US authorities fired tear gas into Mexico on Tuesday as about 150 asylum seekers tried to breach the border fence.
US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said in a statement that tear gas was used to target rock throwers, not those attempting to cross the border south of San Diego, California.
A photographer of the Associated Press (AP) news agency saw at least three volleys of gas launched onto the Mexican side of the border near Tijuana’s beach that affected the migrants, including women and children, as well as journalists. The photographer said rocks were thrown only after US agents fired tear gas.
CBP said, “no agents witnessed any of the migrants at the fence line, including children, experiencing effects of the chemical agents, which were targeted at the rock throwers further away.”
The agency also said agents saw “toddler-sized children” being passed over concertina wire with difficulty. It said its agents could not assist the children because of the rocks being thrown. Agents responded with smoke, pepper spray and tear gas, it said.
About 25 people were arrested by CBP. The incident is being reviewed by the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility.
Amnesty International called the use of tear gas “cruel and inhumane”.
“The Trump administration is defying international law and orchestrating a crisis by deliberately turning asylum-seekers away from ports of entry, endangering families who see no choice but to take desperate measures in their search for protection,” Justin Mazzola, Amnesty’s deputy director of research, said in a statement.
Migrants and refugees who spoke to the Associated Press said they arrived in Tijuana last month with a mass exodus from Honduras, initially dubbed a caravan.
The exodus, which left Honduras in mid-October, grew to more than 6,000 members during its month-and-a-half trek north. It has been a constant target of US President Donald Trump, who has falsely labelled it an “invasion” and has sought to use it to sow fear and drum up support for his proposed border wall.
Many Central Americans have told Al Jazeera they are fleeing violence, political persecution and extreme poverty.
‘Where there’s life, there’s hope’
Those who have arrived in Tijuana to seek asylum in the United States have been told they may have to wait months before being allowed to make their claims. Rights groups and asylum seekers have accused the US government of stalling the asylum process, an allegation the US denies.
The long process has prompted many to attempt to cross the border between official ports in hopes of making their asylum claims sooner. Others have found jobs in Tijuana while they want to apply at an official port. And others have made the journey home.
“I haven’t seen my family in two months, but right now, God willing, we’ll reach our dream,” Marvin Ceballos, a Honduran asylum seeker, told Al Jazeera.
“If I’m caught, I can plead and fight for asylum. If I’m deported, I guess I’ll keep moving forward,” he said.
“Where there’s life, there’s hope.”
Last month, the Trump administration announced that it would send asylum seekers back to Mexico to wait out their immigration proceedings. Details regarding the new policy, including when it would take effect, have not been disclosed.
In November, US agents launched tear gas across the border after some migrants tried to breach the border following a peaceful march in Tijuana. Hundreds of migrants and refugees who were downwind of the gas were affected.
Trump is currently locked in a fight with congressional Democrats over funding for the border wall that he wants to build. The stalemate has led to a partial government shutdown.