A U.S. Border Patrol agent on horseback uses the reins to try and stop Mirard Joseph from entering an encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande near the Acuna Del Rio International Bridge in Del Rio, Texas, on Sept. 19, 2021. (Photo by PAUL RATJE / AFP) (Photo by PAUL RATJE/AFP via Getty Images)

Esther arrived at the encampment of Haitian asylum-seekers in Del Rio, Texas, with her husband and baby in mid-September. She and her family were among some 15,000 Haitian asylum-seekers forced to take shelter underneath a bridge in Del Rio after a traumatic and dangerous trek to the U.S.-Mexico border. 

The Del Rio camp was violently dismantled in late September. Images of Border Patrol agents riding horses showed them using their horse reins menacingly and corralling Haitian asylum-seekers, setting off global outrage over the Biden administration’s brutal treatment of Haitians. A group of 11 of them, including Esther, are now suing President Joe Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner Chris Magnus, and the Department of Homeland Security, accusing them of physical and verbal abuse, racial discrimination, denial of medical care, and denial of due process under Title 42—a public health rule first invoked by former President Donald Trump and now Biden that allows U.S.-Mexico border agents to quickly expel migrants citing the COVID-19 pandemic. Title 42 has disproportionately been deployed against Haitians. Meanwhile, an internal Customs and Border Protection investigation into the border agents’ actions in Del Rio is ongoing

While at the CBP camp, Esther’s baby became very ill. She and her husband tried to get medical attention for their child, but Esther—who’s using a pseudonym for protection—said border agents only gave them ice to lower their baby’s fever and some syrup.

Esther said they were barely given anything to eat or drink at the camp. One day, she went out to look for food and water. On her way back to her family, she said she was met by Border Patrol agents on horseback who screamed at her and aggressively tried to persuade her to cross back into Mexico. Esther and her husband Emmanuel were ultimately forced to return to Mexico with their baby out of fear U.S. authorities would deport them to Haiti. 

“Me and my family were looking for protection and I didn’t expect that my baby would be treated like not a human,” Esther said in Haitian Creole as an advocate translated her words during a phone press conference Tuesday. The 26-year-old and her husband fled Haiti in 2016 after receiving violent threats from a gang. “I’m afraid to return to Haiti,” she said.

The lawsuit, which was filed Monday, argues the Biden administration knew a large number of Haitians—many fleeing years of political instability, extreme poverty, violence, and the impacts of the climate crisis in Haiti—were en route to the U.S. But the lawsuit alleges the U.S. government purposely made no humanitarian preparations as part of its “prevention through deterrence” strategy to discourage asylum-seekers from even attempting to come to the U.S. Advocates in the lawsuit also condemned the U.S. government’s intervention in Haiti, which they say has contributed to the unstable and dangerous living conditions in the island nation. 

Over 11,000 Haitians have been deported since the crisis in Del Rio in September, according to advocates. The plaintiffs—who are being represented by the immigrant justice groups Haitian Bridge Alliance, Justice Action Center, and Innovation Law Lab—are demanding they be allowed back into the U.S. so they can properly apply for protection. 

“Today, we stand with those asylum-seekers, those people who were under the bridge, those who have been erased, disappeared, deported, expelled, without any access to even be able to get protection,” said Guerline Jozef, executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, during the Tuesday press conference. “The United States has a long history of anti-Black racism …  Immigration is a Black issue … a racial justice issue … a human rights issue.” 

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Mirard Joseph, a Haitian father who was crossing the Rio Grande to bring food to his family after they hadn’t eaten in days when a Border Patrol agent on horseback lashed at Joseph, wielding his reins like a whip, grabbed his collar, dragged him and tried to force him back to Mexico. The act was caught in a photograph that went viral. “The officer released Mirard only when the horse was about to trample him,” the lawsuit detailed. Joseph, his wife, Madeleine, and their 1-year-old daughter had reached Del Rio after a perilous journey from Chile, where the couple had lived since 2017. Joseph and Madeleine fled Haiti because they no longer felt safe living there, the lawsuit said. 

At the Del Rio camp, “Mirard’s situation became more dire. U.S. officials in the encampment distributed only bottled water and bread to his family, and not enough to sustain anyone. He watched as Madeleine and their daughter suffered from hunger and dehydration,” the lawsuit described. Two days after Joseph was assaulted by a border agent, he and his family were taken to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement jail. They were later shackled, put on a plane, and deported to Haiti despite fearing for their lives, the lawsuit said.

“By deporting me and other asylum-seekers, President Biden has condemned us to death,” said another plaintiff, using the pseudonym Paul. The other plaintiffs echo similar stories of despair. 

While this lawsuit plays out, the Biden administration continues to mass deport Haitian asylum-seekers, even after the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, a deadly earthquake in August, and further destruction from Tropical Storm Grace that same month. Other Haitians from the Del Rio camp are still detained at Immigration and Customs Enforcement jails across the U.S., Jozef told Prism, where they’ve often faced further abuse

“We are fighting to get them released,” Jozef said. “And we are paying bonds, because a lot of them, after they make this journey, after all this abuse, and all the pain, they have been asked to pay $20-30,000 in order for them to be released,” Jozef said. “And if they cannot pay for that, then they … will get deported, right? [The U.S. government] literally bribing people for freedom.”

[Update 11/9/2023: A previous version of this article stated that images of Border Patrol agents showed them whipping and corralling Haitian asylum-seekers. We have updated the piece to more accurately reflect that the Border Patrol agents used their horse reins menacingly to corral the migrants and did not use whips.]

María Inés Taracena is a contributing writer covering workers’ rights at Prism. Originally from Guatemala, she's currently a news producer at Democracy Now! in New York City focusing on Central America...