WASHINGTON – Images showing U.S. border agents on horseback chasing Haitian migrants near the Rio Grande close to Del Rio, Texas sparked outrage on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, with lawmakers from both parties demanding an investigation.
"There are going to be investigations," said Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., Chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, who called the footage "unacceptable."
In one photo, a border patrol agent leans over his saddle to grab the shirt of a man trying to get away. In several photos, the migrants are carrying plastic bags and bundles of their possessions in their hands.
In other footage, Border agents on horseback waved reins in the air as they charged at Haitian migrants and chased them toward the water. Some videos show the agents taunting the migrants.
Democrats decried the footage and the treatment shown from the border patrol agents.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told USA TODAY the videos and photos "just show you the heartbreaking reality of these situations. These are desperate people."
Thousands of Haitian migrants are encamped in Texas after crossing from Mexico over a dam.
Many left Haiti in the wake of a devastating 2010 earthquake and lived in South America for years. But jobs from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro vanished, and economic opportunities continue to dry up in Latin America as the pandemic continues.
In the years following, Haiti has faced political unrest, another devastating earthquake, and violations to human rights.
Haiti’s escalating violence and political instability prompted the United Nations Security Council earlier this year to publicly express its “deep concern” for the protracted political, security, constitutional and humanitarian crises tormenting Haiti. The Haitian president was assassinated in July.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, during a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing Tuesday, said he was “horrified” by the images.
"[W]e look forward to learning the facts that are adduced from the investigation, and we will take actions that those facts compel,” he said. “We do not tolerate any mistreatment or abuse of a migrant. Period.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the reports of mistreatment and “use of what appear to be whips” to be “deeply troubling.” She also called for an investigation.
“All migrants seeking asylum must be treated in accordance with the law and with basic decency,” the speaker said.
Republican Senators had a consistent message Tuesday: The Biden Administration is to blame.
Texas Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn laid the fault at the administration's doorstep.
Cruz said Biden's policies "create humanitarian disasters" and the border situation is getting "worse and worse and worse, because in the Biden White House, it's all politics all the time."
"By not fixing gaps in our immigration laws," Cornyn said, this "humanitarian crisis is really unprecedented."
Senator Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said "The images we're seeing are entirely consistent with a disastrous immigration policy and border protection efforts policy from the administration."
He continued that Joe Biden's administration has "showered itself with incompetence with when it comes to our border, and if we were to return to the policies that existed in the past, we would be in a very different situation."
The Biden administration has found itself in a sticky situation, facing criticism from all sides on their handling of the southern border, an issue that has plagued his administration since the beginning.
The Department of Homeland Security ramped up deportation flights of Haitians back to Haiti and transported migrants to different processing centers along the border.
But the president has also been pressured by refugee and asylum advocates, as well as fellow Democrats, to do more to help the asylum seekers.
When asked for solutions, most Republicans pointed back to policies enacted by the Trump Administration, including Title 42, which allowed for quick expulsion of asylum seekers to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in holding facilities last year.
Biden has continued that policy; however, children and some families are exempt.
When asked about the images of the horses and apparent use of whips, and possible excessive use of force, Cornyn said "it'd be better if people didn't come in the first place by the administration just waving them through it."
Cruz said often agents encounter "violent criminals" so "law enforcement, at times, entails the use of force that force is constrained by law."
A use of force policy document from Customs and Border Protection dated January 2021 says that, "The use of excessive force by CBP law enforcement personnel is strictly prohibited." But the document also says that agents "may use 'objectively reasonable' force only when it is necessary to carry out their law enforcement duties," adding that the "reasonableness" of any particular situation varies with the conditions.
Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., said "the federal government has failed border states on this issue for decades, and spent hundreds of billions of dollars on border security and we still have a crisis."
"It's a national security issue," he continued, but "we also have to treat folks that come to our southern border in accordance with our values and our ethics."
Contributing: N'dea Yancey-Bragg, Martha Pskowski, Ryan W. Miller, Christal Hayes, Chelsey Cox, Mabinty Quarshie USA TODAY; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lawmakers decry images of mounted CBP agents chasing Haitian migrants