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Trump proposes sending troops to U.S.-Mexico border until wall is built

A Border Patrol agent walks near the secondary fence separating Tijuana, Mexico, background, and San Diego in San Diego. | Gregory Bull/AP Photo

President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that he intended to deploy troops along the U.S.-Mexico border until a wall was built there, proposing an escalation of efforts to prevent people from entering the country illegally via the southern border.

The move would ramp up Trump’s battle over immigration, after he has run into hurdles carrying out his campaign-trail promise to build a wall at Mexico’s expense. Most recently, he has been preoccupied by a group of migrants, mostly from Honduras, making their way north through Mexico toward the U.S.

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“We are going to be guarding our border with our military. That’s a big step,” Trump said on Tuesday during a session at the White House with the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. “We cannot have people flowing into our country illegally, disappearing and, by the way, never showing up for court.”

Later on Tuesday at a news conference with the three Baltic leaders, Trump said he would have a meeting on the deployment “in a little while” with Defense Secretary James Mattis, who was at the earlier meeting. The president offered little else in the way of details on what shape his plan to put U.S. soldiers on the nation’s southern border might take.

“The Mexican border is very unprotected by our laws,” he said. “We have horrible, horrible and very unsafe laws in the United States, and we’re going to be able to do something about that, hopefully soon. We are preparing for the military to secure our border between Mexico and the United States. We have a meeting on it in a little while with General Mattis and everybody. And I think that it’s something we have to do.”

A senior official at the Department of Homeland Security said on Tuesday that putting troops on the U.S.-Mexico border had been under discussion but that no rollout had been planned because of unresolved policy issues. The official said Mattis did not want armed troops at the border.

The idea was previously shot down by John Kelly, who is currently Trump’s chief of staff. After the president referred to U.S. efforts to combat the flow of undocumented immigrants as “a military operation” in February 2017, Kelly sought to set the record straight during a news conference in Mexico City.

“I repeat: There will be no use of military in this,” Kelly, who at the time was secretary of homeland security, told reporters. “At least half of you try to get that right, because it continues to come up in your reporting.”

Spokespeople for the Pentagon and Mattis did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

It would not be the first time Trump appeared to preempt Pentagon officials by unveiling a major military decision. In July, he said he would seek to ban transgender people from serving in the military. But the announcement came prematurely, blindsiding top officials in his administration who were not yet ready to roll out the measure.

There is precedent for sending troops to the border. From 2006 to 2008, on orders from President George W. Bush, the National Guard was deployed to aid Customs and Border Protection, with 6,000 members of the Guard at the peak of the operation. Those deployed were armed but did not have authority to perform law enforcement functions like pursuing or detaining suspects. In 2010, President Barack Obama sent 1,200 members of the Guard, who were largely limited to surveillance of the border fence.

David Aguilar, former acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection during the Obama administration, said the military could be “tremendous force multipliers” in terms of border security. Aguilar, currently a principal with a security consulting firm, also served as Border Patrol chief from 2004 to 2010.

During that time, he experienced firsthand a military deployment on the border, when Bush launched Operation Jump Start in 2006 involving National Guard members who helped with surveillance and fence installation.

Aguilar said the military assistance served as a bridge to bolster security while Border Patrol ramped up its personnel and technology over a period of several years. “It is the right thing to address this situation as early as possible when it’s recognized that the problem is building up,” he said.

Still, Aguilar contends that the Trump administration also needs to take steps to efficiently process people encountered at the border. “If not, we’re going to have the ability to identify, arrest and detain, but then it’s going to just clog down the system as it has in the past,” he said.

Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union for agents and support staff, said past experience showed that the military could supplement the work of agents on the ground. He views Obama‘s ordering the National Guard to the southwest border in 2010 as a successful collaboration.

“They served as our eyes and they freed up our resources,” he said.

Judd, whose union endorsed Trump during his presidential campaign, said he wasn’t consulted by the administration on any plans for the use of military on the border.

“We’ve heard through the agency that this was in the works,” he said. “It’s something that Border Patrol agents are supportive of.”

But Trump’s proposal was met with skepticism from other former officials, Democratic lawmakers and even immigration hard-liners, who wondered about the effectiveness of the armed forces deployed at the border.

“The idea that Customs and Border Protection needs platoons and companies of active-duty troops patrolling the border — it’s not troop-intensive support,” said retired Col. Michael Kershaw, a former staff officer in the Texas-based Army headquarters responsible for such support. “Customs and Border Protection is a pretty robust organization.”

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies, maintained that it was more important to reform laws allowing people from Central America to claim asylum and remain in the United States than to deploy troops on the border.

“I’m not opposed to using military in any way that is lawfully permitted, if the Border Patrol can make use of their services,” he said, citing reconnaissance, paperwork and border wall construction as possible areas for assistance. “I’m just afraid for a lot of politicians it becomes a shiny object that can distract attention.”

A traveler is pictured. | Getty Images

An active-duty senior military officer with experience overseeing military support to Customs and Border Protection, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “I’m not quite sure what the president has in mind for the National Guard here. What he’s proposing is not unprecedented. Day to day, there are a lot of Guardsmen doing this kind of stuff anyway under state authority. So you’re maybe talking about an increase in the scale and intensity of things that are happening already.”

When Obama mobilized the 1,200 members of the Guard in 2010, memories loomed large of a 1997 episode in which an active-duty Marine supporting border operations near Redford, Texas, killed an American teenager, resulting in a decision for most of the troops to go unarmed, the senior military officer said.

“The Obama administration was a bit scarred by that incident, so very few of the National Guard troops were armed” during the deployments that began in 2010, he said. “The idea was they didn’t want anyone to get in a gunfight.”

“Secretary Mattis probably remembers that incident in 1997, and that’s probably shaping his opinion on whether to arm the troops down there,” the officer added.

The officer questioned whether the Guard units deployed in 2010 added much to border security.

“It wasn’t a particularly effective use of them,” he said. “They put them in these observation posts, or they helped with stevedore work unloading trucks for inspection at crossing points. It wasn’t really making use of our military skill sets. They were just extra sets of eyes and backs along the border. It was large-scale, but I’m not sure it was very useful.”

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a Marine veteran, said in a statement that Trump’s plan was “an insult to our troops” that would “harm our military as an institution.” He added: “Congress must stop this misguided scheme.”

The president said on Tuesday that Mexico had acted to break up the caravan of migrants, saying the government did so at his demand.

Trump had complained that U.S. border security laws would not be strong enough to deal with the caravan of migrants should it reach the U.S.-Mexico border. He blamed his predecessor for making “changes that basically created no border,” without specifying what he believed those changes were. He bemoaned what he labeled “catch and release” practices that free captured undocumented immigrants into the U.S. after giving them a court date for which the president said “they virtually never come back.”

“If it reaches our border, our laws are so weak and so pathetic,” Trump said. “It’s like we have no border.”

Trump also hinted that the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he has vowed to renegotiate or else pull the U.S. out of entirely, would be a factor in his immigration negotiations with Mexico. The president said at the news conference that NAFTA had been a “horrible, horrible, embarrassing deal for the United States” but said at the earlier meeting that any renegotiated deal would still be a good one for Mexico.

Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Tuesday that he disagreed with sending troops to the border.

“These people should be stopped at the border and vetted out, just the normal process,” Rooney told Fox News. “I would rather have the dealings with immigration be handled in a civil context rather than a military one.”

Ted Hesson, Eliana Johnson and Wesley Morgan contributed to this report.

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