If a picture paints a thousand words, two pictures tell the story of President Biden's dilemma on immigration and the border. In recent days, there has been considerable focus on the image of a border patrol agent on horseback chasing a Haitian migrant in Del Rio, Texas. While the details are disputed — Whip or rein? Excessive force or standard operating procedure? — it is beyond debate that to many observers the image resembled ugly chapters in our country's racial history.
Then take any number of pictures of the scene in that Texas city — huddled masses under the bridge, people streaming in, litter and unsanitary toilets, clearly overwhelmed local, state, and federal authorities — many other Americans see something else: chaos and lawlessness. People watching this unfold on television or the internet, much less actually living in beleaguered border towns, are going to dislike what they see.
Biden cannot simply let these communities be overrun or allow the perception of totally unregulated borders take hold in a world where information moves quickly and desperation often runs deep, even if he would prefer to safely and lawfully admit considerably more immigrants than his immediate predecessor. Such perceptions helped fuel the migrant surge that was well underway before Haitian nationals entered the mix.
But many voters and lawmakers in Biden's party view immigration primarily through the prism of race and racism. They are aware that, given the demographics of the migrants, enforcing the law will inherently have a disparate impact on racial minorities. They are at a minimum unsure of the morality of affluent Western countries keeping out poor people of color, and bound to be uncomfortable with most enforcement mechanisms capable of doing so effectively.
If Biden lets more communities look as disorderly as Del Rio, he will surely antagonize independents and even some Democrats while energizing Republicans against him. But if he deports desperate people, without hearings and in any significant number, he will alienate his base.
Biden served as vice president under a man who tried early in his presidency to enforce the laws enough to prove he was credible on basic border security while promising to eventually liberalize the whole immigration system. Instead, former President Obama was called the "deporter-in-chief" by activists on his own side and deemed an open-borders zealot by Republicans. Biden described this as a "mistake." Now he's doomed to repeat it.