The Pentagon is sending 1,500 active-duty troops to the southwest border as federal immigration agencies and local communities brace for the expiration of pandemic-era restrictions used to quickly send migrants back to Mexico.
The troop deployment was authorized Tuesday by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for 90 days. They will work monitoring the area, doing data entry and manning warehouses amid an expected new influx of migrants and asylum seekers, even as the U.S. immigration system groans under record-high border crossings.
The service members will not be involved in law enforcement activities, the Pentagon said, a responsibility that would raise a range of legal complications.
Military forces, composed mostly of National Guard troops, have been continuously deployed to states along the Mexico border since 2018 under an order from former President Donald Trump. That’s on top of a string of National Guard deployments that have been approved by governors, including a Texas mission that faced repeated issues with troops getting paid on time and substance abuse.
About 2,500 National Guard troops on federal orders are already working at the border as the so-called Title 42 public health order that had allowed immigration agencies to immediately remove migrants from U.S. soil is set to expire May 11.
"I think we will see these troops arrive as early as May 10," Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the top Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday during a public briefing.
The 1,500 troops will come mostly from the Army and Marine Corps, and will support the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, under the Department of Homeland Security. But Ryder said the Pentagon may replace some of the active-duty forces with National Guard troops during the three-month deployment.
"Calling up reserve component forces involves some time associated with that," he said. "And so by tasking the active-duty forces, we're able to meet this request very urgently and support DHS."
Military deployments to the southwest border have been ordered up by every president since Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The orders have often included thousands of troops. But deployments and border security also often mix with politics of the day.
President Joe Biden originally requested the border force last week to assist with anti-drug trafficking efforts -- shortly after announcing he will run for reelection in 2024 and amid widespread criticism on the political right over his treatment of border crossings and smuggling contributing to the fentanyl epidemic.
Trump drew widespread criticism when he surged 5,200 troops to the border days before the 2018 midterm elections, claiming that migrant "caravans" were threatening the U.S. The majority of migrants who were traveling to the U.S. at that time either chose to return home or file asylum claims waiting in line at one of the border crossings with Mexico, according to reporting from the El Paso Times.
Both presidents have used Title 42 to subvert asylum protections for migrants who come to the U.S. to flee violence or oppression in their home countries. The Trump administration began widespread use of the program during the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming migrants could not stay in the country while seeking asylum due to the risk of transmitting the virus.
Instead, migrants have been quickly sent back to Mexico as the Biden administration has continued the program.
But concerns are mounting that the expiration of Title 42 next week will trigger a rush of migration for those hoping to find safe haven or remain inside the U.S. while asylum claims are weighed.
The Texas border town of El Paso has declared a state of emergency ahead of the expiration, according to the Texas Tribune. The declaration was issued by the mayor, and the city is preparing to open two temporary shelters as asylum seekers gather just across the border in Ciudad Juarez.
The DHS said Monday that it has been planning for the end of Title 42 for a year, has set up a new federal coordination center, and has run tabletop exercises.
The increased number of migrant "encounters at the Southwest Border will increase as smugglers spread disinformation, which will place a strain on our immigration system, our communities and our dedicated workforce," the agency said in the release.
-- Travis Tritten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.