Issue presents challenge for administration buoyed by positive marks on handling of Covid-19
Fresh off several weeks of a whirlwind of bad headlines for his administration regarding its pullout of US forces from Kabul, President Joe Biden is now facing a new crisis in the form of thousands of mostly Haitian migrants gathering at the border of Texas and Mexico.
The growing crowd, estimated on Monday to have swelled to between 12,000 and 14,000 by multiple news outlets and agencies, presents the greatest challenge for Mr Biden so far on the issue of immigration, which until now has been little more than a persistent GOP talking point and a task delegated to Vice President Kamala Harris.
The Biden administration and Republicans have battled in the press for months over the issue of immigration and the growing number of migrants seeking to cross the US border illegally or apply for asylum, with Democrats blaming the Trump administration for leaving the US asylum system broken and barely functional, while Republicans have claimed that reversals of Trump-era policies criticised for being inhumane were driving more migrants north to the US.
Here’s what we know about the developing situation in Del Rio, Texas, and the broader implications for the US and its government:
The crowd is growing, and showing little signs of slowing down
A crowd that was just a few thousand strong late last week could now number as high as 14,000 as more and more migrants join the makeshift encampments originally limited to an area just under an international bridge between Mexico and Texas.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents did not respond to an emailed request for comment last week regarding at what size the camps would become too large for US officials to manage safely. More agents were dispatched to the area on Monday as conditions in the area grow increasingly chaotic.
Local officials acknowledged the possibility of thousands more arriving over the weekend, but there’s no sign as to when the camp’s size will stop growing.
Many have nothing to go back to in Haiti
Reporting from The New York Times indicated that many of the thousands of migrants who are currently awaiting action from CBP and other US agencies to determine their fates originally left Haiti for countries in South America including Brazil and Chile where they first attempted to set up new lives; economic instability and anti-Black racism experienced by many in those countries led thousands to migrate north, however, especially as Chile has tightened its immigration policies in response to an influx of migrants.
Thousands were gathering in Mexican cities and towns in recent weeks before arriving in Del Rio, and are desperate to find anywhere to settle down as their home country has only faced more and more problems in recent months following a devastating tropical storm, earthquake, and the assassination of its president.
Historic devastation on the island nation that already faced a poverty crisis has left many to abandon their homeland with little choice but to seek economic and personal fortune elsewhere.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki was pressed on this issue by a reporter on Monday, who asked, “what are you deporting them back to?”
“Our objective and our focus is not only in implementing current immigration policies,” she said, claiming that the administration was also working to provide aid including “financial support” to those who returned to Haiti.
‘What are you deporting them back to?’ — A reporter asked Jen Psaki about the reality for Haitian migrants if they were sent back to a nation experiencing political unrest and the aftermath of an earthquake pic.twitter.com/0KDaBOuI9o
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) September 20, 2021
Shocking images on Monday showed migrants being corralled on horseback
If the scenes of more than 10,000 migrants gathered along the riverbank in small camps wasn’t enough of a nightmare for the Biden administration, the White House also came under fire on Monday after shocking videos and photos were released by reporters of CBP agents on horseback corralling migrants and attempting to drive them back from some areas, in some cases confronting people in waist-deep water.
Photos showed a handful of agents holding the leather straps of their horse’s reins as one would hold a whip, though it wasn’t immediately clear if that was sanctioned by CBP or whether agents were physically using it for that purpose against the migrants.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki was questioned about the images, which she agreed were shocking and while adding that she did not have all the facts, could not imagine a situation where such actions were justified.
Criticism grows on the left as conservatives continue knocking Biden over crossings
Conservatives have been hammering the White House for month about the number of border crossings at the US-Mexico border, a favourite issue of the right, but the situation in Texas has now led progressives and immigration activists to open fire on the president as well.
Allegations of agents using whips against migrants caused that criticism to escalate sharply, with lawmakers on Capitol Hill joining in.
“We are still whipping black bodies in 2021,” tweeted Rep Jamaal Bowman, a Black freshman Democrat. “Shame on us as a nation. For our inhumanity.”
We are still whipping black bodies in 2021.
Shame on us as a nation. For our inhumanity. http://t.co/gcg0BfWFLZ
— Jamaal Bowman (@JamaalBowmanNY) September 20, 2021
“It doesn’t matter if a Democrat or Republican is President, our immigration system is designed for cruelty towards and dehumanization of immigrants,” added Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “Immigration should not be a crime, and its criminalization is a relatively recent invention. This is a stain on our country.”
It doesn’t matter if a Democrat or Republican is President, our immigration system is designed for cruelty towards and dehumanization of immigrants.
Immigration should not be a crime, and its criminalization is a relatively recent invention. This is a stain on our country. http://t.co/PZKYN4WLyj
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) September 20, 2021
Biden administration remains firm with message of ‘do not come’ to the US
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas became the first high-ranking administration official to directly visit the scene at Del Rio on Monday, where he delivered a firm message to others seeking to migrate to the US with the intent of crossing the border illegally.
“If you come to the United States illegally, you will be returned. Your journey will not succeed and you will be endangering your life and your family’s lives,” Mr Mayorkas said. “This administration is committed to developing safe, orderly and humane pathways for migration. This is not the way to do it.”
He clarified that many of those at the Del Rio encampments now were under the mistaken assertion that Haitians were currently designated under Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which Mr Mayorkas said applied to only those who arrived before July 29.
Ms Psaki also said from behind the White House podium on Monday that the US was stressing the risk of Covid-19 infection posed by immigrants congregating in such close spaces with such large numbers, thought that concern has done little to discourage many from making the already treacherous journey.