Migrants Storm U.S. Border, Repelled by Tear Gas

A bad look for all concerned.

A group of some 500 Central American migrants attempted to storm the U.S. border yesterday.

NY Times (“Migrants in Tijuana Run to U.S. Border, but Fall Back in Face of Tear Gas“):

A peaceful march by Central American migrants waiting at the southwestern United States border veered out of control on Sunday afternoon, as hundreds of people tried to evade a Mexican police blockade and run toward a giant border crossing that leads into San Diego.

In response, the United States Customs and Border Protection agency shut down the border crossing in both directions and fired tear gas to push back migrants from the border fence. The border was reopened later Sunday evening.

The episode comes at a time of growing tension on both sides of the border and promised to become the newest flash point in the story of a caravan that was the target of President Trump’s anti-immigrant rallying cry during the midterm elections.

Mr. Trump has made preventing caravan members from entering into the United States a signature stance of his administration over the past few weeks and has sent American soldiers to the border, although the United States military was not involved in Sunday’s clash. The images of unrest Sunday will likely provide him with additional ammunition as he tries to keep out the caravan members and other immigrants and refugees fleeing poverty and violence in their homelands.

The standoff at the border threatens to become the first crisis for Mexico’s president-elect, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who takes office on Saturday. His government will be forced to navigate demands from Washington to deal with the migrants — at the same time that it faces deepening concern from Mexican border communities straining to house and feed thousands of impoverished and increasingly desperate guests.

Soon after the migrants began their midmorning march to the border in Tijuana, they were met by Mexican federal police officers at a bridge that leads to the San Ysidro border crossing, through which millions of people and vehicles pass each year. At that point, many of the marchers bypassed the police by running across a dry riverbed.

The police, carrying riot shields, formed a new line and appeared to contain the rush of migrants 100 yards or more from the crossing. They erected metal barriers on the roads and sidewalks leading to the main border crossing for cars and trucks.

A smaller group of migrants then tried to make their way to a train border crossing a few hundred yards away, where they were stopped by tear gas fired by United States Customs and Border Protection officers.

After the gas cleared, Mexican federal police officers pushed the protesters back from the area of the train crossing.

Customs and Border Protection officers also used tear gas at a separate point a few hundred yards away from the train crossing to drive back the migrants.

Some of the migrants told The New York Times they thought they could negotiate with United States officials to be allowed to pass. A few men tried to climb the wall but fell back in the face of the gas.

WaPo (“U.S. closes major crossing as caravan migrants mass at border in Mexico“):

U.S. authorities closed off the busiest port of entry along the U.S. border with Mexico on Sunday and fired tear gas at members of a Central American migrant caravan who had rushed the fencing that separates the countries.

Although the number of people at the border was relatively small, the unrest — with migrants attempting to climb fences and run through car lanes to reach the United States, and scenes of mothers and children choking on tear gas — represented a serious escalation of the crisis.

What had begun Sunday morning as a migrant protest of the slow pace of the U.S. asylum claims process devolved into a chaotic scramble in which hundreds made their way to the border hoping to cross onto U.S. soil. To block that from happening, and as some threw rocks and bottles, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers took the rare step of firing tear gas into Mexico as well as closing all legal vehicle and foot traffic to the San Ysidro border crossing, which U.S. officials say normally has about 100,000 visitors per day.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement that the port of entry was closed “to ensure public safety in response to large numbers of migrants seeking to enter the U.S. illegally.”

Some of the migrants tried to breach the border fencing and “sought to harm CBP personnel by throwing projectiles at them,” the statement said.

Although the majority of the group approached and gathered at the fence peacefully, Mexico’s Interior Ministry said that hundreds tried to cross the border in a “violent manner.” Mexican authorities said they would deport anyone who tried to cross illegally.

Before 9 p.m. Eastern time, CBP said the port of entry had reopened.

The statement added that during the day, there were “multiple instances of persons throwing projectiles at CBP personnel” and “multiple confirmed apprehensions” of those who tried to enter the U.S. illegally, as well as “many additional attempts to cross the border illegally.”


The prospect that thousands of Central Americans might have to stay for weeks or months before they can apply for asylum in Mexican border states where drug cartel violence is prevalent has raised concerns about undermining their lawful right to apply for asylum.

The San Ysidro crossing is a large complex with multiple lanes of vehicle and pedestrian access points. In recent days, Mexican authorities and others have worried about the economic effect of the United States closing down such an important crossing for trade and travelers.

CNN (“US authorities fire tear gas to disperse migrants at border“):

A major US-Mexico border crossing in San Diego was closed for hours on Sunday after a group of migrants on the Mexican side rushed the border area, leading US Border Patrol agents to fire tear gas at the group.

About 500 migrants on the Mexican side of the border overwhelmed police blockades near the San Ysidro Port of Entry Sunday afternoon, two journalists at the scene in Tijuana told CNN.

As the migrants tried to cross the border, authorities on the US side used tear gas to disperse them, the journalists said. Video of the scene showed a cloud of tear gas that sent people running and screaming, including families with young children.

US Customs and Border Protection said the migrants threw projectiles that struck several agents.

“Border Patrol agents deployed tear gas to dispel the group because of the risk to agents’ safety,” the agency said on Twitter.

AP (“US agents fire tear gas as some migrants try to breach fence“):

U.S. border agents fired tear gas on hundreds of migrants protesting near the border with Mexico on Sunday after some of them attempted to get through the fencing and wire separating the two countries, and American authorities shut down the nation’s busiest border crossing from the city where thousands are waiting to apply for asylum.

The situation devolved after the group began a peaceful march to appeal for the U.S. to speed processing of asylum claims for Central American migrants marooned in Tijuana.

Mexican police had kept them from walking over a bridge leading to the Mexican port of entry, but the migrants pushed past officers to walk across the Tijuana River below the bridge. More police carrying plastic riot shields were on the other side, but migrants walked along the river to an area where only an earthen levee and concertina wire separated them from U.S. Border Patrol agents.

Some saw an opportunity to breach the crossing.

An Associated Press reporter saw U.S. agents shoot several rounds of tear gas after some migrants attempted to penetrate several points along the border. Mexico’s Milenio TV showed images of migrants climbing over fences and peeling back metal sheeting to enter.

BBC (“Migrant caravan: Mexico to deport group which stormed US border“):

Mexico will deport up to 500 migrants who attempted to storm the US border, according to its interior ministry.

The group were rounded up after trying to cross the border “violently” and “illegally” on Sunday, the ministry said in a statement.

Video footage shows dozens of people – including women and children – running towards the fence that separates the two countries near the city of Tijuana.

US border officers used tear gas to repel them.

Mexico’s interior ministry said in a statement that a group of “nearly 500 migrants” had “tried to cross the border in a violent way”.

Those identified as having taken part in these “violent events” would be deported immediately, it said.

The ministry added that, “far from helping their objectives”, the migrants’ actions had violated the legal migration framework and could have led to a “serious incident”.

Pictures and video of unarmed women and children being tear gassed by agents of the world’s sole remaining superpower are, to say the least, a bad look. At the same time, the Mexican interior ministry has it exactly right: the use of violence hardly bolsters the already weak case that these are people entitled to asylum in the United States.

While they almost certainly don’t meet the strict standards for political asylum—general conditions of violence and turmoil at home are not enough; the danger must be based on personal or group characteristics—the sort of people willing to leave everything behind and walk over a thousand miles to get here are exactly who you’d want to immigrate to the United States. The fear-mongering being perpetrated by President Trump against these people is shameful and goes against the best traditions of this country. Sending troops to the border and slow-rolling the processing of asylum applications further add unnecessary tension.

Still, storming the border or throwing projectiles at law enforcement officers is unacceptable. Countries have a right to control who enters their borders and to use reasonable means to stop those who attempt to do so illegally. These violent few have not only undermined their own cause but played into the hands of Trump and others who wish to portray the whole movement as lawless.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Law and the Courts, Policing, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. This whole thing is once again being mishandled by the Trump Administration, probably in violation of the law

    As I noted in a pre-Thanksgiving Day post, the relevant law on this subject does not require someone claiming asylum to present themselves at a designated port of entry. Such a claim can be made by someone illegally crossing the border, or someone who has overstayed their Visa as well. It’s also not clear that the law permits the United States to force asylum seekers to stay on the other side of the border while their asylum claim is being adjudicated. I suspect this issue, among others, will be taken to a Federal Court probably as soon as today.

    The more serious issue here, I think, is the idea of the use of force, including potentially deadly force, against unarmed migrants. The fact that the President has apparently issued an order on this issue increases the likelihood of a misunderstanding or a misstep that could lead to tragedy. I hope I’m wrong about that.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I agree Trump and company are handling this poorly. Even under a less nefarious administration, though, this would be problematic. The asylum process is geared toward individuals with specific claims, not mass caravans arriving at one time.

    (For those not familiar with them, a good summary of the international conventions and US case law can be found here.)

  3. Teve says:

    How much you wanna bet the “Pro-Life” crowd is on board with this?

  4. Teve says:

    The asylum process is geared toward individuals with specific claims, not mass caravans arriving at one time.

    I would suggest this caravan is similar to the boats of Jews circa 1939.

  5. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Resistance Ron:
    I see J-enos is back.

    As a bit of perspective, border patrol fired tear gas at people storming the border back 2013 as well.

    And as per usual he is factually in error. There is a significant difference between tear gas and pepper spray, beyond just the chemistry.

  6. James Joyner says:


    I would suggest this caravan is similar to the boats of Jews circa 1939.

    I would suggest this caravan is almost the polar opposite of that. There was simply zero doubt that European Jews were being singled out for persecution. There’s no evidence of that with the Central American migrants. They’re fleeing failing states and poverty. Those are not grounds for asylum.

    Trump’s clampdown on refugees from the Syrian conflict, where persecution of various groups is a known fact, would be much more analogous to the 1939 situation.

  7. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @James Joyner:
    I doubt there is any precedent, at all, for a coward in the White House using tear gas on women, and children in diapers.
    Cadet Bone Spurs pees his pants over Putin and MbS…but is a real tough guy with people seeking help.
    What kind of pathetic person supports a pussy like this?

  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:
    I agree.

    I’m sorry, but the United States has a perfect right to control its borders and decide who does and who does not get in. This should be done within the law, and with some humanity and decency. But if people – however motivated – decide to try and rush the border a reaction is inevitable. Thankfully it was only tear gas and not the hail of bullets Mr. Trump would have preferred.

    I don’t know whether this attempted breach was planned or done on impulse, but it was a stupid move politically. Very stupid.

    I’ve said for years now that Democrats need to be able to articulate a clear, convincing approach to immigration. You can’t beat something with nothing, so if we want a kinder, gentler approach, we need to be able to explain it – succinctly – and defend it.

  9. Kathy says:

    Wouldn’t the humane response be to add a few officers in embassies and consulates in Central america, and receive asylum claims there?

  10. Teve says:

    “For I was a stranger, and you said I had smallpox;
    I was a toddler, and you tear-gassed me.”

    Book of Santorum, 20:18.

  11. Modulo Myself says:

    It’s unclear to me what exactly happened. I searched for ‘rock-throwing migrants’ and there are so many dubious claims. I’m sure that rocks have been thrown, but did a single person climb a tree and start throwing rocks at a helicopter after being chased ? Or there was a border agent was just acquitted for shooting a 16 year old across the border, who allegedly was throwing rocks. Did that actually happen? Or was that a simple cop lie? In this case, are we supposed to take the word of the American or Mexican police? There’s video of people running towards the border, but where’s the violence? So my BS detector is going off non-stop–‘throwing rocks’ seems like a trigger aimed at the Facebook/Fox crowd, all of whom believe that throwing a rock means you should be shot dead.

    Basically, Trump has managed to turn the border into the War on Drugs. This is like news about hippies eating babies peddled to defective midwesterners in 1971. It’s about fear and a blank check to militarize rather than about dealing with the world as a human being.

  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Teve: Well, we turned them back too, IIRC, so at least the policy is consistent and not motivated by national origin or race.

    ETA: @ Modulo: You’re gonna spoil this for people like Resistance Ron and Trump if you’re not careful.

  13. Teve says:

    I don’t see a hell of a lot of difference between territory-controlling fascist gangs murdering you for being jewish and territory-controlling drug gangs murdering you for not working for them. In both cases you need to GTFO and people who turn you away should be shunned and ostracised for the rest of their days.

  14. Modulo Myself says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    This situation is what the Trump goons and creeps want. It’s like believing the War on Drugs was about dealing with the human problem of addiction, rather than a way to amp up the police, demonize minorities, and build prisons. No, they just want their fix of persecution.

    But @Michael Reynolds is right. The Democrats need to have an approach. Open borders is such a meaningless term. I’m for open borders if it means not panicking or even caring about undocumented immigrants in this country. It’s a moral failing to treat individual human beings in that way. Regardless, the proper policy is ending the drug war and trying to redo decades of American foreign policy in Central America, and it’s trying to get the white working class and the immigrants who are present now to join forces (aka unionize) and force wages up in industries that attract people from the other side of the border. It’s an ideal that’s not going to happen in reality in my lifetime. But you know what? It’s far better to have noble ideals than to sit around and pretend to be panicked about fifty people charging a fence with two or three armed with a few rocks. The self-owning of the Trump cult has given the Democrats a huge moral opening.

  15. Hal_10000 says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Agreed. Hillary got a world of grief last week for saying the Europe’s immigration policies have enabled Right Wing parties. As pro-immigration as I am, I think she was absolutely right. Open borders is a great policy, in theory. It will be less great when President La Pen is putting immigrants in concentration camps.

  16. Paul L. says:

    Only the Saintly professionals in the FBI should use Tear Gas against Women and Children.

    Like they did at the Waco siege.

  17. Guarneri says:

    The rules of engagement were written, and in fact liberal use of tear gas employed, under the Obama Administration. An obvious recognition of a problem. Not mentioned just about anywhere. Funny that. And now it appears the photo shot was staged, complete with a smoke bomb. Heh.

  18. KM says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I’m sorry, but the United States has a perfect right to control its borders and decide who does and who does not get in. This should be done within the law, and with some humanity and decency. But if people – however motivated – decide to try and rush the border a reaction is inevitable. Thankfully it was only tear gas and not the hail of bullets Mr. Trump would have preferred

    While I agree with the notion that a nation has the right to control its borders and whom it allows to enter into its territory, you cannot rig the game and not expect people to get pissy about it. There is an expectation of a correct path that one can follow, not an endless game of keep-away. When you deny legal options and procedures, what is left to people but the illegal and ill-advised? They are told they must go to place X for legal reason and then do so only to find whoops, place X is closed, so sad too bad. You can always tell them *no* as is your right but you have to give them to option to *ask* as the law requires. – asylum doesn’t need to be granted but the requests can’t be denied without consideration.

    A real parent does anything for their child, including traveling thousands of miles for a shot at a better life. If some jackbooted little asshat suddenly decided to take away my only legal avenue for that to happen at the last minute then yeah, I’d consider jumping the border. What’s more important – legality or your child’s welfare? One only plays a rigged game for so long before they flip the table. We have the right to control our borders but we do not have the right to jerk people around in defiance of the law just because the President doesn’t like them. We do not have the right to punish people for being frustrated at our BS, mind-games and deliberate cruelty.

  19. al Ameda says:

    Trump is the appropriate president to lead us into a new Third World-ification phase
    of American history.

    Many of his cabinet members have no interest in the public interest. A few obvious examples:
    Secy of Education: Betsy DeVos, wants to use public resources to benefit private schools
    New Secy EPA: Wheeler, Coal Industry Lobbyist, rolling back clean air and water regulations
    Secy of Interior: Zinke, is opening federal lands to resource exploitation