Migrant mother seen fleeing tear gas with children: 'I felt I was going to die'

PHOTO: Maria Meza runs away from tear gas with her five-year-old twin daughters Saira Mejia Meza, left, and Cheili Mejia Meza in front of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, in Tijuana, Nov. 25, 2018.PlayKim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
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The Honduran mother seen in a widely circulated photo wearing a colorful Disney "Frozen" T-shirt while fleeing from tear gas at the U.S.-Mexico border with her children told ABC News that she feared for their lives as the canisters of gas fell all around them.

Maria Meza, 39, left her hometown of Villanueva to escape the gang violence and lack of employment, she said, describing the situation there as "terrible." The single mother of nine was only earning about 800 Honduran Lempiras -- about $33 in U.S. currency -- a week, and one of her older children was recruited by a neighborhood gang, she said.

"The salary was not enough to support them," Meza said. "... They told me the U.S. was a country of opportunities where one can work. That's why I came to see if I could support my children."

PHOTO: Maria Meza poses for a photo with a tear gas canister that she picked up as she sits in her tent at a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, Nov. 26, 2018.Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Maria Meza poses for a photo with a tear gas canister that she picked up as she sits in her tent at a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, Nov. 26, 2018.

Meza had five of her children, ranging in age from 5 to 14, in tow during the long journey, among a caravan of thousands who walked from Honduras, through Mexico and to the edge of the U.S.

She and her kids left the caravan on Sunday and were standing at a border fence near the San Ysidro Port of Entry in Baja California, Mexico, when three canisters filled with tear gas landed next to them. Several other mothers and children were near the fence as well, Meza said.

PHOTO: Maria Meza runs away from tear gas with her daughters Jamie Mejia Meza, aged 12 and her five-year-old twin daughters Saira Mejia Meza and Cheili Mejia Meza in front of the border wall between the U.S and Mexico, in Tijuana, Mexico Nov. 25, 2018.Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
Maria Meza runs away from tear gas with her daughters Jamie Mejia Meza, aged 12 and her five-year-old twin daughters Saira Mejia Meza and Cheili Mejia Meza in front of the border wall between the U.S and Mexico, in Tijuana, Mexico Nov. 25, 2018.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

Meza described a terrifying scene that unfolded as she and her children fled the toxic gas.

"I felt like I couldn't see anything because of the smoke," she said, adding that she cried as she held her children. "I was asphyxiated. I was scared with them."

"In the moment, I felt scared and I felt I was going to die with them," she added.

Meza's 5-year-old twin girls were still coughing more than two days after they inhaled the gas, Meza said.

PHOTO: Maria Meza sits with her five-year-old twin daughters Cheili Mejia Meza and Saira Mejia Meza inside their tent in a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, Nov. 26, 2018.Hannah McKay/Reuters
Maria Meza sits with her five-year-old twin daughters Cheili Mejia Meza and Saira Mejia Meza inside their tent in a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, Nov. 26, 2018.

On Monday, President Donald Trump defended the use of tear gas by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents, saying it was to prevent the border from "being rushed by some very tough people."

"Nobody's coming into our country unless they come in legally," Trump told reporters before embarking on a trip to Mississippi.

The border crossing at San Ysidro -- north of Tijuana, Mexico, and south of San Diego -- was closed for much of the day Sunday due to the clash. Thousands of Central American migrants are waiting in Tijuana and surrounding areas to apply for asylum in the U.S.

Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

Three of Meza's children remained in Honduras, while one of them has been living in Louisiana for two years, she said.

Her 16-year-old son "ended up in drugs" and joined the gang, despite her begging him not to.

"He told me, 'Mom, they are forcing me to enter the Mara (gang) and sell drugs," Meza said.

The gang showed up at her house one day to ask for permission for her son to join, but later told her they would make the decision themselves when she refused, she said.

"They told me he didn't count as my son anymore -- that I had lost him," Meza said, breaking down in tears.

PHOTO: Honduran migrants help each other cross over the U.S. border wall to San Diego, California, from Playas in Tijuana, Mexico, Dec. 12, 2018.
SLIDESHOW: Slideshow: Migrant caravans journey to the U.S. border

Part of Meza's decision to leave, she added, was to "give the best" to her children, as well as protect her 14-year-old son, who may have been the gang's next recruit.

"I feel destroyed because I know I can't get my son back," she said. "I lost him, and I don't want this to happen with the other children."

Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images

Meza pleaded with Trump to let her family into the U.S., saying that Honduran's are "hard-working people" who need jobs.

"I'm asking God that Donald Trump opens the doors here," she said, "so we can get in."

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