It was the kind of horror story that Americans had grown painfully used to reading during the four years of Donald Trump's presidency: More than 100 U.S. asylum seekers from strife-torn Haiti, suddenly deported across the U.S. border into the dangerous crime-ridden Mexican city of Suarez, including mothers who had no diapers for their babies and kids with no shoes on their feet.
"Nobody was at the bridge to receive them," said Tania Guerrero, an immigration attorney from El Paso, Texas, who witnessed the midwinter dumping and described it to The Miami Herald. "They were just dropped there."
But Donald Trump wasn't the president for this new episode of American harsh treatment toward refugees yearning to breathe free on U.S. soil. The Haitian immigrant dump happened earlier this month — about two weeks into the presidency of Joe Biden, who'd campaigned promising to reverse his predecessor's xenophobic immigration policies on Day One of his term to once again make the United States a global beacon for those seeking freedom.
So far, Biden is finding that abruptly reversing U.S. immigration policy is like turning around a battleship using the tiny, loose steering wheel of the USS Minnow. His highest-profile immigration move — an executive order pausing deportations for 100 days — has been blocked by a federal judge in Texas whom Trump had appointed just last year. In this vacuum of uncertainty, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE — still under an interim boss hastily installed in the last week of the Trump administration — and the Border Patrol, whose rank-and-file officers zealously supported POTUS 45, have seemingly sped up deportations and other enforcement actions.
• The recent dumping of Haitian asylum-seekers in Mexico comes amid what officials and immigration observers had been reporting as a huge spike in deportations to the Caribbean island — which has been plagued by political violence and retribution amid a Trump-style constitutional crisis surrounding its current president — in the days since Biden took office. As many as two flights a day filled with rejected asylum seekers — many booted under an executive order aimed to slow the spread of COVID-19 — had been arriving in Haiti, compared to just two every month a year ago.
• In El Paso, ICE moved hastily in late January to deport a Mexican native — identified only by her first name of Rosa — who had been a witness to 2019′s horrific Walmart shooting by a Trump aficionado who targeted Latinos and killed 22 people. The woman had been expected to testify at his trial. Advocates including a Texas congresswoman are now fighting for the return of Rosa — who'd been pulled over for a broken taillight — as she told the Texas Tribune from her unfamiliar new home in Mexico that "sometimes you feel hopeless and right now, I am in that kind of state."
• Other deportation moves have continued or seemingly sped up since Biden's inauguration and the judge's order blocking the new president's moratorium, including flights to Guatemala, Honduras and Jamaica. A controversial flight that would have deported Africans back to strife-riven Cameroon — including some who'd complained about abuse by ICE agents during their Trump-era U.S. detention — was halted only with last-minute intervention from top Biden officials.
The new deportation wars haven't received the attention they deserve, in part because the news media and a healthy swath of the viewing public are mesmerized by Trump's second impeachment trial, showing how the ex-president's Capitol Hill incitements caused major structural damage to the American Experiment. But the immigration fight reveals how undoing the wider toxic after-effects of Trumpism will probably take years and a crusade to undo all the booby traps — in the form of anti-refugee rules and xenophobic bureaucrats and government agents — planted throughout the government during the last four years.
It's all a reminder that before 2016 the term "the Deep State" was more popular with liberals than conservatives because it described an actual problem, which was careerists at the Pentagon or CIA or FBI who continued unchanging national-security-state policies regardless of which party controlled the White House. Trump deeply corrupted the term to make it an attack on incorruptible career public officials like those who stood up to his high crimes in the Ukraine affair, but at the same time the 45th president and his worst aides like Stephen Miller were installing the bad kind of "Deep State" at ICE and Border Patrol.
Stephen Yale-Loehr, a longtime immigration expert who teaches at Cornell Law School, told me this week in an email interview that Biden faces a long road in undoing Trump's immigration policies. "First," he said, "former President Trump emboldened ICE agents to arrest anyone they suspected of being here illegally, even if the person merely overstayed their visa. ICE officials will not want to return to the pre-Trump era, where they were supposed to prioritize deporting immigrants who had serious criminal convictions. That is harder work."
What's more, with virtually no fanfare the Trump administration signed a remarkable 8-year deal with the National ICE Council — the union for ICE agents, which endorsed Trump in 2020 — with a clause that requires homeland security leaders to obtain "prior written consent" before implementing policy changes that would affect how agents do their job. Even if Team Biden somehow voids that contract, new immigration policies are also endangered by the flood of conservative judges rammed through by Trump and his Capitol Hill enabler Mitch McConnell.
"In sum, changing the ICE bureaucracy is like steering an ocean liner," Yale-Loehr said. "It takes time to change course. And it is harder when the crew may refuse to comply."
It may be even harder than that. The New York Times reported this week that the Trump administration scattered dozens of what it called "land mines" throughout the U.S. web of immigration rules and regulations, making it harder for the disabled to gain citizenship, or denying rights to same-sex partners of diplomats, or making it easier to deport pregnant women, and so on.
It's all a numbing reality check for Biden voters, many of whom were no doubt animated in their desire to oust Trump by images of toddlers separated from their parents at the southern border. Although there have been some early wins for Biden's pro-refugee approach, overall it's an uphill slog with Trump's appointees running ICE and the agents who overwhelmingly voted for Trump still in the streets. And there's one more pitfall — which is the politics, as Democrats already eye the 2022 midterms. The former president won in 2016 on an anti-immigrant platform because xenophobia is pretty popular; a new survey of Biden's first-month executive orders found the only one opposed by a plurality of voters was his plan to allow as many 125,000 yearly refugees to enter America.
Ideally, the best way to return the United States to the values of supporting freedom and worldwide human rights that are embodied by the Statue of Liberty would be to take the radical step that I and others on the left advocated in the worst days of the Trump administration: Abolish ICE, an agency that didn't even exist until the nation's rushed and not-always-thought-out response to 9/11. The sick culture of ICE, after two decades, is too embedded throughout that agency and its cousin, Border Patrol, to change by simply rewriting their rule book. But practically, and given his need for consensus on COVID-19 and the economy, President Biden is absolutely not going to abolish ICE.
But that means Team Biden better gird itself for four years of trench warfare at ICE. We need a new Biden-appointed, pro-refugee head of the agency ASAP, followed by a push to replace as much high-level personnel as possible under civil service laws. The ridiculous new contract that cedes day-to-day control of immigration policy to Trump-loving ICE agents on the ground needs to get tossed out, and a task force needs to review every page of immigration regs and safely remove the "landmines." All this needs to happen while nascent efforts to reunite families ripped apart during the Trump years are accelerated. The only airport images I want to see during the Biden years are mothers hugging their toddlers in joyful reunions, not more deportation jets on the tarmac.
It's understandable that Biden and his team would focus on the immediate pain of the pandemic in these first 100 days. Immigration — like impeachment and the mission-impossible push for a conviction in the Senate — shows how hard we will have to scrub to eliminate the moral stain of Trump. But it must be done. The world's huddled masses of the tired, the hungry and the poor never stopped depending on us.