As It Happens·Q&A

Images of U.S. Border Patrol agents confronting Haitian migrants in Texas are 'heinous,' says congresswoman

Images of U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback grabbing asylum seekers near the U.S.-Mexico border are "heinous," according to U.S. Democratic Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman.

Agents seen chasing migrants on horseback, while swinging leather reins, on the banks of the Rio Grande

A United States Border Patrol agent on horseback with reins in the air as he tries to stop Haitian migrants from entering an encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande. Many migrants crossed the river into Mexico to get food and water to bring back to their families. (Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images)

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Newly published images of U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback grabbing asylum seekers near the U.S.-Mexico border are "heinous," said U.S. Democratic Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman. 

Approximately 15,000 migrants, many of them Haitian, have crossed the border and gathered at a camp near a freeway bridge in Del Rio, Texas in recent days. 

The images of the interactions between the agents and the migrants have shocked many across the U.S. 

"We just cannot abide by that kind of abuse of power," Watson Coleman told As It Happens host Carol Off. Watson Coleman is one of more than 50 Democratic lawmakers who wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, asking it to stop deportations of migrants from the Texas border to Haiti. 

The Guardian reported that 6,000 migrants had been moved out of the area by Monday, some of them sent on flights back Haiti, which is struggling to deal with the aftermath of an earthquake in August and the assassination of the president, Jovenel Moïse, in July. 

On Monday evening, after Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas visited the area and reviewed video of agents' confrontations with migrants, the Department of Homeland Security released a statement on Twitter calling the footage "extremely troubling" and promised an investigation. 

"DHS does not tolerate the abuse of migrants in our custody and we take these allegations very seriously," the agency said in the statement

"I agree 100 per cent with what the secretary [of homeland security] said," Watson Coleman said. "And I'm going to have ... confidence that he's going to send the resources down there to make sure that the accountability exists."

Here is part of Watson Coleman's conversation with Off. 

Democratic congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman says the Biden administration needs to ensure accountability for what happened at the U.S.-Mexico border this week. (Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images)

Representative Watson Coleman, what went through your mind when you saw those images? 

Those images of the Haitian refugees, in particular the one that we saw who was being whipped upon, were horrific and they hearken back to another era in this country where slave overseers would be whipping runaway slaves. And I thought, my God, this is 2021. This is un-American. This is unacceptable. 

The border agents say that they weren't using whips. It was ... the reins of the horse that they were swinging. But the images are of white border officials on horseback, and they seem to be charging at these Haitians who are trying to return with food. And they're running.... There's a woman carrying a baby and they are clearly afraid of the horses. Is that ... the one you've seen? 

I saw more than one. So, yes, I saw that. You know, it doesn't matter that they were using the reins.... The whipping has to do with the action, not necessarily the tools. And so the image was heinous. The act was heinous. There should be accountability for that. That individual that we saw in particular should not be in a position to ever do that again to anybody. 

We need to make sure that we are processing them in a way that reflects our humanity. And we need to recognize that some of these people have never been in Haiti, particularly the children.- U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman

The other thing that's notable is that no matter what they were doing or how they were doing it, the people, the Haitians were clearly terrified of being charged by the horses and they were trying to, as I understand it ... to return to the camps where their families were ... bringing food that doesn't exist inside the camp.

So they were desperately trying to get in while they're being pushed back by the officers on horseback. 

What we've seen is inhumane treatment of individuals who don't want to be housed under bridges, that don't want to be washing in the [river] water, who don't want to have their safety and security threatened by their living conditions. This is horrible for those families.

We have no indication that anybody in that cohort ... is a danger to our country. They needed to be treated with the same dignity and humanity that we treat white immigrants when they've come here, whether one or 1,000 at a time.

And we need to make sure that we are processing them in a way that reflects our humanity. And we need to recognize that some of these people have never been in Haiti, particularly the children.... And so why would we think that sending them to Haiti, given the residuals of the earthquake, given the tumultuous political environment, is a safe thing to do? We need to do a better job of finding alternative options for these people. 

A U.S. Border Patrol agent on horseback uses the reins to try and stop a Haitian migrant from entering an encampment near Del Rio, Texas on Sunday. U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman called the image of the incident "heinous." (Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty)

There were two more flights out of Texas to Port au Prince and Haiti just yesterday. More flights are scheduled. And so they are taking these people to Haiti. And as you point out, some of them said ... they've left years ago. Some of them left after the last earthquake and haven't lived in Haiti in all that time. So do you have any idea what they're being sent back to?

I did see Haiti when it was after the earthquake. I did see Haiti after the assassination of the president. I did see what looked like very unsafe conditions. I have read where people are afraid of gangs that are abusing innocent people. So I don't support their being sent to Haiti and I don't support those who left Haiti 10 years ago being sent back to Haiti. 

I think that we should be processing them through our centres and finding alternative living arrangements, that we need to be talking to our allies so that we can distribute and keep families intact, but distribute these people — these human beings — into places that are safe for them. 

You're one of 50 Democrats in Congress who have sent a letter to Joe Biden. You sent it on Friday about the situation in Del Rio, Texas. What's your message to the president? 

We can do better. We have a responsibility to act humanely. We ought not be sending these people into Haiti where it is both politically and structurally unsafe, and that we're Americans and we expect better and we can do better, and we must. 

Written by Andrea Bellemare. Interview with Bonnie Watson Coleman produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q & A has been edited for length and clarity.



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