Hidalgo County, Texas April 13, 2018: Texas National Guard troops man a observation post along the Rio Grande River as it flows southward between Texas and Mexico. (Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune)
Officials say the deployment will include three helicopter units, mobile command and medical units, military police and more.
At least 5,200 troops will be deployed to the U.S. border with Mexico by the end of the week, Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense officials confirmed Monday afternoon.
The troops are in addition to the 2,000 National Guard members who have been in place since April. They are being sent days before the midterm elections in response to the caravan of Central American migrants that are slowly making their way to the United States after crossing Mexico’s southern border earlier this month.
“Make no mistakes, as we sit right here today, we have 800 soldiers that are on their way to Texas right now,” said Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, the chief of U.S. Northern Command, during a news conference.
O’Shaughnessy said that new number could change, depending on whether the situation dictates a change in strategy. O’Shaughnessy foretold of an operation that is likely to be very different from the current National Guard activity, which mainly happens behind the scenes and assists federal Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol agents.
In addition to the boots on the ground, the military is also preparing to deploy three helicopter companies that can transport Customs and Border Protection agents at a moment’s notice, O’Shaughnessy said, adding that mobile command and medical units are also at the ready, as is enough barbed wire to build up to 22 miles of makeshift barrier, with another 150 miles still available.
“We have combined command posts where our operational commanders will be working side by side to integrate our efforts and make,” O’Shaughnessy said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan added that his agency also has more than 1,000 reinforcements awaiting the caravan, including 250 tactical specialists trained in riot control and other crowd control duties. There are also 830 Border Patrol agents on standby. The agency also has two dozen aircraft available, including four Black Hawks and additional fixed-wing aircraft.
“Our message to the organizers and participants of this caravan is simple: As the president and [Department of Homeland Secretary Kristen] Nielsen have made clear, we will not allow a large group to enter the United States in an unsafe and unlawful manner,” McAleenan said.
The military buildup, which was first reported by Reuters Monday morning, comes as President Donald Trump continues to suggest that criminals and Middle Easterners have infiltrated the caravan, which started out with more than 7,000 migrants but has reduced in size this month. He has presented no evidence to support that claim. Critics have argued that Trump is exaggerating the threat of the caravan in the lead-up to the election.
The American Civil Liberties Union immediately blasted the move as nothing more than a costly and unnecessary political ploy.
“Sending active military forces to our southern border is not only a huge waste of taxpayer money but an unnecessary course of action that will further terrorize and militarize our border communities,” Shaw Drake, the policy counsel for the ACLU Border Rights Center in El Paso, said in a statement. “ Military personnel are legally prohibited from engaging in immigration enforcement, and there is no emergency or cost-benefit analysis to justify this sudden deployment.”
McAleenan said the agency would do its best to “maintain lawful trade and travel to the greatest extent possible” during the operation. But the troop buildup has some border economists nervous.
If the military buildup slows down daily binational commerce, Texas would be the hardest hit. From January to August of this year, the Laredo customs district, which includes the Rio Grande Valley, has processed more than $153 billion in two-way trade with Mexico, according to WorldCity, a Florida-based company that analyzes trade data. The El Paso district, which includes New Mexico, has processed almost $52 billion.
“The No. 1 thing that’s important, besides our protection, is our trade and travel,” said Monica Weisberg-Stewart, the chairwoman of Texas Border Coalition’s Immigration and Border Security Committee. The coalition has expressed concerns about the buildup. “And right now, that trade and travel can be truly affected just by these measures. This is not like previous deployments, this is a scary time.”
News of the deployment comes as border residents are already seeing the effects of the preemptive law enforcement operations. On Sunday, the local FOX News affiliate reported that Customs and Border Protection officers set up barricades on one of the city’s international bridges in preparation for the caravan’s arrival. A Customs and Border Protection spokesperson told The Texas Tribune the agency cannot comment on how long the current operation will continue.
Border residents also saw a popular binational event, The Run Internacional – The U.S. – México 10K, canceled due to the caravan’s expected arrival. The popular race begins in El Paso and ends in Ciudad Juárez and is showcased as a symbol of binational unity.
“U.S. Customs and Border Protection [has] always has been very supportive of this binational event and is a critical stakeholder in making this happen,” race organizers posted on their webpage. “You may have heard that a caravan of Central American people is on its way to the U.S.-Mexico border. Based on the need of resources, CBP has requested we postpone this year’s race to a later date in the next few weeks.”