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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Congressional Democrats ask Biden to review treatment of Black migrants

A Border Patrol agent on horseback tried to stop a Haitian migrant in Del Rio, Texas, in September.

By Eileen Sullivan

More than 100 Democratic members of Congress pressed President Joe Biden earlier this week to address “disparate and often inhumane treatment” of Black migrants by the immigration enforcement system, reviving concerns over the mass deportations last fall of asylum-seeking Haitians despite the ongoing crisis in their country.

In a letter to the president, the lawmakers, including Sen. Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, asked Biden to order a review of law enforcement and court records to assess how Black migrants are treated compared with other migrants at the border, in detention and in the immigration court system.

“In addition to stopping removals to regions such as Haiti that face serious insecurity, we also urge you to take steps to address the systemic challenges Black migrants face to receiving equal treatment,” the lawmakers wrote. “It is essential that we recommit ourselves to reversing anti-Black policies, including by adopting a human-rights-centered approach to supporting immigrants and people seeking asylum in the United States.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., joined 13 Democratic senators and 88 Democratic House members in signing the letter, which was initiated by Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.

The concerns expressed in it are among a growing list that liberals have regarding the administration’s progress on issues important to the Democratic Party’s base, which also include climate change, voting rights and student loan debt. The letter is also the second this week from members of the president’s party pressuring the Biden administration to stop using a Trump-era public health rule to turn away migrants at the southwest border during the pandemic, including those seeking asylum.

Next month will mark two years since that policy, known as Title 42, was put in place. Immigration and human rights advocates say it is the greatest impediment to asylum-seekers. Border officials have used the public health rule to turn away migrants more than 2 million times since it went into effect.

While the lawmakers did not directly criticize the administration on its asylum policies in their letter, they sought to refocus attention on its response to thousands of Haitian and other Black migrants entering the country illegally in Del Rio, Texas, in September, which drew international condemnation.

Some compared the viral images from Del Rio of Border Patrol agents on horseback appearing to corral Black migrants to the treatment of fugitive slaves in the 1800s. Some also made connections to police violence against Black Americans.

At the time, Biden said the agents would “pay” for their actions after the results of a Homeland Security administrative investigation, which is incomplete five months later.

The incident became a flash point in Biden’s struggle to address the record number of migrants crossing the southwest border illegally over the past year. Many said the administration’s response was rooted in racial bias, an allegation that Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has rejected.

The administration allowed more than 8,900 Haitians into the country between September and December to appear in immigration court and request asylum. But during the same period, it used the public health rule to expel roughly the same number, according to government data, sending them back to a country that the United States considered unsafe for Americans because of kidnapping, crime and civil unrest.

“We are concerned that the administration’s use of the Title 42 authority is depriving legitimate asylum-seekers the opportunity to pursue their claims, contrary to our obligations under international and domestic law,” the lawmakers wrote.

The Biden administration has defended keeping the rule in place. “We continue to defer to the CDC on its use,” Vedant Patel, a White House spokesperson, said Wednesday, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Earlier this week, 33 House Democrats asked the CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, to provide them with detailed explanations for why the public health rule was needed, particularly at a stage of the pandemic when vaccinations were widely available and new cases were declining.

Several of the lawmakers on Wednesday suggested that the use of the public health justification was in conflict with the president’s agenda on promoting racial justice.

“As the Biden administration works to fulfill its promise of racial equity, it must reverse Trump-era policies like Title 42 expulsions and conduct a full review of its treatment of Black migrants,” Bush said in a statement to The New York Times. She and Booker initiated the letter and have been courting co-signers for months.

Nongovernment organizations have written reports on the disparate treatment of Black migrants in the immigration system. They have found that Black migrants spend more time in solitary confinement while in immigration detention, are deported more often than any other race and are given higher bonds set by immigration judges.

Patel said the Biden administration’s immigration laws “are enforced across the board regardless of country of origin.”

If Biden were to order a review, it would appear to be the first of its kind, said Amy Fischer, the Americas advocacy director for Amnesty International USA.

“This is probably the biggest and strongest message that we’ve seen coming from Congress criticizing the Biden administration — from their own party — so far on immigration,” Fischer said.

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