Starting in mid-September 2021, and peaking around September 18-21, a large number of mostly Haitian migrants crossed the Rio Grande at Del Rio, Texas, a remote sector of the border across from Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila, Mexico. By September 18, Del Rio’s mayor, citing information from Border Patrol, said that 14,534 migrants were encamped on the riverbank, under and around the border crossing bridge. There, while awaiting their turn to be processed by Border Patrol, they washed in the river and slept in tents, under shelters built out of vegetation, or in the open air.
In response to the Haitians’ rapid arrival, CBP surged 600 Border Patrol agents, CBP officers, and DHS volunteers to Del Rio, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said during a September 20 visit to the sector.
By September 21, CBP had constructed a field hospital and was more systematically providing food. But for the first several days, food and clean water were scarce at the Del Rio site. This forced migrants to wade into Ciudad Acuña, Mexico to buy food at local stores and restaurants, then wade back into the United States with their provisions.
On their return to U.S. soil, some of the migrants, often laden with bags of food, encountered hostile Border Patrol agents on horseback. Photos and videos showed agents appearing to charge at migrants, including some children, at the water’s edge, apparently trying to force them to return to Mexico. One can be heard using a profane slur against Haiti. Some are shown waving or making slapping motions with lariats or long reins, which bore a resemblance to whips.
“Video footage of Border Patrol’s actions in this incident clearly demonstrate that the migrants being encountered by mounted agents did not present an imminent threat,” an ACLU letter describes the scene. “In one video an agent stops a family with small children, makes derogatory and xenophobic comments to the family, and then maneuvers his horse in a way that comes dangerously close to trampling a child.”
A March 2022 report from Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and the Haitian Bridge Alliance included testimonies from the migrants.
A Haitian woman, traveling with her husband, aunt, and infant son, went to Acuña to find food for her family. When she returned and attempted to cross the river, she was surrounded by several CBP officers on horseback. When she tried to explain that she had to get back to the encampment to reunite with her child, the CBP officers screamed at her to “get back” and “go back to Mexico.” She witnessed two men fall into the river and disappear below the current. She also witnessed one man tear his leg open after being chased and trampled by a CBP officer on horseback. One Haitian man brought his eight-year-old son to the riverbank to bathe when mounted officers appeared and began chasing down a group of migrants gathered by the Rio Grande. As his son attempted to run away from the CBP officers on horseback, he fell—was nearly trampled by the horse—and suffered cuts and bruises to his legs. He injured his eye, which then became painfully inflamed. The man described the “moment of terror” when he saw his young son fall to the ground. “I thought my son would be killed, right there in front of me.” Terrified and traumatized, they fled the Del Rio encampment that night. Another Haitian man and his pregnant girlfriend were both shoved and pushed by CBP officers in Del Rio when they attempted to cross the Rio Grande with food they purchased in Acuña:
“When we were crossing the river by the bridge, we were met by the CBP agents. Some of them were on horses, some were on foot. As I was trying to cross with my pregnant girlfriend they shoved us. She [my girlfriend] was also shoved and fell to the ground. I don’t speak English well, but I tried to tell the agents that my girlfriend was pregnant. I tried to say it in Spanish. But they continued to abuse us and they kept shoving us across the river.”
In summarizing his experience under the bridge, the man explained, “I wasn’t treated with dignity at the border [in Del Rio]. I was treated worse than animals. I experienced racism and abuse in Brazil, but what I experienced at the border was much worse.”
Border Patrol Chief Raúl Ortiz, a former Del Rio sector chief, claimed the agents were attempting to control the horses with the reins. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote that “this was an apparently isolated encounter, one that soon resolved with those seeking to enter the country and return to or arrive at the camp able to do so.”
Nonetheless, images of uniformed White men on horseback menacing Black people with what looked like whips blanketed U.S. social media on September 19 and 20, inspiring horrified reactions.
Immigrant rights and civil rights groups joined in condemnation. In Miami, 200 Haitian-Americans protesting outside the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) field office forced road closures. The NAACP tweeted side-by-side “then” and “now” images: a drawing of a slaveholder whipping a Black man next to one of the Del Rio photos. A letter from civil rights groups said Biden’s promises for a more humane immigration policy “are being shredded before our eyes.” Human Rights Watch called it “the latest example of racially discriminatory, abusive, and illegal U.S. border policies that are returning people to harm and humanitarian disaster.”
Reactions in Congress were strong. The images were “horrific and disturbing,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “We had not seen the horses and the whips with any other population of people, so that to us goes to racism,” said Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. House Oversight Committee Democrats sent a letter demanding a briefing from Biden administration officials by September 24 (original link).
Strong words also came from the Biden administration. “As it relates to those photos and that horrific video, we’re not going to stand for that kind of inhumane treatment and obviously we want this investigation to be completed rapidly,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. “What I saw depicted, those individuals on horseback treating human beings the way they were, was horrible,” said Vice President Kamala Harris. “Human beings should never be treated that way, and I’m deeply troubled about it.”
On September 24, President Joe Biden addressed the images for the first time. “It’s horrible what you saw. 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. There is an investigation underway right now and there will be consequences.”
DHS promised an investigation and disciplinary actions, and suspended the use of horse patrols in Del Rio (original link). However, “There is little reason to have confidence in the department’s willingness to hold its agents accountable,” Chris Rickerd and Sarah Turberville contended at the Los Angeles Times, noting that “CBP’s own records found that it took no action in 96% of 1,255 cases of alleged Border Patrol misconduct between January 2012 and October 2015.”
The DHS Inspector-General declined to take the case, and CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility shared preliminary findings with the Justice Department in October, to determine whether criminal charges were warranted. As of January 2022, other than a list of next steps that DHS published in mid-November, there had been no further word (original link). It was not until nearly six months after the incident, on March 11, 2022, that the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas decided not to pursue criminal charges. During that period, CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) was unable to interview the Border Patrol agents directly involved in the incident.
On July 8, 2022, CBP OPR released its report on the incident (original link). The 511-page document found “failures at multiple levels of the agency, a lack of appropriate policies and training, and unprofessional and dangerous behavior by several individual Agents.”
The report included the following findings about what happened over approximately a half hour on September 19, 2021.
- There was no evidence that the agents “whipped” the migrants or that the riders’ reins struck any migrants. In future crowd control events, though, CBP will prohibit mounted agents from “twirling” their reins as “a distancing tactic.”
- “Several mounted Border Patrol Agents used force or the threat of force to drive several migrants back into the Rio Grande River, despite the fact the migrants were well within the territorial boundary of the United States.”
- In addition to swinging reins, aggressive tactics included charging horses at migrants to keep them from entering, in one case maneuvering a horse very close to a boy, and in another causing a man to fall back into the river; grabbing a man by his shirt and flipping him around; and yelling “unprofessional” comments, including “Hey! You use your women? This is why your country’s s***, you use your women for this.”
- By pushing migrants back to the river and Mexico, the horse-patrol agents were following orders given not by Border Patrol, but a request from Texas’s state police (Department of Public Safety). Though blocking migrants was not CBP’s objective, the Border Patrol supervisor approved the state agency’s request without checking with higher-ups.
- This owed much to faulty command and control within Border Patrol. The horse patrol agents’ supervisor “was unable to obtain additional guidance from higher in the USBP chain of command at the time of the request” from Texas DPS. The agents “repeatedly sought guidance from the USBP incident command post” by radio, and backed off after being “eventually told to allow all the migrants to enter.”
- Though assigned to a crowd control mission—a difficult job with a high risk of escalation and human rights abuse—the horse patrol unit’s members’ responses indicated that they had not received crowd control training. CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus said that from now on, horses would not be used for crowd control without the commissioner’s approval.
With the OPR report complete, a CBP Disciplinary Review Board, separate from OPR and made up of senior officials, was to consider punishments for the agents involved. As of July 2022, four agents may face administrative measures. CBS News reported that no firings are recommended, and that the Review Board proposed a seven-day suspension for the supervisor who approved the Texas state DPS request.
The agents’ defenders—including the National Border Patrol Council union, House Homeland Security Committee ranking Republican Rep. John Katko (R-New York), and several former Border Patrol leaders in a mid-June letter—argue that they are not receiving due process because President Biden had demanded in September 2021 that they “pay” for their actions (original link, original link). Border Patrol union President Brandon Judd said that the union would appeal any punishments.
Critics of the OPR report note that it only covered what happened in the approximate half-hour on September 19 when the horse patrol was caught on camera, and that investigators did not speak to a single Haitian migrant. Nora Phillips, legal director of Haitian Bridge Alliance, told National Public Radio:
the official report contains some important inaccuracies. For example, she says, Border patrol agents did strike migrants with their horses’ reins. She’s also disappointed that investigators focused only on the incident with the horse patrols, while basically ignoring the squalid conditions in the camp.
“There was no investigation into that,” she said. “The lack of food, the lack of water, the lack of medical care. And that’s what’s also really disappointing.”
In September 2022, the Haitian Bridge Alliance, African Communities Together, and UndocuBlack Network filed a lawsuit to compel DHS to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests for records regarding the treatment of Haitian migrants during the Del Rio event. “U.S. agents harassed and intimidated migrants, including through physical force. And then, abruptly, the government rounded up and expelled thousands of the migrants, forcing many to return to Haiti, a country that could not safely receive or protect them,” the groups’ complaint reads.
— Shaw Drake, “U.S. Border Patrol’s use of horses and verbal abuse against migrants in Del Rio, TX” (El Paso: ACLU Texas, September 21, 2021) https://www.aclutx.org/sites/default/files/aclu_tx_cbp_oig_letter_re_border_patrol_in_del_rio.pdf.
— Sarah Turberville, Chris Rickerd, “Abusing migrants while on horseback? That fits with the Border Patrol’s long history of brutality” (Los Angeles: The Los Angeles Times, September 22, 2021) https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2021-09-22/haitian-migrants-del-rio-border-patrol-horseback.
— Philip Bump, “What one photo from the border tells us about the evolving migrant crisis” (Washington: The Washington Post, September 20, 2021) https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/09/20/what-one-photo-border-tells-us-about-evolving-migrant-crisis/.
— Tweet from NAACP @NAACP (Twitter: September 21, 2021) https://twitter.com/NAACP/status/1440433080477519872.
— Beyond the Bridge: Documented Human Rights Abuses and Civil Rights Violations Against Haitian Migrants in the Del Rio, Texas Encampment (United States: Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and Haitian Bridge Alliance, March 29, 2022) https://rfkhr.imgix.net/asset/Del-Rio-Report.pdf.
— “US: Treatment of Haitian Migrants Discriminatory” (Washington: Human Rights Watch, September 21, 2021) https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/09/21/us-treatment-haitian-migrants-discriminatory.
— Letter to Acting CBP Commissioner Troy Miller from six members of Congress (Washington: U.S. House of Representatives, September 22, 2021) https://int.nyt.com/data/documenttools/read-the-letter-from-lawmakers-demanding-answers-on-treatment-of-haitian-migrants/9e164db6d5b98eed/full.pdf.
— Annika Kim Constantino, “Biden condemns Border Patrol agents’ treatment of Haitian migrants, vows they will face consequences” (United States: CNBC, September 24, 2021) https://www.cnbc.com/2021/09/24/biden-condemns-border-patrol-treatment-of-haitian-migrants-in-del-rio.html.
— Tweet from Homeland Security @DHSgov (Twitter: September 20, 2021) https://twitter.com/DHSgov/status/1440090164425019397.
— Letter from former Border Patrol officials to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas (Washington: Washington Examiner, June 21, 2022) https://www.scribd.com/document_downloads/direct/579239144?extension=pdf&ft=1657135495<=1657139105&user_id=352475425&uahk=pzqbundOpAFXYAdmeffgbzGwQPI.
— Anna Giaritelli, “Border Patrol chiefs under three presidents warn Biden on ‘whipping’ discipline” (Washington: Washington Examiner, June 21, 2022) https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/policy/defense-national-security/border-patrol-chiefs-warn-biden-on-whipping.
— Eileen Sullivan and Zolan Kanno-Youngs, “Review Finds Agents Used Unnecessary Force Against Black Migrants” (New York: The New York Times, July 8, 2022) https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/08/us/politics/border-patrol-investigation-migrants.html.
— Rep. John Katko, “Katko on the Del Rio Horse Patrol Investigation Report” (Washington: House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee Republicans, July 8, 2022) https://republicans-homeland.house.gov/katko-on-the-del-rio-horse-patrol-investigation-report/.
— Camilo Montoya-Galvez, Nicole Sganga, “Border Patrol agents on horseback used “unnecessary” force against Haitian migrants last year, investigators find” (United States: CBS News, July 8, 2022) https://www.cbsnews.com/news/border-patrol-agents-on-horseback-used-unnecessary-force-against-haitian-migrants-last-year-investigators-find/.
— CBP Office of Professional Responsibility – Del Rio Horse Patrol Unit Investigation Report (Washington: CPB OPR, July 8, 2022) https://www.cbp.gov/document/report/cbp-office-professional-responsibility-del-rio-horse-patrol-unit-investigation.
— Joel Rose, “After Del Rio, some Haitian migrants found safety in the U.S. But many have not” (United States: National Public Radio, September 7, 2022) <https://www.npr.org/2022/09/07/1120775143/after-del-rio-some-haitian-migrants-found-safety-in-the-u-s-but-many-have-not>.
— Bernal, Rafael. “Haitian Advocates File Lawsuit against Biden Administration over Del Rio.” The Hill. September 30, 2022. <https://thehill.com/latino/3669222-haitian-advocates-file-lawsuit-against-biden-administration-over-del-rio/>.
Footnotes from above:
: In-person interview by RFK Human Rights lawyer with Haitian individual in Acuña, Mexico (Sept. 25, 2021). : In-person interview by RFK Human Rights lawyer with Haitian individual in Acuña, Mexico (Sept. 25, 2021). : In-person interview by RFK Human Rights lawyer with Haitian individual in Acuña, Mexico (Sept. 25, 2021). : In-person interview by RFK Human Rights lawyer with Haitian individual in Acuña, Mexico (Sept. 25, 2021). : In-person interview by RFK Human Rights lawyer with Haitian individual in Acuña, Mexico (Sept. 25, 2021).