By Amir Vera, Rosa Flores, Priscilla Alvarez and Gustavo Valdes, CNN
Federal agents shot pepper balls at Venezuelan migrants who were protesting along the Rio Grande River International Boundary near downtown El Paso, Texas, on Monday after an agent was injured, according to US Customs and Border Protection.
The agency issued 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 a crowd — some of whom were holding a Venezuelan flag — back into Mexico.
The incident took place 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 agent with a flag pole. A second subject threw a rock causing injury to an agent at which time agents responded by initiating crowd control measures,” the CBP statement read, adding that the crowd control measures included “the authorized less-lethal force pepperball launching system.”
“The crowd then dispersed and returned to Mexico. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Professional responsibility will review the incident,” the statement read.
The actions near the border come amid increasing tension at the US-Mexico border following the Biden administration’s new deal with Mexican authorities that subjects Venezuelans to the Trump-era public health authority known as Title 42, which allows officials to expel migrants into Mexico after they’re apprehended at the border.
Officials say the number of Venezuelans attempting to cross the border has spiked 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 are now living 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 US, some Venezuelan migrants were separated from family member despite having already lived in the US and began protesting along the border.
Nonprofits working in the El Paso area tell CNN that hundreds of Venezuelan nationals have been camping on the Mexican banks of the Rio Grande and staying in shelters in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico — which is across the border from El Paso.
The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement condemning the use of projectiles on migrants, calling the incident “highly alarming.”
“This is the latest in a long line of abuses carried out by CBP,” the ACLU tweeted. “Our government’s failed attempts at preventing people from seeking protection in the US lead to death and suffering. The Biden administration must restore a humane process for seeking asylum.”
The Texas Civil Rights Project also issued a statement stating the organization is “appalled and disgusted” by the footage.
“People with the incredible courage to seek a better life deserve to be met with dignity,” the group tweeted. “@CBP and @DHSgov should be advancing humanitarian solutions that meet people with dignity and respect, rather than bullets directed at their backs.”
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CNN’s Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.