The Pentagon offered new details Monday about the types of activities National Guard troops would perform while deployed by President Trump to the U.S.-Mexico border, but critical questions remain about how long the operation will last and how much it will cost.
National Guard troops will provide air support through drones and light-, medium- and heavy-lift helicopters, Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a Defense Department spokesman, said in a statement to The Washington Post. They will also help maintain roads and other infrastructure, clear vegetation and assist with facility maintenance, in addition to operating surveillance systems, including cameras and blimps, Davis said.
They will not be arresting migrants or carrying out armed patrols along the border.
Describing the mission as a support role for the Department of Homeland Security, Davis confirmed that the troops won’t necessarily carry weapons. “National Guard personnel will only be armed for their own self-protection to the extent required by the circumstances of the mission they are performing,” Davis said.
The troops can be drawn from National Guard units across the country and will be under the command of border state governors. On Monday, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, responding to the executive order Trump signed last week, sent 225 Arizona National Guard personnel to the Tucson and Yuma Border Patrol sectors. He planned to deploy an additional 113 troops Tuesday.
Texas, which already had National Guard troops along the border, deployed additional forces over the weekend. New Mexico hadn’t mobilized anyone but signaled plans to participate in the mission. California, the only state bordering Mexico with a Democratic governor, said Gov. Jerry Brown continued to review his options.
The deployments come as President Trump tries to meet his campaign promise to stiffen border security despite failing to persuade Congress to fully fund his $18 billion wall. To pay for the military operation, he doesn’t need approval from lawmakers because the money will come from the Pentagon’s $700 billion budget.
The Pentagon said troops would work on infrastructure projects but did not specify whether that would include wall construction. Previous border deployments of the National Guard have included barrier installation.
A two-year deployment of up to 6,000 troops to the border during President George W. Bush’s administration cost about $1.2 billion. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis signed an action memo Friday approving the payment of up to 4,000 National Guard personnel through Sept. 30 and directed the Pentagon’s comptroller to notify him if any money would have to be diverted from other programs. That’s about double the number of U.S. troops deployed to Syria.
While Bush and President Barack Obama also used the National Guard to reinforce border security, those assignments came at moments of heightened drug violence, or followed urgent public appeals from state governors for federal help. They were not the kind of open-ended mission that Trump has called for by “sealing up” the border.
“Until we can have a wall and proper security, we’re going to be guarding our border with the military,” Trump said last week.
The troop deployment appeared to catch military and Homeland Security officials by surprise last week, as President Trump fumed at Mexico over reports that a caravan of more than 1,000 Central American migrants was en route to the U.S. border. Previous border deployments were done in coordination with the relevant U.S. governors and Mexican officials.
In 2014, then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) sent more than 1,000 guard troops to the border after a surge of Central American families and children overwhelmed Border Patrol agents. The troop presence has dwindled since then as the crisis subsided, and by last week only about 100 remained, according to state officials. There was no specific appeal for help last week from the office of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) to the White House, officials said.
The White House has also requested a detailed list of “existing facilities, including military facilities,” that could be used for immigrant detention.
In a statement, the Arizona National Guard said that while its previous missions were in support “solely” of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the new assignment “will support the entire Department of Homeland Security.” The Guard did not say what other DHS agencies the troops would assist, but U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is responsible for immigration detention and deportations, is a separate entity from the U.S. Border Patrol.
Immigration enforcement officials have not said they are facing a shortage of detention space, but court rulings generally prohibit the government from jailing families or children for more than three weeks while they wait to see a judge.
Skeptics of Trump’s military plan point out that there are far more Border Patrol agents than there were in 2006, when Bush sent guard troops to the border in Operation Jump Start.
The Border Patrol had 11,000 agents deployed along the Mexico border in 2006, and they made more than 1 million arrests that year, an average of 90 arrests per officer.
Last year, the Border Patrol’s 16,600 agents made 310,000 arrests, equal to 19 arrests per agent.