Legal counsel for Haitian migrant in viral photo contradicts Border Patrol findings in Del Rio investigation

In an exclusive interview with theGrio, the Haitian Bridge Alliance legal director said Customs Border and Protection "ghosted" team members when they urged the agency to interview alleged migrant victims.

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The legal counsel representing Haitian migrants involved in last year’s Del Rio, Texas, border controversy is directly contradicting some of the recent findings released by Customs Border and Protection (CBP) after a 10-month-long internal investigation.

Haitian Bridge Alliance, which is representing Mirard Joseph — the migrant photographed in a now-viral image of a horse-bound Border Patrol agent grabbing him by his shirt — told theGrio that the investigation led by CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility was conducted unfairly and “shows a lack of respect for Black migrants.”

A U.S. Border Patrol agent on horseback on Sept. 19, 2021, tries to stop a Haitian migrant from entering an encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande near the Acuna Del Rio International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas. (Photo by PAUL RATJE/AFP via Getty Images)

In its findings released on July 8, CBP concluded that on Sept. 19, 2021, four agents violated policy and announced that they would be disciplined. While no disciplinary actions have been specified as of yet, the agency’s investigation did find that agents used “denigrating and offensive language,” and also used “force or the threat of force” in an attempt to get migrants to go back toward the border. 

However, CBP denied a key accusation made by Haitian Bridge Alliance in a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Joseph against the Biden administration: that border patrol agents used horse reins in the form of whips as a violent tool against migrants. 

Images and video of border patrol units astride horses chasing after, yelling at and making contact with the Haitian migrants caused national and international outrage. For some, it even recalled the dark past of slavery in the United States. That outrage caused the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to announce that it would investigate the incident just one day later. 

Nicole Phillips, legal director at Haitian Bridge Alliance, told theGrio that she was surprised and frustrated with CBP’s investigation findings, as her client, Joseph, claims he was struck by a border patrol agent, subsequently chained and eventually deported back to Haiti. 

In the lawsuit filed last December that names President Joe Biden, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus, among others, Haitian Bridge Alliance claimed that Joseph was attempting to bring “desperately needed” food and water from Mexico back to his wife and child who were camping out at the CBP encampment under the Del Rio International Bridge. The lawsuit also claimed that CBP created “poor conditions” and a lack of medical care for migrants.

An aerial view of migrants, many from Haiti, on Sept. 21, 2021, at an encampment along the Del Rio International Bridge near the Rio Grande in Del Rio, Texas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Joseph, the lawsuit claimed, was lashed at by a mounted Border Patrol agent using horse reins. The agent, attempting to drag him back into the river, also allegedly grabbed him by his neck and collar, destroying his shirt and causing his shoes to fall off. Joseph described the incident as the “most humiliating experience of my life.”

When asked by theGrio to clarify the claims made by her client, Phillips said Joseph, who was fleeing Haiti with his family to escape danger and instability in his native country, was not only whipped but “treated like a slave.”

“The psychological impact from being whipped by a man on a horse, then held in detention without adequate food, access to health care and other basic conditions, and then deported with chains, was so … damaging,” Phillips told theGrio.

Phillips said CBP’s investigation was also conducted without interviewing Joseph and other migrants who claim they were physically struck by Border Patrol. In fact, she claims CBP contacted Haitian Bridge Alliance amid the investigation seeking to discuss its lawsuit against the government. But when Haitian Bridge Alliance’s legal counsel proposed that CBP interview migrants about what they alleged to have experienced, the agency “ghosted” team members.

“It’s horrifying that there just is no due process for Black migrants under these procedures,” said Phillips.

TheGrio reached out to DHS and CBP about the claims made by Haitian Bridge Alliance in response to its findings, but did not receive comment at the time of publication. Similarly, theGrio asked the White House press office if the Biden administration had confidence in the integrity of CBP’s investigation, but has not yet received comment.

The Del Rio incident is one of several questionable incidents involving Border Patrol and Black migrants. On Capitol Hill, a House Oversight Committee report in October 2021 outlined that the agency determined that 60 agents violated CBP’s code of conduct after a yearlong probe into racist and sexist posts by agents in private groups on Facebook. 

The committee report accused CBP of a number of failings, including “an inconsistent disciplinary process, a failure to train on and enforce social media policies, and senior leadership’s failure to take appropriate actions despite knowledge of these Facebook groups.”

Most recently, CBP launched an internal investigation into “challenge coins” being sold on eBay with the now infamous photo of Mirard Joseph being confronted by the Border Patrol agent. The unofficial coin was inscribed with the phrases, “You will be returned” and “Reining it in since May 28, 1924.”

An image of the coin depicting a U.S. Border Patrol agent on horseback trying to apprehend a Haitian migrant. (via eBay, Andy Christiansen)

A spokesperson for CBP said while it was not an official CBP coin, the images depicted on it were “offensive, insensitive, and run counter to the core values of CBP.”

Phillips told theGrio that she believes CBP has a systematic problem when it comes to how Border Patrol agents treat and speak about Black migrants. What’s worse, she said, is Border Patrol’s “anti-Black” culture and the lack of accountability by the agency’s leadership. 

“That is, I think, terrifying for the Black migrant community,” said Phillips. “CBP doesn’t understand the impact that this incident in Del Rio and this [challenge] coin, and their lack of failure to take any accountability has had on the victims in Del Rio of this horse incident and those who were under the bridge [who were] deported and witnessed this behavior.”

Phillips also noted that nowhere in CBP’s report on the findings of the Del Rio investigation does it specifically mention racial bias training. “Let alone the problem of anti-Black discrimination wasn’t mentioned at all, let alone a recommendation to combat that,” she told theGrio.

Haitian Bridge Alliance said it is still analyzing CBP’s 511-page report and will consider what options it has. In the meantime, the agency is still moving forward with its legal case.

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Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is the Managing Editor of Politics and Washington Correspondent at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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