Trump pushes for asylum seekers to wait in Mexico

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday that Mexico should send Central American migrants seeking asylum in the United States back to their home countries, a day after U.S. authorities shut the country's busiest southern border crossing and fired tear gas into the crowd.

Mexico has said it has sent 11,000 Central Americans back to countries of origin since 1st caravan

A migrant girl and her father, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America, are surrounded by border police, on Sunday in Tijuana. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday that Mexico should send Central American migrants seeking asylum in the United States back to their home countries, a day after U.S. authorities shut the country's busiest southern border crossing and fired tear gas into the crowd.

U.S. officials reopened the crossing at the San Ysidro, Calif., port of entry between the U.S. city of San Diego. On Sunday, the situation devolved after a large group marched to the border to appeal for the U.S. to speed processing of asylum claims for Central American migrants languishing in Tijuana.

Sunday's incident, which took place after a group of people rushed at the border fencing, was the latest chapter in a weeks-long saga that has pitted Trump's hardline stance on immigration against a group of thousands of migrants who have made their way north through Mexico from Central America.

Throughout the day, U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopters flew overhead, while U.S. agents on foot watched beyond the wire fence in California.

As news pictures showing children fleeing tear gas prompted sharp criticism from some lawmakers and rights advocates, Trump strongly defended the response.

"They were being rushed by some very tough people and they used tear gas," Trump said Monday. "Here's the bottom line: Nobody is coming into our country unless they come in legally."

At a roundtable in Mississippi later Monday, Trump seemed to acknowledge that children were affected, asking, "Why is a parent running up into an area where they know the tear gas is forming and it's going to be formed and they were running up with a child?"

He said it was "a very minor form of the tear gas itself" that he assured was "very safe."

No tolerance, DHS head says

Rodney Scott, chief U.S. border patrol agent in San Diego, said on Monday authorities had arrested 42 people. The vast majority of those assembled at the border were economic migrants who would not qualify for asylum, he told CNN, adding that there were few women and children.

"What I saw on the border yesterday was not people walking up to border patrol agents and asking to claim asylum," Scott said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers "were struck by projectiles thrown by caravan members" and "perpetrators will be prosecuted," U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said on Twitter Sunday night.

U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis, left, and Homeland Security Secretary Kirsten Nielsen, third from the right, met with troops supporting U.S. border patrol last week in Donna, Texas. Nielsen said this weekend there would continue to be a significant troop presence on Monday. (Joel Martinez/The Monitor via Associated Press)

Nielsen said in a statement that U.S. authorities will continue to have a "robust" presence along the southwest border and that they will prosecute anyone who damages federal property or violates U.S. sovereignty.

"DHS will not tolerate this type of lawlessness and will not hesitate to shut down ports of entry for security and public safety reasons," she said.

Lurbin Sarmiento, 26, of Copan, Honduras, said she had been with her four-year-old daughter at a concrete riverbed, which had a trickle of water from the Tijuana River, when U.S. agents fired the gas.

"We ran, but the smoke always reached us and my daughter was choking," Sarmiento said, visibly shaken.

She said she never would have gotten that close with her daughter if she thought there would be tear gas.

Fumes were carried by the wind toward people who were hundreds of feet away.

'We can't have all these people here'

More than 5,000 migrants have been camped in and around a sports complex in Tijuana after making their way through Mexico in recent weeks via caravan. Many hope to apply for asylum in the U.S., but agents at the San Ysidro entry point are processing fewer than 100 asylum petitions a day.

There were conflicting reports on the weekend on Mexico agreeing to host migrants while their U.S. asylum claims are
heard. Asylum seekers typically announce their intention at U.S. ports of entry or after crossing the border illegally.

"Mexico should move the flag waving Migrants, many of whom are stone cold criminals, back to their countries," Trump said on Twitter on Monday. "Do it by plane, do it by bus, do it anyway you want, but they are NOT coming into the U.S.A."

A Honduran migrant lies on the riverbank as Mexican police move away from tear gas fired by U.S. agents at the Mexico-U.S. border in Tijuana on Sunday. The border crossing at San Ysidro, Calif., was closed for several hours before reopening. (Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press)

Francisco Vega, the governor of Baja California, said almost 9,000 migrants were in the Mexican state and called it "an issue of national security." Vega issued a public appeal to the federal government to take over responsibility for sheltering the migrants and deport those who were breaking the law.

Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastelum on Friday declared a humanitarian crisis in his border city of 1.6 million, which he says is struggling to accommodate the crush of migrants.

Irineo Mujica, who has accompanied the migrants for weeks as part of the aid group Pueblo Sin Fronteras, said the aim of Sunday's march toward the U.S. border was to make the migrants' plight more visible to the governments of Mexico and the U.S.

"We can't have all these people here," Mujica said.

Mexico's Interior Ministry said Sunday that 11,000 Central Americans have been sent back to their countries of origin since Oct. 19, when the first caravan entered the country. It said that 1,906 of those who have returned were members of the recent caravans.

Mexico is on track to send a total of around 100,000 Central Americans back home by the end of this year.

Mexico's Interior Ministry said it would immediately deport those who tried to "violently" enter the U.S. from Tijuana. Meanwhile, Tijuana's municipal government said that more than three-dozen migrants were arrested for disturbing the peace and other charges stemming from the march and what followed.

Trump border threat unlikely

Trump in his tweet on Monday also made another pitch for his promised border wall and threatened to "close the border permanently." Such a move would likely encounter resistance both in Congress and among business leaders, as Mexico is the third largest trade partner  of the U.S., behind China and Canada.

Even during the aftermath of 9/11, ports of entry on the southern border were heavily enforced and monitored, not closed. El Paso-Juarez border in Texas was closed for several hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 while several crossings over California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas were closed after the kidnapping and killing of Drug Enforcement Agency official Enrique Camarena.

A Central American migrant is stopped by U.S. agents who order him to go back to the Mexican side of the border, after a group of migrants got past Mexican police at the Chaparral crossing in Tijuana on Sunday. Mexican authorities said some three-dozen migrants were arrested after the clashes. (Pedro Acosta/Associated Press)

Trump has repeatedly suggested without evidence that the migrant caravans are full of hardened criminals, but they are mostly poor people with few belongings who are fleeing gang violence. During his presidential campaign, he promised he'd have Mexico pay for a wall along the 3,200-kilometre border.

On Saturday, the administration of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador takes over in Mexico, adding another variable.

Caravans in the spring and autumn alarmed Trump, and he made them a central theme in rallies on behalf of Republican candidates in recent midterm elections. He also ordered some 5,800 U.S. troops to the border to support U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Democrats, who take control of the House of Representatives in January, have urged more comprehensive immigration reform in addition to additional border security.

"The time is long overdue for Congress and this president to say we need comprehensive immigration reform," U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, told CBS This Morning

U.S. Senator Angus King, another independent, told the Hugh Hewitt syndicated radio program on Monday the wall did not appear to be a high priority for Republicans or Democrats in Congress.

Republican U.S. Senator Joni Ernst told CNN on Sunday she did not want a government shutdown but that "we're seeing results" from Trump's efforts on asylum seekers.

On Sunday night, Trump lashed out at CBS, after a 60 Minutes report on the administration policy announced earlier this year of separating of children from migrant parents who crossed between points of entry. The report alleged widespread disorganization and that not all of those separated were properly tracked, making reunifications difficult.

With files from CBC News and Associated Press