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What one photo from the border tells us about the evolving migrant crisis

A U.S. Border Patrol agent on horseback tries to stop a Haitian migrant from entering an encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande in Del Rio, Tex., on Sept. 19. (Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images)

This article has been updated.

Photographer Paul Ratje was standing in the Rio Grande when he captured a remarkable image: a Border Patrol agent mounted on horseback, grabbing the shirt of a migrant unlucky enough to be within reach. Every detail — the apparent anger on the face of the officer, the food in the migrant’s hand, the isolation of the location — is evocative and revealing. Nor is it possible to ignore the historical echoes suggested by a White officer of the law apprehending a fleeing Black man.

The scene unfolded near a bridge that spans the river and has become the new focal point of the migration crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. Thousands of migrants, many refugees from Haiti, have crossed into Texas near the city of Del Rio hoping to seek asylum in the United States following the assassination of Haiti’s prime minister in July and a major earthquake the following month. Del Rio sits across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, the international bridge until last week serving as a major artery for commerce between the two countries. In 2019, 1.6 million personal vehicles and 75,000 trucks crossed between the countries at that point. Now, no traffic flows across the bridge, which has turned into an impromptu roof for a sprawling migrant camp.

There are so many people there now, in fact, that the area has become what The Washington Post’s Nick Miroff described as a small city, one with its own emerging economy — centered, often, on food. Migrants who had arrived on the U.S. side were using a low dam just west of the bridge to head back into Mexico to get supplies, food and items such as mattresses or ice cream that could be shared or sold in the camp. In a phone call with The Post, Ratje described a lack of food and water as a common complaint among the migrants. So the international flow of commerce moved from on top of the bridge to the river beneath it.

To cut off that informal import process, the Texas Department of Public Safety parked vehicles on the U.S. side of the dam. So, over the weekend, the crossing point shifted east, to a boat launch farther downstream. That’s where Ratje took the photo.

Three points are indicated on the map above: the location of the migrant camp (black icon), the initial crossing point (yellow) and the crossing point where the officers on horseback were located (red).

“I get to the scene and everybody is crossing there,” he explained. “We get in the water and — a few other colleagues were in the water, I wasn’t the only one who was there — and all of a sudden some police showed up and they started trying to get people to leave. Then the Border Patrol agents on horseback arrived and they started trying to get people to leave.”

This is not uncommon, Miroff explained: The Border Patrol will often use horses to patrol the border (given the terrain, among other reasons) and generally encourage migrants they encounter — no doubt with varying levels of urgency — to return to Mexico. In this case, those entreaties were not particularly successful, in part because the migrants were trying to return with food.

“They had gotten a lot of people to start leaving the banks, but then people just kept coming across the river,” Ratje said. “There was a continuous flow and [the agents] were like: ‘No, you can’t come in. Go back to Mexico.’ But people were like, ‘But my family’s over there.’ ”

At that point, some of the migrants simply tried to run past the Border Patrol, captured by Reuters videographers who also were at the scene. You can see how the agents used the horses to block migrants from entering until multiple people tried to pass the horses at once.

Migrants trying to cross the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico into Texas on Sept. 19 were delayed by U.S. border officials on horseback. (Video: Reuters)

That was the moment that Ratje took the sequence of pictures of the man in the black shirt.

“That’s when one of the agents grabbed a guy and kind of swung him around,” Ratje said. You can see the agent grab the man in the photo below; the photo at the top of this article shows the result of the migrant and the horse being spun 180 degrees.

You can also see that many of the migrants are carrying food with them, suggesting that they were probably crossing back into the United States after having already arrived.

Ratje’s sense, from covering the scene at the border, is that the agents responsible for policing the scene feel “overwhelmed,” leading to a sense of frustration. A photograph captures only an instant in time, of course, but the agent’s face in the first photo certainly suggests frustration and anger.

In a video filmed by Al Jazeera, you can hear one of the agents disparaging the migrants. He’s berating one who came ashore with women and children.

“You use your women?” the agent says. “This is why your country [censored]. Because you use your women for this.” It’s unclear what the censored word was.

A reporter for the El Paso Times, Martha Pskowski, described another facet of the interaction, one that evoked an unpleasant historical comparison to White enslavers hunting down enslaved Blacks.

As the Haitians tried to climb onto the U.S. side of the river Sunday afternoon, the agent shouted: “Let’s go! Get out now! Back to Mexico!”
The agent swung his whip menacingly, charging his horse toward the men in the river who were trying to return to an encampment under the international bridge in Del Rio after buying food and water in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico.
One migrant fell as he tried to dodge, others shielded their heads with their hands.

It was not clear to observers what the agents had in their hands. Ratje also described it as a whip; Miroff speculated that, given how agents are generally outfitted, it may have been a riding crop or the horse’s reins. (He added that actually using something to whip migrants to prevent entry would not be authorized.) Neither Pskowski nor Ratje describe seeing anyone struck by the objects, though Ratje said he did see a migrant almost trampled.

During a news briefing later Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Border Patrol head Raul Ortiz, who used to patrol the border on horseback, addressed concerns about the incident and what the agents were holding.

“Just to add, as Chief Ortiz explained to me, that to ensure control of the horse, long reins are used,” Mayorkas added, “but we are going to investigate the facts to ensure that the situation is as we understand it to be, and if it’s anything different, we will response accordingly.” A Border Patrol source told Vice News that the agents used such reins at times to “deter people from getting too close to the horse.”

Given the scale of the situation in the region, the Biden administration has increased deportation flights to Haiti.

“By announcing its intent to deport the Haitians before launching the flights, Biden officials also appeared to be hoping that some in the camp would abandon their attempt to remain in the United States and return to Mexico,” Miroff reported Friday.

On the ground, Ratje said, this was having the desired effect.

“They know that people are getting deported because they’ve seen videos and that they know people who already arrived in Haiti,” he said. “So you’re seeing a lot of people coming back now” — that is, to Mexico. Migrants, he said, are deciding to remain in Mexico “because there’s no better option,” given how much they had spent and sacrificed to get out of Haiti in the first place. Better to remain in Mexico than risk that deportation.

It’s useful to remember the context for Ratje’s photo. This was an apparently isolated encounter, one that soon resolved with those seeking to enter the country and return to or arrive at the camp able to do so. Many of them will probably or have already made asylum claims — an internationally recognized process that usually doesn’t result in success for claimants but one that has allowed thousands of migrants to remain in the United States legally. The man photographed appears to have already come into the country, only to return with food for a group of people or for sale.

But it’s impossible not to see the image as capturing an important moment from a volatile, politically fraught situation.

Nick Miroff contributed to this report.

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