Obama Militarizes Mexico Border

President Obama is sending an additional 1200 soldiers to the Mexican border, a dangerous and token effort to placate Americans frustrated over illegal immigration.

Randal Archibald, NYT (“Obama to Send Up to 1,200 Troops to Border“):

President Obama will send up to 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southwest border and seek increased spending on law enforcement there to combat drug smuggling after demands from Republican and Democratic lawmakers that border security be tightened.

The decision was disclosed by a Democratic lawmaker and confirmed by administration officials after Mr. Obama met on Tuesday with Republican senators, several of whom have demanded that troops be placed at the border. The lawmakers learned of the plan after the meeting.

But the move also reflected political pressure in the president’s own party with midterm election campaigns under way and with what is expected to be a tumultuous debate on overhauling immigration law coming up on Capitol Hill.

The issue has pushed Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, into something of a corner. As governor of Arizona, she demanded that Guard troops be put on the border. But since joining the Obama administration, she has remained noncommittal about the idea, saying as recently as a month ago that other efforts by Mr. Obama had made the border “as secure now as it has ever been.”

The troops will be stationed in the four border states for a year, White House officials said. It is not certain when they will arrive, the officials said.

The troops will join a few hundred members of the Guard already assigned there to help the police hunt for drug smugglers. The additional troops will provide support to law enforcement officers by helping observe and monitor traffic between official border crossings. They will also help analyze trafficking patterns in the hope of intercepting illegal drug shipments.


Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican whose opponent in a coming primary has relentlessly criticized him on immigration, said Tuesday that he welcomed Mr. Obama’s move but that it was “simply not enough.” Mr. McCain called for the introduction of 6,000 National Guard troops to police the Southwestern border, with 3,000 for Arizona alone. In a letter to Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, two Obama administration officials said that the proposal infringed on his role as commander in chief and overlooked gains in border security.

Michael D. Shear and Spencer S. Hsu, WaPo (“President Obama to send more National Guard troops to U.S.-Mexico border“):

By reinforcing the 340 Guard members already monitoring border crossings and analyzing intelligence, the initiative echoes 2006’s Operation Jump Start, in which President George W. Bush devoted 6,000 guardsmen to a two-year commitment in support of the Border Patrol.

Then, as now, the troop deployment was fueled by heightened concerns about lawlessness — then it was illegal immigration, now it is drug traffickers — as well as political maneuvering in Washington to lay the groundwork for an effort to change immigration policy. But the issue remains bitterly contentious, with increasing pressure on Obama and lawmakers from both Latino supporters and conservative activists.

The March 27 killing of Robert Krentz, a prominent Arizona rancher who had reported drug-smuggling activity on his land, has galvanized political anger toward illegal immigration in that state, although the identity of Krentz’s assailant remains under investigation. In Mexico, more than 22,700 people have died in drug-related violence since the battle with cartels was joined in 2006. Although U.S. officials say there has been little spillover violence, Arizona has seen high-profile busts of drug- and human-smuggling safe houses, a rise in extortion-related kidnappings and other disruptions.

White House officials called the Guard troops a “force multiplier” on the U.S. side of the border and said some would engage in counternarcotics missions. In a statement, the Mexican ambassador to the United States praised the “additional US resources to enhance efforts to prevent the illegal flows of weapons and bulk cash into Mexico, which provide organized crime with its firepower and its ability to corrupt.”

Josh Gerstein and Jonathan Allen, Politico (“Barack Obama orders Guard to Mexican border“):

Later Tuesday, the White House released a toughly worded letter directly criticizing McCain’s proposal to dispatch 6,000 troops to the border.

“There is no modern precedent for Congress to direct the president to deploy troops in the manner sought by the Amendment,” National Security Adviser James Jones and Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan wrote to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.)

“It represents unwarranted interference with the Commander-in-Chief’s responsibilities to direct the employment of our Armed Forces and thus infringes on the President’s role in the management of the Total Force,” they wrote.

Pretty much everyone is wrong here.

First, while I understand the political pressure, border monitoring and domestic law enforcement of this sort are simply not a legitimate function for the armed forces.  We’re not dealing here with terrorists.   Nor, despite heated rhetoric to the contrary, are we suffering an “invasion.”  The problems we’re dealing with are migrant workers desperate for work and drug cartels fighting for turf.   Neither are military issues and using soldiers in this capacity is a bad idea all around: it sends a dangerous precedent domestically, it’s insulting to an important ally, it undermines professional border and law enforcement, and it diverts soldiers from being ready for their actual mission.  And, incidentally, they’ve been actively engaged in their real world mission for going on a decade and are stretched pretty thin.

And, yes, I expressed the same view when it was a Republican president carrying out the policy.

Second, McCain’s right:  If this problem were a military issue, then 1200 troops is a joke.   That’s approximately one soldier per mile of border.  That’s some “force multiplier.”

Third, Jones is wrong:  Congress has every right in the world to set missions for the military.  Indeed, I seem to have read somewhere (perhaps Article I of the Constitution?) that it is Congress who is in charge of organizing the armed forces and declaring wars.

This isn’t some short-term emergency.   Our border problems aren’t going away any time soon.   To the extent that the president is serious about addressing it, then, he should radically beef up the Border Patrol and other agencies who do this for a living.  Talk about your shovel-ready projects.

To his credit, Obama is in fact moving in that direction.  AP‘s Jacques Billeaud (“Obama’s border plan looks similar to Bush’s“):

Under the Obama plan, the troops will work on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support, analysis and training, and support efforts to block drug trafficking. They will temporarily supplement border patrol agents until Customs and Border Protection can recruit and train additional officers and agents to serve on the border. Obama also will request $500 million for border protection and law enforcement activities.

Whether that’s enough, I don’t know. But it’s far superior to sending in the troops.

UPDATEPat Lang is on the same wavelength, although he doesn’t think we have any particularly good options.

So, Obama is going to send Guard troops to the border to do intelligence analysis and labor? Construction companies are not available to build fences? Citizen soldiers of the National Guard will sit on outposts “trail watching” perhaps alone or perhaps with the Border Patrol? Will they be armed? Will they have the deputized power of arrest? Posse Comitatus? Somehow I doubt that this would apply to state (or federal) troops augmenting law enforcement if they are properly deputized.

This is a dilemma. If you do not arm the troops and authorize them to use at least some force then their blood will be on your head when they run into armed border crossers. If you do authorize them to use force then the Mexicans’ blood will be your responsibility.

The border situation was likely to come to this. Life is largely a series of choices made between bad options.

That it is.

UPDATE II: John Cole piles on:

If for no other reason, politically Obama had to do something like this, but I really don’t know what exactly it will accomplish except maybe ease some fears. When you factor in support personnel out of the 1200 soldiers, and then break them down into reasonable 8-10 hour shifts, this is essentially adding 200-300 folks to a several thousand mile border at any given time. Pretty much symbolic.

But I don’t know what else you could really do. There is no fence that is going to keep people out, and we simply do not have the manpower or money needed to stop all human and drug trafficking.

Agreed.  I’d still rather see it go into legitimate law enforcement rather than militarization.  But that’s likely an artifact of my training in military professionalism.  The average citizen doesn’t care which uniform people are wearing, so long as something’s getting done.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Military Affairs, Policing, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Alex Knapp says:

    Between using troops for internal policing matters and authorizing the assassination of American citizens, he’s sure earning that Nobel Peace Prize, isn’t he?

  2. James Joyner says:

    he’s sure earning that Nobel Peace Prize, isn’t he?

    It’s like high draft picks in pro sports who start off with millions and then don’t practice hard, listen to their coaches, or perform well. The incentives aren’t exactly high!

  3. JKB says:

    Hey, you know what might help. State and local police being required to check with federal authorities when they have reasonable suspicion that someone they have legitimately come in contact with during the course of their duties is not authorized to be in the US. Talk about your force multiplier.

    It would also provide depth to the border control since the Border Patrol and, I assume, the National Guard troops are limited to operations near the border.

    As for the Posse Comitatus Act, that only prevents the use of federal military personnel in direct enforcement of State and local laws on non-federal land unless authorized by Congress. This is federal law much of the time on federal land but in any case the law doesn’t affect assistance provided that is support rather than actual detention and arrest.

  4. john personna says:

    So this increases the brokenness of US border policy by 5%, or whatever.

    (I’m a bit more confident that useful work can be found for 1500, but getting agitated about this seems to be getting agitated about the wrong thing. Removing the National Guard hardly fixes the immigration problem, after all.)

  5. Hey, you know what might help. State and local police being required to check with federal authorities when they have reasonable suspicion that someone they have legitimately come in contact with during the course of their duties is not authorized to be in the US. Talk about your force multiplie

    Except, of course, that has nothing to do with stopping new entrants.

  6. john personna says:

    If you want my pick for the central issue, it’s that “we can’t get there from here.”

    A workable policy needs work visas, but those are politically impossible, and so we will stick with quasi-enforcement and a high level of illegal immigration. That is unfortunately the only thing that approximates a solution for all parties.

    I know some of you oppose work visas and support “send them all back.” There is wrong with that. Enforcing immigration law is fair and square. It’s just that no one seems committed to it. Even Arizona’s law is about stopping people they happen to see … and then no one is sure what to do with them.

    The reason the Minuteman thing didn’t click was that they really were a minority. The mainstream did not get on the same page.

  7. steve says:

    “Except, of course, that has nothing to do with stopping new entrants.”

    And, it does not stop people from coming back. It does increase the police state with little likelihood of success. However, it is their tax money, so they get to decide.

    Good piece James.



  8. Charlie says:

    I think there are pro’s and con’s to this, Fortifying the border is a necessary measure and being a resident of the border area, I think it is high time the government take precautionary actions. Immigration is an issue here, but these people coming in from mexico are slowly looking more like refugee’s to me and not just people looking for work. I hear reports and stories weekly from friends on the mexican side who are saying that these cartels are gaining complete control over local governments and are mercilessly threatening everyone, How much longer till they begin to knock on my families door here in the US? These people need our help they dont need us shunning them, afterall in a sense the free love movments in the 70’s started the drug issue that they now have, and pretty soon I fear their problems will begin to affect us as well. This has more to do with the War On Drugs in the long run. I say worry about the drug situation now, and then the immigration issues.

  9. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Which other sovereign nation has some of its people question its right to protect and defend its borders? China does not allow the free flow of North Koreans. Mexico does not allow people from south of its border to cross. Why must we? Aztecs were a tribe not a nation.l

  10. TangoMan says:

    President Obama issued a directive to have work on the border wall stopped,. Why would he do such a crazy thing? Why doesn’t he rescind his own directive and recommence work on the physical wall?

  11. BC says:

    What amazes me is that this is even an issue. Almost every other nation outside of Europe (once you are in Europe) has strict border policies. I travel world wide extensively, so please accept this if you will. Yet here in the States we fight each other about allowing illegal access to the United States! In my home town in Texas, illegal immigrants line the wall at the local corner store every day looking for work. They can carry a hammer and wield a shovel, but have no education or advanced skills. Yet in my office, a PhD from Germany, from China, from Oman, from Argentina is on pins and needles regarding whether he or she can stay in the US. Due to visa issues, we place some of the world’s brightest people who are not native born Americans in overseas locations for a couple years until we can resolve their US visa issue and bring them here to work with us. Who is the loser here? We have to jump all kinds of hoops to verify that these highly educated people are unique and not found in the US, and I will argue that we are scrupulously correct. We have rejected our own employees if they do not meet our stringent requirement, yet there they are — the no skill, hoping for any work Mexican hanging out at the local store every day. Have we had murders and drug problems related to the unskilled Mexican laborers — Yes. Have we had murders and drug problems related to the highly skilled international expats — No.

    Go ahead, slam me for prejudiced. But you will be wrong. I work with people from all over the world. People are people, and skin and culture matter little to me. I am simply making observations; specifically, that we are valuing low skill workers over high skill workers, that the immigration criteria for each are different, and that the security risk to our nation for each is different. Most nations would look at these facts, analyze them, and conclude that more border control is required. We, instead, slam the state that wants more border control. I can only assume it is only about politics and power. It is not about what is best for us as a nation.