WASHINGTON – Thousands of families and children huddle under a bridge along the U.S.-Mexican border in Texas. Others wade through the Rio Grande into the USA with containers of food and water, hoping they won't be swept away by the current. They wait days before processing by Customs and Border Protection officials, then they are often put on a plane and sent back to their home country.
Roughly 14,000 Haitian migrants are among those camped out under the bridge in Del Rio, Texas, awaiting a decision on whether they will be granted entry into the USA or turned away. In his first months in office, President Joe Biden has faced a string of high-profile immigration issues, including record numbers of migrants at the border, as well as an influx of unaccompanied minor children this year.
'We can't turn back': Haitian migrants face massive expulsion amid crackdown at US-Mexico border
The Biden administration's response to the most recent influx – including press secretary Jen Psaki calling images of Border Patrol agents on horses chasing Haitian migrants "horrific" – has drawn condemnation from both Republican hard-liners and Democratic allies.
“The administration's policies will be an enduring stain on the president's legacy, unless quickly remedied,” said Eleanor Acer, director of Human Rights First's Refugee Protection program.
'This was shockingly hard line'
The complexity of the issues at the border can make it difficult to build consensus on solutions, experts and activists said.
“There are lots of people trying to flee desperate situations in countries that are on our doorstep,” said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And there's no particularly good answer as to how to deal with that.”
In his first days in office, Biden pledged to pass immigration reform, but that effort has stalled, and Republicans said they don't want to see legislation passed until the border is under control.
"With the high number of border arrivals, higher than we've seen for many years, this has really complicated the Biden administration's ability to achieve other things on their immigration agenda," said Julia Gelatt, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
Gelatt noted that public support goes down "when immigration appears out of control" and "when it seems like the country doesn't have control over who's coming."
"That lessens the political space for getting other things done,'' she said.
The Biden administration is in an impossible situation, Alden said.
“They see the potential for political harm in either direction,” he said, “for alienating their own supporters by looking too much like the Trump administration, and for alienating independents by looking like there's a 'Welcome to the U.S.’ mat at the border.”
Much of what the administration has tried to do to strike a balance has made sense to Alden – until the deportation of Haitians.
“This was shockingly hard line,” he said.
The Department of Homeland Security ramped up deportation flights of Haitians and transported migrants to different processing centers along the border. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said at a news conference Monday there will be one to three flights daily deporting Haitians.
“If you come to the United States illegally, you will be returned. Your journey will not succeed, and you will be endangering your life and your family’s life,” Mayorkas said.
Acer said those actions go against what Biden promised: to restore an immigration system that allows for migrants to seek asylum in the USA.
“The response of the Biden administration of people seeking protection has reflected total betrayal of the commitments that the Biden administration made to follow our laws, to follow our refugee laws and to restore asylum,” Acer said.
Pressures from left and right
Republican governors from 26 states sent a letter to the president Monday, complaining that Biden has left states to deal with a challenge that is the federal government’s job. They asked to meet with Biden within 15 days.
“A crisis that began at our southern border now extends beyond, to every state and requires immediate action before the situation worsens,” the governors wrote.
The president has also been pressured by refugee and asylum advocates, as well as fellow Democrats, to do more.
A group advocating for immigrants from countries affected by armed conflict or natural disasters demonstrated outside the White House.
Members of the National TPS Alliance, waving blue flags as they marched through Lafayette Square, called on the Biden administration to restore and expand the Temporary Protected Status program. They want Congress to create a path to citizenship for more than 400,000 beneficiaries of the program.
There is a TPS designation for Haiti, but it applies only to Haitians who have lived in the USA since before July 29.
Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., who co-chairs the House Haiti Caucus, joined 55 colleagues last week in urging Biden to immediately halt deportations to Haiti.
At the White House briefing room, Psaki was peppered with questions about the administration's strategy. She was also asked for reaction to footage of Border Patrol agents on horseback chasing Haitians migrants. Psaki called the video "horrific" but did not offer specifics about how the administration would address the issue. Mayorkas said DHS would be investigating the agents' conduct.
Psaki said the administration is “surging resources” and expediting repatriation flights to address the “challenging situation” in Texas.
She repeated the directive the administration has tried to convey since Biden took office to those hoping for a better life in the USA.
“Now is not the time to come,” she said
Horace Campbell, professor of African American studies and political science at Syracuse University, attributed the increase of migration by Haitians to the southern border not only to recent political turmoil and natural disasters but also deteriorating conditions for the past decade.
“The economic conditions in Haiti since 2010 have been unspeakable. And what the United States government is doing is unspeakable, given the crisis in Haiti,” Campbell said.
The expulsion policy "disproportionately harms" Black asylum seekers and migrants, Acer said. She pointed to a survey from Human Rights First, the Haitian Bridge Alliance and Al Otro Lado in Baja California, Mexico, that showed 61% of Haitian asylum seekers blocked from U.S. asylum protections were victims of crime in Mexico.
Campbell said the administration’s response to Haitians could hurt Biden's support among progressives who said “what they wanted in this administration is for undocumented immigrants to be given real status and that Haitians should not be treated differently from Cubans."
Contributing: Mabinty Quarshie
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden scrambles to address Haitian migrant surge at southern border