Jurisprudence

Which President Praised the Border Cavalry as “Tough”? (It Was Obama.)

Horse-mounted agent wields whip in border interaction.
A United States Border Patrol agent on horseback tries to stop a Haitian migrant from entering an encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande near the Acuna Del Rio International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas on September 19, 2021. Paul Ratje/Getty Images

On May 10, 2011, then President Barack Obama gave a speech in El Paso, Texas on immigration. Using the border as a prop, Obama made the case for immigration reform as both a human rights and economic imperative. His hope was to convince people to pressure their representatives to “help push for comprehensive reform.” After all, his administration had “gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement,” and yet they were still at an impasse. At that speech Obama praised his administration’s efforts at beefing up security at the border by doubling the size of the Customs and Border Patrol in his tenure, and got a rise from the audience by praising the agents he saw “on horseback who looked pretty tough.”

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I couldn’t help but think of this speech after seeing photos last week of whip-wielding Border Patrol officers threatening Haitian migrants who were trying to enter the U.S. to apply for asylum. My mind went back to the Obama event not only because Obama’s mention of CBP agents on horseback demonstrated that anyone in President Biden’s administration claiming surprise at the images was at best being obtuse, but also because the speech is an example of how Democrats have consistently let Republicans set the parameters of immigration agenda such that any hope for change is dead on arrival.

Presidents Biden, Obama, and Clinton all conceded the Republican position that immigration is a problem and that therefore a precondition for reform is border security. What the country needs to be secure from exactly has never been particularly clear. However, the abstract threat created by immigration has justified the very real expansion of laws and policies that expose immigrants to inhumane treatment and endanger their lives. These have included the expansion of the categories of crimes with immigration consequences, an ever-growing budget for the Department of Homeland Security used in part to deepen the militarization the Southern border year after year, the growth of immigration detention, the continued surveillance of immigrant communities, and the relaxation of procedural protections for immigrants being prosecuted in federal court for the crimes of illegal entry or re-entry. Moreover, these measures have created the institutional backdrop and support that gives agents of the state tremendous discretion in the use of force against migrants, as we saw at the border last week with the mounted patrol. (The Biden administration has since banned the use of horse-mounted agents, though specifically in Del Rio, Texas.)

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Evidently, this system of “crimmigration”—as scholars have labeled it—is not the creation of Democratic administrations alone. However, it is impossible to overstate the responsibility that Democratic administrations have had in perpetuating the institutions, laws, and policies that undergird the criminalization of immigration and immigrant communities.

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By accepting that immigration is a problem, Democrats put themselves in the difficult position of justifying greater security at the border, while at the same time supporting a more open country when it comes legal immigration. One need not be a nativist to argue that if immigration is a problem then why is it necessary to change the laws such that we have more immigration? If immigration is a problem, then all we need to do is close the border. This argument becomes even more forceful in a world in which the Republican party is controlled by nativists and the politics of fear.

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Moreover, framing immigration as a problem justifies the need for having punitive deterrence measures—such as the mounted agents with whips—as a cornerstone of immigration policy. While the Biden administration has not pursued deterrence with the vengeance Trump did, it has embraced many elements of his predecessors’ policies. In contravention of international law it has prevented people from seeking asylum by keeping the U.S. border effectively closed through Title 42; deported Haitians, Salvadorans, and Nicaraguans to the middle of the Guatemalan jungle; and continued to issue official statements telling people not to come to the United States. Moreover, the administration has done little to curb the Border Patrol’s violence, leading to the images the world saw last week. (It’s worth noting that much like other types of law enforcement agencies, the Border Patrol is also insulated from judicial accountability for much of its wrongdoing).

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Using force, violence, and repression to control immigration is not only inhumane, but also risks reifying the notion that immigrants are criminal. As I have argued elsewhere, both the criminalization of illegal entry, with the high visibility of prosecution and persecution of this crime, and the continued rhetoric and harsh enforcement of immigration laws foment the creation of the “crimmigrant.”

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It’s true that the politics of immigration have long been complicated. Even President George W. Bush was famously unable to pass immigration reform through Congress. But with the rise of nativism in the Republican party and the embrace of such previously fringe white supremacist concepts as “great replacement theory,” the politics of immigration reform are now much more perilous than they were in the 2000s. As Spencer Ackerman has forcefully argued, immigration became the galvanizing issue for the right in the aftermath of 9/11 and the rise of nativism as the dominant force in the Republican party. It’s been proven time and again, though, that the way out of this impasse is not to concede and hope Republicans accept an olive branch. If we learned anything from the Obama era is that this approach is not going to work.

The only way that actual reform will be possible is to abandon the longstanding framework the Democrats have used to understand immigration. Immigration is not both a problem and a boon, it is just a boon. It is time more people in power have the courage to embrace and promote that view.

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