The Pentagon on Tuesday approved keeping several thousand active-duty troops along the Southwest border at least through January, extending a controversial mission to assist the Border Patrol as it grapples with a surge of migrants seeking asylum.
Defense Secretary James N. Mattis signed the order to continue the mission through Jan. 31, according to a Pentagon statement. The deployment had been due to expire in mid-December.
The order marks another expansion of a military operation that has steadily grown since President Trump rushed soldiers and Marines to border posts shortly before the Nov. 6 midterm election in what critics said was a political stunt, not a national security emergency.
The administration argued that the troops were needed to help block caravans of several thousand Central American migrants then headed north in Mexico and hoping to seek asylum in the United States.
The White House last month authorized the troops to detain, search and if necessary use deadly force to protect other U.S. government personnel against migrants — a major change in the military role but one that Pentagon officials insisted would only be employed in dire emergencies.
About 5,600 U.S. troops are now deployed along the border in Arizona, Texas and California to back up the Border Patrol.
Some may return to their home bases in coming weeks, especially from engineering units that have largely completed the job of fortifying border crossings, a defense official said.
It’s unclear how many troops will be needed at the border through next month, the official said.
“The Secretary of Defense has approved an extension of the ongoing Department of Defense support to the Department of Homeland Security response to migrant caravan arrivals,” according to the statement.
The order will keep troops away from home through the Christmas and New Year holidays. It is likely to intensify criticism from Democrats, who have called the Pentagon deployment a wasteful political ploy.
The Department of Homeland Security, parent agency of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, asked the Pentagon to postpone the troops’ planned departure, citing what it said was the continuing threat of clashes between asylum seekers and its personnel.
Thousands of migrants from the caravans have arrived in the Mexican cities of Tijuana and Mexicali.
Some clashed last month at the San Ysidro border crossing with Border Patrol agents, who fired tear gas as they tried to rush the border. Unarmed U.S. troops were seen moving razor wire to block the attempted crossing.