clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Texas GOP sees Haitian migrants in crisis as a political opportunity

But it’s actually a humanitarian disaster exacerbated by Biden.

A large number of people wading across a river.
Migrants cross between the United States and Mexico at the Rio Grande in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, on September 16, 2021. Thousands of migrants, mostly from Haiti, have arrived in the area overnight.
Sergio Flores/Washington Post via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Amid an influx of Haitian migrants, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is trying to stir up fear about a crisis at the border yet again.

On Thursday, he said that he had ordered state troopers and the Texas National Guard to “shut down six points of entry along the southern border” at the direction of federal immigration authorities as thousands of Haitian migrants await their turn to enter the US under an international bridge in the city of Del Rio in southwest Texas.

But Abbott backtracked just hours later, claiming that the Biden administration had “flip-flopped” on its request for state assistance. The Department of Homeland Security has said that it isn’t asking Texas for help in shutting down ports of entry and that it would be a “violation of federal law for the Texas National Guard to unilaterally do so.”

The situation in Del Rio — where more than 12,000 migrants are camping in increasingly squalid conditions without adequate access to water, food, and sanitation — is growing dire from a humanitarian perspective. Most of these migrants are from Haiti and plan to seek asylum in the US, as is their right under federal and international law.

In just the last few months, Haiti has suffered from a political crisis stemming from President Jovenel Moïse’s July assassination, resultant gang violence, and the one-two punch of a 7.2-magnitude earthquake and a tropical storm that left about 2,200 dead and many thousands more injured or missing. Those conditions appear to have driven more Haitians to make the treacherous journey to the US border: Federal immigration authorities have encountered more than 30,000 Haitians this fiscal year, nearly six times the number encountered over the previous fiscal year.

But Abbott has sought to twist that humanitarian crisis into a security crisis designed to appeal to Republican voters in his state, who have long identified immigration and border security as top priorities in public opinion polling. He told the Texas Tribune that he was trying to “stop these [migrant] caravans from overrunning our state” and described US Customs and Border Protection agents as “overwhelmed by the chaos.” That’s in line with his recent rhetoric trying to demonize migrants arriving on the southern border as lawbreakers and carriers of disease.

Other Texas Republicans have followed suit, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who warned during a Fox News segment on Friday of an “invasion” of migrants who could “take over our country without firing a shot.”

It’s a political ploy to hit President Joe Biden on a perceived weak spot and pursue the kind of restrictive immigration policies that former President Donald Trump popularized and made a priority. But despite Texas Republicans’ efforts to portray Biden as an “open borders” Democrat, the attack isn’t rooted in truth: The president has maintained Trump-era policies designed to keep migrants out, regardless of whether they might have legitimate asylum claims.

If there is any crisis at the border, it is a humanitarian one, begun under the Trump administration and exacerbated by Biden.

The conditions at the migrant camp in Del Rio, briefly explained

The conditions at the migrant camp in Del Rio are deteriorating quickly, and the city’s mayor, Bruno Lozano, declared a local disaster as a means of procuring state and federal assistance.

Many of the migrants had to survive a dangerous journey just to get to the border, traveling to Costa Rica before crossing a stretch of dense, dangerous rainforest between Colombia and Panama known as the Darien Gap, and evading Mexican immigration authorities.

They are waiting for a chance to be processed by US immigration officials, who are stretched thin as they also have to process tens of thousands Afghan refugees waiting to come to the US. It could take up to two weeks for the migrants to get to the front of the line.

Migrants have been forced to remain under the shade of the bridge so as to mitigate the risk of heatstroke in temperatures reaching over 100 degrees on Friday. There are only 20 portable toilets to accommodate a growing population in the camp, which is expected to increase by an additional 8,000 in the coming days. They sleep on the dirt at night and are going back and forth across the Rio Grande to buy their own food in Mexico.

It’s reminiscent of other migrant camps on the Mexican side of the border in Matamoros and Reynosa but perhaps even more makeshift.

Abbott is continuing to engage in fearmongering about the border

This is not the first time Abbott has sought to falsely portray a group of migrants at the border as a public safety threat in order to rile up anti-immigrant attitudes among his base.

Just in the last few months, he issued an executive order allowing public safety officers to stop and reroute vehicles suspected of transporting migrants with Covid-19, though the measure has been blocked in federal court for now.

He has told Texas child care regulators to revoke the licenses of facilities that house migrant children and state troopers to jail migrants for state crimes, such as trespassing on private property when they cross the border.

And he is trying to finish the wall along the Texas border, pledging a $250 million “down payment” drawn from state disaster relief funds — money that could have gone to the aid of those still recovering from last winter’s storms or struggling under the burden of the pandemic. And he’s crowdfunded almost another $500,000 as of June 23. (Though that’s still a drop in the bucket of what he might need to finish the project, which the federal government estimated could cost as much as $46 million per mile in some sectors of the border.)

He has also played no small part in creating the false perception that migrants crossing the border are the source of his state’s coronavirus surge, which is spreading largely among the unvaccinated and leaving hospitals without enough ICU beds.

They’re “allowing free pass into the United States [for] people with a high probability of Covid, and then spreading that Covid in our communities,” he said in an interview earlier this year on Fox News.

There are some indications this sort of rhetoric is taking root. At a national level, a recent Axios poll found that nearly 37 percent of unvaccinated Americans blame “foreign travelers in the US” for the rise in Covid-19 cases.

Available data hasn’t shown migrants on the border to be any more likely than US citizens to test positive for Covid-19. In March, the acting head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency told Congress that less than 6 percent of migrants at the border had tested positive for Covid-19, a lower percentage than the Texas positivity rate at that time.

But despite the fact that Abbott’s statements are untrue, he faces no adverse political consequences for continuing to vilify immigrants. What his antics have done, however, is obscure the role the Biden administration has played in creating the current problems at the US/Mexico border.

Biden isn’t responsible for the kind of public safety and health crisis associated with an out-of-control border that Abbott has sought to manufacture. But by continuing to pursue policies designed to keep the vast majority of people arriving on the southern border out, Biden is creating a humanitarian crisis.

Biden has already effectively closed the border to most migrants

Despite promises to institute a more humane immigration policy, the Biden administration has clung to pandemic-related border restrictions, known as the Title 42 policy, implemented by the Trump administration last year. Since March 2020, that policy has been used to rapidly expel more than a million migrants, without hearings before an immigration judge. (A federal judge partially blocked the policy, effective September 30, and the Biden administration has appealed that decision.)

Biden is also restarting Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, under which tens of thousands of migrants were forced to wait in Mexico for their court hearings in the US, and he has resumed rapidly deporting families at the US-Mexico border. All the while, his message to migrants has been “don’t come,” even though many of them are fleeing unlivable conditions, not unlike those Afghan refugees are running from — problems ranging from gang violence to climate-related devastation.

Toward Haitians specifically, Biden’s policies have appeared inconsistent. He has allowed more than 100,000 Haitians already living in the US to apply for Temporary Protected Status. But at the same time, he has continued to prevent Haitians waiting on the other side of the US-Mexico border from entering under Title 42 and, to the shock of immigrant advocates, resumed deportation flights to Haiti on Wednesday despite the country’s continuing turmoil.

Mexico has recently started refusing to take Haitians expelled under Title 42. That’s why Haitians stranded in Del Rio are slowly being processed by US immigration authorities and allowed to enter the US, where most will likely be released with instructions to appear for an immigration court hearing at a later date.

But if Biden had it his way, they wouldn’t be allowed to cross at all.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.