AP NEWS

Trump officials defend using tear gas on migrants during border fracas

November 27, 2018

WASHINGTON — Trump administration officials on Tuesday expanded their case for using tear gas and pepper spray against members of a migrant caravan trying to crash the U.S. border in Tijuana last weekend, saying border agents employed the same tactics under former President Obama and that they would likely do so again.

Pressed about reports of women and children being hit with tear gas during Sunday’s border melee in Tijuana, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said it was “not the first time” such tactics had been employed by U.S. authorities on the Mexican border.

Sanders maintained that tear gas incidents occurred “once a month” during the previous administration under “very similar” though much less dramatic circumstances in border incidents. She did not provide exact statistics or additional details.

Images of crying women and children affected by tear gas canisters lobbed from the American side of the border have fueled outrage in Mexico and the U.S., helping escalate political tensions over immigration policy in both nations.

The border crisis comes as the lame duck Congress faces a December 7 deadline to fund President Donald Trump’s $5 billion border wall request or risk a government shutdown. It also comes as U.S. and Mexican officials continue to negotiate a plan to have migrants seeking asylum remain in Mexico while their cases are adjudicated in U.S. courts.

Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday, called the talks a “sea change in our relationship with Mexico and recognition that this is a problem we need to resolve together.”

The Texas Republican also called on Congress not to leave for the holidays before reaching a bipartisan deal resolving both the migrant crisis and the border wall. He did not spell out the outlines of any such deal, but some have suggested to possibility of an agreement protecting young immigrant “Dreamers” in exchange for wall funding.

Department of Homeland Security officials briefing reporters Tuesday argued that tear gas and pepper spray are used regularly at the border and in law enforcement to control unruly crowds and disorderly people.

Rodney Scott, chief Border Patrol agent in the San Diego sector, said his officers came under assault from a “hail of rocks” from mostly adult male caravan members trying to cross the border illegally. He added that if Border Patrol officers need tear gas and pepper spray again to defend themselves, “they would do it tomorrow.”

Scott added new details to the official account of the border fracas, which he said started when about 500 men clashed with Mexican police and started throwing rocks. He said some, mostly “adult males,” then started charging the border in groups of about 50.

“My agents responded to an immediate and direct threat to their safety,” Scott said. “The agents responded with the least amount of force that they could … It was a very chaotic situation.”

Amid a growing furor among many Democrats and immigration activists over the incident, which resulted in 42 arrests, Trump officials sought to portray the conduct of U.S. border agents as routine and non-political.

“Border security is not a partisan issue,” said Tyler Houlton, a top DHS spokesman.

Houlton and Scott echoed the defense of DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who said in a tweet Monday that the violence at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in California was “entirely predictable” given the scale of the crisis as thousands of Central American migrants arrive at the southern border seeking entry.

“We’ve been preparing for this for weeks,” said Scott, adding that immigrant activists and some non-governmental organizations are party to blame for many immigrants’ expectations of receiving asylum at the border.

Noting that only a small percentage of applicants ever receive asylum, Scott said caravan members have been given “horrible advice.” He and other U.S. officials suggested that some caravan members are returning home after taking stock of their chances.

But Houlton said that in contrast to smaller groups of migrants who have made their way to the border in recent years, the caravan that has congregated south of the border in Tijuana is made up predominantly of adult males migrating for economic reasons, not for asylum.

Immigration activists have disputed that contention, arguing that the impetus for caravan derives from the fears of families, women and children fleeing poverty, violence and corruption in Central America.

Houlton, doubling down on the administration’s defense of its use of soldiers to back up border agents, dismissed criticism of the military mobilization as a political stunt. “This is a real threat,” he said.

In recent days, DHS officials say they have identified at least 600 caravan members who they allege have criminal records in their home countries. But Houlton declined to say how U.S. officials arrived at the count.

Scott downgraded previous estimates of nearly 70 arrests, saying that the official count on Tuesday was 42 people, including seven women and a few children. “The vast majority,” he said, were men.

Sanders said any use of tear gas on women or children was unintentional.

“Certainly the White House would never want children to be in harm’s way in any capacity whatsoever,” she said. “However that is why we are continuing to encourage people to follow the law and go to the ports of entry.”

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