Migrant caravans winding their way toward the U.S. are reigniting rhetoric and arguments about immigration and border security. And it’s not the first time.
President Donald Trump continued his attacks against a caravan of Central American migrants on Monday by describing some of them as “stone cold criminals.” But on the same day, his administration continued its practice of providing scant details to back up the president’s assertion.
Trump’s attempts to portray members of the caravan as criminals capped off a chaotic weekend that saw migrants trying to rush the San Ysidro Port of Entry and U.S. agents responding by firing tear gas into the crowd, leaving a tense standoff that could escalate in the days to come.
Customs and Border Protection said four officers were struck with rocks before they fired tear gas at the migrants. Photos posted on social media showed migrants – some of them women with small children – running from the scene.
But CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said there were no reported serious injuries during clashes when more than 1,000 migrants tried to cross first in vehicle lanes and then through gaps in the fence or along the Tijuana River channel. He said 69 migrants were detained Sunday during the clashes for crossing illegally.
CBP has deployed 500 officers from other field offices, 250 members of the special-operations group and 300 Border Patrol agents from other sectors, including the northern border, to help in the San Diego area.
Are criminals traveling with the caravan?
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said last week while visiting San Diego, and McAleenan repeated on Monday, that 500 criminals are suspected of traveling with the caravan.
“We have information of participation of over 500 individuals with criminal records as part of the caravan,” McAleenan said. “That is gathered through direct engagement as well as information sharing with our government of Mexico partners.”
McAleenan also pointed to the fact that the government of Mexico has arrested more than 100 members of the caravan for what it described as “criminal activity” during their time in Mexico.
But the administration has not provided any details on caravan members it considers criminals or how it’s gotten that information. That is similar to what happened in October, when Trump first started claiming that members of the caravan were “criminals” and “Middle Easterners.”
At the time, the Department of Homeland Security could not provide any evidence to back up his claims, instead circulating data about annual arrest numbers in an attempt to show that criminals were likely to be part of the caravan.
The agency pointed out that in fiscal year 2018, Customs and Border Protections working along the southwest border apprehended 17,256 criminals, 1,019 gang members, and 3,028 “special interest aliens,” defined by the Government Accountability Office as “aliens from countries of special interest to the United States such as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan.”
But those represented only a small fraction of all people caught trying to enter the country illegally. In 2018, CBP apprehended a total of 396,579 illegal border-crossers, meaning 4.4 percent were criminals, 0.26 percent were gang members, and 0.8 percent were “special interest aliens.”
Vice President Mike Pence relied on those kinds of percentages during an October speech when he said “it’s inconceivable that there are not people of Middle Eastern descent in a crowd of more than 7,000 people.”
What caused the clash Sunday?
Thousands of migrants from Central America are waiting in makeshift shelters in Tijuana for a chance to apply for asylum in the U.S. But U.S. officials at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the nation’s largest land entry point, can process only up to 100 asylum requests per day, creating an enormous line that means monthslong waits for some migrants.
That’s why some migrants have organized protests to pressure the U.S. to devote more resources to the process. One of the protests turned chaotic when several hundred migrants broke away and rushed a border fence.
CBP officers said they were pelted with projectiles before they fired tear gas at the migrants. CBP shut down north- and southbound traffic at San Ysidro for nearly six hours.
McAleenan said the use of non-lethal force, such as tear gas, is only allowed by trained personnel and will be thoroughly reviewed. The goal was to use the gas immediately at the border, but that wind could carry it farther.
“That is going to be well documented and thoroughly reviewed,” he said.
The chaos Sunday began when migrants overwhelmed Mexican authorities and tried to rush through traffic lanes at the San Ysidro crossing, McAleenan said.
When blocked there, the migrants moved east and tried to enter through holes in the fence, he said. There were multiple assaults, and debris was thrown at CBP officers, he said.
Then migrants went west of the port to the Tijuana River channel, where there were more assaults and rock-throwing, he said.
Can illegal immigrants apply for asylum?
While Trump has repeatedly told caravan members to return to their home countries, U.S. law clearly states that foreigners are allowed to enter the U.S. and request asylum. And so far, at least one federal judge has ruled that the president can’t just make that law go away.
U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar this month suspended the administration’s new policy of cutting off asylum to immigrants who enter the country illegally. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act states that any foreigner who arrives in the USA, “whether or not at a designated port of arrival,” may apply for asylum.
On Nov. 9, Trump tried to address that issue through a proclamation that would end the ability of immigrants to request asylum if they enter the country illegally.
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