Dozens of migrants, many of them Haitians, are fainting in the scorching Texas heat at a bridge where almost 15,000 congregated over the past week. Women and children have grown ill, suffering from diarrhea and other viral ailments. And U.S. authorities have vowed to investigate after a video showed border patrol agents on horseback chasing migrants.
President Joe Biden came into office pledging a more humanitarian approach to the country’s borders.
But the sudden arrival of large numbers of people in Del Rio, a small Texas border city, has cast the post-Trump U.S. in an ugly light and provided new fodder for critics of Mr. Biden.
“Failure to enforce laws that exist in the United States leads to chaos. And chaos leads to inhumanity,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott said Tuesday, speaking a short walk from the bridge across the Rio Grande, where 8,600 migrants remained.
Federal authorities issued temporary papers to some – and placed thousands of others on planes to other countries, using a public-health order that leaves those migrants with no chance to apply for asylum.
The persistence of the camp, and the efforts to keep it from swelling further, have made it a particularly striking symbol of the harsh edges of U.S. policy toward migrants.
“It’s essentially a refugee camp that’s been set up here,” said Nate Mook, the chief executive of Worldwide Kitchen, which has been brought in to feed the people there.
“We have been seeing quite a bit of folks fainting, likely because of the heat,” he said. On Monday, temperatures in the sun exceeded 40 degrees Celsius. “It was so hot, dozens of people were passing out.”
Migrants have fashioned makeshift tents out of sugarcane, while federal agencies have rushed in to feed those gathered by the bridge and provide water and medical treatment to those in need.
Mr. Mook’s organization has been buying up food from local restaurants – much of it tacos – and providing diapers and baby food while it waits for the installation of kitchen equipment to provide other types of meals. The equipment should be in service by Wednesday, he said.
“Everybody has been working non-stop in the heat,” he said, but “just getting that many meals out is a Herculean effort.”
Elsewhere, medical tents have provided intravenous liquids to severely dehydrated people.
But those efforts have been overshadowed by other official responses – in particular, the efforts to keep the migrants out.
Images of border patrol agents on horseback chasing migrants – even reaching down and grabbing one by the shirt – have prompted widespread anger. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas initially downplayed what had taken place, but on Tuesday he said he was “horrified” by what he had seen.
In the images captured by multiple news organizations, a border patrol agent twirls a long cord in a whip-like fashion as he pivots his horse to block the advance of migrants out of the river. The video does not show the cord – which authorities called a long rein but right groups described as a lariat – striking migrants. But a photograph of the incident shows the agent, who is white, leaning out of his saddle with a menacing look as he grabs hold of the shirt of a migrant, who is black, barefoot and carrying several bags of Styrofoam food containers.
“I thought the Haitians were quite scared,” the photographer, Paul Ratje, told NPR.
Representative Veronica Escobar of Texas, a Democrat, called it “absolutely unacceptable,” writing 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.”
In another image captured by Mr. Ratje, a mounted border patrol agent bares his teeth as he advances toward a migrant stumbling backward into the water. A different video captured audio of an agent labelling a migrant’s country of origin with a derogatory epithet.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it would investigate – amid an uproar from the Biden administration.
“What I saw depicted about those individuals on horseback treating human beings the way they were was horrible,” Vice-President Kamala Harris said Tuesday. “And I fully support what is happening right now, which is a thorough investigation into exactly what is going on there. But human beings should never be treated that way. And I’m deeply troubled about it.”
Mr. Mayorkas initially described what happened as normal practice, explaining that “to ensure control of the horse, long reins are used.”
The border patrol has used agents on horseback since its inception in 1924, and operating near a river is “a difficult situation,” Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz added at the time. “Trying to maintain control of those horses so we do not get in a position where we injure a migrant as they’re trying to make that treacherous trek across the river is probably more important than anything.”
On Tuesday, however, with criticism building, Mr. Mayorkas issued a strong condemnation of the situation. “Any mistreatment or abuse of a migrant is unacceptable,” he told CNN. “The pictures that I’ve observed troubled me profoundly.”
Human-rights groups demanded more. The Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said the treatment of the migrants echoed some of the ugliest chapters in the country’s history.
“The agents’ conduct – and the agency’s immediate response to the situation – are in line with decades of systemic racism against Black immigrants,” the ACLU wrote in a public demand. It called for the border patrol to immediately remove horse-mounted units from the area, discipline the agents responsible and make explicit that “lariats, whips, or any other rope should not be used as weapons by agents under any circumstances.”
On Wednesday, no mounted officers were visible at the river. Instead, Border Patrol agents stood and watched as a stream of people crossed, many bringing back food from Mexico.
Mayorkas said Wednesday that the agents involved in the incidents under investigation had been pulled from front-line duties.
- With files from Reuters
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