PAUL RATJE / AFP / Getty
Throughout the last administration, Department of Homeland Security officials at all levels—from Senate-confirmed power brokers in Washington to rank-and-file agents along the border—often complained that they were facing a double standard: They were doing the same work, using the same methods, as they had under previous presidents, they said, but because their boss was now Donald Trump, the public was quick to assume they were acting out of racism or malice.
At times, of course, Trump’s policies did break with those of previous administrations, including the zero-tolerance policy that separated thousands of migrant children from their parents. But in many ways, the DHS officials were right: Stories highlighting conditions and practices that predated the Trump presidency by years or even decades suddenly became front-page news. Reporters had doggedly covered those issues for years, but before Trump was inaugurated, their stories rarely generated any lasting national attention.
Up until recently, the Biden administration seemed to have been banking on the persistence of this double standard, whereby the left-leaning parts of the public assume general goodwill on the part of Democratic politicians and therefore give them a pass. The administration has taken up court battles to protect some of Trump’s harshest asylum policies and commenced flying multiple planeloads of migrants back to Haiti. Now-viral images show that, in recent days, Border Patrol agents have been charging at—and in some cases verbally assaulting—Haitian migrants marooned at the Mexican border across from Del Rio, Texas.
But the assumption that these tactics would go unchallenged when deployed by a Democratic administration, as was often the case in the past, appears to have been a serious miscalculation. The spotlight that Trump shined on the southern border for four years is still plugged in. The public is still paying attention. And images that evoke the era of slavery—with fair-skinned men on horseback rushing Black migrants, whiplike reins flailing behind them—have added to a long-simmering push from the left to consider immigration policy not simply in terms of economics or national security, but also in terms of race.
Key allies of President Joe Biden are responding in ways that suggest the era of presumed goodwill may be over. The recent treatment of Haitians “turns your stomach,” Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader, said this week in a speech on the Senate floor. “We cannot continue these hateful and xenophobic Trump policies that disregard our refugee laws.” Members of the Congressional Black Caucus were whisked to the White House for a meeting this week, and Al Sharpton, who traveled to the border recently, told The Washington Post that, like thus-far-unsuccessful efforts toward police reform, the treatment of Haitian migrants was an example of how Biden was failing Black Americans. Biden “said on election night: Black America, you had my back, I’ll have yours,” Sharpton said. “Well, we’re being stabbed in the back, Mr. President. We need you to stop the stabbing—from Haiti to Harlem.”
Belatedly realizing that the political climate seems to have changed, the Biden administration is now scrambling to do damage control. Vice President Kamala Harris called the images from Del Rio “deeply troubling.” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said he was “horrified,” and he suspended horse patrols there. The president himself said on Tuesday that the encounters were “dangerous” and “wrong,” and that “those people will pay.” All of this seems slightly disingenuous: As the administration well knows, Border Patrol agents have been policing on horseback for more than 100 years. And in this case, they were doing so under orders from their supervisors, who serve at the pleasure of the president. The scapegoating of rank-and-file agents will likely alienate a workforce that feels it was ordered to show force and then hung out to dry. Putting the focus on the horseback patrols also draws attention away from a larger issue: The administration has taken the legally dubious position of blocking most Haitian migrants from requesting asylum—and in this case, pushing them back onto the Mexican side of a dangerous river from which border agents often have to save people from drowning.
These events have stoked a broader conversation about race, not only because of the specifics of the encounters in Del Rio, but because of the way our current system is set up. One would be hard-pressed to imagine a scenario in which, following a coup or an earthquake in France, a large crowd of Parisians would show up in Matamoros, Mexico, and face the same treatment as the Haitians—because they would not be required to present themselves at the border in the first place. People from wealthy Western countries don’t need visas to come to the United States. For a few hundred dollars, they can simply hop on planes and enter the U.S. as tourists. Then, at some point on their “vacation,” they can show up at a government office and request asylum as part of a non-adversarial administrative process. Or they can simply stay in the U.S. illegally without seeking permission, as thousands of Western Europeans and Canadians do each year.
That experience is wholly unlike what an impoverished Haitian or Central American seeking asylum face