Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas traveled Monday to the makeshift camp in Del Rio, Tex., where nearly 15,000 border-crossers have arrived, and he was quickly pulled into an escalating controversy over the treatment of the mostly Haitian migrants by U.S. agents.
Mayorkas told reporters in Del Rio that DHS would look into the incident. By Monday evening, as criticism mounted, the department released a statement announcing more formal inquiries, which it said Mayorkas had directed after watching the videos.
“The Department of Homeland Security does not tolerate the abuse of migrants in our custody and we take these allegations very seriously,” the DHS statement read. “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.”
The statement said Mayorkas has directed DHS’s internal oversight office to send personnel to the camp and oversee agents’ conduct “full-time.”
“We are committed to processing migrants in a safe, orderly, and humane way,” it said. “We can and must do this in a way that ensures the safety and dignity of migrants.”
Several Democratic lawmakers condemned the agents’ actions shown in the footage. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, denounced the agents’ behavior in a statement Monday.
“Video and photos coming out of Del Rio showing U.S. Border Patrol’s mistreatment of Haitian migrants along the border are horrific and disturbing,” Thompson said.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) described the scenes as “a stain on our country.”
“It doesn’t matter if a Democrat or Republican is President, our immigration system is designed for cruelty towards and dehumanization of immigrants,” she wrote on Twitter. “Immigration should not be a crime.”
Border Patrol chief Raul Ortiz, who addressed reporters in Del Rio alongside Mayorkas, said he made the decision to deploy the horse patrol agents to “find out if we had any individuals in distress, and be able to provide information and intelligence as to what the smuggling organizations were doing in and around the river.”
The Border Patrol typically uses horse-mounted officers to access difficult or roadless terrain, and at times as a crowd-control tool, not unlike other law enforcement organizations.
Contrary to some reports, the agents in the images were not carrying whips but were seen swinging their horses’ reins. They did not appear to strike anyone. Ortiz said that he was confident the agents were “trying to control” their animals but that officials would “look into the matter to make sure that we do not have any activity that could be construed” as misconduct.
In one video by Al Jazeera English that circulated widely on social media, an agent yells “This is why your country’s s---, because you use your women for this!” at a group emerging from the river. His horse charges, attempting to cut off a family’s path to the camp, as a young girl in a green dress jumps out of the way.
Tensions at the camp have been building after thousands of migrants were crossing the river daily last week, overwhelming U.S. capacity. Authorities have closed off the main crossing point used by migrants to enter the United States and return to Mexico for supplies, but migrants in the camp say that has worsened food shortages.
One agent stationed under the highway bridge said conditions improved significantly Monday as Mayorkas arrived, along with hundreds of additional agents and other personnel to increase staffing and security. Mayorkas said thousands would be relocated away from Del Rio to other Border Patrol sectors with more capacity to process them.
The Biden administration also continued sending Haitians back to their home country Monday, with two flights from Texas to Port-au-Prince. Mayorkas told reporters the Biden administration would continue sending up to three flights of returnees per day back to Haiti, a country struggling with rampant gang violence, the assassination of its president in July and a 7.2-magnitude earthquake last month.
Many of the nearly 15,000 who have crossed the Rio Grande to reach the camp are Haitians who were living in Chile and other South American nations, telling reporters they decided to make the journey north this year after hearing the Biden administration would allow them to enter.
Mayorkas said they were misled.
“We are very concerned that Haitians who are taking this irregular migration path are receiving false information that the border is open or that temporary protected status is available,” he said, referring to protections the Biden administration extended to Haitians who were present in the United States before July 29.
“This administration is committed to developing safe, orderly and humane pathways for migration,” he said. “But this is not the way to do it.”
The United States sent two flights carrying returnees back to Haiti on Monday, including 128 parents and children who arrived as part of a family group, according to U.S. officials.
Most of the passengers are not being sent back through the formal deportation process. They are being “expelled” from the United States under an emergency provision of the U.S. public health code known as Title 42.
A federal judge ordered the Biden administration last week to stop using Title 42 to return family groups, but he stayed the order until the end of September. The Biden administration has appealed the ruling.
Of the roughly 11,000 migrants who remained in the Del Rio camp, about 8,000 were part of family groups, according to one U.S. agent stationed at the site.
Mayorkas said the administration had sent 600 additional U.S. agents and other personnel to Del Rio to increase staffing and security, allowing authorities to increase the number of migrants they are transferring to other Border Patrol sectors for processing.
Caravans of buses were visible Monday lining up at the camp, according to two people at the site who were not authorized to speak to reporters.
As the White House came under intense criticism from members of the president’s party over the treatment of the migrants, the Biden administration announced it would raise the refugee admissions cap for the next fiscal year to 125,000.
The announcement comes as the United States plans to resettle tens of thousands of evacuees from Afghanistan, most of whom have arrived with a tenuous legal status as “humanitarian parolees.” The administration is also expanding resettlement programs for Central Americans and Myanmar dissidents.
The 125,000 number has long been the aspirational figure that the Biden administration set for fiscal 2022, which begins Oct. 1.
The White House angered refugee advocates and immigration activists earlier this year when Biden hesitated to boost refugee admissions, which remain on pace for their lowest levels on record.
Biden in May raised this year’s cap to 62,500 from the record low of 15,000 set by the Trump administration, but the latest figures show only 7,637 refugees have arrived over the past 11 months. Biden officials have blamed the pandemic for crippling consular services and refugee processing abroad.
Seung Min Kim in Washington and Anthony Faiola in Miami contributed to this report.