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U.S. Customs and Border Protection mounted officers attempt to contain migrants as they cross the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, into Del Rio, Texas, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. Thousands of Haitian migrants have been arriving to Del Rio, Texas. (AP) U.S. Customs and Border Protection mounted officers attempt to contain migrants as they cross the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, into Del Rio, Texas, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. Thousands of Haitian migrants have been arriving to Del Rio, Texas. (AP)

U.S. Customs and Border Protection mounted officers attempt to contain migrants as they cross the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, into Del Rio, Texas, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. Thousands of Haitian migrants have been arriving to Del Rio, Texas. (AP)

Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman September 24, 2021

If Your Time is short

  • Thousands of Haitian migrants arrived in recent weeks at Del Rio, Texas seeking to enter the United States from Mexico. The Biden administration is sending many of them back to Haiti.

  • A photo that shows a Border Patrol agent on horseback pursuing a Haitian migrant has gone viral and drawn rebukes from Democrats, immigration activists and civil rights leaders.

  • The photographer told PolitiFact that he did not see the agent whip the migrant — he saw him grab him by the shirt as the horse’s reins dangled.

  • The images and videos of Border Patrol tactics led the Department of Homeland Security to order an investigation.

The Biden administration is invoking a Trump-era public-health rule to expel more than 1,000 Haitian migrants who have illegally crossed the border in Del Rio, Texas, sending them back to a country reeling from natural disasters and political upheaval. A senior U.S. diplomat to Haiti resigned in protest of a deportation policy he called "inhumane."

But it’s a set of viral images that focused intense attention on the plight of Haitian migrants crossing the border and the U.S. response.

One of those images was a photo taken Sept. 19 by freelance journalist Paul Ratje showing a U.S. Border Patrol agent on horseback pursuing Haitian migrants near the Rio Grande. A separate pair of videos captured by news organizations show Border Patrol agents yelling insults at Haitian migrants or obstructing them as they crossed the Rio Grande.

The images have drawn outrage from some Democratic politicians, immigration activists and civil rights leaders, and prompted the Department of Homeland Security to order an investigation into the Border Patrol agents’ actions. In particular, critics seized on allegations that border agents may have struck or used whips against the migrants, though those reports have been disputed. 

The DHS investigation is expected to be completed next week and could shed more light on what the Border Patrol agents were doing in their encounters with the migrants. In the meantime, here’s what we know about what has been happening in Del Rio and the events depicted in the images.

Why Haitians are arriving at the U.S. border

Thousands of Haitian migrants in recent weeks crossed the border at Del Rio. 

Haiti has endured a series of tumultuous events in just the past few months, including a presidential assassination, tropical storms and an earthquake. But the latest Haitian migrations in Texas trace back to 2010, when a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck the nation and led Haitians to Brazil, Chile and other countries in South America in search of jobs and a better life. 

In recent years, as jobs in those countries dried up, migrants continued moving north through Latin American and Mexico. After President Joe Biden took office, many migrants believed that it would now be easier to get into the U.S. than it was under Donald Trump. 

Biden renewed Temporary Protected Status for Haitians in the U.S. earlier this year. That status — which the Trump administration had revoked for Haitians in 2017 — allows migrants to stay in the U.S. when conditions in their home country prevent them from returning safely. But the Biden policy applies only to Haitians who were living in the U.S. as of July 29, not to those crossing the border now.

For several days, Biden administration officials have been deporting many of the migrants coming across the border, sending them on planes back to Haiti under a public health rule called Title 42, which the Trump administration imposed to help contain the spread of COVID-19. Thousands of migrants awaiting expulsion were gathered in an encampment under a bridge in Del Rio.

What the images captured

Ratje, the photographer who was taking photos for the news agency AFP, told us in a telephone interview that he observed that migrants who had crossed back into Mexico to get food and water for their families were attempting to return to the U.S. side when they were blocked by Border Patrol agents on horseback.

Border Patrol agents have used horses since the agency was formed nearly a century ago, and agents ride them to access areas that are not accessible by vehicle.

The agents tried to stop people in the river from crossing to the U.S. and told them to return to Mexico. The Haitians feared that they were going to be separated from the migrants on the other side of the border.

"That caused a panic — Haitian people pleading with the officers on horseback," Ratje said. "That’s when some of them tried to run around, get through to get on shore and get back to camp."

Ratje said he saw a Border Patrol agent swing his horse’s rein in the air while migrants were in the river. One migrant who was holding bags of food fell backward. 

As some migrants tried to get past Border Patrol agents, Ratje took photos, including one that would later go viral. Ratje saw the agent swing his rein vertically, spot a Haitian migrant in a black shirt carrying bags of food, and then pursue him.

Ratje’s photo shows the agent leaning down and grabbing the migrants by the shirt as he and another migrant try to get away. The horse reins dangle below. 

The Border Patrol agent "is grabbing the Haitian with his right hand and has his reins in his left hand. The rein swings up," Ratje said. The migrant then "got swung around," Ratje said, but the agent eventually let go. 

A separate video tweeted by John Holman, a correspondent for Al Jazeera, showed a Border Patrol agent yelling at Haitian migrants as they crossed the Rio Grande with food. A video showed a Border Patrol agent in the river yelling at migrants:  "Hey you use your women? This is why your country’s s---, because you use your women for this!" 

Reaction to the images

The images and videos drew swift criticism from within and outside the administration, and have raised questions for top immigration officials about the Biden administration’s approach. 

Critics say the images show inhumane treatment and contradict Biden’s campaign promises to deliver racial justice and undo Trump-era immigration policies.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said he was "horrified" by the footage and ordered an investigation. Employees under investigation have been placed on administrative duties.

"We do not condone, we do not tolerate any mistreatment of any migrant," Mayorkas told Joy Reid on MSNBC.

On the TV show "The View" Sept. 24, Vice President Kamala Harris said she was outraged.

Agents on horseback: Did they use whips?

References to agents on horseback using whips against migrants appeared in several descriptions of the events near the river and in comments critical of border agents’ actions.

Biden on Sept. 24 described as "horrible" the images of "people being strapped." Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted on Sept. 21: "The images of inhumane treatment of Haitian migrants by Border Patrol — including the use of whips — are unacceptable." An El Paso Times report said a border agent "swung his whip menacingly, charging his horse toward the men in the river." The headline on a Reuters photo slideshow of the incident used the term "whip-like cords." 

Ratje told PolitiFact that his photographs didn’t show signs of agents whipping any migrants or using anything as a whip to strike them. 

"Nobody saw a Border Patrol agent whipping," he said. "What we did see was a Border Patrol agent swinging the rein in like a circle. It looked pretty threatening. Nobody saw him strike the migrant with that thing, the reins. 

"I asked other colleagues, ‘Did you see him whipping?’ No," he added. "That stuff got misconstrued. What is very obvious in the picture was they were kind of moving in a threatening fashion. They really caused a panic there with what they did."

The El Paso Times published an update to its report that changed the wording about whips.  The updated version said: "The agent menacingly swung his reins like a whip."

Ratje reflected on his photo on Instagram:

"If there were only one question I’d wish for you to ask when looking at this image, and looking at any image of what’s happening with the Haitians in Del Rio/Acuña, or to migrants on the border in general, it would be this: Who is this country, this United States of America? — And the answer to that question is for you to decide."

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Our Sources

Photographer Paul Ratje, Twitter account, Accessed Sept. 24, 2021

Photographer Paul Ratje, Instagram, Sept. 22, 2021

John Holman, Tweet, Sept. 20, 2021

KTSM, Photographer behind controversial photos speaks exclusively to KTSM, Sept. 23, 2021

CNN, Kamala Harris raises 'grave concerns' over treatment of Haitian migrants in call with DHS chief, Sept. 22, 2021

Washington Post, What one photo from the border tells us about the evolving migrant crisis, Sept. 20, 2021

Texas Tribune, Border patrol agents criticized for treatment of Haitian migrants in Del Rio as U.S. tries to dissuade more from coming, Sept. 20, 2021

Department of Homeland Security, Secretary Mayorkas Delivers Remarks in Del Rio, TX, Sept. 20, 2021

NPR, U.S. Border Agents Chased Migrants On Horseback. A Photographer Explains What He Saw, Sept. 21, 2021

NPR, Haitians Pushed To U.S. Border By Misinformation Now Angry At Deportation, Sept. 21, 2021

AP, Homeland Security chief, in shift, says photos from border ‘troubled me profoundly’ Sept. 21, 2021

Reuters, "Trapped": Migrants collecting food try to evade law enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border, Sept. 20, 2021

Sarah Blake Morgan of the AP, Tweet, Sept. 24, 2021

Sen. Chuck Schumer, Tweet, Sept. 21, 2021

Sen. Jeff Merkley, Tweet, Sept. 20, 2021

John Holman, Al Jazeera, Tweet, Sept. 2021

NowThis, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas Holds a Press Briefing at U.S.-Mexico Border, Sept. 20, 201

MSNBC, Transcript: The ReidOut, Sept. 21, 2021

El Paso Times, Haitian migrants face tough choices in Del Rio amid crackdown at Texas-Mexico border, Sept. 19, 2021

CNN, DHS temporarily suspends use of horse patrol in Del Rio, Sep. 23, 2021

PolitiFact, Biden made a lot of promises about race. Can he keep them? Jan. 26, 2021

Telephone interview, Daniel Becerril, photographer at Reuters, Sept. 24, 2021

Telephone interview, freelance photographer Paul Ratje, Sept. 24, 2021

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