They seemed to come out of literally nowhere and then they just kept coming — Haitian refugees, suddenly crammed by the thousands in the shade under a highway overpass in Del Rio, Texas, and spilling out across a dam into the currents of the Rio Grande. First there were 4,000, then 8,000, then maybe 14,000, carrying their flimsy possessions or sometimes a weeping toddler over the waters that separate Mexico from the United States.
These huddled masses quickly became an object of xenophobic wonder and alarm — with Fox News calling in its chits with right-wing Texas lawmen to get aerial shots of a new “alien invasion” to scare its couch potatoes with — and a political football for foundering GOP pols like Sen. Ted Cruz or Gov. Greg Abbott, who jumped at a chance to change the conversation from the thousands of deaths under his failed COVID-19 policies. To too many in the mainstream media, the images of hot, hungry and desperate Haitians were just the last crisis of President Joe Biden’s long, hot summer — nothing more, nothing less.
Indeed, the initial rush to blame our first-year 46th president for anything that goes awry on Planet Earth can be more than a tad silly, but now you can, and should, blame Biden for a rapid-fire response that aims to get these Haitians onto airplanes and out of Del Rio — and, more importantly, off your TV screen — to rush them back to the unsafety of the unstable, violence-wracked and earthquake-ravaged Caribbean island of their birth. Incredibly, Biden is following in the footsteps of America’s Ted Cruzes and Greg Abbotts in failing to see these 14,000 Haitian souls for the only thing that should really matter in this fraught moment.
“We are all looking for a better life,” Junior Jean, a 32-year-old Haitian native who escaped the island’s many depredations four years ago only to survive by picking through garbage cans in Brazil’s largest city of Rio de Janeiro before making the dangerous trek to the U.S. southern border. As Jean spoke to an Associated Press reporter — one of the few journalists, it seems, who actually asked our fellow humans what they were doing here rather than going for the drone-powered scare shots — the two were surrounded by families trying to keep their small bags of food and water dry from the fast-moving river.
It feels like far too many Americans — including the ones making the decisions — don’t want to hear these personal stories, or to understand the reasons why someone would flee the only country they’d ever known to wander across a hostile Latin America for years, and why the longshot of asylum in America — where many of them know friends or family living comfortable lives on the other side of a manmade line — is worth a do-or-die gamble. Apparently seeing these Haitians as people just like us — who’d risk everything if necessary to make a better life for their children — would spoil the optics of our own political games.
The race to airlift these mostly Haitian migrants back into harm’s way would look inhumane and un-American under any circumstance, but Biden’s actions seem especially bizarre in the present moment. The rapid deportation of the throng at Del Rio — using a dubious loophole to prevent them from applying for political asylum — would happen at the same time that U.S. authorities are rushing to vet tens of thousands of hastily airlifted Afghan refugees for a shot at the American Dream. In our land of illogic, perhaps some of the same planes that helped folks crammed onto a Kabul tarmac escape the Taliban will now ferry the people crammed under that Texas bridge back to the bullet-ridden streets of Port-au-Prince.
Sure, I can anticipate your arguments — that we owed this to the Afghans, who were our allies and often worked for the Americans in our misguided 20-year war, while the Haitian migrants are somehow crass economic opportunists for their nerve in not wanting to pick through garbage cans or to take their kids back to gang-plagued streets.( Is it even worth mentioning that both Afghanistan and Haiti are a mess in part because of America’s self-interested meddling.)
The reality is that politicians and bureaucrats are playing God — unlawfully, by the way — in determining which refugees are deemed worthy and which ones get cast away, and it is a very ugly look for the United States. Already some African Americans are looking at the Afghan-Haitian paradox and wondering why it’s the asylum seekers with darker skin getting the short end of the stick. Can you blame them?
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In seeking the presidency in 2020, Biden actually made one of his primary pitches that he would wash away the moral stain of Donald Trump’s xenophobic immigration agenda. Included in that was the Democrat’s explicit pledge that he’d reverse Trump’s policies that reduced the number of refugees granted U.S. political asylum to record lows, with a paltry annual target of just 15,000 going into the 2020 election. Biden promised to hike the yearly goal back to 125,000 “and to seek to raise it over time.”
But since the moment that a predictable late-winter surge of Central American migrants led to scare chyrons on Fox News, Team Biden has aggressively moved to break his promise, lowering his actual target for 2021 to 62,000 and then admitting he wouldn’t come close to meeting even that. At least before the Afghan crisis, Biden was on track for an even worse year in 2021 for refugee admission than Trump’s last-year low point — despite the fact that giving all political asylum seekers a fair hearing is both U.S. law and an international human right.
Biden’s Haitian policy sums up his muddled and so far failed efforts to reverse Trump’s legacy. Even before the second deadly and devastating earthquake in little more than a decade struck the island nation this summer, Biden’s Department of Homeland Security extended Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, to Haitians in the United States threatened with possible deportation because of Haiti’s economic and political crises. Yet just weeks later, the Biden administration invoked a public health order known as Title 42 to fill a plane with 86 of the first Haitians to arrive at the Mexican border and to send them back to the country that other U.S. officials had deemed too dangerous, and is now recovering from a natural disaster.
“That ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] would continue to carry out the mass deportations of our Haitian neighbors — with Haiti in the midst of its worst political, public health and economic crises yet — is cruel and callous,” Democratic U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts said, and that was before the news that Biden wants to use Title 42 to move the thousands now trapped in Del Rio. People on the left and groups like the ACLU were righteously outraged last year at Trump for using that provision and the thinly veiled excuse of the COVID-19 crisis to deny asylum seekers their fundamental rights. That Biden is continuing this practice — erecting walls to human suffering instead of building bridges — is profoundly disappointing.
“The situation in Del Rio wouldn’t be happening if the [administration] had cleaved to principle [and] focused on universal access to asylum in an orderly manner through ports of entry,” Clara Long, Human Rights Watch’s associate director for migrant policy and climate, wrote in a devastating Twitter thread on Saturday. “Instead its border policies are chaotic [and] unpredictable [and] people who need protection don’t know what to do.”
The flawed response is also deeply disheartening because experts know that these spasms of large-scale, desperate migrations in North America — as well as the rest of the world — are only going to increase, because of climate change. Ironically, Haiti’s natural disasters — although in this situation earthquakes not caused by global warming — are nonetheless a test case for how the United States might respond when similar conditions of poverty and despair arise from the lengthy droughts, massive flooding or rising sea levels caused by the climate crisis. This weekend, we are flunking this basic test of our humanity, and miserably so.
Of course, getting immigration policy right is a complicated dance, but that doesn’t mean that Team Biden should be sashaying in the wrong direction. Now is the exact moment for the administration to work harder on expanding the border facilities and the infrastructure — more immigration judges and courts to process these cases, for example — to treat our brothers and sisters seeking a better life with the dignity they deserve.
That would actually be good politics — the voters who swung to Biden in 2020 wanted a more humane America, not craven responses to right-wing hysteria — in a situation where politics shouldn’t even matter, just doing what’s right. Let’s stop looking at Haitian refugees from an elevation of 1,000 feet and start meeting them on the ground, where we can lend them the helping hand they so desperately need.
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