WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Friday backtracked from his suggestion a day earlier that U.S. troops sent to the U.S. border with Mexico would be free to fire on migrants who throw rocks at them, saying that rock-throwers would only be arrested.
“They won’t have to fire. What I don’t want is I don’t want these people throwing rocks,” Trump told reporters outside the White House. “If they do that with us, they’re going to be arrested for a long time.”
Trump’s rhetoric on shooting migrants drew criticism from human rights groups that said he was stoking fear ahead of midterm elections. Calling migrants a national security threat “is as absurd as it is cruel,” advocacy group Human Rights First said in a statement.
Trump has hardened his stance on immigration in a bid to rouse his political base ahead of congressional elections next week. His Republican party is in an uphill fight to maintain control of the House of Representatives in elections on Tuesday, although it is expected to pick up seats in the Senate.
The Pentagon said on Monday it was deploying more than 5,200 troops to the border at Trump’s direction to confront a caravan of men, women and children traveling through Mexico as they flee violence and poverty in Central America. Trump has characterized it as an “invasion” of migrants.
Mexico has said 2,800 to 3,000 people are in the caravan, which left Honduras in mid-October, although many are expected to drop off before reaching the U.S. border.
On Thursday, Trump suggested the military could fire on migrants who cross the border illegally if they throw rocks at troops. “When they throw rocks like they did at the Mexico military police, I say: Consider it a rifle,” Trump said.
Trump also said on Thursday his administration was finalizing a plan to block immigrants who do not come into the United States at a legal port of entry from applying for asylum, although federal law allows any immigrant in the United States to do so.
Still, migrant caravans have pressed on. On Friday, a smaller caravan from El Salvador crossed through a river to enter the Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas.
Reporting 2018 Roberta Rampton; Additional reporting 2018 Carlos Garcia Rawlins in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico; Writing 2018 Makini Brice; Editing 2018 Dan Grebler, James Dalgleish and David Gregorio
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