The Memo: Biden's immigration problems reach crescendo in Del Rio

Immigration has been President BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE’s weakest issue since he took office — and now the situation has sunk to a new low with the crisis in Del Rio, Texas.

Thousands of would-be migrants and asylum-seekers, primarily from Haiti, are sheltering in squalid and chaotic conditions underneath a bridge along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The total number of people at the makeshift encampment has decreased by several thousand from its peak of around 14,000. But the crisis, and the way the Biden administration has tried to deal with it, has sparked outrage on both the left and right.

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Conservatives lambast Biden for what they see as an over-lenient approach that has served as a magnet for people to try to cross the border.

Liberals and progressives abhor the deportations that the administration has already begun in response to the situation. Their fury has grown hotter with images of border officials on horseback herding migrants around in Del Rio. The administration announced Thursday that it would pause the use of horses.

Rep. Frederica WilsonFrederica Patricia WilsonFAA levies 5K in fines against unruly passengers this year CBC-led Commission on Social Status of Black Men and Boys has first meeting Democrats press DOJ to prosecute unruly air passengers MORE (D-Fla.), speaking at a Thursday news conference, declared herself “pissed” at the way the migrants were being treated.

One way or another, the White House is in the unusual position of having united everyone from Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCongress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight On The Money — Congress races to keep the lights on House sets up Senate shutdown showdown MORE (R-Texas) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense & National Security — Quick vote on defense bill blocked again Maternal and child health legislation must be prioritized now The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks up bright side beneath omicron's cloud MORE (R-Fla.) to Reps. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersCrypto firm top executives to testify before Congress Powell, Yellen say they underestimated inflation and supply snarls The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden to update Americans on omicron; Congress back MORE (D-Calif) and Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarDemocratic caucus chairs call for Boebert committee assignment removal War of words escalates in House Mace chief of staff steps down during turbulent week MORE (D-Minn.) in condemnation of its actions.

The political problem for Biden is at least twofold.

On one hand, the chaos in Del Rio raises questions of competence that are already on the table after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Secondly, the treatment of the Haitians also erodes Biden’s image as an empathic, compassionate president who marks a clear break with the tone and policies of former President TrumpDonald TrumpBaldwin calls Trump criticism following 'Rust' shooting 'surreal' Haley hits the stump in South Carolina Mary Trump files to dismiss Trump's lawsuit over NYT tax story MORE.

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This disappointment is felt keenly among activists who are broadly supportive of Biden’s political outlook. Their refrain is: We expected better.

Francois Pierre-Louis, the U.S.-based Haiti director for Faith in Action International, told this column he is “devastated” by what he sees in Del Rio.

“It was really depressing to realize that this is taking place under Biden’s watch ... to see the same Trump policies continuing,” he said. “He sent a signal a long time ago that his policies were going to be different from those of Trump.”

The issue in Del Rio is particularly explosive because the overwhelming number of people who have crossed the border are Black. Their treatment has raised the specter of racism.

“We are in a situation in which this country is rightfully making room for some 90,000 people from Afghanistan, and the administration has just announced it is raising the cap on refugees,” said Nana Gyamfi, the executive director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration, a progressive group. “And at the same time, it is thrashing and cussing Haitians and other Black asylum-seekers across rivers they have crossed for freedom.”

Gyamfi was among a group of Black civil rights leaders who met with White House officials Thursday. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro MayorkasAlejandro MayorkasHillicon Valley —TSA to strengthen rail sector cybersecurity TSA issues directives to rail sector to strengthen cybersecurity US to restart 'Remain in Mexico' program following court order MORE attended the meeting, as did Domestic Policy Council Director Susan RiceSusan RiceAn unquestioning press promotes Rep. Adam Schiff's book based on Russia fiction Biden administration, stakeholders to host interagency event on economic equity Black Caucus pushes for priorities in final deal MORE and senior Biden adviser Cedric RichmondCedric RichmondBiden should seek some ideological diversity Biden says 'consumer spending has recovered' to pre-pandemic levels Build Back Better is a 21st century New Deal MORE, she said.

Gyamfi felt that the activists had their views respectfully heard.

But, she added, “We didn’t really leave with commitments other than what you will have already seen — that they are not going to use the horse patrols any more. We heard commitments to look at stuff, to consider stuff, to think about stuff. But for us, we don’t feel there is a lot to think about.”

For Biden, however, there is plenty to think about — including the fact that millions of Americans see the whole issue of immigration very differently.

On the right, Biden is blamed for breaking with Trump-era policies that conservatives believe were working.

Even setting aside the situation in Del Rio, encounters between unauthorized migrants and immigration officials are at a 20-year high at the southwestern border. There is no sign the surge will abate anytime soon.

That leaves Biden open to the conservative charge that he has lost control of the border.

A Pew Research poll released Thursday indicated the public is more skeptical of Biden on immigration than on virtually any other issue.

Just 43 percent of adults said they were confident that Biden would “make wise decisions about immigration policy.” Fifty-six percent said they were not confident he would do so.

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The 13-point net negative rating was far worse than Biden rated on his response to COVID-19, where a small majority remained confident that he would do the right thing.

Biden’s critics are piling on. Rubio, in a video released on Twitter Thursday afternoon, condemned the administration for what he termed “a cascade of calamities.” Footage from Del Rio dominated the brief video.

Lora Ries, a former acting chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security and a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told this column that the sordid scenes in Texas were “almost like a time-lapse of all of 2021. You have a lot of migrants appearing very quickly and the Biden administration’s policies are the reasons for it. The border is open, no matter how many times Secretary Mayorkas says it is closed.”

More broadly, she asserted that liberals wanted to “erase the line between legal and illegal immigration.”

She added: “Americans want lawful immigration. We have a lot of laws on the books and they want those laws enforced. This administration is not enforcing the laws, and that makes it unsafe.”

The Biden administration insists it is regaining control of the situation in Del Rio. It has dispatched extra border officials to help with the crisis, and it began deportation flights back to Haiti several days ago. The deportations are expected to continue, despite protests from the left.

But even if the numbers at Del Rio shrink, the immigration issue isn’t going anywhere — in part because its roots cannot be easily or quickly excavated.

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Fernando Chang-Muy, an expert on refugee law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, said it was false to suggest the general surge in migration had any one simple cause.

“It’s many reasons. One is the situation in the country of origin. And yes, Trump was closing doors and ‘We hear Biden is a nice guy.’ But there is also corruption in Honduras, or the farms are dry because of climate change, or ‘the gangs are after me.’ The situation in the country of origin is pushing people out, and the perception of Biden is drawing people in.”

A real solution would have to address those root causes, he said. But that would take time — time that the Biden administration doesn’t have.

One Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, expressed frustration with the whole situation.

The strategist argued that the public at large favored Democratic policy positions on immigration. But the execution of policies matters a lot too.

“There is the performance point of view — are things going well or poorly?” the strategist said, “Right now, they do not look like they are going well.

“That feeds into a narrative about the Biden administration — and it’s not a flattering narrative.”


The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.