Border agents fire tear gas at migrants throwing rocks, trying to cross into U.S., authorities say

Migrants run as tear gas is thrown by U.S. border officers to the Mexican side of the border fence after the migrants had climbed a fence to try to get to San Diego from Tijuana on Tuesday.
Migrants run as tear gas is thrown by U.S. border officers to the Mexican side of the border fence after the migrants had climbed a fence to try to get to San Diego from Tijuana on Tuesday.
(Daniel Ochoa de Olza / AP)
San Diego Union-Tribune

A group of about 150 migrants attempted to breach a San Diego border fence on New Year’s Eve, and some began throwing rocks at responding U.S. border agents, who deployed pepper spray and tear gas on the crowd, authorities said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the group was attempting to climb over and under the San Diego border fence. When agents and officers responded, about 45 migrants turned back to Mexico, according to the agency.

But some migrants began throwing rocks over the fence at agents and officers, according to the agency.


“Several teenagers, wrapped in heavy jackets, blankets and rubber mats, were put over the concertina wire. Border Patrol agents witnessed members of the group attempt to lift toddler-sized children up and over the concertina wire and [have] difficulty accomplishing the task in a safe manner,” a news release from U.S. authorities states.

The release does not say what time the incident occurred, and a follow-up question was not immediately answered.

The Customs and Border Protection release said agents and officers deployed smoke, pepper spray and CS gas, a kind of tear gas, to address the rock throwers, who they said were assaulting border agents and risking the safety of migrants who had already made it onto the U.S. side.

The gases caused people to stop throwing rocks and flee, CBP said.

The agency apprehended 25 people, including two minors, the release said.

“I don’t like that type of violence of people throwing rocks,” said Silvio Sierra of Honduras, one of the migrants who approached the border and turned back amid the gas. “We don’t like that type of violence of throwing rocks. The majority of people came in peace. Our intent was to walk up peacefully.”


Regarding the tear gas, he said, “It was very strong. It was everywhere. People were crying. Women and children, too. The gas was everywhere.”

Several migrants from the group that rushed the border said they had grown frustrated by weeks of waiting at El Barretal shelter with conflicting and shifting information about how the U.S. immigration process is supposed to work. They said the majority in the group planned to peacefully approach U.S. immigration authorities at the border and “throw themselves at their mercy.”

Juan Carlos Caballero Jones, who witnessed tear gas being fired at the border early New Year's Day, poses for a portrait outside the El Barretal shelter in the Mariano Matamoros neighborhood of Tijuana.
(Sam Hodgson / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Such a rush of the border had been discussed for several days. Plans to make the effort on Christmas Eve did not materialize.

“The thing about it is, you don’t want to be illegal but you are already illegal,” Sierra said. “So they tell you to take a number. You ask for a number and wait in line for an opportunity. But there’s so many people in line, you aren’t getting through. If you walk up and ask for asylum, they say you are in the wrong place. You tell me, what are we supposed to do?”

Jose Alexander of El Salvador said he headed to the border with his 4-year-old son and witnessed the tear gas firing. He said he didn’t see anyone throwing rocks, a sentiment echoed by many migrants interviewed Tuesday.

“My son is still scared,” Alexander said. “We were a little farther back in the group. As soon as I heard the first shot, I scooped him up and ran back. He was really scared.”

Authorities also used tear gas Nov. 25 during a similar rush on the border. Although some women and children said they were affected by the gas, officials said it was targeted only at rock-throwers in that instance as well. President Trump at the time said it was “a very minor form of the tear gas itself” that he assured was “very safe.”

The migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have come to seek asylum from violence and other unrest in their native countries. They set out on foot in October, eventually using buses and other means to arrive in Tijuana, where they have been awaiting U.S. processing.

Their presence has been portrayed as an invasion by Trump and as a human-rights crisis by others. They have been routed from one shelter to another, and many have decided to return to their homelands or stay in Mexico, where new President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is more welcoming than Trump.

U.S. authorities are not the only ones who have used tear gas on the Central America migrants. Two suspects tossed tear gas canisters into the El Barretal shelter as migrants were settling into bed on Dec. 18.

Juan Carlos Caballero Jones said he participated in Tuesday’s rush on the border. He said he made it past the border fence and hid in the brush as agents searched nearby.

“When they passed me, I moved another inch or so, and then I stayed still,” he said. “They walked right past me but didn’t find me.”

Eventually, Caballero was discovered by the lights from a helicopter, he said: “I was just starting to think I was free.”

He said he was the only one caught in the spotlight of the helicopter and was unsure whether the agents would use some type of force to stop him.

“I was so nervous my whole body was shaking,” he said.

He said agents on the ground returned, took him into custody and walked him back into Mexico.

“I was so close,” he said with a sigh. “But I am going to try again on another day.”

Fry writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.