Defense Secretary Jim Mattis just offered his strongest support yet for the military deployment to the US-Mexico border, calling it “necessary” to help stop a caravan of immigrants that remains about 1,000 miles away.
In a visit to McAllen, Texas, on Wednesday alongside embattled Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Mattis told some of the deployment’s 7,000 troops in surprisingly personal terms that it was critical to stop some individuals from seeking asylum in the United States.
“My mother is an immigrant, okay?” he told service members gathered in a tent. Mattis’s mother immigrated from Canada as an infant. “Believe me, we want legal immigration. That’s part of what makes America good, but illegal — we’re going to carry out the law.”
It’s worth noting that US troops can’t engage at all with incoming migrants — only Border Patrol officers can do that. The military, then, is at the border to back them up by providing office support, transportation, and building up infrastructure.
Mattis highlighted that last point, telling troops their efforts to put in concertina wire along the US-Mexico border will help ensure a safe distance between migrants and Border Patrol on the off-chance the situation turns violent.
“It’s very clear that support to border police or Border Patrol is necessary right now,” he told the troops. “In the short term, do get the obstacles in so that the border patrolmen can do what they gotta do ... we don’t want them being injured.”
But when asked about the mission in the long term, the secretary said the goals could possibly change depending on what happens in the coming weeks.
Some former top Pentagon officials, such as Kelly Magsamen, are skeptical of Mattis’s view. “With all due respect, [the deployment] is absolutely not necessary,” she tweeted on Wednesday.
Mattis may have acted for political reasons
The caravan started to move its way northward in mid-October, swelling to a few thousand people along the way. President Donald Trump didn’t like, threatening a military response to repel what he called an “invasion.” By the end of the month, Trump ordered 5,000 troops to California, Arizona, and Texas in an effort to deter the caravan from seeking asylum in the US.
Many called the order a political stunt, as active-duty troops — which mainly fight the nation’s wars — don’t help with law enforcement mission. When reporters asked Mattis about the border deployment on October 31, he responded strongly with the phrase, “We don’t do stunts.” In other words, he seemed to want to assure the public that the deployment of troops to the US-Mexico border before November’s midterm elections wasn’t a political ploy by the Trump administration.
But Mattis, almost surely knowing he was filmed live, stuck to a script that Trump would appreciate. He may need some more credibility with the president, as reports indicate that these could be his last days as defense secretary.
On November 6, the day of the midterm elections, the Pentagon decided to drop the mission’s name — Operation Faithful Patriot — and instead simply call it “border support.”
Mattis told reporters on Wednesday that he felt giving the mission an official name would be misleading. “If what we’re doing is laying wire, don’t talk about implementing a barrier plan,” he said.
Yet that’s pretty much what he just did, saying the wire could effectively serve as a barrier to safeguard border patrol agents. It’s unclear if Mattis believed what he said or just wanted the troops to know he supported what they are doing.
But one audience member — Trump — will surely be pleased.