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Pence arrives in California to tour border barrier while, just 100 miles west, migrants seek asylum

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Migrants from Central America sleep under tarps in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, on April 30th, 2018, as they wait to ask for asylum from the United States. (Alejandro Tamayo/San Diego Union Tribune/TNS)

EL CENTRO, Calif. — In a span of just 100 miles along the U.S.-Mexico border in California, two scenes were playing out Monday that symbolize the yawning chasm that is the national debate over immigration.

In the Imperial Valley, Vice President Mike Pence was taking a heavily secured tour of the construction site for a border barrier and lauding local Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection employees, who presented him with a piece of the original Border Patrol fence as a gift.

Meanwhile, a two-hour drive west, a caravan of Central American immigrants who drew the ire of President Donald Trump was waiting at the Tijuana-San Diego crossing to ask for asylum in an emotional, theatrical scene marked by uncertainty.

Air Force Two landed at around 10:30 a.m. at the Naval Air Facility in El Centro. The vice president stepped off the plane with his wife, Karen, and waved to a small crowd of military personnel, some of whom had brought their children to meet him. He shook hands and posed for photos before hopping into a black sport utility vehicle in a long motorcade for the trip to a Border Patrol station.

A few local residents came out of their homes to wave as the motorcade traveled along the Evan Hewes Highway, past farmland and irrigation canals. People at a gas station whipped out their cellphones to take photographs.

A small group of protesters near the Border Patrol station in El Centro held up signs, including one that read, “A border fence won’t save us.”

At the station, Pence thanked federal immigration agents for their work, telling them they “have a great champion” in Trump and assuring them that he and Trump are committed to reforming immigration laws.

Immigration officials presented Pence with a piece of scrap metal from the original border fence, which was built in the 1990s from steel airstrip mats left over from the Vietnam War.

During a 20-minute speech, Pence repeatedly called agents heroes, saying they have a tough and dangerous job. He said they have a leader “standing on the conviction that walls work.”

Pence’s visit comes a little over a month after Trump toured border wall prototypes in Otay Mesa.

Trump stirred confusion last month when he tweeted photos of the construction of the Calexico border barrier replacement, saying, “Great briefing this afternoon on the start of our Southern Border WALL!” But plans for the project started in 2009, and Border Patrol agents had previously emphasized that it shouldn’t be confused with Trump’s wall.

At the San Ysidro Port of Entry on Monday, members of the immigrant caravan that arrived a day earlier continued to wait to ask for asylum. Most of the immigrants are from Honduras and speak of gang violence and extortion back home.

Dozens slept overnight at the port of entry in Tijuana as they waited to speak to immigration authorities, BuzzFeed reported.

“We’ve been watching with great interest the advancement of the caravan,” Pence said Monday, adding that he hopes members are dealt with in a manner consistent with the nation’s laws.

“A nation without borders is not a nation, as President Trump has said,” Pence added.

Customs and Border Protection officials said Sunday that there was not enough space to immediately process the migrants with the Pueblo Sin Fronteras Caravan, who have been traveling by foot, bus and train through Mexico since leaving the southern border city of Tapachula on March 25 with the goal of reaching the Tijuana-San Ysidro border crossing.

“We have reached capacity at the San Ysidro port of entry for CBP officers to be able to bring additional persons traveling without appropriate entry documentation into the port of entry for processing,” Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said in a statement.

“CBP officials are required to balance the resources necessary to both facilitate entry for the hundreds of thousands of travelers who arrive daily to the U.S. while also enforcing our nation’s immigration laws in a safe and orderly manner,” McAleenan added.

A boisterous gathering at the border fence in Playas de Tijuana grew to hundreds on Sunday, with some waving Honduran flags, chanting and waving bouquets of yellow flowers. Younger migrants climbed to the top of tall gates dividing the U.S. and Mexico, fist-pumping to crowds gathered on the American side. Others quietly clutched infants.

The first group of about 50 caravan members walked into the port’s PedWest entrance at about 4:30 p.m. Sunday, waving farewell as activists and fellow migrants cheered them on. Most were women and children.

Those expected to ask for asylum are a small percentage of the traveling group that organizers said at one point swelled to more than 1,700 people.

The spectacle at the border, captured by multiple news outlets, was sure to further fan the ire of Trump, who has frequently cited the caravan as a justification for tough measures against illegal immigration.

Trump, speaking at a White House news conference Monday with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, said he had been paying attention to what was happening with the caravan and that “we’re working on the border with the worst laws.”

“We need a wall, No. 1,” he said. “And you see that right now, you know, where they are, even though it’s not a particularly good wall, and even though a small percentage can climb to the top, they have to be in extremely good shape. But a small percentage can climb that particular wall. We have a wall that’s much more difficult.”

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