Both Sides Are Overselling Trump’s Troop Deployment to the Border

The active-duty troops will mostly be putting up razor wire and moving border police.

An C-17 Globemaster III aircrew with the 3rd Airlift Squadron load cargo in support of Operation Faithful Patriot at Fort Knox, Kentucky, on Oct. 29. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zoe M. Wockenfuss)
An C-17 Globemaster III aircrew with the 3rd Airlift Squadron load cargo in support of Operation Faithful Patriot at Fort Knox, Kentucky, on Oct. 29. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zoe M. Wockenfuss)

President Donald Trump is deploying an additional 5,200 active-duty troops to the southern border of the United States in what he has tried to portray as an unprecedented effort to stem an “invasion” by a caravan of Central American migrants.

The deployment, dubbed Operation Faithful Patriot, is aimed at hardening security at the Mexican border and will bring the number of U.S. troops there to over 7,000—more than triple the number of U.S. forces in Syria as of last December.

That sounds like a massive number, and critics are already out slamming what they see as the militarization of the border just days before the U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 6. On the other side of the aisle, proponents of the move are touting “unprecedented” support for border security from the Defense Department.

But the actual facts of the deployment do not live up to the hype from either side. The move—coming right before crucial midterms while the caravan is more than a month away from reaching the U.S. border on foot—is arguably a political ploy. But it is far from unprecedented: Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama deployed similar numbers of troops to the border during their times in office, though not during elections.

More important, once they arrive, the troops’ mission will be relatively benign. Since they are legally prohibited from performing domestic law enforcement, the troops will spend their time putting up razor wire and offering logistical support to border patrol agents, rather than making arrests themselves.

What’s happening:

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) already has 1,000 officers charged with securing the border, Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said during an Oct. 29 press conference. Their activities involve making arrests and conducting searches, seizures, and other law enforcement tasks.

Due to the large size of the caravan that may arrive at the border—the latest estimates peg it at 3,500 people—the Department of Homeland Security requested additional assistance from the Pentagon, McAleenan said.

“We’ve got to be prepared for the potential arrival of a very large group. And because of the size, we want to be able to handle it effectively and safely,” McAleenan said.

The 5,200 active-duty troops, in addition to the roughly 2,000 National Guard personnel already deployed to the borders, are prohibited by the Posse Comitatus Act from performing law enforcement operations inside the United States; that responsibility at the border falls to CBP. Troops cannot enforce federal or state laws, and they cannot detain noncombatants at the border, said Joseph Kirschbaum, a director at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) who handles homeland defense and defense support of civil authorities.

Instead, the active-duty and Guard troops will mostly be placed in support roles, such as transporting CBP personnel and equipment and providing medical and logistical support and planning, Kirschbaum said.

The troops Trump is sending to the border are not primarily trigger-pullers. Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, the head of U.S. Northern Command, said the 5,200 troops include units from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, some of whom are currently involved in building the border wall; three combat engineering battalions with experience in building temporary vehicle barriers and fencing; military planning teams; three medium-lift helicopter companies equipped with night vision goggles; military police; strategic airlift such as C-130 and C-17 cargo aircraft; and medical units.

Eight hundred soldiers are already on their way to the border from Fort Campbell and Fort Knox in Kentucky, O’Shaughnessy said, with the rest set to arrive by the end of the week.

The precedent:

This is not the first time a president has sent troops to the border. Under Operation Jump Start, Bush began deploying National Guard personnel in June 2006. About 6,000 were sent to the border states in the first year; this number was reduced to 3,000 the second year of the operation. The Guard members were tasked with aviation, engineering, and entry identification, according to a report from the GAO. The operation lasted until July 2008.

Then, from July 2010 to September 2011, Obama sent roughly 1,200 Guard members to the border under Operation Phalanx. The defense secretary at the time limited the Guard mission to entry identification, criminal analysis, and command and control.

The scope and scale of Trump’s deployment are similar, said James Jay Carafano, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation.

“It’s hard to make much out of it because it’s very proportional to the kinds of things we’ve done in the past,” Carafano said. “This is no different or any more remarkable than what we’ve had before from one Republican president and one Democrat.”

The biggest difference is that Bush and Obama deployed National Guard troops while Trump is sending active-duty military. Trump himself has sought to underscore that difference.

“They’re not me,” Trump said during an Oct. 29 interview with Fox News. “I’m sending up the military. This is the military.”

But again, the legal authorities for domestic use of both kinds of troops are similar. Guard personnel can operate under two kinds of legal authority: Title 32 or Title 10 status. Active-duty troops operate under Title 10. That status means that active-duty forces are prohibited under Posse Comitatus from direct participation in domestic law enforcement unless specifically authorized by Congress, the president, or the defense secretary. Guard forces serving under Title 32 may in some cases participate in law enforcement—during national disasters, for example—but during previous border deployments the Pentagon has limited those activities, Kirschbaum said.

How much will it cost?

The Defense Department comptroller is reportedly working on a cost estimate for Operation Faithful Patriot, but the final tally will depend on how long the additional troops are deployed to the border.

For context, the GAO pegged the combined cost of both Operations Jump Start and Phalanx at $1.35 billion. Using active-duty rather than Guard or Army Reserve troops actually keeps costs down, according to Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

If the Guard or Reserve is used, “a big part of the cost is the additional pay required for calling up troops,” Harrison said. By contrast, if active-duty troops are used, “you don’t have to include pay because they are already on active duty.”

Still, some critics have argued that the move is a waste of taxpayer dollars. Kelly Magsamen, the vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress, called the deployment a “craven political stunt that sets a bad precedent and is arguably an abuse of power.”

Magsamen, who served on the National Security Council and in the Pentagon during the Bush and Obama administrations, called on Defense Secretary James Mattis to defend the decision publicly or resign.

“Sending active-duty troops to the border is a misuse of resources, when National Guard troops can perform the same duties,” Magsamen said. “Trump is only doing this to whip the public into a frenzy over an invasion threat that does not exist.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman