Last week, while most of us sat at a Thanksgiving table surrounded by family and friends, 5,800 active-duty military and 2,100 National Guard troops were down south preparing for a caravan of immigrants making their way to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Among them were approximately 200 JBLM soldiers, borrowed from military police, medical support and public affairs units at the base south of Tacoma.
They didn’t make it home for Thanksgiving, despite pleas from Washington state politicians. All we can hope for now is that they return to their families for Christmas, though it looks increasingly doubtful that President Trump’s excessive buildup at the border will end by mid-December, as originally planned.
The immigrants, fleeing pervasive poverty and gang violence in Central America, are counting on America to make good on its 100-plus-year-old invitation to welcome the huddled masses.
But no lifted lamp of liberty will greet these tired travelers; instead, Trump wants them met with armed guards.
A week before the midterm elections, Trump declared he would eventually deploy 15,000 troops to meet an estimated 7,000 refugees and asylum seekers, even though a report issued from U.S. Northern Command didn’t assess the caravan as a threat.
But Trump treated the perennial migration like the first wave of a zombie apocalypse, tweeting: “Getting more dangerous. Caravans coming.”
His use of service members trained for armed conflict has some Washington officials upset, and with good reason. When Border Patrol agents fired tear gas at immigrants trying to enter California last weekend, it was a reminder that even limited action can cause awful collateral damage, including the gassing of innocent children who stood on the Mexico side of the fence.
U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, who will soon chair the House Armed Services Committee, called the border mission “problematic” and has legitimate questions: What kinds of weapons have been authorized? What language and legal training have troops received? How much will this domestic military operation cost?
Smith’s questions have yet to be answered. For now, he characterizes the administrative order as just “another unnecessary step towards the militarization of the southern border.”
Washington Sen. Patty Murray, along with fellow Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, sent a Nov. 19 letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis on behalf of active-duty service members. The senators urged commanders to send the troops home for Thanksgiving: “Our military personnel have real, essential duties to perform that are vital to our national security. Taking advantage of their loyalty and commitment to service for political gain belittles their sacrifices.”
Granted, sending soldiers to secure our southern border is not unprecedented. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both used the National Guard for a limited time at the request of border state governors.
Still, what’s happening with the caravan isn’t a military crisis but a humanitarian one. It’s why Murray and Schatz called for additional personnel to process asylum claims and provide medical support.
We echo the words of the San Diego Union-Tribune’s editorial board, which wrote that what’s happening at the border “demands thoughtfulness and clear thinking from federal, state and local leaders.”
But Trump isn’t seeking a comprehensive immigration solution; he’s trying to build a wall. The nation elected a president who promised to be tough on immigration, and on that front, he’s never wavered.
Heightening the border tension to make a wall more appealing is a flanking maneuver worthy of a Napoleonic general. Whether it turns into Trump’s Waterloo remains to be seen.
In the meantime, defense officials now say this operation is expected to extend into January. That’s unfortunate not merely because service members will miss more family holidays, but because a drawn-out militarization of the border gets us no closer to the immigration reform our country desperately needs.
But it just might get us closer to building some version of a wall, the $20 billion vanity project that sits at or near the top of the president’s Christmas wish list.