Troops get marching orders to gird border
The Pentagon announced a massive deployment last week of military muscle to the U.S.-Mexico border, saying at least 5,200 troops will soon be on the lines helping build fencing, ferrying Border Patrol agents to hot spots and providing support as the government braces for the migrant caravan.
The new troops — some of them carrying their weapons — join more than 2,000 National Guard soldiers sent to the border in the spring after another caravan exposed holes in American border security and left the Trump administration confounded.
None of the troops will be engaged in policing, but they will help the Border Patrol agents and port-of-entry officers stiffen the lines of defense at a time when the government says it is encountering 1,900 illegal immigrants a day and is bracing for even more in the form of the caravans.
“The president has made it clear that border security is national security,” said Air Force Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, head of U.S. Northern Command. “That is the direction we’re given, that’s the direction that we’re marching to.”
Homeland Security is calling the military mission Operation Secure Line. The Pentagon is calling it Operation Faithful Patriot.
It fulfills President Trump’s demand, expressed repeatedly this month, that the military take a bigger role in trying to seal off the border to illegal crossings.
It’s not clear, though, how much adding thousands more troops will do to achieve that goal. The administration itself says the border battle is being lost more in the courts than on the field.
Too few lawyers and judges to process cases have built a massive backlog, leading to hundreds of thousands of migrants being caught and released, never to show up for deportation hearings.
Court rulings limiting how long the government can hold migrants for deportation, and the lack of bed space to hold them, are also hindrances.
The administration is pondering what it can do, short of a gridlocked Congress reaching some solutions. Options include refusing to allow asylum claims made by people who jump the border or quickly returning large groups back to Mexico.
“That’s an ongoing conversation on how we best handle that group,” said Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “If they come as a large group, we are talking with Mexico. We’re also considering all potential options in terms of administration authority.”
Mr. Trump’s critics say deploying the military is a pre-election scare tactic.
“The fact is, the caravan of asylum seekers from Honduras is hundreds of miles away from the U.S. border. It’s no threat to the country, it is shrinking in size, unarmed, and filled mostly with women and children,” said Neera Tanden, president of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress.
She said the press was being duped into overwrought coverage by the president’s moves.
Immigrant rights advocates said those coming in the caravans should be considered refugees fleeing terrible conditions at home — not illegal immigrants.
“These migrants need water, diapers and basic necessities — not an army division,” said Shaw Drake, a lawyer who handles border issues at the American Civil Liberties Union.
But the Trump administration says people fleeing Central America have a chance at safety in Mexico, which is considered a safe country and has made offers of asylum and jobs to many of the caravan’s participants. While some have accepted, most have refused, saying their goal is to reach the U.S. to win jobs or to be reunited with family already in the country, usually illegally.
“The caravan has already been offered protections in Mexico. You will not be allowed to enter the U.S. the same way,” Mr. McAleenan said.
He said the latest count puts the caravan, which broke into Mexico a week ago and is heading north, at about 3,500 people. Another caravan of perhaps 3,000 sits on Guatemala-Mexico border.
Mr. McAleenan said the caravan members are paying smugglers up to $7,000 per person to help them make the journey.
One major job of the new troops will be to funnel the caravan to ports of entry and prevent people from trying to sneak around them.
Gen. O’Shaughnessy said his troops have 22 miles of razor wire ready and can string up to 150 miles. He also said part of the deployment will be helicopters with good night sensors to spot groups of people trying to sneak into the U.S. and to carry Border Patrol agents who can fastrope down to stop them.
Mr. McAleenan attempted to put some specifics to Mr. Trump’s claims of miscreants and Middle Eastern radicals among the caravans. The commissioner said his agency nabbed 17,000 criminals among the more than 500,000 illegal immigrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border last year and that the migrants came from more than 100 countries.
Mr. McAleenan did not, however, tie those numbers specifically to the caravans, as Mr. Trump did.
Mr. Trump is also reportedly considering a speech on immigration and the caravan — a move that is angering immigration rights activists.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, said such a speech would be “flirting with danger and provoking violence for the sake of the Republican Party’s political fortunes.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that she was not aware of plans for any such speech.