July 15, 2022

After many months, Customs and Border Protection released findings from an investigation of a Sep. 19, 2021, incident in which Border Patrol agents on horseback pursued Haitian migrants as they crossed the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, into Del Rio, Texas. Photos and videos of the incident went viral, drawing national attention.

In a 511-page report, CBP said it found no evidence that any migrants were struck by horse reins; however four CBP agents will face disciplinary actions.

One agent was found to have acted unprofessionally and unsafely as he yelled profanities at a migrant and dangerously maneuvered his horse around a small child on a slanted concrete ramp.

Other agents used “force or the threat of force to drive the migrants back into the Rio Grande River.”

The investigation included over 30 interviews with reporters, witnesses and agents along with a review of photos, videos, training materials and documents related to the incident.

What happened on the day of the incident

Around 15,000 Haitian immigrants had amassed in an encampment under the international bridge by the CBP point of entry in Del Rio, Texas.

At the time, Haiti had endured a presidential assassination, tropical storms and an earthquake. But the Haitians encountered by CBP were largely those who had migrated to South America years before after a 2010 earthquake hit Haiti.

When immigrants reach a U.S. point of entry, CBP agents interview them to determine if they can be let into the country, per immigration law. In this case, CBP gave the Haitian migrants in the encampment color-coded tickets to call on them for processing, the report said. Over several days, Border Patrol agents processed, screened and vetted more than 30,000 migrants by the international bridge, CBP said.

As the agency worked to process the thousands of migrants and food ran low in the encampment, migrants were allowed to move back and forth across the Rio Grande to gather food and water for themselves and their families.

The viral photos and videos of the incident were captured as agents, according to the report, tried to prevent migrants from traveling from side to side “for approximately 15 minutes” despite that not being the objective of the U.S. Border Patrol that day, CBP said. The agents “used force, or threats of force, to coerce or compel individuals to return to Mexico,” instead of processing them in the U.S. as immigration law requires.

At least two agents “used their horses to forcibly block migrants from exiting the river and chased migrants who had successfully exited the river including grabbing one by the shirt and spinning him around,” the report said.

“One agent acted in an unprofessional manner by yelling denigrating and offensive comments regarding the migrants’ national origin and gender, and that same agent acted in an unsafe manner by forcing his horse around a small child on a slanted concrete ramp, which put the child’s safety at risk,” the report said.

The migrants were not threatening the agents, the report said. 

A lapse in communication, control and command led to the “unnecessary use of force against migrants who were attempting to reenter the United States with food.”

“While one agent stated he was giving the migrants a choice of returning to Mexico or being arrested, a second agent could not articulate a reason for his use of force beyond trying to stop them further entering the U.S.,” the report said.

There is no evidence that any migrants were forced to return to Mexico or denied entry to the U.S.

Following agency rules, CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which conducted the investigation, presented its findings to the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas on Sep. 29, 2021. But the office declined to prosecute the case.

Border Patrol agents did not strike any migrants

A large part of the public outcry following the incident centered on freelance journalist Paul Ratje’s photo showing a U.S. Border Patrol agent grabbing a migrant’s shirt as a horse rein swings nearby.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris condemned the incident.

“It was horrible what you saw. To see people treated like they did. Horses nearly running them over and people being strapped. It’s outrageous. I promise you, those people will pay,” Biden said in a Sep. 24, 2021, press conference.

“An investigation is underway now, and there will be consequences,” Biden added.

However, in a press release, CBP said the investigation found “no evidence that any migrants were struck by reins.”

The horses CBP used had split reins, which riders can twirl to guide the horses’ movements. People who saw the image mistook the reins for whips. But, whips are not part of Border Patrol training, and no agents involved in the incident carried whips, said CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus in a July 8, 2022 press conference. 

The report did find shortcomings in the use of horse patrol units on that day. The units deployed “did not have appropriate training, supervision and coordination,” Magnus said.

After the investigation was published, congressional Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., asked Biden and Harris to apologize for their earlier comments.

Biden and Harris have yet to make a statement on the report.

What comes next

Magnus said CBP will implement changes to prevent a similar incident from occurring.

“The situation in Del Rio at the time of this incident was chaotic and unprecedented. It’s clear from the investigation that decisions were made, and there was a lack of policy and training, which contributed to the incident,” Magnus said. “But there is no justification for the actions of some of our personnel, including unprofessional and deeply offensive conduct.”

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas echoed this sentiment on July 8, 2022.

“The misconduct of several individuals does not reflect the brave and distinguished service of the agents of the United States Border Patrol,” Mayorkas said in a statement. “The organizational failures of policy, procedures, and training that the investigation identified were a disservice to the agents and the public they serve. CBP must and will do better.”

The incident occurred because agents followed a request from the Texas Department of Public Safety after a Border Patrol supervisor cleared the agents to participate in the operation that conflicted with the Border Patrol’s operational objectives, CPB said in its statement. Also, the agency said, the Border Patrol supervisor didn’t get additional guidance from higher-ups in his chain of command.

CBP said it would establish clear command practices for large-scale operations. The agency also said it would prohibit the use of twirling or spinning reins to distance or control crowds and would forbid the deployment of horse patrol units for crowd control without the commissioner’s OK.

“We are also reviewing legal training to ensure agents understand their responsibilities and authorities at the border,” Magnus said at the press conference.

A disciplinary review board was created to review the investigation. The board proposed disciplinary actions for four agents. Magnus did not specify what disciplinary actions are being taken but mentioned a range of possibilities from reprimand to termination.

Mayorkas said, “While the individual discipline process is underway, CBP is implementing the needed reforms and will continue to do so. This critical work will proceed with the urgency and commitment that the highest ideals of the law enforcement profession and service to country compel, respectful of fundamental civil rights and civil liberties.”

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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Maria Ramirez Uribe is an immigration reporter at PolitiFact. Previously she served as a Report for America corps member, working as a race and equity…
Maria Ramirez Uribe

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