After Del Rio, calls for fairer treatment of black migrants
By Eileen Sullivan
Last fall, Joe Biden made a stop in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood during his campaign, pleading with residents to register to vote. “I’ll give you my word as a Biden, I’ll be there,” he told them. “I’ll stand with you.”
But as the Biden administration ignored pleas from advocates and some lawmakers not to deport thousands of Haitians back to their broken country last month after they arrived en masse in Del Rio, Texas, many Haitian Americans say the man they turned out for in last year’s election is nowhere to be found.
“People absolutely felt abandoned when they saw the horrific images in Del Rio,” said Vanessa Joseph, the chair of the Haitian American Voter Empowerment Coalition.
The White House responded with outrage to viral images of Border Patrol agents on horseback, corralling Black migrants in scenes that some compared to the treatment of fugitive slaves. Some also made connections to police violence against Black Americans. Biden said the agents would “pay” for their actions and awaits the results of a continuing investigation.
The Border Patrol’s actions in Del Rio are expected to come up Tuesday during the Senate confirmation hearing for Biden’s choice to lead Customs and Border Protection, Chris Magnus. Magnus, the police chief in Tucson, Arizona, has a reputation for changing the culture of law enforcement agencies.
But what happened in Del Rio is not just about the horses, immigration and civil rights advocates say. It is about the poor treatment of Black migrants that has spanned administrations, often overshadowed by the larger debate about the broken immigration system and a persistent focus on waves of migrants from Central America.
Recent reports have found that Black migrants are more often placed in solitary confinement in immigration detention; face a higher rate of deportation than any other race; and see higher bonds set by immigration judges.
Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the Homeland Security secretary, said at a news briefing last month that he “would respectfully disagree” that Black migrants received disparate treatment. He said that in Del Rio, policy was carried out “irrespective of the country of origin, irrespective of the race of the individual.”
Regardless, the images of agents on horseback drew such a visceral reaction not just from immigration advocates, but also from Black Americans and powerful civil rights organizations like the NAACP, that many see this as a moment to effect change.
“The connections have been made for Black people,” said Judith Browne Dianis, the executive director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization. “And accountability requires that the Biden administration act, because all Black people saw it, and we can’t unsee it.”
Even after Biden condemned the corralling of migrants in Del Rio, his administration sent dozens more deportation flights to Haiti, nearly 8,000 people, according to the Haitian Bridge Alliance, an advocacy group. Many say this makes little sense for a country that the administration has described as having “a political crisis and human rights abuses, serious security concerns” and “a dire economic situation” because of the pandemic. On Saturday, gang members in Haiti kidnapped 17 missionaries.
The response to Del Rio is emblematic of the Biden administration’s approach to border security, which many immigration advocates have said looks nothing like the “humane” immigration system that Biden promised during last year’s campaign. And the mass deportation of Haitians to a crisis-torn country, advocates say, is all the more disappointing from a president who has prioritized racial equity.
Over a little more than two weeks last month, about 28,000 individuals crossed the border illegally into Del Rio, coming in large groups across the Rio Grande and overwhelming the Border Patrol.
While officials initially thought most of the migrants were Haitians, recent internal data shared with The New York Times shows that was not the case. There were thousands of others from a wide range of countries including large numbers from Brazil, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
Even so, there were no deportation flights to Venezuela, because the United States is limited in where it can send direct flights based on relations and agreements with individual countries. And despite the number of individuals from Brazil and Nicaragua, there was no increase in the number of deportation flights sent there. The overwhelming majority of deportation flights went to Haiti, with others going to Cameroon, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Liberia, Mexico, Rwanda and Senegal, according to an administration official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Democrats in Congress have also pushed the administration to temporarily stop deporting Cameroonians, citing armed conflicts in the country. The Trump administration was accused of mistreating people from the central African nation.
In testimony obtained by The Times, Magnus, Biden’s pick to lead Customs and Border Protection, is prepared to say Tuesday, “I will also expect — without exception — that all agency personnel be conscientious, fair and humane when enforcing the law.”
The Biden administration has said that it does not racially discriminate in its immigration enforcement actions, and that the response to the Del Rio situation was consistent with its border policy during the pandemic, carried over from the Trump administration. A public health rule put in place at the beginning of the pandemic allows for individuals to be turned back at the border even if they are seeking asylum.
Yet even within the government, anger about the mass deportation of Haitians from Del Rio has boiled over. Daniel Foote, the senior American envoy for Haiti policy, resigned over the administration’s response to the migration surge in Del Rio. And Harold Koh, who recently left his job as a senior adviser at the department, circulated a memo criticizing the administration’s continued use of the public health rule, “especially as it affects Haitians.”
The administration extended temporary humanitarian relief for Haitians who were already in the country by late July, making good on that piece of Biden’s campaign pledge to Little Haiti a year ago. But many, including Koh, argue that conditions in Haiti — ravaged by natural disasters and fraught with civil upheaval after its president was assassinated over the summer — continue to be so poor that humanitarian relief should be extended even further.
“Simply put, Haiti is a humanitarian nightmare,” Koh wrote in the memo.
Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee recently sent a letter to the secretaries of State and Homeland Security to express “outrage and disappointment over the cruel treatment of Haitians at our border, and their summary deportations.”
And some progressive lawmakers have grown so dissatisfied with the president’s handling of immigration issues that they have begun taking extraordinary steps to try to hold the administration to account. After hearing conflicting reports from the White House and immigration advocates about what was happening in Del Rio, Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., dispatched her chief of staff to scrutinize conditions there and across the Rio Grande in Mexico.
The investigation into the treatment of the migrants in Del Rio is being conducted by Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Professional Responsibility. But activists question how thorough it can be when witnesses and victims were deported to Haiti.
“They cleaned the crime scene,” said Nana Gyamfi, the executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.