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Border At Tijuana Briefly Closed, U.S. Agents Spray Tear Gas At Migrants

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It all began as a peaceful protest. Hundreds of migrants at a major border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, marched to protest the U.S. slowdown in processing asylum claims. They were met by Mexican police in riot gear, and soon, things spiraled out of control. U.S. border agents fired tear gas into the crowd. Images from the scene show women and young children running from plumes of gas. The crossing then was closed for several hours.

Reporter James Fredrick is in Tijuana and joins us now. James, you were at the border yesterday. Just describe the scene. What did you see?

JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: So as you say, it started as a peaceful protest of people largely from the Central American migrant caravan. There were lots of Mexican federal police out trying to contain them. Eventually, they got around Mexican federal police. And then they went down into this kind of river bank where there is not that giant steel fence that divides U.S. and Mexico, but it's a chain-link fence and barbed wire and things like that.

A group of them started pushing up against that fence. And then soon after, that was when tear gas was first deployed by U.S. authorities. And then it was used several times after that. It was a really scary scene. There were helicopters flying over the whole time. I spoke to this woman, Lisette (ph), a Honduran migrant, right after tear gas was used.

LISETTE: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: So as Lisette says, you know, a few tear gas bombs were fired. There were children around there. They were inhaling it. And you know, she says it was just scary. It was burning their eyes and lungs, and that she was - just couldn't believe it was happening.

MARTIN: I mean, it's obviously a harrowing scene. But when you talk to these migrants, did they - did they do this just to garner public attention on their plight? Or did they really think they were going to get in by trying to scale a fence?

FREDRICK: You know, it's hard to know exactly what they were hoping to achieve with this. But speaking to them, yeah, that's what a lot of them said is, you know, we want people to see we're here. We want people to understand what we're going through, especially with the long, long process for those who want to request asylum in the United States.

You know, of course, a few of them did try to push into the U.S. But the border is so reinforced around this area that there's just nowhere to go. There's nowhere to get into the U.S. here.

MARTIN: So how long, James, does it take for a U.S. asylum claim to get processed?

FREDRICK: Well, here in Tijuana, one thing that's happening is that there is a list of asylum seekers. So U.S. authorities are not letting everyone who wants to request asylum just show up at the border and do it. You have to wait on this list for your number to be called. And people I've been speaking to recently are waiting more than a month to just begin an asylum claim.

And that's before the Central American migrant caravan showed up here. So for those people in the caravan who want to request asylum, they're looking at months to even be heard first by U.S. authorities. And then for that claim to be processed can take months or even years.

MARTIN: So let's talk about where they are physically when these claims are being processed because over the weekend, The Washington Post reported that the White House has negotiated a plan with Mexico requiring that anyone who's applying for asylum stay on the Mexican side of the border.

That hasn't always been the case, right? When you apply for asylum, you're on U.S. soil. You're in kind of a holding facility. But what more can you tell us about this deal? Is Mexico OK with this?

FREDRICK: That's unclear right now. So The Washington Post reported that. And then soon after, the incoming government of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the president-elect who takes power this Saturday, they said a deal has not yet been reached to agree to this. But if this does happen, this plan they're calling Remain in Mexico, it would mean that people would do their entire asylum process here in Mexico.

So as I said, I mean, that is, at a minimum, months, but for many people requesting asylum right now, that's a process that takes more than a year, and they would stay here in Mexico. I mean, the real question with that is what Mexico is going to do with this, with people who may not be able to work, may not have somewhere to live or even food to eat.

MARTIN: Right, these are not necessarily Mexicans. I mean, the people we're talking about right now are fleeing violence in Central America.

FREDRICK: Exactly. There are thousands of people from Central America who would want to request asylum in the U.S., but they would stay here in Mexico. It would be a huge burden for Mexican border cities.

MARTIN: So what - what does happen now? I mean, we said that the border was shut down for a few hours. It's reopened. But there are more people on their way from Central America, moving towards the U.S.-Mexican border.

FREDRICK: It's certainly an issue that needs to be sorted out by U.S. and Mexican authorities because right now, it seems like neither side is doing much to sort this out, to give people a quicker solution. You know, and part of it is the fact that we are in the middle of a government transition in Mexico right now, and so the new government takes power Saturday.

There's a bit of a feeling here of it's just kind of a - wait until the new government comes in. But you know, there's a lot of people here in Tijuana who don't have anywhere to go...

MARTIN: Right.

FREDRICK: ...Who have very little to eat, and they're in limbo. And they don't know what's going to happen next.

MARTIN: OK, reporter James Fredrick at the border in Tijuana, thank you so much.

FREDRICK: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.