Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
Images of Border Patrol agents on horseback chasing down Haitian migrants as they sought refuge from the devastating conditions in their home country reopened old but familiar wounds for many Black Americans.
“The first feeling is just rage,” Nana Gyamfi, the executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, a nonprofit that organizes and advocates for the Black and migrant rights, told VICE News. “Outrage, enraged, all of the words that have rage in them.”
For Gyamfi, like many others at the forefront of Black immigration issues, the photos evoked America’s not-so-distant past with slavery and the racism that has followed for more than a century after its abolition. And for them, the Department of Homeland Security’s actions earlier this week were yet another reminder that the fight for Black equality isn’t just a local one; it’s global.
“The conversation about the way that Black immigrants are criminalized and targeted is a conversation that’s often ignored,” Gyamfi said. “It’s enraging because we’ve been raising this alarm for 15 years and this highlights the ways people haven’t come together. We’re hoping that, at least on the Black-hand side, people are recognizing that we need to be pushing for each other regardless of national origin.”
Over the weekend, thousands of Haitian migrants were forced back into Mexico after trying to cross the Rio Grande into the U.S. via Texas. The scene of the confrontation was horrific: Men on horseback were wielding lariats that closely resembled whips, while grabbing and swinging at Black men, women, and children who were hoping to find refuge. Migrants tried to reason with the authorities and explain why they were fleeing to America, as patrol officers called their home country “shit.”
“Outrage, enraged, all of the words that have rage in them.”
The visuals, first published by Al Jazeera on Monday, showed a racially charged escalation in how the current Department of Homeland Security is choosing to handle the ongoing situation at the southern border.
Many say it closely parallels how the U.S. has handled Black people throughout its racist history.
“Those horses and whips were used on us during the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965 when we were seeking the right to vote, and now those horses and whips are being used on us as we seek safe passage and asylum,” said Vince Warren, executive director for the Center of Constitutional Rights, a progressive human rights organization with a focus on legal advocacy.
Warren wasn’t alone in feeling this way. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, civil rights attorney Ben Crump, and other Black leaders chimed in to voice outrage over the method that was employed to handle the Haitians at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It’s an instrument that is reserved for Black people, regardless of their immigration status,” Warren said of the actions taken by Border Patrol agents. “It is a problem that the Biden administration has to address.”
Vice President Kamala Harris said she was troubled by what she saw at the border.
“Human beings should never be treated that way, and I was deeply troubled about it,” Harris said Tuesday.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that same day that President Biden agrees the photos are horrific.
"They don't represent who we are as a country,” Psaki said on the president’s behalf.
On Tuesday, DHS also put out a statement condemning the actions that took place and adding that it would be investigating the incident. But when asked if agents treated migrants in a humane way, DHS chief Alejandro Mayorkas and Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz pushed back.
"You're assuming facts that have not yet been determined," said during a press conference in Del Rio, Texas, on Tuesday.
He also defended the use of horses, which are deployed to allow officers to traverse terrain on the border that’s typically impossible for motorized vehicles to navigate.
But for Judith Brown Dianis, executive director of Advancement Project National Office, the attempts at damage control came too late.
“The most important thing is for them to take responsibility for what we saw and not to downplay it,” Dianis said. “One person calls it a whip, another person calls it a lariat… It doesn’t matter. What we saw, we saw, and we can’t unsee it.”
Gyamfi said the administration’s skirting their own role in the situation even as they try handling it shows a callousness that she hasn’t seen since last summer.
“There's nothing to be said when you see those images other than this is terrible,” she said. “And to try to parse through it and to figure it out. This is like people trying to describe how what happened to George Floyd is not really what happened to George Floyd. It was, ‘Well, it's not on his neck. It's on his this artery between,’ when it’s like, ‘Who cares!’”
Franciscka Lucien, the executive director for Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, and a Haitian-American herself, was heartbroken over the actions taken at the border, although not that surprised. To her, they represented a broken promise between the administration and the diaspora in the U.S.
“President Biden at the time that he was campaigning made promises to the Haitian community, to do better, to have more fair immigration policies,” Lucien told VICE News. “Instead, what those images showed was really nothing short of disregard for the dignity of human beings and certainly for the dignity of Haitian migrants, who have been subject to a long and well-documented history of discriminatory policies.”
Among the promises Biden made were to restart the Haitian family-reunification program, which was founded in 2014 to allow Haitian-American citizens to apply for parole for their family members in Haiti. If released on parole, the individuals in the program could stay with family in the U.S. until they receive their immigrant visa. But the program was ended by President Donald Trump in August 2019.
Haiti has always been on the short end of the nation’s immigration, dating back to the ’80s. The U.S. Migrant Protection Programs, the Krome Detention Facility in Miami, and the treatment of asylum seekers all show partiality to Black migrants, according to Lucien.
“We need to recognize that [U.S.] policy has contributed to much of the instability, the insecurity, the deterioration of conditions in Haiti, that are driving migrants out of the country,” Lucien added. “I don't think we can talk about the crisis on the border without acknowledging the root causes.”