The news and social media were flooded Sunday evening with images captured earlier in the day of Central American refugees, including mothers with their children, fleeing for safety as Border Patrol agents fired tear gas to disperse a group of the asylum-seeking immigrants who had attempted to breach the U.S. border fence north of Tijuana, Mexico.
By Monday afternoon, some Latino leaders, mostly Democrats, and immigration reform advocates were condemning and expressing outrage at this use of force, including pepper spray and, some said, rubber bullets, against the members of caravans who had trekked north for several weeks to escape the violence and economic distress in their homelands.
“I am absolutely disgusted at what is happening at the border,” said state Rep. Chris Rosario, who is chairman of the state legislature’s Black and Hispanic Caucus and active in the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). “Innocent, unarmed people should not be on the receiving end of tear gas as their first image of America,” the Democratic state legislator said Monday.
“This isn’t who we are as a nation, and the president needs to end this aggressive behavior immediately,” Rosario said. “Seeking asylum is not a crime.”
Republican Latinos generally took a different view of the gassing of the migrants rushing the border. The White House on Monday praised the response of the border patrol and issued the following statement from President Trump: “No one gets a free pass to enter America illegally.”
In Connecticut, Republicans were still licking their wounds from Election Day defeats and were unlikely to say much about the border incident according to one party activist.
However, Carmelo Rodriguez, a longtime Hispanic and Republican leader in New Britain, said he had “no issues with the government or law enforcement using tear gas. Tear gas is a non- deadly tactic. It’s a safe approach to prevent disturbances or attack.
Moreover, Rodriquez stated, “Trying to cross the border illegally is a crime. When verbal command are not followed the government/law enforcement must use any other method to maintain a safe environment.” He added, “As a country we must continue to pray and hopefully find a solution to immigration issues.”
However, a harsher view of the border incident was expressed by Lucas Codognolla, executive director of CT Students for a Dream. The Border Patrol’s action is emblematic of the president’s escalation and political exploitation of anti-immigrant and racist sentiments, said the leader of the statewide advocacy group for undocumented immigrants.
“Tear gas, in particular, has a long history in the U.S. of being used to control and terrorize black and brown communities,” Codognolla said, in a statement calling for the defunding and abolishment of deportation agencies, particularly Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
How the government’s responded to the immigrants did not surprise Jason Ortiz, president of the Connecticut chapter of the Puerto Rican Agenda. “This treatment by our government is the same callous indifference to suffering that the Trump administration is treating all Latinos seeking a better life, including Puerto Ricans who protested austerity in May and were also met with tear gas,” Ortiz said.
While most news reports had described the group rushing the border as several hundred people and including many women and children, the White House on Monday issued a statement that more than a thousand individuals created a “dangerous situation” when “they sought to enter the United States illegally” through a “legacy border fence.”
The statement claimed that only a “handful” of minors were present and the “vast majority of participants were single male adults.” This “violent crowd” … “sought to harm CBP personnel by throwing projectiles” and 60 were arrests.
The White House said border agents were struck by projectiles, “most likely rocks,” but were not seriously injured thanks to their protective gear.
What could happen next was a concern of Yolanda Negron, a Hispanic activist and community leader in Willimantic. “My fear is that from using gas, the Border Patrol/military could go to using bullets. That would truly be a tragedy and a massacre,” she said.
Negron also expressed sympathy for the immigrants. “These are desperate and extremely poor (financially) and desperate human beings looking for the American Dream – freedom and financial stability, along with education for their children (those with children),” she said. “Imagine going through all of that to get into THIS country. MY country. OUR country,” she said.
Her parents came to this country for the very same reasons, Negron said. “They ‘migrated’ because Puerto Rico is a territory of the U.S.; therefore, American citizens,” Negron explained, adding, ” But, as Papi once told me, ‘Mamá, I would have swam over here, if I had to.'”