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Honduran mother and kids in viral tear gas photo have been allowed into the U.S., lawmakers say

U.S. authorities fired tear gas at members of a Central American migrant caravan who had rushed the fencing along the U.S. border with Mexico on Nov. 25. (Video: Drea Cornejo, Blair Guild/The Washington Post, Photo: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters/The Washington Post)
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A Honduran mother and her children who were photographed fleeing from tear gas as chaos erupted at the U.S.-Mexico border last month are now in the United States, according to two members of Congress who spent the night at a port of entry with a group of asylum seekers.

Maria Lila Meza Castro and her five children were among several asylum seekers who showed up at the Otay Mesa port of entry, between Tijuana and San Diego. Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) said Tuesday that Castro has applied for asylum and that her family, along with eight unaccompanied minors, have been taken inside the San Diego facility for processing.

A photograph of Castro and her 5-year-old twin daughters as they were running away from tear gas provoked outrage on social media last month. The picture of a panicked mother and her two children, both wearing only T-shirts and diapers, contradicted the image of violent migrants that President Trump had conjured on Twitter and at campaign rallies ahead of the midterm elections.

Nearly two dozen asylum seekers were at the port of entry for several hours Monday afternoon and into Tuesday morning, huddled on the U.S. side of the border as they waited for their claims to be processed, Gomez said. He and Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.), said they had been told that the facility was at capacity. They criticized border officials for keeping the asylum seekers, many of whom are children, waiting in the cold for several hours.

By late Monday evening, Castro, her five children and the unaccompanied minors were taken in for processing, Gomez and Barragán said. Another family — three children and their parents — were still waiting as of Monday morning, Gomez said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has not confirmed or denied that Castro and her children have been taken in. The agency also has not commented on the status of the other asylum seekers who showed up with Castro’s family.

CBP said the deluge of asylum seekers has strained the agency’s resources. A spokeswoman said the agency has seen a 121 percent increase in the number of asylum seekers.

Rising gang violence in Central America has caused thousands to flee north to the United States, many traveling by caravan across Mexico. Almost 93,000 claims of “credible fear,” the first step in seeking asylum to the United States, were processed this past fiscal year — a 67 percent jump from 2017, according to the CBP.

How a photographer captured the image of a migrant mother and her children fleeing tear gas

“CBP processes undocumented persons as expeditiously as possible without negating the agency’s overall mission, compromising the safety of individuals within our custody,” the agency said in a statement. “The number of inadmissible individuals CBP is able to process varies based upon case complexity; available resources; medical needs; translation requirements; holding/detention space; overall port volume; and ongoing enforcement actions.”

The agency added that it has to “manage the queues” when its ports of entry reach capacity.

CBP officials have faced criticism for this practice, called metering, which limits the number of people allowed to approach border crossings to seek asylum. The agency says its ports of entry have capacity limits and were not designed to process large volumes of migrant families requesting humanitarian assistance.

Critics, such as Gomez, say that metering has nothing to do with resources but is a way to deter people from coming to the country to seek asylum.

The Trump administration has sought to tighten U.S. policy and force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims are being processed, a major break from long-standing rules.

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The administration has also tried to deny asylum to migrants who crossed the southern border illegally, not through designated ports of entry. A federal judge has temporarily blocked the administration from doing so, saying the president violated immigration laws.

Castro and her children were part of the migrant caravan that arrived in Tijuana several weeks ago and were staying at a sports complex there. In late November, a group of migrants began to march toward the San Ysidro border crossing in San Diego, carrying flags and banners asking Trump to help them.

A majority of the group gathered near the border peacefully, while thousands of others did not march and stayed at the sports complex. But a scuffle broke out between Mexican police in riot gear and a few dozen protesters, with some running across a dry canal and others trying to cross through different entry points.

U.S. border officials then began firing tear gas into the crowd. U.S. officials say some of the migrants threw rocks and bottles at officers. That’s when Reuters photo journalist Kim Kyung-Hoon saw Castro and her children and took the family’s photo as they were running.

Castro later told Reuters that she left Honduras to reunite with her children’s father, who is in the United States.

Nick Miroff contributed to this article.

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