Some images burn themselves into the brain. In this one, a U.S. Border Patrol agent on horseback lashes a whip near the face of a Haitian migrant; Reuters reports he later grabbed a man by the shirt. The migrants on our border are fleeing poverty and political chaos; they seek the same future we all want for ourselves. They have found a violent welcome in Joe Biden’s America. Asked to comment on the use of whips by border agents, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said she did not think “anyone seeing that footage would think it was acceptable or appropriate.”
This is parental rhetoric, the language a person uses to express disappointment in a misbehaved child. The agent on horseback offers a more accurate depiction of the Biden administration’s position on immigration. In at least one respect, Biden differs little from his hated predecessor, Donald Trump.
As the Associated Press reports, the administration’s mass expulsions of migrants are possible because Biden left a Trump policy partially intact. That policy, introduced by Trump in March of last year, citing COVID, “allows for migrants to be immediately removed from the country without an opportunity to seek asylum.” Biden did make one adjustment to the rule: He exempted unaccompanied migrant children from its strictures. In lieu of broader, and more humane, reform, Biden’s decision looks like a capitulation to political optics, rather than a real desire to rectify the outrages of the Trump era. Biden fixed the policy that caused the most public outrage. All other migrants, however, remain vulnerable.
It’s an outcome some migrants advocates may have predicted. Biden, after all, served as Barack Obama’s vice-president, making him complicit in that administration’s similar efforts to deport people en masse. When protesters with RAICES Action disrupted a Democratic debate in February 2020, they targeted some ire directly at Biden himself. “You deported 3 million people,” one shouted when Biden began to speak.
The protesters highlighted a crucial question about Biden: He said he wanted to build America back better, but for whom? For immigrants and their advocates, a Biden presidency was a risky bet.
The Obama administration’s record on deportations underscores the degree to which immigration restrictionism, and the xenophobia that informs it, are bipartisan sins. The Democratic Party wanted voters to believe that the cruelty of the Trump White House was partisan in character. Reject Trump, and the GOP with him, and a different future awaited the nation. But that future, it’s clear, is exclusionary. If Biden ever believed immigration could enrich America, that the right to asylum is sacrosanct, that America owes anything at all to the human beings seeking shelter at her border, it’s not evident. Indeed, the administration increased deportation flights as outcry gathered in Haitian diaspora communities in cities like Miami. “Our policy approach to Haiti remains deeply flawed, and my recommendations have been ignored and dismissed,” Daniel Foote wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a letter resigning his job as the U.S. special envoy for Haiti. “I will not be associated with the United States’ inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees and illegal immigrants to Haiti, a country where American officials are confined to secure compounds because of the dangers posed by armed gangs in control of daily life.”
Biden, meanwhile, appears unconcerned, both about the optics of his policy and the fate awaiting the Haitians he drives away. Perhaps he thinks voters won’t care about the Haitians, that his collapsing approval rating will sink even lower if he shows mercy at the border. No one should ever underestimate the racism animating much of American society; Trump won, in part, because he was the sort of person who would call Haiti a “shithole country.” But it’s moral cowardice to allow racism to dictate policy. The images taken at the southern border distill immigration restrictionism to its purest essence. The Biden White House is the hand that wields the whip. Better to take that whip and burn it. They want a measure of peace, a crumb of prosperity. To play a part in the nation Biden says he wants to build. It’s not much to ask.
If Biden cares to distinguish himself from Trump, he’ll heed his critics and reverse the deportation policy he’s left in place. Until he does, he is keeping Trump’s legacy alive. The result shames Biden, and shames us, too.