September 28, 2021

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.”

This article was originally published by PolitiFact, which is part of the Poynter Institute. It is republished here with permission. See the sources for these fact checks here and more of their fact checks here.

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Amy Sherman is a staff writer with PolitiFact based in South Florida. She was part of the team that launched PolitiFact Florida in 2010 and…
Amy Sherman

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  • Seems most people today know nothing about Equines and Mounted Police. Horses have natural human avoidance, they do not just run people over, and being a Nation of Laws, where we the citizens respect the law, and the Law Officers, be them Human or Equine, they command respect, I see no respect given to the officers that are mounted. All I see is agents enforcing US law. If you break the law on the first day in the US, what is to stop them from breaking the law on their 33rd day, or the 1033rd day? Here is another thing to consider… no more fossil fuels, and a national border that no electric vehicle could ever cross leaves a greater need for Mounted Agents. We use Horses to patrol our borders, our National Parks, even our unruly concert goers, nothing new to see here.