Biden administration officials were on the defensive on Tuesday after images of shocking confrontations between desperate Haitian migrants and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents on horseback were filmed and spread on social media.
The images, which showed CBP agents apparently attempting to corral migrants in specific areas, comes as the Biden administration is surging federal Homeland Security personnel to the region to respond to more than 14,000 migrants who have descended upon the region in the past few days.
In particular, several images of CBP agents appearing to swing the reins of their horse tack in whipping motions drew stinging criticism from progressives and human rights advocates, who likened the images to America’s dark racist history of Southern slave patrols.
Officials on Tuesday characterised the chaos unfolding in Del Rio as something the Biden administration was responding to, while disavowing the shocking scenes of horseback agents harassing migrants as anathema to the character and compassion the administration says it is trying to espouse.
In at least one video, a CBP agent is heard berating a migrant using xenophobic and racist language, exclaiming to one man as he and his wife crossed a river: “This is why your country’s sh*t, because you use your women for this!”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki addressed the issue during an in-person interview on Tuesday with CBS This Morning a day after she at a press briefing had said that she could not imagine a situation where such conduct would be justified.
“I don’t know anyone who watched that video” who would not think the images were “horrible and horrific,” Ms Psaki said on Tuesday.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials confirmed Monday evening that the images of horseback CBP agents appearing to use their reins as whips would be investigated.
“Any mistreatment or abuse of a migrant is unacceptable, is against border patrol policy, training, and our department’s values,” the agency’s secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas said in an interview with CNN on Tuesday. “We have directed an investigation, that investigation is underway and it will be conducted swiftly and the public needs and deserves to know its results.”
Vice President Kamala Harris, who was tapped by the president earlier this year to lead up his administration’s response to growing numbers of migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border, said on Tuesday that she supports the investigation into the images and called the treatment of migrants “horrible”.
"What I saw depicted about those individuals on horseback treating human beings the way they were is horrible. I fully support what is happening right now, which is a thorough investigation,” she said.
Critics on both sides of the aisle are taking aim at the Biden administration as the situation unfolds. On the right, conservatives are touting the scene as evidence of the Biden administration’s failures resulting from the rollback of Trump-era immigration policies that were widely denounced as inhumane; on the left, progressives are furious about the images of mostly Black migrants being harassed by white CBP agents.
“Black lives matter wherever they are,” Texas congressman Al Green, a Democrat, said on the House floor on Tuesday while introducing a resolution denouncing the alleged mistreatment of Haitian migrants at the border.
The scene was also pilloried by hosts of The View, in particular by co-host Sunny Hostin, a Black attorney.
“I’m so disappointed. So disappointed in the Biden administration today. So very disappointed,” she said.