Friday, November 2, 2018

How Many Troops Are Really Needed At The Border?

Much like the federal debt, the number of troops that the Trump Administration is deploying to the Mexican border keeps rising. Speaking to reporters outside the White House yesterday, President Trump said yesterday that he would increase the number of active-duty soldiers on the southern border to between 10,000 and 15,000. This would more than double the number of soldiers on the border.

“As far as the caravan is concerned,” Trump said, “our military is out. We have about 5,800. We’ll go up to anywhere between 10 and 15,000 military personnel on top of Border Patrol, ICE, and everybody else at the border.”

“Nobody’s coming in,” he continued. “We’re not allowing people to come in. If you look at what happened in Mexico two days ago with the roughness of these people in the second caravan that’s been forming and, also frankly, in the first caravan. And now they have one forming in El Salvador and we are thinking very seriously, immediately, of stopping aid to those countries because frankly, they are doing nothing for the American people.”  

“Immigration is a very, very big and very dangerous – a really dangerous – topic,” Trump added. “We’re not going to allow people to come into our country that don’t have the well-being of our country in mind.”

The Trump Administration seems to have found a strategy to keep Republican voters excited after the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings with its plan to fortify the southwestern border. The deployments began a week ago with Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ announcement that 800 regular army soldiers would join 2,100 National Guardsmen deployed to the border ahead of a migrant caravan last spring. A few days later, that number was increased to 5,000 support troops tasked with assisting federal law enforcement agencies.

Now, apparently seeing the popularity of the previous moves among Republican voters and deciding that more is better, President Trump is increasing the deployment by a factor of three to 15,000. To put that number in perspective, a brigade is typically composed of 3,000-5,000 soldiers. The three brigades worth of soldiers that President Trump is ordering to the border are equivalent to an entire infantry division. This is almost twice as many soldiers as the US has in Afghanistan. The thought of the US border fortified like the Maginot line against an “army” of migrant workers and women and children is, frankly, amusing.

Estimates of the size of the caravan vary, but most analysts put the number at 5,000-7,000. At the upper end of the scale, some sources estimate the group was as large as 14,000 people. The second caravan is reported to number about 2,000. In any case, the numbers are dwindling as the first group, last reported in Juchitan, in extreme southern Mexico, walks north. Contrary to reports in the conservative media, Mexico has denied the group’s requests for buses. At 30 miles per day, the walk to Tijuana, the apparent destination, would take 72 days.

Aside from pushing across the Mexican border from Guatemala, the caravans appear to be largely nonviolent. One person was reportedly killed in clashes with Mexican police two days ago, which is apparently the event that President Trump referred to in his comments. Most of the refugees are actually fleeing political violence in Honduras and are coming to the United States to ask for asylum.

“How many soldiers does it take to keep a caravan of migrant workers from crossing the border?” may seem like the setup for a joke, but the question has serious implications for federal spending and military readiness. Even before the latest announcement of troop increases, the plan to deploy 5,000 soldiers to the border was estimated come with a $50 million price tag. The large number of soldiers now being considered may well affect the ability of units elsewhere to do their jobs.

David Lapan, a former Marine who served as the DHS spokesman under President Trump, tweeted, “A military strained by 17 years of war and sequestration doesn't need this.”

While some military support for border enforcement agencies is warranted, we have now reached a point of diminishing returns. The soldiers being deployed are not combat troops that would confront the unarmed migrants. Instead, they are military police, engineers, and technicians who would provide infrastructure support, such as building fences and tent cities, and command-and-control assistance to law enforcement. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said last week that there is no “intention right now to shoot at people” from the caravan even if they cross the border illegally, no matter how much some social media trolls may claim to desire this outcome.

The US has the right and the duty to defend its borders and to control immigration, but President Trump has moved from defense of the border to political posturing for his base. The president’s political overkill is set to cost the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars at a time when the federal deficit is projected to top $1 trillion.

My prediction, as I have written previously, is that the entire situation is much ado about nothing. Few refugees from the caravan that caused a panic last spring ever made it to the US border. Those who did mostly sat in Mexico and waited for their turn to apply for asylum. The right to petition for asylum is guaranteed under US law. Ironically, the DHS inspector general reported that the Trump Administration’s policy of metering the processing of asylum-seekers led to an increase in illegal border crossings. In other words, Trump’s policy of slow-walking legal asylum requests led to more illegal immigration.

Americans should rest easy. The migrant caravans are thousands of miles away and only a small percentage of the refugees will ever reach the US border. Of those who do, the evidence points to the vast majority only wanting to seek new lives and economic opportunity in the United States, the same as previous immigrants have done throughout our history. Border security forces, with a ratio of more than one federal agent per refugee, should be able to handle the minority who are looking for trouble.

Originally published on The Resurgent

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