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The Photos the Border Patrol Wants You to See

The agency portrays itself as a humanitarian force—not one that whips desperate migrants by horseback.

Haitian migrants leave a Border Patrol bus
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

You may have missed it, but last week the U.S. Border Patrol put out the kind of story it would like the media to cover. Agents patrolling the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas, spotted something brightly colored in the rushes, which turned out to be a 3-month-old baby in a carrier and his two-year-old sister. A note pinned to the carrier, according to the Border Patrol, indicated the children were from Honduras and gave their ages. The sector chief for the agency tweeted and posted to Facebook photos of the children with their faces blurred, writing, “It is heartbreaking and frustrating to know that there are children being abandoned without remorse or concern for their lives and wellbeing.”

As commenters on the Border Patrol’s posts noted, this is an awfully callous interpretation of the desperation that might lead someone to leave their children on the banks of the river. It also fits a narrative the agency has been selling for some time about migrant parents: that they endanger their kids and use them to exploit “loopholes” in immigration law. As the Border Patrol tells it, their agents are brave humanitarian workers, rescuing migrants from the harm they do to themselves.

That picture has been hard to maintain in light of images the Border Patrol didn’t want you to see this week: agents on horseback, wielding their reins like whips, charging at Black Haitians and knocking them back into the river. It instantly recalled the era of chattel slavery, or of the Border Patrol’s frontier origins in the 1920s. Officials have proceeded with a semantic discussion of whether leather cords aimed in the direction of the fleeing migrants may accurately be called whips. “To ensure control of the horse, long reins are used,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said, “but we are going to investigate the facts to ensure that the situation is as we understand it to be.” Yet most people have had no trouble seeing the historical weight and present racism of agents in cowboy hats and leather chaps and boots bearing down on a desperate crowd. As if to drive the point home, one agent was filmed yelling: “This is why your country’s shit!” Another shouted, “Let’s go! Get out! Back to Mexico!”

The Border Patrol’s dark side came to prominence under Donald Trump, whom the agency’s influential union gleefully backed. In 2019, ProPublica revealed a 10,000-member Facebook group where agents shared sexually explicit memes about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and asked whether photos of deceased migrants had been faked. This attitude predated Trump, of course, though he empowered it. There is a small but vocal number of whistleblowers who have decried racism, brutality, and corruption in the agency’s ranks going back decades. A 2014 Politico article called it “America’s most out-of-control law enforcement agency.” Biden’s pick to lead the agency was asked about reform and said, per ABC News, he did “not plan to make drastic changes.”

The press rooms of the Border Patrol and its parent agency, Customs and Border Protection, work hard to hide this dysfunction. Take a look at their Flickr account, or their page on the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, which disseminates mostly open-source photos from the U.S. military and some federal law enforcement, helping, through handouts, to shape public perception of our wars abroad and at home. Along with the expected press-conference daises and swearing-in ceremonies, you’ll see agents posing with binoculars in stunning landscapes, helping out with hurricane relief, rescuing migrants by helicopter, and delivering babies; you’ll also see impressive hauls of cocaine and an “unfinished cross-border tunnel.”

This stuff really does get circulated—it is low-hanging fruit for media both local and national. I’m reminded of when MSNBC correspondent Jacob Soboroff, in his book Separated, found himself rappelling down the inside of an abandoned drug-smuggling tunnel in Otay Mesa, California, with a Border Patrol escort, only to realize his colleague had been taken on the same tour two years earlier. The real story, meanwhile, was along the border in Texas, where migrant children were beginning to be taken from their parents. Soboroff admitted he “felt a little hoodwinked.”

CBP also features many videos and images of migrants: generally faceless hordes (their faces usually blurred), often seated on the ground, hunched inside busted stash houses or on the side of the road. One Flickr album called “High risk Covid-19 situations” is just a bunch of years-old photos of groups of migrants, including some packed into a truck or hiding in a house.

The contradictions show through: on the one hand, photos of agents administering first aid to migrants with heat stroke; on the other, “B-roll to support Migration Statistics” shows arrests in the scrub, men shoved to the ground and handcuffed, families huddled in the glare of spotlights, helicopters thundering overhead. (“Engaging” and “processing” are the terms of art for these interactions.) As reporter Ryan Devereaux has written, the Border Patrol likes to call itself “the largest humanitarian organization” on the border, but its agents have been caught on video destroying stashes of water left out for migrants to drink in the desert. Earlier this year, the humanitarian group No More Deaths documented instances of the Border Patrol ignoring or interfering with reports of missing migrants; the agency, Devereaux wrote, citing No More Deaths, “‘has monopolized emergency services for undocumented people in the borderlands,’ … crowding out other sources of humanitarian aid while failing to provide those services on its own.”

The U.S. government, since the Obama years, has been engaged in a propaganda campaign aimed at Central America telling people not to come, through TV and radio spots, songs, and social media campaigns. The pictures the Border Patrol chooses to show of migrants seem designed for a domestic audience; they support the idea that the agency is overrun and link migration with criminality.

Behind each of these images is a degree of human suffering that the abject posture of their subjects does nothing to explain. As immigration reporter Tina Vasquez wrote about the famous photo of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his two-year-old daughter, Valeria, who drowned in the Rio Grande in 2019, “private, personal tragedy [becomes] a footnote in a larger partisan fight.” Vasquez argued that the circulation of the photo was “unnecessary, misguided, dehumanizing, and unwarranted.” No one paying attention, she said, should need to see yet another image of migrant suffering. The same is doubly true when it is Border Patrol propaganda.

As Kelly Lytle Hernández recounts in her book Migra!, a history of the Border Patrol, it has historically been agents’ discomfort with handling women and children or other more “sympathetic” migrants—and their desire to avoid media attention on those scuffles—that contributed to making border crossings more deadly. In the 1940s, Lytle Hernández told me in a 2017 interview, “the confrontations that they would have with women and children—who would often fight back, holler, or scream, or protest their arrest—was something that made the Border Patrol officers very uncomfortable, especially as winter tourists were coming down to the border and watching how they did their work.” There followed an expansion of the border wall, which meant “Border Patrol officers could make their arrests out in the desert, or women and children would have to submit to much more dangerous crossings.”

That dynamic repeated in the 1990s, as “prevention through deterrence” became official U.S. border policy. A crackdown on informal crossings in large border cities led people to seek out more dangerous routes (hence the famous immigration symbol of the era: the highway sign warning of crossing migrants, featuring a silhouetted family, dragging behind them a little girl). The border was further hardened after 9/11 with drones and sensorsa “virtual fence” that has contributed to a minimum of 7,800 deaths between 1999 and 2019 (almost certainly an undercount). And over the last several years, the U.S. government restricted asylum claims at ports of entry through “metering,” implemented the “Remain in Mexico” program, separated families, enlisted Mexican and Central American leaders to block people from leaving, and now, used the pandemic as a pretext to rapidly expel people. Making it essentially impossible to ask for asylum at ports of entry guarantees that people will try more dangerous ways to cross.

That, perhaps, is closer to the real story behind the photos of the little girl and her baby brother on the riverbank.