The White House on Monday criticized the use of horse reins to threaten Haitian immigrants after images circulated of a U.S. border guard on horseback charging at immigrants near a riverside camp in Texas.
The mostly Haitian immigrants in recent days have been crossing back and forth between Ciudad Acuna in Mexico and the sprawling camp across the border in Del Rio to buy food and water, which was in short supply on the U.S. side.
Mounted officers wearing cowboy hats blocking the paths of immigrants, and one officer unfurling a cord resembling a lariat, which he swung near a immigrant’s face, where witnessed.
A video showing a border guard apparently threatening immigrants with the cords was shared on social media.
“I don’t think anyone seeing that footage would think it was acceptable or appropriate,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.
“I don’t have the full context. I can’t imagine what context would make that appropriate,” she added.
U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz said the incident was being investigated to make sure there was not an “unacceptable” response by law enforcement. He said officers were operating in a difficult environment, trying to ensure the safety of the immigrants while searching for potential smugglers.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the long reins are used by mounted officials to “ensure control of the horse.”
“But we are going to investigate the facts,” he said during a news conference in Del Rio.
The camp under a bridge spanning the Rio Grande has become the latest flashpoint for U.S. authorities seeking to stem a flow of immigrants fleeing gang violence, extreme poverty and natural disasters in their home countries.
The camp was a temporary home to more than 12,000 immigrants, though Texas Governor Greg Abbott said the number reached as high as 16,000 on Saturday. Many had traveled from as far south as Chile, hoping to apply for asylum in the United States.
On Monday, as temperatures soared to 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Celsius), immigrants complained about continued shortages of food and water in the camp. Some of those crossing back into the U.S. could be seen balancing large bags of ice on their heads as they waded through the water.
During the day hundreds of immigrants had returned to the Mexico side, including families with young children, hoisting backpacks, suitcases and belongings in plastic bags above their heads.
“This treatment they are giving is racism, because of the color of our skin,” said Maxon Prudhomme, a Haitian immigrant on the banks of the Rio Grande in Mexico.
As the sun was setting, about 200 migrants on the Mexican side bivouacked in a field by the river, flattening cardboard boxes and unfurling blankets to sleep under a cluster of trees.
Some immigrants said they returned to Mexico in search of food and water, while others crossed due to fears they would be deported back to Haiti on flights organized by U.S. authorities.
The first flights carrying immigrants landed in Port-au-Prince on Sunday from the Del Rio camp arrived in Haiti on Sunday, with at least three more due to make the journey on Monday, according to flight tracking website Flightaware.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the Department of Homeland Security and the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) service have requested air support from the Department of Defense to move migrants from Del Rio to other CBP facilities with more capacity for processing.
“THEY CAN’T SEND US BACK”
U.S. officials closed the Del Rio border crossing last Friday due to the crush of immigrants, and said Monday it remained shuttered, with most traffic re-routed to the Eagle Pass, Texas, border crossing, some 55 miles (90 km) south.
The prospect of deportations weighed heavily on the camp’s residents, some of whom traversed continents over months to reach the border.
“They can’t send us back to Haiti because everyone knows what Haiti is like right now,” said Haitian immigrant Wildly Jeanmary late on Sunday, wearing only boxer shorts and standing on the Mexican side of the river after crossing it.
Drenched, he cited July’s presidential assassination as a reason not to return with his wife and their 2-year-old daughter to the poorest country in the Americas. Haiti was also hit by a major earthquake last month.
“The government of the United States has no conscience,” said Nerlin Clerge, another Haitian migrant who stood near the riverbank and had traveled to the camp with his wife and their two young sons. He said he is now considering applying for the right to stay in Mexico.
Mayorkas said he expects between one to three daily repatriation flights back to Haiti, adding that a surge of 600 border agents and other personnel have been deployed to the area.
“If you come to the United States illegally, you will be returned. Your journey will not succeed,” he said at a news conference.
While Joe Biden rolled back many of his predecessor Donald Trump’s immigration policies earlier this year, he left in place a sweeping pandemic-era expulsion policy under which most migrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are quickly turned back.
(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon in Ciudad Acuna; Additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Dallas, Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City, Kristina Cooke in San Francisco and Steve Holland and Jeff Mason in Washington; Writing by David Alire Garcia and Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Rosalba O’Brien and Leslie Adler)
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