WASHINGTON — Border Patrol agents on horseback used “unnecessary” force in September against Black migrants who crossed into Del Rio, Texas, en masse, amid a humanitarian crisis that exposed the Biden administration’s struggle to manage a record number of southwestern border crossings.
In the absence of clear instructions from their supervisors, the agents took commands from the Texas state police and improperly “used force or the threat of force” to drive migrants back into the Rio Grande.
These findings and others came from an extensive review of the events of Sept. 19, when about 15,000 mostly Haitian migrants had gathered in squalid conditions underneath a bridge in Del Rio after crossing into the country from Mexico. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Professional Responsibility released a more than 500-page report on Friday. Notably, investigators found no evidence to corroborate allegations from migrants and others that agents used horses’ reins to whip the migrants.
But images from that day of federal agents corralling Black migrants in and around the Rio Grande continue to draw international condemnation. Some accused the United States of discriminating against Black migrants in its immigration system, which the administration has denied.
One of the images was imprinted on an unofficial Border Patrol commemorative coin, known as a “challenge” coin. The agency denounced the creation of the coin, and the Office of Professional Responsibility is investigating its origin.
While four agents are facing disciplinary action for the events of that day, the report disclosed deeper problems within the agency on the front lines of a border crisis that continues to challenge the Biden administration.
Among those issues are the conflicting objectives between federal and local officers, a situation that is poised to get worse after Texas on Thursday ordered even more local law enforcement involvement in enforcing immigration laws.
Chris Magnus, the C.B.P. commissioner, said during a news conference on Friday that the agency has made clear to its agents that they should take orders only from their own supervisors.
The White House on Friday condemned Texas’s latest order as another political stunt brought by Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who often clashes with Mr. Biden.
“The immigration enforcement is a federal authority, and states should not be mandating it — meddling in it,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said on Friday.
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The horse patrol unit that rushed the Black migrants was carrying out a request from the Texas Department of Public Safety, rather than Border Patrol senior leadership, exposing the lack of federal oversight over border enforcement.
A local Border Patrol supervisor approved of the request from Texas authorities without securing approval from federal leadership. The decision to carry out the operation “resulted in unnecessary use of force against migrants who were attempting to re-enter the United States with food,” the report said.
“It’s clear from the investigation that decisions made by some of the agency’s leadership, and the lack of appropriate policies and training, all contributed to the incident,” Mr. Magnus said. “But there is no justification for the actions of some of our personnel, including unprofessional and deeply offensive conduct.”
Mr. Magnus said one particularly denigrating comment stood out. One of the agents on horseback was recorded telling a Haitian migrant, “This is why your country’s shit because you use your women for this.”
Mr. Magnus said that the same agent, who is one of the four facing discipline, steered his horse dangerously close to a child while pursuing the migrant he had yelled at.
A spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety said the agency was reviewing the report and declined to comment on its findings.
As more and more migrants were crossing into Del Rio in the days before Sept. 19, the Border Patrol chief, Raul Ortiz, called for all available horse units to be at the river’s edge, where migrants were crossing, “as a show of force and for crowd control,” the report said.
Investigators learned that many of the agents on horseback had gone through little if any training in crowd control and did not have clear directions about their operational goals.
“To me, this is less about the individual agents, although they should be held to account for the specific unprofessional actions they took, but a failure of leadership to address a situation that was very much overwhelming the patrol at the time,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, managing director of immigration and cross-border policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Mr. Magnus said on Friday that the policy moving forward would be not to use horses for crowd control without the explicit approval of the C.B.P. commissioner. Mr. Ortiz was not at the news conference on Friday, but he told investigators that he took responsibility for what happened on Sept. 19.
The news conference on the findings of the investigation was unusual. Typically, C.B.P. does not publicly disclose the conclusions in these internal reviews. But during his confirmation hearing in October, Mr. Magnus pledged transparency and accountability on this report and other matters.
The four agents facing discipline have been moved to administrative positions. Mr. Magnus declined to describe the recommended disciplinary action because the review and appeal process was continuing.
At the time, President Biden promised that “those people will pay,” referring to the agents involved, which raised immediate concerns among some that it would not be a fair investigation.
The Border Patrol union president, Brandon Judd, said that if any punishments were handed down, the agents would appeal.
“Through the due process,” Mr. Judd said, “we will be able to show that this is nothing more than political theater by executive branch employees to cover for a president who had no business or right to pass judgment prior to a proper investigation.”
Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the Homeland Security secretary, whose agency includes C.B.P., said that “the misconduct of several individuals does not reflect the brave and distinguished service of the agents of the United States Border Patrol.” Mr. Mayorkas initially pledged the investigation would take weeks, but it took nearly 10 months.
Some Border Patrol agents have been outspoken about their dislike of Mr. Mayorkas and the border policies of the Biden administration. Morale among agents has been low for months as many have been moved into administrative jobs to help process the thousands of migrants who have been crossing into the country daily.
The Del Rio incident crystallized Mr. Biden’s struggle to make good on his promise to restore a fair and orderly system to process migrants at the border, even prompting accusations that the president had grown to rely on Trump-era restrictions that had sealed the border to asylum seekers.
The findings of the Del Rio investigation come less than two weeks after another humanitarian crisis, when 51 migrants died after being trapped in an abandoned truck in San Antonio, intensifying criticism of the administration.
A record-high number of border crossings prompted criticism of the administration, both from Democrats who say the president has neglected the issue and Republicans who have seized on the crisis for political attacks ahead of the congressional midterm elections.
The lack of quick solutions to the soaring crossings has also been a source of frustration for Mr. Biden, according to officials familiar with the matter. He has at times criticized his top officials for the slow pace of implementing new policies and expressed exasperation at the inability of Congress to advance immigration legislation, which has been a decades-long problem.
Investigators were not able to interview migrants who were victims of the inappropriate treatment, but an agency official said that declarations in a civil suit against the government brought by some of the migrants were closely examined and included in the 510-page report.
Since Sept. 19, the administration has put nearly 25,000 Haitians on flights back to their country, which is gripped with gang violence, worsening poverty and instability.
Critics have said that the administration is ignoring its own concerns about Haiti’s stability and should not be sending vulnerable migrants back to the country. In June, the number of expulsion flights to Haiti declined significantly after a spike in May. And in recent weeks, several thousand Haitians have been allowed to enter the country under humanitarian exemptions through certain ports of entry on the southwestern border, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Guerline M. Jozef, the president of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, an advocacy organization, said without interviewing the victims of the incident in Del Rio, the findings of the internal review “lack any credibility.”
“If C.B.P. is truly committed to the fair and just treatment of all people, as C.B.P. Commissioner Chris Magnus proclaimed today,” she said, “then they must do an unbiased and credible investigation into the excessive force used against Haitian migrants, which starts with interviewing the victims of the abuse and other migrant witnesses.”
J. David Goodman contributed reporting from Houston.