Migrant woman who fled tear gas at U.S. border stopped in group asking asylum

TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – Fifteen Honduran migrants, mainly teens but including a mother photographed running with her daughters from tear gas several weeks ago, were held up on the U.S. side of the border with Mexico on Monday and denied the chance to ask for asylum, a Reuters witness and advocates said.

Maria Meza, a 40-year-old migrant woman from Honduras, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, holds her daughter as she waits at the Otay Mesa port of entry in San Diego, California to be processed as an asylum seeker, as seen from Tijuana, Mexico December 17, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Among the group were Maria Meza and her children, who appeared in a widely circulated photograph taken by Reuters as they fled tear gas thrown by U.S. authorities during a protest at the border last month when some migrants rushed the U.S. fence.

Activists consider the group, including several unaccompanied minors, to be vulnerable and in need of quick attention at the port of entry.

Democratic U.S. Representatives Jimmy Gomez and Nanette Barragan, along with lawyers, accompanied the group at the Otay Mesa port of entry in Tijuana, Mexico, on Monday afternoon, the Reuters witness said.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents said the port of entry was full, Gomez said. Surrounded by advocates and lawyers, the migrants sat by a metal turnstile, having gone beyond a sign marking the division between Mexico and the United States.

The CBP did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The asylum seekers had been part of groups of thousands of migrants known as caravans that left from Central America and arrived in Tijuana in recent months.

U.S. President Donald Trump declared the caravans an “invasion,” and sent several thousand troops to “harden” the border, including with barbed wire.

U.S. authorities have been limiting how many migrants can ask for asylum each day at the Mexico border. That has led to months-long waits before asylum claims can be made.

The 15 migrants were still sitting at Otay Mesa after two hours on Monday, as Gomez and Barragan talked to CBP officers. One of the young girls began to cry as her mother held her.

“They’re saying that they don’t have the capacity, but that doesn’t seem to be the case because nobody has been allowed in to see if they have the capacity,” Gomez told reporters at the scene, adding he would find out whether that was true.

Lawyers from advocacy group Al Otro Lado were also with the children. Al Otro Lado has accompanied vulnerable groups to the border in order to request asylum, bypassing a semi-formal list system that controls the numbers of migrants who try to enter each day.

Earlier this month, a single mother and her 9-year-old daughter were able to ask for asylum at the San Ysidro port of entry only after a congresswoman – who was touring the port at the time – stepped in and told CBP officers they were required to process them by law, according to Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director at the Immigrant Defenders Law Center.

Reporting by Carlos Barria in Tijuana, Mexico; Additional Reporting by Kristina Cooke; Writing by Christine Murray and Peter Cooney

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