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Migrant Justice: Border Patrol investigating coin memorializing treatment of Haitian migrants in Del Rio

by Michael Wilner and Jacqueline Charlies

A controversial moment captured last fall on the U.S. southern border of an officer on horseback chasing Haitian migrants with his reins raised like a lash in Del Rio, Texas, has been memorialized on “a challenge coin” that has led to an investigation by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Images of the incident led to a public outcry and national scandal, with President Joe Biden demanding accountability for the officers and the Department of Homeland Security launching an independent investigation into the treatment of migrants there. Nearly a year later, the results of the investigation still have not been made public. The unofficial coin, a token of memorabilia, embraces some of the most controversial elements of the scandal, where video footage appeared to show white border agents using their reins as whips against Black migrants.

For some, the images invoked grim reminders of slave patrols, and for others, the historical mistreatment of Haitian refugees in the United States. “Reining it in since May 28, 1924,” the coin reads on one side. “Yesterday’s border is not today’s border.”

Images obtained by McClatchy and the Miami Herald also show a warning on the rim of the coin: “You will be returned.”

Forty-one of the coins were recently sold on eBay for $15.19 apiece. Advocates have also come across images of yellow and black coasters showing a man on horseback with his reins in the air, chasing a family of three. It was not immediately clear how many of the coins were made or distributed. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Professional Responsibility is investigating the creation of the coins and whether anyone at CBP is selling them. Any who are will face “appropriate action,” said Luis Miranda, a CBP assistant commissioner, who said the agency’s chief counsel will also “send a cease-and-desist letter to any vendor who produces unauthorized challenge coins using one of CBP’s trademarked brands.”

“The images depicted on this coin are offensive, insensitive, and run counter to the core values of CBP,” Miranda said. “This is not an official CBP coin.”

The migrant seemingly depicted on the coin — an apparent replica of an image snapped by photographer Paul Ratje — has been identified as Mirard Joseph, a Haitian citizen who has since been deported back to Haiti and is suing the U.S. government. Tess Hellgren, an attorney on a case involving Mirard as a plaintiff, told the Miami Herald that the coin was the “celebration and commodification of racist violence.” “On behalf of Mirard Joseph and the 15,000 Haitian asylum seekers who faced cruelty and brutality in Del Rio, we continue to seek justice in court via Haitian Bridge Alliance v. Biden,” Hellgren said.

Guerline Jozef, co-founder of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a coalition formed to support Haitians, said that merchandising off the treatment of Haitians in Del Rio is “outrageous” and “beyond inhumane.” “The fact they have created merchandise depicting the likeness of people who suffered cruel and inhumane treatment should not be tolerated by DHS or the Biden administration,” she said. Marleine Bastien, a longtime Haitian and immigration advocate in Miami, called the level of disrespect that the coin represents “unprecedented, outrageous and intolerable.”

“President Biden promised to get to the bottom of this, but there was not any action or repercussions,” Bastien said. “Now the Border Patrol is so emboldened that they are making a mockery of the suffering of Black refugees. They are so proud of their criminal behavior that they immortalized it with a coin. I am calling on the Biden administration to step up and investigate this affront and to hold those responsible accountable.”

Serge Toussaint, a Haiti-born muralist who painted a mural at Northwest 62nd Street and North Miami Avenue depicting the incident in order to remind passersby of the mistreatment of Haitians, also could not believe the coins. In his image, Toussaint shows red tears coming from a map of Texas. “I painted this wall just to let people know that we Haitians remember stuff like that; by them putting it down on a coin, that’s worse,” he said. “That is a big disrespect.”