ICE ‘Slave-Catchers’ at the Border: When Will the Cruelty Stop?
This week on democracy-ish, Danielle and Toure talk about yet another viral photo they can’t un-see — and what it tells us about America.
Reeling from two deadly earthquakes, political instability and the COVID-19 pandemic, Haitians have been migrating to Central and South America for some time, but now many of them are seeking refuge here in the U.S.
A temporary camp near the U.S.-Mexico border has become a flashpoint for immigration policy under President Biden.
A viral photo of an ICE agent violently attacking two Haitian men suggests not much has changed since Trump and his cruelty toward people from “shithole countries” like Haiti. How is this administration complicit in this crisis, and how did we get here in the first place?
“I feel disgusted about everything,” says Toure.
If the Texas vigilante-deputized abortion law and an Oregon teacher protesting a COVID vaccine requirement by wearing blackface wasn’t bad enough, we now know that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is rounding up Haitian migrants with whips and chains.
And we only know that because AFP photojournalist Paul Ratje was there, on the banks of the Rio Grande, to bear witness. He captured the moment in a stunning photo of an ICE agent on horseback, chasing down two Black men who were apparently returning to a camp in Del Rio, Texas after venturing to the Mexican side of the border to get food and water.
“If not for him, we wouldn't know human rights violations were happening,” says Danielle. “So how is this Biden administration any better right now than Trump’s? Because he doesn't outwardly call them shithole countries?”
“I imagine Biden and Trump have about the same amount of direct control over ICE,” says Danielle. If this had happened under Trump, we would be losing our minds.”
Are we giving Biden a pass because he doesn’t say anything outwardly crazy? Or because we think Biden will immediately rectify the situation?
“I haven't seen anyone at ICE get fired,” Toure notes. “I have not seen any formal acknowledgment of a change in policy. And why are they using whips at all?”
“Is that a part of the uniform?” Danielle asks.
“If they are government employees, everything they have is paid by tax dollars, so we paid for their—”
“Whips,” says Danielle.
She says that “when we talk about our immigration problem, the problem is not the people. The problem is the policies we have allowed to be on the books.”
Let’s wade into it.
Episode Highlights — Bloody White Hands
Trump was cruel, but honest (about his cruelty, at least)
Danielle definitely does not give the Biden administration a pass.
“I’ve said this so many times on Twitter: The new boss feels really similar to the old boss,” she says. “I really appreciate Donald Trump telling me to my face — You ain’t shit. I don’t care about breastfeeding babies on the breasts of migrant women. I’m going to rip them from you … I’m going to steal your children. I appreciate the honesty of that cruelty.”
What she can’t stand is the Biden administration “acting from this place of disbelief.”
Danielle saw Kamala Harris react to the photo with horror and promise an investigation.
“I don’t need an investigation … Because if you are Black in America, and you see a white Texas border patrol agent on horseback wielding a fucking whip — I'm just confused about what other contexts you may need.”
Context and culpability
In a White House briefing, Press Secretary Jen Psaki responded to questions about the photo and corresponding video footage: “I don’t have the full context. I can’t imagine what context would make that appropriate. But I don’t have additional details … I don’t think anyone seeing that footage would think it was acceptable or appropriate.”
She went on to say “it’s obviously horrific,” though she defended U.S. foreign policy on Haiti.
Toure thinks Jen Psaki’s comments about context need — well, context. To him, her statement meant that “even though she doesn't know the context of that particular photograph … She was clearly saying we have a problem.”
But even though this administration’s handling of this scandal is marginally better than the gaslighting we’d expect from its predecessors, it doesn’t change the fact that staggering cruelty is still being perpetrated on the border.
A picture that is worth many thousands of words
“Can we talk about how incredibly triggering that photograph was?” Toure asks. “It was straight out of ‘Django Unchained’ and the history books. A white man on a horse, whipping a Black man who is trying to escape him.”
Danielle was struck by “the rage on the white ranger’s face” and wonders what possible threat the Haitian men posed as they attempted to rush back to an encampment near the Acuña Del Rio International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas, carrying bags of food and water. (None, of course.)
An estimated 14,000 Haitian migrants have gathered in the camp, where conditions are bleak. It is hot and crowded; food, water and sanitation are scarce. They’re here because after several natural disasters, the assassination of their president, and the pandemic, Haiti is the site of a major humanitarian crisis.
“The Department of Homeland Security loves to tell us it is providing provisions. But that’s not what the f*** it looks like,” says Danielle. “And we can’t verify it, because they’ve closed down the airspace over the camp. Why would you close down the airspace if you’re doing all of the right things? Why would you turn journalists away?”
America is the ‘land of plenty,’ but not for everyone
Toure thinks “the heartlessness so many Americans can bring to the conversation of immigration is frightening and disgusting.”
His wife is an immigrant who came here from war-torn Lebanon with her mother when she was about 12 years old.
“They felt like if they didn’t leave, they’d be hurt or killed,” Toure explains, noting that for most refugees, escaping either war, mass violence or mass deprivation means “running away from either death or nothing,” he adds. That is, there’s no other option.
“They think to go to America because America is supposed to be the land of plenty.”
He thinks that “if we are truly a great nation, surely we can absorb” the people who seek emergency asylum in the U.S. And Toure rejects “the notion that we don’t have the resources to absorb 15,000 people, as if they’re all just immediately going on welfare.”
Finite resources, or just plain racism?
Toure also balks at the notion “that our resources are so finite” that we can’t help the Haitian migrants, as well as the hundreds of thousands of Americans experiencing homelessness, many of whom are veterans — along with Afghans who escaped the Taliban.
From Cubans to the Vietnamese, the U.S. has taken in large numbers of immigrants before, and they almost always become “valuable, successful citizens adding to the culture of the country,” he adds. “So why are we able to be so heartless [now]? I mean, the answer is racism. People are dying and drowning and saying, Please save us the way that you saved the Irish, the Italians—”
“You’re answering your own question,” says Danielle, who can’t think of a time when en-masse Black immigrants, whether from Africa or the West Indies, was welcomed.
That’s because those who make immigration policy think “there’s no value proposition for America” in bringing them here, she says.
The attempted erasure of America’s racist sins includes our treatment of Haiti
There’s a fear among white people of the “slow shrinkage of whiteness,” says Toure, “as if immigrants will continue to change the face of the country, to where we’ll end up with taco trucks on every street corner, or whatever it might be — thus losing the power of whiteness. As if immigration is the thing that will cost white people their power over America … The victimhood, the fragility of white people, is exhausting.”
One of the things Danielle finds troubling is “the fact that we have done an incredible, torturous, disgusting disservice to the nation of Haiti.”
It’s all part of the right-wing pushback on critical race theory and its efforts to ensure that “white children learn nothing about the truth of this nation,” she adds — like how we “penalized the one formerly enslaved colony that rose up in revolution.”
We did that by “shackling” Haiti to “crushing debt” it will never be able to pay off and inserting American interests into its political structures, she notes. So the 15,000 migrants showing up on our shores “is absolutely of our doing. It’s definitely a byproduct of the way that we’ve treated Haiti for centuries.”
Reparations … for slave owners (yeah, that happened)
Even when he was a kid, Toure knew that Haiti was the site of what is probably the only successful slave revolt in history. But what he didn’t know until very recently (thanks to Raoul Peck’s HBO documentary “Exterminate all the Brutes”) that after the slave rebellion, France demanded reparations to the slave masters, which took Haiti more than 100 years to pay off.
“This tiny nation could not handle having a nine-figure debt to France, one of the world’s great powers,” he explains. “That is a large part of why the country has remained in poverty for over a century.”
Danielle wonders where France got that idea from: “Could it have been the same way that the United States government decided to pay reparations to the former Southern slaveholders for the emancipation of enslaved Black people, instead of providing those they stole from their own homeland with 40 acres and a mule?”
And because the U.S. didn’t recognize the sovereignty of Haiti, the fledgling democracy was unable to trade and build up an economic presence. Fast forward to today: 60% of the population of Haiti lives in poverty.
Communities of color and their ‘value to the voting base’
Toure wonders if it would even be possible for Haiti as a nation to sue France in an international court, arguing that it should not have had to repay its colonizers “for ‘property’ that was never property,” he says. “France was imprisoning and human trafficking and mistreating human beings. It did not have any property.”
He calls that an “Elie Mystal question.”
Danielle points out that a move like that could open a huge can of worms: Not only was Haiti in debt with France, it was in debt with the United States, which later occupied it.
“If you were to open that up, literally everyone could be sued, and rightfully so,” she says.
But perhaps the most striking idea of the week was courtesy of Elie, a legal scholar who has been a guest on democracy-ish several times, recently posted on Twitter: “Do you think the Biden administration would let this happen if it was Cubans fleeing an earthquake instead of Haitians?”
We pretty much know the answer to that.
Even Democrats tend to “only recognize certain communities of color by their value to the voting base,” Danielle notes. “Do we look at Haitian-Americans as an important voting bloc? No, we don’t.”
‘God’s work’: We think God would disagree
Danielle points out that rhetoric on the right about the Haitian migrant crisis is inhumanity at its worst. One GOP lawmaker said Border Patrol agents like the one in Ratje’s photo are doing “God’s work.”
“God is not patrolling the borders and hoping that people are staying within the borders that we drew,” Toure replies.
“This is the same rhetoric and bullshit that they used to justify slavery to begin with,” says Danielle. “It is God’s will and God’s work being done through the hands of these vicious, cruel, white slave catchers. Because these people can’t be left to their own devices, right? They can’t be left to self-determination.”
We can’t shrug that kind of rhetoric off as if it’s not indicative of a party “steeped in white terrorism,” she adds. “When they see these images, they’re not appalled. They’re applauding.”
She thinks we can’t “continue to negotiate with this party, believing that they’re going to come to the table, they’re going to have a heart, they’re going to care. I saw the images Joy Reed posted on Instagram … little Black babies on the shoulders of their fathers treading through water up to their necks, crying. No one would put their child through that trauma if what was behind them wasn’t worse than what could possibly be in front of them.”
Our immigration system was broken from the start
Toure notes that we have been “struggling to create some sort of immigration system in this country for decades. And the Republicans in particular, but also Democrats, have been unable to create some sort of reasonable pathway.”
But the question remains: “What is the pathway?” he asks.
“No one knows, to be honest,” Danielle replies. “Rick Santorum told us that there was nothing here when his when his family came. So they didn't fill out any f***ing paperwork. But everybody else that came after had to check some type of box.”
One of the things that Toure took away from “Exterminate All the Brutes” was the reality that there was a lot here when Europeans arrived on our shores. We stole the land from indigineous Americans and then systematically attempted to erase them.
“We made treaties with them, and then violated the treaties. And a large reason why the American weapon industrial complex was developed was so people could go out and get rid of Native Americans as rapidly as possible,” he says.
Anti-racism requires accountability
As we consider both the historical and the contemporary racism that’s so prevalent in America, Toure invokes the thinking of Ibram X. Kendi, who talks about “not just racism, but anti-racism,” he explains.
“If you’re not preventing racism from happening, you’re not anti-racist. You are allowing the status quo to continue, to produce bias and difference between the two groups. It’s not enough to say, Well, my ancestors didn't own slaves. Did they fight against slavery? Were they abolitionists? Because if they were they were happily living in a world where there was slavery and not voting against it, and not agitating against it, then they were helping to perpetuate it by saying nothing.”
The claim that someone’s ancestors weren’t slave owners is indicative of a larger problem: “The desire to take no responsibility for anything,” says Danielle. “That is this nation's true legacy. It is to have hands off, no accountability, no responsibility.”
‘Exceptional’ America is often to blame
We have to ask ourselves the hard questions about how this happened, says Danielle.
“Why are the Haitians coming in? Why are people fleeing Central America? Because we fucked their countries up. Because we allowed drug wars to perpetuate, because we created arms races, because we made them destitute. America is not blameless.”
But those on the right — like those who celebrate ICE as doing God’s work — “love to pretend that they are these cowboys,” she adds. “The f***ing images coming out of Texas — that is the American cowboy. They get to relive their fantasy right now.”
Those are the same folks who believe in American exceptionalism.
“We love to look at other nations and say, How horrible. Look at how they treat their women. They’re stoning them to death,” says Danielle. “Well, what the f*** are we doing in the United States? Denying women autonomy over their own bodies. We don’t provide them equal pay for equal work. One in five women on a college campus is going to be raped.”
On that note, Danielle is “exhausted by this place,” she says. “Like, America owes me a drink. It owes me reparations. It owes so fucking much. It’s too much. I can’t be this full of rage all the time.”
“And yet you are,” says Toure.
“And yet I am,” she replies.
“I would say we’ll be back next week,” Toure says. “But I mean, the f***ing country’s going to hell in a handbasket.”
“Riding into the sunset,” Danielle adds. “Pun in-f***ing-tended.”
Check out the frustration, rage and absurdity that was the 2020 election on democracy-ish
as Danielle Moodie and Toure discuss the current state of the political climate and our country from a Black perspective.