The U.S.-Mexico border wall in Playas, Tijuana, where it extends out into the Pacific Ocean.

Was Teargas Used ‘Once a Month’ at the Border Under the Obama Administration?

The days following a cross-border chemical attack by American forces on unarmed members of a caravan of men, women, and children from Central America across the border with Mexico were filled with disinformation and outright propaganda as people and organizations attempted to justify the actions.

One of the tear gas canisters the US used on migrants at San Ysidro on Nov. 25. #tijuana #migrantcaravan

— Patrick Timmons (@patrickwtimmons) November 27, 2018

One such organization, the Washington Times, did so by claiming that tear gas was used at least once a month at the border during the Obama administration:

The same tear gas agent that the Trump administration is taking heat for deploying against a border mob this weekend is actually used fairly frequently — including more than once a month during some years under President Obama, according to Homeland Security data.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has used 2-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile, or CS, since 2010, and deployed it 26 times in 2012 and 27 times in 2013. The use dropped after that, but was still deployed three times in 2016, Mr. Obama’s final full year in office.

Use of CS rose again in 2017, which was split between Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump, and reached 29 deployments in fiscal year 2018, which ended two months ago, according to CBP data seen by The Washington Times.

Border authorities also use another agent, pepper spray, frequently — including a decade-high record of 151 instances in 2013, also under Mr. Obama. Pepper spray, officially known as Pava Capsaicin, was used 43 times in fiscal year 2018, according to the CBP numbers.

This “takedown” adds emotionally charged language (“border mob”) to a carefully pruned and cherry-picked assessment, and has no citations, relying only on “data seen by the Washington Times.” There are no links to any primary sources or documents. (Because the Department of Homeland Security has an admitted and well-documented habit of inflating its numbers in order to support specific narratives, we do not consider their data alone to be a reliable source at this time.)

Fox News had a similar story, but referred only to an incident in 2013 when border agents pepper-sprayed a group of people who had purportedly “rushed” the border:

Democrats are expressing outrage that U.S. border agents on Sunday shot rounds of tear gas at caravan migrants who threw rocks at law enforcement while trying to breach the U.S.-Mexico border. But critics hammering the Trump administration are glossing over a similar episode that occurred under then-President Barack Obama.

In 2013, during the Obama administration, Border Patrol agents reportedly used pepper spray to fend off a group of approximately 100 migrants who attempted to rush the same San Ysidro port of entry.

A San Diego Union-Tribune article at the time said agents fired “pepper balls” and used other “intermediate use-of-force devices” to repel the crowd. The migrants in that confrontation also reportedly threw rocks and bottles at U.S. authorities.

But with the national spotlight on Sunday’s caravan clash at San Ysidro, Democrats are lashing out at the Trump administration.

This particular story relies on those same numbers that were “seen by” the Washington Times. However, it correctly references a 2013 event that was widely decried by border and human rights activists, but misleadingly conflates pepper spray with teargas and smoke bombs — which is not just a matter of scale but also basic chemical makeup, indicating that those who are confusing the two do not know much about either (or are deliberately confusing the issue):

Both pepper spray and tear gas are classified as non-lethal irritants, though incidences of death from pepper spray have occurred. Pepper spray actually does come from the active compound in peppers, capsicin. Tear gas can be a couple of different chemicals, including a variant of capsicin, but the gas most commonly used on protesters is “CS gas,” or 2-chlorobenzalmalnonitrile, or, more rarely, “CN gas,” or phenylcyl chloride. The commercial product Mace can contain different combinations of both capsicin and either CN or CS gas.

An important distinction between tear gas and pepper spray, besides the chemical distinction, is the delivery method. Pepper spray is usually aerosolized from a hand-held spray can. [Note: Best practices of pepper spray use are not well demonstrated by Officer Pike at UC Davis.] Tear gas, when used for crowd control is often shot from “grenades” which explode to release the compound which is suspended in a solvent.

The original premise is also incorrect, no matter how many times it took place, and it hinges on one word: “at.” It is entirely possible that tear gas was used multiple times at the border for years (although where and when is still unclear, thanks to the Washington Times’ poor sourcing and the Department of Homeland Security’s tendency to underreport such incidents.) Indeed, concerns over border agents’ use of force and overreach have been well-documented for years, such as in this 2014 Vox piece:

The Arizona Republic found that at least 42 people were killed by Border Patrol agents since 2005. In 2010, a man named Anastasio Hernandez Rojas died in Border Patrol custody after being tased. In 2012, an unarmed teenager in Nogales, named Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, was shot 10 times by agents firing through the border fence. After a PBS documentary on the Rojas death, including cellphone video footage of his tasing, emerged in 2012, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) asked the Department of Homeland Security to investigate. He wanted to know how the Border Patrol’s use-of-force policy was being implemented — and what happened to agents who used excessive force.

At the time, Border Patrol didn’t actually have a category in its internal reporting system for use-of-force incidents. It didn’t seem to be a big concern. So government inspectors had to make some educated guesses, and ultimately identified 1,187 “possible” excessive force incidents between 2007 and 2012, including 136 involving a fired weapon. At the same time, an outside group, the Police Executive Research Forum, conducted an external review of 67 shooting incidents over the same period, 19 of which resulted in death. That was the review that was published in redacted form, along with the government’s report, in September.

What has changed in 2018 is that a militarized force showed up in San Ysidro, California, and fired chemical agents not at the border, but over it into another country’s sovereign territory, breaching international law and deliberately hitting unarmed civilians. The move has some precedents, which were at the time widely decried by humanitarian activists and elected officials and widely ignored by everyone else, but nothing paralleling the events of November 25th, 2018 has happened before.

However, those invoking the incidents of 2013 to justify teargas are ignoring what happened just a few months later in the summer of 2014 and again in 2016, when huge numbers of Central American people came to the United States border over several months to ask for asylum, overwhelming shelters and American border agents who worked to process their claims. There were legitimate criticisms of how those asylum claims were handled (and of the Obama administration’s border policies in general), but teargas was not required or used.