CIUDAD ACUNA, MEXICO (REUTERS) - The White House on Monday (Sept 20) criticized the use of horse reins to threaten Haitian migrants after images circulated of a US border guard on horseback charging at the migrants near a riverside camp in Texas.
The mostly Haitian migrants have in recent days been crossing back and forth between Ciudad Acuna in Mexico and the sprawling camp across the border in Del Rio to buy food and water that was in short supply on the US side.
Reuters witnesses saw mounted officers wearing cowboy hats blocking the paths of migrants, and one officer unfurling a cord resembling a lariat, which he swung near a migrant's face.
A video showing a border guard apparently threatening migrants with the cords was shared on social media.
"I don't think anyone seeing that footage would think it was acceptable or appropriate," White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters. "I don't have the full context. I can't imagine what context would make that appropriate," she added.
Some on social media commented that the image of fleeing Black men chased by white officers on horseback had echoes of the historical injustices suffered by Black people in the United States.
US Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz said the incident was being investigated to make sure that there was not an "unacceptable" response by law enforcement. He said officers were operating in a difficult environment, trying to ensure the safety of the migrants while searching for potential smugglers.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the long reins are used by mounted officials to "ensure control of the horse."
"But we are going to investigate the facts," he said during a news conference in Del Rio.
The camp under a bridge spanning the Rio Grande has become the latest flashpoint for US authorities seeking to stem a flow of migrants fleeing gang violence, extreme poverty and natural disasters in their home countries.
By Monday, hundreds of migrants had returned to the Mexico side amid uncertainty about whether they would be deported back to Haiti on flights organized by US authorities.
The first flights carrying migrants landed in Port-au-Prince on Sunday from the Del Rio camp arrived in Haiti on Sunday, with at least three more due to make the journey on Monday, according to flight tracking website Flightaware.
US officials closed the Del Rio border crossing last Friday due to the crush of migrants, and said Monday it remained shuttered, with most traffic re-routed to the Eagle Pass, Texas, border crossing, some 55 miles (90 km) south.
The prospect of deportations worried the camp's residents, some of whom traversed continents over months to reach the border.
"They can't send us back to Haiti because everyone knows what Haiti is like right now," said Haitian migrant Wildly Jeanmary late on Sunday, wearing only boxer shorts and standing on the Mexican side of the river after crossing it.
Drenched, he cited July's presidential assassination as a reason not to return with his wife and their 2-year-old daughter to the poorest country in the Americas. Haiti was also hit by a major earthquake last month.
"The government of the United States has no conscience," said Haitian migrant Nerlin Clerge, who also stood near the riverbank and had traveled to the camp with his wife and their two young sons. He said he is now considering applying for the right to stay in Mexico.
Mayorkas said he expects between one to three daily repatriation flights back to Haiti, adding that a surge of 600 border agents and other personnel have been deployed to the area.
"If you come to the United States illegally, you will be returned. Your journey will not succeed," he said at a news conference.
While US President Joe Biden rolled back many of his predecessor Donald Trump's hardline immigration policies earlier this year, he left in place a sweeping pandemic-era expulsion policy under which most migrants caught crossing the US-Mexico border are quickly turned back.