Backlash erupts after the Trump administration fires tear gas at migrants in clash at the US-Mexico border

  • US officials launched tear gas at migrants during a confrontation at a US border facility near Tijuana on Sunday, sparking sharp backlash as reports emerged of mothers and children fleeing the chemical.
  • Chaos erupted as migrants drew close to the San Ysidro Port of Entry border crossing, where agents dressed in riot gear launched tear gas after migrants were reportedly seen attempting to breach sheet metal and barbed wire.
  • Agency heads issued statements after the clash defending the move as necessary, but civil-rights organisations condemned the move as a use of excessive force.

US border authorities fired tear gas during a clash with members of a migrant caravan after a group estimated to be in the hundreds stormed the busiest port of entry along the Mexico border on Sunday.

A US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spokesperson confirmed agents deployed “crowd dispersing devices,” which included pepper-ball launching systems and CS gas canisters, commonly known as tear gas, to deter the migrants.

Chaos broke out as migrants got close to the border agents in riot gear and reportedly attempted to break through barbed wire and metal sheeting.

Children screamed and coughed as clouds of gas spread out across hundreds of yards, the Associated Press reported.

“We ran, but when you run the smoke asphyxiates you more,” Ana Zuniga, a 23-year-old woman from Honduras, told the AP while holding her 3-year-old daughter.

A CBP spokesperson said Sunday evening that officials were still gathering accounts from agents and officers who were deployed to the border. The spokesperson also said there were “multiple instances of persons throwing projectiles at CBP personnel,” and border agents had apprehended people who attempted to cross the port of entry illegally.

Despite statements from CBP and the Department of Homeland Security, reports of mothers and young children with burning eyes running from the tear gas launched by US authorities sparked immediate reactions from civil rights organisations and across social media.

Read more: US reopens portion of Mexico border it shut down after firing tear gas at migrants when some stormed the port of entry

The San Diego chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement from its deputy political director, Lorella Praeli, who refuted the agency’s claims of an appropriate response, calling the move “outrageous and inhumane.”

“Under no circumstances should CBP be using tear gas on children,” Praeli wrote. “This show of violence is outrageous and inhumane. The migrants at our southern border are human beings, including mothers and small children, who are exercising their legal, human right to seek asylum.”

Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, criticised Border Patrol in a Monday morning CNN appearance, calling the use of tear gas and riot gear an “overuse of force.”

“No one wants a Border Patrol agent to be in danger,” Gelernt said, responding to reports of migrants throwing rocks at officials. “But from what we know, this was an overuse of force. There are women and children out there. Using tear gas in this situation does not seem justified.”

Gelernt continued to say the project was investigating the incident and added: “This would not be the first time there was excessive force by Border Patrol.”

A judge in Tucson, Arizona, ruled last week that Border Patrol agent Lonnie Swartz was not guilty of involuntary manslaughter after firing 16 rounds through the border fence from Nogales, Arizona, into Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, and killing 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez.

Swartz claimed he was defending his life against Elena Rodriguez, who was throwing rocks.

Amnesty International condemned the use of tear gas in a tweet Sunday and assigned blame to President Donald Trump’s administration, which recently announced the deployment of over 5,000 troops to the border in anticipation of the caravan’s long-anticipated arrival.

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said Sunday that migrants’ attempts to breach border obstacles and their throwing of things in the proximity of agents was “lawlessness” that necessitated the harsh response.

Many of the migrants are fleeing violence, poverty, and corruption in their home countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The first group started walking from the so-called Northern Triangle countries in October to seek better lives in the US.

‘Lives are really hanging in the balance here’

Clara Long, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, said the government’s massive presence at the border should make techniques like launching tear gas unnecessary, but she said the troubling practices stem from Trump’s extreme stance on migrants.

“In the context of a president that makes statements advocating illegal behaviour by the government, blocking asylum seekers, not hearing their claims, and often very dehumanising statements that cast them as criminals, it becomes doubly and triply worrying that you have these agents that are using very questionable force on crowds on the other side of the border,” Long told INSIDER.

Cases that include agents claiming violent or lethal action as a defence against migrants who were throwing rocks across border structures are common, and often “highly suspect,” Long said.

“It seems to me to be an escalation, and instead what the US should be doing is focusing on building capacity to hear claims and to adjudicate them fairly,” Long said. “Instead it’s doubling down on hardline, repressive and violent tactics.”

Read more: ‘All will stay in Mexico’: Trump says the US will bar asylum-seekers from entering the country until judges approve their claims

Despite the refreshed spotlight on border agents, Long said the migrants’ situation remains dire.

Mexico said it will deport around 500 immigrants who left their temporary shelter to enter the US “violently” and “illegally.” The announcement comes days after Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastelum declared a humanitarian crisis and requested United Nations aid following the city’s strained effort to accommodate the group of nearly 5,000 migrants at the border.

But the Trump administration is only processing about 100 asylum claims per day. At that rate, it will likely take several months to consider the cases of the 10,000 migrants who are projected to arrive at the border near Tijuana.

“The best we can hope for is increased pressure on the agency for transparency, accountability. These calls should come from Congress,” Long said. “But it’s tragic because lives are really hanging in the balance here.”

NOW WATCH: Briefing videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.