BY CASEY ROEPKE ’21
When asylum-seekers reach the U.S.-Mexico border, they have not yet reached the end of their long journey — they are only at the beginning. After traveling for days or weeks with limited resources, migrants still have to go through legal processes of requesting asylum. On Nov. 25, tensions around the border escalated to a visible breaking point at the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry in San Diego, California.
San Ysidro is responsible for nearly 100,000 visitors daily, according to the Washington Post. Recently, border crossing authorities have been limiting asylum requests to between 40 and 100 per day, according to NPR. Even those fortunate few still have months or even years of waiting before their claims are heard and processed. On the 25th, migrants who were upset by the delay in the processing of asylum claims protested by pushing against the chain-link fence dividing Mexico from the U.S. In response, Custom and Border Protection (CBP) agents fired tear gas into the crowd.
According to NPR, for people who support Trump and align themselves with his anti-immigration policies, “the events of Sunday showed migrants storming a protected border, confirming fears of an ‘invasion’ of migrants defying U.S. laws.” For others, the scene “showed American patrol agents firing tear gas at an unarmed crowd including children, reinforcing horrors of how the U.S. is treating immigrants.”
David Hernández, an associate professor of Latina/o Studies at Mount Holyoke, called the use of tear gas a “common and despicable police action with subjective reasoning for its use.” He also commented on the vulnerability of the migrants in the situation. “At the border, they knew these were unarmed protesters, seeking asylum and desiring to surrender to U.S. authorities,” Hernández said, “yet they released tear gas anyway.”
President Trump’s continual calls to close the border have not only created problems for the migrants waiting for asylum, but also hold the potential to impact the U.S. economy. Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University, told CNN that Trump’s threat to close the border needs to be taken seriously. “The disruption to Texas would be enormous,” Payan said. “I don’t think the President understands the dynamism of the busiest border in the world.”
Mexico is the U.S.’s third largest trading partner, and their financial partnership is only set to increase as Trump signs the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which establishes a streamlined trade channel between the three countries in place of NAFTA, as reported by the New York Times.
Violence at the border does not only have financial implications — there are also health repercussions. These migrants, especially children, will suffer lasting physical and emotional effects after the events of Nov. 25. According to the Huffington Post, tear gas is a “chemical weapon that is banned on battlefields in almost every country… [it] has a particularly harsh effect on children because of their weaker respiratory systems.”
“Throwing tear gas at children is not immigration policy,” Alan Shapiro, chief medical director for Terra Firma, a program focused on immigrant children, told the Huffington Post. “It’s torture.” Human Rights Watch (HRW), an NGO that advocates for human rights and U.S. and international law dictated that “an unauthorized [border] crossing is not grounds to block someone from claiming asylum; neither does it change limits on the appropriate use of force.”
Colleen Molnar ’21, board member of Mount Holyoke’s chapter of Amnesty International, was also alarmed by the government’s actions at the border. “It’s a clear violation of human rights,” she said. “The fact that the U.S. government is using a weapon banned in warfare on people who are fleeing their home countries for safety is disgusting.”
Although no serious injuries were reported, this incident has dangerous implications for the future of border interactions. Trump’s rhetoric alone is damaging U.S. perception of immigrants seeking asylum, and now, direct acts of violence further threaten the adults and children trying to come to America. The president plans to extend U.S. troops’ deployment to the U.S.- Mexico border into January, NPR reported, and he continues to talk about closing the border.
Meanwhile, tensions around immigration will continue to escalate. The tear gas was a highly visible display of these tensions, but HRW said that “things could have [...] been worse.” The Guardian reported that CBP officers have killed at least seven migrants since 2003.
“The Trump administration, from its very outset, has constructed the persistent and unfounded argument that migrants are dangerous people, an invasion and threat to national security,” Hernández said. “So, to release chemical agents upon asylum seekers is part of this logic of retaliation, as would any escalation in state violence, as well as vigilante violence, which can frame its retaliatory and often racist acts as patriotism.”