White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday called images of a U.S. Border Patrol agent on horseback chasing Haitian migrants “horrific,” but declined to say what consequences there should be for his actions.
Psaki was asked repeatedly to comment on "photos of border agents on horseback using what appear to be whips on Haitian migrants" and whether it was appropriate behavior.
"I have seen some of the footage. I don't have the full context. I can't imagine what context would make that appropriate, but I don't have additional details," she told reporters at the daily White House briefing. "I don't think anyone seeing that footage would think it's acceptable or appropriate."
Homeland Security head Alejandro Mayorkas was asked about the photo earlier in the day while visiting Del Rio, Texas, where more than 15,000 mostly Haitian migrants have converged on a border bridge. He said the reporter who asked him about the whip was "assuming the facts," and suggested it was possible the agent was simply holding a long rein.
"To ensure control of the horse, long reins are used but we are going to investigate the facts to ensure that the situation is as we understand it to be and if it's anything different, we will respond accordingly," he said.
Testifying before the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday, Mayorkas said he been "horrified to see the images." "We do not tolerate any mistreatment or abuse of a migrant, period,” he added.
Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters she was "deeply troubled" by the photos and planned to discuss them with Mayorkas. "And I fully support what is happening right now which is a thorough investigation into exactly what is going on there. But human beings should never be treated that way," she said.
A picture by photographer Paul Ratje showed the agent on horseback grabbing one of the migrants as the man tried to cross into the United States from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, on Sunday. The El Paso Times reported the agent had swung his whip and charged his horse at people trying to cross, shouting, "Let's go! Get out now! Back to Mexico!"
A Reuters report from the same area described a law enforcement officer using a lariat and whipping it close to the face of a migrant. It's unclear if it was the same agent.
Psaki was pressed repeatedly about the images and asked if the use of whips was something the Biden administration permitted.
She called footage of the incident "horrible to watch," but added "we just have to get more information on that" before she could comment further. Asked if the agent should be fired, she said, "Of course they should never be able to do it again."
In a statement Monday night, the Department of Homeland Security said the agency "does not tolerate the abuse of migrants in our custody and we take these allegations very seriously." The statement said Custom and Border Protection's Office of Professional Responsibility "is investigating the matter and has alerted the DHS Office of Inspector General."
The Homeland Security secretary was joined in Texas by Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz, who defended his agency's use of horses, saying they "play an integral part in the security response."
"We do not know who are the smugglers or who are the migrants, so it's important that those border patrol agents maintain a level of security for both themselves and for the migrant population as they were trafficking back and forth," Ortiz said.
As for the possibility an agent was using a whip, he said, "We'll certainly look into the matter to make sure we do not have activity" that is "unacceptable."
Mayorkas said Tuesday "we look forward to learning the facts that are induced from the investigation. And we will take actions that those facts compel."