U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan praised agents’ response, including the use of tear gas, during clashes on Sunday at the San Ysidro border crossing, saying their actions avoided serious injuries on both sides and “effectively managed a potentially dangerous situation.”
The conflict marked a major escalation in the crisis at the border, spurring U.S. officials to shut the San Ysidro Port of Entry between Tijuana and San Diego, one of the world’s busiest international crossings, for more than four hours on Sunday. More than 4,700 Central Americans have been living in a Tijuana sports complex since a large group of immigrants and asylum seekers arrived this month, fleeing increased violence in their home countries and seeking work.
There were no serious injuries among immigrants or agents; four agents were hit with rocks but were wearing protective gear, McAleenan said during a Monday briefing. He said 69 immigrants managed to cross the border during the confrontation and were being processed and could face criminal charges related to illegal entry and assaults on agents. McAleenan said he was not aware of any migrants who crossed the border and avoided apprehension.
Immigrant advocacy groups and others criticized the Border Patrol’s use of tear gas on the crowd, which included women and children.
California Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom tweeted on Sunday: “These children are barefoot. In diapers. Choking on tear gas. Women and children who left their lives behind — seeking peace and asylum — were met with violence and fear. That’s not my America. … And we will not stand for this.
But McAleenan defended the use of what he called “less than lethal devices” by agents who responded as caravan members — who he said appeared to be grown men — hurled dozens of rocks.
“It was done consistent with all of our law enforcement training and policy,” he said.
McAleenan said the agency uses “CS gas” and “less lethal” projectiles, but not rubber bullets. Weapons like gas may cross into Mexico, he said, “but the intent is to use it at the border.” He said similar “less lethal” force was used to repel a group of migrants in Tijuana five years ago.
U.S. immigration officials had warned as a large group of migrants and asylum seekers moved north that it included hundreds of criminals willing to defy law enforcement. They offered no evidence that criminals were in the so-called caravan.
“All of those concerns were borne out and on full display yesterday in Tijuana,” McAleenan said, calling the clashes “an unfortunate consequence of the caravan’s activities.”
Immigrant advocates and others were quick to decry the agency’s response as the latest effort to restrict asylum seekers’ access at the border.
Archi Pyati, chief of policy at the Washington-based Tahirih Justice Center, called the use of tear gas against border crossers “appalling.”
“They are coming to the border en masse because of rhetoric and new, restrictive policies this administration has put in place,” Pyati said in a Monday statement. “By prosecuting asylum seekers, closing checkpoints, using racist rhetoric about immigrants, and separating families, in addition to a slew of shocking legal and policy changes, the administration has left migrants no choice but to seek safe haven however they can.”
President Trump is already pointing to the border incident to portray many in the group as lawless.
Trump stirred fears of the caravan before this month’s midterm congressional elections, and on Monday he tweeted that Mexican officials should disperse the migrants, “many of whom are stone cold criminals, back to their countries.”
“Do it by plane, do it by bus, do it anyway you want, but they are NOT coming into the U.S.A. We will close the Border permanently if need be. Congress, fund the WALL!” he tweeted.
There have been reports that U.S. and Mexican officials are negotiating an agreement that would change how Central American migrants are processed at the southern border. But McAleenan declined to comment on what he called ongoing “diplomatic discussions.”