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U.S. Border Agents Chased Migrants On Horseback. A Photographer Explains What He Saw

A U.S. Border Patrol agent on horseback tries to stop a Haitian migrant from entering an encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande near the Acuña Del Rio International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas.
Paul Ratje
AFP via Getty Images
A U.S. Border Patrol agent on horseback tries to stop a Haitian migrant from entering an encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande near the Acuña Del Rio International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas.

Updated September 21, 2021 at 10:22 PM ET

Images of U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback chasing Haitian migrants along the Rio Grande are "horrific," the White House says.

The migrants were attempting to return to a camp near the international Bridge in Del Rio, Texas, where thousands of migrants have gathered on the U.S. side of the border river. Many of them carried food they'd just bought in Mexico.

But when the migrants attempted to cross the river and return to the U.S. side of the border, agents used their horses to try to turn them back. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced that the agents have been placed on administrative duties while their actions are being investigated.

The dramatic scene immediately sparked new questions about how a "nation of immigrants" treats people who are desperate for a better life.

The photographer's viewpoint

Video from the scene shows an agent whirling his horse's long reins as he tries to block a man from entering the United States. And in widely seen photographs, an agent lunges nearly out of his saddle to grab a man by the shirt as the man carries bags of food.

"I thought the Haitians were quite scared, and I think there was probably some panic, which resulted in them trying to run around the horses," photographer Paul Ratje told NPR's Morning Edition.

U.S. Border Patrol agents confront migrants crossing the Rio Grande River near the Del Rio-Acuña Port of Entry in Del Rio, Texas.
Eric Thayer / Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Border Patrol agents stop migrants crossing the Rio Grande on Sunday near the port of entry in Del Rio.

"The agents tried to block them, and then the one agent grabbed a man by his shirt and then kind of swung them around," said Ratje, who frequently covers border issues. "And I don't know what prompted that."

His photos quickly went viral, along with video from the scene. The images have now triggered an investigation into what happened as well as questions about the Biden administration's immigration policies.

"Absolutely unacceptable," U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, said as she posted Ratje's photos on Twitter. "No matter how challenging the situation in Del Rio is right now, nothing justifies violence against migrants attempting to seek asylum in our country."

DHS promises a swift investigation

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was in this area on Monday visiting the Del Rio-Ciudad Acuña Port of Entry.

Mayorkas and other officials suggested that what many viewers took to be agents using whips was actually agents using their horses' reins.

"But we are going to investigate the facts to ensure that the situation is as we understand it to be and if it's anything different, we will respond accordingly," he said, according to Texas Public Radio.

Mounted Border Patrol agents watch Haitian immigrants on the bank of the Rio Grande in Del Rio, Texas, as seen from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico.
John Moore / Getty Images
Getty Images
Mounted Border Patrol agents watch Haitian migrants Monday on the banks of the Rio Grande in Del Rio, as seen from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico.

The Department of Homeland Security said the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Professional Responsibility is investigating, adding that the agency's inspector general has also been informed.

"The footage is extremely troubling and the facts learned from the full investigation, which will be conducted swiftly, will define the appropriate disciplinary actions to be taken," DHS said.

"We are committed to processing migrants in a safe, orderly, and humane way," the agency said. "We can and must do this in a way that ensures the safety and dignity of migrants."

ACLU of Texas criticizes the Biden administration

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas is demanding accountability for the incident, issuing a statement Tuesday that said agents must be punished if they're found to have behaved or spoken inappropriately toward the migrants.

The rights group also called for changes in how the agency works.

"Border Patrol must end the use of horse-mounted agents in Del Rio, Texas," the ACLU chapter said. "The images circulating from the border are vile and unacceptable."

The ACLU also called on the inspector general's office of Department of Homeland Security to investigate the situation promptly, to scrutinize whether agents complied with the agency's policies on the use of force — and whether they should continue to use horses in the same way they were on Sunday.

The White House calls the images "horrific"

White House press secretary Jen Psaki repeatedly called the images "horrific" when asked about the incident on Monday, using the same word she used to describe the errant U.S. strike that recently killed civilians in Afghanistan.

"It's devastating to watch this footage," Psaki said.

Psaki was asked for the White House response to agents "seemingly using whips" to corral migrants.

"It's horrible to watch," she said while cautioning she did not have more information about what transpired.

Of the video, Psaki said, "I can't imagine what the scenario is where that would be appropriate."

In response to a later question, she added, "It's obviously horrific, the footage."

Psaki also reiterated the U.S. stance toward the migrants and said that now is "not the time to come," citing the state of the U.S. immigration system as well as the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced tight travel restrictions.

Many of the more than 14,000 migrants who have been camping at the border are hoping to seek asylum in the U.S. as Haitians flee a country in complete disarray. But in recent days, the Biden administration has been deporting migrants by the planeload, sending thousands back to Haiti.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.