Trump Wants To Send Troops To The Border; That’s A Bad Idea

President Trump wants to send the military to the Mexican border. This is both unnecessary and a bad idea.

Yesterday afternoon, President Trump said during a press appearance that he wanted to send the military to the border with Mexico until his border wall was completed:

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump said Tuesday he wants to use the military to secure the U.S.-Mexico border until his promised border wall is built.

Speaking at a lunch with Baltic leaders, Trump said he’s been discussing the idea with his Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis.

“We’re going to be doing things militarily. Until we can have a wall and proper security, we’re going to be guarding our border with the military,” he said, calling the measure a “big step.”

“We really haven’t done that before, or certainly not very much before,” he said.

Trump has been deeply frustrated about the lack of progress building what was the signature promise of his campaign: a “big, beautiful wall” along the Mexican border. He’s previously suggested using the Pentagon’s budget to pay for building the wall, arguing it is a national security priority, despite strict rules that prohibit spending that’s not authorized by Congress.

Later in the day, the White House clarified for reporters what the President meant, which apparently utilizing the National Guard to deal with an alleged influx of illegal immigrants and drugs across the southern border:

WASHINGTON — The White House said Tuesday night that President Trump planned to deploy the National Guard to the southern border to confront what it called a growing threat of illegal immigrants, drugs and crime from Central America after the president for the third consecutive day warned about the looming dangers of unchecked immigration.

Mr. Trump’s advisers said Monday that he was readying new legislation to block migrants and asylum seekers, including young unaccompanied children, from entering the United States, opening a new front in the immigration crackdown that he has pressed since taking office. But in remarks on Tuesday that caught some of his top advisers by surprise, he suggested the more drastic approach of sending in the military to do what immigration authorities could not.

Speaking to reporters during a news conference with the presidents of three Baltic nations, Mr. Trump described existing immigration laws as lax and ineffective, and called for militarizing the border with Mexico to prevent an influx of Central American migrants he said were ready to stream across it.

“We have horrible, horrible and very unsafe laws in the United States,” Mr. Trump said. “We are preparing for the military to secure our border between Mexico and the United States.”

While the president couched his idea as an urgent response to an onslaught at the nation’s southern border, the numbers do not point to a crisis. Last year, the number of illegal immigrants caught at the border was the lowest since 1971, said the United States Border Patrol. Still, Mr. Trump seized on what has become an annual seasonal uptick in Central American migrants making their way north to make his case.

After the president’s remarks, White House aides struggled for hours to decipher his intentions.

Late in the day, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said Mr. Trump had met with Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense, and members of the national security team to discuss his administration’s strategy for dealing with “the growing influx of illegal immigration, drugs and violent gang members from Central America,” a problem on which she said the president had initially been briefed last week.

That strategy, she said, included mobilizing the National Guard — though Ms. Sanders did not say how many troops would be sent or when — and pressing Congress to close what she called “loopholes” in immigration laws. Also present at the meeting were Jeff Sessions, the attorney general; Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security; Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff.


Immigration advocates denounced Mr. Trump’s announcement as a political ploy.

“He cannot get funding for his wall, so instead he irresponsibly misuses our military to save face,” Kevin Appleby, the senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies of New York.

Others said Mr. Trump’s sudden declaration was merely an instance of a now-familiar pattern wherein the president reacts angrily to something he sees in the news — in this case, reports of a large group of migrants from Honduras traveling through Mexico with hopes of reaching the United States — and seeks to use it as a cudgel against his political opponents.

“Some of it is just the guy at the end of the bar yelling his opinions — his gut reaction is to say we’ve got to send the military,” said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates slashing immigration levels. “But there may also be an element here of political messaging — and a desire to create problems in November for Democratic candidates who have refused to embrace his policies.”

Whatever Mr. Trump’s motivation, the president floated the idea after days of public stewing about the potential for the group of Honduran migrants to pour into the United States.

To a large degree, President Trump’s latest proposal seems to be related to his numerous tweets about the alleged caravan of Central American immigrants that have been making their way north through Mexico from Honduras. Not surprisingly, this has been a subject of frequent coverage in recent days on Fox News Channel, which no doubt accounts for the fact that the President has been tweeting about it and acting as if this were some kind invading army rather than what it is, which is a somewhat loosely organized group of people trying to make their way to the United States. As I noted in a comment to James Joyner’s post on the subject the other day, this is not really a new phenomenon. Organized marches such as this one have been taking place nearly every year for the past several years, most recently during the Obama Administration. In those cases, the people who did make it through Mexico attempted to enter the United States at legal border crossings by claiming asylum. These people were either detained at ICE facilities in the area, sent to other ICE facilities around the country, or (in many cases) almost immediately returned to their countries of origin via chartered flights. This time around, it appears that the caravan or whatever you wish to call it has been largely halted by Mexican authorities and that it now plans to end its journey in Mexico City. Leaving aside the motivation for Trump’s comments, though, it appears that he’s serious about the idea of sending some kind of military force to the border with Mexico even if it’s just for show at this point.

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 notes, 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.

That being said, the National Guard has been used in the past to act in a support role along with local law enforcement and Federal border authorities. The most notable of these recent examples of this happened in 2006 when President George W. Bush sent roughly 6,000 troops to the border to assist with operations and in 2010 when President Obama sent 1,200 troops on a similar mission. Additionally, in the past Governors of border states, principally Texas, have done the same thing when there have been large inflows of immigrants and the Federal authorities at the border have been overwhelmed. On all of those occasions, the operations carried out by the National Guard were limited both in scope and in time and were typically used only in geographically limited basis on an as-needed basis. Eventually, those troops were withdrawn when it was perceived that they were no longer needed. Trump’s announcement, and the one from the White House that followed suggest that President Trump has a more permanent role in mind this time.

Regardless of the state of the law or past practice, I find myself agreeing with Cato’s Alex Nowrasteh who calls the idea “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. Additionally, Trump continues to threaten to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement and has consistently implied that it is a vehicle by which Mexico has taken advantage of the United States even though there is no evidence to support this contention. Putting a military force on the border at a time when it clearly isn’t needed would only add insult to those injuries, and it would do so at a time when Mexico is heading toward elections and anti-American sentiment is already at levels that have not been seen in decades. Of course, when it comes to policies directed at our southern neighbor, this President seems to specialize in bad ideas so it would not surprise me if he decided to go forward with this plan notwithstanding all the arguments against it.

Update: At the White House Press Briefing today, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen made it official:

President Donald Trump will sign a proclamation directing agencies deploy the National Guard to the southwest border, Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced Wednesday.

“The President has directed that the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security work together with our governors to deploy the National Guard to our southwest border,” Nielsen said at the White House.

The formal move follows days of public fuming by Trump about immigration policy, during which he has tweeted about immigration legislation in Congress, a caravan of migrants making its way through Mexico and what he calls weak border laws.

Since the passage of the government spending package for the year — which included $1.6 billion for border security but only a few dozen miles of new border barrier construction and a nearly equal amount of replacement fencing — Trump has been critical of Congress for denying him more money. Trump privately floated the idea of funding construction of a southern border wall through the US military budget in conversations with advisers, two sources confirmed to CNN last week – a plan that faces likely insurmountable obstacles in Congress.

And there you have it.


FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Donald Trump, Military Affairs, National Security, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. al-Ameda says:

    Can you imagine if Barack Obama had proposed sending troops to the Texas border?

    Remember Operation Jade Helm back in July 2015? The one where 1200 U.S. troops, participated in a (regular) two-month military training exercise in the Southwest, in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico and a few other states. Conspiracists said that it was a precursor to establishing martial law and seizing guns from citizens. A lot of Texas Republicans were wetting the bed over a possible federal invasion of Texas.

    Looks like Republicans are not now, presently, concerned about a federal invasion of Texas.


  2. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    While the president couched his idea as an urgent response to an onslaught at the nation’s southern border, the numbers do not point to a crisis.

    Another terrible idea in response to an imaginary crisis.
    But from another point of view…you have an ignorant and narcissistic executive with authoritarian leanings trying to militarize law enforcement…what could go wrong. Welcome to Dennisonstan.


  3. Moosebreath says:


    “Looks like Republicans are not now, presently, concerned about a federal invasion of Texas.”

    Of course not, they support it. Just like all the folks who have claimed that military-style weapons are necessary to prevent tyranny. Trump has expressed far more desire for dictatorial powers and flouted more parts of the Constitution than any present in my lifetime, and yet those people are loudly cheering his actions.


  4. Kathy says:

    Donnie Dennison certainly has an unparalleled ability to find out the worst solutions to every problem, or perceived problem.


  5. michael reynolds says:

    Trump is increasingly drawn to military solutions because the military is the only element of government that takes orders. He lacks the intellect for complication so he invariably goes to the simplest solution that won’t involve him needing to understand anything or make a case for anything.

    And the Trumpaloons need a new infusion of fear and hate. Without a hate object they have nothing.


  6. CSK says:

    I’m wondering what Trump’s reaction will be when Mattis explains to him that he can’t do this.


  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    It is also unclear what the troops will actually accomplish on the border.

    They are going to build his big beautiful wall from the bodies of dead immigrant children.

    On the more serious side, they are going to make trump look like a strong manly man because he can’t seem to build his big manly wall to protect us from the threat of unescorted Guatemalan children coming to attack our freedoms and steal our precious bodily fluids.


  8. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    We’re going to be doing things militarily. Until we can have a wall and proper security, we’re going to be guarding our border with the military

    So…um…forever? ‘Cause you ain’t ever goin’ to build that wall you promised your rubes.


  9. Kathy says:

    Trump’s the kind of person who upon hearing of a problem, comes up with a simplistic solution. When told the issue is not that simple, and when given a more thorough explanation of the matter, this type of person will often cling to their initial solution.

    That’s Trump, and many of the people who voted for him. And now we get to see what the simplistic solutions do.


  10. KM says:


    Looks like Republicans are not now, presently, concerned about a federal invasion of Texas.

    Wait till the inevitable incident between military and civilians. Not all Texans favor the wall, even conservative ones. Wait till some rancher or his family gets shot at by a trigger-happy solider in the early morning light when they were out doing work – FOX is to have their work cut out for them spinning that!


  11. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @KM: They will just resort to their two word explanations that waive away every problem: “false flag,” “crisis actor,” etc.


  12. Gromitt Gunn says:

    They may start as a force to (supposedly) keep people out, but with lack of actual purpose, eventually they will switch to being a force to keep people in.


  13. CSK says:

    Apparently he’s deploying the National Guard. At least, that’s what Nielsen said a few minutes ago.


  14. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    Obama did this at one point under pressure from Red border states. The result?
    As the Post reported;

    “1,200 National Guard troops have helped Border Patrol agents apprehend 25,514 illegal immigrants at a cost of $160 million — or $6,271 for each person caught.”


  15. grumpy realist says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: a YUUUGE big marvelous wall which will now cost more due to the tariffs on Chinese steel, aluminum, etc.


  16. CSK says:

    @grumpy realist:
    Well, Mexico will pay for it. Uh…no, Mexico won’t pay for it directly, but we’ll get it from them by taxing remittances. No, maybe not. Bright idea: We’ll pay for it out of the military budget! Oops, can’t do that. Okay, we’ll send the military to guard the border while the wall is being built, though we still don’t know how we’ll pay for it. Oh, Mattis just told me we can’t use the military…


  17. Kathy says:


    I’m wondering what Trump’s reaction will be when Mattis explains to him that he can’t do this.

    Going by precedent and knowing how the “stable genius” works, the solution is self-evident: No such restrictions apply to troops in foreign lands; therefore send the troops to Mexico (it’s ok, Mexico will pay for them).


  18. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    Both Trump and Bush sent the National Guard to the border. That’s a lousy idea, the Military should have no hands on domestic policing. It never worked out in Mexico, Brazil or Colombia.


  19. An Interested Party says:

    Wait till some rancher or his family gets shot at by a trigger-happy solider in the early morning light when they were out doing work – FOX is to have their work cut out for them spinning that!

    It’ll be Obama’s fault…


  20. TM01 says:

    If sending the national Guard to the border is a sign of a narcissistic, arrogant, unintelligent, etc. leader, what does that say about Obama.

    All this fretting and pearl clutching only if Trump does it.

    More proof that nothing ever happened before Trump.


  21. KM says:

    No it’s proof that if it’s a stupid, ineffective idea that’s been tried and failed before, Trump’s all over that sh^t.

    It didn’t work then – why would you think it would work now? Especially in a climate where people are more likely to shoot instead of yell stop and everybody “fears for their safety”? We can’t get cops to not shoot people at traffic stops and you want to put armed civilians not used to dealing with this in a situation where it can get ugly, fast? They have no police powers and can’t arrest or detain anyone – what the hell do you think is going to happen when some frustrated authoritarian wannabe realizes he can’t actually do anything about the illegals he’s seeing cross the border? We’ve already seen militia groups that destroy property like water jugs and aggressively challenge those they think are “illegal” so it’s not inconceivably to think a Guardsman could do the same.

    This is a bad move because it’s adding to a fire that doesn’t need to burn. He’s looking to cause issues, not correct them. I don’t care if every President ever did it. It doesn’t excuse Trump blatantly trying to start sh^t because he needs a flashpoint for his wall agenda.