The troops President Donald Trump sent to the border ahead of the elections earlier this month will reportedly soon be leaving, in spite of continued flows of asylum-seekers and other migrants coming to the United States.
Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, who is overseeing the troop deployment at the border, told Politico on Monday that the Pentagon will begin heading home as soon as this week after completing the tasks of fortifying ports of entry and building base camps.
“Our end date right now is 15 December, and I’ve got no indications from anybody that we’ll go beyond that,” Buchanan told Politico.
Pentagon spokeswoman Laura Seal said in an email to HuffPost that she had no details on redeployment to announce at this time, but that troops “have made significant progress in closing gaps and hardening points of entry” and are authorized to support Customs and Border Protection until Dec. 15.
The Pentagon sent a follow-up statement to media Tuesday morning that downplayed reports, stating that “[n]o specific timeline for redeployment has been determined” and that it “may shift some forces to other areas of the border to engineering support missions in California and other areas.”
Buchanan said troops had completed many of their tasks, such as placing concertina wire and other barriers, which meant many engineers would not need to stay much longer. Troops involved in logistics will also be able to depart now that base camps have been built, while helicopter pilots, medical personnel and engineers who can help close traffic at ports of entry will stay on longer, Politico reported.
Still, the reduction in troop levels now ― after Trump largely stopped tweeting or talking about the caravans post-midterm elections, but while thousands of migrants are still en route to the U.S. ― is likely to bolster critics who said the deployment was more about pre-election fear-mongering than responding to a need.
The Trump administration announced plans to deploy thousands of active-duty troops to the border in late October, amid the president’s frequent campaign refrains and tweets about incoming migrant caravans. Officials insisted it wasn’t a stunt, although the number of troops to be sent exceeded the first caravan’s numbers at that time and the military is barred from conducting immigration arrests. Trump said at one point that he might send as many as 15,000 troops to the border, but as of last week, had deployed about 5,900.
The mission was initially called “Operation Faithful Patriot,” but the Pentagon dropped that name after the midterm elections, opting to refer to it as supporting border efforts instead.
“We determined the missions as absolutely legal and this was also reviewed by Department of Justice lawyers, it’s obviously a moral and ethical mission to support our border patrolmen,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last week.
On Monday, Department of Homeland Security officials said security at the border is still very much at risk.
Customs and Border Protection closed down northbound traffic at a port of entry in San Ysidro, California, for three hours ― ending around 6:25 a.m. ― on Monday after receiving intelligence that some migrants were considering rushing through lanes for automobiles.
There are between 8,500 to 10,500 migrants currently seeking to go to the U.S., about 6,000 of them waiting to cross in San Ysidro, officials told reporters during a briefing call on Monday, declining to be quoted by name.
Asylum-seekers are encouraged to go to ports of entry to ask for help, but are often forced to wait weeks or months to do so because the U.S. government admits only a limited number at a time for processing. DHS officials argued that agents at ports of entry have other responsibilities beyond screening asylum-seekers.
Although migrants could previously seek asylum either at ports of entry or after entering illegally, Trump took action earlier this month to bar those protections for anyone who crossed the border without authorization. That was meant to “funnel” asylum-seekers to ports of entry, according to officials. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups sued to block the policy and argued in court on Monday for a preliminary injunction.
This story has been updated with a follow-up statement from the Pentagon.