Democratic activists hoped that President Biden's ascent to the White House would put an end to what they viewed as a nightmarish slate of immigration policies under former President TrumpDonald TrumpGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Super PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal MORE.
Yet the past week has raised new concerns among progressives that little has changed regarding the treatment of migrants at the southern border.
Scenes of Haitian migrants trudging through the Rio Grande to seek asylum in the U.S. — only to be circled by border officials on horseback on the other side — have drawn up painful memories and reinvigorated a debate over how far officials will go to reform a system many see as deteriorated, corrupt and inhumane.
"Own that shit," said Chuck Rocha, a former senior adviser to Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders on Medicare expansion in spending package: 'Its not coming out' Briahna Joy Gray: Biden must keep progressive promises or risk losing midterms Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Study finds Pfizer vaccine almost 91 percent effective for 5 to 11 year olds MORE (I-Vt.) and leading campaign strategist who ran the Democratic presidential candidate's Latino operation in 2020.
"You’ve got to get there and be like, 'Look, what happened at the border is unacceptable. There’s going to be an investigation, and those f---ing people are going to be fired, and just like [Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro] Mayorkas said, there’s no more horses on the border. You’re going to stop that shit right now. Not under my watch.'"
"And you get tough about it," he said.
Biden on Friday expressed regret and promised consequences after patrol agents on horseback were captured in photos earlier in the week appearing to spin their reins like lassos at the Haitian migrants.
Responding to a journalist’s inquiry about the situation, Biden suggested the scene was antithetical to the nation’s principles of inclusion and decency.
“To see people treated like they did, horses barely running them over and people being strapped — it was outrageous,” the president said. “I promise those people will pay.”
Vice President Harris also said she was “outraged” by the conduct, comparing the incident to "times of slavery."
The crisis at the border has opened up another avenue for intraparty critique as well as attacks from across the aisle at a time when Biden’s approval ratings have dropped significantly following the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In a Reuters poll released on Thursday, 51 percent of respondents surveyed said they disapprove of the job the president is doing at this point, while 44 percent approve. A Pew Research survey put out on the same day also found a steep decline in Biden’s standing with the public. Fifty-three percent of Americans polled now disapprove of his performance, while 44 percent are in favor of it.
While both sides have lashed out at the administration, Biden is taking particular heat from progressives incensed over the treatment of migrants and what they view as lingering damage under a Democratic administration that promised to reverse Trump's hard-line approach.
Many say Biden has a duty to provide a more humane haven for individuals entering the country and are urging him to do that in practice, on top of his pointed rhetoric.
“We cannot allow Trump’s policies on asylum to become the default,” former Obama-era Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro told The Hill. “We elected President Biden to chart a new course.”
“I’m glad to see President Biden speak out about the mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers. But his administration’s use of the Trump-era Title 42 policy to deny Haitians their right to seek asylum is equally concerning,” added Castro, who ran for president in the 2020 cycle.
Many Democrats such as Castro and immigration advocates have denounced the Biden administration’s extension of Title 42, which justifies the rejection of some migrants due to possible public health ramifications upon entrance to the U.S. Most recently those fears have been linked to COVID-19.
Stephen MillerStephen MillerTrump Defense chief blocked idea to send 250,000 troops to border: report Dave Chappelle refuses to be cancelled White House orders release of Trump records to Jan. 6 committee MORE, a leading architect of Trump’s immigration doctrine, reportedly wanted to remove migrants through Title 42, causing outrage at the time among many on the left. The provision still exists under the Biden administration.
“The mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers goes beyond horses and border patrol. They’re being subjected to the asylum policies of Stephen Miller eight months into the Biden administration,” said Sawyer Hackett, who serves as executive director of Castro’s "People First Future" PAC. “That’s inexcusable.”
While Biden on Friday publicly addressed the scenes that have inundated the media this week, the White House has gone on the defensive amid a barrage of questions about extending some Trump-era border policies.
"First of all, they're not deportations. People are not coming into the country through legal methods," White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiBiden remarks on Taiwan leave administration scrambling Buttigieg aims to use Tucker Carlson flap to spotlight paternity leave Biden injects new momentum into filibuster fight MORE said about some Haitians being turned away from entering the country.
That answer did not satisfy many progressives. And some members of Congress, including the influential Congressional Black Caucus, which as a group is usually more quiet in its criticism of the president, expressed concerns throughout the week.
Sergio Gonzales, who runs an advocacy network called Immigration Hub, said that the Biden administration should simply return to the most basic promises the president made when seeking office.
On the campaign trail, Biden called Trump's agenda a “moral failing,” and in a list of commitments he pledged to “take urgent action to undo Trump’s damage and reclaim America’s values,” “modernize America’s immigration system” and “welcome immigrants in our communities.” He also said he would “reassert America’s commitment to asylum-seekers and refugees.”
“This is the time to go back to the vision, the commitment and the framework that was put out and to recommit to that,” said Gonzales. “That means not summarily expelling refugees, and that means not keeping in place Trump policies like Title 42 but ending those things and then doubling down on the original strategy.”
“It’s a good strategy. It really is,” he said.
As tension over the border intensifies, many point to the difficulty of fixing a process that has seen decades of internal issues, particularly at the Department of Homeland Security, which has faced numerous complaints spanning Republican and Democratic administrations.
Others say that on top of that Biden is crippled by competing national crises, making the issue more difficult to manage. One strategist based in Texas said that an influx of people entering the country during a global pandemic inherently raises some health concerns.
“I do think it carries risks,” said Keir Murray, a longtime Democratic operative from Houston. “Because of COVID and the economy, [I] don’t think [the] public is wild about having a lot of undocumented folks enter.”
But Murray, who has been based in the state for many years, sees nuance in the highly polarized issue.
“People also [are] justifiably upset at cruel treatment of some of the migrants. Increase in flow of migrants [is] not [the] Biden administration’s fault, but it’s taken them a while to adjust and deal with it,” he added.
“Tough situation all around,” he said.
And while some Democrats are criticizing Biden for one of the biggest immigration controversies yet in his term, others on the left argue the administration needs to do a better job messaging how many deportation policies started before he took office.
“Democrats are very, very clutch pearl,” Rocha said. “Voters want somebody who’s going to stand up to them and say, ‘Hey, this ain’t how we treat people.’”