WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s relationship with Black leaders and activists has rapidly deteriorated, as many have condemned his treatment of Haitian migrants and grown angry with his failure to overhaul policing and enact sweeping laws protecting voting rights.
Partly as a response, Biden, in his first detailed public comments on the treatment of Haitians at the border in Texas, sought Friday to take some responsibility. He said there would be consequences for Border Patrol agents who treated migrants roughly and denounced their behavior as “dangerous” and “wrong.”
“Of course I take responsibility, I’m president,” he said. “I promise you, those people will pay.”
White House officials are scrambling to try to repair the damaged relationships with Black leaders, holding private meetings with them that they hope will smooth relations. Black voters were a cornerstone of the coalition that powered Biden to the Democratic nomination and the White House last year, and they are expected to play a crucial role in next year’s midterm elections. Outrage among Black leaders about Biden reached new highs this week, creating fissures with potentially far-reaching implications.
Biden’s deportations of Black Haitians seeking asylum at the Southern border, and images and videos of white Border Patrol agents grabbing and shouting at them, drew sharp rebukes from normally supportive Black allies. The official collapse of policing negotiations on Capitol Hill this week also all but extinguished dim hopes of ushering in new laws the year after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. And lingering uncertainty over the fate of a longshot push to expand voting rights has created growing anxiety about future elections.
“He said on election night: Black America, you had my back, I’ll have yours,” civil rights activist Al Sharpton said in a Thursday phone interview. “Well, we’re being stabbed in the back, Mr. President. We need you to stop the stabbing — from Haiti to Harlem.”
Sharpton — who visited the border area on Thursday and said he is in touch with administration officials — said Biden faces a “defining moment,” in which he could “rise to the occasion” or let down “those that helped you get there.” Like many Black leaders, he is calling on Biden to stop deporting Haitian migrants under a public health order and urge the Senate to work around the filibuster to pass a voting law.
Biden has won plaudits from Black leaders for historic investments to combat poverty in African American communities through a sweeping pandemic relief bill, and he has been praised for staffing a diverse government and putting barrier-breaking officials in top positions. White House officials emphasized executive actions the Biden administration has taken, such as the Justice Department limiting the use of “choke holds” by agents and stepping up scrutiny of GOP voting laws.
“We have done number of things specifically geared at the African American community,” said Cedric L. Richmond, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.
Richmond pinned blame on Congress for legislative inaction on policing reform, and said that he will continue to listen to concerns from activists. “They have their role — their role is to push and push us hard as they can. And our role is to govern,” he added.
But the Biden administration has given no indication it is preparing to stop invoking the health order, known as Title 42, to expel many migrants arriving at the border during the pandemic. The Trump administration used the provision, prompting many Democrats to complain that Biden is following in his predecessor’s footsteps.
And Biden has stopped short of publicly endorsing a change to Senate rules that would allow Democrats to pass voting rights legislation without meeting the 60-vote threshold for most legislation. A group of Democratic senators recently introduced a pared-down voting rights, campaign finance and government ethics bill, but it remains far from certain it will garner the support needed to win passage.
Sensing the growing animosity, White House officials including Richmond hosted members of the Congressional Black Caucus for a meeting on Wednesday and spoke with more than a dozen civil rights leaders and immigrant activists on Thursday. Disagreements were aired in Thursday’s discussion, according to a White House official, and the conversation was frank. While it did not prompt a deportation policy change, the official said, it enabled the White House to detail its efforts on the border, which include setting up climate-controlled medical tents for migrants and distributing food and water.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson — who had excoriated the Biden administration over its handling of the situation on the border earlier in the week and demanded a meeting — called Thursday’s conversation “productive in general,” but he declined to elaborate.
While the meetings won Biden some goodwill from Black leaders, the White House continues to face demands that it relax its immigration policy. The issue of race has surfaced in the current debate in a way that it had not during previous crises at the border, because the majority of Haitians are Black.
Black leaders have condemned the behavior of border agents in photos and videos that went viral this week that showed some, on horseback, grabbing and yelling and Black migrants. Many said it reminded them of images from darker days in the country’s history.
“The only time I’ve seen that, historically, is under Jim Crow and when Black slaves were running away and the slave master was chasing them,” said New York state Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, the first person of Haitian descent to be elected into her state’s legislature. Solages, a Democrat, also called on Biden loosen his immigration policy.
The White House has criticized the rough behavior of border agents and the Department of Homeland Security has opened an investigation into the matter. The administration has also directed U.S. border officials to suspend horse patrols in the migrant camp in Del Rio, Tex.
Until Friday, Biden had said little publicly about the matter, leaving it to administration officials to be the public face of the government’s response. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden believes the images “are horrific.”
But she and other officials have defended the continued use of Title 42 to deport many migrants, noting that the provision applies to people arriving at the border from other countries, not just Haiti. On Tuesday, the White House was preparing to nearly double the number of Haitians being deported to the Caribbean nation from Texas.
“Our policy process has continued to be the same with Haiti as it is for anybody coming through an irregular — through irregular migration across our border,” Psaki said on Thursday. White House officials have also emphasized that they extended temporary protected status eligibility to Haitians lacking legal status who arrived in the United States before July 29.
All of this has done little to quell the anger that many Black leaders feel. For starters, they say, Biden ought to speak out himself, which Biden did on Friday.
“I think it’s incumbent upon him to step forward and say something and to be as vocal now as he was when he was running,” said Shelia Huggins, a Democratic National Committee member from North Carolina.
Biden denounced the behavior of border agents. “To see people treated like they did — horses nearly running them over and people being strapped. It’s outrageous,” he said. “It’s dangerous, it’s wrong.”
As a candidate, Biden promised sweeping action to address racial inequities and vowed to chart a new course on immigration, turning the page on President Donald Trump’s restrictionist policies. While he has delivered on those promises in some respects, Black leaders see a lot that was left unmet.
“There are too many issues where you can point to and say, ‘You’re just not delivering,’ ” said Huggins. She credited Biden for tackling the pandemic, but added: “My expectations are so much higher. The expectations from Black voters across the country — we have just expected a whole lot more.”
Many Black leaders have been disappointed by the lack of movement to spur police officers to treat people of color better, in the wake of a national reckoning over police violence and racism. Talks between congressional Republicans and Democrats fell apart this week. Biden vowed to continue trying to find a way to make progress and blamed Republicans for their resistance.
Beyond policy prescriptions, Biden, as a candidate, sought a clear rhetorical contrast with Trump on issues of race. He forcefully denounced Trump for having “fanned the flames of white supremacy.” He traveled to Houston ahead of Floyd’s funeral to meet with his family in his hometown. He selected a Black and Asian woman to serve as his running mate.
Biden’s deep connections to Black leaders, combined with an ambitious plan to root out systemic inequities, helped him win both the Democratic primary and the general election with overwhelming support from Black voters, a fact he made clear on the night he won the presidency.
“Especially those moments when this campaign was at its lowest ebb — the African American community stood up again for me,” he said in Wilmington, Del. “You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.”
As Biden prepared to assume the presidency, he identified racial justice, along with the pandemic, the economy and climate change, as one of the “four historic crises” the country was facing. He promised once again to make the issue a priority of his administration.
Rep. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., said the Biden administration has “done miserably” in addressing racial justice. While Jones lauded the White House’s efforts on tackling the pandemic and its disproportionate impacts on communities of color, he said Biden has failed to take aggressive action to address key issues including voting rights, policing reform and immigration.
“I don’t care how many Black people you have in the Cabinet or on your staff,” he said. “If you are not doing what is required to advance legislation and executive action that will put us on a path toward racial justice, you are not doing what you said you would do when you ran for president.”
Jones, who was elected in 2020, said this week was the angriest he has seen his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus because of the treatment of Haitian migrants at the border who are fleeing political violence and a devastating earthquake.
Cliff Albright, the co-founder and executive director of the Black Voters Matter Fund, echoed Jones’s concerns, saying many Black leaders and voters have been infuriated with Biden’s administration this week because the treatment of migrants at the border falls directly under his purview.
“This is one that falls squarely within the executive branch,” he said. “This is his Border Patrol. It’s not Trump’s Border Patrol. It’s not [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell’s Border Patrol.”
Some Black leaders voiced support for Biden, saying he inherited dire situations from Trump that he is still trying to dig the country out of eight months into his presidency.
“I’ve never seen the president disengage or the vice president disengage on issues of crisis dealing with the Black community,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), who participated in a meeting with White House officials on Wednesday about the situation in Del Rio.
The frustrations that spilled out into the open this week have been building for months, according to Albright. The lack of action to address what Biden deemed a racial justice crisis, Albright said, will have an impact on Democrats’ political fortunes.
In the midterms, Democrats are defending narrow congressional majorities that run through states like Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, where Black voter turnout will be key. First midterms have historically been bad for the party of the president, and Democrats can ill afford to have many Black voters — who tend to vote strongly Democratic — sit out the election.
“This could be a deal-breaker for a lot of minorities — not just Haitians,” said Florida state Sen. Shevrin D. “Shev” Jones, D, speaking of Biden’s handling of the border situation. He recalled a conversation with a “strong Democrat” who suggested Black people “will start questioning where we stand.”
Democrats are already contending with other headwinds, such as Biden’s declining approval rating and his struggles with independent voters. Biden has also had to deal with surprise controversies, such as the resignation of the special envoy for Haiti, who quit Thursday in protest of the administration’s deportation policy.
Many Democrats have pointed out the danger associated with returning Haitians to a country that has descended into turmoil. For Black leaders, such considerations should not be divorced from Biden’s vows to foster more equity in the United States.
“This administration elevated the pursuit of racial equity as a commitment and a moral imperative,” said Nana Gyamfi, the executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, speaking at a Wednesday news conference. “However, that racial equity has not extended itself to the area of immigration.”
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