Earlier this week, President Trump capped what was, even by his standards, a series of unusually xenophobic, seemingly off-the-cuff tweets about immigration from Central America and Mexico with a pledge to arm the U.S.-Mexico border with National Guard troops.
Trump’s rage came in the wake of a “Fox and Friends” story about a caravan of Latinos heading to the U.S.-Mexico border. Never mind the fact that such caravans have occurred for several years now and are intended to be a demonstration of the difficult situation south of the border. For President Trump, the caravan became a convenient, demagogic security threat.
President Trump detailed a plan to send as many as 4,000 troops to the border, promising that they’d continue to be stationed at the border until his proposed border wall is built. He followed through on that promise on Wednesday, signing an order commanding Secretary of Defense James Mattis to deploy troops.
Though President Trump’s decision generated considerable controversy (it took a while for him to narrow it down to the National Guard rather than a full-on military mobilization), sending the National Guard to the U.S. border isn’t without precedent. President George W. Bush deployed 6,000 National Guard members to the border between 2006 and 2008. Named Operation Jump Start, the two-year operation saw troops assisting Border Patrol with more than 176,000 apprehensions and seizures of more than 160 tons of marijuana and cocaine.
In 2010, President Obama also deployed the National Guard along the border. Operation Phalanx consisted of 1,200 troops, who helped Border Patrol with 18,000 apprehensions and seizures of more than 56,000 pounds of marijuana. Together, the two operations cost more than $1.3 billion.
The Republican governors of three border states—Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas—signaled their support for the decision, while Democrat Jerry Brown of California has yet to comment.
Nevertheless, President Trump’s decision ran smack into controversy, including from Democratic governors from non-border states who have threatened to withhold their states’ National Guard troops.
First, the need for additional U.S. presence at the border seems to be at an all-time low. Apprehensions at the border dipped to their lowest levels since 1971 in 2017.
Also at issue is President Trump’s proposed timeline for troop presence. If the National Guard is to be stationed at the border until the proposed wall is built, they won’t be going anywhere anytime soon; the omnibus spending bill, which President Trump himself signed into law last week, only contains $1.6 billion of the $25 billion requested by the administration for wall funding.
Perhaps most important, the cost of the deployment will easily stretch into the billions if it continues indefinitely. If, as President Trump has suggested, the Pentagon is to pay for the deployment itself, the resources spent on the border deployment will begin to take away from funds that have already been appropriated, including for a pay increase for troops.
It remains to be seen if President Trump has a long-term vision for troop presence at the U.S.-Mexico border, or if he’s simply using the military as a bargaining chip in his quest to secure funding for his proposed border wall. Yet no matter his plan—or lack thereof—the fact of the matter is that while President Trump threatens to scale back U.S. military presence in places it’s probably needed (read Syria), he’s making increasingly uninformed, wasteful and racist decisions about border security and immigration.
The policy raises a fundamental question: are immigrants/refugees fleeing violence in their own countries really a security concern worthy of indefinite military deployment when there are legitimate hotspots for terrorism overseas and a rising rivalry with Russia and China? Is it a sensible expense for U.S. taxpayer money?