Come Hell and High Water
The poor treatment of Haitian asylum seekers is the latest reminder that the US must sort out its response to what will be a growing number of border refugees
If you value this work, I hope you’ll become a paid subscriber to sustain it.
What do you see when you see border agents on horseback swinging ropes or leather reins as Haitian migrants—adults and children—scurry in fear, trying to avoid being trampled or whipped or maybe even taken away?
I see incompetent law enforcement feeding a climate of chaos and fear. I see a time, in a not so distant past, when slavers rounded up human chattel on the run. I see the failure of border and immigration policy—and the refusal of Congress to begin to confront the coming reality of displaced peoples.
What did Vice President Kamala Harris see? "What I saw depicted about those individuals on horseback, treating human beings the way they were, was horrible," she told reporters on Tuesday, adding that “we really have to do a lot to recognize that as a member of the Western Hemisphere we've got to support some very basic needs that the people of Haiti have."
The VP promised that there would be an investigation. Some have questioned whether this inhumane treatment and minors held in custody for extended periods of time are part of a coordinated attempt by Trump-supporting US Border Patrol agents to foment a crisis and make the current president look bad. White supremacists like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson were quick to say granting Haitians asylum represents another effort by President Biden to “change the racial mix of the country” and replace the white population.
What a mess—and so much blame to pass around. Too many administrations failed to pass new immigration legislation that would address over 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the US and establish asylum and border policy that recognizes both the current border pressures and the coming accelerations. All the Trump “Build the wall” nonsense was possible because Congress failed to change the story.
Remember what a newly elected President Barack Obama said on November 12, 2012: “I’m very confident that we can get immigration reform done. … we need to seize the moment. And my expectation is that we get a bill introduced and we begin the process in Congress very soon after my inauguration." Eight years later? No immigration reform.
When I see 15,000 mostly Haitan refugees at the Southern border in Del Rio, Texas—escaping another deadly earthquake, political instability, violent crime and the struggle to survive economically—I envision millions of other refugees this year, next year and a decade from now and beyond unable to stay in their home countries and forced to go elsewhere.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are over 21.5 million climate-related displacements each year—more than twice the number displaced by violence and political conflict. As weather events become more frequent and intense—everything from storms to floods to wildfires and droughts—they are also aggravating other conditions: “worsening poverty, food insecurity, water shortages and access to other natural resources that communities rely on for survival.”
By 2050, the Institute for Economics and Peace estimates, 1.2 billion people could be displaced due to the changing climate, with the heaviest toll disproportionately felt by poorer nations and people. (Of course, those numbers include vulnerable American communities increasingly unable to stay as temperatures rise, coastal lines disappear and weather disasters force migration.)
Is the answer to harden the borders and send out the horses and hounds to keep them out? What if there’s not 15,000 at the border, but a million people or more?
We all know what the Trump response was: To exacerbate and exaggerate the current danger in order to exploit Americans’ fears about the menace these humans represent. And, at the same time, to cut the funding in their home countries that could have helped ameliorate their troubles and decrease the need to leave. Cruelty was a feature not a bug, and irrational inhumanity was meant to feed the worst instincts of his increasingly extremist base.
But the changes underway are predictable—and the response by US policymakers will once again demonstrate what kind of country America wants to be and is. In the case of Haitians seeking asylum in Texas, thousands have been deported by plane back to a shattered Haiti.
At the same time, the Biden administration announced this week that it was setting the ceiling for refugees at 125,000 for the next fiscal year starting on Oct. 1, a welcome lift from the record-low number of 15,000 set by Trump and initially agreed to by Biden for the current fiscal year.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the right things when making the announcement. This number
“…reaffirms our commitment to refugee resettlement in line with our long tradition of providing a safe haven and opportunity to individuals fleeing persecution…With the world facing unprecedented global displacement and humanitarian needs, the United States is committed to leading efforts to provide protection and promote durable solutions to humanitarian crises, to include providing resettlement for the most vulnerable.”
But until the Congress finally decides it must deal with the fate of those who are already in the US and the growing number who will seek asylum—come hell and high water—we can expect an endless cascade of border “crises” and a parade of politicians exploiting the suffering of others to advance their own interests.
For the coffee drinking among you: A monthly subscription is $5, about the same price as a latte. Or, $50 annually.