Biden pushes deterrent border policy after promising ‘humane’ approach

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WASHINGTON – Images could come straight from former President Donald J. Trump’s immigration playbook: Border patrol officers on horseback round up desperate Haitian families at the southwest border for swift deportation from the states -United.

In fact, the aggressive effort to quickly clear a makeshift camp in Del Rio, Texas of more than 15,000 Haitian migrants was part of a response from the Biden administration that included sending agents to the area. invasion and the use of a Trump-era immigration policy to immediately send many people home.

President Biden’s spokeswoman said the scenes of officers on horseback were “gruesome” and not “acceptable or appropriate”. Vice President Kamala Harris said that “human beings should never be treated this way.” The Department of Homeland Security said it was investigating.

Yet the deportations are a vivid example of how Mr Biden – who said on February 2 that his aim was “to undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration” – deploys some of the most aggressive approaches in the matter. immigration policies in place. up by Mr. Trump over the past four years.

Having failed in his attempts to craft a more “humane” set of immigration laws, Mr. Biden responded in a way few of his supporters expected. On a case-by-case basis, he has shown his willingness to use harsh measures, even as he struggles to tackle a challenge that has irritated presidents for decades: securing borders while meeting US humanitarian obligations. towards migrants fleeing economic hardship, political instability and violence. .

The approach has sparked fierce debate within the administration, where some of its senior staff are in favor of stricter policies that would deter people from trying to cross the border, while others advocate a more welcoming stance. .

The hard line infuriated immigration advocates, who blasted the president for deporting Haitians.

But their frustration with Mr. Biden runs deeper than the current situation. Many said they began to wonder if he had the will or the desire to keep his promises on immigration.

“The question now is, how are you really different from Trump? Said Marisa Franco, executive director of Mijente, a Latin American civil rights organization, which consulted the Biden campaign as a representative of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “You campaigned for immigration to be one of the places where Trump was inhumane and failed. And the last time I checked, Trump is not the president.

Biden administration officials bristled at the suggestion, saying the president moved within hours of taking office to overturn many of Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. And they say the advisers are united behind a strategy that includes building a robust new asylum system while cracking down on illegal immigration.

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Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, on Wednesday reiterated Biden’s hopes for an immigration system more open to people seeking refuge, while acknowledging the administration’s determination to keep the border secure.

“The president remains committed to building a humane and orderly immigration system that includes an established and efficient asylum process,” she told reporters.

Part of the dilemma Mr Biden faces is that his efforts to use the power of his office to enact lasting change in immigration have been blocked by federal judges skeptical of executive power and slowed down by a bureaucracy voluntarily hampered by the former president. His proposal for a complete overhaul of immigration laws is not going anywhere in Congress, and his hopes of giving millions of undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship suffered a serious setback in the Senate on Sunday.

Mr Biden’s allies blame Republicans for standing in the way of necessary changes because they see border chaos under his watch as a good political question.

“Republicans get that, don’t they? Said Cecilia Muñoz, director of former President Barack Obama’s Home Policy Council and his senior immigration adviser. “As long as you can stop a Democratic administration from moving forward on immigration, you demagogue it. As long as you prevent them from fixing it, it’s a political tool.

In a hearing Tuesday, Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, accused the Biden administration of having authorized “the continuation of uncontrolled illegal immigration in the country”.

But for many immigration activists, the president’s reaction to the increase in the number of border crossings – including a firm statement that the border was closed and a refusal to allow many migrants to seek refuge in the United States. – was a grim reminder of the Trump years and Mr. Obama’s aggressive policies.

They highlight that Mr Biden fought civil rights groups in court to allow his administration to maintain one of Mr Trump’s toughest immigration policies: the use of a law on public health known as Title 42 which allows authorities to refuse migrants. their usual rights to seek asylum during the coronavirus pandemic.

The public health rule is not applied to all migrants at the border. From February to August, authorities surprised people crossing the southwest border about 1.24 million times, according to government data. The rule was used to deny them 56 percent of the time. Others were allowed to enter the United States for a variety of reasons, including exemptions from the public health rule.

But activists argue that the use of authority should be abandoned altogether.

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“This deterrent approach is wrong and just doesn’t work,” said Todd Schulte, chairman of FWD.us, a pro-immigration group that has been an ally of the administration.

Administration officials, including staff from Ms Harris’s office, have been making appeals to aid organizations in recent days. Senior internal security officials are holding appeals this week with rights organizations representing the Haitian community and those working on the ground in Del Rio. Senior Congress Democrats on Monday sent a letter calling for an end to the deportation of Haitian migrants.

About 1,500 Haitian migrants were quickly deported, even as thousands more are allowed to enter the United States pending deportation hearings, according to an official familiar with the situation, who spoke under cover of anonymity because they were not allowed to chat. the question. Many migrants have applied for asylum.

Eduardo Maia Silva, spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security, said migrants who had not been deported were released with monitoring devices, such as an ankle bracelet.

In some cases, there did not appear to be clear criteria for determining who was allowed to stay and who was returned to Haiti, although single adults were mostly deported.

Many Haitian migrants are not seeking refuge from natural disasters and political violence this year. On the contrary, they have lived in South America for years, driven from their homes by previous disasters, instability and poverty. Fleeing poverty is often not enough to gain asylum in the United States, and many migrants may eventually be deported.

In interviews, several Haitian migrants attempting to cross the border said they made the trip because they lost their visas or jobs and had no choice but to find a way to survive in the United States. .

The question of how much importance should be placed on border enforcement has been the subject of intense debate in Mr Biden’s orbit since before he became president.

As a candidate, Biden has vowed to take action on his first day in office to end a Trump-era policy that required asylum seekers to wait in squalid camps in Mexico while states -United were processing their requests.

As officials drafted migration policy memos, some advisers opposed the immediate end of the Trump policy – known as Stay in Mexico – arguing that it made more sense to roll out the agenda slowly, according to several. people familiar with the discussions who requested anonymity to speak about the debate.

They argued that such a brutal decision, which would open the door for asylum seekers pursuing their claims in the United States, could be beyond the capacity of American authorities. This concern was shared by Mexican officials, who also believed that the early termination of the program could send the wrong message to Central Americans considering the trip north.

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But the Biden campaign was already facing pressure from advocates, many of whom doubted the sincerity of his progressive commitments on migration. And those close to Mr. Biden believed that Trump’s policies had become so politically toxic that the only option available was to part with them altogether. This view ultimately prevailed when the administration decided to suspend the program on the day of Mr. Biden’s inauguration.

In the months that followed, however, a wave of migration forced the authorities to reconsider the issue. Even as the administration battled a lawsuit by Texas and Missouri to reinstate the program, officials were privately discussing ways to revive it in limited form, saying they needed to send a clear signal to migrants not to. not come to the United States.

At the end of the summer, the Supreme Court ruled that the administration must follow a lower court’s decision to restart the program, a decision officials said they would respect even if they continued the legal fight. .

But in the sprawling federal agencies that deal with immigration – homeland security, the state, justice, and health and social services – the debate over the aggressiveness of being at the border continued, contributing to what critics on the left and right are saying appears to be a chaotic and reactive politics.

Several officials who participated in the border talks have said that Susan E. Rice, Mr Biden’s domestic policy adviser, has been a major proponent of more aggressive enforcement, saying he is more sympathetic to pursue an immigration system that is orderly in order to enact broader reforms.

Esther Olavarria, a Cuban-born immigration lawyer who is Rice’s deputy, has often lobbied to allow more migrants to the United States so that they can apply for asylum, according to three people who attended the discussions. Alejandro N. Mayorkas, Homeland Security Secretary, supports Ms Olavarria’s point of view, several people said, but as head of the department he has been the public voice of the tougher approach.

“If you come to the United States illegally, you will be returned,” Mayorkas said on Monday. “Your trip will not be successful and you will endanger your life and that of your family.”

Michael D. Shear, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Eileen Sullivan reported from Washington, and Nathalie Kitreff from Mexico City.