By Beto O’Rourke
What has happened in Del Rio is wrong. It didn’t have to happen.
The scores of Haitian immigrants who were living in filth under the city’s bridges, corralled and charged by mounted Patrolmen like they were animals, had in many cases been on an odyssey lasting more than a decade. We should have seen them coming and ensured that the people of Del Rio, the women and men of the Border Patrol and especially the refugees themselves would not have to endure what has shocked the world over the last week.
What happened on the Texas-Mexico border over the last week was years in the making.
In 2010 a magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated Haiti, killing more than 200,000 people and leaving more than a million homeless. Countless Haitians found themselves forced to flee the already severely destabilized island nation to seek safety and refuge elsewhere.
Many went to Brazil, where they were quickly employed in building the billions of dollars in infrastructure required to host the 2016 Olympics. Others made their way to Chile and other South American countries. In all cases they provided essential labor despite being denied official residency or citizenship.
As these Latin American host countries, no longer desperate for immigrant labor, suffered high levels of COVID deaths (more than 600,000 in Brazil alone) they became more dangerous and less hospitable to these refugees. With the compounding problems in Haiti over this past year, including the unsolved assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, preventing a return to their home country, the Haitians in exile began their trek to America.
None of this should have been a surprise to our government. We have diplomatic missions in each of these countries and an unrivaled global intelligence network. Immigration and undocumented border crossings have been a consistently pressing challenge for years. How could we not see this coming?
And once the Haitians arrived, why was our government so slow to respond, leaving the people of Del Rio and the Border Patrol to their own devices? The disregard for border communities, and the over reliance on already stressed federal law enforcement, produced conditions that ultimately led to the unforgettable and unforgivable scene of mounted officers charging into the mass of unarmed immigrants.
Unfortunately, stung by the outcry and caught without a plan, the Biden administration used a cynical Trump-era policy (known as Title 42) 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.
So antithetical to our values and our common humanity, that the administration’s own envoy to Haiti resigned in disgust, writing that we shouldn’t be sending these refugees back to “a country where American officials are confined to secure compounds because of the danger posed by armed gangs in control of daily life.”
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. Not the quickie deportations that will only exacerbate the problems in Haiti and likely produce more outbound refugees who will appear on our border in a future year.
We need America to step up and convene the countries of this hemisphere to solve the interconnected crises of failed states, climate catastrophes and the mass movement of people who — through no fault of their own — are unable to stay in their home countries.
We need our government to dispense with cynical Trump-era policies and follow current U.S. law to ensure due process for asylum seekers. We need to hold accountable those who would treat immigrants as less than human — whether they were separated from their families and placed in cages under Trump or corralled like cattle as they brought food to their families under Biden.
And as important and interesting as the rest of the world might be for those in D.C., while you’re making submarine deals with Australia, the countries and people that we’re actually connected to by land, history, family and culture are left without serious U.S. attention, involvement or leadership. And these are the consequences.
The Americas must be the foreign policy priority of America.
And the people of the border — those who live in cities like Del Rio, Laredo, McAllen and El Paso — must be listened to when developing border policy. In fact, they should be its authors.
And if we, through our representatives in Congress and the White House, don’t get serious about rewriting our immigration laws to anticipate the world we live in today (considering that the last major rewrite was in 1986), I guarantee you we will see what happened in Del Rio play out again and again.
Beto O’Rourke represented El Paso in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2013-19 and has run for the Senate and presidency. He is considering a candidacy for Texas governor in 2022.
Cover photo: A Haitian family boards a flight in Del Rio, Texas, for expulsion to Haiti. (Department of Homeland Security photo)