There are a lot of problems with the U.S. immigration system. Of all the even halfway decent fixes that have been proposed over the years, though, sending in the military to deter immigrants at the southern border ranks pretty far down the list. And yet that's exactly what's happening, part of a process that I highly doubt will make anyone safer, be they a U.S. citizen or a migrant who has recently crossed the border.
In a rush of gubernatorial one-upmanship, National Guard troops and state police officers are being sent from around the country to fortify Texas and Arizona — sort of. Meanwhile, thousands of service members are unwilling participants in a farce, play-acting at an actual solution to immigration issues that have loomed over the country for decades now. Those federal troops whom former President Donald Trump first deployed ahead of the 2018 midterms will apparently spend another year doing, well, something along the southwestern border.
It's an understatement to say that these recent developments are all about the toxic politics of immigration here in the U.S. rather than actual security needs or solutions to real problems. When Trump first signed an order to deploy National Guard troops to the southern border, it was at a time when border crossings were at their lowest since 1971, according to Customs and Border Protection statistics. But immigration fearmongering was central to his governing philosophy, such as it was, and emergencies require action.
That same thinking was behind the increased deployment later that year, bringing the total to over 5,000 troops, some of them on active duty, to counter the "threat" of a caravan of migrants approaching the southern border. Trump did his best to use the caravan to frighten GOP voters into turning out at the polls, but Democrats still won control of the House that year.
That still left thousands of troops in the southern desert, nominally attached to the Department of Homeland Security, without an entirely clear mission. Because while the whole thing was framed as "defending the border" and stopping undocumented immigrants, none of those forces were actually allowed to do anything involving either.
Here's how NBC News described the activity at the time:
Troops are not allowed to apprehend immigrants like border agents do. For the most part, they are laying barbed wire barriers and erecting tent facilities for themselves and the Border Patrol. The only armed troops are military police, who are there to protect the encampments where troops are staying. While some troops will wear body armor, they will do so only for self-defense and will not directly interact with immigrants.
An increase of active-duty troops in February 2019 as another caravan set off from Central America was met with concern from Democrats — but no real action to force the deployment to end. (This time, the troops were at least conducting aerial surveillance missions on top of the extremely critical barbed wire laying.) That was the status quo when then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper extended the support mission last year, continuing to "provide detection and monitoring, logistics and transportation support" to Customs and Border Protection, or CBP.
Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told Congress in May that to his knowledge the mission would finally end this September. That would have made perfect sense. After all, President Joe Biden even revoked the state of emergency at the southern border Trump had declared in 2019 to help fund his border wall, so why keep up a deployment that has taxed a National Guard stretched thin between the pandemic and the Jan. 6 riot?
Except DHS requested that the mission continue — and can you blame it from a purely bureaucratic standpoint? If the Defense Department is there to fill gaps in staffing that have taxed CBP, why not put in the ask to keep thousands of extra hands around to help? Politically, for the Biden administration, ending the deployment would be a Christmas-in-July present for the GOP officials launching bad faith attacks on the White House's alleged "weakness" on immigration.
And so, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is allowing the mission to continue for a fourth year, the Pentagon announced Tuesday, despite having cost more than $840 million as of February for very little real impact. It's that mission that 185 Ohio National Guard members will join this year, Gov. Jim DeWine announced last week.
DeWine isn't the only Republican governor sending troops south — but most of the other recent announcements have been political theater, pure and simple. Last month, the Republican governors of Texas and Arizona asked states to send help in light of an emergency at the southern border. As MSNBC columnist Steve Vladeck wrote last week, that request was legit under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact. Mostly.
Despite the fanfare to which these governors are announcing their responses to Arizona's and Texas’ calls for help, the number of people actually being sent could easily fit on the same flight down to El Paso.
You see, the governors who've responded — including those of Arkansas, Florida, South Dakota and Iowa — have been less than forthcoming about a lot of the details of their generosity. That includes questions about who's funding these deployments and what exactly the roles the state troopers, in particular, will be playing.
Moreover, despite the fanfare to which these governors are announcing their responses to Arizona's and Texas' calls for help, the number of people actually being sent could easily fit on the same flight down to El Paso. Nor are any of them going to be there long enough to really solve the "crisis."
South Dakota and Arkansas are sending 40 to 50 members of their National Guards each to the southern border for deployments of about 60 and 90 days, respectively. Idaho is sending five state troopers to Arizona for three weeks to help with intelligence-gathering. Nebraska is shipping off 25 state troopers for 16 days, and Florida is contributing "more than 50 staff law enforcement members" for 16-day shifts. Iowa, well, it's not clear how many people Gov. Kim Reynolds is sending or for how long, but officials originally estimated 20 to 30 state troopers for about two weeks.
That's not exactly a phalanx committed to doing what the Biden administration can't, as those governors would have you believe. But when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem are likely to be campaigning for the GOP nomination for president in 2024, you can bet these token deployments will play a big part in campaign ads and stump speeches.
Neither the federal nor the state-led deployments will fix the immigration crisis. They will, however, make some politicians seem tough in the minds of voters who are afraid of Central American immigrants' murdering their children or taking their jobs or both. They will also keep other politicians safe from being accused of coddling child-murdering job stealers. And isn't that exactly what men and women sign up for National Guard service to do?