By Kevin Liptak, Priscilla Alvarez, Jeremy Diamond and Jasmine Wright, CNN
When members of the Congressional Black Caucus arrived to Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence this week for an event marking the group’s 50th anniversary, talk quickly turned to the devolving humanitarian crisis on the US-Mexico border.
Gathered on a mild evening on the lawn outside the Naval Observatory, people familiar with the event said, Harris engaged members one-on-one in their urgent concerns about the situation in Texas, where thousands of Haitian migrants have been massing underneath a bridge in squalid conditions.
Harris, during the impromptu sessions, encouraged the group to continue speaking out on the matter — even though, in many cases, the Democrats are speaking out against how President Joe Biden is handling the situation.
“I give her a lot of credit,” Rep. Joyce Beatty, the chairwoman of the CBC, said on CNN. “Opening her doors to us, asking us to get engaged and to be very clear in our message.”
The migrant situation in Texas has exposed deep divisions both within Biden’s administration and among some of the President’s staunchest allies over how to approach the thorny issue of immigration. Debates over how to handle a worsening migrant crisis have spilled into public view, laying bare the challenges facing the President on an issue with no easy solution.
Until Friday, Biden himself had remained publicly silent, even as the debate swirled around him over his administration’s actions, prompting some members of Congress to say they were looking to hear more.
“I think there are a lot of concerns that the American people would love to hear President Biden address with respect to the whole entire situation,” said Rep. Yvette Clarke, a New York Democrat and co-chair of the House Haiti Caucus.
Biden did weigh in Friday morning, saying he took responsibility for the harrowing photos and video of Border Patrol agents on horseback rounding up migrant families. He said those who carried out the roundup would be punished.
“It’s horrible what you saw. To see people like they did, with horses, running them over, people being strapped, it’s outrageous,” Biden said following unrelated remarks on Covid from the White House.
“I promise you: those people will pay,” he said. “There is an investigation underway right now and there will be consequences.”
Still, Biden did not address the broader issue of migration. And he did not offer any more clarity on how the federal government is handling the influx of Haitian migrants.
Disputes over how aggressively to enforce rules that would prevent migrants from remaining in the United States have simmered for months among White House officials, who have heard from activists worried about actions meant to deter people from trying to enter the country. Those activists have argued Biden is not living up to his campaign promise of restoring American obligations to provide assistance to migrants fleeing instability or violence.
Biden, while committed to creating a more humane system, has expressed concern at being seen as overly lenient, according to officials, who said the President fears he could open himself to political attack while also potentially aggravating the situation by sending a signal for migrants to come to the United States.
The competing instincts have forced the administration to walk a tightrope that seems to have satisfied no one.
“You cannot press release — and deport — your way out of a global problem,” one person familiar with internal White House discussions said.
After entering office vowing to install a more humane immigration system, Biden is now coming under harsh criticism from members of his own party for overseeing policies they say more closely resemble those in place during then-President Donald Trump‘s tenure.
“I’m pissed. I’m unhappy,” Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, said during a news conference on Wednesday. “And I’m not just unhappy with the cowboys who were running down Haitians and using their reins to whip them. I’m unhappy with the administration. We are following the Trump policy.”
The White House has rejected comparisons to the Trump administration, and has pointed to actions Biden took in the hours after being sworn in to reverse some of the harsh tactics employed by his predecessor.
“We could not see it as any more different from the policy of the prior administration, which the President feels, we all feel, was inhumane, immoral, ineffective, wasn’t operationally working,” press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday. “Because of the dysfunction of it, we have led to a very broken system that we’re dealing with today.”
Inside the White House, Biden’s advisers have debated the merits of tougher enforcement measures on migration for months. Some have argued imposing stricter order on the process will ultimately create better political conditions for passing substantive immigration reform in Congress, people familiar with the discussions said.
But others have largely written off the possibility of legislative action, and say Biden must uphold his promises to instill greater humanity into the system, which they say was stripped out during Trump’s tenure.
The current prospects of legislative action on immigration appear slim, and hopes to grant a pathway to citizenship for certain undocumented immigrants in a massive budget bill were dealt a major setback last weekend.
Arrival of Haitians was a surprise
Eight months into Biden’s tenure, the disagreements over how best to approach immigration appear to have reached a tipping point after more than 14,000 migrants, many of Haitian origin, crossed into Del Rio, Texas, and formed a makeshift camp underneath a bridge.
An official at the Department of Homeland Security told reporters Thursday the migrants’ arrival came as a surprise, saying they did not have intelligence to suggest there would be a surge the size of the one experienced over the last week.
The US is “working closely with the government of Mexico and our partners in US government to try to pull on that thread and see how we can enhance visibility into those organized movements,” the official said.
DHS had been closely following the movement of migrants through the hemisphere and working with law enforcement partners in transit countries, according to the official. But a Customs and Border Protection official told CNN the administration didn’t anticipate the pace at which people would arrive, some of whom had been moving by bus instead of walking.
The administration has worked to swiftly clear the camp, sending an influx of agents to hasten the expulsion of some of the migrants. After the searing images emerged earlier this week of agents on horseback rounding up families, DHS said they were investigating potential misconduct and announced on Thursday that horse patrols in Del Rio would be temporarily suspended. An official said the agency is aiming to wrap up the investigation by the end of the week.
The actions taken so far have done little to quell concerns among immigrant-rights groups. “They’re suspending the use of horses as if horses were the problem and not the border policy,” one advocate said.
The Biden administration is still relying on a public health authority, known as Title 42, that was put in place at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and allows border authorities to turn away migrants encountered at the US southern border. Senior administration officials have cited that authority in arguing that the border is effectively closed.
Haitian special envoy quits
Over recent days, the administration has ramped up removals and increased the pace of repatriation flights to Haiti, creating a sticking point with those who have argued against sending migrants back to an unstable situation. The flights of migrants from Texas have also exposed rifts among Biden’s advisers and led to an angry resignation on Thursday from the administration’s special envoy to Haiti.
“I will not be associated with the United States inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees,” wrote Daniel Foote, the special envoy, in his resignation letter on Thursday.
The White House and State Department questioned Foote’s description of events that led to his resignation, including his claim that his recommendations had been “ignored and dismissed.”
“There have been multiple senior level policy conversations on Haiti, where all proposals, including those led by Special Envoy Foote, were fully considered in a rigorous policy process,” Psaki said. “There are disagreements in these policy processes. The President welcomes that, the Secretary of State welcomes that. That’s certainly a part of having discussions and having robust discussions about the best path forward for difficult circumstances.”
Other officials said Foote felt sidelined because his proposals on stabilizing Haiti following the assassination of the country’s president earlier this year were rejected. One official said that included suggesting sending US troops to Haiti.
“Some of those proposals were harmful to our commitment to the promotion of democracy in Haiti,” Psaki said. “I’m not going to detail that further.”
Yet Foote was not the only ally of Biden’s speaking out against the administration’s immigration policies. Democrats across the ideological spectrum have also pressed the White House to end what they view as a continuation of Trump’s harsh practices.
In a sign that the White House recognized the precarious political situation accompanying the unfolding crisis, White House officials on Thursday heeded NAACP President Derrick Johnson’s demand two days earlier for a White House meeting.
Johnson sat down with domestic policy adviser Susan Rice, director of public engagement and former Rep. Cedric Richmond and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Thursday afternoon, laying out a series of recommendations including immediately suspending deportation flights back to Haiti. But the White House officials offered few signs of their willingness to make major policy changes.
“They acknowledged that what’s happening is horrifying and listened to those recommendations,” a source familiar with the meeting said. “There wasn’t so much of a back-and-forth … but they listened to those recommendations.”
In many ways, the images of Border Patrol officers confronting migrants on horseback, swinging their reins at Haitian migrants, served to intensify public focus of the situation of those migrants and pressure on the Biden administration to amend its use of Title 42 to expel migrants.
Progressives have long called on the Biden administration to suspend use of that law to immediately expel many migrants seeking asylum at the US’ southern border. But those calls appear to be reaching a peak in the wake of the treatment of Haitian migrants in Texas.
“The horrific pictures depicted at the border — and I’ve never seen in 27 years of service, in 27 years of being on the immigration committee — I’ve never seen that,” Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee told CNN.
There is no indication the White House is prepared to reverse itself on the use of Title 42, but it’s clear the administration is feeling more pressure now to make swift changes to its policies relating to Haitian migrants.
“I believe that what we discussed is being discussed and considered (by the White House),” Jackson Lee said.
Harris, who was tasked earlier this year with addressing root causes of migration, has adopted a semi-public approach amid the current crisis. After the images of agents on horseback emerged on Tuesday, she told reporters that “human beings should never be treated that way and I am deeply troubled by it.”
Her office released a rare statement on a telephone call she held this week with Mayorkas, using stark language to describe her “grave concerns about the mistreatment of Haitian migrants,” including by border patrol agents on horseback.
During an appearance on CNN on Thursday, Beatty described the meeting between the CBC and Harris on the issue of Haitians at the US-Mexico border.
“She actually met with us, all of us. She had us — all of us, not a special group — she invited us outside and met with us. And she didn’t run away from the issue of speaking out, was very clear on her position, and encouraged us to also meet with the administration,” said Beatty.
One voice that had been mostly absent in the ongoing debate over immigration is Biden’s. Before Friday, he had not weighed in publicly on the scenes of desperation in Del Rio, and when he tried to address the images of officers on horseback during an Oval Office meeting on Tuesday, his words were drowned out by shouting from members of his press team.
“His actions make clear how horrible and horrific he thinks these images are,” Psaki said Thursday.
Fellow Democrats said they were still holding out hope Biden speaks publicly on the matter soon.
“I hope he will,” said Clarke. “It’s very clear that it has really shaken so many in our nation who, just from a humanitarian standpoint, are concerned … that those who are still to be dealt with on the border are in a squalid situation.”
This story has been updated with President Biden’s comments Friday.
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CNN’s Arlette Saenz and Natasha Bertrand contributed to this report.