In March 2020, the Trump administration effectively closed the border, citing the Covid-19 pandemic in order to invoke Title 42, a little-used public health provision in the U.S. code. It quickly became clear that this was not, in fact, necessary to combat the pandemic—it was a pretext to enact the twisted white nationalist fantasies animating the president’s immigration policies. Trump adviser Stephen Miller, The New York Times reported last year, had “suggested using the president’s public health authority to seal the border so frequently that it was difficult to recall specific scenarios.” The pandemic provided the opportunity Miller had been waiting for. Under Title 42, more than one million people have been refused entry to the United States and denied the chance to make asylum claims, as they have the right to do under U.S. and international law. As one immigrant rights advocate put it, “Donald Trump did get his wall. It’s called Title 42.”
Despite all his campaign promises, Joe Biden has done little to tear down that wall. He has continued the use of Title 42 to summarily expel and deport would-be migrants and asylum-seekers, including thousands of Haitians who arrived at the border in recent weeks. Officials have framed this as a temporary situation: In February, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the government needed more time “to put in place a humane, comprehensive process for processing individuals who are coming to the border.” To would-be migrants, the message was blunter: “Now is not the time to come,” Psaki said, adding, “The vast majority of people will be turned away.”
Simply telling people fleeing poverty, the devastating effects of climate change, political instability, and violence (often stoked by decades of U.S. policy) not to come is, of course, not an effective strategy. And if it might have been reasonable to give the Biden administration some time to rebuild from the wrecking ball Trump took to our immigration system, that time has passed. Far from undoing many of his predecessor’s draconian and cruel policies, Biden has chosen to maintain them. After a judge ruled last week that the administration cannot employ Title 42 to refuse entry to migrants with children, and gave the government two weeks to end its use, the Biden administration appealed. It wants to keep that authority. As Juliana Macedo do Nascimento, the senior advocacy manager of the immigrant rights group United We Dream, wrote in response to the latest appeal, “Did I blink and Trump suddenly become President again?”
The Biden administration’s failures have come to a head in recent days in Del Rio, Texas, where thousands of Haitians gathered in makeshift camps, hoping to enter the U.S. Many have not lived in Haiti for more than a decade, having fled to South American countries like Chile in 2010 after a devastating earthquake. Returning to Haiti, which is reeling from yet another earthquake and the aftermath of the assassination of its president, is a dangerous proposition, a reality that the Biden administration has previously acknowledged. “In Haiti, there is no security. The country is in a political crisis,” Fabricio Jean, a 38-year-old Haitian at the camp with his family, told the Associated Press.
Over the weekend, the full force of the Department of Homeland Security was swiftly mobilized to begin clearing out the camp and to deport thousands of its inhabitants to Haiti, in what The Intercept described as likely “the largest mass expulsion of would-be asylum-seekers in recent American history.”
“We weren’t treated like humans but like animals parked somewhere,” 31-year-old Aminadel Glezil told The New York Times. According to Glezil, he was beaten and put in handcuffs after he protested his deportation. “I couldn’t believe a powerful country like the U.S. would treat us that way,” he said. “They did not even tell us what they were doing,” 43-year-old Sonia Piard told The Washington Post. “We did not know we were going back to Haiti. Nobody told us we were going back to Haiti.” Piard felt that she, her husband, and their three children had been “kidnapped,” and she put the blame on the current administration. “How could Biden do this to us?” she asked.
The Biden administration’s actions have been chaotic and contradictory. In its telling, the mass deportation of thousands of people is a humanitarian effort. During a visit to Del Rio on Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas defended the continuing choice to use Title 42, citing the pandemic. “Title 42 is not an immigration authority but a public health authority to protect the American public, to protect the communities along the border, and to protect the migrants themselves,” Mayorkas said. In a recent news interview, Psaki echoed those sentiments. Deporting people to Haiti, which only recently launched a Covid-19 vaccination program, she said, was an effort “to protect a lot of them from the spread of Covid, as well.” (Never mind that the administration is putting most Haitians on planes without even giving them Covid tests.) But undercutting the government’s own narrative that rapid deportations are necessary under the mantle of public health, thousands of the people gathered at the camp in Del Rio have in fact been allowed to remain in the U.S., at least temporarily. This is, as Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council noted, largely a reflection of the logistical challenges in deporting thousands en masse, and for many it’s simply a delay: Single adults, he wrote, “will likely be sent to ICE detention centers and processed for expedited removal and then deportation.”
If Trump felt no qualms describing places like Haiti as “shithole” countries and doubling down on the long-standing history of associating immigrants with disease, Biden and his administration officials are more subtly using the pandemic as cover to refuse Haitian migrants, who were, as the immigration historian Yael Schacher noted in a recent interview, “the first target of what later becomes the … harsh treatment of asylum-seekers and immigrants.” (Border Patrol agents, rarely subtle, echoed Trump as they charged people on horseback this week, yelling: “This is why your country’s shit!”) In fact, it was the arrival of large groups of Haitian asylum-seekers and refugees from both Duvalier regimes, beginning in the 1970s, that spurred our immigration system’s turn toward the punitive. As the historian Carl Lindskoog has written, “detention became a way to send a message to Haitians that they were unwelcome in the United States. And this criminalization of immigration has since expanded to all potential migrants.”
“Our immigration system still has anti-Black racism that is fueling this Biden administration’s response to this Haitian migration problem,” Nicole Phillips, the legal director at the nonprofit Haitian Bridge Alliance, told The Intercept. “This is anti-Black racism in our immigration policy. Period.”
The Biden administration, according to Phillips and other immigration advocates, had ignored warnings from advocates that the situation at the border was untenable, as the number of people trying their luck in entering the U.S. moved toward pre-pandemic-lockdown levels. As with the sudden arrival of unaccompanied children earlier this year, this humanitarian crisis can no longer be blamed on Trump. It’s Joe Biden’s now.