A coalition of more than 38 civil rights and immigrant advocacy leaders sent the White House a letter Tuesday evening calling on Biden to immediately stop expulsions of Haitians, some of whom arrived at the border community of Del Rio, Texas, after fleeing violence and natural disaster in their home county. The letter, first provided to POLITICO, marks a “final straw,” said Nana Gyamfi, executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and president of the National Conference of Black Lawyers. The coalition, which includes the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and the The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, described the moment as “an inflection point” for Biden’s commitment to a humane immigration policy.
“Responsibility for the suffering and deaths resulting from summary expulsions and removals now falls squarely on your Administration and will be part of your enduring legacy,” the letter states. “Deportation flights to Haiti must stop, and those seeking safety at our borders must be granted their legally assured chance to seek asylum.”
Members of the president’s own party — from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on down — echoed the call to end the expulsions. Increasingly, they did so while directing their ire at the White House for its handling of the situation. On Wednesday, 12 House Democrats, including Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) and Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) will hold a press conference calling on Biden to halt the deportations.
The White House condemned footage of Border Patrol agents on horseback appearing to use reins to deter Haitian migrants, which drew blowback from the agents themselves.
In sharply visceral terms, the national Border Patrol union blasted the White House on Tuesday, characterizing it as inept for failing to have a plan in place to deal with the influx of some 15,000 migrants that left agents overwhelmed. Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council provided text from emails he says the union had sent to the administration in June warning of an influx of migrants in Del Rio. In those texts, the union suggested a way to process the crowds more smoothly. But the response from management in the Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, according to the union, was that “several other platforms are being considered which are more efficient.”
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the U.S. Border Patrol, did not have a response by deadline late Tuesday. Judd said Border Patrol agents are beyond frustrated.
“They knew this was coming, and they didn’t take the steps to mitigate this so now you’ve got a bunch of people that are sitting under a bridge in conditions — these are little tiny kids sitting under this bridge in deplorable conditions,” Judd said. “It looks like a warzone but in the United States. I’m completely, totally floored.”
As for the images that the White House had condemned on Tuesday, Judd said Border Patrol agents were simply using methods they were trained to use under the Biden administration. “We’re outnumbered by 200 to one. We’re put into a situation where we’re in between people — there’s a propensity for violence when there’s large crowds. We’re expected to control that,” Judd said. “We don’t strike anybody. We used the tactic we were trained with — and the White House vilified us.”
The cascading criticisms and calls for policy reversals underscored what the White House has long feared — that the issue of immigration is, for Biden, the equivalent of political quicksand. The president faces pressure from the left to grant asylum to immigrants at the border and reverse Trump-era policies over expulsions. But Republicans immediately characterized a spike in asylum seekers as Biden’s failure to secure the border.
During the 2020 campaign, Biden had promised to pursue a more humane immigration policy than his predecessor, Donald Trump. But his record in office has been mixed: continuing some of the policies of the last administration while pursuing comprehensive immigration reform. On Sunday, the White House and fellow Democrats were dealt a blow, when the Senate parliamentarian rejected a bid to include a pathway to legal status in the party’s social spending plan, further muddying Biden’s record on this front.
“This border has become like the ‘tough on crime’ [initiative] for this administration,” said Gyamfi, referring to the 1996 crime bill Biden sponsored. “The last thing that asylum seekers need is to be the sacrificial lambs for the effort to appear tough for right-leaning Democrats and moderate Republicans.”
Internally, administration officials say they have few good options to deal with the current situation at the border, save to continue the course of removing migrants and deterring future migration. Agencies are moving to send more Border Patrol and ICE agents to the Del Rio, Texas, area to help contain the overflow of people. The administration also added more outbound flights to Haiti with greater capacity, and the DHS was working to mitigate crowding and improve conditions for the migrants on U.S. soil, according to the White House.
The administration has also fought in court to keep the Trump-era Title 42 policy in place — a public health authority that first the Trump and now Biden administrations have used to expel the majority of migrants encountered at the border, citing the risks of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) said his colleagues who are calling for an end to deportations “don’t understand the border, don’t understand the frustration that my communities are going through.”
“Is there a frustration — and I don’t want to get into politics — among Democratic voters? Hell yeah,” Cuellar said, referring to Democratic voters in Texas. The dramatic increase this year in migrants crossing the border is “not normal for us,” he said. “And we live at the border.”
In the spotlight through it all has been Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who was dispatched to the border on Monday to tamp down frustration among Border Patrol agents while underscoring that he would not tolerate inhumane conditions at the camps.
Mayorkas testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on Tuesday, telling members they could “expect to see dramatic results within the next 48 to 96” hours. He also is set to speak with Vice President Kamala Harris about horseback images, which she described as “horrible.”
“Human beings should never be treated that way, and I’m deeply troubled about it,” Harris said at a public event on Tuesday.
Images of thousands of Haitians living outdoors and wading through a river to move from the U.S. side of the border back to Mexico to buy food or supplies have dominated media coverage over the last several days. In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott railed against the Biden administration’s policies and contended it was local authorities who were rushing to mitigate the crisis rather than the White House.
But the pushback was just as fierce among Democrats, with several saying they were stunned that a president from their own party would usher people in despair onto flights and send them back to their countries of origin before allowing them to make their case before a judge.
“These aren’t migrants, they’re not undocumented immigrants — they’re asylum seekers,” said Sawyer Hackett, executive director of Julian Castro’s People First Future PAC, a group aimed at helping fund progressive candidates. “The administration’s use of Title 42 — the Trump era Title 42 policy to deny them the ability to make their legal right to an asylum claim — is wrong. It’s immoral, it shouldn’t happen.”
The coalition of civil and human rights advocates accused Biden of violating asylum rights and failing to uphold policies he championed during his presidential run and when first taking office.
“In recent weeks your Administration has violated asylum rights and refugee laws enacted by Congress and embraced policies that inflict cruelty on Black, Brown and Indigenous immigrant communities,” the letter states. “We fear that commitments made on the campaign trail — to uphold the United States’ domestic and international legal obligation to asylum, to end privatized detention, and to disentangle federal immigration enforcement from local law enforcement — are being shredded before our eyes.”