Nearly a year ago, President Trump asked several states to deploy National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexican border. It was a crisis, the president blustered at the time, and the Border Patrol needed help. Central American migrants were moving north in caravans, intent, he seemed to say, on overrunning the border in a thundering horde. He insisted then, as he does now, that these immigrants were dangerous, criminal, undesirable, inadmissible; they had to be stopped.
Trump’s request for National Guard help was rooted in fear-mongering and prejudice, not in fact. But Gov. Jerry Brown acquiesced anyway and sent 400 troops, limiting them to supporting federal border agents, and focusing on drug-smuggling interdiction. They were expressly forbidden to play an active role in stopping or detaining migrants.
Brown made the right call then. When the commander in chief requests help from state National Guard units, it is generally in the nation’s best interest that governors not defy the requests simply because they disagree with the mission. It seemed likely even then that the deployments were a political stunt by a president worried about the midterm elections, but it was also important for Brown to respect the chain of command — National Guard units are under the control of state governors but can in certain circumstances be called to action by a president as well. Brown avoided a showdown, didn’t cede too much, put some limitations on the mission and fulfilled his obligation to respond to a lawful, if stupid, request from Trump.
It became increasingly clear that the National Guard deployment is utterly unnecessary — pure kabuki theater.
But in the ensuing months, as the president escalated his lies about the supposed national security “crisis” at the border, it became increasingly clear that the National Guard deployment is utterly unnecessary — pure kabuki theater. Now Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced that enough is enough, and says he will, when the current agreement ends March 31, redeploy most of those California National Guard members elsewhere. He said he would send 110 troops to augment wildfire prevention efforts and others to counter what he said is a growing problem with illegal marijuana farms in northern California. About 100 will remain at the border to counter narcotics smuggling at California ports of entry.
Newsom is right to do so, even though the decision invites a showdown with the president.
And Newsom isn’t alone. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham — like Newsom, a recently installed chief executive — last week ordered most of her state’s Guard troops to stand down, describing Trump’s deployment as “a charade.” And governors from at least eight other states denied Trump’s request back when he originally made it.
It should give us all pause whenever a state governor rejects a legitimate presidential request for National Guard assistance based on political differences. But in this instance, it has become incontrovertibly clear that the nation is not facing a border crisis, that there is no imminent threat to national security from several thousand migrants seeking asylum or better lives here, and that continuing to provide National Guard support to the president in this context reduces the soldiers to bit players in Trump’s little melodrama.
More broadly, Trump — beginning with his announcement that he would run for president — has portrayed illegal immigrants derogatorily, repeatedly referring to the criminals and rapists among them. Playing on economic and racial fears, he has sought to turn a nation of immigrants into hostile territory for newcomers. He has victimized the vulnerable.
This fear-mongering recently helped cause the record-setting 35-day federal government shutdown, and it could trigger another. Democrats want the new government-funding bill to limit the number of detention beds for migrants, hoping to roll back the administration’s aggressive detention of asylum seekers and immigrants who are in the country illegally but are otherwise law-abiding. Trump says he won’t accept such a cap, and insists that lawmakers give him $5.7 billion for his wasteful border wall.
Of course, by redeploying the National Guard, Newsom could invite a counter-strike from Trump, who has the authority to federalize the National Guard and directly order them back to the border. That would be unwelcome — it’s still a manufactured crisis — but it would shift the blame for the bad decision purely to the president’s shoulders, where it belongs.