WASHINGTON – Images of border patrol agents on horseback, pushing back Haitian migrants crossing the Rio Grande in an attempt to reach American soil, sparked outrage among Democrats and called into question President Biden’s decision to deport quickly thousands of people arrived in droves in a small town on the border of Texas.
Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday called the treatment “horrific” and said she planned to discuss the matter with Alejandro N. Mayorkas, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, who opened an investigation.
“Human beings should never be treated this way,” Ms. Harris said. “And I am deeply troubled about it.”
When asked if Mr. Biden had seen the footage, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “He thinks the footage and photos are horrific. They do not represent who we are as a country. And he was happy to see the announcement of the investigation.
The photographs and video footage agents’ interactions with the migrants, which were circulated widely online, offered a glimpse into the chaos that had unfolded since last week, when large groups of Haitians began crossing the Rio Grande and entering illegally in the United States in Del Rio, Texas. This is the latest example of the Biden administration, in its attempts to exert control over the growing number of border crossings, denying the president’s pledge to restore an asylum program for vulnerable families fleeing persecution and violence. poverty.
The videos appear to show border patrol agents on horseback rounding up migrants and forcing them back to Mexico. Some of the officers were holding and waving what appeared to be reins, prompting accusations that they had used whips against them. Video captured an officer cursing at a migrant.
The Biden administration has flown more than 1,000 people to Haiti since Sunday and plans to make seven flights a day from Wednesday, with room for 135 migrants on each plane, according to an official familiar with the plan who said. is expressed on condition of anonymity for discussion. internal strategies. But some leading Democrats have said this strategy is wrong.
“I urge President Biden and Secretary Mayorkas to immediately end these deportations,” Majority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said Tuesday. “We cannot continue these hateful and xenophobic Trump policies that ignore our refugee laws. “
The public health rule the Trump administration put in place at the start of the coronavirus pandemic has been used more than 700,000 times under the Biden administration to quickly deport migrants, many of whom seek asylum.
President Nancy Pelosi said Congress was closely monitoring what she called a “heartbreaking” situation.
“All asylum-seeking migrants should be treated according to the law and decency,” she said in a statement. “Any act of aggression or violence cannot be tolerated and must be investigated. “
Leaders of civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, sent a letter to Mr. Biden on Tuesday condemning the treatment of Haitians.
“White men (and featuring white) on horseback with lariats are seen chasing, shouting and cursing at vulnerable black asylum seekers who fled for weeks and months to what they believed to be safety,” said they wrote. “The actions of these border patrol agents are shameful and show indifference to the humanity of black migrants.”
The Border Patrol, founded in 1924 when officers were recruited from the Texas Rangers and local sheriff’s offices, is a sprawling branch of customs and border protection. The agency found itself in the limelight when President Donald J. Trump used tough measures to restrict the number of immigrants entering the United States.
He was also at the center of some of Mr. Trump’s most restrictive immigration policies, including the “zero tolerance” policy that separated thousands of children from their parents, and the practice of swiftly deporting migrants from. across the border during the pandemic, which Mr Biden held on to.
In keeping with his campaign promise to improve the agency’s accountability, Mr Biden appointed Chris Magnus, the Tucson police chief known as a reformer, as his commissioner of customs and border protection.
But the The Democratic-controlled Senate has yet to set a date for its confirmation hearing, nine months after Mr. Biden’s term began.
At a press conference in Del Rio on Monday, border patrol chief Raul L. Ortiz said the mounted unit was deployed to help with security and see if any migrants were in distress, as well as to collect supplies. information on smuggling organizations.
“Operating in a river environment, on horseback, is a difficult situation,” he said, adding that the officers used reins to try to control the horses so that they did not inadvertently injure the migrants. He said the actions of an officer on horseback, who appeared to be spinning his reins like a lasso as he towered over a group in the water, were most likely related to this challenge.
“But we will certainly look into the matter,” added Chief Ortiz, “to make sure that we do not have any activity that could be interpreted as a response to a law enforcement effort that is unacceptable.”
The mounted border patrol unit has already been deployed to areas where it can be difficult for officers to see migrants trying to escape them, such as the vast expanse of Cane Carrizo along the Rio Grande, said Gil Kerlikowske, former customs and border commissioner. Protection. Officers said migrants can use the wooded areas to easily walk past them.
But officers on horseback on Monday appeared to be along an open stretch of the Rio Grande, where families with children were also gathered.
“They are really good to watch in the brush,” said Kerlikowske, referring to the horses, “but the outdoors, especially with a lot of people, is probably not the best place for them.”
Regarding the border patrol, he added: “I think they are really trying to send a strong deterrent message.
Although he initially suggested his administration would end the public health rule and revert to allowing migrants to go through the usual asylum procedure, Mr Biden turned to deterrence, insisting that the border is not open and using repatriation flights to convey what now is not the time for migrants to try to come to the United States. In recent months, border crossings have reached their highest level in decades.
Despite this, there have been inconsistencies at various points along the border over who will be barred from entering the United States under the public health rule. Some say this has confused migrants “about the situation at the border and how best to seek protection,” said Robyn Barnard, senior refugee protection adviser at Human Rights First.
Immigration advocates also suggested that the administration was ignoring its own assessment of living conditions in Haiti, which it deemed so extreme that it granted permission to any Haitian in the country at the end of July. temporarily live in the United States.
“It is reprehensible that Haitian families seeking safety amid political violence and a devastating earthquake at home are faced with anti-black violence and have no real opportunity to seek protection,” said Katharina Obser, director of the Women’s Refugee Commission.
Many recent migrants to Del Rio have not lived in Haiti for years; instead, they resided in South America after fleeing the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010. This made rapid evictions even more difficult for people who are repatriated to a country they know little about.
In reality, not all migrants arriving at the Del Rio border are deported. Hundreds of Haitian families said they feared returning home and were allowed to enter the United States to seek asylum.
In a Senate hearing on Monday, Republicans pressured Mr Mayorkas over the latest border crisis.
“This is a humanitarian crisis in Del Rio – you can transform it however you want. But you are absolutely right, we must not downplay the humanitarian conditions for which, frankly, you are responsible, ”said Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, after Mr Mayorkas described the conditions he saw. to Del Rio a day earlier as a “human tragedy”.
“You and your administration are responsible,” added Mr. Hawley. “Tens of thousands of people living in surprising, surprising conditions brought here because of your policies.”
His comments came after he grilled Mr Mayorkas over the Biden administration’s plan to tackle increasing illegal immigration.
In Del Rio on Tuesday, Governor Greg Abbott of Texas also blamed the administration for the crisis.
“What the world is witnessing now are the open border policies being used by the Biden administration. It attracts people from all over the world, ”Abbott said. “It’s total chaos, and the Biden administration needs to improve its game a lot.”
J. David Goodman contributed reporting from Austin, Texas, and Annie karni from Washington.