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Amid furor over border images, Biden faces Democratic backlash on immigration

A Border Patrol agent on horseback tries to stop a Haitian migrant from entering an encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande. (Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images)

White House officials on Tuesday struggled to explain searing images of border agents treating Haitian migrants harshly, facing a growing backlash from angry Democrats who sought to pressure President Biden to ease his immigration policies.

Even as Biden confronts attacks from Republicans portraying his policies as weak and ineffective, many immigrant-rights activists have increasingly concluded that Biden has failed to live up to his campaign vows to defend vulnerable foreigners seeking a better life in the United States. Their fury marks a new inflection point in Biden’s ongoing struggles with immigration.

“[President] Donald Trump’s policy approach is becoming the default approach under the Biden administration,” said former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro, referring to Biden continuing Trump’s use of a public health order to turn away migrants during the pandemic. “There are many, many people across the country losing patience with this administration's approach to asylum seekers and immigrants.”

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, in an effort to show the administration is taking the matter seriously, said Tuesday the activities of the agents had been curtailed while they were being investigated.

“The individuals who are the subject of the investigation are on administrative duties currently,” Mayorkas said in a tweet. “They are not executing their other law enforcement duties and they are not to be interacting with other migrants.”

Immigration has vexed Biden since the start of his presidency, and he has privately voiced concerns about being tagged by Republicans as too lenient. After initially easing some Trump administration regulations and signaling a more open posture, a surge of migrants arrived at the border and Biden struggled to house the unaccompanied children who were part of the influx. He caused an uproar in his party when he balked at increasing the annual cap on refugees before eventually agreeing to do so.

This week, photos and video of border patrolmen on horseback grabbing and shouting at migrants have ricocheted across the Internet and television news, drawing stunned reactions from top Democrats. Stories of desperate Haitians sleeping under a border bridge in Del Rio, Tex., only to be turned back have spurred safety concerns among many in the party who have urged Biden to relax his policies and grant them entry into the United States.

The imagery has compounded Democratic outrage over immigration, which was already running high after the Senate parliamentarian recently ruled out including a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants in a sprawling domestic policy package. While the decision was not a surprise, it forced Democrats to confront the increasing possibility that Biden will not deliver sweeping immigration reforms he and his party campaigned on last year.

For many Democrats, that feels like an especially bitter blow, given their hopes for a dramatically more humane policy after Trump’s harsh approach to immigration, including his promises of a border wall and Muslim ban.

At the end of the day, Democrats around the country rallied to elect Democrats into the majority,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a group promoting immigration changes. “They are either going to have results or excuses. And I think they realize they need results.”

Some of Biden’s allies deployed notably stronger language than they have used previously regarding the administration.

“The humanitarian crisis happening under this administration on the southern border disgustingly mirrors some of the darkest moments in America’s history,” said NAACP President Derrick Johnson. “If we were to close our eyes and this was occurring under the Trump administration, what would we do? The inhumane treatment of the Haitian refugees is utterly sickening.”

The NAACP tweeted side-by-side images — one a drawing of a White man about to strike an enslaved Black person and the other a photo of a Border Patrol agent grabbing a migrant. “These images although centuries apart still seem to represent the worst of America’s capacity for humanity,” read the tweet, which went on to urge Biden to move to tear “down a foundation of oppressive practices.”

Biden said little on the matter Tuesday, avoiding any mention of the border crisis or immigration in a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. In response to journalists’ questions at the start of a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Biden said “violence is not justified.” He has ignored many reporter questions the past two days, leaving Mayorkas to field questions at a tense hearing on Capitol Hill.

Biden administration officials have distanced themselves from the behavior of U.S. agents shown in news media footage charging at Haitian families and attempting to force them back across the Rio Grande into Mexico.

Migrants trying to cross the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico into Texas on Sept. 19 were delayed by U.S. border officials on horseback. (Video: Reuters)

“What I saw depicted about those individuals on horseback treating human beings the way they were was horrible,” said Vice President Harris, whom Biden tasked with taking the lead on migration issues. “I’m deeply troubled about it.” Harris voiced support for the internal investigation DHS promised Monday.

That did not stop top Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), from not only decrying the conduct of U.S. border officers but calling on Biden to reverse his decision to expel Haitian immigrants seeking asylum.

“Such a decision defies common sense,” Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor. “It also defies common decency and what America is all about.”

But the Biden administration is not showing any signs of backing down. In fact, it is preparing to nearly double the number of Haitians being deported to Haiti from Texas starting Wednesday. Biden is using an emergency provision of the U.S. public health code known as Title 42 that allows authorities to sidestep the usual immigration proceedings.

“The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] continues to recommend Title 42 be in place, given we’re facing a global pandemic,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday.

Trump’s controversial polices came to be defined in large part by images of young migrant children separated from their families and placed in chain-link cells with concrete floors, which critics denounced as “cages.”

Castro noted that the current images are different, since they appear to reflect a departure from Biden administration policy that was quickly denounced by senior officials, while family separation was integral to Trump’s immigration policy. Still, he said, both sets of images reflected inhumane practices toward migrants.

Manny Diaz, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, said he was haunted by the images of border agents treating migrants so roughly. “That image is hard to erase from your mind,” he said.

While Diaz does not blame Biden for their actions, Diaz suggested the president could still suffer political damage. “When you’re the boss, everything that happened — good or bad — sticks to you.”

During a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Mayorkas had to answer to Democrats troubled by the images, while Republican senators demanded tougher enforcement and held up poster-size charts showing soaring numbers of illegal border crossings since Biden took office.

The hearing underlined how Biden has alienated members of both parties by trying to walk a tightrope on immigration, rolling back some of Trump's hard-line policies while keeping other measures in place, such as the use of Title 42.

“Do you bear responsibility for the crisis in Del Rio? That’s a yes-or-no question,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), angrily interrupting when Mayorkas didn’t give a binary answer.

“Sooner or later, this administration is going to have to take responsibility for the crisis you have fomented at the border that gets worse day upon day,” Hawley said. “Every time we hear from you, it’s somebody else’s fault.”

Mayorkas told senators DHS intends to empty the Del Rio camp within the next 10 days, promising “dramatic results” over the next several days as authorities ramp up the frequency of flights to Haiti. Two U.S. officials said the plans now call for six to seven flights per day, split between Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haïtien, the country’s second-largest city.

Many of the Haitians being sent back are returning to a shattered country they left years ago, in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake. They have been living for years in Brazil, Chile and other South American nations, working low-level jobs.

In interviews along the river, they tell reporters they faced discrimination and meager pay, deciding to risk everything on a dangerous journey north after hearing from friends, relatives and smugglers that the Biden administration would let them enter.

Biden came under pressure to suspend deportations to Haiti earlier this year as the country’s political crisis deepened, and DHS has extended temporary protected status eligibility to any Haitian lacking legal status who arrived in the United States before July 29.

The White House is monitoring the situation in Del Rio and is focused on implementing steps that DHS laid out over the weekend, including an increase of Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel in the region, according to an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy.

DHS has deployed 600 additional Border Patrol agents and other law enforcement personnel to Del Rio to aid the effort, along with fleets of chartered buses to transfer the migrants to other areas of the border for processing.

In Del Rio, the images and video footage of U.S. agents were captured by news crews Sunday after Border Patrol officials sent a horse-mounted unit to an area along the banks of the Rio Grande where migrants were crossing the river to and from Mexico for food and other supplies.

Over the weekend, Texas state troopers closed off the migrants’ access to the spillway dam used by thousands last week to enter the United States and reach the camp. When the migrants began crossing at a different location downriver, Border Patrol officials drew up plans to stop the traffic. The agents used their horses to drive the migrants back toward Mexico, at times charging at families and cursing at them. One video showed a young girl jumping out of the way as a horse nearly stepped on her.

Border Patrol chief Raul Ortiz told reporters in Del Rio the officers on horseback play a key role in providing security in the camp and along the border. “The migrants were going back and forth,” he said. “We do not know who are the smugglers and who are the migrants.”

For all the focus on Biden, Congress’s long-standing inability to come together on a broad immigration law has played a key role in fueling the current crisis, veteran immigration activists said.

“What we are seeing is a crisis that has been created by Republican and Democratic administrations that have failed to provide any pathway to legalization,” said Kari Hong, an attorney with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project that works along the border in Arizona.