Trump Sending 5,200 Troops To Border In Response To Non-Existent ‘Caravan’ Threat
President Trump wants to send more troops than we have in Syria and Iraq combined to the border to deal with a non-existent threat.
In response to what mostly amounts to fear-mongering about a so-called “caravan” of asylum-seeking Central Americans currently traveling north from southern Mexico, President Trump is ordering more than five thousand troops to the U.S. border with Mexico, but it’s not at all clear exactly what they can or will do:
WASHINGTON — More than 5,000 active-duty military troops will deploy to the southern border by the end of this week, Defense Department officials said on Monday, an escalation of a midterm election show of force against a caravan of Central American migrants that President Trump has characterized as an “invasion of our country.”
The massing of American troops comes as Mr. Trump has seized on the caravan as a closing political message in the final week before the midterms, warning darkly — and without evidence — that “Middle Eastern” people are part of a dangerous mob of migrants threatening to surge into communities here.
But the caravan, which has shrunk from 7,000 people to less than 3,500, is still weeks away from reaching the United States. The rare use of the active-duty military to bolster Mr. Trump’s campaign message has intensified criticism that the president is using the military for political gain.
“This is using the troops as props,” said Jason Dempsey, who served as an Army infantry officer in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “We’re using a bunch of people to waste their time while they backstop the Border Patrol.”
The military buildup is the culmination of Mr. Trump’s efforts in recent weeks to appeal to his most fervent supporters and to focus the nation’s attention on the migrant caravan.
In an interview on Fox News late Monday, Mr. Trump said the caravan amounted to an invasion by “a lot of bad people” and gang members, and said the migrants are wasting their time because the troops will block their entry.
The president said his administration will build “tent cities” to indefinitely hold any migrants who try to seek asylum in the United States, in apparent defiance of court orders that prohibit long-term detention of children or families.
“We are going to put tents up all over the place,” Mr. Trump said during an interview on Monday night on “The Ingraham Angle.”
“We are not going to build structures and spend all of this, hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said. “We are going to have tents. They are going to be very nice, and if they don’t get asylum, they get out.”
Mr. Trump has repeatedly cited reports on Fox News as evidence of the gathering threat, though even some commentators on Mr. Trump’s favorite television network have called into question the need for such an aggressive military response to the caravan.
“Tomorrow is one week before the election, which is what this is all about,” Shepard Smith, a Fox News anchor, said Monday on his show. “There is no invasion. No one is coming to get you. There is nothing at all to worry about.”
He added: “We’re America. We can handle it.”
Kevin Appleby, of the Center for Migration Studies, criticized Mr. Trump’s decision to send troops, saying it shows weakness instead of strength.
“The president’s deployment of the world’s strongest military against a band of vulnerable asylum seekers is embarrassing,” Mr. Appleby said.
But the president’s comments on Monday and the troop announcement made it clear that the White House would not be deterred from focusing on the caravan, even after the suspect in the killing of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh accused Jews of orchestrating the caravan to bring in “invaders” who would kill his people.
Mr. Trump has been considering options for several weeks, and is soon expected to take executive action to bar entry to Central Americans, including for those seeking asylum. The active-duty military units will join Border Patrol agents and National Guard troops that are already gathered along the border in Texas, Arizona and California.
Military and border officials said that an initial group of 800 soldiers is already heading to Texas from Fort Campbell and Fort Knox as part of what the Pentagon is calling Operation Faithful Patriot. Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, the commander of the United States Northern Command, said those soldiers will be joined by several thousand more in an bid to harden the border.
“The president has made it clear that border security is national security,” General O’Shaughnessy said.
If the caravan follows the pattern of previous groups of migrants, it is likely to shrink even more substantially in the weeks ahead, leaving it dwarfed by the gathering of armed soldiers.
Military and border officials insisted on Monday that they view the caravan as a serious threat, and that there were signs that more migrant groups were forming.
“We’ve got to be prepared for the potential arrival of a very large group,” said Kevin K. McAleenan, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. “We will not allow a large group to enter the United States in an unsafe and unlawful manner.”
But he said the active-duty military is being deployed because the Border Patrol agents, supported by about 2,000 National Guard troops, might not be enough to repel the men, women and children marching toward the United States.
Once fully deployed, the active-duty troops will include engineers who can help erect physical barriers to hold back the migrants, officials said. There will also be helicopter and plane units to transport Border Patrol agents, medical support personnel and planning teams that will help coordinate the influx of forces.
General O’Shaughnessy said the new forces will be armed and will operate under the same legal authorities as the National Guard troops already on the border.
As I noted all of this caps off weeks in which Trump and other Republicans, along with the hosts on Fox News Channel programs that the President loves so much have been stirring up paranoia and fear regarding what’s actually going on here. First of all, if this all sounds familiar, that’s because it should. We’ve seen similar “caravans” to this over the past several years and they’ve typically amounted to much ado about nothing. For the most part, they are intended to be a protest intended to bring international attention to the situation in Central American nations such as Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador where poverty, gang violence, and government corruption and repression are causing many poor people with few options left to them to try to find ways to get out for their own safety and the safety of their families and children. A march similar to this one occurred earlier this year in the Spring and basically made it to Mexico City where it effectively ended, although small handfuls of groups continued northward to the border with the United States where they claimed asylum. Many of these people, of course, were the ones impacted by the Trump Administration’s controversial and indeed barbaric family separation policy.
Additionally, it’s worth noting that notwithstanding the fear-mongering that Trump and his supporters have engaged in, which doesn’t even deserve to be linked to because it is so utterly absurd, this caravan does not pose nearly the level of threat that they are claiming. (As one example, there’s a Fox News commentator said that the caravan will bring leprosy and smallpox to the United States. Smallpox was eradicated nearly forty years ago.)First of all, as of today, the main section of the march is located some 1,700 miles south of the U.S./Mexican border. That’s roughly the distance from New York City to Littleton, Colorado, or more than 200 miles further than the distance between Miami, Florida and the Canadian city of Toronto. At its current rate it is, at best, weeks away from Mexico City, never mind the United States and its likely that many of the participants will have dropped away by the time it reaches even that point. Second, the caravan is not, as perhaps the only rational voice at Fox News Channel made clear, an invasion. It is made up primarily of poor families, women, and children who are fleeing violence, natural disasters, and brutal authoritarian crackdowns. Many of them have been threatened by gangs and told they will be killed for not cooperating with the criminals seeking to take control of their neighborhoods and cities. They are, in other words, precisely the kind of asylum seekers that Federal law and international treaties to which the United States is a signatory requires us to give a hearing to if they make it to the border. More importantly, there is nothing about this “caravan” that requires us to send 5,200 troops, which is more than we have in Iraq and Syria combined at this moment, to the border.
This isn’t the President’s first effort at sending troops to the border. Earlier this year, he suggested that he would do the same thing. After the President made these comments, though, the White House made clear that what was really happening was that the President was calling on Governors in border states and elsewhere around the country to send National Guard troops to assist the Border Patrol to deal with the alleged ‘invasion’ of the caravan of migrants that was approaching the border earlier this year. In the end, some Governors did comply with the request, although in numbers far smaller than the White House was requesting. In the end, though, it turned out that, for the most part, these National Guard troops have not been guarding the border at all and instead have mostly been providing logistical support to Border Patrol units and based on locations miles away from the border or from any of the facilities where arriving migrants are brought after crossing the border.
Leaving those issues aside, it’s unclear what the military can do at the border.
Generally speaking, the active duty military is prohibited from conducting operations that amount to domestic law enforcement, which would include apprehending people at or near the border. This prohibition is principally covered by the Posse Comitatus Act which, as Josh Marshall noted in a Talking Points Memo post earlier this year, places strict limits on what the military can and cannot do:
[The Posse Comitatus Act] makes two things clear. 1) Soldiers and other military personnel can’t enforce US laws within the United States and 2) They can’t detain or search people or do most of the things that usually go along with police authority in the United States. There are other things they can’t do. But those are the key ones relevant to the border.
As Marshall goes on to note, a Congressional Research Service report [PDF] from 2013 outlines the limitations that the act places on the use of military forces in this context:
The primary restriction on military participation in civilian law enforcement activities is the Posse Comitatus Act (PCA).21 The PCA prohibits the use of the Army and Air Force to execute the domestic laws of the United States except where expressly authorized by the Constitution or Congress. The PCA has been further applied to the Navy and Marine Corps by legislative and administrative supplements. For example, 10 U.S.C. Section 375 directs the Secretary of Defense to promulgate regulations forbidding the direct participation “by a member of the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines in a search, seizure, arrest, or other similar activity” during support activities to civilian law enforcement agencies. DOD issued Directive 5525.5, which outlines its policies and procedures for supporting federal, state, and local LEAs. DOD Directive 5525.5 prohibits the following forms of direct assistance: (1) interdiction of a vehicle, vessel, aircraft, or other similar activity; (2) a search or seizure; (3) an arrest, apprehension, stop and frisk, or similar activity; and (4) use of military personnel in the pursuit of individuals, or as undercover agents, informants, investigators, or interrogators. It is generally accepted that the PCA does not apply to the actions of the National Guard when not in federal service.22 As a matter of policy, however National Guard regulations stipulate that its personnel are not, except for exigent circumstances or as otherwise authorized, to participate directly in the arrest or search of suspects or the general public.
In other words, the military cannot be used to act as a heavily armed substitute for the border patrol.
When we were dealing with this issue back in the spring, Cato’s Alex Nowrasteh called the idea of using the military at the border “unnecessary and dangerous”:
President Trump has ordered troops to the border to help the current number of 19,437 Border Patrol agents apprehend the roughly 1,000 Central American asylum seekers who are slowly making their way north (but probably won’t make it all the way to the border). There are currently about 19 Border Patrol agents for each Central American asylum-seeker in this caravan. In 2017, Border Patrol apprehended about 360,000 illegal immigrants or about 18 per Border Patrol agents over the entire year, which works out to one apprehension per Border Patrol agents every 20 days. By that measure, Border Patrol agents in 1954 individually apprehended an average of 53 times as many illegal immigrants as Border Patrol agents did in 2017. If the current caravan makes it to the United States border, it would add about a single day’s worth of apprehensions. Border Patrol should be able to handle this comparatively small number of asylum seekers without military aid as they have done so before many times.
It is also unclear what the troops will actually accomplish on the border. Since the members of the caravan intend to surrender to Border Patrol or Customs Officers and ask for asylum, the troops serve no purpose. They will not deter asylum seekers. Border Patrol agents are not overwhelmed by entries even though they constantly plead poverty in an effort to capture more taxpayer resources. The most likely explanation for the proposed deployment is politics, just like the previous deployments.
[T]he proposed deployment of American troops to the border without a clear mission at a time of low and falling illegal immigrant entries is an unnecessary waste of time and resources that could put Americans in harm’s way for no gain.
As Norwatesh also points out, deployment of troops to the border also has the potential to cause further strain on America’s relations with Mexico, which are already strained in light of President Trump’s numerous insults hurled at Mexican immigrants and his insistence on a border wall that Mexico would pay for.
As with Trump’s comments about ending birthright citizenship, all of this seems clearly designed not to be a serious policy proposal, but to be yet another means for the President to stir up his base voters in advance of the midterm elections. In that respect, we can expect to hear him repeating this nonsense throughout the next week. After that? Well, much like the Ebola “Crisis” of 2014, I suspect that it will magically disappear from the headlines.