A group of migrants—including a Honduran mother and her children who were photographed being sprayed with tear gas at the border last month—was allowed to apply for asylum on Tuesday after camping out on U.S. soil near the Otay Mesa port of entry in San Diego, California for hours with two members of Congress who documented the experience, which featured intimidation tactics by federal agents, on social media.
Democratic Reps. Jimmy Gomez and Nanette Barragán of California—who stayed with the migrants overnight, until the entire group submitted applications—posted on Twitter that Maria Meza and her five children were permitted to file for asylum early Tuesday, after waiting seven hours:
After 7hrs, I can now confirm:— Rep. Jimmy Gomez (@RepJimmyGomez) December 18, 2018
Maria Meza & her kids — featured in this @Reuters image fleeing tear gas at the border last month — just filed for asylum.
They’re on American soil.@RepBarragan & I are still here observing conditions on the ground. #RefugeesWelcome @fams2gether pic.twitter.com/t8cEDRtGIQ
Seeing Maria and her family finally be taken inside for processing has been the most satisfying of the last 13 hours. But there remains a family with 2 young girls and a 3 year boy here on US soil (and a male adult). https://t.co/Y2IGgzqOUF— Nanette D. Barragán (@RepBarragan) December 18, 2018
Although Meza's family and eight unaccompanied minors were allowed to submit their asylum applications shortly after midnight, it was several more hours before the remaining migrants from the group that had crossed over from Mexico on Monday afternoon were allowed to apply.
"The asylum seekers, organized by legal aid group Al Otro Lado, were selected to participate because they are particularly vulnerable in Tijuana," according to The San Diego Union-Tribune. As the newspaper reported:
They walked up to the port of entry in small groups around 2:30 p.m. to avoid being noticed by Mexican immigration officials who might send them away before they reached their goal, the U.S.
When they stepped over the border boundary, the asylum-seekers, all from Honduras, sat down in hopes that officials would allow them in for asylum processing. A group of attorneys, law students, and other volunteers who were all U.S. citizens formed a human shield around the sitting migrants to keep anyone from trying to force them back into Mexico.
As shown in photo updates from the lawmakers and immigrant rights advocates, agents from Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—which claimed the delays were due to capacity issues—fenced in the group overnight:
Sitting outside on the ground, @CBP has enclosed us, they keep telling us they’re at capacity, but won’t show me or @RepBarragan what the issues are.— Rep. Jimmy Gomez (@RepJimmyGomez) December 18, 2018
It’s been 8 hours.
We’re not going anywhere.#RefugeesWelcome pic.twitter.com/AG3Pf9ZqaR
Hour 11. Been here since 2pm. Still waiting for asylum seekers to be processed and @CBP to show us their capacity issues. We are not leaving the Otay Mesa facility. Guess we’ll be spending the night. pic.twitter.com/bVbmDGxuER— Rep. Jimmy Gomez (@RepJimmyGomez) December 18, 2018
Update: @CBP built a cage around us and has kept us in it the entire night. We’ve been here with @RepBarragan, @RepJimmyGomez, and 6 asylum seekers for 15 hours. #RefugeesWelcome pic.twitter.com/UyrVbzQbzf— Families Belong Together (@fams2gether) December 18, 2018
Barragán also said the federal agents were in "full riot gear." Denouncing CBP as "a rogue actor" and demanding accountability, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) accused the agency of "attempting to intimidate members of Congress for fulfilling their constitutional duty to conduct oversight."
Let’s be clear: @CBP is attempting to intimidate members of Congress for fulfilling their constitutional duty to conduct oversight.— ACLU (@ACLU) December 18, 2018
DHS has been operating as a rogue actor for long enough — it’s time we hold them accountable. https://t.co/NcccuwT0N1
A CBP spokesperson echoed the capacity claims that agents made on the ground in San Diego, telling The Hill, "As we have done for several years, when our ports of entry reach capacity, we have to manage the queues and individuals presenting without documents may need to wait in Mexico as CBP officers work to process those already within our facilities."
In a pair of videos shared by Families Belong Together, Gomez and Barragán cast doubt on those claims. "What we're seeing here is they're saying that they don't have the capacity but that doesn't seem to be the case because no one has been allowed in to see if they have the capacity," Gomez said. "So we're here to observe, to make sure they're following U.S. law and international law."
While thanking the pair of lawmakers for supporting the migrants, the advocacy organization Human Rights First declared in a series of tweets, "it should NOT take intervention from members of Congress and hours of waiting in the cold on U.S. soil for CBP agents to do their jobs and process asylum requests in a timely manner."
"It should NOT take intervention from members of Congress and hours of waiting in the cold on U.S. soil for CBP agents to do their jobs and process asylum requests in a timely manner."
—Human Rights First
The incident comes as President Donald Trump is threatening to shut down the government over border wall funding and his administration is pursuing a multi-pronged effort to limit all forms of immigration from Central and South America.
It also comes amid reports that CBP is using "metering"—or, as BuzzFeed explains, "when officials limit the number of individuals who can make asylum claims at ports of entry on any given day"—in hopes of discouraging applicants.
According to a letter from House Democrats, a high-ranking CBP official told Congress that border agents have CHOSEN to limit asylum applications along the border because "[t]he more we process, the more will come.”— Human Rights First (@humanrights1st) December 18, 2018
This is clearly intentional. https://t.co/uzY9DDd4Qs
"Finally, after a long night, all of the asylum seekers were admitted," Human Rights First tweeted late Tuesday morning. "While it's good to have a happy ending to this story, CBP is still engaging in deliberate 'metering' practices that put people's lives at risk while they wait in Mexico."