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Witnesses Dispute US Authorities’ Account Of New Year’s Border Tear Gas Incident

Migrants run as tear gas is thrown by U.S. Border Protection officers to the ...

Credit: Associated Press

Above: Migrants run as tear gas is thrown by U.S. Border Protection officers to the Mexican side of the border fence after they climbed the fence to get to San Diego, Calif., from Tijuana, Mexico, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019.

Journalists and activists who were interspersed with a group of 150 migrants at a U.S.-Mexico border tear gas incident on Tuesday morning said U.S. authorities falsely depicted the Central Americans as the instigators of violence.

President Trump said the group "charged" the border, the Department of Homeland Security described the group as a "violent mob," and U.S. Customs and Border Protection said tear gas, smoke and pepper spray were deployed "to address the rock throwers assaulting agents."

Witnesses on the Mexican side said nobody threw anything at U.S. authorities until after projectiles were fired into Mexico, and that the migrants were quietly standing with their backs against the wall when the first canister came.

RELATED: US Fired Tear Gas Into Mexico Early On New Year's Day

"I didn't hear or see anyone throw anything over onto the U.S. side before the tear gas started," said Kitra Cahana, a freelance photographer who was documenting the attempted border crossing.

Cahana was hit in the thigh by some kind of pellet that she said was fired by U.S. authorities as she tried to run away from tear gas. She said the pellet left a large bruise and caused a sharp pain.

She said she saw someone throwing a smoking canister back over the fence after it was launched into Mexico and caught fire, but that she didn't see anyone throw rocks. Officials say 25 people were apprehended after illegally entering the U.S., including two teenage migrants.

Mark Abramson, another freelance photographer who was present, said he also didn't see anyone throw anything at U.S. authorities until after the tear gas was launched.

"We're standing by the wall hiding and all of a sudden we hear a couple of shots and it's tear gas," he said.

Abramson said he saw American activists helping the migrants cross the border illegally and that those activists were being antagonistic toward journalists, demanding that they produce gas masks and stop taking pictures, but that the migrants themselves were peaceful. He said he saw one migrant throw a rock after tear gas was deployed.

Lilith Sinclair, who was with the activists, confirmed that 11 activists were there, including left-wing Antifa protestors under the banner of "The Border Support Network," which she said aims to establish camps on Native American land across the border where activists can provide support for asylum seekers. Some wore scarves and bandanas over their faces.

When asked if the activists were helping migrants get over the fence, she declined to comment. She said they were there to document human rights abuses and to provide medical aid, such as administering milk of magnesia to migrants suffering the effects of tear gas.

Sinclair said the statements by U.S. authorities were "disgusting ... blatant lies" and that tear gas was used to scare the migrants from turning themselves in and asking for asylum as permitted by U.S. and international asylum laws.

"This attack on migrants peacefully seeking asylum was crippling, inhumane and unprovoked," she said.

In an emailed statement, Sinclair added:

As agents shouted for people to return and migrants shouted to assert their rights and explain that children were present, CBP, unprovoked, deployed multiple canisters of tear gas over the wall. The tear gas reached about 80% of the migrants, witnesses, medics, and journalists assembled. A male migrant dislocated his knee as he ran and had to be carried up a hill for treatment. After this secondary deployment of tear gas had dispersed, migrants made their way back to the hill next to the wall on the Mexico side.

Another 15 to 20 migrants made their way down to the wall to attempt to present themselves for asylum. A number of migrants were yelling in fear and frustration. As those migrants were peacefully attempting to cross the wall and present themselves, a single CBP agent yelled to other agents, “Incoming rocks!” despite there being no physical aggression from migrants. At this time, other agents began indiscriminately firing a number of tear gas canisters, smoke bombs, and plastic pellets across the wall. This deployment was larger than the last and affected women, children, and men in the group of migrants. The migrants and those accompanying all retreated about 250 meters away from the wall and climbed another dirt hill to escape gas that completely filled the air. Two medics and a number of supporters spent approximately 15 minutes treating the effects of the tear gas deployment.

President Trump says 150 migrants "charged" the border, and the Department of Homeland Security calls them a "violent mob." Witnesses say the migrants were peaceful until the tear gas was launched.

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