Tijuana, Mexico, Nov 27 – Mexico deported scores of Central American migrants arrested after hundreds forced their way through a Mexican police blockade and headed for the United States but were met with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Around 500 men, women and children, part of a caravan of roughly 5,000 mainly Hondurans who have been trekking toward the US for weeks, scrambled over a rusted metal fence and surged into a concrete riverbed toward San Diego on Sunday.
The group was stopped by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and US Border Patrol agents firing tear gas and rubber bullets. At least one man was wounded.
Chief Patrol Agent Rodney Scott told CNN that “numerous” migrants — mainly men — had made it across, however, and 42 of them were arrested.
Mexico’s National Institute of Migration Commissioner Gerardo Garcia confirmed the 98 arrests on his country’s side, saying there were “instigators” in the migrant caravan pushing people to illegally cross the border.
The incident was the most serious flashpoint in a weeks-long crisis that US President Donald Trump used to drum up support in this month’s midterm elections.
Trump hit out again by threatening a permanent closure of the frontier, and defended the use of tear gas by US border patrol, saying it was “very safe.”
“They had to use (it) because they were being rushed by some very tough people and they used tear gas and here’s the bottom line: nobody’s coming into our country unless they come in legally,” Trump told reporters.
“The tear gas is a very minor form of the tear gas itself. It’s very safe,” he later added.
Mexico sent a diplomatic note requesting that US authorities “conduct a thorough investigation of the events during which non-lethal US weapons were used in Mexico.”
Trump also claimed, without providing evidence, that some people at the border he dubbed “grabbers” clutch unrelated children to make it safer for themselves and increase their chances of getting into the US.
“They grab a child because they think they’ll have a certain status by having a child. You know, you have certain advantages in terms of our crazy laws that frankly Congress should be changing,” he said.
– ‘Broken hearts and hopes’ –
Most of the migrants stumbled back into camp in the northwestern Mexican city of Tijuana, dirty, scared and with ripped clothes.
“We’re here with broken hearts and hopes,” said Andy Colon, a 20-year-old woman who traveled from Honduras with her sister and two children.
“We were deluded into believing that we had already reached the United States, and that they would grant us asylum,” Colon told AFP.
The San Ysidro border post across from Tijuana — the busiest crossing on the US-Mexico border — was closed to traffic and pedestrians for several hours following the incident.
Trump, who for weeks has been condemning the caravan, lashed out once more.
“Mexico should move the flag waving migrants, many of whom are stone cold criminals, back to their countries,” he tweeted.
“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!” Trump said, referring to his central election pledge to build a wall across the US-Mexico border.
– ‘Lots of kids fainted’ –
Many of the migrants say they are fleeing violence and poverty in Honduras in search of asylum north of the border.
Around 1,000 migrants, including women and young children, had been holding a peaceful midday demonstration in Tijuana when half of the group bolted toward the border.
The sudden rush overwhelmed the Mexican police, who were deployed with full riot gear.
Several hundred made it over the first barrier, with video clips posted on Twitter showing crowds of people dashing across a shallow concrete riverbed toward the United States.
When they neared the second fence, US border agents fired tear gas and rubber bullets at them as helicopters buzzed overhead.
People covered their faces to protect themselves from the acrid gas, as mothers clutched their young children and fled back to Mexico for safety.
“We were told that if we crossed (the first barrier) they would give us asylum, because we were already in the United States,” said Flor Jimenez, a 32-year-old Honduran woman who was among those who turned back along with her husband, sister and young daughter.
“But now it seems that they want to kill us, and we got very scared.”
US Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen accused the migrants of seeking to harm US border patrol personnel “by throwing projectiles at them.”
But one Honduran man, who did not give his name, told AFP that American officers had “got upset because we were close to the border.”
“The alarm went off and they began throwing tear gas at us. A lot of people started to go down. A person got hit and lots of kids fainted. So some people got rocks and threw them because many kids were fainting,” he said.
Another Honduran who gave his name as Wilmer said “they started throwing tear gas and they hit a journalist in the head.”
A third man, who requested anonymity, showed AFP what he described as injuries from rubber bullets. He had two fresh round bruises in his abdomen.
– Asylum demands –
Trump has deployed nearly 6,000 troops to the border, on top of more than 2,000 members of the National Guard, but Scott said the Department of Defense was not involved in Sunday’s engagement.
To enter the US legally, migrants must apply for asylum, but the wait for those requests to be processed can last up to a year.
The Washington Post reported Saturday that the Trump administration had gained the support of Mexico’s incoming government for a plan to require asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their applications to be processed.