Trump administration official defends tear gas use at Mexico border

WASHINGTON, Dec 11 (Reuters) - The firing of tear gas canisters by U.S. border agents toward migrants in Mexico near a border crossing last month followed regulations, a senior Trump administration official said in testimony to Congress on Tuesday.

On Nov. 25, U.S. border agents fired tear gas to disperse a group of migrants near the U.S.-Mexico border crossing separating Tijuana from San Diego when some rushed through fencing into the United States.

A day after the incident, Mexico's foreign ministry presented a diplomatic note to the U.S. government calling for "a full investigation" into what it described as non-lethal weapons directed toward Mexican territory.

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Migrants tear-gassed at the US-Mexico border
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Migrants tear-gassed at the US-Mexico border
A migrant girl from Honduras, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, cries after running away from tear gas thrown by the U.S. border control near the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico in Tijuana, Mexico November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Migrants run from tear gas launched by U.S. agents, amid photojournalists covering the Mexico-U.S. border, after a group of migrants got past Mexican police at the Chaparral crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018. The mayor of Tijuana has declared a humanitarian crisis in his border city and says that he has asked the United Nations for aid to deal with the approximately 5,000 Central American migrants who have arrived in the city. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Three Honduran migrants huddle in the riverbank amid tear gas fired by U.S. agents on the Mexico-U.S. border after they and a group of migrants got past Mexican police at the Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018. The mayor of Tijuana has declared a humanitarian crisis in his border city and says that he has asked the United Nations for aid to deal with the approximately 5,000 Central American migrants who have arrived in the city. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Migrants run from tear gas launched by U.S. agents, amid photojournalists covering the Mexico-U.S. border, after a group of migrants got past Mexican police at the Chaparral crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018. The mayor of Tijuana has declared a humanitarian crisis in his border city and says that he has asked the United Nations for aid to deal with the approximately 5,000 Central American migrants who have arrived in the city. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Central American migrants -mostly Hondurans- cover their faces next to the bordering Tijuana River near the El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, after the US Border Patrol threw tear gas to disperse them after an alleged verbal dispute, on November 25, 2018. - US officials closed the San Ysidro crossing point in southern California on Sunday after hundreds of migrants, part of the 'caravan' condemned by President Donald Trump, tried to breach a fence from Tijuana, authorities announced. (Photo by Guillermo Arias / AFP) (Photo credit should read GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Tear gas thrown by the US Border Patrol to disperse Central American migrants -mostly Hondurans- after an alleged verbal dispute is seen near the El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, close to the S-Mexico border, on November 25, 2018. - US officials closed the San Ysidro crossing point in southern California on Sunday after hundreds of migrants, part of the 'caravan' condemned by President Donald Trump, tried to breach a fence from Tijuana, authorities announced. (Photo by GUILLERMO ARIAS / AFP) (Photo credit should read GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images)
A photojournalist is surrounded in a cloud of tear gas released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) after migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America, attempted to illegally cross the border into the United States from Tijuana, Mexico November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
A migrant, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America, covers his face after being affected by tear gas released by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) after hundreds attempted to illegally cross into the U.S from Mexico from Tijuana, Mexico November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, run from tear gas released by U.S border patrol, near the border fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
A migrant reacts from tear gas thrown by the U.S. border patrol near the fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes
Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States and journalists flee tear gas released by U.S. border patrol near the fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, return to Mexico after being hit by tear gas by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) after attempting to illegally cross the border wall into the United States in Tijuana, Mexico November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
U.S. soldiers and U.S. border patrols fire tear gas towards migrants, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, from the U.S.side of the border fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Migrants and members of the media run from tear gas released by U.S border patrol near the fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Migrants cover their faces, as they run from tear gas, thrown by the U.S border patrol near the fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
A migrant covers his face as he runs from tear gas, thrown by the U.S border patrol, near the fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Migrants run from tear gas, thrown by the U.S border patrol, near the border fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
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Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees U.S. Border Patrol, said in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee that the use of tear gas was within the agency's regulations and came as agents faced a "difficult situation."

"Pepper spray and CS gas are authorized to address assaultive behavior," McAleenan said, using a common term for tear gas.

The migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border "were assaultive in their behavior, they threw rocks at agents," McAleenan said, adding that one agent had to have surgery as a result of injuries. McAleenan had earlier said in a statement that four agents were hit with rocks but that they did not suffer serious injuries.

Women and small children were within the group of migrants exposed to the tear gas, and images of them fleeing the approaching gas sparked outrage.

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Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan
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Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan is sworn in before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on 'Oversight of U.S. Customs and Border Protection' on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
U.S. President Donald Trump, flanked by Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Kevin McAleenan (R), holds a meeting at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's National Targeting Centre in Sterling, Virginia, U.S. February 2, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
El comisionado de la Oficina de Aduanas y Protección Fronteriza, Kevin McAleenan, testifica en la audiencia de la Comisión de Asuntos Judiciales del Senado sobre "Supervisión de la Oficina de Aduanas y Protección Fronteriza", en el Capitolio el martes 11 de diciembre de 2018 en Washington. (AP Foto/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Kevin McAleenan, the Commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, visit U.S. President Donald Trump's border wall in the El Centro Sector in Calexico, California, U.S. October 26, 2018. REUTERS/Earnie Grafton
El comisionado de Aduanas y Protección Fronteriza, Kevin McAleenan, derecha, escucha al jefe del comando norte, general Terrence O'Shaughnessy, en conferencia de prensa en Washington, 29 de octubre de 2018. El Pentágono se apresta a enviar 5.200 efectivos a la frontera con México. (AP Foto/Susan Walsh)
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on 'Oversight of U.S. Customs and Border Protection' on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, right, speaks as Commander of United States Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command Gen. Terrence John O'Shaughnessy, left, listens during a news conference in Washington, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018, on the Department of Defense deployment to the Southwest border. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, talks with reporters at the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center, Monday, June 25, 2018, in McAllen, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan speaks at a roundtable during an event to salute U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Aug. 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan arrives at a news conference on the Department of Defense's plan to deploy of forces to the Southwest border at U.S. Customs & Border Protection headquarters in Washington, U.S., October 29, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen listens to Kevin McAleenan, the Commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol during her visit to the border wall in the El Centro Sector in Calexico, California, U.S. October 26, 2018. REUTERS/Earnie Grafton
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Doctors and immigrant advocates decried the use of tear gas, especially in the vicinity of children, arguing they can have more trouble breathing because of weaker respiratory systems. Migrants who were present when the tear gas was fired told reporters they saw children fainting as a result.

McAleenan said women and children were "absolutely not" deliberately targeted by agents firing tear gas canisters.

"The agitators who were throwing rocks were the ones targeted," he said.

CBP is conducting an internal "use of force" review of the incident, McAleenan said.

Groups of Central American migrants have sought this year to cross into the United States in large caravans. The Trump administration has made efforts to block their entry, including by sending thousands of troops to the southern border.

In an exchange at the White House with top Democrats on Tuesday, President Donald Trump vowed a government shutdown if his demand for funding a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border is not fulfilled.

(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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