White House faces bipartisan backlash on Haitian migrants as crowds swell at US border

Striking video of agents maneuvering their horses to forcibly block and move migrants attempting to cross the border has sparked resounding criticism from Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Published: 22nd September 2021 10:52 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd September 2021 10:52 AM   |  A+A-

A woman distributes clothes at an improvised refugee camp in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico. (Photo | AP)


WASHINGTON: The White House is facing sharp condemnation from Democrats for its handling of the influx of Haitian migrants at the U.S. southern border, after images of U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback using aggressive tactics went viral this week.

Striking video of agents maneuvering their horses to forcibly block and move migrants attempting to cross the border has sparked resounding criticism from Democrats on Capitol Hill, who are calling on the Biden administration to end its use of a pandemic-era authority to deport migrants without giving them an opportunity to seek asylum in the United States.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. , an administration ally, said images of the treatment of the migrants "turn your stomach" and called on the administration to discontinue the "hateful and xenophobic" policies of Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump.

"The policies that are being enacted now, and the horrible treatment of these innocent people who have come to the border, must stop immediately," Schumer told the Senate on Tuesday.

At the same time, the administration continues to face attacks from Republicans, who say Biden isn't doing enough to deal with what they call a "crisis" at the border.

Reflecting the urgency of the political problem for the administration, Homeland Security chief Alejandro Mayorkas said Tuesday the images "horrified" him, a seeming shift in tone from a day earlier, when he and others were more sanguine about the situation at the border.

Mayorkas announced later that the agents involved have been placed on administrative duties pending the outcome of an investigation.

"The actions we're taking are swift and strong, and we will take further action as the facts adduced in the investigation compel," he said on Twitter.

It's a highly uncomfortable position for the administration, led by a president who has set himself up as a tonic for the harshness of his predecessor.

But immigration is a complex issue, one no administration has been able to fix in decades.

And Biden is trapped between conflicting interests of broadcasting compassion while dealing with throngs of migrants coming to the country, illegally, seeking a better life.

The provision in question, known as Title 42, was put in place by the Trump administration in March 2020 to justify restrictive immigration policies in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

But the Biden administration has used Title 42 to justify the deportation of Haitian migrants who in recent days have set up an encampment in and around the small city of Del Rio, Texas.

The provision gives federal health officials powers during a pandemic to take extraordinary measures to limit transmission of an infectious disease.

A federal judge late last week ruled the regulation was improper and gave the government two weeks before its use was to be halted, but the Biden administration on Monday appealed the decision.

"The Biden administration pushing back on this stay of expulsions is another example of broken promises to treat migrants with respect and humanity when they reach our borders to exercise their fundamental right to asylum," said Karla Marisol Vargas, senior attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project and co-counsel on the litigation.

NAACP President Derrick Johnson demanded a meeting with Biden to discuss the situation and called the treatment of the Haitian migrants "utterly sickening."

"The humanitarian crisis happening under this administration on the southern border disgustingly mirrors some of the darkest moments in America's history," he said in a statement.

Shortly after the judge's decision on Friday, Homeland Security officials formed a plan to begin immediately turning the groups of Haitian migrants around, working against the clock.

But people kept coming.

Trump essentially put a chokehold on immigration.

He decreased the number of refugees admitted to a record low, made major changes to policy and essentially shut down asylum.

Biden has undone many of the Trump-era policies, but since his inauguration, the U.S. has seen a dramatic spike in the number of people encountered by border officials.

The Haitian migrants are the latest example.

More than 6,000 Haitians and other migrants have been removed from the encampment in Del Rio, and Mayorkas predicted a “dramatic change” in the number of migrants there within the next two to four days as the administration continues the removal process.

As the controversy swirled around him, Biden spent his Tuesday address at the U.


General Assembly in New York calling for the global community to come together to defend human rights and combat injustice worldwide, declaring, "the future will belong to those who embrace human dignity, not trample it."

The remarks stood in notable contrast to images of the Border Patrol agents on horseback.

Biden himself seemed to acknowledge the challenge his administration faces with immigration, offering a clipped response when asked by a reporter after his U.N. remarks to offer his reaction to the images.

"We'll get it under control," he insisted.

Vice President Kamala Harris also weighed in, telling reporters in Washington that she was "deeply troubled" by the images and planned to talk to Mayorkas about the situation.

Harris has been tasked with addressing the root causes of migration to the U.S., and emphasized that the U.S. should "support some very basic needs that the people of Haiti have" that are causing them to flee their homes for the U.S.

Videos and photos taken in recent days in and around Del Rio show Border Patrol agents confronting Haitians along the Rio Grande near a border bridge where thousands of migrants have gathered in hopes of entering the country.

One Border Patrol agent on horseback was seen twirling his long leather reins in a menacing way at the Haitian migrants, but not actually striking anyone.

There was no sign in photos and videos viewed by The Associated Press that the mounted agents were carrying whips or using their reins as such when confronting the migrants.

The agents, wearing chaps and cowboy hats, maneuvered their horses to forcibly block and move the migrants, almost seeming to herd them.

In at least one instance, they were heard taunting the migrants.

Asked about the images on Tuesday, Mayorkas told lawmakers that the issue had been "uppermost in my mind" ever since he had seen them.

He said the department had alerted its inspector general's office and directed that staff from the Office of Professional Responsibility be present round-the-clock in Del Rio.

"I was horrified to see the images, and we look forward to learning the facts that are adduced from the investigation, and we will take actions that those facts compel," Mayorkas said.

"We do not tolerate any mistreatment or abuse of a migrant. Period."

Previously, during a Monday news conference, both Mayorkas and Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz played down the incident, with Ortiz telling reporters that the agents were working in a difficult and chaotic environment and trying to control their horses.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Mayorkas spoke Monday before he had seen the images.

"He believes this does not represent who we are as a country and does not represent the positions of the Biden-Harris administration," Psaki told reporters on Tuesday.

Criticism was withering from members of Congress, including Rep.

Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee.

He called on Mayorkas to "take immediate action to hold those responsible accountable."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also called for an investigation.

Republicans, meanwhile, stepped up their continued criticism of Biden's approach to the border, with 26 Republican governors calling on the president to change his border policies.

"A crisis that began at the southern border now extends beyond to every state and requires immediate action before the situation worsens," they said in a statement.

Mexico has begun busing and flying Haitian migrants away from the US border, authorities have said, signaling a new level of support for the United States as a giant refugee camp in a small Texas border town presented President Joe Biden with a humanitarian and increasingly political challenge.

Mexico has helped at key moments before.

It intensified patrols to stop unaccompanied Central American children from reaching the Texas border in 2014, allowed tens of thousands of asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for hearings in US immigration courts in 2019 and, just last month, began deporting Central American migrants to Guatemala after the Biden administration flew them to southern Mexico.

Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico's foreign relations secretary, said Tuesday he had spoken with his US counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, about the Haitians' situation.

Ebrard said most of the Haitians already had refugee status in Chile or Brazil and weren't seeking it in Mexico.

"What they are asking for is to be allowed to pass freely through Mexico to the United States," Ebrard said.

Two Mexican federal officials, who requested anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly, confirmed Mexico's actions.

One of the officials said three busloads of migrants left Acuña on Tuesday morning for Piedras Negras, about 55 miles (90 kilometers) down the border, where they boarded a flight to the southern city of Villahermosa in the state of Tabasco.

The other official said there was a flight Monday from the northern city of Monterrey to the southern city of Tapachula near the Guatemala border.

Tapachula is home to the largest immigrant detention center in Latin America.

The flight carried about 100 migrants who had been picked up around the bus station in Monterrey, a hub for various routes north to the US border.

The second official said the plan was to move to Tapachula all Haitians who had already solicited asylum in Mexico, since Tapachula is where most of them would have applied and they can only legally remain in Mexico while their case is processed if they stay in the south.

The Haitian migrants who are already in Mexico's detention centers and have not requested asylum will be the first to be flown directly to Haiti once Mexico begins those flights, according to the official.

Around Ciudad Acuña, Mexican authorities were stepping up efforts to move migrants away from the border.

There were detentions overnight by immigration agents and raids on hotels known to house migrants.

"All of a sudden they knocked on the door and (yelled) immigration,' police,' as if they were looking for drug traffickers," said Freddy Registre, a 37-year-old Venezuelan staying at one hotel with his Haitian wife, Vedette Dollard.

The couple was surprised at midnight.

Authorities took four people plus others who were outside the hotel, he said.

"They took our telephones to investigate and took us to the immigration offices, took our photos," Registre said.

They were held overnight but finally were given their phones back and released.

Authorities gave them two options: leave Mexico or return to Tapachula.

On Tuesday afternoon, they decided to leave town.

They bought tickets for a bus ride to the Gulf coast state of Veracruz, planning to continue to Tapachula where they had already applied for asylum.

Others left without being told.

Small groups arrived at Ciudad Acuña's bus station Tuesday to buy tickets to Veracruz, Monterrey and Mexico City.

The same bus lines prohibited from selling them tickets for rides north through Mexico, sold them tickets to head south without issue.

In Haiti, dozens of migrants upset about being deported from the US tried to rush back into a plane that landed Tuesday afternoon in Port-au-Prince as they yelled at authorities.

A security guard closed the plane door in time as some deportees began throwing rocks and shoes at the plane.

Several of them lost their belongings in the scuffle as police arrived.

The group was disembarking from one of three flights scheduled for the day.

The White House is facing sharp bipartisan condemnation for its handling of the influx.

Republicans say the Haitian migrants believed Biden administration immigration policy encouraged their belief that they would receive asylum.

Democrats are expressing outrage after images went viral this week of US Border Patrol agents on horseback using aggressive tactics against the migrants.

Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, during a visit Tuesday to the encampment in Del Rio, Texas, said the county's top official told him the most recent tally was about 8,600 migrants who remain there.

He continued to slam the Biden administration and expressed skepticism the area would be cleared soon.

"They have shown no capability of being able to process all of these migrants by the end of the week," Abbott said.

"The only thing they have shown is an incapability of dealing with this crisis, candidly in a way where they pretend it doesn't even exist. We're here to tell you, it exists, it's total chaos, and the Biden administration, they need to up their game big time."

About six dozen officers with the US Bureau of Prisons were in place Tuesday near Del Rio, according to three people familiar with the matter.

The officers are mainly assisting US Customs and Border Protection with transporting the migrants on Bureau of Prisons buses between detention facilities and from the Del Rio bridge, the people said.


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