Images of men, women and children frantically running from tear gas being lobbed across the U.S.-Mexico border by Customs and Border Protection personnel have led to outrage over the way the Trump administration is treating the Central American migrants hoping to claim asylum in the United States.
A little girl from Honduras stares into the camera, her young features contorted in anguish. She’s barefoot, dusty, and clad only in a diaper and T-shirt. And she’s just had to run from clouds of choking tear gas fired across the border by U.S. agents.
A second photograph, which also circulated widely and rapidly on social media, shows an equally anguished woman frantically trying to drag the same child and a second toddler away from the gas as it spreads.
The three were part of a much larger group, perhaps 70 or 80 men, women and children, pictured in a wider-angle photo fleeing the tear gas. Reuters photographer Kim Kyung-Hoon shot the images, which provoked outrage and seemed at odds with President Trump’s portrayal of the caravan migrants as “criminals” and “gang members.”
Trump administration officials have claimed authorities were forced to respond in such a manner when hundreds of migrants rushed the border near Tijuana, some throwing “projectiles” at CBP personnel.
The chaos erupted Sunday around the bustling San Ysidro border crossing, which Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said was closed “to ensure public safety in response to large numbers of migrants seeking to enter the U.S. illegally.”
But Democratic leaders, human rights advocates and others focused on the images of the two children in particular. Many pointed to the children left gagging from the gas attack as evidence that Trump’s push against a caravan of asylum seekers from Central America had gone too far.
“Shooting tear gas at children is not who we are as Americans,” tweeted Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “Seeking asylum is not a crime. We must be better than this.”
The president responded Monday morning with a renewed threat to permanently shut down the entire southern border.
That’s never been done, and experts interviewed by The Washington Post on Sunday night knew of no provision explicitly allowing Trump to permanently close the borders. Most of the border, with the exception of designated crossings, is already closed, which doesn’t stop migrants from entering.
“This is yet another of several Trump attempts to change what he disparagingly calls the policy of ‘catch and release’ without or against legal authority,” said Yale Law School’s Harold Hongju Koh, legal adviser to the State Department during the Obama administration. “All have been blocked. What he does not understand,” Koh said in an email, “is that everyone crossing our Southern border is not illegally present. Those with valid asylum claims have a legal right to assert those claims and remain.”