U.S. border patrol fired tear gas at hundreds of migrants hoping to cross the Mexican border on Sunday, many of whom were children.
Thousands of migrants from Central America had amassed in Tijuana at the nation's busiest border crossing, waiting to gain asylum in the U.S. What began as a peaceful protest pleading for the U.S. to speed processing of asylum requests devolved into a terrifying skirmish.
A group of 500 migrants marched toward a bridge leading to the San Ysidro Port of Entry at the American/Mexican border. Some of those migrants in the group saw an opening in the border and began scaling fences.
That's when U.S. agents began firing rounds of tear gas. "We ran, but when you run the gas asphyxiates you more," Honduran Ana Zuniga told AP as she held her 3-year-old daughter. As they marched, the Central American migrants carried hand-painted American flags and chanted, "We are not criminals! We are international workers!"
Over 5,000 migrants have amassed at a sports complex near the border in recent weeks after traveling through Mexico by caravan, but border patrol agents at the San Ysidro port have only been processing 100 requests for asylum a day. Many of the migrants are from Honduras, fleeing a country beset by extreme poverty and violence, hoping to create a fresh start in the U.S.
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen released a statement saying the department "will not tolerate this type of lawlessness and will not hesitate to shut down ports of entry for security and public safety reasons. We will also seek to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law anyone who destroys federal property, endangers our front-line operators, or violates our nation's sovereignty."
The California-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, CHIRLA, condemned the use of tear gas against hopeful immigrants. "It is a despicable act on the part of the Trump administration and CBP officials to attack defenseless women and children firing tear gas, a chemical agent, at them," said CHIRLA executive director Angelica Salas in a statement." These are human beings who are reaching a point of desperation because their asylum claims are being processed at a snail's pace, or not at all."
Mexico's Interior Ministry said Sunday they have sent more than 11,000 Central Americans back to their home countries since mid-October, and could send more than 100,000 Central Americans home by 2019.