said.
Harris spoke with Mayorkas privately on Tuesday after he traveled to Del Rio and raised “grave concerns about the mistreatment of Haitian migrants by border patrol agents on horses,” according to a readout from the vice president’s office.
Biden has not addressed the issue extensively, but on Tuesday said “violence is not justified” when a reporter asked for his response to the situation at the border.
“The president was horrified by that, just as we all were,” Psaki said Wednesday when asked about Biden’s response to the images. She also said that Biden has been briefed on the situation by his national security team and wants to see the investigation completed “rapidly.”
Marty Johnson contributed to this story.