The images spread like wildfire. Over the weekend, US Customs and Border Protection agents in Del Rio, Texas, were captured brandishing what appeared to be whips to subdue a group of Haitian migrants attempting to cross into US soil.

Immediately, people drew historic parallels between the photos and slave patrol militias of yesteryear—groups of white slaveholders and non-slaveholders who would patrol areas looking for slaves out at night not carrying passes from their masters. Often on horseback, the men were authorized to search slave quarters for weapons or gatherings and could legally act as judge, jury and executioner, administrating lashings at will.

Migrants interact with Border Patrol agents- Getty Images

In response to the recent pictures, the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP, issued a news release labeling them “extremely troubling.” The agency also said it launched an investigation “which will be conducted swiftly [and] will define the appropriate disciplinary actions to be taken.

There are very few modern-day instances where the use of a whip is permitted: Rihanna lyrics, Indiana Jones cosplay and that one Britney Spears video for “Work B**ch.” Certainly not wielded by federal agents in a country famous for a statue meant to embrace immigrants that’s adorned with a plaque that reads in part: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

With the images blowing up the Twittersphere, CBP went into damage control mode, claiming agents acted “within policy.” The purported whips weren’t whips at all, you see. They were merely reins — strands of leather or nylon attached to a horse’s bridle usually at the mouth bit — used to give it commands (ask for a livelier speed, signal a turn, request a halt, and so on.) Said reins just happened to be extra, extra long and were perhaps maneuvered in a whipping motion toward migrants who were armed solely with styrofoam containers carrying take-out from neighboring Ciudad Acuña.

To borrow from an old SNL sketch, yeah, that’s the ticket!

Spin is one thing; optics is a whole ‘nother. And this entire, sorry attempt at damage control simply reminded me of a phrase often repeated by my late father: If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck.

Still, why not give the agency the benefit of the doubt? Intrigued by the oversize reins, I reached out to CBP directly and asked if they had clear parameters for the optimal length of mounted agents’ reins, and if agents’ training specifies which cases (if any) allow for them to be used for anything other than horse control.

Surprisingly, I got a response, though it wasn’t the one I was hoping for. Headquarters Branch Chief Justin Long said the agency didn’t have any “additional updates to provide” on the matter and instead referred me to a boilerplate statement: “The Department of Homeland Security does not tolerate the abuse of migrants in our custody and we take these allegations very seriously. US Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Professional Responsibility is investigating the matter and has alerted the DHS Office of Inspector General. In addition, Secretary Mayorkas has directed that personnel from the Office of Professional Responsibility be on site full-time to ensure that the responsibilities of DHS personnel are executed consistent with applicable policies and training and the Department’s values.”

When Mayorkas, the first immigrant and first Hispanic American to lead DHS, accepted President-elect Biden’s nomination last November, he called on the memory of his late parents, who in 1960 arrived in the US as refugees following the Cuban Revolution.

“They cherished our democracy and were intensely proud to become United States Citizens,” Mayorkas, who termed the distinction to lead the bureau “the honor of a lifetime,” said.

During the heartfelt speech, Mayorkas also highlighted the department’s most noble mission: “To help keep us safe and to advance our proud history as a country of welcome.” Mr Secretary: It’s time to put your money where your mouth bit is.