President Trump said Tuesday that he plans to deploy U.S. troops along the southern border to prevent illegal crossings “until we can have a wall.”
“Until we can have a wall and proper security, we are going to be guarding our border with the military. That’s a big step,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
Defense Secretary James Mattis was sitting next to Trump when he made his comments.
Such a move would significantly escalate the U.S. presence along the frontier with Mexico. The U.S. Border Patrol — not the military — is tasked with protecting the border.
Trump has recently reverted back to his hard-line stance on immigration, backing away from his efforts to compromise with Democrats on Capitol Hill.
Over the past several days, the president has closed the door to a deal to protect young immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children, called on Mexico to step up efforts to detail illegal border crossers and sounded the alarm about a so-called “caravan” of Central American migrants heading for the U.S. border.
“If it reaches our border, our laws are so weak and so pathetic…it’s like we have no border,” Trump said.
Trump tied the caravan to the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals program that he ended last fall, even though it does not cover people who crossed the border this year.
The president is coming under mounting pressure from his base to secure a policy win on immigration, after he failed to secure $25 billion to build his proposed border wall in a government funding bill.
Trump even floated the possibility of pulling out of the North American Free Trade Agreement if Mexico does not take steps to curb the flow of immigrants crossing the border illegally.
The president on Tuesday claimed the caravan is breaking up “very rapidly” in part because of his threat.
Sending troops the border would be an unusual, but not unprecedented, step.
Presidents Obama and George W. Bush both deployed National Guard troops at the border to help stop illegal immigration. The temporary moves came as they were trying to win conservative support for immigration reforms that would allow millions to seek U.S. citizenship.
“The United States is not going to militarize the southern border,” Bush said when announcing the deployment in 2006. “Mexico is our neighbor, and our friend.”
A defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity had no immediate details as to how many troops would be used, or what authorities they would have, but said the presence could be similar to the 2006-2008 patrols U.S. military personnel conducted under Operation Jump Start.
In that operation, President George W. Bush called for up to 6,000 National Guard members to secure parts of the border. Eventually 29,000 military personnel from all over the country were involved in the mission, which had a projected cost of around $1.2 billion in then-year dollars.
In 2012, President Barack Obama deployed Army forces from Ft. Bliss to the Tucson, Arizona and El Paso, Texas areas for Operation Nimbus, a joint operation between U.S. Northern Command and Customs and Border Patrol.