WASHINGTON — Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley, of Massachusetts, called the Border Patrol “egregious and white supremacist.” Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said it was “worse than what we witnessed in slavery.”
The pair spent years targeting similar criticism at former President Donald Trump for his handling of the border. But this time, they were talking about fellow Democrat President Joe Biden's administration, which continues to deport Haitian migrants and others seeking asylum at the U.S. southern border under a controversial Trump-era public health order.
Trump polarized the politics of immigration in a way that makes Biden’s border bind uniquely difficult. For many in Biden's base, any kind of immigration enforcement action can smack of Trumpism. And for many Republicans, any attempt at reform is tantamount to giving away the country.
Biden is stuck between immigration advocates in his own party on one side and Republicans, who insist he’s still not doing enough to control the border, on the other, leaving the White House politically isolated and with no clear refuge.
“President Biden needs to show moral clarity in this moment,” said Julián Castro, the former Obama Cabinet member and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. “If he doesn’t, the coalition that elected him will collapse.”
There were no snakes and alligators, as Trump reportedly wanted on the U.S.-Mexico border. But the images of Border Patrol agents on horseback chasing Haitian asylum-seekers attempting to cross the Rio Grande has many of Biden’s allies comparing him to his predecessor and questioning his commitment to the larger reform project.
The administration has attempted to distance itself from actions taking place under its oversight.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called the images “horrible and horrific,” and the White House said horses will no longer be used in the area.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who has been tasked with dealing with some border issues, released an eyebrow-raising readout of a call she held with Mayorkas speaking to her nominal subordinate the way she might to a hostile a foreign leader.
But none of it seems to have helped much.
The administration’s top envoy to Haiti resigned in protest of the "inhumane, counterproductive decision" to deport Haitian refugees back to a country seemingly everyone agrees is unsafe as it grapples with political unrest and the aftermath of a hurricane and earthquake.
And Republicans are still insisting Biden is promoting “uncontrolled illegal immigration into the country,” as Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley said during a hearing with Mayorkas.
For some, like Frank Sharry, the longtime head of the immigration advocacy group America's Voice, it’s all too familiar to see a Democrat have their dreams — and backbone — crushed by a media firestorm over an immigration flashpoint.
“I’ve been in this debate for 40 years, and it feels like groundhog,” Sharry said, noting every president for decades has dealt with surges of Haitian and Central American migrants.
Back in March, when a different surge of migrants was in the news, many of the questions at Biden’s first news conference were about the border. The new president stood by his plan for a regional approach to stem the flow of migrants, fix the asylum system and “undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration.”
But since then, Biden has faced one challenge after another, from the pandemic to the pullout of Afghanistan, with his poll numbers declining along with the prospects for his domestic legislative agenda on Capitol Hill, leaving little political capital left for a fight on one of the most divisive issues in the country.
“The politics finally got the better of their policy vision,” Sharry said. “In my view, they held their nerve. And in the last week, they choked.”
'The American promise'
Biden is now in a position similar to one faced by his predecessor and former running mate, Barack Obama, who got elected by positioning himself to the left of Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary but ended up getting labeled “deporter in chief” for deporting more migrants than previous presidents.
In the long run-up to Clinton’s second presidential bid in 2016, one of the first signs of trouble for her nascent campaign came in the blowback to her comments that unaccompanied minors who crossed the border without authorization needed to be sent back to where they came from.
Biden continues to take criticism from both sides of the political spectrum.
Immigration advocates blast Biden for using a public health order to turn away migrants in the name of containing Covid-19; Fox News questions why migrants don’t have to show proof of vaccination like diners at New York City restaurants do.
With so much on Biden’s plate, it was always going to be a long shot for him to succeed where so many prior presidents have failed.
Republicans and moderate Democrats in Congress have shown zero appetite for taking up Biden’s comprehensive proposals, and no one thinks a major immigration reform package would get through this Congress.
Democrats failed in an effort to enact a small piece of that package last week by jamming it into the massive infrastructure and jobs package moving through Congress.
Courts have blocked efforts to use executive authority in ways that would allow Biden to circumvent Congress, as Obama did with his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which was halted by a federal judge in Texas in July.
And Biden inherited a bureaucracy gutted and rebuilt by Trump and his former aides like immigration hard-liner Stephen Miller, who sought to change both the policies and culture of the agencies that now report to Biden, still just about eight months into his term.
“Our objective is not to keep the policy as it is, which is broken, which is not workable long term,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday, adding that the president wants "a new immigration policy that is humane, that is orderly, that does have robust asylum processing.”
Still, immigration advocates note that Biden’s administration has continued to deport migrants under what is known as Title 42, a Trump-era public health order that allows the government to skirt rights typically granted to asylum-seekers and fast-track their deportations.
The administration has even gone to court to defend the policy against civil rights groups. “We are still under Title 42 because we are in a global pandemic, so we are still operationalizing that,” Psaki said.
Civil rights leaders met with Biden on Thursday to demand an end to deportations under Title 42, which NAACP President Derrick Johnson said "makes a mockery of the American promise" by removing migrants before they even have a chance to seek asylum.
"Let’s be crystal clear: Asylum-seekers are not illegal," Nana Gyamfi, the executive director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration, said after leaving the White House meeting. "It is a violation of international law to send asylum-seekers back to the country they are fleeing."