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Border agents used 'unnecessary' force on Haitian migrants, investigation finds

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Border Patrol agents on horseback who confronted Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas, last year used, quote, "unnecessary force." That is the conclusion of a long-awaited investigation released today by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Four Border Patrol agents are facing possible discipline over the incident, and joining us now with more details is NPR's Joel Rose, who covers immigration. Hi, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So I remember these images where we saw, like, Border Patrol agents on horseback chasing Haitian migrants. It sparked all kinds of outrage last year. Can you just remind us what was happening at the time?

ROSE: Sure. This was back in September of last year. Tens of thousands of migrants, mostly from Haiti, arrived very quickly in Del Rio, Texas, crowded into an enormous makeshift camp under an international bridge there. And that's when Border Patrol agents on horseback were photographed chasing migrants who were trying to return to this camp after buying supplies on the Mexican side of the river. And to many, it looked like the agents were using whips on the migrants, though current and former immigration officials say those were in fact the horses' reins. Administration officials promised an investigation would be completed within, quote, "days, not weeks."

CHANG: Well, it's been almost nine months since then. What did this investigation find?

ROSE: First off, it found no evidence that the agents struck, intentionally or otherwise, any migrant with their reins. The report says this was a chaotic situation and that there were problems with command and control that led to this, quote, "unnecessary use of force." Investigators say the horse patrol unit was carrying out an operation at the request of the Texas Department of Public Safety, trying to push these migrants back towards the Rio Grande River, which was at odds with the objectives of Border Patrol leaders, who wanted the migrants to come back to the camp with food and water.

But that said, the investigation does not totally exonerate these individual agents, either. It accuses one agent in particular of using language denigrating a migrant's national origin and also getting too close to a migrant child with his horse. Here's CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus at a press conference today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS MAGNUS: There is no justification for the actions of some of our personnel, including unprofessional and deeply offensive conduct.

ROSE: Magnus said that four Border Patrol agents in total will face possible discipline, but he declined to go into details because that part of the process is still playing out.

CHANG: OK, so what's been the initial reaction to all of this?

ROSE: Well, the union representing Border Patrol officers has been saying for months that these agents did nothing wrong but that investigators basically had no choice but to punish them for something because of the strong initial reaction from the White House and President Biden, who called the images, quote, "outrageous" and said those people will pay. Supporters of the Border Patrol are pointing out today that the U.S. attorney declined to press any criminal charges, and they see this report as an attempt to justify, you know, what they consider a hasty rush to judgment.

CHANG: Well, just to step back for a moment, Joel, we should say that this report is coming at a time when state leaders in Texas have been escalating their fight with the Biden administration over illegal immigration. And I'm just curious. Did Chris Magnus at CBP have anything to say about that context?

ROSE: Yeah. He was asked about an executive order that was signed yesterday by Texas Governor Greg Abbott that directs state troopers and National Guardsmen to apprehend migrants who have crossed the border unlawfully and return them to ports of entry at the border. Normally, immigration is a federal matter, but Abbott says this is necessary because the Biden administration has failed to protect his state from a, quote, "invasion." Immigrant advocates say it's ridiculous to compare migrants fleeing from poverty and violence to an invading army. And Chris Magnus says the administration is trying to build a safe immigration system, but when a state like Texas takes unilateral action, it makes it harder to do that.

CHANG: That is NPR's Joel Rose. Thanks so much, Joel.

ROSE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "SOUR SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.