Mexico looked set to shore up security near its border with the United States on Monday, and local authorities said that 39 migrants were arrested after a peaceful march devolved into mayhem when U.S. agents fired tear gas into Mexico to stop some migrants who tried to breach the international line.
Mexico’s Interior Ministry said it would immediately deport those who tried to “violently” enter the U.S. from Tijuana. Meanwhile, Tijuana’s municipal government said that more than three-dozen migrants were arrested for disturbing the peace and other charges stemming from the march and what followed.
On Sunday, the situation devolved after a large group marched to the U.S. border to appeal for the U.S. to speed processing of asylum claims for Central American migrants marooned in Tijuana.
There, some attempted to get through the fencing and wire separating the two countries, leading U.S. agents to fire tear gas.
American authorities also shut down the nation’s busiest border crossing at San Ysidro for several hours at the end of the Thanksgiving weekend.
No tolerance, DHS head says
Lurbin Sarmiento, 26, of Copan, Honduras, said she had been with her four-year-old daughter at a concrete riverbed, which had a trickle of water from the Tijuana River, when U.S. agents fired the gas.
“We ran, but the smoke always reached us and my daughter was choking,” Sarmiento said, visibly shaken.
She said she never would have gotten that close with her daughter if she thought there would be tear gas.
Fumes were carried by the wind toward people who were hundreds of feet away.
“We ran, but when you run the gas asphyxiates you more,” said Honduran migrant Ana Zuniga, while cradling her three-year-old daughter Valery in her arms.
As the chaos unfolded, shoppers just yards away on the U.S. side streamed in and out of an outlet mall, which eventually closed.
Throughout the day, U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopters flew overhead, while U.S. agents on foot watched beyond the wire fence in California.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement that U.S. authorities will continue to have a “robust” presence along the southwest border and that they will prosecute anyone who damages federal property or violates U.S. sovereignty.
“DHS will not tolerate this type of lawlessness and will not hesitate to shut down ports of entry for security and public safety reasons,” she said.
‘We can’t have all these people here’
More than 5,000 migrants have been camped in and around a sports complex in Tijuana after making their way through Mexico in recent weeks via caravan. Many hope to apply for asylum in the U.S., but agents at the San Ysidro entry point are processing fewer than 100 asylum petitions a day.
There were conflicting reports on the weekend on Mexico agreeing to host migrants while their U.S. asylum claims are
heard. Asylum seekers typically announce their intention at U.S. ports of entry or after crossing the border illegally.
Francisco Vega, the governor of Baja California, said almost 9,000 migrants were in the Mexican state and called it “an issue of national security.” Vega issued a public appeal to the federal government to take over responsibility for sheltering the migrants and deport those who were breaking the law.
Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastelum on Friday declared a humanitarian crisis in his border city of 1.6 million, which he says is struggling to accommodate the crush of migrants.
Irineo Mujica, who has accompanied the migrants for weeks as part of the aid group Pueblo Sin Fronteras, said the aim of Sunday’s march toward the U.S. border was to make the migrants’ plight more visible to the governments of Mexico and the U.S.
“We can’t have all these people here,” Mujica said.
Mexico’s Interior Ministry said Sunday that 11,000 Central Americans have been sent back to their countries of origin since Oct. 19, when the first caravan entered the country. It said that 1,906 of those who have returned were members of the recent caravans.
Mexico is on track to send a total of around 100,000 Central Americans back home by the end of this year.
Trump border threat unlikely
On Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump took to Twitter to express his displeasure with the caravans in Mexico and to make another pitch for his promised border wall, threatening to “close the border permanently.” Such a move would likely encounter resistance both in Congress and among business leaders, as Mexico is the third largest trade partner of the U.S., behind China and Canada.
Trump has repeatedly suggested without evidence that the migrant caravans are full of hardened criminals, but they are mostly poor people with few belongings who are fleeing gang violence. During his presidential campaign, he promised he’d have Mexico pay for a wall along the 3,200-kilometre border.
Caravans in the spring and autumn alarmed Trump, and he made them a central theme in rallies on behalf of Republican candidates in recent midterm elections. He also ordered some 5,800 U.S. troops to the border to support U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Democrats, who take control of the House of Representatives in January, have urged more comprehensive immigration reform in addition to additional border security.
On Sunday night, Trump lashed out at CBS, after a 60 Minutes report on the administration policy announced earlier this year of separating of children from migrant parents who crossed between points of entry. The report alleged widespread disorganization and that not all of those separated were properly tracked, making reunifications difficult.