In an op-ed published Friday, Beto O’Rourke said what happened at the border with Haitian migrants was “years in the making,” but that the Biden administration’s failures made it worse.
An estimated 15,000 Haitian migrants gathered beneath a bridge in Del Rio, Texas, last week after arriving at the Texas-Mexico border in search of asylum. The large number of migrants led to poor conditions in the camp and disturbing confrontations with border patrol.
The situation drew criticism from both Republicans and Democrats. Homeland Security said on Friday that the encampment had been cleared after the agency arranged deportation flights back to Haiti.
“What has happened in Del Rio is wrong. It didn’t have to happen,” O’Rourke, who formerly represented El Paso, Texas, in the US House of Representatives, began in the op-ed published by El Paso Matters.
He noted that most of the migrants had come from various countries in South America, having been displaced by the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. Now, for a variety of reasons, those displaced Haitians sought asylum in the US.
O’Rourke argued that the US should have seen it coming: “We have diplomatic missions in each of these countries and an unrivaled global intelligence network.”
He also criticized the White House for a slow response once the migrants arrived, “leaving the people of Del Rio and the Border Patrol to their own devices.”
He blasted the administration’s use of Title 42, a Trump-era policy, “to immediately, and without due process, repatriate Haitians back to the country they left a decade ago, one whose streets are now ruled by gangs and criminals.”
President Joe Biden has responded to some of the criticism aimed his way, saying he took “responsibility” for the actions of the border patrol agents who confronted migrants horseback and that those agents “will pay.”
O’Rourke also criticised the actions of Republican politicians: “We need some leadership at this moment. Not the photo ops favored by our governor and GOP congressmen, hungry to pose tough in front of suffering people.”
He ended by saying the US must “dispense with cynical Trump-era policies and follow current U.S. law to ensure due process for asylum seekers” and “to hold accountable those who would treat immigrants as less than human.”
He called for an overhaul of US immigration policy, saying it should be driven by people from border communities.
President Joe Biden said Border Patrol agents who whipped at Haitian migrants with horse reins as they attempted to cross the Rio Grande in Del Rio, Texas this week will face punishment for their “outrageous” actions.
“I promise you those people will pay,” Biden said of the agents during a White House press conference on Friday morning. “There will be consequences … It’s dangerous, it’s wrong. It sends the wrong message around the world, it sends the wrong message at home. It’s simply not who we are.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki has repeatedly called the images and footage “horrific” and “horrible.” The Department of Homeland Security announced on Monday that it opened an investigation into the agents’ actions.
“The footage is extremely troubling, and the facts learned from the full investigation, which will be conducted swiftly, will define the appropriate disciplinary actions to be taken,” DHS said in a statement earlier this week.
Some Democratic lawmakers and others called the agents’ treatment of the migrants human rights violations.
Haitian migrants told reporters that they were forced to leave a makeshift refugee camp under a bridge in Texas to find water and food for themselves and their families. Many of them waded across the river to retrieve food in Mexico and then attempted to re-cross the border to return to the camp.
Video footage showed agents on horseback charging the migrants, many of whom were barefoot and carrying bags of food, and using their reins as whips.
One agent yelled at a group of men and women, “This is why your country’s shit because you use your women for this.”
The Department of Homeland Security has paused the use of horse patrol in Del Rio, Texas, CNN reported, after photos showed agents on horseback charging toward Haitian migrants while carrying whips.
A DHS official told reporters on Thursday: “We have ceased the use of the horse patrol in Del Rio temporarily. We’ll prioritize other methods for identifying individuals who might be in medical distress.”
The images were widely criticized, and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday that the footage was “horrific” and “horrible.”
“It’s important for people to know this is not who we are,” she said. “That’s not who the Biden-Harris administration is.”
DHS announced an investigation into the incident on Monday, tweeting: “DHS does not tolerate the abuse of migrants in our custody and we take these allegations very seriously.”
The Biden administration is currently deporting thousands of Haitians. The Associated Press reported that flights to Haiti started expelling thousands of migrants on Sunday, and the process was ongoing.
Thousands of Haitian migrants have ended up in Del Rio seeking asylum after Haiti suffered a massive earthquake and the country’s president was assassinated.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday said President Joe Biden found footage of Border Patrol agents on horseback whipping at Haitian migrants at the border “horrific” and “horrible.”
“I don’t know anyone who could watch that video and not have that emotion,” Psaki told “CBS Mornings.”
“It’s important for people to know this is not who we are,” she continued. “That’s not who the Biden-Harris administration is.”
Scenes of horse-mounted US Customs and Border Protection agents confronting and grabbing Haitian migrants near Del Rio, Texas over the weekend surfaced online on Monday, prompting the Department of Homeland Security to announce an investigation that evening.
“DHS does not tolerate the abuse of migrants in our custody and we take these allegations very seriously,” the agency tweeted.
The department also announced that Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has directed additional staff to be on-site to “ensure that the responsibilities of DHS personnel are executed consistent with applicable policies and training and the Department’s values.”
Psaki said on Tuesday that the Biden administration is “going to absolutely pursue that investigation and get to the bottom of what happened.”
Thousands of Haitians have encamped in Del Rio seeking asylum after crossing the Rio Grande into the United States. Haiti has experienced recent turmoil with the assassination of its President Jovenel Moïse in July and an earthquake that killed over 2,200 people in August.
A growing number of congressional Democrats have condemned the actions of the Border Patrol agents and called on the Biden administration to halt ongoing deportations of Haitian migrants.
“We cannot continue these hateful and xenophobic Trump policies that disregard our refugee laws,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said during remarks on the Senate floor on Tuesday.
“It doesn’t matter if a Democrat or Republican is President, our immigration system is designed for cruelty towards and dehumanization of immigrants,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York said Monday. “Immigration should not be a crime, and its criminalization is a relatively recent invention. This is a stain on our country.”
Since Biden took office, his administration has witnessed a surge in Central American migrants arriving at the US border. The White House has repeatedly discouraged migrants from coming to the country.
Mayorkas reiterated the stance in a tweet on Sunday, saying: “We have sent a very clear message early on, in light of the fact that we are in the midst of a pandemic, that the border is not open, and people should not take the perilous journey here.”
Psaki on Tuesday also pushed back on criticism of the Biden administration’s handling of the situation in Del Rio, defending the deportations as a safety protocol amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“Right now, we also have to implement our laws at the border,” Psaki said. “We also want to protect people, both in that community, but also migrants. One of the challenges, as we’re all facing a pandemic here, is the gathering of so many people. We’re still implementing Title 42, which means that we’re going to send people out of the country who come in.”
Rep. Tony Gonzalez, a Texas Republican, defended US Border Patrol agents who were filmed riding on horseback and using their reins to whip at Haitian migrants attempting to cross the US-Mexico border.
Gonzalez argued that the law enforcement agents were “doing God’s work” by attempting to prevent the migrants from crossing the river on Sunday near Del Rio, Texas. Thousands of Haitian migrants hoping to seek asylum in the US are currently sheltering in a squalid makeshift refugee camp under a bridge in Del Rio.
“It’s a very desperate situation and they’re doing God’s work, fighting everything they can,” Gonzalez told CNN of the officers in a Tuesday interview. He argued that “chaos” is inevitable under the current circumstances.
“The last thing any of us want to see is the mistreatment of anyone, to include migrants, but when you have tens of thousands of people and only hundreds of Border Patrol agents it creates a very desperate situation,” he said.
Haitian migrants told reporters that they were forced to leave the camp to find water and food for themselves and their families, including many young children. Many of them waded across the river to retrieve sustenance in Mexico and then attempted to return to the camp.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday called the images of the Border Patrol agents whipping and yelling at barefoot migrants carrying bags of food “horrific” and “horrible.” The Department of Homeland Security announced on Monday that it has opened an investigation into the treatment of the migrants.
“The footage is extremely troubling, and the facts learned from the full investigation, which will be conducted swiftly, will define the appropriate disciplinary actions to be taken,” the agency said in a statement.
Video footage taken by Al Jazeera English showed agents on horseback using their reins as whips as they charged the migrants and tried to push them back into the river. One agent yelled at a group of men and women, “This is why your country’s shit because you use your women for this.”
Haiti is suffering from urgent humanitarian and political crises. In July, the president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated when gunmen stormed his residence. The country’s top prosecutor has since said there’s evidence the acting prime minister played a role in the assassination. Meanwhile, the United Nations has reported that 800,000 Haitians were impacted by the devastating 7.2 magnitude earthquake that hit the country last month, which killed more than 2,000 people.
“Everyone knows what we Haitians are going through,” one Haitian migrant told an Al Jazeera reporter on the banks of the Rio Grande. “There’s no president. Crime is high. Students can’t go to school. There’s no work. The economy is down. People can’t put up with that.”
“These are human rights abuses, plain and simple. Cruel, inhumane, and a violation of domestic and international law,” Omar tweeted on Monday. “This needs a course correction and the issuance of a clear directive on how to humanely process asylums seekers at our border.”
At a military base in El Paso, Texas, hundreds of unaccompanied children who crossed the US-Mexico border to seek asylum are sleeping under one big tent. Some have been there for weeks – others were held there for months – as authorities worked to track down a relative who could take them out of government custody.
It was not supposed to be like this. President Joe Biden and his administration pledged to create a “humane asylum system” – one that abandoned images of kids in cages in favor of recognizing the legal right to seek protection from violence and repression.
Shaw Drake, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas, has twice visited the military base that now doubles as an emergency shelter. What he saw is too many children in one confined space, conditions that make it difficult for staff to keep track of what’s even happening.
“Children shouldn’t be held in those mass, dormitory-like situations,” he said. “We certainly observed firsthand the challenges and concerns about the lack of case management and the amount of time children were spending at the facility.”
Those conditions have led some children to attempt suicide and other forms of self-harm, according to testimony filed this month.
The Biden administration insists it is doing better – and in many ways it has, having reduced the number of kids in its custody and placing them in the care of family and friends. At one point, Fort Bliss housed around 5,000 children. This week, that number fell to fewer than 800, a product of the federal government ramping up efforts to place them with relatives and legal guardians.
By contrast, Drake said, the Trump administration allowed children to languish in Border Patrol facilities that were never intended to host them. At least five children died in them between 2018 and 2019.
“Border Patrol has a long history of holding people in inhumane conditions and abusing people in their custody, so it’s certainly not an environment that is conducive for unaccompanied children to spend any time in,” Drake said.
Emergency intake shelters like the one at Fort Bliss are an improvement, a fact that could have led to some complacency under the Biden administration – or at least a confidence that progress, amid a new surge in child asylum-seekers, was sufficient in the wake of the Trump administration, which itself had hollowed out the infrastructure for dealing with them.
“I think a big piece of it is a lack of commitment to the follow-through,” Drake said. “It’s very important to stand up these facilities and get kids out of Border Patrol, but the administration needed to move more quickly past to ‘how can we actually reunite these children with their loved ones?'”
There is a need to provide shelter. “The government does have to do its due diligence to ensure that they’re releasing the child to someone who is a bonafide relative or sponsor who’s going to take care for that child appropriately,” Drake said. But right now, that process can take days or weeks to even get started.
Beyond improving conditions at Fort Bliss and elsewhere, Drake said the search should begin as soon as a child is received by Border Patrol. On-site staff from the Department of Health and Human Services could even help some avoid further detention altogether.
“When children have – and many children do – direct parents or other immediate relatives waiting for them, they could be released directly without having to be transferred to an HHS facility,” he said. “And that’s something that, to this point, this administration and past administrations have failed to do.”
As shocking videos and images began to emerge showing the inside of various Border Patrol facilities where migrant children are being held in Texas, human-rights groups are calling out the crowded conditions.
These organizations say the holding facilities are inappropriate for children, and they’re urging the Biden administration to find different solutions to temporary migrant housing.
These government-produced and -released videos showed that dozens of children are being held in crowded conditions that lawmakers believe will evolve into a humanitarian crisis. Many children are seen sleeping on mats just inches off the floor. Groups of them sit in plastic-enclosed spaces, clutching foil blankets as they sleep. There are few adults in each space.
It’s these conditions that human-rights organizations are calling inappropriate.
“Border Patrol stations are not an appropriate place to hold children and asylum seekers,” Clara Long, associate director at Human Rights Watch, told Insider.
Former President Donald Trump has been out of office for two months now. But experts say his administration has had a lasting impact on how the Biden administration is navigating immigration policy.
“What we’re seeing is the consequence of dedicated negligence from the previous administration – a lack of planning and resources invested in facilities to welcome children seeking safety, who were already arriving,” said Denise Bell, Amnesty International’s researcher for refugee and migrant rights.
“And that is where we must focus: the children who are seeking safety,” Bell added. “The conditions need to be much better and much faster.”
During the 2020 presidential election, Biden positioned himself as a pro-immigration candidate focused on bettering the system for incoming migrants.
These key changes put forth by the Biden administration, however, have led to thousands of migrants – and many unaccompanied children – traveling to the US-Mexico border from Central America as they flee persecution, violence, and poverty in their home countries.
According to senior administration officials, CBP had approximately 4,500 unaccompanied minors in holding as of Thursday, while the Department of Health and Human Services has more than 9,000 children in its care.
In an attempt to mitigate the surge of migrants, the Biden administration has opened up various Border Patrol facilities for temporary housing.
“The Biden administration inherited a broken, diminished system,” Long said. “It’s not surprising that things are taking a while to get in to hand. What we need to see from the Biden administration is consistent progress toward the goals it has articulated: humane and dignified border reception, holistic policy responses to migration and access to protection for those who need it.”
For its part, the Biden administration is taking steps to limit immigration to the border.
The State Department has created more than 17,100 ads since January 21 to discourage people from migrating. These ads have reached about 15 million people, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a Monday briefing.
It’s not clear whether this approach to limit immigration to the United States is working.
“This is just part of our effort to send a clear message,” Psaki said. “But there is no question that funding is needed to address the root causes in these countries.”
White House officials and immigration experts have so far refrained from calling the surge a crisis. But the Biden administration recognizes that the facilities are not meant for long-term accommodations.
“These Border Patrol facilities are not places made for children,” Psaki said. “They are not places that we want children to be staying for an extended period of time. Our alternative is to send children back on this treacherous journey – that is not, in our view, the right choice to make.”
Detention is psychologically damaging to children
The children are held in border facilities as they await transfer to other federal agencies. The government is required to transfer migrant children to Health and Human Services custody within 72 hours. But with the influx of unaccompanied minors coming to the US-Mexico border, nearly 3,000 children have been held beyond that limit, CBS News reported.
“Even short stays in detention centers have the potential to be traumatic experiences,” said Kathryn Humphreys, assistant professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University.
“We know from our research on orphanage care that children fare best when they have reduced exposure to group-based care and long-term family-based placements when they form relationships with those that are their parents or parent-figures,” she added.
CPB and HHS custody and detention centers qualify as group-based care. Such environments normally do not allow children to form the type of relationships with adults that help them grow and develop, Humphreys told Insider.
Adults help “co-regulate children, both emotionally and physiologically,” she said. Going without these trusted adults, even for short periods of time, can lead to stress in children and them falling behind developmentally, socially, and academically.
The Biden administration is “obligated to hold children in conditions that meet United States and international standards that support their best interests,” Bell of Amnesty International said. “Children must be held in conditions that meet their best interests and safely reunified with families and sponsors much more quickly.”
“This is a time for transformation – as the administration adapts right now, it must also set in motion the changes needed for a new system where detention is not assumed and children are with their parents and sponsors,” Bell added.
The number of unaccompanied migrant children detained at the US-Mexico border has continued to rise throughout the first three months of 2021.
According to senior administration officials, US Customs and Border Protection had approximately 4,500 unaccompanied minors in holding as of Thursday, while the Department of Health and Human Services has more than 9,000 children currently in its care.
The Biden administration has opened up various Border Patrol facilities to house these incoming migrants.
At one facility in Donna, Texas, pictured above, adults and children sit in what appears to be makeshift rooms separating out groups of people.
Each room is cordoned off by what looks like a plastic enclosure, drawing comparisons to jail cells. Journalists have so far been prohibited from viewing and entering the facilities. These photos, shared with Insider by Rep. Henry Cuellar, provide insight into the conditions.
Dozens of masked children can be seen lying down on gray mats. Some are crowded into corners, despite the threat of the coronavirus spreading. Others appear to sit on the floor.
Nearly 3,000 children detained by Border Patrol have been held beyond the 72-hour limit permitted by federal law before a child must be moved to an HHS facility, CBS News reported.
The situation at the border is quickly turning into a political firestorm, and is poised to generate more concern as people see the conditions inside the facilities.
Republicans, including the former president, have taken the surge as an opportunity to bash the Biden administration.
Former President Donald Trump in a statement derided Biden’s newly instated immigration agenda.
He said the reversal of his own policies led to a rise in migration at the southern border.
Lawmakers fear that the surge will become a humanitarian crisis, as Border Patrol agents, for example, struggle to care or provide resources for incoming groups. The potential spread of the coronavirus among these groups of people only exacerbates that concern.
The Biden administration has implemented changes that aim to treat migrants fairly and humanely, in an attempt to overhaul Trump’s immigration policies.
In a Monday press briefing, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki refrained from calling the surge a “crisis” at the border, saying the White House is working with different government agencies including HHS to “ensure we’re following COVID protocols.”
“Children presenting at our border who are fleeing violence, who are fleeing prosecution, who are fleeing terrible situations, is not a crisis,” she said. “We feel that it is our responsibility to humanely approach this circumstance and make sure they are treated and put into conditions that are safe.”
Psaki also insisted that the Biden administration wants to “make sure the media has access to these sites,” but did not give a concrete timeline on when that would happen.
“These photos show what we’ve long been saying, which is that these Border Patrol facilities are not places made for children,” she added. “They are not places that we want children to be staying for an extended period of time. Our alternative is to send children back on this treacherous journey — that is not, in our view, the right choice to make.”
The State Department is broadcasting to people in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Brazil, and Mexico that now is not a good time to come to the US, but the administration still has to deal with all the migrant children who are currently here.
Psaki also played up the strategies the Biden administration is doling out to cap the number of people traveling to the US, particularly from the Northern Triangle countries.
The State Department, for example, has created more than 17,100 ads since January 21 to discourage people from migrating. These ads have reached about 15 million people, Psaki said on Monday.
It’s not clear whether this approach to limit immigration to the United States is working.
“This is just part of our effort to send a clear message,” Psaki said. “But there is no question that funding is needed to address the root causes in these countries.”
Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Sunday said “the border is closed” in response to the surge in migrants at the US-Mexico border, while staunchly defending the Biden administration’s policy of not expelling young arrivals.
During an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Mayorkas said that while the US was sending back families and adults who have attempted to cross into the country, it would not follow the same practice for “young, vulnerable children.”
Mayorkas said the administration was seeking new policies to address the influx of migrants from Mexico and Central American countries. He also criticized former President Donald Trump for having “dismantled the orderly, humane and efficient way” of approaching cases with young children.
“We have a short-term plan, a medium-term plan, and a long-term plan, and the president and I have spoken to this repeatedly,” he said. “We will not expel into the Mexican desert, for example, three orphaned children whom I saw over the last two weeks. We just won’t do that. That’s not who we are.”
Biden’s commitment to a humane approach to immigration has been criticized by congressional Republicans, and progressive lawmakers like Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York have complained about the administration reopening a notorious Trump-era Texas facility to house young migrants.
Mayorkas was also pressed about media access to border facilities, which he said the administration was “working on,” but emphasized that border authorities were “not focused on ride-alongs right now.”
“We are still in the midst of the pandemic,” he said. “Border Patrol agents are focused on operations, on securing the border, on addressing the needs of vulnerable children.”
He added: “We are focused on our operations, in removing children from those crowded Border Patrol stations to the Health and Human Services facilities that can best shelter them. And we are also working on providing access so the American public can in a safe way, without jeopardizing our operations, see what is going on.”