Biden sends 1,500 troops to U.S.-Mexico border for migrant surge

The Biden administration will send 1,500 troops to the U.S.-Mexico border ahead of an expected migrant surge following the end of coronavirus pandemic-era restrictions.

Military personnel will do data entry, warehouse support and other administrative tasks so that U.S. Customs and Border Protection can focus on fieldwork, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday.

The troops "will not be performing law enforcement functions or interacting with immigrants, or migrants," Jean-Pierre said. "This will free up Border Patrol agents to perform their critical law enforcement duties."

The troops will carry out this support for 90 days, said Pentagon spokesman Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, "until CBP can address these needs through contracted support."

It’s unclear when the troops would be deployed.

The COVID-19 restrictions allowed U.S. officials to turn away tens of thousands of migrants crossing the southern border, but those restrictions will lift May 11, and border officials are bracing for an expected surge of migrants. Even amid the restrictions, the administration has seen record numbers of people crossing the border, and President Joe Biden has responded by cracking down on those who cross illegally and by creating new pathways meant to offer alternatives to a dangerous and often deadly journey.

Biden’s actions follow similar moves by then-President Donald Trump, who deployed active duty troops to the border to assist border patrol personnel in processing large migrant caravans, on top of National Guard forces that were already working in that capacity. There are already 2,500 National Guard members at the border, the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement.

The Pentagon on Tuesday approved the request for troops by DHS, which manages the border, one of the officials said.

But the deployments have a catch: As a condition for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s previous approval of National Guard troops to support the border mission throughout fiscal year 2023, which ends this Oct. 1, DHS had to agree to work with the White House and Congress "to develop a plan and implement solutions to staffing and funding shortfalls to maintain border security and the safe, orderly, and humane processing of migrants that do not involve the continued use of DOD personnel and resources after FY2023," said Pentagon spokesman Air Force Lt. Col. Devin Robinson.

As part of the agreement, DOD requested quarterly updates from DHS on how it would staff its border mission without service members throughout this fiscal year; it was not immediately clear if those updates have happened or if DHS will be able to meet its terms of the agreement — particularly under the strain of another migrant surge.

DHS said the request for a temporary surge of extra troops is part of their effort to get ready to fully assume the border mission, including their effort to enact measures to reduce migration, improve processing and speed removal of illegal immigrants.

"U.S. Customs and Border Protection is investing in technology and personnel to reduce its need for DOD support in coming years, and we continue to call on Congress to support us in this task," the agency said in a statement.

For Biden, who announced his Democratic reelection campaign a week ago, the decision signals his administration is taking seriously an effort to tamp down the number of illegal crossings, a potent source of Republican attacks, and sends a message to potential border crossers not to attempt the journey. But it also draws potentially unwelcome comparisons to Biden’s Republican predecessor, whose policies Biden frequently criticized. Congress, meanwhile, has refused to take any substantial immigration-related actions.

Jean-Pierre downplayed any similarity to how Biden is handling the migrant surge compared to Trump’s use of troops during his term.

"DOD personnel have been supporting CBP at the border for almost two decades now," Jean-Pierre said. "So this is a common practice."

It’s another line of defense in an effort to manage overcrowding and other possible issues that might arise as border officials move away from the COVID-19 restrictions. Last week, administration officials announced they would work to swiftly screen migrants seeking asylum at the border, quickly deport those deemed as not being qualified, and penalize people who cross illegally into the U.S. or illegally through another country on their way to the U.S. border.

They will also open centers outside the United States for people fleeing violence and poverty to apply to fly in legally and settle in the United States, Spain or Canada. The first processing centers will open in Guatemala and Colombia, with others expected to follow.