Schism erupts between Biden administration, Democrats over treatment of Haitian migrants

The rift between President Biden and his progressive base widened Thursday over the treatment of Haitian migrants, as the U.S. special envoy to Haiti quit in protest of the administration’s “inhumane” deportations and influential liberal allies called on the White House to suspend flights of migrants back to Haiti.

Daniel Foote, a top envoy to Haiti, resigned and torched the administration on his way out the door.

In a resignation letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Mr. Foote wrote that the administration’s policy toward the Haitian migrants is “deeply flawed” and deporting them was “counterproductive.” The U.S. has flown more than 1,000 refugees back to Haiti in recent days.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki countered that Mr. Foote‘s ideas about promoting democracy in Haiti were “harmful.”

Mr. Foote‘s searing letter is emblematic of the backlash that Mr. Biden faces from once staunch allies who say he failed to keep his promise for more compassionate immigration policies.

Democrats and civil liberties groups are angry over images of border patrol agents on horseback chasing migrants and reports of Haitians sleeping under a bridge in Texas. Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, called the treatment “worse than what we witnessed in slavery.”

NAACP President Derrick Johnson also compared the images of border patrol agents aggressively chasing Haitian migrants to slavery. His group tweeted side-by-side images of a White man about to hit an enslaved Black man, and a photo of a border agent grabbing a migrant.

“The humanitarian crisis happening under this administration on the southern border disgustingly mirrors some of the darkest moments in America’s history,” Mr. Johnson wrote in a tweet, demanding a meeting with Mr. Biden.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, demanded that Mr. Biden reverse his decision to deport Haitian refugees seeking asylum.

“Such a decision defies common sense,” Mr. Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor. “It also defies common decency and what America is all about.”

Those complaints have left Mr. Biden feeling attacked on all sides over his immigration policies.

Republicans have long griped that he‘s too lenient on immigration and say there’s a double standard. Mr. Biden has allowed thousands of vulnerable Afghans to enter the U.S., but has expelled many Haitian refugees.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called on Vice President Kamala Harris on Thursday to take a more active role in the border crisis, as the administration’s point person on migration issues.

“Where is the border czar, Vice President Harris?” the California Republican asked at his weekly press conference. “Tomorrow will mark the sixth month since she was appointed to this role. In that time, the situation at the border has only continued to deteriorate.”

Mr. McCarthy said more than 1.2 million migrants have been apprehended since Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris were inaugurated.

“Under her ‘control’ of the border — 970,000 with this border czar,” he said. “For the last two consecutive months, illegal migrant encounters hit more than 200,000. How does that play in history? It’s a 20-year high.”

Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas said Thursday that the vice president’s mission to Central America in June to slow illegal immigration has had no effect.

“With all due respect, no,” Mr. Cuellar said on CNN when asked if the vice president’s trip to Mexico and Guatemala had any impact on the root causes of migration. “We’ve got to work with the private sector to create jobs down there in Central America.”

Mr. Cuellar, whose district includes a section of the border with Mexico, said there are another 30,000 Haitian refugees in Mexico, 30,000 in Colombia and 15,000 in Panama waiting to join the current mass illegal immigration into Texas.

“This surge of Haitians is not going to stop anytime soon,” Mr. Cuellar said. “This is going to go on for a while.”

The administration has struggled to deal with thousands of Haitian migrants at an encampment under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas. The administration has been criticized for mistreating the migrants and for expelling many of them back to Haiti which is wracked with political instability and natural disasters.

While that criticism was expected, the chorus of outrage from Democrats and even some within the administration has left the White House on its heels.

“I’m pissed about deportations back to a country that cannot accept them,” Rep. Frederica Wilson, Florida Democrat, said on CNN. “Haiti is not capable of handling any repatriation at this time, and [the flights] should stop today. This is just deplorable.”

Democratic Reps. Yvette Clarke of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, co-chairs of the House Haiti Caucus, said Thursday they “share Ambassador Foote’s concern regarding the inhumane and counterproductive decisions to deport Haitian refugees at our southern border.” 

“The Haitian state is still reeling from a series of compounding and emergent crises. It is unconscionable the administration would choose to deport refugees to Haiti in its current capacity, and it must immediately reverse course and halt these cruel deportations indefinitely,” they said.

Rep. Andy Levin, Michigan Democrat and founder of the Haitian Caucus, lamented Mr. Foote’s resignation. 

“I think it’s unfortunate,” Mr. Levin said in an interview. ”He had really won the confidence of a lot of members of Congress, of people in Haiti, and in the Haitian diaspora.”

Ms. Psaki struggled on Wednesday to explain how the Haitian deportations square with Mr. Biden‘s campaign pledge to restore the nation’s “moral standing” by making it a “safe haven for refugees and asylum-seekers.”

Ms. Psaki responded by saying the president remains committed to establishing a humane immigration system.

After the July assassination of Haiti‘s president and a devastating August earthquake that killed more than 2,000 people, the number of Haitians arriving at the border community of Del Rio, Texas, has sharply increased.

At one point a massive camp under a Del Rio bridge popped up housing more than 15,000 migrants. In response, the administration ramped efforts to send them back to Haiti.

The Department of Homeland Security said the deportation blitz will double this week. As of Wednesday night, the U.S. has carried out 12 deportation flights expelling more than 1,400 migrants, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Another 3,206 Haitians have been moved from the Del Rio camp to the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, DHS said, adding that fewer than 5,000 migrants remain.

Black and Latino leaders have demanded the U.S. halt deportation flights and give the Haitian refugees due process. They charge it’s inhumane to return them to a country mired in chaos with thousands of returned migrants lacking food, shelter and money. But they also say they shouldn’t remain in the squalid conditions of the Del Rio camp.

The White House did not appear to be backing down, although it did temporarily suspend the use of horse patrols in Del Rio.

At least 25 rallies to demand the end of deportation and the release of detained Haitian migrants took place on Thursday across the U.S.

“All Americans should be appalled by the conditions facing migrants at the U.S. southern border. Many families — even those with small children — came here seeking protection, to escape from natural disasters, poverty and violence, and political instability in their home country of Haiti,” said Patrick Gaspard, president of the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, and a normally steady Biden ally. “The Biden administration must do more to protect Haitians, starting by immediately halting deportations back to Haiti. Current conditions in the country cannot support these deportations.”

Alienated from both parties with their half-measured approaches to immigration, administration officials appear to be turning on each other.

The White House on Wednesday released a readout of Ms. Harris’ call with DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to receive an update on his trip to Del Rio.

Such readouts are normally bland generalities about a phone call between officials. But this one indicated that Ms. Harris gave Mr. Mayorkas a dressing down.

“The vice president raised her grave concerns about the mistreatment of Haitian migrants by border patrol agents on horses and the need of all CBP agents to treat people with dignity, humanely and consistent with our laws and our values,” the readout said.

Mr. Foote‘s resignation letter only emphasized the growing rift within the administration. After criticizing the administration’s policies toward Haitian refugees, he claimed top officials ignored his advice.

Ms. Psaki fired back that officials did listen to Mr. Foote‘s ideas, but insisted they were “harmful” to promoting democracy in Haiti.

His positions … and his views were put forward,” Ms. Psaki told reporters. “They were valued. They were heard. Different policy decisions were made in some circumstances.”

Declining to explain further, she said, “Some of the proposals were harmful to the commitment to the promotion of democracy in Haiti.”

• Kery Murakami contributed to this report.

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