AILSA CHANG, HOST:
When images of Border Patrol agents on horseback clashing with Haitian migrants in Texas first captured public attention, President Biden was quick to condemn them.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It's outrageous. I promise you those people will pay.
CHANG: Well, more than a month later, the administration has yet to announce any disciplinary action, and some see evidence of a broken system, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Images from Del Rio were still in heavy rotation on cable news when Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas promised lawmakers a swift investigation.
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ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: It will be completed in days, if not weeks.
ROSE: But people who knew the Border Patrol and who've tried to hold its agents accountable for alleged misconduct knew how hard that would be - people like James Wong.
JAMES WONG: I chuckled. What has it been? How many weeks now?
ROSE: Seven weeks and counting. That's no surprise to Wong. He was a high-ranking official in internal affairs at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, meaning it was his job to look into allegations of misconduct against Border Patrol agents.
WONG: They treated everybody else as an outsider. I was often told that I didn't understand because I had never worn green.
ROSE: Critics of the Border Patrol say misconduct investigations move slowly, with little transparency, and rarely deliver more than a slap on the wrist. Clara Long is with the nonprofit Human Rights Watch.
CLARA LONG: These investigations and discipline systems are really broken and need a complete overhaul.
ROSE: The last time the Border Patrol faced this much scrutiny was in the summer of 2019. Agents were caught using a private Facebook group to share posts and images that mocked dead migrants and sitting lawmakers, including sexualized images of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Here's Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of CBP at the time, speaking on NPR's All Things Considered.
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MARK MORGAN: It was horrendous, all right? Some of the images that were out there - absolutely horrendous, wrong, and not consistent with the way that Border Control conducts themselves.
ROSE: An internal disciplinary board at CBP found that 60 agents committed misconduct and recommended firing two dozen of them, but only two were ultimately fired. Most of the other agents are now back at work.
DANIEL MARTINEZ: There's lack of accountability and lack of oversight.
ROSE: Daniel Martinez is a sociologist at the University of Arizona who's studied how CBP treats migrants in its custody.
MARTINEZ: DHS seems to be operating behind this veil of secrecy, and this seems to be the cycle that keeps repeating itself.
ROSE: The Border Patrol's critics worry that's happening again, with the investigation into Del Rio. Images of agents on horseback confronting Black migrants, mostly from Haiti, drew widespread condemnation. But those agents have their defenders, too. They say the agents were swinging their horses reins, not whips, and that no migrants were actually injured.
BRANDON JUDD: The agents were sent out there to do a specific job. They did exactly what they were sent out there to do.
ROSE: Brandon Judd is the president of the union that represents Border Patrol agents. Judd says the investigation has been flawed from the start because top administration officials weighed in early on.
JUDD: Those investigators have no choice but to find wrongdoing, which is why it's taking so long.
ROSE: If you talk to critics of the Border Patrol, they actually agree with Judd about one thing; the way agents in Del Rio acted toward migrants is not really unusual. James Wong, who used to work in internal affairs at CBP, says the Border Patrol sees itself less as a law enforcement agency and more as a, quote, "paramilitary force."
WONG: I have had Border Patrol agents in the past tell me that they will not retreat and they will not give up one foot of American soil. They view these people as the enemy. And to me, that's troubling.
ROSE: The Border Patrol's critics say that's what the images from Del Rio reveal and why they don't expect the investigation to make much of a difference, no matter how or when it ends.
Joel Rose, NPR News.
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