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Addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, Joe Biden promised an era where the US would channel its considerable power towards diplomacy and human rights rather than militarism and force. But his administration’s actions towards Haitians at the border are one sign that this promise could all just be empty grandstanding, an attempt to get ahead of the historians.
“We’ve ended 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan,” he told the assembled heads of state. “And as we close this period of relentless war, we’re opening a new era of relentless diplomacy.”
This new era would see the US rally the world to solve crises new and long-burning, from Covid to the climate, where America “will lead not just with the example of our power but, God willing, with the power of our example,” as the president put it.
Border patrol is mounted on horseback rounding up Haitian refugees with whips.
This is unfathomable cruelty towards people fleeing disaster and political ruin. The administration must stop this. pic.twitter.com/BSjT91NSj0
— Sawyer Hackett (@SawyerHackett) September 20, 2021
A day before he made this speech, US Border Patrol guards on horseback were filmed in broad daylight brandishing their reins like whips towards Haitian asylum seekers in Texas, who are fleeing the country’s turmoil after a deadly August earthquake and the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. The roughly 15,000 migrants living at the encampment at its peak first had to survive the long journey to the border through the Caribbean and Latin America, then took shelter largely without food or water beneath a bridge in Del Rio, Texas.
They are now being shipped back to Haiti en masse on regular flights under a Trump-era immigration rule called Title 42, which ignored the advice of public health officials and effectively closed the border to asylum seekers, under the guise of the pandemic. (A federal judge struck down parts of the policy last week, but the Biden administration plans to appeal).
One wonders if this is the kind of American example Joe Biden hopes the world will follow. It’s certainly “relentless.”
The US has indeed committed billions to shoring up the Haitian state in recent months, and unnamed officials claimed that “thousands” of Haitians have been allowed to stay in the country for now, but official figures aren’t out yet.
In the meantime, members of the Congressional Black Caucus have argued that the longer the present situation at the border with Haitians continues, the farther the US will fall in international esteem, as its bold words on human rights fail to measure up to its actions in plain view.
“Can you imagine what the world is seeing and thinking about our own borders? Can you imagine the violation of human rights that has taken place against Black people, against black Haitians?” Congresswoman Barabara Lee of California said during a Wednesday news conference at the Capitol. “It’s cruel and unusual punishment.”
What’s more, the US knows full well the strife it is sending Haitians back to when it deports them.
In May, before the quake hit or the president was assassinated, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas announced that Haitians already in the US could file for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and avoid deportation for 18 months, owing to what he called “serious security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and lack of basic resources, which are exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Now, people fleeing a drastically worse set of circumstances are being turned away.
It bears remembering, too, that the US can move heaven and Earth — and people — when it decides a cause is worthy enough. During the fall of Kabul, America airlifted roughly 120,000 people, including numerous asylum seekers, out of Afghanistan in a matter of days, fending off suicide bombs and a ticking clock.
It seems for the moment, however, that political considerations are ruling the day, not humanitarian ones. Crowds of desperate Afghans would signal a US failure after 20 years; crowds of desperate Haitians on the border are a political liability, red meat for right-wing governors and news networks to call Biden “soft” on the border and seed rage among Republican voters.
The administration has condemned the images of the border guards wielding their reins and promised a swift investigation, but it hasn’t changed any of the policies that created the bottleneck in the first place. It’s still hanging onto Trump-era “metering” at border posts, drastically reducing the number of asylum seekers allowed to cross at official ports of entry. It’s still deporting thousands under Title 42, a policy masterminded by arch-conservative Trump adviser Stephen Miller before the pandemic even broke out, a transparent attempt to slash immigration by any means necessary.
At the UN, Biden concluded his remarks about this hypothetical era of US leadership, arguing, “None of this is inevitable; it’s a choice.” Indeed, it is a choice. And actions, whether at the southern border or an airport in Kabul, always speak louder than words.
This article was amended on 5 October 2021, to remove references to ‘whipping’ and ‘whippings’. Although the border guards did wield their reins like whips near the migrants, there is no evidence to suggest anybody was whipped.