Brutal Treatment of Asylum-Seekers Is the Reality of Government

That’s why its role in our lives should be reduced to the minimum.


Members of President Joe Biden's own political party are unhappy with him over the brutal treatment of Haitian refugees at the U.S. border. Scenes of government agents on horseback pushing back men, women, and children (and allegedly striking some with their reins) elicited understandable cries of outrage and distancing from the actions by the White House itself. But these displays of righteous indignation over the events in Del Rio, Texas, are a little rich coming from people who usually applaud an activist state. If you want a government that does a lot, it's going to do it good and hard, and somebody will inevitably get hurt.

"I urge President Biden and Secretary Mayorkas to immediately put a stop to these expulsions and to end this Title 42 policy at our southern border," Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) criticized the administration with regard to the public health authority under which migrants are being turned away at the border. "We cannot continue these hateful and xenophobic Trump policies that disregard our refugee laws. We must allow asylum seekers to present their claims at our ports of entry and be afforded due process."

"I'm not just unhappy with the cowboys who were running down Haitians and using their reins to whip them, I'm unhappy with the administration," commented Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). "What we witnessed takes us back hundreds of years. What we witnessed was worse than what we witnessed in slavery," she added in what we can only hope was an exercise in hyperbole and not a display of her historical knowledge.

Biden's nominal political allies may try to link the border policies to the last administration, but they've been defended and extended by the current occupant of the White House. Relief came only from a court injunction scheduled to take effect within days on the grounds that, despite its appeal to Title 42, the federal government has no authority to expel those seeking asylum. The president and his allies likely wish the injunction had come sooner, before millions of people saw video footage of border agents confronting refugees. As it is, the White House finds itself backpedaling from enforcement of its own policies.

"We've watched the photos of Haitians gathering under a bridge, many with families, and the horrific video of the CBP officers on horse — on horses using brutal and inappropriate measures against innocent people," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki intoned on Wednesday in response to questions about the scenes. "So, as it relates to those photos and that horrific video, we're not going to stand for that kind of inhumane treatment."

But if Psaki, the president she serves, and their allies are truly horrified by the scenes from the border, it's fair to ask what they thought expulsion of refugees was going to look like. After all, District Judge Emmet Sullivan's injunction was based in part on recognition that refugees trying to enter the country "face real threats of violence and persecution if they were to be removed from the United States." With that to look forward to, are they really expected to turn away with a shrug when officials invoke public health concerns as justification for sending asylum-seekers off to their fates?

For that matter, what do Schumer and Waters think law-enforcement in general looks like, whether it's at the border or in cities and towns within the United States? Only weeks ago, Waters praised the administration for extending a since-voided ban on landlords evicting non-paying tenants. Schumer has pushed for tougher laws against everybody from robo-callers to limousine drivers. Both are big fans of turning government power against gun owners. It's unlikely that these two very enthusiastic makers-of-laws intend for their legislative wishes to be enforced with nothing more than strong words.

That's the problem with politicians and their supporters who decry the undeniable brutality inherent in the enforcement of laws and policies they don't like while calling for state intervention in other areas of life. Whether or not it's ultimately captured on video, enforcement requires violence by state agents against members of the public. All too often, that involves breaking into people's homes, dragging them off to filthy and dangerous jails, and then coercing them into guilty pleas.

"On the opening day of law school, I always counsel my first-year students never to support a law they are not willing to kill to enforce," Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter argued in 2014. "Usually they greet this advice with something between skepticism and puzzlement, until I remind them that the police go armed to enforce the will of the state, and if you resist, they might kill you."

The Haitian refugees in Del Rio capture the sympathy of many people because it's obvious what they're resisting: expulsion to a country that was a mess even before it was struck by a crippling earthquake in August.

"I will not be associated with the United States inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees and illegal immigrants to Haiti, a country where American officials are confined to secure compounds because of the dangers posed by armed gangs in control of daily life," Daniel Foote protested this week as he resigned his position as special envoy to Haiti.

To the extent that some refugees are being admitted to the U.S. despite official policy, violent actions against them look not just cruel, but arbitrary. The luck of the draw might get them safety—or trampled.

But the heavy hand of the state is always applied in an arbitrary fashion, with many forever successfully evading laws, the enforcement of which destroys the lives of others. That people who are well-connected and powerful can simply ignore rules that are harshly inflicted on those with less clout makes the brutal nature of enforcement even more infuriating.

It's good that politicians are outraged by the brutal treatment of refugees seeking asylum in the United States. It's encouraging that the Biden administration is still capable of being embarrassed by video footage of that treatment. But we'd be better served if those officials conceded that such brutality is always the reality of law enforcement and the reason why its role in people's lives should be reduced to the minimum.