Federal agents fired pepper balls at protesting Venezuelan migrants along the Rio Grande River international border near downtown El Paso, Texas on Monday after an agent was injured, according to the US customs and border protection.
The agency released a statement on the incident after an El Paso Times report included a 15 second video clip showing what appeared to be Border Patrol agents on the banks of the Rio Grande using projectiles to push back a crowd – some of whom were holding a Venezuelan flag – towards Mexico.
The incident occurred around 12:20 p.m. local time (1:20 p.m. ET) when CBP said “a group of Venezuelan nationals attempted to illegally enter the United States while protesting” along the river.
“One of the protesters assaulted an officer with a flagpole. A second subject threw a rock causing injury to an officer, at which point officers responded by initiating crowd control measures,” the CBP statement said, adding that the crowd control measures included “the authorized system of less lethal force pepper ball launch”.
“The crowd then dispersed and returned to Mexico. The Customs and Border Protection Office of Professional Accountability will review the incident,” the statement said.
The actions near the border come amid growing tension at the US-Mexico border following the Biden administration’s new deal with Mexican officials that subjects Venezuelans to the Trump-era public health authority known as Title 42, which allows authorities to deport migrants to Mexico after they are apprehended at the border.
Authorities say the number of Venezuelans attempting to cross the border has increased dramatically, nearly quadrupling in the past year. This is due, in part, to poor economic conditions, food shortages and limited access to health care in Venezuela. More than 7 million Venezuelans now live as refugees or migrants outside their country, matching Ukraine in the number of displaced people and surpassing Syria, according to the United Nations.
In the United States, some Venezuelan migrants were separated from a family member while already living in the United States and began protesting along the border.
Nonprofits working in the El Paso area told CNN that hundreds of Venezuelan nationals were camping on the Mexican banks of the Rio Grande and staying in shelters in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on the other side of the border with El Paso.
The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement condemning the use of projectiles on migrants, calling the incident “very alarming”.
“This is the latest in a long line of CBP abuses,” the ACLU tweeted. “Our government’s failed attempts to prevent people from seeking protection in the United States are causing death and suffering. The Biden administration must restore a humane asylum process.
The Texas Civil Rights Project has also issued a statement stating that the organization is “appalled and disgusted” by the images.
“People who have the incredible courage to seek a better life deserve to be welcomed with dignity,” the group tweeted. “@CBP and @DHSgov should deliver humanitarian solutions that meet people with dignity and respect, rather than bullets aimed at their backs.”