Haitian Migrant Mirard Joseph Tells His Story After Del Rio

TMirard Joseph was the first person to see him in his entire life on one of the most difficult days of his existence.

He became the symbol of the suffering of many thousands of Haitian migrants on Sept. 19, 2021. The image of Joseph trying to flee a U.S Border Patrol (USBP), agent riding on horseback from Del Rio in Texas spread over the Internet and was broadcast by every major news channel. Joseph ran and clung to his plastic bag filled with food while the agent tugged at his shirt. The horse’s rein seemed to coil like a whip.

The image, captured by New Mexico– and Texas-based photojournalist Paul Ratje, stoked national debate over migration at the U.S.-Mexico border, enduring racism in American institutions, and the unique experience that Black immigrants face. Joseph was living in Del Rio, with Madeleine Prospere his wife and their 2-year-old daughter. They had previously lived with 15,000 mostly Haitian migrants.

Many Americans saw Ratje’s photo as evidence of the country’s broken immigration system. Other photos include the NAACPKamala Harris, Vice President of the United States, said that it was reminiscent of the ugly past of slavery. In the days after the incident, President Joe Biden condemned the USBP’s use of horses in the arrests, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection launched an internal investigation into the Del Rio horse patrol. “We—our entire nation—saw horrifying images that do not reflect who we are, who we aspire to be, or the integrity and values of our truly heroic personnel in the Department of Homeland Security,” Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said, adding that the images “painfully conjured up the worst elements of our nation’s on-going battle against systemic racism.”

Federal agents in Del Rio were reportedly furious at the Biden Administration’s reaction. Many USBP supporters defended the scene captured in Ratje’s photo, arguing that the agent was doing his job. Ratje weighed in too, saying he couldn’t confirm if the agent had used the rein as a whip—a comment that, amid the controversy, took on a life of its own in conservative media outlets. “I was portrayed as … giving [the agents] a pass,” he says.

Prospere and Joseph, two Haitian migrants who fled to the United States, sued it on December 20th. Prospere claimed they were denied asylum in Del Rio because of being treated unfairly. Their lawyers claim that Joseph and Prospere felt unsafe in Chile and fear kidnapping should they return to Haiti. Joseph also claims, per court documents, that a border agent “lashed at” him.

Ratje was unable to shake the feeling that his photo did not include any information about the man at its center. In an era of global migration, the subject of his photo had been essentially erased—co-opted by a set of diverging political narratives much larger than any one person. “I don’t think that migrants see themselves as migrants,” Ratje says. “They see themselves as human beings.” It’s the rest of us who “have this idea of migrants, and we dehumanize them that way.”

Ratje began to search for his subject days later, walking along the entire length of the tent city, and giving his information to everyone who asked. Months later, in December, Ratje’s phone rang. It was a calm speaker of Haitian Creole. Joseph was the one who answered.

Ratje and Joseph met in Port-au-Prince twice during December, January. For Joseph, meeting Ratje—in his first interview since the photo was taken—was an opportunity to tell his story on his own terms. Ratje saw it as a way to bring out the humanity in an individual and to show the world a pressing problem.

The days that followedHis now-famous struggle against the USBP agent led to Joseph, Prospere and their toddler being detained. They were loaded onto an American border official’s plane for Haiti a few days later. Joseph was bound by his wrists and waist; Prospere was also chained but was allowed to transport their child.

Joseph was asked by his family and friends if the photo, that had appeared in many articles, was actually of him when they arrived at their destination. Joseph reluctantly admitted that it was him. “I had tears in my eyes,” he says in Haitian Creole. The ordeal made him embarrassed, naturally shy. “It’s the worst humiliation I have endured in my life,” he says. “The horse humiliation and the cuffs.”

Raised in Saint-Louis du Nord, a small coastal city in northern Haiti, Joseph says he’s spent his life avoiding violence. His family played soccer on the streets as a child, which led him to become a lifetime fan of Real Madrid. He is now 42 and a father to six children. His neck is bent at his smartphone, with a silent smile running across his otherwise reserved face.

Joseph is like many other Haitians. Joseph didn’t have much and poverty has increased in recent years. 2010 saw the destruction of Haiti by a huge earthquake. Then came a tsunami that created a multitude of issues: hunger, homelessness and spikes in violence. In July, President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated, plunging the nation into political uncertainty; a month later, another massive earthquake tore through. The Migration Policy Institute says that these circumstances, both political and environmental, are responsible for one of largest flows of emigration in western hemisphere. A total of 650,000 Haitians have fled home since 2010, many landing in Brazil and Chile. Joseph and Prospere joined this diaspora in 2017, traveling to Chile, where Joseph found work—and almost lost a finger—at a propeller factory. There was their daughter.

In 2021, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, global economies constricted, jobs dried up, and many countries’ visa requirements became more stringent. Many Haitians fled their homeland again, this time to the U.S. border. Joseph and Prospere traveled with their baby overland from Chile through the Darién Gap, a treacherous expanse of jungle between Colombia and Panama that kills dozens of people every year, per the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Joseph and his family arrived in Del Rio on September 21st without knowing the bureaucratic and political obstacles that lay ahead. Title 42 is an obscure rule in U.S. public health that permits immigration officials to remove anyone at the border even if the person intends to seek asylum. Most migrants will be expelled to Mexico while Haitians will return to their homeland. According to IOM, more than 18,000 Haitians were expelled by the U.S. between Sept. 19-February 26 and sent back to Haiti.

Court documents reveal that Joseph and his family were sleeping on cardboard and on the ground in Del Rio before Ratje’s famous shot. The baby was later diagnosed with a respiratory illness and stomach problem. The documents also state that the U.S. government was providing food, but not enough—just bread and bottled water. “I’ve never seen anything like the situation in Del Rio,” says Ratje, who had been photographing the conditions of the encampment on assignment for Agence France-Presse. The camp, unlike other border camps between the U.S. and Mexico, was situated on U.S. soil.


On the day his photograph was taken, Joseph had taken the short trip from Del Rio to Ciudad Acuña, on the Mexican side of the border, to buy food for his family. He was attempting to return to Del Rio when the border agents galloping in “nearly trampled him,” per court documents. Joseph recalled childhood memories from Haiti, where he lived in terror of violence. “It’s as if [the agent] had something personal with me,” he says.

He has suffered from the trauma that made Joseph an accidental celebrity. Sometimes, he says, if someone recognizes him from the photograph, he’ll deny it’s him, just to avoid the conversation. Joseph is open to sharing his painful story and has been happy to give some of the agency back to him.

Ratje’s photographThis is not the first time that migration has been discussed. Think about the photo of Alan Kurdi the Syrian child whose small, limp body washed up by the Turkish shores in 2015. Or the photograph of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter, Angie Valeria, who were shown facedown in muddy water after drowning trying to cross the Rio Grande in 2019. These bleak photos sparked debate around the treatment of people in desperate situations and international movement. These conversations can be reopened almost immediately. The conversations can be seen as public discussions about policy or politics. If they touch at all on our ethical obligations to one another, only rarely do they take in more of an individual’s life than his or her status as a migrant.

Ratje wanted to stop this pattern from happening again by finding Joseph. “As photographers, it’s important to show these things that are going on,” he says, “but we need to also look at the effect that they have on the people who are in these pictures. I didn’t want [Joseph] to just be another one of these people who we call migrants who disappear into the shadows.”

Joseph was dressed in his finest clothes on the day Ratje had made arrangements to meet him in Port-au-Prince. The last time Ratje had captured his image, he’d been treated like a criminal. Joseph wanted to see him for who he truly is.

Reporting by Julia Zorthian/New York

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