More than 3,500 U.S. troops have been deployed near three areas along the U.S.-Mexican border where U.S. officials have assessed migrants and asylum seekers from Central America are most likely to try to enter the country in coming weeks.
Troops are in place around McAllen and Brownsville, in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley; San Ysidro, Calif., south of San Diego; and Nogales, Ariz., U.S. officials said.
No troops are deployed at any of the dozens of ports of entry between the two countries. Instead, they are in nearby staging areas, the officials said. However, at least 100 troops, mostly engineers, began positioning closer to entry ports at McAllen on Friday, a defense official said. More are expected to arrive over the weekend. As of Friday evening, there were 2,250 troops in Texas, 1,100 in California and about 170 in Arizona.
Members of migrant caravans, which are more than 800 miles from the nearest crossing and traveling by foot, are likely to choose one of those areas to try to enter the U.S. because they are the safer and easier options, given their current course, the officials said.
The troops are the first to arrive of more than 7,000 active-duty personnel that the Department of Defense said would provide support for U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers along the border.
The Pentagon at one point in talks concerning the troop deployment was asked by Trump administration officials to provide crowd control functions along the border, but defense officials nixed the request, a U.S. official said Friday, citing restrictions on the use of active duty military troops. The official said the request had been transmitted as part of several iterations of discussions about troops on the border.
The scale of the deployment, which the Pentagon has increased at least three times in the past week, represents a major escalation of the U.S. military presence at the border as President Trump emphasizes immigration issues in the final days of the midterm-election campaign.
President Trump said the U.S. will end Central American aid as thousands of migrants march toward the U.S. border. The WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib explains why this might be counterproductive. Photo: Getty
The caravans consist of Hondurans and others fleeing crime and violence back home, many hoping for asylum in the U.S. If members of the nearest caravan walk toward the Rio Grande Valley crossings, the closest ports of entry, the caravan could reach the border in about three weeks, a U.S. official said.
The Rio Grande Valley, in South Texas, is the busiest stretch of border for illegal immigration between the official ports of entry. More than 63,000 people traveling with family members were arrested after crossing the border illegally in that area last year.
The number of people traveling as families arrested in that Border Patrol sector outpaced the number in the agency’s other sectors by tens of thousands. Nonetheless, other sectors along the border reported that the number of families arrested more than doubled between the 2017 and 2018 budget years.
For immigrants asking for refuge at ports of entry, the busiest single port, by far, is San Ysidro, south of San Diego, which received 15,700 migrants traveling with their families. It was an increase of more than 124% over last year.
San Ysidro would require the longest route for the nearest approaching caravan, but that destination is peppered with support facilities such as legal aid and is considered safer for travel.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Nearly 200 members of one Central American migrant caravan that arrived at the U.S. border in the spring crossed the border at San Ysidro, though Customs and Border Protection officials allowed only small groups of foreigners into the port at a time, citing capacity issues.
In Yuma, which includes parts of southwestern Arizona and a sliver of eastern California, agents arrested more than 14,554 people traveling with family members between October 2017 and September 2018, a jump of more than 140%. In the Tucson sector, which includes the border city of Nogales, agents reported a 143% increase in families, arresting 4,954 such migrants.
There are no troops around border crossings in and around El Paso, Texas, even though that region is the second busiest for migrating families.
More than 14,000 immigrants traveling with family members arrived at ports in that area last year, with most applying for asylum, an increase of 70% over the previous year.
A U.S. official said that while El Paso is closer than ports in Arizona and southern California, the route, spanning mountainous terrain, would be the most difficult for the nearest caravan to travel.
The troops being deployed to the border are expected to be in place before the arrival of a caravan of about 4,000 would-be asylum seekers and migrants from Central America. The military mission, dubbed Operation Faithful Patriot, is the largest single deployment of troops during Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s nearly two-year tenure.
A smaller caravan crossed the Guatemalan-Mexican border Tuesday and is expected to make its way toward the U.S. border. Several other caravans are forming, officials have said.
Mr. Trump said Wednesday that up to 15,000 U.S. troops may be sent to the border, although the Department of Defense has said the active-duty troops, in addition to about 2,000 National Guard members sent earlier this year, are the only ones deploying.
Critics including many Democrats and former military officials charge that the military mission is driven more by politics than by national security.
The Pentagon, which said it is still assessing the cost of the deployment, has said its mission is to provide services including logistics, medical care and transport support for Customs and Border Protection officials, but military officials haven’t spelled out additional details. The troops are scheduled to be deployed until mid-December.
Military commanders have also said the troops are intended to “harden” ports of entry, although U.S. troops aren’t legally allowed to enforce U.S. laws.