Defense Secretary Gen. Jim Mattis explained the role nearly 5,800 troops deployed to the southern border will play after President Donald Trump expanded Mattis’s authority to include the use of force, even lethal, in defense of the Border Patrol.
Mattis said that while he’s authorized to use lethal force, that is not what the mission currently calls for and it’s up to Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of Homeland Security (DHS), to request it.
“There has been no call for any lethal force from DHS,” he said during a Nov. 21 media availability.
Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, issued a cabinet order on Nov. 20 which allows federal troops to “perform those military protective activities that the Secretary of Defense determines are reasonably necessary” to protect border agents, including “a show or use of force (including lethal force, where necessary), crowd control, temporary detention. and cursory search,” the Military Times reported.
The order was issued after multiple reports that some travelers in the Central American migrant caravans have been behaving violently, and that dangerous criminals are mixed into the group. Some of the travelers threw rocks and glass bottles and injured six Mexican police officers on the border with Guatemala last month, according to Beatriz Marroquin, the director of health for Guatemala’s Retalhuleu region. Some of the migrants had guns while others had Molotov cocktails, Mexico’s Interior Minister Alfonso Navarrete said at the time.
The travelers have expressed a willingness to enter the United States illegally.
Given the situation, Mattis said, “it is not an unreasonable concern on the part of the president that we may have to back up Border Patrol.”
Based on the secretary’s description, Border Patrol agents will continue to be responsible for law enforcement roles, but if necessary, the troops can step in and protect the agents with non-lethal force. Such an action would probably be undertaken by Military Police armed with shields and batons, not firearms, he said.
“They’re not even carrying guns so, just relax,” he told reporters.
Though there are some armed soldiers deployed at the border, that’s just standard practice for protecting the troops, Mattis said.
The detention authority in Kelly’s order prompted speculation on a possible violation of Posse Comitatus, a law that prohibits federal troops from domestic law enforcement unless specifically authorized by Congress.
But Mattis clarified that the troops will not be actually arresting people.
“If someone’s beating on a Border Patrolman and if we were in position to have to do something about it, we could stop them from beating on them and take him over and deliver him to a Border Patrolman, who would then arrest him for it,” he said, adding that “this is minutes not even hours” of detention.
However, he said the aim is to dissuade the migrants from trying to storm the border in the first place and that’s why the troops have been deploying roadblocks and fortifying the existing border fences with razor wire.
“If there’s one thing you don’t want to walk through, any of us as human beings, it’s barbed wire; even cows are smart enough to stay away from that stuff,” Mattis said. “So if we can keep the danger to the border police low by just putting in barbed wire, especially when people say they’re going to try to illegally cross the border, of course we’d do it.”
It’s the Law
Mattis stressed that the country remains open to immigrants, as long as they come legally. He suggested that Border Patrol shouldn’t get flak for enforcing the existing laws and that it’s up to Congress and, ultimately, up to the voters to change the laws.
“We carry out the law and that’s what Border Patrol is doing,” he said. “I was just down there. These are great guys, I’ll tell you. They have a very difficult job and they’re carrying a heavy load with a country that, right now, has been unable to-date to deal with a legal accommodation for how we’re going to address immigration into this country.”
Several caravans of migrants embarked on a journey from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to the United States, the first setting off from the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula on Oct. 13.
By mid-November, the first wave reached Tijuana, the Mexican city bordering San Diego.
The DHS said that there were 6,000 migrants in the city on Nov. 19 with an additional 2,500 expected any day and perhaps yet another 3,000 in about two weeks, Tijuana Police Chief Mario Martinez said in a previous interview.
About 400 local residents protested the migrants’ presence on Nov. 18, saying the migrants complained about the food provided to them and caused violence.
Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastélum said the caravans are “maliciously organized” with the “goal of creating trouble.” He questioned why the migrants chose Tijuana, “one of the most difficult borders to cross to the U.S.”
Migrants from the three Central American countries commonly try to sneak into the U.S. illegally, but usually do so in the Rio Grande Valley. The trip from Guatemala City to Tijuana is about twice as long as the one to reach the valley.
Vice President Mike Pence was told that the first caravan was organized by leftist groups.
“What the president of Honduras told me is that the caravan was organized by leftist organizations, political activists within Honduras, and he said it was being funded by outside groups, and even from Venezuela,” Pence told Fox News on Oct. 26.
The Central American migrants commonly claim asylum at the border, but only 9 percent end up being approved by an immigration judge, according to the Department of Justice.
Reuters contributed to this report.