President Biden was adamant after images of tense confrontations between horse-mounted Border Patrol agents and Haitian migrants emerged in September, vowing that the agents “will pay.”
One image showed a mounted agent with reins in his hand while a Haitian dodged around the horse, which led some to speculate the migrant was being whipped. A video caught another agent insulting a migrant and calling Haiti “S**t.”
Vice President Kamala Harris likened the agents’ treatment of the Haitians to the oppression of plantation slavery. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas initially defended the agents but then rushed to Capitol Hill to condemn them and promised lawmakers results from his investigation in “days.”
That was six months ago.
Now, with the investigation dragging on, several agents remain sidelined from field duty and fellow agents fear the department is setting them up as fall guys to fulfill Mr. Biden’s demand for someone “to pay.”
“Why would it be taking six months if they’re not trying to dot their i’s and cross their t’s to find some wrongdoing?” says Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council. “Biden, Harris and Mayorkas already convicted them. If this investigation comes back that there is no wrongdoing, then they are going to look completely and totally incompetent. Therefore these investigators have one choice and that is to trump up some finding of wrongdoing.”
The agents were deployed amid an unprecedented situation last September, when thousands of migrants — almost all of them Haitian — rushed across the Rio Grande to reach Del Rio, Texas. They captured a beachhead on the U.S. side of the river, set up a migrant camp and waited for agents to process them, hoping they’d be caught and released into the country.
Border Patrol agents tried to help maintain the camp, but the migrants weren’t in custody, and many made their way back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico at will, going back over the line to get food then returning to wait for their turn to be processed.
Trying to keep some order, agents handed out tickets with numbers to mark places in line for processing.
Images of the camp went viral, adding another stain to the already troubled Biden border policies, and Homeland Security responded by pouring in resources. Border Patrol highway checkpoints were shut down and agents shifted to Del Rio, which also had the effect of giving smugglers a clear shot into the interior through those previously guarded routes.
Among those deployed was the Border Patrol’s mounted unit.
Mr. Judd said supervisors gave them the “impossible” task of trying to block the river to prevent even more Haitians from reaching the camp.
That’s what was happening on Sept. 19, when photographers captured images of the confrontations.
The agents were caught between a camp of thousands of migrants, seething with tension, and hundreds more people desperate to get in, Mr. Judd said.
“Everybody knew it was a powder keg,” he said. “You never put people in a situation where they’re caught between two large groups.”
He said the agents were acting within policy and procedure in trying to deter crossings while trying to keep control of their mounts to avoid injuring anyone.
“The agents were giving them lawful commands. They were approaching the horses. The agents had to keep them away for their own protection,” Mr. Judd said.
As agents tried to block off the route, one photographer captured a video of an agent yelling at migrants: “This is why your country’s s**t, because you use your women for this.”
Another freelance photographer, Paul Ratje, captured the defining image of a mounted agent grabbing the shirt of a migrant, as a cord dangled in the air, went viral, and came to define the encounter.
Some saw the cord as a whip, and a narrative emerged that the agent was beating the migrant.
Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz, who’d done duty on horseback previously in his career, told reporters that in fact, the cord was the horse’s reins, which are long and were swinging as the agent tried to maintain control of his mount with migrants dashing around the horse’s legs.
Mr. Ratje later backed up that account.
“I asked other colleagues, ‘Did you see him whipping?’ No,” the photographer told PolitiFact. “That stuff got misconstrued.”
But the photographer was still bothered by the encounter.
“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 Río/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,” he wrote on Instagram.
Mr. Mayorkas was standing alongside Chief Ortiz when he defended the agents’ actions. At the time, Mr. Mayorkas seemed to back the agents.
A day later, after the vice president’s office said she called Mr. Mayorkas to express her displeasure, the secretary’s tone changed.
Testifying to Congress, he said he was “horrified” by the images, and he vowed an investigation with results in “days, not weeks.”
Mr. Biden, for his part, sided with those who believed the agents were whipping people.
“To see people like they did, with horses, running them over, people being strapped, it’s outrageous,” he said.
“I promise you, those people will pay,” he said. “There is an investigation underway right now and there will be consequences.”
Mr. Judd said those comments have tainted the probe from the start and left investigators with no option other than to find something — anything — to hang on an agent.
“They boxed themselves into a corner. Biden came out and he made statements that were completely and totally premature,” Mr. Judd said. “Because he made those statements, they’re now boxed into an impossible situation.”
He said two agents that seem to be under scrutiny are the one photographed by Mr. Ratje with the reins dangling, and the one caught on video insulting migrants and their home country.
Mr. Judd defended that agent, saying he was squaring off with a Haitian man who was pushing women and children in front of him to shield himself from the mounted patrol.
“You’ve got this extremely volatile high-stress situation and you have a male putting a female and a child in front of him. If that child or female had fallen into the river that agent would have had to go into the river and try to save those people,” Mr. Judd said. “It was a very stressful situation, yet they’re saying he was unprofessional? Anybody in that situation would have made those same comments.”
Homeland Security, in a statement, said officials are still working on the review.
“We will share the results of the investigation once it is complete and provide updates, as available, consistent with the need to protect the integrity of the investigation and individuals’ privacy,” the department said.
It referred a reporter back to a November statement that said the inspector general declined to investigate, so CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility took the lead.
“OPR has followed customary process in its investigation of this matter,” Homeland Security said.
The department detailed the lengthy process of consultation with prosecutors, disciplinary recommendations and appeals available. The department has not said why Mr. Mayorkas promised results in “days.”
During Mr. Mayorkas’s September appearance on Capitol Hill, members of Congress demanded fast answers.
Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, New Jersey Democrat, told Mr. Mayorkas the agents should never “be able to interact with other human beings ever again. They need to be released and they need to be held accountable.”
Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, said the images she saw were “worse than what we witnesses in slavery.”
“I’m pissed. I’m unhappy and I’m not just unhappy with the cowboys, who were running down Haitians and using their reins to whip them,” she said. “I’m unhappy with the administration.”
Spokespersons for the two congresswomen didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.
The Washington Times also reached out to several groups that have been advocating for Haitian migrants but received no responses.
Homeland Security didn’t respond to questions about the status of the horse patrol unit or agents under investigation, nor whether any supervisors are being probed or disciplined.
Mr. Judd said the two agents in question have been kept out of the field, but they are still in uniform and on duty.
He said whatever bungles did occur happened at the management level, with whoever thought it a good idea to deploy mounted agents to block routes to the camp. But he said no supervisors have been disciplined so far. Mr. Judd said that is “a complete and total farce.”