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Trump’s National Guard border buildup, explained

The National Guard is already amassing at the border. We still don’t know what they’re doing there.

National Guard troops from Texas prepare to go to the US-Mexico border after President Trump ordered up to 4,000 Guard members to help Border Patrol prevent drug smuggling and illegal border crossings.
Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images

Hundreds of National Guard members from Texas and Arizona are already gathering at the US-Mexico border, barely a week after President Trump first floated the possibility in public.

But we still don’t know how many troops will end up deployed there or which states they’ll come from. And we still don’t know what exactly they’re doing, or why they’re needed at a time when border crossings are still way lower than they were for decades.

Trump administration officials defend the lack of detail about the Guard by saying they don’t want to tip off the drug and human smugglers they’re ostensibly trying to disrupt. But the mobilization of the National Guard to the border certainly does not appear to be the result of months of careful planning, to say the least. And the best policy argument for sending the National Guard right now isn’t about anything the Guard will actually do — it’s that simply having the Guard there will be enough to scare people out of trying to come to the US.

Trump’s Department of Defense authorized up to 4,000 National Guard troops ...

When the National Guard deployment was announced last week, administration officials refused to put a number on how many troops would actually be deployed. “We’re not going to the Department of Defense and saying ‘We need X number of people,’” one senior administration official said. “We’re going to the Department of Defense and saying, ‘We need to fulfill this mission.’”

The mobilization order that Defense Secretary James Mattis signed Friday didn’t really define any explicit goals for the mission, though. It did set a number: Up to 4,000 National Guard troops could be mobilized by governors for full-time active duty on the border. (Specifically, Mattis’s order invoked Title 32 of the US Code, which covers training and other full-time Guard duties — and which is exempt from the Posse Comitatus Act’s strict limitations on military activity on US soil.)

But which states those 4,000 troops would come from still wasn’t defined.

... but so far, border states are only sending a fraction of that

National Guard troops from Texas and Arizona have already been sent to the US-Mexico border — but only a few hundred from each state.

One hundred Texas Guard members were already at the border as part of an ongoing support operation. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sent 150 more troops over the weekend. Their job, according to ABC News, was “to discuss the mission, including how many more guardsmen will be needed” — in other words, 150 Guard troops were sent to decide how many more Guard units to send.

Abbott is now saying that Texas plans to send about 300 more Guard members a week “until we get it staffed up” — saying the total Texas National Guard deployment could be over 1,000 troops. It’s not clear where exactly those troops will be — Texas’s share of the US-Mexico border spans five different Customs and Border Protection “sectors,” and the 150-member weekend delegation met with officials from all five.

Arizona is sending a few hundred more. According to its governor, Doug Ducey, 225 National Guard troops were deployed Monday, and another 113 will be deployed over the next few days. (The Arizona Guard troops were sent to the “Yuma and Tucson sectors” of the border, according to Politico — but since the Yuma and Tucson sectors cover the entire Arizona share of the US-Mexico border, that isn’t terribly specific.)

That’s still only a third of the 4,000 National Guard units that could theoretically be covered under the federal government’s order. And it’s not clear where the rest might come from.

New Mexico’s Republican governor, Susana Martinez, made supportive statements when the Guard mobilization was announced last week, but hasn’t made any specific commitments yet. California’s Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, sounded a lot more skeptical of the need for the Guard, and it’s not clear whether he’ll send any troops at all.

Non-border states could step in to fill the gap. The governors of Arkansas, North Dakota, South Carolina, and Wisconsin have all said they’d send National Guard units if asked. Meanwhile, governors from several other states — including some Republicans, like Brian Sandoval in Nevada — have already said they would not agree to send their state’s National Guard to the border.

Kentucky Guard Begins Work At Mexican Border Photo by Gary Williams/Getty Images

The National Guard won’t carry guns at the border and can’t make arrests

Both of Trump’s predecessors got state governors to mobilize National Guard troops at the border, as Vox’s Tara Golshan has explained. George W. Bush called National Guard troops to the border in May 2006, and Barack Obama mobilized 1,200 National Guard troops for border enforcement in May 2010. (In 2014, Texas Gov. Rick Perry mobilized 1,000 National Guard members to the border to help process unaccompanied children from Central America entering the US.)

National Guard troops aren’t sent to the border to literally fight off immigrants — that’s still illegal. The federal government assured the government of Mexico last week that Guard units wouldn’t be armed, and the federal mobilization order said “arming will be limited to circumstances that might require self-defense.”

They aren’t authorized to arrest immigrants, either. In fact, the order Mattis signed doesn’t let Guard units interact with immigrants at all — it said that Guard units would not “perform law enforcement duties or interact with migrants or other persons detained by US personnel” without further approval from the Pentagon. This would prevent the Guard from helping process migrants after Border Patrol agents apprehended them, as they did under Obama.

What does that leave? It’s not clear. Under Obama, the National Guard did some surveillance and intelligence work to help Border Patrol agents track down immigrants — Mattis’s order didn’t clarify whether that would count as “law enforcement” or not.

Under Bush, the National Guard mostly helped build infrastructure like roads at the border. That option is still open.

But it’s also entirely possible that the National Guard will spend the bulk of its time under Trump in 2018 the same way it spent most of its time under Obama in 2010: standing around.

Border crossings are at historic lows — and many people coming are seeking asylum

In March 2018, the last month for which statistics are available, Border Patrol agents caught 37,393 immigrants attempting to cross the US-Mexico border.

The month before President Obama mobilized the National Guard, 55,237 immigrants — one and a half times as many — had been apprehended. And in April 2006, the month before Bush did it, Border Patrol apprehended 126,538 immigrants — more than three times as many as there were last month.

The Trump administration is deploying National Guard troops to the US-Mexico border — where apprehensions are at historic lows.
Javier Zarracina/Vox

Because border crossings are seasonal, looking at March versus April isn’t a perfect comparison. But here’s another way to look at it: From January to March 2018, an average of 30,012 immigrants were apprehended crossing the border each month. During that same time period in 2010, before Obama’s mobilization, the average was 46,312. And from January to March 2006, months before Bush called on the National Guard, the monthly average was 128,979.

It might seem backward to measure how secure the border is based on how many people are being caught, but that’s the way Border Patrol has historically done it. It was the basis for Trump’s brag a year ago that he’d set records for border security. Now, apprehensions are a little higher than they were a year ago but still haven’t returned to the levels they were at before the Great Recession — or for decades before that. (The average March under Obama saw about 46,600 apprehensions; the average March under Bush saw 132,325.)

Furthermore, many of the people who are coming to the US right now are people who are trying to turn themselves in to Border Patrol as a way to seek legal status in the US. They’re unaccompanied children, or families, from Central America; they might be trying to claim asylum because they fear persecution or torture in their home countries.

National Guard troops can certainly help process those people, helping set them up with asylum officers to screen them and coordinating with other agencies to transfer them into custody while they wait for their cases to be resolved.

But that’s not what the Trump administration says it’s doing. It says it’s mobilizing the National Guard because there’s a threat.

The best argument for deploying the National Guard is to deter people from coming to the US to begin with

Deploying the National Guard to help guard the border won’t have a huge impact on drug smuggling, which is much more common through ports of entry — airports, seaports, road crossings — than by sneaking across the border. And it won’t prevent people who are trying to cross the US to seek asylum from being able to do so.

What administration officials are explicitly hoping it does is send a message to people who haven’t yet left their home countries to seek asylum but are considering doing so. “For individuals thinking about paying a smuggler to come up to the United States right now, that would be an unwise investment,” a senior administration official said Wednesday.

The argument here — made by Obama’s administration as well as Trump’s — is that the journey from Central America to the United States is a horrific one that people must be prevented from taking at any cost. Because people make a horrific journey out of hope of legal status on the other side, shutting that down will deter them from the horrible journey.

The decision to migrate is always made by a mix of “push factors” — the things that compel you to leave where you are — and “pull factors,” the things that compel you to go some specific place else. Immigration hawks tend to believe that any leniency in US policy — or even any discussion of a potential future leniency — is one of the most powerful “pull factors,” and that ending that pull is a good reason not to be lenient.

While some academics insist that stricter enforcement doesn’t really affect immigration patterns, most analysts agree that it’s certainly a factor; after all, people decide to migrate if the rewards outweigh the risks, and if the reward is unlikely that makes the risk less palatable.

In the first few months of Trump’s presidency, way fewer people — especially way fewer children and families — tried to enter the US than had in the previous months, and Trump happily took credit for it. He might even have deserved it.

Apprehension data of the past several years shows that after the US cracks down on people seeking humanitarian protections, fewer people — especially fewer children and families — are willing to try.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

It certainly appears to be the case that at least some people were deterred from trying to come to the US because they were worried about what Trump would do to them if they did (though that doesn’t necessarily mean they were safe in their home countries).

But the effect didn’t last, because the Trump administration couldn’t drastically change how it treated people who said they feared persecution, or who were coming alone as children or in family groups. It was hemmed in by the law. Even as it deploys National Guard troops to the border, the administration is trying to push Congress to change those laws.

It may be the case, in other words, that even the people deploying the National Guard to the border don’t see it as a permanent solution but a stopgap to scare people out of trying to come to the US until Congress makes the US a less welcome place for them. The question is whether even a National Guard-protected border will really be scarier than the countries they’re trying to leave.

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