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Opinion | Biden's mixed messaging on immigration brings a surge of Haitian migrants to the Texas border

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The sight of federal officers from the Western hemisphere's wealthiest country corralling and deporting migrants from the hemisphere's poorest one is a wrenching tableau, and nothing for Americans to be proud of. That is what is underway now, as U.S. Border Patrol agents unleash a show of force against thousands of desperate Haitian and other asylum seekers camped on the banks of the Rio Grande in South Texas.

The episode is a distillation of Washington's immigration policy dysfunction, tweaked, in some ways for the worse, by the Biden administration's incongruous messaging. Those Haitians, who make up the majority of some 14,000 migrants packed along the border near Del Rio, Tex., didn't arrive by accident. What led many or most of them toward the border — in addition to unscrupulous smugglers — was what has turned out for most to be the false promise that a new president, publicly committed to a more humane approach, would relax the previous administration's draconian policies. Large numbers of them had been living for years in South America, having fled their home country after it was hit by a devastating earthquake in 2010.

That's largely what Mr. Biden has done for others, especially Central American families with children, tens of thousands of whom have been admitted to the United States this year. And he did so even as administration officials urged them not to attempt to cross the border illegally. That glaring disconnect, between official dissuasion and on-the-ground leniency, has been received by Haitian and other migrants as an invitation to take their chances on reaching the U.S. border.

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Now the door has slammed shut for many of them in Del Rio, especially the Haitians, whom U.S. officials began loading onto deportation flights over the weekend. It is fair to ask why Haitian migrants, virtually all Black, are being subjected to expulsion on a scale that has not been directed at lighter-skinned Central Americans.

Haiti, reeling from crime, political upheaval, economic calamity and a devastating earthquake this summer, is in no shape to handle the return of thousands of deportees. Yet that is the burden Mr. Biden is imposing, evidently in hopes of deterring further waves of migrants. Under a public health rule invoked by the Trump administration at the pandemic's outset, asylum seekers are being deported without hearings on daily flights to Haiti.

The policy is inhumane; equally, it is inhumane to incentivize migrants to risk the perilous, expensive journey across Central America and Mexico. Having mismanaged migration in its first eight months in office, which contributed to a two-decade-high surge in illegal border crossings, the administration clearly fears a backlash at the polls in next year's midterm elections more than it fears the wrath of immigration advocates. Republicans, sensing electoral advantage, are using border "chaos" as a cudgel.

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Many of the failings in the U.S. immigration system are reflected in the mess in Del Rio: the absence of any workable channel by which migrants could apply for asylum south of the border; the massive backlog and shortage of judges in migration courts, which means asylum applicants, once admitted, may wait two or three years for their cases to be heard; and the misalignment of high domestic demand for cheap immigrant labor with an inadequate legal supply of it.

Successive administrations tried to address some of those problems. Partisanship in Congress doomed those efforts. No major immigration reform has been enacted since the Reagan administration. Is it any wonder we've arrived at this juncture?

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