America’s Callous Border

Biden Needs an Official Who Has Made the Journey

By David K. Shipler

Several years ago, a gray-haired passport control official at Heathrow Airport in London, noting “writer” under “occupation” on my landing card, asked me what I wrote. I was finishing a book on civil liberties, I told him, with a chapter on immigration. That caught his interest. He leaned forward, glanced around, lowered his voice and said, “I loathe borders.”

Funny line of work you’re in, I said. We shared a chuckle, he stamped my passport, and I crossed the border that he loathed.

We have nation states, and so we have borders. Dictatorships need them to keep people in, lest their countries be drained of the talented and the aspiring. Democracies need them to keep people out — often those with talent and aspiration who are fleeing to safety and opportunity. So far, the United States is lucky enough to be the latter. So far.

When desperate fathers and mothers are drawn with admiring naïveté to the beacon of America, when they carry their children through months of torment by mountain jungles and predatory gangs, when their courage and towering fortitude set them apart from the masses, shouldn’t they be embraced when they reach the final border of a nation of fellow immigrants that touts its compassion and humanity?

Cut through the crazy tangle of immigration laws, regulations, and inconsistent enforcement to the essential ethic, and the answer is an obvious yes. But the obvious is not obvious in the White House or in the Department of Homeland Security or in the ranks of the beleaguered Border Patrol, whose horsemen scramble, as if herding cattle, to intercept frantic Haitians wading from the Rio Grande onto the banks of freedom and promise.

Instead, a new torment is found: Haitians with enough grit to leave their country a decade or so ago and build lives on the margins in Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere are taken from their first steps onto U.S. soil and summarily — summarily, without due process — deported. And where to? To Haiti, a failed state where many have long since lost family or work or even places of shelter. To Haiti, which has collapsed into such violence and disarray that the State Department warns Americans on its website: “Do not travel to Haiti due to kidnapping, crime, civil unrest, and COVID-19.”

What is wrong with the air in the White House? Is there not enough oxygen? What accounts for the impaired thinking that seems to transcend administrations, from Republican to Democratic. Where is the regard for human dignity? Why is it so often absent in the calculations that create policy?
Donald Trump wore callousness on his sleeve and was proud of it. His base hooted its applause at his vilification of Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers. By contrast, Joe Biden wears a badge of empathy. His mantra is compassion. “Horrible” and “outrageous” were the words he found to describe the photographed attacks on Haitians from horseback. He halted the use of horses and vowed that agents responsible “will pay.” He also said, “It’s simply not who we are.”

But it is who we are. The images have been compared to old photos of white overseers on horseback commanding enslaved Blacks in the fields. The Border Patrol in cowboy hats have been compared to Texas Rangers “who were celebrated for their excellent ‘tracking skills’ that were put to use to hunt and capture enslaved people,” said historian Monica Martinez of the University of Texas.

These are compelling analogies with painful resonance. They are also flawed as parallels, for the Black migrants at the border are not slaves. They are clamoring to be here, crossing illegally, seeing the border as a threshold. They were not brought here in chains against their will. Some are being removed in chains against their will.

Nevertheless, in a sense they are enslaved by their blackness. If white Canadians tried this up north, does anybody truly believe that they would be treated as the Black Haitians are? Animating America’s conscience should not require reaching back to the sin of slavery. The present ought to be enough.

Our borders always put our split personality on display: We are cruel and welcoming, hateful and helpful, defined by doors closed at times to entire ethnic groups and then opened to invigorate the nation with willing hands and vital contributions.

In fact, if the country is not sufficiently moved by simple morality, then it might consider self-interest. The U.S. population growth rate has been falling steadily since 2008, dropping to a mere 0.58 percent from 2020 to 2021. Many regions lack skilled workers, as homeowners and small business owners and even hospitals can testify from trying to hire carpenters, plumbers, electricians, welders, mechanics, and nurses. We should have winced when one Haitian deportee was quoted as describing himself as a welder and carpenter.

Using abuse to manipulate determined people did not work under Trump — a lesson that Biden and his advisers might have learned. Trump’s administration separated children from their parents at the border, his aides reasoning that families heading north would get the message and — what? — abandon their fortitude and survival instincts, turn around, and head back to life-threatening misery?

So, too Biden officials are reportedly figuring that tossing Haitian expatriates into Haiti’s maelstrom will dissuade others from coming. In other words, don’t be humane, and folks will give up. But they won’t give up. They will still roll the dice, because there’s always a chance, especially since some are being allowed to stay, at least for a while, pending proper examination of their asylum claims as the law requires. When your ship has sunk, you don’t stop clinging to a piece of flotsam just because some shipmates have slipped off into the sea.

What the Biden White House needs is somebody in an influential position who has made this journey, who has shepherded family and children through jungles and ganglands to reach this supposedly promised land. That official might bring to the Oval Office a glimmer of understanding and respect for the force of personality and perseverance that drive a person toward our callous border.

David K. Shipler is a best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 7 books and a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times.