In 2018, thousands of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras gathered in Tijuana awaiting entry into the United States as asylum-seekers.
Headlines from the time warned of a “migrant caravan” thousands of people deep. On Nov. 19, 2018, I found myself right in the middle of it.
With the biggest story in the nation happening right in our backyard, a couple of young reporters and I from my college newspaper crossed over the border with our cameras and notepads to conduct some on-the-ground reporting.
The sights from that night will be forever etched in my brain: An outdoor sports complex lined with tents and migrant families scrapping for food and supplies. The complex was muddy and cold – it had rained that week.
Less than a week later, I sat wide-eyed watching footage of U.S. Customs and Border Protection firing tear gas at a group of migrants who tried to rush the border wall when a peaceful protest went awry.
This incident ringed in my mind last week when images released from Texas showed border patrol agents on horseback using whips to forcibly deter Haitian asylum-seekers who’d crossed over to the American side of the Rio Grande. As many as 15,000 migrants formed camps under a nearby bridge before it was cleared on Sept. 24, according to the Associated Press.
These kinds of images coming from the border were perhaps less surprising in 2018 amid the Trump Administration, particularly following public outrage over his zero-tolerance policy earlier that year that led to family separations. But Trump never led Americans to expect anything other than harshness at the border. The same cannot be said for President Joe Biden, who framed a vote for him as a total rejection of Trump’s immigration policies.
Biden partly embraced Trump’s blueprint this month on the Texas border, but not fully. More than 1,000 migrants were deported back to Haiti in planes using pandemic protections put in place by the previous administration, but thousands of others were allowed to enter the U.S. and given court dates, according to the AP. The use of horses was also thoroughly condemned by the administration.
Even if Biden were committed to unconditional compassion for asylum-seekers at the border, it would be no match for America’s broken and backlogged immigration system. The bottom line for those seeking citizenship or refuge in the U.S. remains the same as it has with every previous administration: years of bureaucratic red tape and uncertainty, often culminating in a deportation order.
Biden is intimately familiar with this reality as the political heir to Barack Obama, infamously pegged as the “deporter in chief.”
It’s a dance that no modern president has quite nailed down. How do you distinguish compassion at the border from a warm welcome? And, on the other side of the coin, how do you exhibit harshness without facing public outrage?
To revisit the fate of the Haitians, those who were sent home on flights will land in a country that just faced its second major earthquake since 2010, the most recent of which was followed by Tropical Storm Grace on Aug. 16. The nation is also entangled in political instability following the assassination of the late President Jovenel Moïse in his home on July 7.
The Haitians will not be the last ones to face this fate at our border, especially as climate change poses the prospect of mass displacement. The system has remained flawed under Democrats and Republicans alike, so who’s gonna step up?