Confused and tired-looking toddlers clung to their parents at Haiti’s Port-au-Prince airport on Tuesday, one of 360 family members quickly expelled from the United States over the previous three days.
These scenes occurred after U.S. border agents on horseback used whip-like reins to stop Haitian migrants wading across the Rio Grande from Mexico to a squalid encampment with nearly 10,000 people on the Texas side on Sunday.
The images triggered anguish among some current U.S. officials interviewed by Reuters who said they once had high hopes that U.S. President Joe Biden would quickly reverse the hardline immigration policies of his Republican predecessor Donald Trump and, as he promised, “restore humanity and American values” to the immigration system.
Outside the government, disillusioned immigration advocates point to Biden’s refusal to repeal Trump’s most sweeping policy known as Title 42 – that allows border agents to quickly expel most migrants to Mexico or their home countries without a chance to apply for asylum.
Biden extended the March 2020 policy put in place by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, arguing it remained necessary as a public health measure amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These deterrence (and) expulsion measures deny due process to asylum seekers and place them in harm’s way. That is a human rights violation,” Michael Knowles, president of AFGE Local 1924, the union that represents the asylum officers at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) told Reuters.
“Our members are outraged by the mistreatment of migrants and the refusal of our border authorities to allow them to have their asylum claims heard.”
Three other USCIS employees expressed similar concerns to Reuters, as did an official at another government agency.
Asylum officers interview migrants and refugees to determine if they need protection in the United States, while Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents oversee border security and detention.
Top Democratic lawmakers joined in the criticism. The dwindling goodwill among allies comes as Biden’s immigration agenda was dealt a blow on Sunday when the Senate parliamentarian ruled Democratic proposals to give legal status to millions of immigrants in the United States could not be included in a budget reconciliation bill.
‘WHAT DO THEY BELIEVE IN?’
Biden did exempt unaccompanied children from Title 42 expulsions early in his presidency. But he has included families, even after a federal judge on Thursday ordered the government to stop expelling them. The administration is appealing the order.
“Not to round up as many people as possible to expel them, and certainly not to expel desperate Haitian asylum seekers,” said Lee Gelernt, the lead attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union suing the administration over the policy.
The Trump administration argued that many asylum claims were false and issued a flurry of policies to limit protections, moves that were frequently criticised by the USCIS union, which Knowles leads.
One of the USCIS officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the press said it was understood it would take time to roll back the Trump-era measures, but that some are now losing patience in the face of slow reform.
“It’s appalling, disgusting,” the official said. “What do they believe in, if this is acceptable?” Some colleagues were considering whether to leave their jobs, the official said.
Another USCIS official spoke of being “personally mortified.”
USCIS referred a request for comment to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), who did not immediately respond.
On Tuesday, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Title 42 was being applied to the fullest extent possible, while at the same time condemning the actions of the agents on horseback saying the incident was being investigated and those involved had been assigned administrative duties.
As Biden is facing criticism from the left, Republicans say he has encouraged illegal migration by moving too fast to reverse other Trump-era immigration reforms.
According to US Customs and Border Protection data, the number of crossings at the US-Mexico border has increased to 20-year highs in recent months, with close to 200,000 encounters in August alone, though this does not include individuals who may have crossed multiple times.
Early in his presidency, Biden took several executive actions that were applauded by immigration advocates, including lifting Trump’s travel bans on several Muslim-majority countries and repealing a policy that sent asylum seekers to Mexico to await U.S. court hearings. He also exempted unaccompanied minors from Title 42 deportation and reduced the number of families deported.
In a letter to Congress, retired Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott stated that Biden’s actions created a crisis at the border and posed a “national security threat.” Unlike the USCIS union, the unions representing border and ICE agents have been outspoken supporters of Trump.
Earlier this year, Biden extended deportation relief to approximately 150,000 Haitians who already have Temporary Protected Status in the United States, though the benefits do not apply to anyone who arrived after July 29.
Biden acknowledged that conditions in the Caribbean country, which has long been plagued by violence and recently suffered a presidential assassination and a major earthquake, are dire.