GULFPORT, MISS. — President Trump on Monday suggested without evidence that some of the migrants who were tear-gassed at the U.S.-Mexico border on Sunday were “grabbers” who took others’ children to protect themselves.

In an exchange with reporters here before heading to Biloxi, Miss., to headline a rally for Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R), Trump also threatened to close the border “for a long time.”

Trump’s remarks came hours after he defended the use of tear gas by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents against a crowd of migrants at the San Ysidro border crossing on Sunday. Trump said that three U.S. agents were “very badly hurt” by rocks and stones thrown by migrants during the unrest.

“We’ve just said, look, if they come over here, we’re going to apprehend them and we’re going to close the border,” Trump said Monday night. “That’s not really been done to the extent that I’m doing because I mean it, and I’ll close it for a long time.”

Earlier Monday, Trump denied that women and children were among those affected by the tear gas. But in his remarks to reporters here, he shifted his response, first claiming that the tear gas was “very safe,” then blaming migrants with children for being in harm’s way and finally questioning whether the children were theirs at all.

“I say, why are they there?” Trump said. “First of all, the tear gas is a very minor form of the tear gas itself. It’s very safe. The ones that were suffering to a certain extent were the people that were putting it out there, but it’s very safe.”

He asked why parents were “running up into an area where they know the tear gas is forming.”

Migrants continued to seek refuge at a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, days after U.S. authorities fired tear gas at members of a Central American migrant caravan. (Drea Cornejo, Natasha Pizzey-Siegert/The Washington Post)

“In some cases, you know, they’re not the parents,” Trump claimed. “These are people, they call ’em ‘grabbers.’ They grab a child because they think they’ll have a certain status by having a child. You know, you have certain advantages in terms of our crazy laws that, frankly, Congress should be changing.”

Pressed about his use of the term “grabbers” and whether he was suggesting the women photographed with children fleeing the tear gas were not the children’s real mothers, Trump said he was not and acknowledged he did not know the identities of those at the border crossing on Sunday.

“It’s a term that’s used because, as you know, many people, it’s a very violent, horrible thing, that they feel they have an advantage when they’re with a young child, and they call them ‘grabbers.’ . . . I don’t know who was there yesterday,” he said.

U.S. authorities Sunday closed the Southern California border crossing, the busiest port of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, as hundreds of migrants rushed the fencing hoping to cross onto U.S. soil from Tijuana. The decision to use tear gas sparked broad condemnation from Democrats and others.

Sonmez reported from Washington.