Homeland Security officials doubled down on their use of tear gas on migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border and painted the group as large and violent.
Officials gave a handful of journalists a tour Tuesday of the San Ysidro port of entry and surrounding areas of the border wall, stopping at points where they said dozens of migrants had climbed the metal barrier and hurled rocks at Border Patrol officers. They said they wanted to provide a front-row look at what played out that day and how “loopholes” in the nation’s immigration system have stretched already limited resources.
Amid the confrontation Sunday, United States authorities closed the San Ysidro Port of Entry for more than four hours and said 69 migrants, including a handful of women and children, who had managed to cross could face criminal charges. The U.S. Northern Command in recent days has redirected 300 troops to California to help with border security. On the Mexican side, authorities said they arrested 39 migrants and were deporting 98 others linked to the fracas.
Meanwhile, migrants who trekked thousands of miles to Tijuana from Central America and didn’t participate in the incident said they felt they were being punished for the actions of others.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials estimated that more than 1,000 migrants took part in the clash.
San Diego Sector Chief Rodney Scott described a chaotic scene Sunday along 2.6 miles of the border. Just east of the port of entry, in an area he said is a usual flashpoint of activity, a few dozen border patrol officers stood in the shade against the border wall.
Scott motioned toward an area of the border gate where four steel pillars were bent at various angles, saying that was the work of migrants violently shaking the gate and trying to push through.
Hundreds of people were screaming at border officers, he said. Rocks flew overhead. Nearby, another group broke down a section of barbed wire and left a portion of the fence on the ground, he said. Contractors were later called in to weld the fence back together.
“When they broke that, they had a breach where they could just walk right through,” he said. “Migrants started pouring through.”
Customs and Border Protection officials said that despite the attention paid to photos of women and children, the majority of migrants who participated in the clash were adult men. They added that agents had targeted migrants who threw rocks at them.
Agents deployed tear gas and pepper spray projectiles. Canisters hit the fence and exploded, forcing people back.
Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles, called the firing of tear gas against women and children despicable. She said the U.S. undoubtedly has the resources to send more asylum officers to speed up processing times at ports of entry.
“These are human beings who are reaching a point of desperation because their asylum claims are being processed at a snail’s pace or not at all,” she said.
But Scott said the decision to use pepper spray and tear gas was necessary. He said officers wouldn’t hesitate to use those and other forms of less-lethal force again if warranted.
“We are using the least intrusive tools that we possibly can,” he said during a telephone briefing with officials in Washington.
During Sunday’s clashes, agents arrested 42 migrants who had illegally crossed the border, including a handful of women and children. A Homeland Security spokesman referred questions about whether any of the migrants were charged with a crime to the Justice Department.
On Monday, the Department of Defense added an additional 1.5 miles of wire to the border barriers.
Hundreds of migrants briefly crossed illegally through a dilapidated wall made of steel landing mats left over from the Vietnam War, Scott said, but were forced back into Mexico.
Homeland Security officials have said they identified at least 600 people with criminal records among the caravan, but it’s unclear how they arrived at that number. Department of Homeland Security Press Secretary Tyler Houlton on Tuesday cited “intel sources” that could not be publicly released because they are “law enforcement sensitive.”
Robert Perez, deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said the skirmish Sunday showed that some people who embed themselves into large migrant groups incite violence.
“We certainly do not want this to be the new normal,” he said. “All these folks who have made it here did so across what is unquestionably a very perilous journey — a journey that is wrought with crime, wrought with danger in and of itself, let alone oftentimes with false promises and hopes that never materialize.”
After Sunday’s confrontation, some Central American migrants in the caravan agreed to return home. More than 8,000 migrants remain in Baja California, with 6,800 people in Tijuana alone. Nearly 2,000 others are in Tapachula and Chiapas, near Mexico’s border with Guatemala.
Customs and Border Protection officials said the processing facility in San Ysidro holds 300 people. A backlog of 2,800 people who were already waiting to make asylum claims at the border before the arrival of the recent caravan means it could be six weeks before any of those migrants are processed.
On Tuesday, migrants were seen being patted down by officers at the processing facility. Groups of men and others of women and children walked through the facility with their belongings in backpacks or suitcases. Men stood with their hands against a wall as officers wearing gloves searched them for weapons and rashes.
Inside the facility, migrants slept on benches or the floor of holding cells, wrapped in emergency thermal blankets.
Scott said those with legitimate asylum claims should still present themselves at crossings — as is their right under U.S. law — but that migrants who made the trip for economic reasons are not eligible for asylum.
“We are doing the best we can to get factual information to these migrants about what to expect at the border,” he said. “We’re hoping this calms down and people realize they have been sold a bad bill of goods.”
Scott, who has worked for Customs and Border Protection for decades, said the scene that unfolded Sunday differed from previous attempts he’s seen by groups of migrants attempting to illegally cross the border because of its “sheer violence.”
In the 1990s, he said, agents could talk to people and convince them to stay back without worrying about being hit with rocks. Back then, he said, people didn’t demand entry.