Photos Spark Flurry of Rhetoric About ‘Whips’ at the Border

The photographs drew sharp criticism and backlash. Then the backlash sparked its own backlash.

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Person, Human, Horse
Image via PAUL RATJE/AFP via Getty Images

Key Facts:

  • There’s no evidence border patrol agents had whips or struck anyone with reins during an incident in Del Rio, Texas, on Sept. 19, 2021.
  • Initial statements by journalists who witnessed the incident referencing “whips” appear to mistake long reins that one agent was swinging at migrants for an actual whip.
  • One border patrol agent did use his horse rein to menace migrants by spinning it in a lasso-like motion.

In late September 2021, photographs taken at the U.S.-Mexico border showing a white border patrol agent grabbing a Black man by the shirt went viral.

The pictures were taken by photojournalist Paul Ratje for Agence France-Presse (AFP). They depict a dramatic sequence of events in Del Rio, Texas, on Sept. 19, 2021, when a group of migrants staying at a makeshift encampment under the International Bridge were trying to return to the camp after crossing into Mexico to purchase food. The encampment’s residents were predominantly Haitian asylum seekers.

In the photograph that sparked the most outrage, a white, cowboy-hat-wearing border agent on horseback can be seen leaning all the way over in the saddle, so much so that the horse appears to be off balance, while he reaches with his right hand to grab the back of a man’s shirt. As he does so, a long, leather rein flies out freely, appearing to make contact with the migrant.

The picture was a charged one and quickly went viral. The sight of a Black man being run down and grabbed by a white man on horseback evoked historical comparisons to American slavery. Some who witnessed the incident initially believed they saw border patrol agents swinging whips, which added an additional layer of inhumanity to the already-wrenching photos.

The outrage sparked by the pictures coursed through social media and the mainstream media, reaching the highest levels of government. U.S. President Joe Biden denounced the actions of the border patrol agents. U.S. officials announced that the use of horses at the border would be suspended, and that the agents involved would be assigned to administrative duty, pending an investigation.

Considering the polarized American media landscape, it should probably come as no surprise that the outraged backlash over the photographs pin-balled into backlash against the backlash.

On Sept. 23, 2021, El Paso-based TV station KTSM published comments made by Ratje, the photographer. Ratje told the station that he didn’t see any of the border patrol agents use whips on anyone.

“I’ve never seen them whip anyone,” Ratje was quoted as saying. “He was swinging it, but it can be misconstrued when you’re looking at the picture.”

We reached out to Ratje for comment via his website but haven’t yet received a response. We will update this story if we do.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas also stated during a news conference that per the information provided to him at that time, long reins are used “to ensure control of the horse.” He added an investigation was pending.

We reached out to DHS asking whether the agency could confirm that the agent had reins in his hand, and will update this story if we receive a response.

The idea that the photographs were “misconstrued” was seized upon by conservative news and opinion outlets to launch attacks on their liberal counterparts. “Democrats Spread Border Patrol ‘Whip’ Lie While Failing To Address Growing Border Crisis,” the Federalist website reported, for example. 

It also resulted in political grandstanding, with Biden vowing that the border agents involved “will pay,” and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott clapping back at Biden by claiming Texas would hire any agents if they lost jobs over the incident.

But standing back from the heated rhetoric, it seems the original assumptions from witnesses at the scene — that border agents were wielding whips — stemmed from one agent using what appeared to be a long rein and swinging it like a whip at people, while he and other agents used their horses to push migrants back into the river.

The El Paso Times, for example, initially reported that the agent “swung his whip menacingly” at migrants, but later updated the article to say he “menacingly swung his reins like a whip.”

In a video posted by Al Jazeera English reporter John Holman, the agent making the “whip” motion can be seen, along with the agents’ aggressive use of horses against migrants. One agent can be heard verbally berating migrants while another appears to nearly trample a child with his horse:

We didn’t find reports from witnesses who claimed they saw anyone actually being whipped. Ratje told NPR that when the agent grabbed the man in the black shirt, he swung him around 180 degrees. Ratje added that the reason the migrants were trying to get around the border patrol horses was that they were frightened they wouldn’t be able to rejoin their families or travel groups back in the encampment. 

Here, via Getty Images, is another photograph taken by Ratje of the same border patrol agent: 

Photo by PAUL RATJE/AFP via Getty Images

Ratje additionally told AFP he didn’t believe that the man who was grabbed by the shirt was injured, and that eventually, the agents calmed down and began allowing the migrants to return to the camp.

Days after the photos went viral, U.S. officials announced they had “cleared” the encampment. Some of the migrants remained in the U.S. while others were deported, and others still crossed into Mexico.

At its peak, that encampment reached about 15,000 people, primarily Haitians seeking asylum, prompting U.S. officials to close the port of entry in Del Rio. It was reopened Sept. 25.

Haitians coming to the U.S. seeking refugee status are fleeing compounding calamities in their home country, according to Vox. A powerful 2010 earthquake caused “irreparable damage to homes and infrastructure.” Many Haitians live in fear of rising gang violence, and the July 2021 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse worsened violence and instability.

Haitians are now dealing with the aftermath of a deadly tropical storm and yet another powerful earthquake, both of which hit in the summer of 2021, and both of which killed thousands.

According to the Guardian, thousands of migrants were returned to Haiti, the country they had fled, with the Biden administration using a Trump-era pandemic policy of expedited deportations that allows the government to expel people without first allowing their asylum claims to receive due process.


Sources:

“Analysis | What One Photo from the Border Tells Us about the Evolving Migrant Crisis.” Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/09/20/what-one-photo-border-tells-us-about-evolving-migrant-crisis/. Accessed 28 Sept. 2021.

“Dems Spread Border Patrol ‘Whip’ Lie While Failing To Fix Border Disaster.” The Federalist, 21 Sept. 2021, https://thefederalist.com/2021/09/21/democrats-spread-border-patrol-whip-lie-while-failing-to-address-growing-border-crisis/.

Email. “A Perfect Storm of Crises and Instability Leading Haitian Migrants to Seek U.S. Asylum.” San Diego Union-Tribune, 26 Sept. 2021, https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/columnists/story/2021-09-26/a-perfect-storm-of-crises-and-instability-leading-haitian-migrants-to-seek-u-s-asylum.

“Haiti Deportations Justified Because of Covid, Biden Homeland Secretary Says.” The Guardian, 26 Sept. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/sep/26/haiti-deportations-covid-biden-homeland-secretary-mayorkas.

“Haitian Migrants Face Tough Choices in Del Rio amid Crackdown at Texas-Mexico Border.” Elpasotimes, https://www.elpasotimes.com/story/news/immigration/2021/09/19/haitian-migrants-tough-choices-crackdown-del-rio-texas-border/8411152002/. Accessed 28 Sept. 2021.

Jurkowitz, Mark, et al. “U.S. Media Polarization and the 2020 Election: A Nation Divided.” Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project, 24 Jan. 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/journalism/2020/01/24/u-s-media-polarization-and-the-2020-election-a-nation-divided/.

N, et al. “Photos Appear To Show U.S. Border Agents Chasing Down Haitians In A Migrant Camp.” NPR, 21 Sept. 2021. NPR, https://www.npr.org/2021/09/21/1039191113/photos-appear-to-show-u-s-border-agents-chasing-down-haitians-in-a-migrant-camp.

“Photographer behind Controversial Photos Speaks Exclusively to KTSM.” KTSM 9 News, 23 Sept. 2021, https://www.ktsm.com/local/el-paso-news/photographer-behind-controversial-photos-speaks-exclusively-to-ktsm/.

“Uproar over Mounted Border Agents Turning Back Haitian Migrants.” France 24, 20 Sept. 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210920-uproar-over-mounted-border-agents-turning-back-haitian-migrants.

“U.S. Border Camp Cleared of Haitians, Thousands More on the Move.” Reuters, 25 Sept. 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-border-camp-cleared-haitians-thousands-more-move-2021-09-25/.

U.S. Suspends Use of Mounted Border Patrol Units in Del Rio, Texas. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/immigration-border-patrol-horseback-units-del-rio-texas/. Accessed 28 Sept. 2021.

Cineas, Fabiola. “Why America Keeps Turning Its Back on Haitian Migrants.” Vox, 24 Sept. 2021, https://www.vox.com/22689472/haitian-migrants-asylum-history-violence.