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Haitian migrants take legal action to protest border patrol treatment

WASHINGTON – Mirard Joseph was bringing food for his wife and child, he said, when a border patrol officer on horseback in Del Rio, Texas, “tied” him with his reins and dragged it over the pass to the Rio Grande, which in this region separates the United States from Mexico.

The treatment of Mr. Joseph, an undocumented immigrant who sought asylum but was deported, and other Haitian migrants by officers in September is under federal investigation after President Biden called “scandalous” and promised that “there will be consequences.” The union representing border patrol agents defended them, saying they were just doing their jobs as thousands of migrants passed through the small border town.

The migrant side of history was first exposed Monday, in a lawsuit against the government filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. According to Mr. Joseph, the officer in a widely published photograph let him go when the horse appeared to be about to step on him.

“It was the most humiliating experience of my life,” he said in the trial, which recounts his experience and those of 10 other Haitians in Del Rio and during their deportations. The complaint accuses the government of physical and verbal abuse, inhuman treatment and denial of due process under a public health rule that gives border officials the power to deport most people who enter states illegally -United during the coronavirus pandemic. Migrants are represented by immigrant advocacy organizations Justice Action Center, Haitian Bridge Alliance, and Innovation Law Lab.

The lawsuit alleges the Biden administration knew an influx of migrants was coming but did not deliberately make any humanitarian preparations – a strategic move, according to the lawsuit, intended to deter more Haitians from trying to cross into the United States . Among other things, the complainants are asking to be allowed to return to and remain in the United States while they seek asylum.

The photographs of Mr Joseph and others in Del Rio drew criticism of the Biden administration’s response to the thousands of black migrants who were crossing the United States illegally at the time, many of them seeking asylum.

Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, the plaintiffs’ accounts could be part of the investigation into the actions of officers in Del Rio, which is being conducted by the Office of Professional Accountability of Customs and Border Protection. The Homeland Security Department said the office was examining the footage for possible misconduct and questioning witnesses, border patrol workers, and senior customs and border protection officials.

In Mr Joseph’s case, the photographs sparked accusations that officers used their reins as whips – a claim that is at the heart of the investigation. According to Mr. Joseph’s complaint, this is what happened. But the Border Patrol Union said officers were spinning their reins, as they are trained to do, to deter people from getting too close to their horses and therefore to avoid injury.

Several plaintiffs said they “saw officers on horseback using reins as whips against people” in the Rio Grande. A migrant, identified in the lawsuit as Esther, said officers on horseback chased her into the river towards Mexico. She said the horses nearly run over her as the officers shouted, “Go back to Mexico.”

Another complainant, identified as Paul, said he saw border patrol officers beat up black migrants. While in the middle of the Rio Grande, Paul said, he saw officers cut a rope that had been stretched across the river to help people cross safely. He said he saw Haitians in deeper water struggling not to drown and also saw officers pushing migrants into the river near Del Rio.

The plaintiffs also said they lacked food and water, leading many migrants to fall ill and, in some cases, to cross the river back to Mexico to find food. The Biden administration said at the time it was providing food, water and medical care for migrants in a makeshift encampment under and around a bridge.

The situation was a critical moment in Mr Biden’s first year dealing with growing numbers of migrants at the border. The administration’s response, which included the expulsion of thousands of Haitians, galvanized civil rights groups and others to push for better treatment of black migrants in particular. According to recent government data, nearly 16,000 Haitians entered Del Rio in September; about 40 percent of them were deported under the public health rule, known as Title 42.

The complaint describes squalid conditions under the Del Rio International Bridge, where many spent more than a week as temperatures regularly exceeded 100 degrees.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on September 20: “Obviously, any circumstance in which individuals are not treated humanely, whether or not they come to our border, is not in accordance with the policies of the Biden administration.

Christophe cameron contributed reports.