The comments of President Joe Biden on Friday left many of us surprised, if not stunned, when he appeared to announce a finding to the ongoing investigation into allegations that mounted Border patrol officers whipped or “strapped” Haitian migrants trying to enter the country. During the Trump Administration, many of us correctly chastised the President for crossing the line in discussing ongoing Justice Department investigations and calling for particular resolutions. The response to this inappropriate statement is more muted from the media but it should be no less concerning. Biden’s statements are clearly prejudicial to the investigation of the incident and should be corrected in the interests of a fair process for all involved.
If agents whipped migrants, they could not only lose their jobs but face criminal charges.
Many in the media, including on National Public Radio, have already reported as fact that the Border patrol agents were “whipping” migrants in the now familiar pictures. However, critics and agents have objected that the media is using still pictures and not the video that shows agents using their long reins to control the horses who were jittery near the water’s edge with people around them. The photographer himself says that the still photos are misleading and that he did not see any agent whipping any migrant.
Nevertheless, the call for an investigation was the right move particularly after Democratic leaders and Vice President Kamala Harris objected to the images as reminiscent the abuse of slavery.
Biden however announced both findings as well as the intended punishment before the investigation reached any conclusions:
“To see people treated like they did, horses barely running over, people being strapped – it’s outrageous. I promise you, those people will pay. There will be an investigation underway now and there will be consequences. There will be consequences.”
Presidents long resisted pressure to get them to comment on pending cases or investigations to avoid charges of undue influence or bias in the results. This is one such case. It was wrong for Biden to say what he did in promising punishment for agents before any investigation is complete. It sends a message to investigators about the expected conclusions of their work. It also suggests that a finding of no whipping or wrongdoing would contradict the President and would not be supported by the White House. That could present serious career issues for investigators. It is unfair to the agents. It is unfair to the investigators and it undermines the integrity of the investigation.
It seems to me that there are two separate issues here. The most discussed is whether migrants were in fact whipped or “strapped.” Biden stated that they were indeed strapped, but many are now saying that that was not in fact true. The investigation will hopefully establish the truth, but now investigators may be concerns about embarrassing the President with any contrary finding.
The second issue is whether it is wise or appropriate to use mounted officers to block migrants. Most cities use mounted units to control crowds. People are more reluctant to confront a horse in comparison to an officer on foot. Police insist that the benefits of mounted units have been proven repeatedly and most countries deploy them to bar entry or control crowds.
Moreover, border agents maintain that horses are still the best way to traverse parts of the difficult terrain of the Southern border. Yet, they also can create dangerous moments like this one on the water’s edge for tired and unstable individuals seeking to enter. That is why the investigation is a useful step.
You cannot promise agents a fair and unbiased investigation when the President has already declared that they strapped migrants and will be punished. That is why Biden’s comments were clearly inappropriate and he should publicly withdraw them in the interests of preserving a fair process for all involved in this controversy.