(Stars & Stripes) WASHINGTON — The U.S. Border Patrol chief told lawmakers Thursday that support from National Guard and active-duty troops has been invaluable for her short-handed organization, crediting servicemembers for contributing to the apprehension of more than 100,000 migrants since October.
Chief Carla Provost, who has led the Border Patrol since August, said National Guard forces deployed mostly in Texas and Arizona have aided in some 94,000 apprehensions in fiscal year 2019 and active-duty troops operating mobile surveillance cameras have contributed to another 15,600 apprehensions in that time. Provost, who was testifying alongside senior defense officials before a House subcommittee on border security, pledged she would continue to request the Pentagon’s help at the border as long as Border Patrol remained short-handed.
“I have been forced to divert 40% to 60% of Border Patrol’s manpower away from the border as we process and care for nearly 435,000 families and children that have flooded across our southern border so far this year,” Provost said. “I know every agent I am forced to pull away from border security directly harms our ability to achieve [control of the border]. … I wish I could tell you when our operations will return to normal, but as long as we face this crisis I will continue to ask for [the Defense Department] support.”
Provost stressed the military’s role in those apprehensions was primarily through surveillance, as law enforcement duties are solely conducted by Border Patrol agents.
Enforcement actions along the southern border increased 99% from last year, according to Customs and Border Protection data released June 5. Since October, agents have apprehended 593,507 people, including 132,887 in May.
A combination of active-duty troops – primarily soldiers and Marines – have been operating along the U.S. southern border since President Donald Trump ordered them there last year, calling the influx of migrants attempting to cross the border to request asylum a crisis.
National Guard deployments began in April 2018 and Trump sent active-duty forces in October.
Robert Salesses, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense Integration and Defense Support of Civil Authorities, testifies during a House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday, June 20, 2019. Salesses said about 2,600 active-duty servicemembers are currently deployed for the border mission in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
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The number of troops has fluctuated during the mission, reaching at times nearly 10,000 Guard and active forces. Currently, about 2,600 active-duty servicemembers are deployed for the border mission in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, said Robert Salesses, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense integration. Just more than 2,000 National Guard troops are deployed primarily in Texas and Arizona with a “small number” in New Mexico and California, he said.
To date, those deployments have cost the Pentagon about $400 million, Salesses said.
Trump’s use of military troops to help in border operations has faced criticism, and Democrats on the subcommittee questioned officials Thursday about potential impacts to combat readiness for the troops who deploy.
The Pentagon officials expressed little concern about readiness, saying most of the troops deployed to the mission are performing duties akin to their normal military job.
Those deployed troops include engineers -- who have strung razor wire and, more recently, painted border barriers with so-called “anti-climb” paint – mechanics, truck drivers, pilots and helicopter crewmembers, and military police. The MPs have been deployed to provide protection for Border Patrol agents and other soldiers, and are barred from performing actual law enforcement duties – as are all military personnel – on American soil by longstanding federal law.
Maj. Gen. Michael McGuire, Arizona's Adjutant General, testifies during a House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday, June 20, 2019. McGuire said having troops deployed to the U.S.-Mexico border does not "degrade readiness." Also testifying at left are Robert Salesses, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense Integration and Defense Support of Civil Authorities; and U.S. Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost.
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“It doesn’t degrade readiness,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael McGuire, the chief of the Arizona National Guard. In some cases, he added, the deployments have better Guard troops, including Wisconsin Army National Guard soldiers who were able to conduct required training to operate updated Black Hawk helicopters while supporting Customs and Border Patrol at the border.
Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., stopped short of criticizing the Pentagon’s border mission, but told the officials that he would prefer not to use the military in that role.
“It would be my preference – and I suspect most of my colleagues’ – to see CBP doing the CBP jobs and for [Border Patrol] to hire up so that the military could go back to more characteristically military functions, rather than border staffing,” said Peters, whose district includes many military posts such as Naval Base Coronado.
Provost acknowledged Border Patrol is working to fill gaps within its own ranks, but she said the process to hire federal agents can be tedious. She told Peters that her training academy was currently full of potential Border Patrol officers for the first time in recent memory.
In addition to supporting Customs and Border Patrol at the southern border, the Pentagon has recently approved a request from the Department of Health and Human Services to host about 1,400 unaccompanied migrant children on a military base.
Salesses told lawmakers that those children would be housed at the Army’s Fort Sill in Oklahoma, and children would begin arriving there in mid-July.
The Pentagon is only providing the facility for the children to be held, Salesses said. HHS officials will be responsible for the detained children’s care.