Migrant mothers, children, fathers and several journalists were sprayed with tear gas at the San Ysidro Port of Entry at the U.S.-Mexico border on Sunday, after a long day of waiting, marching and eventually running from authorities.
“I saw a couple of women get hit, I saw a little girl fall down. That’s when things got a little more frantic because people were getting momentum with journalists, photographers, migrants running, riot police running,” said Ben Camacho, University of La Verne graduate and freelance photojournalist who was at the border documenting the struggle.
A caravan of about 3,000 people from Central America arrived at the southwestern border earlier this month after traveling 2,500 miles. Many of them say they are fleeing persecution, poverty and violence in their home countries and are desperately seeking asylum in the U.S.
In response to about 500 migrants rushing the port of entry, which is located on the San Diego-Tijuana border, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency fired tear gas at the migrants and shut down the border. The confrontation follows President Donald Trump’s vow to send additional troops to prevent the migrants, who he called “stone cold criminals,” from entering the border.
Alexandro José Gradilla, associate professor of Chicana/Chicano studies, said the confrontation has been traumatic for some students at Cal State Fullerton.
“Some of our students actually have gone through the migrant experience. As young children they came to the U.S. with their parents. I am sure all of this is truly re-traumatizing and, if you will, re-violating them in terms of how they’re remembering their own experience,” Gradilla said.
The CSUF Republicans discussed the caravan in their Tuesday meeting. Many members felt the migrants were attempting to take advantage of the welfare system in the U.S.
“Obviously we see a lot of images with the tear gas and that’s a really difficult issue because you want to feel compassion for these kids that are in the situation. Personally I get very angry at the moms who put them in that situation. But a lot of these people are leaving really horrible conditions,” said Brooke Paz, president of the CSUF Republicans club.
Camacho met with the migrants who were placed in the Benito Juárez Sports Complex in Tijuana, Mexico on Saturday when he began documenting what would soon turn into a frantic scene.
The migrants planned to march through the border on Saturday to be processed for asylum, he said.
“The thing is, they haven’t been allowed to go near there, nor have they been allowed to be processed or to start their process,” Camacho said. “They got fed up with that and said ‘Let’s just go en masse and we’ll all get processed for asylum. That was the goal.’”
Professor Dean Kazoleas, advisor for the CSUF Republicans club, said there are two reasons people are coming to the border.
“One reason is for safety. Often when people do try to migrate up, they actually get beaten, they get robbed and they get raped. The other reason is because en masse, that’s how they often will try the border,” he said.
After leaving the shelter, many made their way to the point of entry where they were met with a blockade of Mexican authorities holding riot shields.
“The migrants were really peaceful. They stopped without any issues,” Camacho said.
While waiting, they sang the Mexican and Honduran national anthems and gave thanks to Mexico for shelter. But the migrants decided to take action after some time, Camacho said.
“It’s interesting because (the migrants) didn’t just go around, they announced that they were going around. They let the cops know. It wasn’t a sneaky thing that they pulled,” he said.
However, when the migrants decided to go around the first blockade, the peaceful march turned into a dangerous standoff for the migrants, supporters and journalists present.
Barbed wire was set up to keep migrants from advancing further, and U.S. authorities shut down the border entry before the first set of rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray aimed at migrants were set off through the fence from the U.S. side into Mexico, Camacho said.
“Through the gate that people went through, I saw an officer beating a migrant. I started pointing my camera. (A border patrol officer) told the officer that there was a camera on him and he backed off,” Camacho said.
Camacho said even he was assaulted by a police officer in the ordeal.
“I had my camera out and my press pass out and he hit me with his riot shield. I told him I was press and he hit me again. I showed him my press pass and he hit me a third time,” Camacho said, adding that he decided to walk away at that point. “I’m not trying to get arrested or get my a– beat.”
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection confirmed in a press release that the border was closed to be prepared in case additional groups from the demonstrations attempted to cross the border illegally.
“Yesterday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and officers in San Diego effectively managed an extremely dangerous situation involving over 1,000 individuals who sought to enter the U.S. unlawfully in large groups,” said Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, in a statement on Monday.
Some politicians condemned how the situation was handled, including 39th District Congressman-elect Gil Cisneros, who campaigned on immigration reform.
“Firing tear gas at women and children seeking asylum is not the solution. We need comprehensive immigration reform, not more cruelty,” said Cisneros on Twitter.
— Gil Cisneros (@GilCisnerosCA) November 26, 2018
Trump strongly defended the use of tear gas, saying border agents were forced into action, and took to Twitter to call on Congress to fund a wall between the border.
“Mexico should move the flag waving Migrants, many of whom are stone cold criminals, back to their countries. 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,” said Trump on Twitter.
Gradilla said the wall won’t keep drugs, crime and criminals out like Trump supporters believe it will, and the U.S. must decide what to do about the constant need for cheap labor necessary for some sectors of the nation’s economy.
“The U.S.-Mexican border is our largest source of low-paid workers, it is not necessarily purely just for crime. The reality is the drug cartels and human smugglers already know how to get to the country without using the border,” Gradilla said. “We have to ask ourselves: At what point do we become prisoners in our own country?”
Following the march, many migrants have chosen to go back to their home countries. However, as many as 5,000 migrants will continue to stay in a sports complex in Tijuana, Mexico.
President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador confirmed Tuesday that the migrants will be allowed to stay in Mexico while they apply for asylum in the U.S., according to the Associated Press.