Aiming to ramp up protection for America’s southern border, President Trump consulted Defense Secretary James Mattis and then announced a bold and needed policy change on Tuesday: “We're going to do some things militarily…. Until we can have a wall and proper security, we're going to be guarding our border with the military.”
Many are in shock, apparently offended, some overtly indignant. They should not be. This is old hat, a measured, modest move to address a massive mission. The president is right to say he has a duty to defend our nation’s borders.
And the move may be part of a strategy by President Trump to win approval in Congress to build a permanent physical and virtual wall along our border with Mexico, fund it properly, craft workable immigration policy, and put young people protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program on track to permanent legal status or even citizenship.
Acknowledging “a big step,” President Trump correctly argued that turning to the military to protect our border is preferable to chasing illegal entrants around the country. "We cannot have people flowing into our country illegally, disappearing, and by the way never showing up for court," the president said.
Hard to argue his point. One credible 2017 analysis, conducted by nonpartisan immigration experts and looking back 20 years, found nearly 40 percent of the illegal immigrants released with a court date never showed up in court.
The ball is now in the court of Congress. If lawmakers object to using troops on our southern border there is only one alternative. Fund a border wall and virtual barriers between the U.S. and Mexico.
Of 2.5 million illegal immigrants let go on their promise of return, almost 919,000 disappeared into thin air. Whether suspected of no crime at all besides illegal entry into the U.S. – or of trafficking drugs, arms and people – they vanished.
Likely some migrated to sanctuary cities, others into criminal gangs, others blended into America’s Heartland and ubiquitous shadows, aware they had violated the law, resolved not to be caught.
Tuesday, perhaps triggered by reports of a large Honduran refugee “caravan” transiting through Mexico and headed for the U.S. border, President Trump set a deterrent.
Boosting our military presence on the southwest border is sound policy, entirely legal, and viscerally satisfying, but it is a short-term, feel-good, muscular stopgap.
For the moment, ramping up National Guard on the border – as Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Clinton and Obama did – says to illegal immigrants “don’t try it.” The action tells Mexico “we are watching.” And President Trump’s message to Congress is “get back to work on the wall, fixing immigration, addressing DACA.”
Moving the military to the border is not a solution to the problem of illegal immigration. Eventually, a border wall must be built – methodically reinforced by ground, sea, air and space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance – or we have no real border. This is a matter of protecting our national security.
Is the Trump approach legal? Of course. If the president of the United States can’t defend our country, who else is supposed to do the job?
In 2006 under “Operation Jump Start,” more than 6,000 National Guardsmen were sent by President George W. Bush to the southwest border to enhance security, surveillance, communications, intelligence and deterrence. Their numbers were halved the next year, but they supported missions in the air and on ground.
Likewise, President Obama sent 1,200 National Guard troops to the Mexican border to blunt spikes in illegal drug trafficking and immigration during 2010, although the stay was short.
During the Clinton years, “Operation Gatekeeper” was undertaken in 1994. Still ongoing in 1995, those involved recall follow-on border actions that included use of military assets and personnel by state-level authorities, drawing on components of the National Guard and Joint Task Force Six.
Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush utilized the National Guard to support counter-narcotics and illegal immigration on the border, although focused on immigration reform.
Ronald Reagan, when governor of California, famously deployed the military – 2,200 National Guardsmen – to end riots on the University of California at Berkeley’s campus, which proved effective and stabilizing.
None of these ramp-ups proved a lasting solution to illegal border crossings, to stopping drugs, human trafficking or illegal immigration, as President Trump no doubt knows.
They did open a window for each president, causing each administration and Congress to rethink immigration, strengthen federal law enforcement, and focus attention on the border.
The same opening will occur here. A temporary fix is wise and advisable, especially with caravans of illegal immigrants testing America’s will.
And one thing more. If President Trump shifts money from the Defense Department he could fund the border wall he campaigned on. It is, after all, part of the defense of our country.
Believe it or not, in the 1990s and 2000s, Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush utilized National Guard personnel deployed to border duty for more than just deterrence, support of law enforcement, and blunting the flow of drugs and illegal aliens.
Both presidents used the military to perform another task. Using buy-in by governors, those military personnel worked to “install border security infrastructure” – that is, to build parts of a wall.
In fact, the military under President George W. Bush constructed more than 100 miles of border barriers – small walls and fencing and mobile vehicle blockers. In the 1990s, when President Clinton held office, California used the military to create a wall just south of San Diego, coordinating with the National Guard for proper authorization.
The ball is now in the court of Congress. If lawmakers object to using troops on our southern border there is only one alternative. Fund a border wall and virtual barriers between the U.S. and Mexico. Just as we don’t leave the doors to our homes wide open to anyone who wants to enter, we have to protect our borders from an unending flow of illegal immigrants and drugs.