President Biden on Friday attempted to simultaneously disavow and accept responsibility for one of the ugliest images of his presidency — desperate Haitian migrants getting wrangled by Border Patrol agents on horseback.
“It’s beyond an embarrassment. … It’s simply not who we are,” Biden said, promising the agents will “pay” for their actions.
Vice President Kamala Harris echoed that assessment on Friday, likening the agents’ tactics to those used “against African Americans during times of slavery.”
Biden and Harris are attempting a difficult political feat: criticizing the actions of their own administration. The problem for Biden and Harris is that the methods used by the Border Patrol agents, though potentially improper, stem at least in part from the administration’s decisions to pursue a policy of deterrence, according to immigration experts and advocates.
“They are distancing from the tactic, but they’re doubling down on the policy,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Biden campaigned as a president who would reverse President Trump’s harsh immigration policies and restore what he called a humane system. But like President Obama before him, he has not hesitated to send migrants home, including thousands of Haitians in Del Rio, Texas, fearing the political consequences of appearing too lenient and encouraging even more desperate people to seek refuge in the United States.
But now, Biden has come under greater pressure to erase the memories of Trump.
“Obama had kids in cages. Trump had the separation of kids from their families, and the Biden administration now has Border Patrol on horseback,” Brown said. “And the outcry to all of those made the administrations backtrack, at least on those tactics. But all three administrations relied on deterrence to some level.”
The seemingly intractable problems at the border are just the latest in a recent series of events that have buffeted the White House and contributed to a steady decline in Biden’s approval ratings: The messy withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan; the resurgence of COVID-19; and the emergence of divisions among Democrats that have held up legislation enacting his agenda.
“The mess at the border is just the latest layer of a multilayered cake,” said William Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar who was a domestic policy advisor to President Clinton. “The problem is that when you are president, not only do you get credit for things that you are not responsible for, you also get blame for things you are not wholly responsible for. Joe Biden is experiencing the downside.”
These problems threaten to erode public confidence in Biden’s ability to live up to central promises of his presidency. The disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan undercuts his claim to be bringing a reassuringly steady hand to world affairs, relying on the advice of seasoned professionals who stand in contrast to the novices of the Trump presidency.
The resurgence of COVID-19 via the Delta variant makes it much harder for him to deliver on the leading promise of his campaign — that he would vanquish the virus and return U.S. life to normal.
On his promise to restore a measure of bipartisanship to Washington, Biden seemed to make progress when the Senate passed a compromise version of his infrastructure program with significant support from Republicans. But even that has been stalled because it is enmeshed in growing tensions among Democrats over passing legislation enacting Biden’s broader social policy agenda.
Biden’s pledge to reverse Trump’s signature set of immigration practices brought elements of all of those themes to bear. It was a critique of Trump, both in policy and competence, and it was intended as a sign to the world that America would regain its place as a beacon to other nations.
Biden has significantly altered the divisive rhetoric around immigration and has undone some of Trump’s policies, including construction of the border wall. He has also reversed Trump’s attempt to effectively end the refugee program, with a promise to increase the cap on admissions to 125,000 in the budget year that begins Oct. 1.
But he has found other elements of Trump’s immigration legacy harder to uproot, because of political concerns, court rulings and the entrenched nature of the immigration bureaucracy.
Many Republicans believe the huge increases in migrants being stopped at the border, in numbers not seen in two decades, will be a politically potent tool in winning back Congress next year and, potentially, the presidency in 2024. Even as Biden pledged to investigate the mounted agents, many Republicans were coming to their defense.
“What a pathetic statement by the President of the United States regarding our mounted Border Patrol agents trying to control lawlessness at our border,” tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican. “When President Biden says that Border Patrol agents will pay for doing their job, it is an affront to all those in uniform at the border and is the ultimate blame-shifting.”
Biden’s main tool in discouraging people from coming to the border has been a Trump-era public health policy called Title 42 that allows his administration to return asylum seekers without hearing their cases, by citing the danger of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biden put a hold on the use of horses this week. But the agents using them were stopping migrants who were returning from Mexico where they had obtained diapers, food and other supplies not available at the encampment where they were hoping to get their asylum claims processed.
Many of those Haitians were put on planes back to their country or otherwise dispersed without having their claims heard. By Friday, an encampment that numbered 15,000 migrants had been reduced to zero, officials said.
Many advocates say too much focus is being put on the images of the horses.
“While we are encouraged that President Biden views what the individual agents did as inappropriate … the bigger issue is what’s happening to people who came to our border asking for protection,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, a nonpartisan think tank that favors expanded immigration and pushing for due process.
Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who was spokeswoman for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said the images at the border were especially unsettling for the Black community because of the country’s history with slavery and racial oppression.
“It was particularly jarring, it had a slightly different resonance given our history,” she said.
Addressing the immigration problem is complicated by the fact that the administration is facing so many other calamities and conundrums, she said.
“This is a critical issue that requires a whole-of-government and presidential response,” said Finney. But “they are leading the country in a moment of tectonic cultural shifts, dealing with issues any one of which — COVID, voting rights, protecting reproductive rights — would be a presidency-defining issue.”