By Emma Reilly
Recent photographs of Border Patrol agents on horseback corralling Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas sparked national debate over United States immigration policies.
According to NPR, Haitian migrants returning to an encampment along the Rio Grande were chased and whipped by agents as they crossed the border into the United States from Mexico. The incident has been widely denounced by government officials.
The photographs and footage of the incident are “horrific” and “devastating,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at a press briefing on Sept. 20. According to Texas Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, the force used by the agents was “absolutely unacceptable.”
Despite public denouncements of the agents involved, there has been little accountability taken on the part of the U.S. government. Rather, the Border Patrol agents involved are being used as a political scapegoat with border enforcement legislation remaining unchanged. The actions taken by the Border Patrol agents in Del Rio were violent and unnecessary. However, responsibility for those actions should lie with larger governmental bodies in addition to the individuals who were involved.
According to NPR, the agents involved have been temporarily reassigned to administrative duties and investigations into their actions are underway. The result of these investigations will have little significance if broader immigration policies stay the same.
“Putting the focus on the horseback patrols…draws attention away from a larger issue,” The Atlantic’s Caitlin Dickerson said.
By placing the blame on individual agents, the government allows the public eye to gloss over its own complicity, concentrating blame on one aspect of a much more complex picture of immigration in America.
“Border Patrol agents have been policing on horseback for more than 100 years. And in this case, they were doing so under orders from their supervisors, who serve at the pleasure of the president,” Dickerson said.
The government plays a direct role in how U.S. borders are policed and how immigrants crossing the border are treated. This involvement, often passed off as mere overseeing, is significant.
While blame is being placed on horseback patrols’ unneeded pursuit and apparent use of reins as whips, there are other issues also at play. Migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. are hoping that their situation will be understood. Many migrants are facing political instability and a lack of resources in their home country and are turning to the U.S. for assistance — and because the U.S. touts the empathetic treatment of immigrants, they are not expecting to be turned away.
Despite the power the government has over border enforcement and immigration policies, significant, direct acknowledgement of the Haitian immigration influx in Del Rio was not made by President Joe Biden until the incident in Del Rio occurred.
“[President Biden’s Sept. 24 statement from the White House] was the president’s first substantive comment on the situation in Del Rio, where approximately 30,000 Haitian migrants have tried to enter the U.S. from Mexico since Sept. 9,” CNBC’s Annika Kim Constantino said.
It seems that the Biden administration was unwilling to address complications presented by the influx of asylum-seeking Haitian migrants in Del Rio until questions of humaneness could be directed away from the federal sphere.
This lack of accountability has revealed similarities between the Biden and Trump administrations as racial themes are called into consideration.
President Biden campaigned for humane immigration reform. Nevertheless, incidents like what occurred in Del Rio are still happening. The publicization of the incident has illuminated such contradictions on the part of the Biden administration.
“The [Biden] administration has taken up court battles to protect some of Trump’s harshest asylum policies,” Dickerson said.
While some positive changes have occurred — including the official nullification of the Trump administration’s no-tolerance policy, which led to the separation of migrant families at the U.S. border with Mexico — the Del Rio incident has called the Biden administration’s seriousness about immigration reform into question.
Most significant to this line of questioning is the continuation of the government’s inherently racist enforcement of immigration policies.
The fact that the migrants being pursued violently by horseback patrols are Haitian should not be overlooked. Black immigrants are mistreated disproportionately to white immigrants, and systems have been put in place in the U.S. that make it more difficult for Black migrants to gain asylum.
According to Dickerson, white immigrants from wealthy European countries are not required to have a visa to enter the U.S.. These immigrants can request asylum through an administrative process once in the country. Immigrants of color face an entirely different process.
“That experience is wholly unlike what an impoverished Haitian or Central American seeking asylum faces,” Dickerson said.
Rather, immigrants must make the dangerous and taxing journey across the border illegally, as tourist visas are not as widely available to them. If these migrants do make it into the country, they are forced to endure a harsh legal process for asylum, because of which they will likely be deported or jailed.
This is part of a much longer history of immigrant criminalization in the U.S.
“If we are to subordinate the myth of immigrant criminality, we must place the criminalization of immigrants within a broader historical, racial, and sociological context that illuminates how criminalization contributes to exclusion,” University of Dayton Professor Jamie Longazel said.
The actions of the Border Patrol agents in Del Rio were harsh and should not be overlooked. The incident’s connection to an extensive web of political and racial issues is clear and should be explored to its fullest.
In the end, it’s the responsibility of an administration that promised humanity to take the first steps towards dismantling a deeply established and highly problematic system.