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Why Biden is deploying more troops to the southern border

A surge of migrants is expected after Biden’s ending of a controversial Trump-era border policy.

US President Joe Biden speaks with two members of the US Border Patrol as they walk along the US-Mexico border fence in El Paso, Texas, on January 8, 2023.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

In anticipation of a surge of migrants, President Joe Biden is temporarily deploying another 1,500 active-duty troops to the US-Mexico border days before ending a controversial Trump-era border policy that has allowed his administration to rapidly expel migrants en masse.

Set to expire May 11, the so-called Title 42 policy was first implemented by former President Donald Trump on dubious grounds that migrants could be turned away to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. But the policy has continued for more than two years under Biden, has led to lawsuits and the resignation of a senior administration official, and has become a political flashpoint on the left.

Now, as Title 42 ends, the new troops will be stationed for 90 days alongside the 2,500 military personnel already at the border. Some Democrats have condemned Biden’s decision to maintain the policy for so long and to further militarize the border. But others — particularly those in purple states who could face tough reelection fights — have backed the president’s strategy, which is designed to protect him from right-wing attacks as he runs for reelection.

Immigrant advocates have seen the deployment as evidence that the Biden administration isn’t sufficiently concerned about the fate of migrants seeking protection at the border. “Our border is militarized enough,” said Marisa Limón Garza, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. “Additional military presence aggravates the tension as people attempt to seek asylum and find avenues to express their fears. Instead of spending money on troops, the Biden administration should redirect it to border communities and NGOs working on the ground.”

Biden’s plan for the border

Title 42’s expiration raises concerns that it could trigger a huge influx of migrants that the US is unprepared to humanely process and absorb. The policy has allowed the US to expel migrants more than 2.8 million times since 2020, with many being expelled multiple times after reattempting to cross the border. The Biden administration previously projected that unauthorized crossings could spike as high as 13,000 a day — up from an average of about 6,000 daily in March — if it did not implement a new policy in Title 42’s stead.

The administration has outlined a plan that involves opening new processing centers in Central and South America where migrants can apply to come to the US, Spain, or Canada legally, which is aimed at reducing pressure on the southern border. It will also accept 100,000 people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras under a family reunification program.

The administration is also planning to speed up processing on the border, quickly identifying individuals who have valid asylum claims and turning away those who don’t. Those who cross the border without authorization will be barred from legally reentering the US for five years. And a new rule will also restrict access to asylum in the US for individuals who cross through another country without first applying for protections there.

The Department of Homeland Security said in a statement that the troops would be “performing non-law enforcement duties” — including “detection and monitoring, data entry, and warehouse support” — and would not “interact with migrants.” That will free up DHS staff to process migrants, the agency said.

Limón Garza said that the administration should instead be putting more resources toward the humanitarian mission on the ground. “It’s long overdue for the Biden administration to prioritize solutions that will expand public safety, uphold human rights, and welcome all people to our borders.”

Why Biden is taking a tough stance on the border

Biden came into office following a campaign in which he promised to renew the US’s focus on protecting vulnerable immigrant populations. And he began his tenure making an effort to distinguish himself from Trump’s cruelty on the border as well as the harsh immigration enforcement policies of the Obama administration, which oversaw record deportations.

But the issue has proved intractable, in part because Republicans have used the border as a political cudgel against the president. In recent months, some members of the GOP have called for the impeachment of DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and the Republican-controlled House launched an investigation of Biden’s border policies.

But even consensus among Democrats has proved hard to come by. Progressive Democrats and those who have long been working on immigration issues have been openly critical of the president’s move to further militarize the border. “There is already a humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere, and deploying military personnel only signals that migrants are a threat that require our nation’s troops to contain,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement Thursday. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), however, has long been pushing the Biden administration to take a stronger stance on the border. Last year, he was among a bipartisan group of senators who introduced a bill that would have temporarily preserved the Title 42 policy. And in an interview with Newsweek on Tuesday, Kelly called for tougher border security measures, urging Congress to take up the issue. He proposed increasing the number of Border Patrol agents, improving technology at the border, and constructing new barriers in places “where they make sense” to deter unauthorized crossings.

Border security should be a priority for Democrats as they look toward 2024, rather than capitulating to progressives who have previously called for abolishing US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at the center-left think tank Third Way.

“It is important for Biden and congressional Democrats to show voters that they care as much about a secure border as they do about the plight of undocumented immigrants in the country and those now seeking asylum,” he said. “Moving troops to the border in an administrative role is a smart move for Biden, particularly as we near the end to Title 42.”