The head of the federal agency responsible for protecting the U.S. border on Tuesday defended his agents for using tear gas against migrants last month, but lawmakers pressed him about women and children forced to flee clouds of the noxious gas.
The testimony marked the administration’s most detailed explanation of the Nov. 25 clash, when Border Patrol agents blocked several hundred Central American migrants trying to rush en masse across the San Ysidro port of entry, south of San Diego.
“We did not fire at young children on the border,” Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, parent agency of the Border Patrol, told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Of course our policy does not authorize firing tear gas at young children, nor has that happened.”
He said the tear gas was aimed at migrants throwing rocks and other objects at U.S. personnel from the Mexican side of the border. Four Border Patrol agents were struck in the melee and McAleenan said Tuesday that one needed knee surgery.
McAleenan said the agents followed regulations on use of force when they launched tear gas canisters in an effort to stop those throwing rocks and to disperse the surging crowd.
“It’s unfortunate that women and children were in the vicinity of the group trying to enter the U.S.,” he added.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the committee, questioned the use of a chemical gas, saying it could not be aimed with precision and harmed children.
“That’s not a picture, or act, that befits this country,” Feinstein said.
McAleenan said his agency has launched a review of the incident, as is required when agents use force. Federal law allows border agents to use force in self-defense and for crowd control.
“This incident has been criticized and mischaracterized,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, (R-Iowa), chairman of the committee. “The use of tear gas isn’t unprecedented.”
Grassley said border agents have fired tear gas 126 times since 2012, including 79 times under President Obama.
The number of incidents in which Border Patrol agents used lethal force has dropped since 2014, when a series of scandals forced the agency to establish a review board. Agents’ use of firearms has dropped from a high of 55 times in fiscal 2012 to 17 in fiscal 2017, a record low, McAleenan said.
The Nov. 25 clash followed reports that the Trump administration would bar from receiving asylum anyone who crossed the border between ports of entry, and that it would also make asylum applicants seeking entry at official ports wait in Mexico while U.S. officials review their cases.
On Nov. 19, a federal court ordered the Trump administration to resume processing asylum claims from migrants however they enter the United States.
The disturbing images of women and children running from tear gas fueled the increasingly heated debate over border security and the Trump administration’s aggressive response to caravans of migrants, who primarily hail from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Mexico registered an official complaint about the use of tear gas on its territory. The State Department did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday on whether it has answered the complaint.
In the weeks before the Nov. 6 midterm election, President Trump repeatedly described the migrant caravans as a looming “invasion” of drug dealers, criminals and terrorists.
He ordered about 5,800 combat troops to border crossings in California, Arizona and Texas to bolster the Border Patrol, and the Pentagon recently extended their mission until the end of January. The Pentagon also authorized the troops to use lethal force if necessary in self-defense, but no troops were involved in last month’s border dust-up.
Tensions remain high along parts of the border, where more than 5,000 migrants have gathered, many hoping to claim asylum in the United States.
The Trump administration is negotiating with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s government on a plan to force asylum seekers to “Remain in Mexico,” as the U.S. proposal is dubbed, while U.S. officials process their claims. The newly inaugurated Mexican leader has not approved the plan.