Long-simmering criticism of the Biden administration’s approach to immigration policy by Democratic allies has taken on a new dimension this week, as civil rights groups and lawmakers express growing concerns that the treatment of Haitian asylum-seekers by American immigration authorities reinforces anti-Black racism.
The undeniably racial component of the ongoing deportation operation at the U.S.-Mexico border in Del Rio, Texas, was crystallized earlier this week with the publication of photographs showing U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents on horseback confronting Haitian migrants.
But beyond that incident, which the White House called “horrific” and is being investigated by the Department of Homeland Security, there is a growing consensus among Black organizations and civic leaders that President Joe Biden’s response to a crush of more than 15,000 Haitian asylum-seekers has been made worse by institutional racism against Black migrants specifically.
“What we’re seeing along the southern border is nothing short of a humanitarian disaster,” Cliff Albright and LaTosha Brown, co-founders of Black Voters Matter, said in a statement. “The images of U.S. Border Patrol agents riding horseback, whipping and corralling Black asylum seekers, invoke a long and disturbing history of slavery—one whose legacy lives on through unconscionable acts of racial violence just like this. President Biden cannot ‘restore the soul of America’ as he allows his agencies to replicate the original sin which plagues that damaged soul.”
(Editor’s note: While there were claims the Border Patrol agents whipped migrants with horse reins or ropes, an agency investigation has found no one was struck. However, the investigation found that agents used inappropriate force and language, and one agent admitted “twirling these split reins as a distancing tactic.”)
Guerline Jozef, co-founder and executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, which has been advocating on behalf of the asylum-seekers, called on the Biden administration to move beyond simply condemning the incident and to end “systemic racist immigration policies that demonize Black people.”
“Black asylum seekers need compassion, not an endless cycle of inhumane and careless treatment,” Jozef said. “As the world is watching, the administration is deporting 1,000 people based on a system of cruelty, sadism and oppression despite supposed outrage over men on horseback whipping Black children and families.”
The footage has prompted public condemnation even from within the administration itself, with Vice President Kamala Harris—the first Black person to ever occupy the office—issuing a rare separate readout of a meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in which she “raised her grave concerns about the mistreatment of Haitian migrants by border patrol agents.”
On Thursday, the U.S. special envoy to Haiti abruptly resigned, citing in his resignation letter the administration’s “inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees and illegal immigrants to Haiti,” which he called part of a “deeply flawed” approach to the country’s ongoing environmental and political instability. (Ned Price, spokesperson for the State Department, said in response to the letter that the envoy had “mischaracterized the circumstances of his resignation” and said that the implication that the administration ignored proposals to facilitate easier immigration from Haiti were “simply false.”)
Advocates were even more incensed by the treatment of thousands of Haitian migrants camped under a bridge awaiting processing and almost-certain deportation juxtaposed with that of the enormous government effort to aid Afghan civilians escaping the Taliban following the collapse of Afghanistan’s government last month.
“The swift response to support the Afghan people fleeing the Taliban serves as undeniable proof that the U.S. can devote the energy and resources to treating asylum seekers with dignity, respect, and humanity,” said Albright and Brown.
There are, of course, vast legal and bureaucratic differences between the two situations. Afghans fleeing the Taliban, many of whom had already been granted visas, are going through a legal immigration process that had been orchestrated by multiple departments, whereas the would-be asylees are primarily entering the United States illegally, often under the mistaken belief that the United States is allowing Haitian migrants to remain in the country. Under normal circumstances, those seeking asylum would still be allowed to remain in the country while their claims were processed, regardless of their manner of entry, but under a dubious Trump-era public health order, almost all those seeking asylum have been swiftly deported.
The White House has maintained that Haitian immigrants are treated no worse than any other migrants in the U.S. immigration system.
“Our policy process has continued to be the same with Haiti as it is for anybody coming through through irregular migration across our border,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday. “There is a process that is in place, that people—whether they’re coming from Haiti or any part of the world—go through.”
But advocates have noted that the expulsion of families, some with children as young as 3 years old, on deportation flights back to Haiti—on which some asylum-seekers were reportedly shackled—only to find their personal belongings dumped on the tarmac, is clearly a departure from official administration policy to allow families to remain in the United States as their asylum cases are adjudicated.
“Returning them home, or to third countries with no infrastructure to support them, is as dangerous as it is unconscionable,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which helps settle refugees and asylees in the United States. “To do so without so much as an interview or court hearing is downright un-American.”
Asked by The Daily Beast whether the racial criticisms were fair, or what assurances it could provide that Black migrants are being treated equitably, a White House spokesperson asked The Daily Beast for specific examples of how Black migrants are treated worse at the border, “aside from the horrific incident with CBP, which has been addressed and being investigated.”
The United States has a long history of anti-Haitian discrimination, even by the standards of an immigration system that has often been used as a tool to discriminate against minorities more broadly. In the ’90s, the Department of Justice indefinitely held thousands of asylum-seekers—many of them HIV-positive—at a detention center in Guantanamo Bay, a facility that was later deemed an “HIV prison camp” by a U.S. federal judge. That policy, instituted by two-time Attorney General William Barr, was put into place in part to avoid the political implications of allowing thousands of Haitian migrants into Florida “months before [an] election.”
More recently, Haitian immigrants were viewed with open racial hostility by Biden’s predecessor, former President Donald Trump.
Trump, whose anti-immigrant rhetoric frequently employed racist tropes, privately called Haiti one of a few “shithole countries” and grumbled that Haitians “all have AIDS.”
At the time Trump’s “shithole countries” remark was first reported, Biden was swift to condemn him.
“It’s not how a president should speak. It’s not how a president should behave. Most of all, it’s not what a president should believe,” Biden tweeted. “We’re better than this.”
But now that he is at the helm of the nation’s immigration policy, even Biden’s allies aren’t so sure.
“I’m pissed,” Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) said, according to local media reports.
Wilson elaborated later on CNN, telling Jake Tapper, “There is no need to deport Haitians to Haiti,” she continued. “That’s inhumane.”