WASHINGTON – At least a portion of the 5,800 active-duty military troops stationed along the southern border are expected to stay beyond the initial Dec. 15 deployment, but the Defense Department is waiting for a formal request from the Department of Homeland Security based on staffing needs.
President Donald Trump initially ordered the military deployment in late October when he warned about a possible “invasion” by members of the migrant caravan crossing Mexico from Central America.
The troops so far have mainly built barriers of concertina wire and Jersey walls around ports of entry and transported Customs and Border Patrol officers where needed.
Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters Thursday that military and homeland-security staffers were determining what still needed to be done.
“It comes down to logistics issues right now primarily – how many miles of wire do they need?” Mattis said. The areas around the ports are pretty much done, but there could be more work around their flanks, he said.
Mattis said he hadn’t received a request yet to extend the deployment.
“They’re working on it right now, and I know I have not received it yet,” he said.
Tensions rose on Nov. 20 when White House Chief of Staff John Kelly authorized the troops to use lethal force, if necessary, to defend themselves or any CBP agents who came under attack by migrants. That order has been questioned because it followed Trump’s comments suggesting that troops could fire upon migrants if they throw rocks at the troops.
“I told them to consider it a rifle,” Trump said during a White House speech on Nov. 1. “When they throw rocks like what they did to the Mexican military and police I say consider it a rifle.”
About 1,000 migrants clashed Sunday with CBP officers at the San Ysidro port in California. Advocates for the migrants criticized the use of tear gas in dispersing the crowds.
But Homeland Security officials defended the use of gas as the least intrusive way to deal with migrants throwing rocks and bottles at officers. No shots were fired. The port also closed temporarily.
Mattis said those clashes were with CBP – not the military.
“As far as the use of force, the Border Patrol is using what they believe is appropriate,” Mattis said. “We would be backing them up, they have multiple lines in front of them, so right now I can’t even forecast what would be necessary after seeing the Border Patrol’s response under the pressure that we saw this last weekend.”
The troop deployment has been criticized as a political stunt because Trump announced it while campaigning around the country in the final weeks leading up to the midterm elections led to accusations of using the troops as a political prop in a bid to rile up the Republican base.
The Pentagon estimated at the time that about 800 troops would go down in a purely support role – stringing concertina wire and helping CBP officials with transportation and logistical help. But that deployment quickly expanded to more than 5,800 troops deployed throughout the border.
The lethal force order also calls into question whether the active-duty troop deployment violates the Posse Comitatus Act, which generally forbids the military from conducting law enforcement duties within the U.S.
A Congressional Research Service report in April concluded that the military can be deployed domestically, but only if it is limited to “certain types of support” to law enforcement, such as conducting aerial surveillance, operating equipment, sharing intelligence and providing advice. But the report said the administration would run into legal trouble if it tasked the military with conducting law enforcement activities.
“There must be a constitutional or statutory authority to use federal troops in a law enforcement capacity to stop aliens from entering the country unlawfully, or to apprehend gang members or seize contraband,” the report found.
After Kelly authorized lethal force, Mattis said Nov. 21 that most of the troops weren’t carrying weapons other than a few noncommissioned officers. Troops also weren’t conducting law enforcement or detaining anyone, other than a brief period when they might pull somebody out of a disturbance, then turn the person over to CBP for arrest, he said.
“We’re not going to arrest or anything else,” Mattis said. “To stop someone from beating on someone and turn them over to someone else – this is minutes not even hours, OK?”
Mattis said at that point that some troops could be home by Christmas but that others would likely be extended beyond Dec. 15, based on what was needed.
“So some of those troops certainly will be home, I would anticipate they would be,” Mattis said. “But some troops may not be or some new troops may be assigned to new missions.”
The mission at that point was estimated to cost $72 million – a figure Mattis said could rise.
“I am confident that number will go up,” he said.
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