Trump downplays border incident

Khaled Dawoud , Wednesday 28 Nov 2018

The use of tear gas against migrant children and parents along the US border with Mexico raises the questions of just how far Donald Trump will go

American migrants
A group of Central American migrants — mostly Hondurans — climb the border fence between Mexico and the United States as others try to bring it down (Photo: AFP)

Mexico’s Foreign Ministry presented a diplomatic note to the US government Monday calling for “a full investigation” into what it described as non-lethal weapons directed towards Mexican territory Sunday, a statement from the ministry said

US authorities shot tear gas canisters towards migrants in Mexico Sunday near the border crossing separating the Mexican city of Tijuana from San Diego, California, after some of them attempted to cross into the United States.

US President Donald Trump suggested Monday that some adults had “grabbed” children at the Southwestern border to better their chances of entering the US while confronting federal agents during an incident Sunday that resulted in the use of tear gas.

Trump — speaking at a roundtable event in Biloxi, Mississippi — described what he called “grabbers” (migrants who grab children and “think they’ll have a certain status by having a child”). He alluded to the people with children in the group as possibly not being their parents.

“In some cases, you know, they’re not the parents,” the president said. “These are people, they call ‘em grabbers. 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.”

When asked for evidence of his claim by reporters, Trump demurred. “It’s a term that’s used because, as you know, many people, it’s a very violent, horrible thing, that they feel they have an advantage when they’re with a young child, and they call them grabbers,” he said.

In a statement Monday night, US Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said some members of the group are using women and children as “human shields”.

“The caravan members are predominately male. It appears in some cases that the limited number of women and children in the caravan are being used by the organisers as ‘human shields’ when they confront law enforcement,” Nielsen said.

“They are being put at risk by the caravan organisers, as we saw at the Mexico-Guatemala border. This is putting vulnerable people in harm’s way.”

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said that the Border Patrol chief on the scene said he had seen women and children standing in front of a group that was throwing rocks.

“He saw people throwing rocks right next to women and children,” McAleenan said. “They did that, actually, behind members of the media as well. I have seen video of a scene where rock throwers are hiding behind camera people taking photographs of them while they are throwing the rocks. So, it was a really dynamic, challenging situation that our agents tried to resolve as safely as possible and were really successful overall.”

A group of migrants — between 500 and 1,000, according to various estimates — tried to enter the US illegally Sunday by breaching the border fence east of the San Ysidro border crossing near Tijuana, Mexico, according to McAleenan.

McAleenan said Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had to respond with force after men in the crowd began throwing rocks at the agents. Teargas was used to repel the crowd.

Trump said at the roundtable that the teargas fired on migrants at the US-Mexico border was “very safe”.

Asked how he felt when he saw images of children and parents being tear-gassed, the president said his first thought was, “Why are they there?” He had falsely said earlier Monday that “we don’t use it on children” after being asked if it was acceptable to use teargas on children.

He said the substance was “a very minor form of the teargas” and described it as “very safe”.

He asked: “Why is a parent running up into an area where they know the teargas is forming? And they’re running up with a child?”

One photo that was widely used in newspapers and on social media was that of Honduran mother Maria Meza, 35, grabbing the thin arms of her two five-year-old twin daughters Cheili and Saira as they frantically run from a teargas canister spewing fumes.

Cheili is seen in diapers, Saira barefoot, while their mother wears a t-shirt showing the smiling sisters from the Disney hit “Frozen.” Mesa’s 13-year-old daughter, Jamie, is behind her mother in the photo, also running away from the approaching gas.

On Sunday, CBP used a form of teargas called 2-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile, or CS.

That’s the teargas the agency has used since 2010, during President Barack Obama’s administration.

Sunday’s incident was the first confrontation between Customs and Border Protection and the thousands of migrants who had been walking towards Tijuana for weeks and had begun arriving in the border city. The incident led federal authorities to close the San Ysidro crossing, near San Diego, for several hours Sunday.

In a statement, a Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said the group had “ignored law enforcement agencies in Mexico” and assaulted US officers.

“Over 1,000 individuals who were part of the so-called caravan attempted to cross illegally into the US by breaching sections of the fence and using vehicle lanes in and near the San Ysidro Port of Entry,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

“This group ignored law enforcement agencies in Mexico and assaulted US Federal Officers and Agents assigned to respond to the situation in San Diego.

As a response to the assaults and to defuse this dangerous situation, trained CBP personnel employed less-lethal devices to stop the actions of assaultive individuals attempting to break into the US.”

The spokesperson added: “CBP has been preparing for weeks for events like the one on Sunday. We have seen the use of violence by members of this so-called caravan who have attacked law enforcement personnel in Guatemala, Mexico and now the US.

CBP will consider using all approved and available resources to protect travellers, caravan members and our agents and officers. CBP takes Sunday’s employment of use-of-force very seriously. CBP reviews and evaluates all uses of force incidents to ensure compliance with policy.”

Trump added that he wouldn’t hesitate to close the US border — and keep it closed — if violence continues. “We would close it and we’ll keep it closed if we have a problem. And we’ll keep it closed for a long time,” he said.

Asked what would prompt the closure, the president said: “Violence. If they do a charge. Because with a closed border, it’s very easy to stop.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Trump downplays border incident 

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