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Use Of Tear Gas At U.S.-Mexico Border Is Shocking, Rep. Peters Says

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Tensions have been escalating at the U.S.-Mexican border. A migrant protest against U.S. border policies spiraled out of control yesterday. Some migrants got past Mexican authorities and tried to reach the U.S. border, and Customs and Border Protection officers fired tear gas into the crowd and then closed the border between Tijuana and San Diego for several hours. This morning, President Trump tweeted about these migrants, saying "they are not coming into the USA; we will close the border permanently if need be," end quote.

Democratic Congressman Scott Peters represents parts of San Diego. His district comes very close to the border area we are talking about. And he joins us this morning. Congressman, welcome.

SCOTT PETERS: Good morning, David. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Well, thanks for coming on. What is your understanding of what happened yesterday at this border?

PETERS: Well, we have a large group of people. We've had caravans for a long time - groups that travel together from Central America - gathered at the border. And I guess from what I read that a few of them got impatient, maybe had the impression that they might have some success getting over, and sort of moved toward the existing fencing and were repelled I think at least in part by a shocking use of tear gas, including against children and their parents.

GREENE: You say shocking. I guess if what Customs and Border Patrol is saying, that some of these migrants were throwing projectiles that struck several agents - what should Border Patrol have done differently?

PETERS: You know, I think that they should be working in conjunction with the Mexican authorities to control the crowd. But let's appreciate that, you know, a very, very small percentage of the group that's waiting, many in a sports stadium, tried to breach the port of entry. The vast majority are waiting peacefully for their turn at the asylum application provided for by United States law. What we should be doing is concentrating on getting these things processed. And most of them will be denied. But there's no reason to create conditions in which this kind of unrest can occur.

GREENE: Congressman, The Washington Post is reporting that President Trump and the White House are working with Mexican authorities. They've negotiated a plan that would require asylum applicants to stay on the Mexican side until their claims are processed, which would be a change in U.S. policy. Is that a viable solution for you?

PETERS: One of the things I think people have been talking about is to create safe zones for asylum-seekers outside the United States, whether it's in Central America or in this case in Mexico. I think that might make some sense. You know, we want to make sure that there's healthful conditions while people wait. It doesn't serve anyone for people to be trapped in unsanitary conditions with the threat of disease. But that's generally I think a good interim step.

I think obviously comprehensive immigration reform is probably the thing that we'd all like to see, that would make the most sense, that we could rationalize these rules. We could provide processing that won't take months and, you know, deal with this issue in a way that's consistent with the rule of law.

GREENE: Do you think your Democratic leadership is ready to work with the White House on the kind of compromise that you seem to be suggesting could exist here?

PETERS: Only five years ago - it's very frustrating - the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill with 68 votes - very bipartisan, dealt with tech workforce, farm workforce, health care, reunited families, dealt with DREAMers, provided billions of dollars for border security, again, passed with 68 votes in the Senate. We didn't even - we weren't even allowed by Speaker Boehner to have a vote in the House. That bill would have passed. It would have been signed by President Obama.

We're not that far away from a compromise. We know what it's going to take. I think that the president's interested in politicizing this. And he gets a lot of political mileage out of beating up on Mexico, which is our best friend. And in San Diego, that's a very, very difficult economic proposition because this is not just any part of the border.

The San Ysidro border crossing is the busiest land port in the world, and the commercial exchange between Tijuana and San Diego is valued at $2.1 million per day. So we have every interest in the world in resolving this issue in a way that's - that makes sense for everyone, that understands the drivers that are bringing people up who are desperate from Central America and understands the need for rational immigration reform in the United States.

GREENE: Congressman Scott Peters is a Democrat who represents California's 52nd Congressional District, which includes an area that comes very close to the - this busy border crossing that we've been talking about. Congressman, we appreciate your time this morning. Thanks a lot.

PETERS: Thank you so much, David.

GREENE: And I want to turn briefly to NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley, who has covered immigration for a good number of years. Hi there, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, David.

GREENE: So the congressman there makes it sound like there could be room for compromise in finding a way to keep many of these migrants safe on the Mexican side as their asylum process is worked through the courts. I guess there are a lot of immigrant advocates who might not be thrilled with that proposition. I mean, is that realistic politically?

HORSLEY: Well, I think it's important to note that that 2013 bipartisan bill he talked about that passed the Senate and never got an airing in the House - one reason it didn't get an airing in the House is that Stephen Miller, who's now a White House aide, personally helped to torpedo it. So I think that the room for compromise with this White House on anything like that is hard to imagine.

The possibility of some sort of safe zone for asylum-seekers outside the U.S. is certainly something that the administration is interested in. Part of what we're seeing here, though, is a consequence of the administration's effort to funnel asylum-seekers to official ports of entry like San Ysidro, which has created this volatile situation right there at the border.

GREENE: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley joining us this morning. Scott, we appreciate it. Thanks.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.