President Trump called on Tuesday for using the military to guard the border with Mexico until his promised wall is built, highlighting his growing frustration as nationalist allies criticize him for failing to get Congress to fully fund construction.
"Until we can have a wall and proper security, we are going to be guarding our border with our military. That’s a big step,” Trump said during a lunchtime meeting with leaders of three Baltic nations.
"We cannot have people flowing into our country illegally, disappearing, and, by the way, never showing up for court,” Trump said.
Immigrants in the country illegally who claim asylum or have another potential legal basis for staying in the U.S. are often released from detention before their hearing. A large majority do show up for court dates, government figures indicate.
Late Tuesday, after Trump had met with senior advisors and Cabinet officials including Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, the White House released a statement clarifying that the president intended to mobilize the National Guard rather than deploy active-duty troops.
The move would be part of a broader strategy, the statement said, including pressuring Congress “to urgently pass legislation to close legal loopholes exploited by criminal trafficking, narco-terrorist and smuggling organizations.”
Even as Trump talked of dispatching soldiers for domestic duty, he repeated a surprise statement he first made last week, at an Ohio appearance, that he was likely to order U.S. troops to be pulled from Syria. This time, however, he added that he could change his mind if Saudi Arabia agrees to pay the bill.
“Sometimes, it’s time to come back home, and we’re thinking about that very seriously,” he said.
As for deploying troops to the border with Mexico, it was unclear how much — if any — planning had been done by Mattis or other top military officials to comply with Trump’s request. In interviews, several military officials said Trump’s announcement caught them off guard.
“What you’ve heard from the White House is the first I’ve heard,” said Kurt M. Rauschenberg, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau, the Pentagon agency that oversees state National Guard organizations.
Deploying active-duty troops for domestic law enforcement is prohibited under a federal law known as the Posse Comitatus Act. In the past, however, the military has been used to aid the Border Patrol in a supporting role, without arrest authority.
Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama mobilized National Guard troops to help the Border Patrol monitor parts of the border; actual policing was left to border agents. Whether Trump envisioned a more dramatic militarization was not clear until the White House issued its statement hours later. The president often speaks before his staff has a chance to fully vet and plan how to put his ideas into effect.
Despite Trump’s urgent language, the number of people apprehended crossing the border — generally considered a roughly accurate gauge of illegal crossings — has fallen sharply in recent years and is now at the lowest ebb since 1971, about one-fifth the level of the late 1990s, according to Border Patrol data.
Presidents have used troops to help secure the border for over a century. Most recently, in 2010, Obama authorized up to 1,200 National Guard members to assist the Border Patrol, mostly in Arizona, for a year. They mostly provided surveillance, riding in Border Patrol vehicles and using binoculars, night-vision goggles and drones to spot people crossing the border, then reporting such incursions to federal agents.
Bush sent about 6,000 National Guard troops from 2006 to 2008 to the border in Arizona, California and New Mexico.
Governors also can mobilize National Guard units to assist with law enforcement in declared emergencies, which are generally limited in scope and time. State governments usually bear those costs.
Democrats criticized Trump’s call for border troops.
Trump “intends to employ our Armed Forces to advance his extreme anti-immigrant agenda, while wasting time, resources and money and depleting our military strength in areas of real danger,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona, a Marine combat veteran. “That’s an insult to our troops and it will harm our military as an institution. Congress must stop this misguided scheme.”
On a related matter, the Pentagon acknowledged last week that Mattis has discussed with Trump the president’s recent idea for potentially using military funds to pay for construction of a border wall — an action that would require approval of a likely reluctant Congress. But the military did not mention the prospect of border deployments.
Trump campaigned on building a border wall, and he promised Mexico would pay for it. Mexican government officials have consistently said they will not.
Trump signed a $1.3-trillion spending bill last month to finance the government for the remainder of fiscal year 2018, after first threatening to veto it for providing too little for a wall. The bill allotted $1.6 billion for overall border security, with only a portion going for wall construction. Estimates for the full costs range in the tens of billions of dollars.
Influential supporters subsequently chastised Trump to show more resolve in fighting for wall money. Ann Coulter, an anti-immigration pundit who had been an early cheerleader for Trump, has blistered him since he signed the spending bill, invoking the prospect of his impeachment on Twitter and calling him a failure in the New York Times.
“As soon as he gets to the White House, suddenly all he wants is the approval of the Manhattan fancy people,” she said in a recent Fox Business Network interview.
Coulter and like-minded conservatives have also focused attention on reports of a group of Central Americans heading north to escape poverty and violence in their countries, prompting the president to echo their warnings in recent tweets. On Tuesday morning, for example, Trump tweeted ominously about what he calls a “Caravan of People from Honduras” coming across “our ‘Weak Laws’ border” with Mexico.
“If it reaches our border, our laws are so weak and so pathetic,” Trump said in later remarks, adding it is “like we have no border.”
He blamed Obama for an immigration practice that critics call “catch and release,” which is actually a policy that predated Obama, based on laws and court rulings intended to protect minors and victims of human trafficking from indefinite detention. Some detainees typically are released with summons for later court appearances.
The caravan of about 1,100 immigrants mostly from Honduras is now resting in southern Mexico and seeking advice on obtaining visas in Mexico, mostly on humanitarian grounds. Most of those involved in the symbolic march were not expected to proceed to the United States.
Trump took credit for pressuring Mexico to break up the caravan, having warned the country again of implications for ongoing negotiations to rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement. He also threatened to cut aid for Honduras.
“Cash cow NAFTA is in play, as is foreign aid to Honduras and the countries that allow this to happen,” he said in a tweet.
Trump’s blast against Honduras over the immigration issue comes as his administration has sought an especially warm relationship with Honduras’ far-right government. Honduras was among only eight countries that sided with the U.S. in December when the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to condemn Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The decision earned Honduras a high profile visit from U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley as recently as late February. During the visit, Haley tried to soften a prior threat Trump made to the country’s foreign aid over the issue of drug trafficking.
The threat against Mexico and Honduras as well as the call for soldiers on the border signal the degree to which Trump, with seemingly increased impulsiveness, speaks and sets policy apart from his advisors.
Times staff writers Brian Bennett and Joseph Tanfani contributed to this report.