Trump calls to close the border, Pentagon agrees to 'mission-enhancing' support

FILE - In this Aug. 18, 2010, file photo, California National Guard Sgt. Howard Schwenke stands in formation with California National Guard troops, who are part of Task Force Sierra, which is training for future deployment at the border along with Border Patrol Agents, near the California/Mexico border in San Diego. (John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP, File)

In the days leading up the Nov. 6 midterms, President Trump has turned his attention back to a winning message from the 2016 campaign, immigration.

On Friday, Defense Secretary James Mattis confirmed the Department of Defense will be sending active-duty troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to support the current work being done by the roughly 2,100 National Guard troops.

In a statement, the Pentagon announced that Mattis approved the request from assistance from the Department of Homeland Security to provide "mission-enhancing capabilities" along the southwest border. The department will provide planning assistance, engineering support, aviation support, medical teams, command and control facilities, as well as temporary housing and protective equipment for U.S. immigration personnel.

The Pentagon did not specify how many troops would be deployed. Earlier reporting suggested it will likely be 800 deployed within a matter of days.

The description of the mission appears to fall short of President Trump's rhetoric in recent weeks, promising to deploy the U.S. military to "close" the border and confront a caravan of a few thousand Central American migrants.

Last week, Trump tweeted a warning that he would "call up the U.S. Military and CLOSE OUR SOUTHERN BORDER" if the governments of Guatemala and Mexico were unable to stop the migrant caravan from traveling further north.

By Monday, the caravan reached the Guatemala-Mexican border where Mexican authorities were overwhelmed by the crowd of roughly 3,000 migrants after agreeing to grant them asylum. Many migrants pushed their way through the border in a dramatic and chaotic exodus.

The president has used these images as a rallying cry for Republican voters to get to the poll. He has characterized the caravan as an "onslaught of illegal aliens" At a campaign rally in Texas this week, he blamed for "openly encouraging millions of illegal aliens to break our laws, violate our borders and overwhelm our nation" and referred to illegal immigration as "an assault on the sovereignty of our country."

Trump's response to that "assault" was to call out the military in what immigration and homeland security experts said was mostly symbolic and not likely to change the facts on the ground.

"The president is treating this as if it's a national security issue or that it's an invasion... They're not mounting an invasion," said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former adviser on border issues at the Department of Homeland Security. "I feel this is a bit of an overreaction and it's not clear that it's all necessary."

Previous presidents have deployed the military to the border when facing previous waves of illegal immigration, including George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Such deployments were usually a "symbolic gesture," said David Martin, an international law professor at the University of Virginia and former deputy counsel at DHS.

"The role of the military deployment is to fill gaps. It's not going to be decisive in any overall strategy," Martin said. That broader strategy would include surging resources to more quickly process asylum claims and deal with the backlog of cases in the immigration courts, which the Trump administration has started doing.

Under U.S. law, the military is prohibited from carrying out domestic law enforcement functions on U.S. soil, including enforcing immigration laws or interacting with migrants. Most of the troops will also be unarmed, though some may carry weapons strictly for self-defense.

"In reality, the deployment is going to be modest and it has to be limited," Martin explained. "So you're not going to see soldiers with bayonets along the border. It just can't happen."

This limited role was made clear back in April, when President Trump issued an order to deploy up to 4,000 National Guard troops to the border in response to an earlier Central American migrant caravan.

The governors of Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas heeded the call and provided a total of 2,100 National Guard troops now on the border. They are mostly engaged in support functions for CBP, which is struggling with manpower shortages. Guardsmen have been assisting with surveillance, constructing barriers along the border, rebuilding sections of border fencing, vehicle and aircraft maintenance and paperwork. Guardsmen have also been able to assist anti-smuggling efforts, working with CBP to inspect passenger vehicles for illegal drugs.

If the idea of the deploying the military was part of a strategy of deterrence, recent history suggests it may not stop additional migrants, according to Brown. "From the beginning, this administration has tried to scare migrants out of coming with a message of deterrence—that you'll be prosecuted, you'll be separated from your family," Brown said. "None of that has worked so far. It's unclear to me that this new round of tactics will work any better."

The troop deployment is more likely to be effective as a political strategy, according to pollster Scott Rasmussen. A recent poll from found that 65 percent of voters supported sending the military to the border.

"That is a message that is a winning message for independent voters and a message that stirs up the base of the Republican Party," he said.

Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, agreed that the message will energize the Republican base and produce strong reactions from Democrats, but will do little to solve America's underlying immigration issues. "Politically, it's great for the base of both parties," he said. "What's left is a large swath of Americans who are looking for solutions, who want to have a functioning immigration system."

For all of the focus on immigration under President Trump, Congress and the administration have yet to agree on limited solutions for border security, foreign aid, dreamers or family detention. Discussions of so-called comprehensive immigration reform are virtually off the table.

"I think people see through the politics of this and are tiring of the emptiness of the debate," Noorani said.

The number of illegal border apprehensions has undeniably increased in recent years, a fact that has fueled the Trump administration's calls to address the border crisis. CBP reported that in FY 2018 a total of 396,579 individuals were apprehended illegally crossing the southwest border. However, that is about one-quarter of the number of illegal border crossings in 2000, when U.S. border patrol apprehended 1.6 million.

The challenges are different compared to the 2000s the majority of illegal border crossings were by Mexicans, who could be quickly repatriated. Today, U.S. immigration authorities have been overwhelmed by a surge of children and families largely from Central America, many crossing at legal ports of entry to claim asylum. That has led to long delays in processing asylum claims resulting in family separation and detention or releasing asylum seekers into the U.S. interior for legal processing later.

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