The Biden administration said late Monday that it is launching an investigation after the publication of photos and reports appearing to show U.S. Border Patrol officers on horseback mistreating Haitian migrants near the Rio Grande, images the White House and the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee denounced as “horrific.”
The move comes one day after the Biden administration began deporting people from the makeshift camp where nearly 14,000 migrants have gathered beneath a South Texas bridge.
One photo by photojournalist Paul Ratje shows a Border Patrol officer on horseback, grabbing the shirt of a Haitian migrant holding bags of food and trying to enter an encampment near the river. Other footage shows mounted Border Patrol officers chasing migrants away. One of the officers can be seen swinging at one of the migrants with what appears to be a strap connected to the horse’s bridle.
“This is why your country’s [expletive], because you use your women for this!” another of the officers can be heard saying to the migrants, according to footage published by Al Jazeera English.
In a statement Monday night, a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson called the footage “extremely troubling” and said that U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Professional Responsibility is investigating the matter.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General has also been notified, and staff from the Office of Professional Responsibility have been directed to remain on-site full time, according to the statement.
“We are committed to processing migrants in a safe, orderly, and humane way,” the spokesperson said. “We can and must do this in a way that ensures the safety and dignity of migrants.”
The statement was more strongly worded than remarks made by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz at a press availability in Del Rio, Texas, earlier Monday.
Asked whether the images showed inhumane treatment by the Border Patrol officers, Mayorkas responded that reporters “are assuming facts that have not yet been determined.”
He added that Border Patrol officers sometimes use long reins “to ensure control of the horse” and that “we are going to investigate the facts to ensure that the situation is as we understand it to be.”
Ortiz said that he believed it was likely the officers were “trying to control the horses” so that no migrants would get injured as they were trekking across the river, and that any actions they took were in the name of security.
“And as we witnessed in some of the videos and pictures, the migrants were going back and forth,” Ortiz said. “We do not know who are the smugglers and who are the migrants. So it’s important that those Border Patrol agents maintain a level of security for the migrants and for themselves.”
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, denounced the officers’ behavior in a statement Monday afternoon.
“Video and photos coming out of Del Rio showing U.S. Border Patrol’s mistreatment of Haitian migrants along the border are horrific and disturbing,” Thompson said. “This mistreatment runs counter to our American values and cannot be tolerated.”
He called on Mayorkas to “take immediate action to hold those responsible accountable and ensure that all migrants are treated in accordance with the law and basic decency, as this Administration has promised to do since day one.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki fielded several questions about the images during Monday’s news briefing. Psaki described the footage she has seen as “horrific” but said she is seeking more context and information on the events that took place.
“I have seen some of the footage,” Psaki told reporters. “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.”
Asked whether she believes action should be taken against the officers involved, Psaki responded, “Of course, they should never be able to do it again. I don’t know what the circumstances would be. It’s obviously horrific, the footage. I don’t have any more information on it.”
Deteriorating social and economic conditions in recent years in Haiti, worsened recently by the pandemic, have become too hostile to bear for some migrants, prompting them to join a persistent exodus to the northern half of the Americas.
While it’s not clear how or why thousands of specifically French-, Creole- and Spanish-speaking Haitians converged simultaneously at one isolated outpost on the U.S.-Mexico border, what is clear is that many of their migration stories began long ago. Theirs is an unending tale of displacement, discrimination and deportation that many had hoped would end in Del Rio and lead to a permanent home.
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The Washington Post’s Nick Miroff in Washington and Arelis R. Hernández in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, contributed to this report.