Latinx Files: The photo that captured the decades of failures of U.S. border policy

A United States Border Patrol agent on horseback tries to stop a Haitian migrant.
A United States Border Patrol agent on horseback tries to stop a Haitian migrant from entering an encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande.
(AFP via Getty Images)

If you want to understand the history of immigration enforcement in the United States over the last 25 years, all you need to do is look at the photograph above.

Captured by photographer Paul Ratje, the image depicts a horse-mounted Border Patrol agent violently pulling on the shirt of a Haitian refugee holding plastic bags of food brought over from the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, attempting to return to a camp near Del Rio, Texas, that had as many as 14,000 asylum seekers over the weekend.

The backlash was immediate.

The optics of a law enforcement officer riding a horse while trying to apprehend a defenseless Black man reminded people of the legacy of Jim Crow and the role that police played. Ratje’s photo made me think of the Texas Rangers terrorizing and lynching Mexicans and Mexican Americans near the very lands where this incident took place. Imagine the sense of irony I felt when I saw several Border Patrol agents who looked to be Hispanic in an Al Jazeera video that went viral.


On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer condemned President Biden’s continued usage of Title 42, a once obscure public health law used by the Trump administration at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to immediately expel people who crossed the border.

Even those in the Biden administration claimed to have been mortified by what transpired.

“What I saw depicted about those individuals on horseback, treating human beings the way they were, is horrible,” said Vice President Kamala Harris. “And I fully support what is happening right now, which is a thorough investigation into exactly what is going on there.”

“I was horrified by what I saw,” Alejandro Mayorkas told CNN. Mayorkas is the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “I’m going to let the investigation run its course. But the pictures that I observed troubled me profoundly. That defies all of the values that we seek to instill in our people.”

Forgive my cynicism, but it’s hard to reconcile the dismay expressed over this incident by Harris and Mayorkas, both children of immigrants, with their past actions. In June, Harris traveled to Guatemala, where she tersely told Central Americans not to come to the United States. A month later, Mayorkas did the exact same thing in Miami, directing his warning at Cubans and Haitians thinking about sailing to Florida.

The United States government has been in the business of mass deportation for more than a quarter of a century.

In 1994, Bill Clinton gave the U.S. Border Patrol the OK to launch “Operation Gatekeeper,” which critics point to as the moment in which the U.S.-Mexico border was militarized. Clinton also signed into law the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which made many more people living in the United States eligible for deportation and created the mechanism that would expedite their removal.


And let’s not forget Barack Obama, who deported more people in his two terms as president than all his predecessors combined. Obama’s record even earned him the moniker of “deporter in chief” from Univision’s Jorge Ramos.

Using the threat of violence to deter people who have risked everything — for years on end, in the case of many Haitian refugees (more on that later) — in hopes of a better life has been part of this country’s M.O. The only difference in this case is that photo and video journalists captured what went down.

The cruelty is the point.

The sad reality is that these brutal tactics tend to work. But this is just a Band-Aid on a wound that won’t heal. As The Times’ Molly Hennessy-Fiske reported on Tuesday, hundreds of refugees crossed the river back into Mexico. Who knows for how long?

“We’re all afraid they’re going to deport us,” Gabriel Valdeim, a 32-year-old construction worker at the Del Rio camp told Hennessy-Fiske. “I’m not going to say I’ll never try to cross again. But I’m going to wait to see how things are.”

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How did an estimated 14,000 Haitians get to the U.S.-Mexico border?

One of the most startling revelations from what happened in Del Rio, Texas, for me was that as many as 14,000 mostly Haitian refugees gathered there in the first place. How did they get there?


One likely cause is the spread of misinformation on social media.

“The movement is often based on rumors,” Guerline M. Jozef, the executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, told the New York Times.

“Last week, if you’d asked me, I’d say they were in Reynosa and Matamoros. This week it’s Del Rio. These people are extremely desperate. And they know that there is nothing to go back to in Haiti.”

As the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Associated Press note in their explainers, many of the refugees in Del Rio didn’t come directly from Haiti. Some began their exodus from the Caribbean nation after the 2010 earthquake, migrating to countries like Brazil, where they found plenty of work helping build the stadiums and facilities used in the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Others moved to Chile. As work dried up, many migrated north through Central America and Mexico.

For many, the end goal is the United States, but others have settled in border communities like Tijuana, which you can read about thanks to my colleagues over at the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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Have questions about Latinx mental health? Help us help you!

Readers of the Latinx Files newsletter know that mental health is a topic that’s dear to my heart. Back in May, I wrote about my own issues with anxiety and depression in hopes that talking about it would encourage others to seek help if they felt they needed it.


That’s why I was excited when my colleague Karen Garcia, who recently joined the utility desk, told me that she was planning on writing a series of stories tackling questions Latinx people might have about this very sensitive subject. But for this to work, she needs people to tell her what they want to know, which is where you come in.

Want to know more about generational trauma or the psychological toll of assimilation? Fill out this form, or email her directly at

Things we read this week that we think you should read

The fourth issue of Image, the Los Angeles Times style magazine, is out now. Featured in this edition, which focuses on the city’s luminaries of style, are Paisaboys and Kids of Immigrants. Though both fashion brands are American, they embrace their families’ immigrant roots.

“We’re unapologetic,” Javier Bandera, one half of Paisaboys, told my colleague Julissa James (she wrote both features). “People relate to that. Even if you don’t get the specific reference in a design that we’re releasing on a shirt, it’s the attitude. It’s the fact that we’re not going to conform.”

— Isabelia Herrera continues to kill it over at the New York Times. Her latest is an ode to Dominican car audio culture.

“If you live in certain parts of New York, this is all too familiar,” Herrera writes. “It is the sound of bachata, dembow and merengue típico infiltrating every city crevice on the weekends until the cops try to shut the music down, and an after-hours game of cat and mouse commences. It is a secret world of pleasure and protest, made blaringly public.”

— Afro Latina. Chicano. Fronteriza. Latino. Latinx. These are all terms that people who spoke to NBC News’ Nicole Acevedo and Isa Gutierrez chose to identify themselves instead of Hispanic.

— This weekend the city of Sanger, Calif., threw a homecoming party for their most famous native son, Tom Flores, who earlier in the summer was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Times columnist Gustavo Arellano wrote about the FOMO he felt after not being able to attend the celebration, but also how this bash for the Iceman is a glimpse of what’s possible for Latinxs.

— From the “you love to see it” department, the Tennessean has launched the “Latino Tennessee Voices” newsletter. Written by David Plazas, the project looks to bring more Latinx coverage to the Volunteer State, which saw a 65% increase in its Latinx population over the last decade. Congrats, David! I very much look forward to reading it.


— The homies over at LAist have this Southern California tribute to Vicente Fernández, whose health has been deteriorating. Want more Chente content in your life? Last month, columnist Gustavo Arellano wrote about the radio DJ who’s been holding vigil for the singer for the last 20 years.

— Nothing says “Happy Hispanic Heritage Month!” like a new government report confirming what many of us already know: Latinxs are severely underrepresented in print, television and films. According to the Government Accountability Office, Latinxs make up 12% of the media and entertainment workforce in the United States. But as staff writer Daniel Hernandez notes, these figures paint a rosier picture than reality. For starters, the government report did not differentiate between English-language and Spanish-language media companies.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my own employer. Los Angeles County is nearly half Latinx, but according to an internal report published in June 2020, we accounted for about 17% of all Los Angeles Times newsroom employees.

— This year, boxing fans were robbed of a big fight that traditionally takes place during Mexican Independence Day weekend. Instead, the super middleweight unification fight between Canelo Álvarez and Caleb Plant was postponed to Nov. 6. Judging by what went down Tuesday at a news conference, this fight looks to be worth the wait. My Los Angeles Times en Español colleague Eduard Cauich captured the moment in which the beef between Álvarez and Plant became personal and started swinging at each other. For the Spanish readers among you, make sure to also check out Cauich’s analysis.

And now for something completely different ...

An illustration of a figure kneeling, smiling and giving herself a hug.
What do you do to help with your mental health?
(Ale Cruz / For The Times )

From the beginning, the Latinx Files has been a perpetual work in progress. This is by design. It allows us to experiment and try out new things. It was this mindset that inspired me to tweet out a call for pitches from artists and illustrators.


Don’t get me wrong, I love writing the Latinx Files, but I’m also aware of how text-heavy the newsletter is. When preparing our Juan Gabriel tribute, I knew it was going to be a particularly long newsletter, which is why I asked our art director Martina Ibañez-Baldor to find an illustrator to complement the copy. And you know what? Julio Salgado’s illustrations did more than just break up the text. They popped! I loved how the newsletter looked, and it made me want to do more things like that.

Which brings me to this new section in the newsletter, which still doesn’t have a name. Each week, for as long as we can, we’ll be running a new illustration or cartoon to end the Latinx Files. For the inaugural segment, we asked Ale Cruz (she/her) to do something on the subject of mental health. Cruz is a Mexican illustrator and animator born and raised in the Tijuana-San Diego border area. She currently lives in New York City. Aside from drawing, she enjoys a good iced coffee, dog-watching and making desserts.

“For this piece,” Cruz said, “I wanted to show the growth and strength that comforting yourself can have, even in the smallest of ways like a good hug.”

Are you a Latinx artist? We want your help telling our stories. Send us your pitches for illustrations, comics, GIFs and more! Email our art director at