The photos were scandalous. Border Patrolmen on horseback near Del Rio, Texas rounded up Haitians on Sept. 20. It looked like a human rodeo.
Following the incident, the Biden administration quickly moved to suspend the horse patrol while an “independent” investigation would look into the story behind the photos. “To see people treated like they did? Horses running them over? People being strapped? It’s outrageous. I promise you, those people will pay,” President Biden said.
But the photographer who took the controversial photos, Paul Ratje, told NBC’s KTSM in El Paso that he and his colleagues never saw agents from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection whipping anyone. “Some of the Haitian men started running, trying to go around the horses,” Ratje said,“…I’ve never seen [agents] whip anyone,” he followed.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the images, “horrific,” and Vice President Kamala Harris said the photos were deeply troubling. No one should be whipped, beaten or run over by horses – but witnesses say that’s not what happened. Whipping or not, we’re focused on the wrong issue.
What those pictures really represent is business as usual. Those photographs, no matter how they’re interpreted, are one symptom of a much larger illness: U.S. foreign policy in many neighboring countries is directly creating migrant issues like the events documented in Del Rio.
Despite Ratje’s testimony, the clash in Del Rio was grist for the mill on Sunday’s political talk shows, with pundits on either side of the political aisle using the images as evidence that the Border Patrol is populated by neanderthal thugs or American patriots or secret Trump acolytes embedded to make Biden look bad. None of the commentary dug into any of the larger historic issues in play at the border.
The U.S. has been avoiding dealing with the U.S.-Mexico border since the 1970s, when the oil economy crashed in Mexico and thousands of immigrants flooded into the United States. That was the “crisis.” Today, illegal immigration is now just the status quo.
Haitians are dying in large numbers, struggling to get free from a land ravaged by natural and manmade disasters – and few of the Americans opposing their arrival seem to care. Not only that, but Hatians are not alone in their struggles; there are migrants at the border from many different countries, all with similar experiences.
No president has seriously tried to deal with the problem – not since the Ronald Reagan era when “the Great Communicator” proposed a path toward citizenship for those who came to this country without proper paperwork. Though Trump supporters and other new-age conservatives might praise Reagan, they’d burn many of his ideas to ashes if proposed today.
This is all simply the result of more than 40 years of playing political football with a global humanitarian issue, punting the ball up and down the field without scoring any points in either direction. By doing this, Americans fail to address one of the root causes of illegal immigration from South and Central America into the U.S. – our own foreign policy.
Vice President Kamala Harris is supposedly chairing a commission to find out the root causes – but that’s merely more political maneuvering. We know the root causes, and we choose not to deal with them. Ask any historian or any political scientist; they know the motivation for why this problem still exists – the U.S. needs people to work jobs most immigrants fill.
If those that opposed illegal immigration wanted to actually put a quick stop to this, they’d fine and punish the industries that hire illegal immigrants and refugees in the first place. The Simpson/Mazzoli Act was the first to address this issue, making it illegal to hire individuals who crossed into the U.S. illegally, and that bill only passed in 1986. What’s more, that legislation is rarely enforced – and for one important economic reason: The low paid wages keep the cost of goods down for all other Americans. Can you imagine the cost of housing, a pound of strawberries, or tomatoes if those who owned the businesses paying migrant workers under the table were forced to provide a living wage and healthcare?
That is the real tragedy, one you can’t see in a photograph. You can’t deal with this tragedy in platitudes from the White House; you certainly can’t deal with it by building a wall that can be overcome by a cheap ladder from Costco. U.S. foreign policy creates a series of factors that bring migrants into the country only to then be demonized in the press and exploited by certain industries.
For the United States to actually deal with its “border crisis,” it has to do what it has never done and has been unwilling to do: admit that its own foreign policy has created the subhuman living conditions in the countries migrants are fleeing. If we address reality, instead of playing political football, we might make a difference. But so far we’ve been far more satisfied casting blame rather than accepting responsibility.