The Biden administration plans to send 1,500 active duty soldiers to the U.S.-Mexico border for 90 days, federal officials announced Monday.
The move comes ahead of the anticipated increase of migrants at the southern border when a pandemic-related border policy expires May 11, though U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials said service members would not perform law enforcement functions or interact with migrants in custody. Troops will begin to arrive as soon as May 10.
About 2,500 National Guard members are already stationed at all nine sectors of the southwest border doing support work with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, one official said. The new increase will bring the total to 4,000 military personnel on the border.
Officials said the 1,500 Army and Marine Corps troops, requested by the Department of Homeland Security, will fill critical “capability gaps,” such as watching for crossings, monitoring camera feeds, data entry and warehouse support.
“[Department of Defense] personnel have been supporting CBP at the border for almost two decades now, so this is a common practice,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters at Tuesday’s briefing.
“This would not be necessary if Congress would act,” she added.
Title 42 orders are expected to end May 11. The policy was implemented amid the COVID-19 pandemic and prevented migrants from requesting asylum, allowing border agents to swiftly return many of them back to Mexico.
DHS said in a statement that the request for more troops is due to an anticipated increase in arrivals of migrants attempting to enter the U.S. Support from the troops will free up DHS personnel to fulfill their own law enforcement duties, officials said.
The Department of Defense has supported DHS on the border every year since 2006, Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said at a news conference Monday. Ryder said department officials are evaluating whether they could replace the active duty forces with others, such as reserve troops and contracted support, before the 90 days is up.
In 2018, President Trump sent 5,800 active duty military troops to the southern border amid the arrival of a caravan of thousands of Central American migrants, which he characterized as an “invasion.” Initially the troops laid razor wire and conducted other tasks, but later the White House expanded the troops’ authority, allowing them to use force and provide crowd control when necessary to protect border agents.
Advocates for immigrants decried the decision Monday, calling it an unnecessary tool from Trump’s playbook.
Jonathan Blazer, director of border strategies for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that the move amounted to “political optics.”
“People who have been forced to flee their homes and embark on arduous, dangerous journeys for the chance to seek legal protection in the U.S. should be met with compassion — not military troops,” he said. “President Biden has had years to prepare for the long-overdue end to Title 42.”
Ryder sidestepped a question about political implications, saying that, “Clearly, DHS felt that there was a need for the Department of Defense to assist so that they can continue to do their important work.”
Biden on Thursday signed an executive order “on authority to order the Ready Reserve of the Armed Forces to active duty to address international drug trafficking.” The order builds on another from December 2021, which declared an emergency to address the national security threats posed by cross-border narcotics trafficking.
Times staff writer Courtney Subramanian and San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Kate Morrissey contributed to this report.