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The US military will stay on the US-Mexico border, even with migration falling

The Pentagon just announced that, in October, as many as 4,000 troops will remain on the southern border.

US military troops add concertina wire to the border wall in Nogales, Arizona, on February 6, 2019.
Max Herman/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Pentagon will officially keep as many as 4,000 troops at the US-Mexico border in October — ensuring President Donald Trump’s military deployment continues throughout the election season despite no signs of an actual crisis.

In a Thursday statement, Army Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell, a Defense Department spokesperson, said Defense Secretary Mark Esper approved the Department of Homeland Security’s request for assistance at the border. Most military backup will come from the National Guard, he noted, which will help monitor the frontier, provide logistics, and offer transport to Border Patrol personnel. Troops can’t engage in law enforcement activities.

In a follow-up comment to Vox as to why such a decision was made months in advance, Mitchell said, “The current mission is set to expire at the end of September. This is just an extension of the mission through the next fiscal year.” The new authorized number of troops would actually be a decrease from the 5,500 military personnel currently at the border.

William Banks, an expert on national security law at Syracuse University, told Vox that such a deployment, like the previous ones, is clearly legal. But, he added, “I continue to question whether the wall construction itself is lawful,” noting that multiple lawsuits proceed.

All this sounds well and good, but the issue is that what was supposed to be a temporary backfill at the border has now become a perpetual solution, and it’s not clear the military is even needed at the Mexico frontier anymore.

In October 2018, President Donald Trump sent thousands of US troops to the border to stop a so-called “caravan” of migrants from Central America seeking asylum in America. They were sent to provide support at the border and free up Border Patrol agents to do their jobs instead of paperwork or wall upkeep.

Critics saw that as nothing more than an electoral play ahead of the midterms since Trump’s hardline immigration policy is central to his and the Republican party’s political fortunes.

At the time, Pentagon leadership and other administration officials said such a support mission would be temporary and disband when troops were no longer needed. But now, it seems, the Department of Homeland Security has deemed it necessary to continue having soldiers around, all but sure to rekindle critiques Trump may be trying to bolster his immigration bona fides ahead of his reelection fight in November.

Last year, top Pentagon officials said the military deployment would last as long as needed. “We’re not going to leave until the border is secure,” former acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said in May 2019.

The administration’s argument at the time could be defended. Now, it doesn’t really have a good case.

Migration is down, but Trump is cracking down on the border anyway

Trump is charging ahead with the troop deployment and enacting other measures to secure the border despite the fact that migration overall has declined amid the pandemic.

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) arrested about 23,000 migrants in May, a decrease from 114,000 in the same month in 2019. While Central American families previously accounted for the majority of those arrested, single adult males are now coming in larger numbers.

The border remains closed to nonessential travel through mid-July, and that closure could be extended until officials decide that immigration no longer poses a public health risk to Americans. Countries that have produced the largest number of asylum seekers — including Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — have also closed their borders and implemented restrictions even on domestic travel, making movement difficult. Smugglers who help migrants cross the border have also largely ceased operations for now.

Even if migrants were able to reach the US border, Trump has made it all but impossible for them to pursue asylum claims or other protections in the US. The Department of Justice has postponed most immigration court hearings for those in Mexico who are waiting for their chance to plead their asylum case to an immigration judge under the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program.

Immigration officials have also implemented an expulsion order to swiftly turn away migrants at the border, including unaccompanied children, though it’s currently facing a legal challenge brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. Migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are processed in the field rather than inside US Border Patrol stations, and, without so much as a medical exam, are sent back to Mexico in an average of 96 minutes, the Texas Tribune reported. Some 43,000 migrants have been sent back to Mexico under the new system, according to CBP.