Donald Trump has defended the use of tear gas at the US-Mexico border, after a senior Democrat claimed the sight of women and children being engulfed in it was “not my America”.

Mexico said it was deporting 98 migrants from Central America after hundreds stormed past a police blockade and a small number tried to breach the border fence with the US. The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency said some migrants had thrown rocks at agents and they had to use tear gas to drive back them from the border fence.

The decision over the weekend to use tear gas among crowds that contained a large number of women and children, was condemned by high-profile Democrats. Beto O’Rourke, who narrowly failed in his bid for a senate seat in Texas, said it should “tell us something about her home country that a mother is willing to travel 2,000 miles with her four-month old son to come here”.

Writing online he said: “Should tell us something about our country that we only respond to this desperate need once she is at our border. So far, in this administration, that response has included taking kids from their parents, locking them up in cages, and now tear gassing them at the border.”

New York congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez likened the Central American migrants to Jewish families fleeing Nazi Germany, declaring that applying for refugee status should not be considered a crime. Meanwhile, Gavin Newsom, recently elected as governor of California, from where the CBP agents fired the tear gas, tweeted a widely shared Reuters photograph of a woman with two young children running from a gas canister.

“These children are barefoot. In diapers. Choking on tear gas,” Mr Newsom wrote. “Women and children who left their lives behind – seeking peace and asylum – were met with violence and fear. That’s not my America. We’re a land of refuge. Of hope. Of freedom. And we will not stand for this.”

Mexico’s foreign ministry has also presented a diplomatic note to the US government calling for “a full investigation” into what it described as non-lethal weapons directed towards its territory.

Yet, Mr Trump and his officials defended the actions. Speaking to reporters as he left the White House for a senate campaign rally in Mississippi, the president denied that agents had been firing at children.

Saturday Night Live skit parodies Fox News coverage of Migrant Caravan

“They had to use it because they were being rushed by some very tough people. And they used tear gas,” he said. “Here’s the bottom line: nobody’s coming into our country unless they come here legally.”

In recent weeks, and in the run-up to the midterm elections, Mr Trump has repeatedly seized on the succession of caravans of people making their way from countries such as El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. He has termed them a possible “invasion”.

Many of the people are seeking to escape grinding poverty and find work in the US; others wish to avoid staggering levels of violence linked to gangs and drug cartels and apply for asylum in the north. Many are motivated by both factors.

Over the weekend, it was reported the US had done a deal with Mexico’s incoming president to keep the migrants in Mexico while processing their applications. This was later denied.

US officials, who claimed that as many as 1,000 migrants sought to storm the border – Mexico put the number at around 500 – said the authorities would retain a “robust” presence along the southwest border.

“[The Department of Homeland Security] (DHS) will not tolerate this type of lawlessness and will not hesitate to shut down ports of entry for security and public safety reasons,” said DHS secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

On a conference call, with reporters, CBP commissioner Kevin McAleenan, said 69 migrants who tried to cross the border illegally were arrested on the Californian side.  

He said the border patrol’s use of force policy allowed agents to use tear gas and other non-lethal methods, but said the incident would be reviewed. “As the events unfolded, quick, decisive and effective action prevented an extremely dangerous situation,” he said. 

The US military said it had transferred about 300 service members from Texas and Arizona to California in the past few days, meaning a total of 5,600 troops are now on the border with Mexico.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press said that in Tijuana, many migrants were worried the incident would harm their chances of securing asylum

“The way things went yesterday … I think there is no chance,” said Isauro Mejia, 46, of Cortes, Honduras.

Alex Castillo, 35, also from Honduras, said he would not spend the night in the shelter where he had been sleeping and would instead head to the Mexican city of Monterrey, an industrial hub, to seek work and  avoid “getting beaten”.

He added: “If they’re launching tear gas, it’s better to head somewhere else.”

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