PHOENIX – President Donald Trump’s administration will immediately deploy 160 active-duty soldiers to two key cities along the U.S.-Mexico border in response to a series of adverse federal court rulings limiting the implementation of his restrictive border enforcement policies, as well as growing concerns over the spread of the new coronavirus.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced Friday that it would deploy 80 active duty troops to San Diego’s San Ysidro border crossing and 80 more to El Paso’s Paso del Norte bridge as early as Saturday to provide “military police support, engineer, and aviation support” to customs officials at those two ports of entry.
The border agency’s announcement emphasized the role that a Feb. 28 ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco factored into their decision to deploy troops to those two cities.
A panel of judges blocked the U.S. government from sending asylum seekers to Mexico for the duration of their proceedings under the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” finding that the program was in violation of U.S. immigration laws.
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In response, dozens of asylum seekers sent back under MPP congregated at border crossings from Tijuana to Brownsville, Texas, asking to be let into the country. CBP temporarily shut down at least one border crossing in El Paso to keep people from rushing the port of entry.
“CBP Ports of Entry (POEs) are not designed or equipped to handle extremely large groups of travelers arriving all at the same time and temporary closure of a POE is contemplated as an extreme option, as necessary for public safety and border security,” the agency said in a written statement. “Compounded in response to Friday’s (Feb. 28) amassment of large groups in Mexico with the potential to forcibly enter the United States, CBP closed or partially suspended operations at multiple locations in order to maintain safety and security.”
The 160 troops are part of the Defense Department’s Crisis Response Force, which the Pentagon has made available to CBP since Trump initially deployed soldiers to the border in November 2018 in anticipation of the arrival of a large caravan.
A CBP spokesman said the deployment to San Diego and El Paso would begin Saturday and last for two weeks. The agency has the option, based on current needs, to extend the deployment and even “lift and shift” to other border crossings, he said.
The timing of the troops’ deployment is tied to an upcoming deadline that the 9th Circuit set this week. The federal judges presiding over the case allowed “Remain in Mexico” to continue, but only until March 11.
At that point, the court will block the program in Arizona and California – the states under its jurisdiction – unless the Supreme Court stays its ruling. To date, the Supreme Court has not intervened.
The U.S. government has sent back more than 60,000 people, mostly Central American migrants, to await their asylum proceedings in Mexico. The two border cities of Tijuana, located across from San Diego, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, across from El Paso, received the most returned migrants.
Top U.S. officials, including CBP’s Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan, have called the Migrant Protection Protocols a “game-changer” that have allowed them to reduce the flows of large numbers of Central Americans to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Customs and Border Protection also cited the U.S. government’s “COVID-19 containment and mitigation concerns” in its decision to deploy the military.
The agency said it faces a “delicate” balance in providing border security while facilitating legal trade and travel that last year topped $600 billion in goods and services between the U.S. and Mexico. More than 188 million people crossed the border, according to government figures.
Community groups and elected leaders along the U.S. border reacted with a mix of concern and outrage at the Trump’s administration’s response to the court’s rulings, as well as the use of coronavirus worries as justification to deploy troops.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a freshman Democrat from El Paso, said in a written statement that the Trump administration is using COVID-19 as “an excuse to sow fear about asylum seekers in an effort to continue to violate the law.”
“While it is no surprise, it is nonetheless deeply disappointing that the Trump administration would use the coronavirus as an excuse to sow fear about asylum seekers in an effort to continue to violate the law,” Escobar said. “It is because we are all concerned about the coronavirus that we need to focus our resources on our real challenges, like the limited number of tests available, something that troops on the border won’t address.”
Dylan Corbett, founding director of Hope Border Institute – a binational advocacy group in the El Paso-Juárez region – expressed concern over the deployment.
“There’s always a liability and risk when you send military to the border, knowing that you are sending them for a mission that they have not been trained,” he said.
Corbett added that it’s troubling that the government doesn’t have a clear, comprehensive plan for dealing with COVID-19, but recently decided to shut down the ports of entry instead of processing migrants.
That’s a sentiment echoed by Vicki Gaubeca, the director for the San Diego-based Southern Border Communities Coalition, a collective of more than 60 community and advocacy organizations along the border.
“We don’t need more boots on the ground. What we need are more trauma specialists, more medical professionals, more asylum officers,” she said.
Gaubeca called the situation “a crisis that is of the (Trump) administration’s own making” because it chose to implement an illegal program.
She and other advocates were anxious about whether the Supreme Court would step in and side with the Trump administration.
“We have volunteer groups in the communities where they’re going to be deploying the military who stand at the ready to receive these individuals,” she said. “So it’s not something the government has to do alone.”
Contributing: Eleanor Dearman and Maria Cortes Gonzalez El Paso
Follow Rafael Carranza on Twitter at @RafaelCarranza.