In the old circus days, lion tamers used a chair to protect themselves. Why? A lion can chew through a chair as easily as it can chew through the man holding it. But lions are single-minded, and the chair’s four legs distract them. They can’t focus. As a result, they (temporarily) forget about attacking the tamer, long enough for him to safely escape.

Distraction works. It can save your hide. Politicians know the lion tamer’s trick better than anyone.

Lion tamers also use whips. But border agents do not — despite the headlines from last week, after a photographer captured images that many viewed as cruel: a border guard on a horse apparently swinging the reins in the direction of a migrant.

It’s the kind of picture that can be viewed different ways. And it was. Immediately, critics used the word “whip” and “whipping,” despite the fact that there were no actual whips, that the photographer himself told the media, “I didn’t ever see them whip anybody” and a union official insisted that twirling the reins, as seen in the photos and a brief video, is a “training technique” designed to protect the horse, the rider and the “the individual that was trying to cause chaos.”

An investigation was immediately launched, as it should have been. But nobody waited for the results. On Friday, our nation’s three highest-ranking individuals on the issue of immigration, President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Homeland Security chief Alejandro Mayorkas, all came out with their minds made up.

Biden declared, “These people will pay.”

Harris compared their actions to “times of slavery.”

Mayorkas said they were emblematic of “systemic racism.”

All that was missing was the fourth leg of the chair. For no matter what you think of those images, making them the top issue of our immigration crisis is a distraction, pure and simple.

It’s not about the horse.

A bigger mess than you think

For nearly nine months, our southern border has been in disarray. Even the staunchest Democrats should admit that. The number of people being arrested at the border went up month after month until August under the new administration, which halted the “remain in Mexico” policy on Biden’s first day in office. Border encounters reached a 20-year-high in July, nearly 200,000 people. In a month? Two-hundred thousand?

Yet Biden has mostly ignored questions about the issue. Harris, who was put in charge of the border, didn’t speak about it or visit it for months. Mayorkas spent much of the year insisting the situation isn’t as bad as people say or, ironically, as the photographs suggest.

There are nightly news images of people literally walking into the country by the hundreds. They have been routinely ignored by the administration. But now a few disturbing photos have them up in arms and suggesting the agents are racist? How selective can their outrage be?

First of all, whatever behavior those handful of agents engaged in, they did it under the administration’s watch. There is a feeling, when listening to Biden or Harris decry the situation, that they are somehow blaming it on someone else. Who? The previous administration? Donald Trump isn’t in charge anymore. If the actions are “horrible,” as Biden and Harris have both claimed, then they are horrible under their decisions and policies.

But more importantly, to focus outrage on a few disturbing photographs is to ignore the huge numbers of desperate people who are flooding into this country, and how we are dealing with them.

The fact is, we are not. Somebody, quick. Tell me America’s immigration policy. How does it work? There is no one answer, because there is no one policy. There are applications and paperwork processes, there are asylum seekers, there are refugees, there are those who simply outrun the border agents. There are Afghans being flown in and Haitians being kicked out.

The Trump administration created a loophole called Title 42 that could keep people out due to a health crisis (like COVID-19.) And while Biden wiped out nearly all of Trump’s border policies quickly, he somehow kept that one. And it’s being used to reject tens of thousands of people. Yet the ones who are allowed in are often not being tested or vaccinated for COVID.

So which is it? You can’t come in because of health risks, or you can come in and we won’t even check you? How does that make sense? Especially in a country where, for a year and a half, Americans with family in Canada couldn’t even drive through the Windsor tunnel to visit them due to COVID concerns.

Why so many Haitians at the border?

And then there’s the issue of Haitians. As someone who goes to Haiti every month for the last 11 and a half years (I operate an orphanage there), watching the way Haitian migrants were used by politicians in this mess has been painful.

Some 15,000 Haitians had been camped out in filthy, fetid conditions under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas, having crossed over a river from Mexico. As the situation gained national attention, politicians suddenly weighed in. Harris spoke about how bad things are in Haiti now, citing the recent earthquake and the presidential assassination, as if that explained the sudden rush of Haitians at the Texas border.

Except that, by most reports, nearly all the Haitians in Del Rio had been living in South America for years. Anyone who knows Haiti knows that Brazil and Chile needed laborers a few years back and opened their borders to Haitians. Anxious to find any kind of work, many Haitians left.

But recently, when the work in Brazil dried up and the polices in Chile made life hard for the Haitians there, many began the trek to America, in hopes of better jobs and a better life and under the belief that Biden in the White House made them more welcome.

So these Haitians were not fleeing the recent earthquake or recent political strife. They had already been settled in South American countries. Like others in those nations, they traveled countless miles on buses and in caravans, they saw people swept away in rivers, get kidnapped, robbed, raped, die of starvation.

And when they finally reached our border, some of them reportedly destroyed their passports or identity cards, knowing they could be refused if they had already sought and accepted asylum in another country.

And what did we do with them? Some we admitted. Some we sent places to wait. And many others we sent back to Haiti — the same country they fled years ago. Only this time, there’s no other nations offering work and hope. Sad as it is, the way those Haitians were living under that bridge is the way many Haitians have to live in their own country; in shacks, bathing in dirty water, scrounging for food. The average pay for a job — if you can find one — is $3 a day.

If we really cared about Haiti, or Haitians, we would be doing a lot more to help their nation. But Trump called it a “shithole” and Biden has talked nicer but done little more, refusing Haiti’s plea for a bigger presence in the wake of the presidential assassination.

Last week the special envoy Biden assigned to Haiti, Daniel Foote, resigned over the treatment of the Haitian refugees.

“Our policy approach to Haiti remains deeply flawed,” he wrote, “and my policy recommendations have been ignored or dismissed.”

Don’t boil this down to a picture

Meanwhile, here’s what the Biden team is vocal about: a photograph. Months pass without comment on immigration, you literally can’t get an answer, but drawn back to their marquee issue of racism, suddenly, they weigh in loudly.

There’s been no determination of racism. We don’t even know who the agent is. But the hysterical focus on this image is an insult to other border agents who are overworked in this crisis, it’s an insult to the poor migrants who are getting mixed signals from our country, and it’s an insult to the American people who have been waiting years for an actual, solid, ethical and defensible immigration policy that never materializes.

It’s not about a horse. It’s about politicians who say one thing and do another, and who conflate human lives and human hope with political advantage and vote numbers. The southern border was a mess before and is still is a mess now. The administration just found a four-legged chair to hold up and wave last week. Unlike the lion, we should not be so easily distracted.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

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