Why Trump’s 5,200 troops can’t stop migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border

U.S. President Donald Trump says 5,200 troops will defend the country from migrant “invaders” at its southern border with Mexico, but those troops won’t be authorized to detain or threaten anyone under the law.

Instead, they’ll provide non-combat support to help “harden” the border in the American Southwest, joining approximately 2,000 National Guard troops who were previously dispatched to the scene, defence officials said Monday. The troops are expected to arrive in smaller groups in California, Arizona and Texas throughout the week.

The move is part of Trump’s latest effort to energize his anti-immigrant base ahead of the Nov. 6 midterm elections. The president has demonized the approaching caravan of approximately 4,000 migrants, claiming without evidence that the group contains “unknown Middle Easterners” and gang members.

The migrants hail from poverty-stricken Central American countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where they say it’s not safe for them to live anymore. A smaller group of immigrants is currently crossing through Guatemala.

Trump threatened the approaching migrants on Twitter Monday, calling it an “invasion” and promising the migrants that “our Military is waiting for you!”

Trump has repeatedly sounded the alarm about the migrants, but it’s highly unlikely they will reach any border crossings by Election Day. They were heading for Juchitan in southern Mexico on Tuesday, The Associated Press reports. The town is approximately 1,600 kilometres from the border crossing at Laredo, Texas. A pedestrian walking 16 hours a day could cross that distance in 21 days, according to Google Maps.

The president claimed on Monday that his efforts have “nothing to do with elections,” in an interview with Fox News.

States often ask the National Guard for help with border security, but the U.S. rarely deploys the military to help out, except for domestic emergencies such as hurricanes or floods.

“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,” said Shaw Drake, of the American Civil Liberties Union’s border rights centre at El Paso, Texas.

Trump ordered the National Guard to help at the border in April.

Here’s what will be asked of the active-duty troops sent to protect the U.S. border this week.

What they can’t do

Some of the troops sent to the border will be armed, General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, head of the U.S. military’s Northern Command, told reporters in Washington, D.C., on Monday.

However, most of them will be experts trained in building barriers, laying out barbed concertina wire, running surveillance and providing healthcare when necessary.

Military personnel are legally prohibited from engaging in immigration enforcement under the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. That’s why they’ll be limited to support roles.

“Whoever, except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army or Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both,” says Section 1385 of Title 18 in the United States Code. “Posse comitatus” means “force of the county” in Latin.

Congress has permitted a few exceptions such as in cases of insurrection, crimes involving nuclear materials or emergencies involving chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction.

What they can do

The troops deployed to the border will be expected to help Customs and Border Protection agents do their job, according to a release from the Department of Defense. The DoD says members of “Operation Faithful Patriot” will help border agents with air and ground transportation. Troops will also provide medical care, surveillance help and engineering expertise to “secure legal crossings.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and three combat engineer battalions will arrive at the border by the end of the week, Gen. O’Shaughnessy said Monday. The engineers will work on building “temporary barriers and fencing” using heavy equipment, the general said.

Migrants climb on the trailer of a truck as others wait in a line for a ride on the road that connects Tapanatepec with Niltepec, Mexico, as a caravan of Central Americans continues its slow march toward the U.S. border, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018.

The U.S. is also dispatching three medium-lift helicopter companies and military police units.

The DoD says three C-130 Hercules and one C-17 Globemaster III aircraft are already standing by to help.

Trump says the military will build “tent cities” for asylum seekers.

“We’re going to put tents up all over the place,” Trump told Fox New Channel’s Laura Ingraham on Monday. “They’re going to be very nice and they’re going to wait and if they don’t get asylum, they get out.”

The National Guard has already been providing this kind of support, so it’s unclear why active-duty soldiers were sent to the border for the same tasks.

The U.S. will have a combined 7,000 military and National Guard troops at the border until Dec. 15 — more than three times the 2,000 troops it currently has deployed in Syria.

Customs and Border Protection agents stand in a formation with crowd-control equipment as civilian pedestrians walk toward Matamoros, Mexico, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018, at the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, Texas. (Jason Hoekema/The Brownsville Herald via AP)

Migrants can legally present themselves at an existing border crossing. The only illegal activity would be to cross over at a designated point.

“We will not allow a large group to enter the United States in an unsafe and unlawful manner,” said Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, on Monday. He warned that anyone caught crossing into the U.S. illegally will be apprehended.

McAleenan also tried to discourage incoming migrants from making a legal asylum claim at a designated port of entry.

“The government of Mexico has already offered you protection and employment authorization,” he said.

The migrant caravan’s numbers have dwindled from a high of approximately 7,000 to 4,000. Approximately half of them are women and children, The Associated Press reports.

Migrants are entitled under U.S. and international law to apply for asylum on U.S. soil. Migrants who pass the initial screening process at the U.S. border are usually released into the country until their asylum case can be heard. The process can take several years.

With files from The Associated Press and Reuters

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