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CLARENCE PAGE: No, those aren’t whips the Border Patrol is using while dealing with Haitian migrants

A picture, as an old saying (almost) goes, is worth 10,000 mixed messages.

That’s what I saw in the startling weekend news video of what looked like U.S. Border Patrol agents using whips to round up and shoo Haitian immigrants who had waded across the river from Mexico back across the border.

Shocked commentators and the Twitterverse decried the stark resemblance of Black asylum-seekers and the uniformed horsemen to slave catchers rounding up fugitive slaves in the antebellum South. Not pleasant.

“Using ‘whips’ to round up Haitian immigrants?” gasped an AZCentral commentary’s headline. “How is that OK?”

Whoa! Fortunately, the Border Patrol reined in the chatter with assurances that whipping migrants would violate their rules.

Although the matter is being investigated, my own closer look at the news video revealed the agents were swinging not whips but the reins hanging from the bridles of their horses.

Still, the images were “disturbing” and the situation “challenging and heartbreaking,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said at a news conference near the border Monday. But he defended the use of horse patrols to protect the borders.

“If you come to the United States illegally, you will be returned,” Mayorkas warned. “Your journey will not succeed, and you will be endangering your life and your family’s life.”

Sad but true. There are no easy answers to our border challenges, which I don’t see as a “crisis” in the way some people do. We do have answers, if our opposing political parties can find their way to agreement on some of them.

That’s the tough part. In the same weekend, the Senate parliamentarian told Democrats they can’t pass their current immigration agenda as part of their mammoth $3.5 trillion “budget reconciliation” bill.

Among other features, the legislation would have granted permanent legal status and a path to citizenship to recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — immigrants brought into the country as minors — and also to adult migrants who entered under Temporary Protected Status rules.

For now, the Democrats will have to turn to a more conventional path that has become increasingly rare in Congress: bipartisan legislative compromise.

Somewhere there must be a middle ground but both sides have been dragging their heels in looking for it.

One longs for the days when the president would charge up the middle and work with Congress toward a lasting solution as President Ronald Reagan did with the last major immigration overhaul in the 1980s.

In those days, Democrats controlled Congress, but they found ways to work with Reagan and other Republicans, even on an issue as touchy as immigration.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act, also known as the Simpson-Mazzoli Act or “the Reagan Amnesty,” was signed in 1986. Among other changes, it legalized immigrants who entered the United States before Jan. 1, 1982, and had lived in the country continuously, with the penalty of a fine, back taxes due and admission of guilt.

Nearly 2.7 million people were ultimately approved for permanent residence. But despite new restrictions placed on employers who hired workers living in the U.S. illegally, that part of the law was watered down under pressure from employers — and the population of immigrants here illegally grew faster than expected — from an estimated 5 million in 1986 to 11.1 million in 2013.

By then, “amnesty” became a dirty word among Republicans who applied it to just about every subsequent effort to “fix” immigration. All of which set the stage for the rise of Donald Trump’s presidential bid in 2016 with his signature rally chant, “Build that wall.”

Now it is Joe Biden’s turn to be victimized by bad optics, as thousands of Haitians join the refuge-seeking tide, fleeing their embattled island’s poverty, a hurricane, an earthquake and a coup in the past year alone. More than 14,000 gathered at the border at Del Rio, Texas, where they have faced deportation back to Haiti — and Border Patrol agents on horseback.

The estimated number of migrants assembled in the temporary Del Rio site swelled from roughly 400. The surge may owe simply to word-of-mouth and social media messages that the border at Del Rio was open, Border Patrol officials have said.

Instead, most face the risk of deportation to the country they fled, a country that barely struggles along with the population it already has, while we Americans still try to sort out our mixed messages — without whips.

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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