What happened on Sunday afternoon at the U.S. border between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, California, is being encapsulated by a single photo: a mother wearing a Frozen T-shirt—an American fairy tale known around the world—holding the arms of two young girls in diapers, running from a plume of tear gas. The woman and children pictured are among the hundreds of Central American migrants who are currently fleeing poverty, violence, and tumult in their home countries by seeking asylum in the U.S. and who were peacefully protesting their detention at a shelter in Tijuana. When a few tried to make it to the border, authorities abruptly closed the entryway on both sides and fired canisters of tear gas their way. “We ran, but when you run the gas asphyxiates you more,” a 23-year-old Honduran asylum seeker told the Associated Press. She was carrying her 3-year-old daughter in her arms.
President Trump, as he is wont to do, demonized the migrants at the border on Twitter, repeating a baseless claim that “many” are “stone cold criminals” who will be systematically turned away from the U.S. “We will close the border permanently if need be,” Trump said. “Congress, fund the WALL!” On Saturday, The Washington Post reported that he was working on a plan with Mexico’s incoming government called “Remain in Mexico,” which would mandate that asylum seekers wait in Mexico for their individual appeals to be processed, rather than waiting in the U.S. Mexico went on to deny a formal deal had been reached.
But, as per usual, Trump’s characterization, and at least some of the media firestorm—including proudly heartless conservative celebrations at the sight of children being gassed by the U.S. government—overlooks a fundamental truth: Despite the president’s long-standing, flagrantly racist characterization of Latin American immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals,” those who approached the border on Sunday have a perfectly legal right to do so. By law, any immigrant “who is physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States (whether or not at a designated port of arrival and including an alien who is brought to the United States after having been interdicted in international or United States waters), irrespective of such alien’s status, may apply for asylum.”
Trump’s tweets and indeed his proclamation to the contrary—including a recent order to block members of the so-called caravan from crossing the border, which was shot down by a federal judge—do not supersede the law. Rather, they put Trump in legal jeopardy. The Remain in Mexico plan is “outright illegal,” Jenna Gilbert, managing attorney for the Los Angeles office of legal rights organization Human Rights First, told Reuters, “and I’m sure the administration will once more see itself in court.”
Though Trump is a master of messaging and manipulation, human rights advocates continue to remind the public that seeking asylum is a human and legal right. “Asking to be considered a refugee and applying for status isn’t a crime,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “It wasn’t for Jewish families fleeing Germany. It wasn’t for targeted families fleeing Rwanda. It wasn’t for communities fleeing war-torn Syria. And it isn’t for those fleeing violence in Central America.” Director and activist Paola Mendoza shared another powerful image with the world on Monday—a mother at the border named Rosa, holding on to her baby, a line of police behind her. Even after being teargassed on Sunday, Mendoza says Rosa will continue to seek asylum.
“This is her right. This is your right,” Mendoza wrote. “Never forget that asylum is an international right that belongs to everyone.”